The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

More on Focus

Several readers expressed interest in the concept of focus, and how to transfer it from one domain to another. As Musashi said, "Master one thing, master ten thousand things."

Let’s take a step back and look at the concept of Mastery, overall. In George Leonard’s delightful little book, he discusses why most people never get really good at anything. One reason is that, in general, when you begin a new activity, there is an initial period of rapid growth, followed by a long period where it seems that nothing is happening. Actually, during this “fallow” period, you are re-wiring at a deep level. The ability to resist frustration and keep working, then, is essential.

Stepping back again, it is reasonable to ask about the keys to excellent. Well, separate from “innate ability” (to the degree that you accept its existence) this consists of some finite number of qualities or factors, not limited to but including:
1) Good teachers or instruction
2) Constant effort at a level of intensity sufficient to produce progress
3) Feedback sufficient to tell you when you are closer to or further away from your goal
4) Emotional intensity, sufficient to trigger a thirst for excellence.

Etc. A dozen different experts might list many other, varied attributes. But in every case I know of, the ability to FOCUS is at the top of the list. Focus on the question of excellence long enough to read a dozen books and compile a list such as that above. Focus despite the inevitable distractions of life: “flow” state is critical to access deep wells of creativity, and flow cannot be maintained without focus. Distraction kills it.

Different parts of the brain are accessed for painting than for writing, music, or sex. But distraction from the activity kills your ability to access it, no doubt about it. How many hours of practice were necessary to develop basketball skills, Dan? Do you doubt that the same number of hours the same emotional intensity applied to any other sport would have resulted in appreciable improvement if not excellence?

Now, it’s possible to “focus” on, say, writing for years and never develop good skills. Such people might focus on, say, producing 1000 words a day without reading, or getting coaching. In essence, they’ve been practicing typing rather than writing. It isn’t practice but effective or “perfect practice” that improves performance.

This is why it is important to combine focus with things like modeling in order to know what to focus ON. But even the best education, opportunities, or innate skills will fail without focus. In fact, I’ve never been close to anyone with any skills at anything at all where they hadn’t spent long, grueling hours in practice.

That said, it seems obvious that if you spend 100 hours at task X, and nine other people also spend 100 hours, there will be ten different results. Doesn’t that prove the existence of innate ability?

Well, I don’t seriously say that there is NO difference in innate ability. That would, I think, be foolish. What I will say is that the concept of “talent” isn’t useful. I usually see “talent” invoked to stop someone from even trying. “I’m not talented enough to do X” they say, instead of rolling up their sleeves.

That’s comparing yourself to others in a damned unproductive way. You should only use competition to spur yourself to greater effort, not to stop yourself from trying. If those nine other people, under the same coach or teacher, get different results, does it mean they had different innate ability? Well, probably that’s true. But what is also true is that they
1) only apparently got the same teaching. All language is based on shared referents. The same thing said to two different people NEVER means exactly the same thing.
2) People have different foundations of experience. Someone who has played tennis is going to pick up handball faster than you, even if you have the same coach, and practice the same hours.
3) Skills can transfer from completely different domains. Someone who has mastered making models might recognize the deep flow state required for Tai Chi, and slip into it more rapidly.
4) People have different emotional needs. The activity might well trigger a deeper sense of connection in one person than another. They will give it different levels of commitment, will think about it at night while they sleep, while they eat, obsessively. They spend no more time in the classroom, but have spent three times as much time overall.
5) Some cultures contain the building blocks of success in their entertainments and family interactions. For instance, one of the reasons I’m not at all certain about black “athletic superiority” is the fact that physical motion, and rhythmic motion, is far more reinforced in black than white culture. Having gone to dances in both communities since childhood, I watched black kids teaching each other to dance from the time they could walk—in ways that white kids never did. And the dance music itself was simply far more complex rhythmically. (Latin music can be even moreso: Find me a white top-40 dance song comparable to “The Rhythm’s Gonna Get You.”) Rhythm IS coordination. And once you have coordination, you learn ANYTHING physical more easily.

So…back to my first point. To me, the central talent, if an innate talent exists, is the ability to focus on a single thing until you have it nailed. To focus through fatigue, boredom, disappointment, pain. To keep going after others have wandered away. To obsess about it as you fall asleep. To study the chosen discipline while others are partying. To step back and focus on the question of focus itself: how to enter and sustain flow state? How to block out outside interference? How to resist the guilt-tripping and obstructionist tendencies of family, friends and community? How to develop an obsessive drive that borders on mania without tipping over?

All other knowledge, without focus, will produce mediocre results. A find mind, split into multiple tracks when you should be bringing everything to bear on the RIGHT NOW, on the MOMENT, this little space outside of time where everything happens, is pretty useless.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.


Emma Aotearoa said...

Hi Steven,

Another amazing post. You put things in such a succinct and unique way, opening a space to simply re-interpret concepts such as "focus" that have been thrashed by so many writers. I always look forward to receiving your blog updates in my email, and forward them on to friends. A very sincere thank you for your wise words from Aotearoa New Zealand.


here said...

Hi Emma, I'm from Zeland too!! so glad to see somebody from my Motherland here!! cheerz