My experience with “focus” has been, for the most part, the opposite of what’s preached in the self-help world. Take, for example, the law of attraction. It’s this idea that things can be attracted into our lives through the sheer power of one’s mind. This idea also loosely ties in with positive psychology. Both say that through changing our “thinking” we can change how the world appears to us. The basis of such an approach is, in essence, common sense.
I mean, would you agree that we’re more likely to choose to spend time with someone who is in a “positive” mood over someone in a “negative” mood? This in itself opens up a whole other conversation about mental health issues and how society engages with the topic and the people who live with them.
The question I just posed to you is based on a generalisation — something that occurs often enough for us to draw conclusions about life, but this does not mean we shouldn’t question it. It’s worth asking — how might the world be different if our decisions to hang out with people weren’t informed by their rating of how “positive” or “negative” they are? In my writing today, however, I want to look at some of the ideologies that are perpetuated through schools of thought that support the law of attraction and positive thinking.
It honestly seems to me that the more I focus on something I want to change, the more distant the sense of attaining that desire becomes. I then become uptight, incredibly judgmental of myself and painfully impatient. Why is this the case? My guess is that attaching myself to a particular outcome (holding onto expectations) in a world of moving parts is a call for disaster. You might say, well Mim, you’re not doing it right. “Yes, perhaps that’s so”, I’d reply, but Alain Botton provides a better answer:
“As soon as you feel equal to somebody — when you feel “I’m basically more or less like this person and I can do this too” but you haven’t — you will start to get anxious and depressed. A feeling of opportunity and equality and the fact that “everybody can make it” — this is strangely a really depressing starting point, which constantly leaves us feeling that we haven’t achieved enough”.
The thing is, we don’t live our lives as individuals; our lives are interconnected. Essentially, our entire existence is defined by our relationships, how we interact with the world. Even someone who is raised by wolves would have relationships, they just wouldn’t be with humans. What about a hermit? Well, they weren’t entirely free of human contact either. Their childhood interactions would have played some role in shaping who they became later in life.
Okay, these are all broad ideas. So, how does this translate into the day-to-day? I’ll give you an example. Let’s say the thing you want to change with the power of your mind is your fitness. I’ve competed in body building so I know well the importance of mindset in achieving physical goals.
However, there were many other factors that determined my abilities LONG BEFORE the state of my mind could do any of the determining. At the time, I was fully able-bodied, with the only impediment to my potential stage score being my deformity (note that in body building one of the key criteria is symmetry). I was financially comfortable, therefore I could afford the resources to properly train and I was free of any mental burdens. I was surrounded by supportive and understanding people and therefore I didn’t have any “voices” perturbing me. In all honesty, I was young, and therefore naive — I didn’t have past experiences and trauma that could throw me off balance. I was happily single and living solo, so my lifestyle of excessive gym visits and extreme dieting didn’t impact anyone else’s life. Basically, my life had set me up to succeed.
My mindset was supplementary — undoubtedly important, but not the single thing that determined my success.
So, here’s my thought. When it comes to mindset, the “secret” is not “focus”, it’s “forgetting”, and it has a lot to do with values. Imagine if I somehow forgot one day that my career was not the most important thing in my life. For what felt like 24 years of my life, this was legit the case — work was everything. My day would look very different if I forgot this. I wouldn’t hold resentment towards my desk job that exists purely to pay the bills, which steals precious hours away from my life when I could be writing. I wouldn’t put so much pressure on myself to get genius-level grades in my Masters studies. I wouldn’t be so hurt by rejections for jobs or articles I’d pitched to publications. HOWEVER, in order for all those things to have happened in my life (gotten a job to rock up to that pays the bills, have the skills to write, have the discipline to continue pitching to magazines) I needed “focus” in the first place.
Have I confused you? Surely, yes. Ironically, after writing everything above in the attempt to convey an idea, I think I’ve just reached an even better point…
There is no given rule to success. It’s all pretty confusing and arduous at the end of the day. There are so many contradictions, conditions and injustices when it comes to “success”. There’s no blanket solution — no single answer to avoiding failure, finding success or dealing with the mental and social pressures of expectations.
At the end of the day, life is a collection of ideas — ones we apply, ones we reject, ones we try, ones we strive to understand. So, my ideas I present here to you today are merely an option within a bigger buffet. If they’re not your taste, that’s okay! But in an age where so-called success is paraded in our faces daily on social media, it’s helpful to try new ways to wrap our head around it all.
So, here’s what I break it down to… I don’t think the issue here is about “more” or “less” focus. It’s about the type of focus. Like Alain de Botton says, “it’s impossible to think about our emotions ‘too much’, but it’s possible to think about them in ways that are unhelpful”.
Use “focus” to do two things. One: set the intention. And two: take the necessary actions. Here’s a random side thought: what if we were to replace the word “focus” with “anger”? Anger can be described as the emotion that propels us to make change in our lives. If we’re experiencing happiness or joy, we’re not going to want to change anything, right?
Anyway, back to “forgetting”. I propose to use forgetting much like we’d treat falling asleep. You know when you’ve been lying awake for hours and your method of hurrying things along is telling yourself “sleep, sleep, sleep!”? We all know that doesn’t work. It’s when we let go that it finally happens.
What inspired this article? Actually something pretty trivial: coffee (“umm excuse me, coffee is life” I can hear the past Mim echoing in my head). I used to be obsessed with coffee — if I hadn’t had a barista quality latte just the way I liked it by a certain time, my entire day was ruined (and likely for the people around me). Coffee made at home never sufficed, so I always had to make sure a cafe was within my vicinity, and sometimes that meant planning an entire day around “grabbing coffee”. As you can see, it ruled my life. And so I decided, it had to stop.
I’ve given up coffee many times before — once for two years, another for two months and two weeks. The first time I managed to do so was by replacing coffee with matcha. I shifted my focus from one daily ritual to another.
From what I’ve learnt in life so far, humans don’t do so well with gaps — we always try to fill them.
So that’s why I think forgetting can sometimes be more sustainable than focus — because focus requires attention on something. In Buddhism this attention is on the breath, with leads to inner peace and steers us away from things like addiction and mental turmoil. Well, that’s the idea, and I totally respect that, but like I always say, context is important — in modern life “meditation” is not always the most practical answer.
Like I said, focus is shaped by our values. So what if we were to try on new values for size and temporarily forget the old ones? What did my obsession with coffee reflect in terms of my values? Probably consistency (routine), certainty (something guaranteed, like a grounding point in my day) and social contact (sitting in cafes opposed to at home alone). There was always this underlying feeling of “if I don’t have a coffee, my day will be incomplete”.
And then, in some abstract reflection on the following three points, I let go of my obsessive focus on coffee (and also let go of the annoying alternative focus mantra “you can do this, you can do this” that only set myself up for more disappointment and magnified my failure if I gave up):
“Simply having a desire doesn’t mean that thing will be attained”
“Success is never guaranteed by hard work alone”
“This is pretty insignificant in the scheme of my life”
Nothing revolutionary at the end of the day — I’ve just used different words to describe an age-old idea: let go of attachments to outcomes.
Photo by Steve Johnson, unsplash.com