Serious work

Well, then, are we teachers the only idle dreamers? No; it is you young men who are much more so. For, indeed, we old men, when we see young ones at play, are keen to join in that play ourselves. Far more so, then, if I saw them wide awake and keen to join us in our studies, should I be eager myself to join with them in serious work.

~ Epictetus

Est provocationem

Today, I’m drawn to considering refinement of an idea I’ve mentioned a few times.

It’s clear to me that it’s impossible to be happy if my mind is unable to focus. Years ago, I regained my ability to intentionally focus, by disempowering the world—disabling as many as possible of the pathways for everything and everyone to actively grab my attention. Then I set about railing against everyone who has not yet regained their own ability to focus, (or perhaps, has never learned to focus.)

Internally, I often use an idea which I believe I stole from mathematical analysis. When facing some question, the idea is to find the largest contributor, and get a handle on that first; that’s the first-order item. Then find the next largest contributor, and get that second-order item sorted. And so on.

A few decades ago, the largest impediment to my being able to intentionally focus was external distraction. Having now sorted that first-order item, I can turn to the second-order item: Everyone’s inability to focus is polluting my attention. I remain easily distracted by others’ inability to focus.

Est provocationem!



Into the hands of every individual is given a marvelous power for good or evil—the silent, unconscious, unseen influence of his life. This is simply the constant radiation of what man really is, not what he pretends to be.

~ William George Jordan

Dive deep

The information universe tempts you with mildly pleasant but ultimately numbing diversions. The only way to stay fully alive is to dive down to your obsessions six fathoms deep. Down there it’s possible to make progress toward fulfilling your terrifying longing, which is the experience that produces the joy.

~ David Brooks from,

I’m not sure I’d call the longing I seek, “terrifying.” But “longing” certainly fits. This idea of finding something that pulls you so strongly as a way to brush away attempted distraction fits closely with the old platitude to, “have a bigger ‘yes’ burning inside you.”

I used to think of my attention as a flashlight; as a thing I needed to narrow by focusing—narrow to illuminate a smaller area with increased brightness. I’ve always found, though I spent years in denial—you know that river in Africa?—that the more I tried to force my attention onto things, the more I felt anxious and uncomfortable. Somewhere around episodes 8, 9 or 10 of John Vervaeke’s Awakening from the Meaning Crisis there’s a discussion of what exactly is your attention. Hint: It’s not like a flashlight that you can intentionally point, and then having pointed it your mind will focus on that target.


Focus on what you do best

My suggestion? Let more qualified people or tools tackle the “stuff” that forces you to slow down, lose productivity, and create something less than what your clients deserve. Sure, it’s scary to think about how much it will cost to outsource … anything else that isn’t in your wheelhouse. But think about how much momentum and overall quality of work you lose whenever you let that fear take over. I say: focus on what you do best, outsource the rest, and be happily surprised when you see how much your business soars as a result.

~ Suzanne Scacca from,

This is just an awesome point. The article is set in the context of freelancers who build web sites. Strip off the context, and it’s still perfectly true.

But also, I’ve been searching for an excuse to link to A List Apart. It’s not at all obvious from their web site, but they’ve been doing what they do since 1998. It started as a mailing list that was being separated off from I-forget-what… it was to be a “a list apart.” Then they unassumingly began leading discussion and pioneering best-practices for 20+ years.

Also, they have a nice web site chock full of great reading and resources. If you think you have an interesting or challenging problem related to a web site—A List Apart probably covered that 10 years ago.


Redefining our mission

Our assignment, like that of any new boss or coach, is to overhaul the organization (i.e., ourselves), strip it down to its basics, redefine its mission, its goals, its virtues and its vices. We have to fire every part of ourselves that can’t or won’t get onboard the new mission and we have to achieve buy-in from all the other parts that we have allowed to remain with the franchise.

~ Steven Pressfield from,

This exercise always proves beneficial for me; systematically going through everything that I’m doing, my habits, my friends—everything. Take the time to assess, and in particular to consider: Knowing what I know today, if today I was offered this “opportunity” to allocate my time or resources, on this thing, would I take it? It’s a powerful way to work around our inherent tendency to fall for the sunk cost fallacy.

Here I have 500 books on my “read this” bookcase. Picking up one book, knowing all that I know today, would I read this book? Considering all that I know today, would I buy a TV, subscribe to Netflix, and arrange my living room in this fashion? …would I call it my sedentary entertainment room instead? Knowing what I know today, would I agree to have dinner or drinks with this person who I currently have labeled [in my mind] as a friend? How does each of these things move me forward?


Diligence alone

Remarkable accomplishment requires a remarkable amount of focus; this much is clear. But focus without grounded direction is unlikely to hit the sweet spot.

~ Cal Newport from,

I’ve come across this point/idea many times in my journey. It took me a long time to learn how to focus, but it’s proving more challenging to figure out what to focus on.

Diligence? Focus? Single-mindedness? …whatever you want to call it. I am able to get a lot done. But I find I’m always second-guessing myself after I’ve gotten a significant portion of the way through some project…

Today, more questions than answers I suppose.


Creating value

Creating value is unrelated to busyness. When you find yourself — as I sometimes do — working long hours, day after day, reacting and e-mailing and hatching schemes, it’s useful to remember that you’re working more than some of the world’s most respected and impactful thinkers.

~ Cal Newport from,

I often write about focus because it’s something I’m trying to improve. When I’ve lost focus, it’s a challenge to call myself back to the important things. But a better plan for improvement would be to not lose focus in the first place, or at least to not lose focus as often.

Recently I’ve been keeping in mind Viktor Frankl’s thought about there being a space between stimulus and response. I find that when I’m able to remember that space, I’m able to consciously decide when, and if, I should shift my focus.

For example, I sat down to write and a myriad of other thoughts arose. Instead of trying to ignore them or make them go away—don’t think of a pink elephant—I zoom in on each idea: I consider the sense of urgency; no, actually there’s nothing urgent about the action this thought is suggesting. I consider the sense of entitlement; no, actually there’s no reason that I should be congratulated or rewarded for this thought or what it’s suggesting I attempt to do. I consider the benefit to myself or others; no, actually this thought isn’t vastly better than the other ideas and projects I’m already working. Soon enough the thought moves along like a petulant child. I think, “let’s see, where was I? I had sat down to write.”

Externally, that whole process—even if I repeat it for multiple thoughts—looks very unlike busyness. It looks much like I’m sitting still. It looks like I’m gazing out the window. It even looks a bit like I’m focused on writing. In fact, I am still focused on writing.

It’s my choice: Is this the moment when I want to change where I’ve placed my focus? If not, then terrific, I’m still focused where I had chosen.