Learning to focus, lesson 1: Narrowing down your interests
Okay, I went too vague promising to write about how to focus. If we unpack that topic we get a whole series of posts. So this is lesson #1. We’ll tackle the others as we drill down further into it. There are whole layers of focus; we’ll deal with them one at a time.
Today, to go along with how to find your passion and your meaningful work, we’ll talk about what to do if we have a lot of interests and don’t know where to go from there.
We’re asking questions like these:
How do I decide what to focus my fragmented time on? I am interested in and have plans for doing something related to almost everything in the world.
Are you going to do a post on narrowing things down if you have so many passions you don’t have enough lifetime for all of them?
People who feel like they have no interests are going to frown at those of you who have “too many” interests, but both situations can make you feel stuck.
Usually, when we’re stuck, it’s because we’ve gotten trapped in an infinite loop of self-talk. We are arguing with ourselves and second-guessing and doubting and panicking and putting off. We have a bad case of analysis paralysis.
What can you do to get unstuck?
- Get past the idea that there’s a preferable path of action.
Human beings like things to make sense. We like stories with a beginning, middle, and an end — and meaning. We like good guys to win and bad guys to lose. As much as we say we like to be surprised, we like a lot of foreshadowing so the final part of the story makes sense.
Life isn’t really like that. You aren’t looking at your life trying to decipher the plot — you are writing your story.
If you’re trying to guess which interest holds your golden ticket, you are wasting time that you could be using to learn more about yourself and what the world needs.
Always choose doing. Always choose action. It’s hard to choose — many people can’t do it. You have to choose something to work on. You have to choose what to do first. You have to choose the way to go, and sometimes you have to choose when to stop and back up and try a different way.
Many people cannot choose. They’re frozen. They have rich fantasy lives about being writers or artists or a million different things, but they can’t get going in real life because they are frozen with indecision or the fear of choosing wrong or the fear of looking stupid.
Accept the fact that each path available to you offers interesting new ideas, skills, and experiences. Then choose one and get started.
- Accept that having anything means giving something else up (though maybe only temporarily).
The weird thing is, narrowing our options makes us feel cheated and depressed because we’re not getting everything we want — even though doing NOTHING means we get NOTHING we want.
When we resist choosing/narrowing/focusing, we do nothing, so we go nowhere and we get nothing.
You aren’t sure which thing is really for you? Of course you aren’t. You have to live it to learn it.
Worst-case scenario: You will work your way through it and be ready to move on to something else. That’s it. Did you waste a ton of time wandering around the wrong part of the map? No, because that’s what learning is — and how could you have learned this if you didn’t put in the time and effort? Don’t you know more about yourself now? Don’t you know more about a lot of things? Then it wasn’t a waste — it was an education.
You carry your experiences, knowledge, and realizations with you into the future. Nothing you do is wasted; nothing you learn is wasted. Even if you can’t see how you’ll use it later, it’s there in your toolkit. It’s become part of who you are.
Everything you do gifts you with new ideas and new understanding. You’re not wasting time if it doesn’t turn out to be your lifelong passion. You’re not looking for a prize. You’re becoming a better, stronger, smarter, more experienced version of yourself. This is part of your experience. It helps. And if you think figuring out what you *don’t* want to do is a lame consolation prize, think again. People who can’t get started are stuck *imagining* what they want; you are actually walking a path of action. [BOLD] And you are changing, because all real experience begets change. You are becoming a new person; you are coming closer to your authentic self.
- Stop thinking it’s all or nothing.
Black and white thinking is not helpful.
Your meaningful work — that magical combination of your passion and your purpose — is probably going to involve the combination of two or more deep interests. We create and innovate when we combine two or more ideas in an interesting new way. So not only are you not wasting time by exploring interests that may not seem to go anywhere, you are actually building up your reserve of ideas and increasing its complexity. You’re giving yourself more to work with.
Even if you dig deeply into one interest, it doesn’t mean you can’t continue to explore other areas. You just can’t keep skating around on the surface of everything. If you do that, you can’t learn anything. You can’t master anything. You can’t build anything new.
All-or-nothing thinking leads to inaction because every decision takes on immense weight. Instead, treat life as the adventure it is. Try all-is-something thinking. Pay attention to your life. Gather ideas and experiences and skills wherever you are. Realize that there are many different meandering paths that can take you where you need to end up — you will pick up the clues along the way.
- Stop discounting your “small” passions.
Don’t be that girl (or guy) who has a list of all the attributes their future spouse must have so s(he) ignores the real (imperfect) candidate standing right there.
Don’t toss out all your ideas trying to find the big, lifelong passion you’ve always dreamed of. Those smaller passions could collide to make something fresh and new. They’re going to give you your unique perspective and your new ideas.
If you keep passing over your interests because they’re not deep enough, not intense enough, not something-or-other enough, then you’ll never get anywhere. You are trying to cross a stream dotted with boulders — each step you take shows you the next set of choices. You can only see what’s in front of you — take a few more steps and you’ll see more. You can’t stay on shore and know where to put your feet. You’ll only see the path by walking it.
- Get great at something.
If you’re endlessly fascinated with a multitude of things and you just keep hopping from one to the next, you probably aren’t ever going to be really great at something.
Some people are just programmed to learn — and they love the newness of something they know nothing about. They feel great when they’re being challenged, and the minute they feel they’ve mastered something, the challenge seems to go away.
If this happens to you, look for an opportunity to teach someone else what you know. It’s really the final stage of learning. You don’t know how much you really understand until you try to teach it to someone else. Their questions, their confusions, their misinterpretations — figuring out how to help them will raise you to a new level of mastery. If you skip this step, you’re quitting the race before the final lap.
Dig deeply into something; it requires a whole other level of concentration, learning, and effort. It engages all of your abilities and forces you to acquire new skills. If you don’t make this effort, you’re forever swimming in the shallow end of the pool. You don’t even have to swim — you can just walk around. That’s not enough. You need to make enough effort to recognize what you can do and what you have to give.
It doesn’t matter if you don’t know yet what you want to do. You don’t have to grasp at the very beginning — before you’ve even started, really — where you’ll end up. You don’t have to know now exactly who you are and what you have to say and what you have to give. That will become known in the fullness of time. You simply have to start doing real work so you can begin to discover these things.
Focus isn’t the ability to zero in on what you should be doing like a laser — it’s the ability to *start* working. It isn’t the ability to pick out the most important thing you should do first — it’s the ability to pick *anything* to do first.
Learning how to focus means accepting things you cannot know (the “best” thing for you to do right now, what you are meant to do with your life, your destiny) and tuning in to the signals your life is giving you (what feels meaningful and purposeful, what gives you energy, what drains your energy, what makes you feel fulfilled).
Any choice gets you further than no choice. Does that sound simplistic? Many people get stuck here, at the very beginning — before the beginning, really. They can’t choose. So get over it. Every choice increases your possibilities. And this isn’t the last choice you’ll ever make. When you make your next big choice, you’ll be a different person than you are today. You’ll be further down that road toward your authentic self and your meaningful work.
And what if you don’t quite see the point of having to choose? You like your big duffel bag full of passions and you don’t want to give up any of your babies. Listen. It’s not just about liking things. That’s not why you’re here on earth. You’re here to do stuff. You’re here to contribute. True fulfillment lies in creating. True fulfillment lies in doing some hard stuff. We’re participating in this series to figure out how to do our meaningful work — that means digging deeper, working harder, doing more. I guarantee that whatever enjoyment you get right now out of your interests, there is a whole deeper layer of satisfaction waiting for you if you’re willing to do the work.
You have your deep interests. Now let’s figure out what we can do with them.