Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

Ever since I was a small boy, everyone used to tell me to focus. Focus focus focus. I'm very good at being obsessive, but I'm not good at focus. Everything excites me and I end up focusing on everything.

In John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison's new book The Power of Pull, they explain that the world is changing and that instead of stocking resources and information, controlling everything, planning everything and pushing messages and orders from the core to the edge - innovation is now happening on the edges and resources are pulled as needed instead of stocked - that the world is going from stocks to flows. There is a excerpt of the book on Techcrunch featuring yours truly.

One of the great thoughts in the book is the idea that you should set a general trajectory of where you want to go, but that you must embrace serendipity and allow your network to provide the resources necessary to turn any random events into a highly valuable one and that developing that network comes from sharing and connecting by helping others solve their problems and build things.

This reminds me a lot of Edward Hall's definition of polychronic time vs monochronic time (p-time vs m-time). In m-time, we delineate time and space into meetings and cubicles allowing organizations and institutions to scale massively. p-time is like a Arab majlis where everyone is invited at the same time and they all mill around in the waiting room of the sheikh while the sheikh has a series of meetings in the open inviting people into the meeting like a long flow of consciousness. P-time lacks scalability and order, but it is rich in context and serendipity. At some level, if you plan everything, you are very unlikely to be able to embrace serendipity or be as "lucky".

Most of my best meetings have been serendipitous and like Granovetter's strength of weak ties, it's those connections outside of your normal circle that often provide the most value, even beyond just the obvious arbitrage opportunities.

So while my life may look completely chaotic and disorganized, my previously post in retrospect, I feel like I am floating in a rich network of highly charged people and serendipitous events, not a single day going by where I don't feel like "Yay! I just did something really good!" Although the heavy travel is wearisome and the lack of stability slightly disorienting, I feel like I'm surrounded by loving, smart people and feel happier than I've ever been in my life.

Although my dream is still to achieve peace of mind and happiness in a becoming-Buddha sort of way, it feels like I'm going to get there through the some sort of Tai Chi action that involves being in a network of energy flows instead of meditating in some mountain cave.

We'll see how this "focus on everything" model works, but I'm not convinced that it doesn't. On the other hand, the standard caveats do apply: "Don't try this at home and your mileage may vary."

Update: Fabian Wolff did a German translation. Yay!


I admire people that can focus on one idea or project for years and years, thinking about it day and night, and maintaining their passion for it. I have never ever had just one thing that I felt that much passion for. Sure, I have always loved animals and traveling and have been working on web projects for 15 years, but being excited about a lot of things and new things constantly and staying open to new ideas is what gets me up in the morning.

I appreciate hearing from others like yourself that focusing one or two things is not the only way to achieve success in life. I do need help uncluttering my brain though because I can't physically do everything I want to do. I don't have the same stamina you do to travel around the world every month. :)

I've never felt totally comfortable with the idea of the majlis since I alway felt it re-enforced a hierarchy based on social standing that may or may not be deserved.
But framed like you have, I guess it is more productive than it seems. I guess the key is that the "sheikh" has enough to pull to attract together people who can collaborate and do interesting things without him having to direct them from the top. So in same way the hierarchy at the surface enables a diffused form of collaboration.

BTW, I suspect that in that Techcrunch excerpt Delhi is an outlier? In most cities a tweet or facebook status would have a friend driving over to rescue you from the rat ridden room ;-)

ah, you, Adam… ;)

Joi - Thanks so much for the visibility you are giving to our new book, The Power of Pull. You were an inspiration for us as we wrote the book.

I did want to make a couple of comments to clarify some of the points you are making. Certainly the majlis example you give above is not scalable and a bit chaotic, but the creation spaces like World of Warcraft, big wave surfing and SAP's Software Developer Network we describe in the book are powerful precisely because they facilitate context and serendipity while proving highly scalable and preserving order where it counts (i.e., governance structures and incentive structures). That is exactly one of the breakthroughs that make us so optimistic about the future - the trade-offs we faced in the past can now be resolved at a higher level. You can get scalable serendipity. It is also what is driving the continuing growth of spikes - geographic concentrations of talent in such diverse areas as Silicon Valley, Bangalore, Shenzhen and Tel Aviv that are scaling rapidly and amplifying opportunities for serendipity. To be provocative about this, we have an opportunity for the first time to turn the diminishing return experience curve into an increasing returns collaboration curve.

