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The Cost of Focus

I list truth-seeking and effectiveness among my core values.

In this post, I explain why these values clash, and why the relative weights we assign to them matter.

Truth as a Core Value

I value truth . I want to find out what's correct | real | true.

I value clear | honest | candid communication. I want my conversation partners to challenge my assuptions and claims, and to work together with me to improve my beliefs.

Arguments are critical for truth-seeking.

Effectiveness as a Core Value

I value effectiveness. I want to make progress | improvements | impact.

I want my efforts to lead somewhere. I want my contributions to make a difference.

People say "Work smarter, not harder". However you work, do so effectively.

Living my Values

Identifying my values takes effort. Living my values takes even more.

Consider these two mantras related to effectiveness:

I believe I should live by these mantras. Spending time on things that are not worth it eats away at my soul. Beyond wasting time, it's time spent "living in sin". That is, it is time spent doing things that are contrary to my "core values".

Effectiveness in Practice

"Effectiveness" has been especially challenging to incorporate into my life.


Because those who value truth-seeking will never run out of interesting and important topics to argue about, but most arguments are not worth the time and effort, even with good-faith actors, even when the topics seem important.

I'm not belittling philosophers; I'm not claiming that they argue about inane or unsubstantial things.

I'm not belittling my friends who enjoy good debate; they are adept at logical arguments, bayesian reasoning, and steel-manning opposition.

I'm saying that even in the best case, spending time on "truth-seeking activities" is often a bad strategy for accomplishing things. That is, for being effective.

The High Cost of Focus

"Living effectively" often comes down to focusing on the task at hand.

What is the price of that focus? It's patience, discomfort, delayed gratification, being misunderstood, being rude, and ignoring un-truths.

Let me explain:

Here's a common case of the last point: A colleague schedules a meeting that should have been an email. You don't spend hours arguing/explaining why it shouldn't have been scheduled. You don't spark endless conversations about process and communication. You either attend or you decline the invite.

But That's Not True

The truth-seekers reading this are going to JUMP at the chance to point out the flaws in what I've said. The gray area. The context dependencies. The false dichotomies. The alternative strategies in these situations where I can have my cake, and eat it too.

Most of all, they'll argue that ignoring these problems allow them to fester.

In my opinion, nitpicking here is a sign that you're missing the point. There are real tradeoffs in time and effort between truth-seeking behavior and effective behavior. In any of the situations above, you are free to choose the truth-seeking path, but making that choice is not free.


Living effectively comes at a deceptively high cost, especially for those who value truth, clear communication, being understood, and being considerate to how others feel.

The next time you find yourself in a long debate, ask yourself if it's worth the tradeoff. If you decide it's not, notice how difficult, uncomfortable, or downright painful it is to walk away. That discomfort is the cost of focus.