All too often, I hear friends and colleagues say they can only afford to focus on one thing at a time.
Many people say their career doesn’t give them time for a relationship. Others say they need a certain amount of money in the bank before they can do anything else. This is sequential thinking: viewing life as a linear progression of accomplishments.
Some situations call for sequential thinking. But when taken as a life philosophy, sequential thinking limits crossover growth, the exponential synergy that comes from intermingled goals.
Instead of sequential thinking, I advocate for parallel thinking.
Where sequential thinking tackles one thing at a time, parallel thinking tackles many issues at once, letting each inform the others. It creates conversation between different areas of life — career, relationships, friendships, hobbies — and causes crossover growth. That is, a 1+1=3 situation, where your holistic growth is greater than the sum of its inputs.
Here’s how to practice parallel thinking in your life.
Instead of focusing on one thing at a time, try giving parallel attention to these 4 areas:
1. Career/professional growth. For ambitious people, career development is already a central area of focus. The challenge here is not learning to focus on career growth, but learning to think of it as one piece of the puzzle—not the puzzle unto itself.
2. Core relationships. This refers both to friendships and romantic relationships. I’ve thought (and written) a lot about friendships because they’re hard to define, but have a tremendous influence on who we become. Strong friendships give us perspective, reinforce positive habits, keep us honest. They’re an integral piece of any personal growth path.
As for romantic relationships, I understand the tendency to avoid them. I did so for a long time. But I’ve been with my current partner for some time, and beyond the sheer fulfillment of the partnership, my growth as a business leader correlates directly with my growth as a romantic partner. The myth is that it’s one or the other—career or romance. The reality is that you can have both.
3. Hobbies where you engage in “play.” In other words, designating an area of your life to be totally non-competitive.
For me, one hobby is DJ’ing. I became a DJ for sheer personal pleasure, then it evolved into a side hustle. My advisor, who came to a party I DJ’ed, later pointed out that it uses the same core skill set as business leadership. “In both cases,” he said, “you’re orchestrating.” DJs orchestrate the energy of a room. Leaders orchestrate the efforts of employees.
Without recognizing it, I’d been practicing that macro-awareness that leaders need to pull the right levers at the right time. (Plus, it took a friend to point out the connection.)
4. Free thinking/meditation time. Every morning, I sit with my eyes closed and think.
I have no particular objective other than letting my mind roam wherever it pleases. Unlike goal-oriented thinking, which frames everything in terms of a single objective, meditative thinking has no destination. As Lewis Carroll said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”
This process has yielded a range of insights. Most recently, it gave me a phrase around which to orient hiring objectives: “exceptional judgment at speed.” Where did the phrase come from? According to brain research, a “neural network in the brain that only comes ‘online’…when we do nothing.”
In addition to the myth of parallel thinking, I want to dispel the idea that you’ll ever achieve a perfect “balance” between these four elements. Different situations call for different levels of focus on each one. Professional emergencies call for career tunnel vision; burnout calls for more play and meditation.
Take it from me: I was one of those “I have to focus on my career” people for a long time. Our culture encourages sequential thinking.
But humans flourish with parallel thinking.