Over the past several months one small word has occupied much of my attention: focus. It’s been echoing in my mind, following my every thought, sometimes with a gentle smile, other times with a scolding expression. It certainly is one of those little words with a big attitude — once it has become part of your consciousness it’s impossible to ignore. And that is a good thing, a very good thing indeed.
When I think of my childhood school days, particularly 5th and 6th grade (which used to be called Orientierungsstufe in Germany, from the word orientation, as kids are evaluated for future education, at least that was the intent) one thing stands out in my report card: Thorsten is often absent minded, easily distracted and tends to distract other children. My teachers had a difficult time reconciling my overall behavior with my learning potential, noting a quite pronounced discrepancy: I tended to be an A– student in music, arts, writing and mathematics, if I could focus long enough. However, I was also diagnosed as being hyperactive — usually referred to nowadays as ADHD (though this post will not be about any clinical condition).
Nevertheless, I always thought of myself as having a broad interest — ranging from archeology to zoology, literally. I was rather proud of that, especially when asked to list hobbies: the more I could list the better. Indeed, in high school I eventually was called “the walking encyclopedia”, the epitome of cool in my mind. However, teachers began to comment once again on the stark discrepancy between my intellectual abilities and my increasing lack of engagement — in part driven by my growing dislike of a very formulaic approach to learning. The creative elements of the early school days were gone, replaced by “by the book” attitudes and little room for personal discoveries and engagement (certainly a profound cultural element of German society in general).
What initially led to lower grades in school, frustrating but not life changing yet, would later become more complex and challenging. I never lost my curiosity, which I see as a positive asset and integral part of who I am. But it also has proven to be a stumbling block and major drawback with regards to finding my calling (creatives think in terms of calling and purpose rather than job and career). Of course there’s certainly never been a shortage of advice from the outside, much of it good, or at least well meant, some of it highly encouraging and motivating. I even took an extensive aptitude test many years ago. The results attested that I could indeed do anything I put my mind to (I always held onto it and have it right in front of me this very moment).
And here is that crucial missing element: focus. But not focus as in concentrating on the task at hand, something I’ve always been able to do, but focus on a particular talent. Let’s call it the I-talent, that one core talent at the center of any person that defines them, shapes their actions and way of life. That one talent that is such an integral part of who we are that we simply don’t recognize it because “it’s just what we do” or “it’s nothing, really” because we so effortlessly utilize it. Creatives are particularly prone to this kind of thinking because creativity is more of a heart matter than a head matter and therefore looked upon as irrational in an environment that favors rationalism (the dreamer, the head-in-the-cloud person, the introvert living in his/her own world, etc.).
Our I-talent often manifests itself in subtle ways — doodles on scrap paper or sidelines, whistling melodies or tapping beats we don’t recall ever hearing, arranging things a certain way around us by color palette or style, seeing scenes and stories while at lunch, taking photos with our mind’s eye, etc. Maybe you have an ever growing collection of music of a particular genre, or of graphic design, photography, music magazines, maybe you’re almost part of the inventory of your local bookshop or library (while they’re still around…). You may find yourself drawn to several such activities but if you look real close there’s one that is slightly more dominant. That could very well be your I-talent, something you long to do but ultimately keep ignoring, denying or at the very least restrained.
Over the past several months I have done exactly that kind of analysis. I paid close attention to what I react to most intensely, inside, not necessarily visible on the outside. I’ve read several helpful books such as The Career Guide for Creative and Unconventional People and The Five-Minute Writer containing great advice and/or exercises. I reduced distractions and looked at ways of doing things I enjoy more, well, enjoyably. And most importantly I’ve trained myself to focus.
After closely scrutinizing my approach to writing, photography and composing I’ve come to better understand what works for me, what doesn’t and why. As a result my approach to photography has changed. I made a clear break between my professional interest and the gathering of visual inspiration. I’ve always felt reluctant bringing my DSLR around. It didn’t feel right, lacking creative spontaneity. Now I leave it in the studio, where I feel it belongs, and instead gather visual inspiration using my iPhone. It’s liberatingly restrictive and simple,which means I am able to be in the moment rather than thinking about the right settings. Also, once captured I can quickly edit a photo without the distraction of a multitude of settings and options. There is focus.
In turn I can act on initial impulses and feelings faster, focusing on my poetry of the moment. The results are then posted to Instagram as well as my new blog Congizant:Dreamer. This spontaneity is refreshing and avoids getting lost in thoughts while the pages in front of me remain blank. Liberated of certain processes that inhibited more than they encouraged my writing is more organic again rather than procedure driven. There’s an important balance now between creating and sharing.
I also no longer feel compelled to needing a visual element to all of my writings, as this post attests. Especially writings like this can be difficult to illustrate with images. There are many posts I haven’t written for exactly that reason. Now there is focus on what really matters: the process of writing. Also, to help me stay focused while writing longer pieces I have resorted to using an iPad. It’s quite similar to writing in a good old fashioned journal, undistracted and unoccupied (I’m using Blogsy in case you wondered; also Daedalus for print pieces). There is no temptation to constantly check emails, browse the web (“research”) or drift off otherwise. I highly recommend giving it a try if you get easily sidetracked as well.
In the process I became fully aware of what I must focus on the most, what lies at my core, influences everything I do, makes me me: music. Of course I’ve always been aware of how much I like music but there’s always been a good amount of neglect, of “I know, but”, of “maybe I should, but probably not”, at best treating it as a sidekick rather than the main star. All that has turned into “do it!” and “focus!”. And so I do and I focus and I discover connections I never knew existed, intricate, subtle responses that make all the difference. I’ve since started refreshing my knowledge of music theory (via Music Theory for Computer Musicians and Harmony for Computer Musicians) and am also about to take composing classes. There are some dreams that want to become realities and I will share this journey on these very pages (together with related poetry and prose).
Now. What about you? Do you have a hard time focusing? What do you think you should be focusing on, what is your I-talent?