One of the traits most frequently identified as a hallmark of successful people is the ability to focus on desired objectives long enough to achieve desired results. It is also a curious thing to notice that really creative people often have trouble with staying on task long enough to see the results they envision. For many, concentration becomes a process of trying to narrow one’s vision and closing ourselves off to outside information because we are afraid of being distracted. At its worst this manifests in obsessive adherence to repetitive practices that may have nothing to do with the results we are trying to achieve. Often disciplined focus shows up as a “no pain/no gain” approach that does not foster inspiration, and may cause far more harm than good, either in the form of physical injuries or as crises of confidence.
So how do you learn to keep your eye on the ball anyway? At first glance it would seem that staying focused is essentially a question of concentration and trying harder. As a student I often found myself frustrated with trying to measure up to the ideal of fixing my mind on a specific target without wavering. I just don’t seem to be wired that way. To the degree that I try to focus my mind on object “A,” the more objects “B” and “C” become increasingly fascinating. The odd thing is that when I stop fighting the urge to notice the items that are “not important” in the moment, often there is a bigger pattern or truth that emerges. Usually this more diffused view ends up yielding a much more valuable “big picture” concept than would have come from remaining doggedly attuned to the “micro” level details.
While developing a wholesome self-discipline is certainly an important part of becoming a grown-up, I think there are some significant flaws in the way most have learned to think about the ideas of focus and concentration. In my teaching I often ask my students to treat themselves in the same way that they would treat a wonderfully talented child. If you have spent any time with a person under that age of 8 recently, you will have an appreciation for the creative potential of curious questioning. Most of us recognize the flitting from topic to topic and the disparate combining of seemingly unconnected notions as a normal part of children’s learning. Ordinarily we tolerate the random questions and we are gentle in the way we lead kids back to the task at hand.
In contrast, if you were to honestly listen to the inner dialogue you engage in during you daily work, would you be comfortable using those same messages in conversation with another person, let alone a child you cared for deeply? While focus is certainly a tremendously valuable asset, it is much more a process than a destination. I believe that nurturing your own sense of wonder and curiosity about your daily work process is probably the most important thing you can do in the service of developing your own creative potential. As you notice yourself making room for the “bright sparkly bits” that captivate your attention in ways that threaten veer you off of your expected path, look to see if a bigger, more expansive view can actually deepen your focus on the thing you were trying to achieve in the first place.