YOU CAN ALMOST IMAGINE his wife’s dismay, when, upon hearing that her husband had lost his job as an oil executive, that he was now to embark on a career in writing. This is hard enough to stomach on its own, but in the Great Depression of 1933, this must have seemed like a stroke of madness.
Raymond Chandler was 44 years old when he came home with this announcement. Having nursed literary ambition at a young age, Chandler forsook his calling to instead amble through various careers, ranging from a stint in the admiralty, a venture stringing tennis rackets and even the military. Nothing stuck. His desire to be a writer never left him, but when hearing of the suicide of author Richard Barnham Middleton, he realized that if a man with ‘more talent than himself’ couldn’t make it, what chance did he have?
Finding his feet as an auditor, Chandler rose through the ranks of the Dabney Oil Syndicate to become Vice President, but his erratic behavior (heavy drinking, womanizing with female employees, and deciding not to show up) eventually became too much for his employees and they fired him.
So, left jobless and in the worst economic turmoil yet faced in history, Chandler decided to have a crack a writing.
Dying twenty-one years later, drunk and alone, Chandler left behind a long and impressive career as arguably the greatest writer of pulp stories that there ever was. Eschewing typical formulas that relied on the final twist, Chandler’s stories gripped from scene to scene and sent him from waiting in the bread line to selling movie scripts to Hollywood executives.
Although he’d lived a troubled life, Chandler had by all accounts achieved his dream. He had become a writer. What is usually considered a goal to be started early in life, Chandler started towards middle age, in a time of desperation.
When asked how he did it, his reply was a simple one. He sat himself down in a room and gave himself two choices.
“Write. Or do nothing.”
And in doing so, he mastered focus.
No matter how hard I try, I can never seem to focus. My mind, far more concerned with its own interests, can never be directed into a particular direction of my choosing. In the past, I would often mistake this for procrastination; and chastise myself for my lack of will, or challenge myself as to what it was I was afraid of that made me avoid my work. But the reality was often much simple.
I just couldn’t focus.
Where other people could knuckle down, I couldn’t.
I remember, when pressed to revise for an imminent exam on Ancient Greece, I instead gained a newfound interest in doing streaks of 3-pointers off the back of a trampoline. When in need of writing a CV for my first job, I instead decided it was more pressing that I teach myself HTML; and when I had coursework due that would fundamentally alter my options available to me moving forward, it just seemed more practical that I master the accuracy and finesse of my web-swinging on Spider-Man 2.
Although, I suppose all those examples indicate an element of choice. In reality, they just sort of happened. Rather than focus on what I needed to, my mind started focusing on something else.
A lot of the writing on focus would suggest that I was lacking in willpower, shy on discipline, and my work ethic wasn’t good enough. Other opinions might suggest I just didn’t want whatever I was supposed to be doing enough. But on close scrutiny, I was always applying a lot of willpower, discipline and work ethic to what I was doing, it may have been on the wrong thing, but to charge those diminished faculties as the cause seems to miss the mark.
And this always seems to be the case.
The people who find it extraordinarily difficult to focus on what they need to be doing, rather than being lazy, lacking in will, and ill-disciplined, are often willful, disciplined and hard working on whatever it is they’re doing instead.
But they still can’t focus on what the need to focus on.
In attempting to find some kind of solution to the problem of focus, it became apparent that a lot of the opinions on it stemmed from internal choice. That the individual, on some level, was choosing to not focus on their work, and instead choosing to fail. Alongside this, it was posited that focus was a deliberate, channeled used of energy and that people that lacked focus simply failed to channel that energy.
In every instance, the person who couldn’t focus came off as weak.
But if that was the case, then why the hell could so many of them demonstrate willfulness, discipline, and work ethic? Why was it these traits failed to evade them, but focus always did? What made focus so fucking hard to understand?
CHANNELS OF FOCUS
When looking at Chandler’s story, it becomes obvious that he was a bit of a mess. Lacking direction for most of his life, Chandler juggled a variety of careers and nursed dozens of bad habits. By any accounts, this was a man who was not gifted with direction, purpose or focus.
Yet when we look at the results of man’s life, it’s clear he was quite the opposite. He was focused.
When we look at focus it’s easy for us to overestimate the reasons for which focus occurs. It’s presumed that focus is the result of strength of will, and that inability to focus is down to a weakness in that will. But not only does this definition stink of macho dick measuring, it’s also not very practical. Minds wander, and when they’re given options, they wander into whatever channels there are available to them. Rather than being a product of willpower, focus is a product of environment. When we give ourselves channels for our focus to run down, we give ourselves less chance of focusing.
And when we do lose focus, we spend all our willpower trying to bend it back.
And we lose energy.
And we give up.
If you’ve been in this situation then I think you will, like me, recognize that this sucks. It’s a self-fulfilling pattern of procrastination and distraction – and rather than being a measure of our own weakness, is rather a measure of our poor planning.
Focus has less to say about us and more to say about what’s around us.
When Chandler sat in his room and gave himself the choice of “Write. Or do nothing” he gave himself the power to turn his focus to where it needed to go. He could sit there in silence, sure. He could twiddle his thumbs. He could stare at the wall, the roof, the floor. But he couldn’t leave, and he couldn’t do anything else. His focus only had one way to go. And it was writing or boredom.
His life’s work shows which one won out.
Chandler is a model for an effective understanding of focus. Rather than being bogged down in techniques and draining force of will, Chandler simplified focus down it’s basest element.
When asked about the definition of focus, Steve Jobs said it was “saying no” to everything else. Like Chandler, Jobs understood when that focus would go wherever it could, and that controlling those channels was more important than forcing your focus into one channel of many or spreading it too thinly between multiple.
When we, as Chandler did, utilize our choice to sit for an allotted time, and do our work, or do nothing at all, what we do is create an environment where focus is a natural by-product of our actions and our environment. Rather than chasing focus as a goal, we create focus as an outcome. Rather than forcing our focus towards our work, we give ourselves no option but to become focused on our work.
And that is the true nature of focus.
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