Focus: The Secret to Getting Anything You Want?
Is there a secret?
A trick to getting anything you want and beating out the competition?
It’s a common question.
Here’s an example of a message we often receive:
“SUBJECT: Extending the advantage
I have been going through your courses and articles and picking up knowledge in my spare time. But at my university, it seems that everyone has done technical training and that they’re constantly networking.
So is there any way to extend the advantage and beat out the competition?
Or do I just have to network more?”
I don’t think “everyone” is that well-prepared, but the general point is true: it is getting harder to stand out.
You might try to stand out by adding to your resume: getting more internships, entering case competitions, picking up a new hobby or activity, or doing a gap year.
And sometimes that works.
But there’s another method that requires less time and effort: do less.
In other words, focus, and cut out most of what you’re pursuing.
Tell Me About Yourself… Three Different Versions of Yourself
Let’s say that you have no idea what you want to do, so you apply for a mix of venture capital, private equity, and investment banking internships.
You want to “keep your options open.”
Then, you memorize 3 different versions of your story, you prepare for 3 different sets of technical questions, and you go in for interviews with 13 different firms…
…but you never hear back from 11 of them, and the other 2 respond and say they’ve decided not to move forward with your candidacy.
Does that sound familiar?
It happened because interviewers have very good intuition about your true intentions.
And no one wants to be your Plan B, C, or D.
Think about all the subtle ways a banker could realize that you are not 100% focused on banking roles:
- You break eye contact for a second when he/she asks about your long-term plans.
- You seem more interested in discussing investment ideas than in discussing recent M&A deals.
- Your story sounds memorized word-for-word. Why? Oh, that’s right – because you had so many different versions that you had to memorize each one.
- The banker hears from a friend at a local VC firm that you’re also interviewing for internships there.
I’m not trying to make you paranoid.
My point is that when you are not focused, you always have a “tell” that indicates it.
But a lack of focus doesn’t just hurt you when you apply for so many different industries and roles at once; it drags you down in all other areas as well:
- Your Story: You will never sound convincing if you talk about every single experience rather than the 2-3 key ones.
- Your Resume: Wait, so why did you list 12 different work experience/activity entries and use only 1 line for each one?
- Being Interesting: You’ll get far better results and reactions if you point to one thing that makes you different rather than a list of 5-10.
- Your Logistics: How will you manage the amount of emails and networking that are required for so many different roles? You won’t.
- Your Satisfaction: Let’s say you do win multiple job offers in different industries – will you be more satisfied with your decision when you have more options? Nope! Chances are, you’ll be less satisfied as you keep second-guessing yourself.
You might be able to get away with more of a scattershot approach as a university student or recent graduate, but it stops working as soon as you have full-time experience.
At the MBA level and beyond, I’ve never seen anyone recruit for 2-3 industries at the same time and get great results.
In fact, I can recall only one story where someone got any results, and it came down to blind luck and targeting an extremely specific market after a scattershot strategy had failed.
Here’s a direct quote from a reader who went from valuation advisory to investment banking:
“…I pursued almost anything that seemed related to my work experience – corporate finance, investment banking, private equity, and even joining a valuation / business modeling group at a Big 4 firm.
That turned out to be one of my biggest mistakes – if you interview for so many different roles, it is really hard to keep different versions of your story straight and to sound convincing when you go in to speak with each group.”
So Why Are You Not Focused?
The main arguments against focus seem to be:
- “You don’t know what you want to do” or “You want to keep your options open.”
- You’ll increase your chances if you do more and apply for more roles.
The second point doesn’t hold up because your chances of success are not independent variables for the reasons mentioned above: interviewers can always tell when you’re not focused.
You may think you’re “casting a wider net,” but you’re also making your net flimsier and less likely to hold any fish, even if a few swim in initially.
And while you may not know what you want to do, there’s a much better way to approach this problem: think in series, not in parallel.
Going back to that IB vs. PE vs. VC example above, you would be much better off picking just one industry to apply to, completing an internship there, and then, if you don’t like it, doing an internship in a different area.
