Michael Phelps. He is a thrilling competitor and an inspiring figure. Fueled by his intense focus to break the Olympic medal record and to elevate the status of Swimming as a sport, Phelps has stirred the heart of a nation and stoked the ambitions of generations of swimmers.
William Wilberforce. His two great aims in life were the abolition of the slave trade in England and the reformation of manners in British society. Though it took his whole political career, he accomplished the first. As for the second, more nebulous goal, we can safely say that due to his efforts, the era of formality and decorum known as “the Victorian Age” owes many of its moral reforms to Wilberforce’s advocacy.
Their stories (and others) demonstrate the power of a clear focus, a honed and refined grasp of purpose in life that rests upon the bedrock of a deeply compelling “Why.”
But let’s be honest. Most of us don’t have such an overarching sense of singular purpose. And in our era of instant communication and immense opportunity, we have more options for our time and energies than humans have ever experienced before.
What’s more, we have more competitors for our time and energies – more people who have grand visions to which they would like to recruit us. These passionate visionaries weave compelling narratives about why their goal is all-consuming and why we should enlist in their cause. Some are benign (most non-profits that are advocating for arts, education, and public goods like zoos and libraries) while others are insidious (white supremacy groups, radical terror organizations, cults)
Make no mistake. If you have no focus in life, there are any number of eager visionaries who are all too happy to provide it.
So even if you don’t have an overarching life focus like Phelps or Wilberforce, you still have to choose something to focus upon, else your focus will be chosen for you.
Cal Newport advocates for habits of intense focus in his book Deep Work. He quotes a dominican friar named Antonin Sertillanges who taught:
“Let your mind become a lens, thanks to the converging rays of attention; Let your soul be all intent on whatever it is that is established in your mind as a dominant, absorbing idea.”
If it’s too much to think about your life focus, then shrink the time frame. What’s my focus for the next thee months? For the next week? For tomorrow? What do I want to accomplish in that time frame? It doesn’t have to be a “world changing” focus – all that matters is that it matters to you.
Don’t drift through your days. What will you focus on tomorrow? Next week? Next year?
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