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What Focus Really Means: Learning From Bill Gates, Warren Buffett And Steve JobsĀ 

Dr Rainer Zitelmann

26 February 2020

A regular contributor to these pages and author of several books exploring wealth creation, attitudes towards business and enterprise, Dr Rainer Zitelmann is also an investor and businessman as well as an academic. He is the author of a new book, Dare to be Different and Grow Rich: Secrets of Self-Made People Who Became Rich and Successful. One of his chapters looks at the level of concentration required to be a great businessman or woman. (See some previous articles by Dr Zitelmann here, here and here.)

What’s the relevance to wealth managers? First, it is important for private bankers and advisors to understand what makes their clients tick and how they achieved their success in the first place.

The more understanding there is, the better that the industry can look after the sort of people that entrepreneurs are. Second, some of the best wealth advisors work for institutions created by great business leaders. It pays to understand the ethos and driving forces in one’s own company. The JP Morgans, Rothschilds, Mellons, Hambros and Cazenoves, to name a few, were titans of finance and entrepreneurship. It is good to learn their stories and heed their lessons, including the mistakes.

The editors of this news service are pleased to share these views; as ever, the usual editorial disclaimers apply here and we invite readers’ replies. Email and

Although skilled martial artists have less muscle power than weightlifters, their "punch" is more powerful thanks to their extreme focus on a single point.

In early July 1991, Bill Gates Sr invited some guests over for dinner. The diners that evening included his son Bill Gates Jr, the founder of Microsoft, and Warren Buffett. These were two of the most successful men in the world, who, for many years, had taken it in turns to top The Forbes World’s Billionaires list. The host asked his dinner guests, “What factor do you feel has been the most important in getting to where you’ve gotten in life?” Buffett immediately replied, “Focus.” Bill Gates Jr agreed.

Bill Gates
Gates admitted that he had been obsessed with computers since he was 13, “I mean, then I became hardcore. It was day and night.” His parents were worried about him, “Although he was only in the ninth grade, he already seemed obsessed with the computer, ignoring everything else, staying out all night.” In the end, they ordered him to give up computers, which he managed to do for about nine months.

In the words of Bill Gates Jr’s college room mate, Andy Braiterman, “Bill had a monomaniacal quality Somehow his intensity overcame the weakness of his game,” Schroeder writes. To everyone’s surprise, Buffett qualified for the final of the bridge world championship in his very first tournament. But his extraordinary effort had taken its toll. After focusing so hard for one and a half days, he was too exhausted to compete in the final and had to pull out. He paid the price for his almost superhuman focus. 

Steve Jobs
“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done,” observed Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple. Jobs established Apple as such a successful company by focusing on a very small number of key products.

“The weakest living creature, by concentrating his powers on a single object, can accomplish something. The strongest, by dispensing his over many, may fail to accomplish anything,” observed the Scottish historian and philosopher Thomas Carlyle. 

Recent scientific research has shown that most successful musicians and athletes owe their extraordinary success not to talent as was previously thought, but to a lifetime of dedicated practice or training from early childhood. Many people who haven’t managed to achieve the success they were hoping for blame their bad luck, lack of talent or lack of connections. The truth is that some people are more successful than others mainly because they are better at focusing their mental resources. 

Focusing all their strength on one particular spot is what enables skilled karate fighters to smash bricks with their bare hands. Although they have less raw muscle power than weightlifters, martial artists can unleash far stronger punches because they hone their focus on a single point.


About the author:
Dr Zitelmann is an historian and sociologist. He is also a world-renowned author, successful businessman and real estate investor. His most recent book, Dare to be Different and Grow Rich: Secrets of Self-Made People Who Became Rich and Successful, was released in 2019.