You might be worried that your story won’t make sense if you jump around like that.
But remember that you should always simplify and consolidate your story.
So you could group together all that experience, minimize most of it on your resume, and say something like:
“I did a few internships, including ones at smaller private equity and venture capital firms. I liked the valuation and analytical work, but I wanted to work on deals most of the time instead of passing on 99% of them, so I was more drawn to the work in my investment banking internship…”
If you get questioned about the logic, just admit that you were trying different areas because you weren’t 100% sure what you wanted to do, and you wanted to narrow your options.
It gets harder to do this at the MBA level or beyond, so your best option there is to get a pre-MBA internship and include it if it helps you, or exclude it if it doesn’t.
Example: If you’re coming in as a complete career changer (e.g., from engineering or journalism), then a pre-MBA internship at a hedge fund or venture capital firm can only help you, even if you’re recruiting for IB roles.
But if you already have banking/finance experience, and you’re doing that internship so you can eventually move to the buy-side after winning a post-MBA Associate role, it might hurt you in banking interviews if you include it in your story.
And if you’re well beyond the MBA level, there isn’t a great way to “keep your options open” – but at that stage, you should have a wide enough network to ask around, do the legwork, and hone in on what you want.
The Other Argument Against Focus: Exceptions and Special Cases
There are a few cases where focusing too much could hurt your chances.
For example, if you’ve gotten a very late start to recruiting – e.g., you’re about to graduate from university but haven’t done any real internships yet – then you may not want to do this.
A few “last-minute success stories” on this site have come from readers who won offers by casting a wide net.
Another exception is if you’re looking to get into a field like private equity that has a well-defined “pre-requisite” (2-3 years of investment banking), and you don’t fit that profile.
Let’s say you have a background in corporate banking or direct lending and you want to skip banking and still get into PE.
You might want to focus on firms that match your background, such as credit funds, but there may not be enough matching firms for this strategy to work.
And even if you find a few dozen firms that match, they may not want to interview you because you’re so different from traditional candidates.
How to Focus
In short, I would recommend:
- Industries: Focus on one at a time. Think in series, not in parallel. The older you get, the more you have to do this; an undergrad can apply to “investment banks,” but at the MBA level, you need to focus on a specific industry group.
- Locations: At any level, you should focus on 1-2 locations at most. So maybe think about a major center like New York or London and then a smaller satellite office.
- Your Resume: Ideally, you’ll stick to 2-3 major work/activity entries. You can sometimes get away with 4, but more than that is pushing it.
- Your Story: You should have at most 2 transitions (e.g., economic research to asset management to IB). If you have any more than that, group together and simplify your experience.
- Your Interesting Point: Give one in the beginning, and don’t go beyond that. So you’re a left-handed pitcher, or you studied abroad in Qatar… great! Don’t dilute the impact with 3 additional facts.
- Your Interest or Growing Interest in Finance: Which one is more memorable: “I won a Credit Suisse M&A case competition by pitching Disney on a divestiture of Lucasfilm” or “I did 3 investment banking competitions, took finance electives, and also completed several M&A models on my own”?
Even if you can concisely give names and specifics for the second one, giving so much information makes it less likely for anything to stand out.
- Your Networking: Yes, you can and should contact a lot of people in the beginning – but if a few of them turn out to be far more helpful than the rest, focus on them and don’t waste your time writing 5,132 emails to strangers.
- Exceptions: The main ones come up when you’re making a last-minute, time-pressured recruiting effort or you’re making a career change that’s very difficult because you don’t fit the profile they’re seeking.
Your Secret Weapon
We get tons of questions on how to stand out and beat the competition.
You might think the answer is to do more, network more, pad your resume, and develop more talking points in interviews.
You do need more experience to have a good shot at IB and other finance roles these days, so this answer isn’t exactly “wrong.”
But it’s often misguided, especially when it comes to presenting yourself and targeting the right roles.
With both of those, the real answer is to do less.
It might just be your secret weapon.
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