What Is the Secret Behind Focus?

A Struggle, a Secret and a Hilarious Bonus Video

This article, first published in October 2016, tells the story of a little-known inventor.

Focus is a powerful force. Focusing on a distant object motivates a runner to press on towards the finish line. But focus isn’t everything. A hiker presses forward for the love of the climb, but that doesn’t stop him from gazing at the scenery.

We know focus is important, yet the relentless pursuit of a single mission has caused many great people to neglect their families and basic responsibilities. Focus – like a coin – has two sides and should not be spent all in one place.

Chester Carlson became the breadwinner for his family by the time he was 14 years old. Although his mother earned some money as a housekeeper, his father was crippled by severe arthritis and confined to his bed.

Working evenings and weekends, Chester worked equally hard on his schooling and came home to ailing parents. By the time he had turned 17, Chester’s mother died of tuberculosis. At this point Chester could have lost purpose for living, but something propelled him forward.

As a young boy, Chester told his cousin Roy that he would someday make a great invention. Chester had a lifelong focus on invention that grew increasingly sharper with time, but it was daily discipline that made it all happen.

The stock market crash of 1929 brought the Great Depression and took Chester’s job at a local printing firm. Poverty and tragedy taught Chester he could – he must – do hard things. After applying for 82 jobs, he received only 2 replies. Although he did get a job, he was laid off within a year.

Eventually he earned a job at an electronics company, but rather than be satisfied, he enrolled in law school at the same time and studied patent law. The same arthritis that had crippled Chester’s father, pained Chester’s hands as he hand-copied notes from the patents he studied. To reduce his pain, Chester began to use carbon copy paper to duplicate the patents. It was then that the idea hit him – an automatic copying machine!

Chester had kept a notebook of invention ideas for years, but this time he believed he really had something. His focus had led him to his brilliant idea, but his discipline gifted him with the skills he needed to succeed. A stellar chemistry student in high school, Carlson had gone on to study chemistry and physics in college before going on to law school. With chemical knowledge, patent experience and an impeccable work ethic, his broad set of skills set him up for success. Of course it wasn’t easy – the next ten years of rejection are another story for another time.

- Xerox has come a long way. -

– Xerox has come a long way. –

Just to survive, Chester Carlson pursued a life much broader than his aspiration for invention. Do you have a driving passion in your life? If so, pursue it, but not so narrowly that you neglect your family, education, work or even other hobbies. Focus too often zeros in on self; Chester Carlson learned at an early age to broaden his vision to include those around him. Never forgetting this lesson, he gave 100 million dollars away throughout his life after the Xerox copier became a reality – much more than he kept for himself.

So what is the secret behind focus? Focus is only valuable if we determine what we focus on through disciplined choices. Whether remodeling, constructing a garage, landscaping, or building a website, I tend to let the other details of my life slip when I’m focused on a project. Perhaps you have an online business that takes much of your attention. Do you find yourself checking Facebook excessively or looking several times a day at the number of visitors to your site? This is where focus breaks down. The focus we respect is rooted in discipline. Discipline is notoriously difficult to develop. However, without it we chase our obsessions relentlessly and postpone our responsibilities. So get focused, but before you do that develop your discipline.

As a special bonus to my readers I wanted to include a funny YouTube video from the New York Times that drives home just how important Chester Carlson’s Xerox machine has become. Enjoy!

Question: For those that have watched the video… have you ever used a photocopy machine? You can leave a comment by clicking here.



Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Sylvia

    Setting your focus on a passion and yet taking care of responsibilities requires prioritizing and then seeing where you can dedicate time to those extra projects you love… Personally, I like making concept maps that let me draw out my desires and goals and then define tangible ways to reach them. I need to see side projects in light of the big picture.

    • As a land surveyor, I like anything having to do with maps. I think that’s a great idea!