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The Side Effect Principle

Sometimes to get what you want, you can’t focus on getting what you want. You have to do something else, and then what you want happens all on its own as a side effect of your actual efforts.

If you want to lose weight, don’t focus on losing weight: focus on eating healthy and exercising well; weight loss will happen as a side effect.

If you want to find a spouse, don’t focus on finding a spouse: focus on becoming the best version of yourself; your future spouse will fall in love with you as a side effect.

If you want your startup to make money, don’t focus on making money: focus on doing great work; the money will follow as a side effect.

What happens if you focus your startup on making money? You’ll get distracted from whatever it is your startup is doing to actually make money (e.g., making a great product). You’ll take your eye off the rocket engine of your success and focus on the exhaust (profits) instead, which means the product will soon crater and then the profits will too, not long after.

If I go around seeking happiness, always trying to be happy and making myself feel good, it is exceedingly unlikely I will actually be happy or feel good, apart from a few fleeting moments quickly forgotten and perhaps later regretted. I’ll probably be so focused on being happy that I won’t be able to be happy, because happiness, like profits, is a goal that can be best achieved via the side effect principle.

As Victor Frankl put it (emphasis added):

Again and again I therefore admonish my students in Europe and America: Don’t aim at success — the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run — in the long-run, I say! — success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.

To achieve our greatest goals we sometimes need to forget about them. Instead, we focus on the process itself, making sure we are doing the right thing the right way. The goal happens because the process is done well, but we don’t let the goal distract us from the point of the process or system as a whole.

This isn’t a recipe for success, but rather an example of “avoiding stupidity” (to borrow a phrase from Charlie Munger).

Even Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger — who have made a lot of money and who might seem to be in the business of making money for its own sake — even they don’t focus on making money. Instead, they focus on finding good businesses, understanding them, and investing in them. That’s their success engine. The money comes because they’ve done that — the money is a side effect of their process.

Doing the work doesn’t always lead to the desired side effect: it just keeps the door open. Focus on the side effect and neglect the work? That door slams shut.

It’s easy to get distracted. Great work is hard and takes grit. It’s easier to cut corners and rake in short-term profits. But that’s not what leads to great work or great art. Use the side effect principle to help you stay focused on what matters.

Thanks to Nkem Nwankwo and Ewa Rabiej for their feedback on drafts.