Keeping The Main Thing The Main Thing

Joseph Moon
3 min readJun 9, 2021

Keeping the main thing the main thing

One of my favorite aphorisms in management and technology: keep the main thing the main thing. It’s a succinct reminder that we all get carried away by unimportant time-suck from time to time. If I’m being honest, I get carried away the majority of the time. Figuring out what the most important things are and letting everything else burn is the primary skill-set that a CEO or a manager needs to have, especially at a small organization with very little guardrails or resources.

The mental model of juggling

Another helpful mental model — which is essentially isomorphic to (the same, but viewed with a different lense) keeping the main thing the main thing — is juggling. We’re all juggling priorities: friends, family, work, physical and mental health, etc. A helpful sub-model is that we’re juggling both bouncy balls and glass balls at once. Some shatter when you let them drop, but some others bounce back (albeit with lower momentum). Your health and personal relationships are glass balls while your professional achievements are bouncy balls. You “divorce” your co-workers all the time but it’s much harder to divorce your parents or your partner.

The importance of an objective function

To keep the main thing the main thing, or to be a good juggler, you need to have the right goal, or in tech-speak, the right objective function. Is your goal to juggle a single ball really well? Is your goal to juggle all the balls without any of them dropping? Is your goal to juggle one glass ball and one bouncy ball? There is no right answer. But what I know for sure is that you need to know how you are measuring success. Most people go about life without having an explicit objective function of what they want to achieve or do. Because people are mimetic, they tend to follow the herd, and so they settle on the average objective function set by a large enough group in society. There is no guarantee that this average objective function is the right one for you specifically, especially if you are a minority (in gender, sexual orientation, race, IQ, whatever).

My objective function

A good objective function is likely not time-invariant, meaning, it’s going to change over time. Because almost everyone’s priorities change over time. My current objective function is to get to financial independence so that I won’t be pressured to make trade-offs due to the need for a salary. I realized that I’m not a capital maximalist (some of us are, and that’s OK) because that doesn’t give me maximal happiness. I get maximal happiness by being able to control my own time and my own destiny, and I’m not willing to sacrifice some amount of control for more money (e.g. being a well-known billionaire celebrity and sacrificing all of my privacy). I also hope that I can always walk away from more power, more money, more fame, more respect. That closes doors on some types of life that you can potentially have, but you need to close the aperture a bit to get a bit more focus.

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Joseph Moon

Data Scientist, Entrepreneur, Investor. Harvard & MIT. LinkedIn.com/in/yosupmoon @josephmoon_ai