Also, you cite the book as making the case "that you must embrace serendipity and allow your network to provide the resources necessary to turn any random event into a highly valuable one." We would just clarify that we are not saying you can or should turn every random event into a highly valuable one but rather that you can participate in platforms and networks that draw out the potential value that exists in certain random events - not every random event can be turned into a highly valuable one. I suspect that is what you meant, but if you read the words literally, it says something quite different and hard to support.

That being said, you are spot on in terms of the need to embrace a very different way of being and acting to more effectively participate in the flows that will turn the stress we are all experiencing into success.

Hey John!

Great feedback.

Yes, that's a good point about some of the new structures are scalable and serendipitous. Do you think they're kind of hybrids or completely different structures than p-time/m-time. Do you think that dichotomy/distinction no longer applies?

Totally agree that not every random event can be turned into a high value event. ;-) I'll edit that point in my post. I remember many random events, now that you mention it, that I'd be hard-pressed to find a positive outcome for other than the Nietzsche thing about what doesn't kill me. heh.

Rock on Joi, I'm nowhere near your level of reach or organization or opportunities, but I still want to do too much with too little time and end up runing myself ragged, wondering why I do this, but I hope I can find the strength to keep going. In the back of my my mind i've had thoughts of going to a temple and sitting too, I haven't partially becasue I'm scared, but also because I believe I can have the most impact by living in the frenzy. I think some time removed for seperated contemplation will be helpful, but that's not now.

Reading you inspires me. ... question: how do you decide what sacrifices to make? and how many hours do you sleep per day?


I think that be or not to be focus all the time depends on where you are in that very moment in the path of your life. Of course everybody “focus” from their own experience, so I prefer to see it as sets of focusing and inside every set you are free to point and shoot everywhere.

For example I was a really distracted kid in school so I never get good grades except in math and some other subjects that especially interested me. I kept these tendencies even in the university so I ended up quitting it after 3 years and I decided that I had to focus! So I focused myself in IT. After 10 years working in IT, it’s enough and I’m doing the transition (not yet finished) to work full time in photography. So I can say that I never got focused in something, always changing but inside a set of knowledge.

When I was working in IT, I focused on many different things, it was chaotic but it helped me a lot because I could make the connections that I need to figure out how to solve a problem or how to use something for something else, apparently not related to.
Now I’m focusing on photography and the knowledge I achieved during all those years in IT is helping me a lot and again, I’m focusing in a set of knowledge.

I saw many people, especially many students I had when I was teaching tech stuff that tried to focus to so many things that at the end they didn’t get anything done. I think that keep moving, being open minded and follow the flow to learn always something new is important but it also depends on the scenario that surrounds everybody’s life.

I think you are an example, reading your blog it seems that you did a lot of things, apparently no related to each other but at the end all mixed helping you on new projects.

I think that the key is to focus on being an effective unfocused-chaotic-knowledge-eater :)

so Tim OReilly = Sheikh:foocamp = majlis hee hee

seriously though this post truly struck an artery for me. (not a vein but a pulsing bleeding artery!)

The travel and the being lost in concepts is hard. Hard physically, emotionally, and simply kills most relationships. Thank you for expressing what I am going thru so I can explain it to my family when I finally visit them in 2 weeks!

The Tao is a state (of mind, of being, of existence) not a place, action or experience thereof. Some sit in meditation and some are always moving (Shaolin kung fu, tai chi chuan). But all are mindful.
Life is a continuum with no real, defined endpoints. We find ourselves at some point on that continuum, bound by and interacting with the associated experiences. But the state of Tao passes through everything and is available everywhere.
Focus here, focus only matters when it is distracting - one would caution about intellectualising too much - that will prevent one from entering the Tao.