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Focus

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?

6 Comments on "Focus"

  • Elaine says

    This I-talent you speak of is exactly what I have been try­ing to NOT avoid any­more Thorsten, that’s one rea­son I am tak­ing the BYW class with Holly & friends. You are so elo­quent in point­ing out exactly the “call­ing and pur­pose of cre­atives, the “it’s just what I do” when oth­ers mar­vel at our tal­ents, and the ignor­ing of what we really rather be doing. I really enjoyed your writ­ing and plan to come back reg­u­larly to read more of your genius obser­va­tions! thanks

  • Hi Thorsten,
    I am the tech sup­port (aka hus­band) of http://Lebenslustiger.com/ . Man — you nailed it in this post. Focus is hard — Focus is all about the things you decide _not_ to do. I always thought: ha — my com­puter can mul­ti­task — so can I, but I clearly have to admit that my com­put­ers are much bet­ter at that than I’ll ever be!
    So focus indeed is it — in the lit­tle things like just a stretch of unin­ter­rupted work because you will your­self to do one and one thing only.
    Or focus in live — pick­ing the “thing” you really want and stick­ing with it. My pas­sion, my I thing is any­thing that is hard related to com­put­ers. Lately it’s big data solu­tions for ana­lyz­ing cus­tomer behav­ior.
    I feel fairly close to you though: to start with I live near Hildesheim, close to your Han­nover loca­tion, but more impor­tant: i have a pas­sion for pho­tog­ra­phy, am a pianist dab­blign in mak­ing com­puter music and my alter ego does tech sup­port for my blog­ging wife. Clearly I am not focused enough :)

    I am find­ing though that focus yields suc­cess (well, maybe with 20% tal­ent, 40% pas­sion and 40% stick-to-it-ness which is prob­a­bly another word for focus :)

    Great post — and thanks for the links. Both blogsy and daedalus look good and the music the­ory books could actu­ally pro­vide focus on music again.
    All the best,
    Olv

  • @Elaine: Wel­come to the BYW2.0! I am cer­tain you’ll find a lot of inspi­ra­tion and moti­va­tion as well as new impulses in our class. And thank you too for the kind words, very much appreciated.

  • @Lebenslustiger’s tech sup­port: Thanks so much for that great com­ment Olv (btw, I like your intro­duc­tion, nice to meet you, I am the tech sup­port of decor8!).

    Excel­lent point regard­ing mul­ti­task­ing. I know exactly what you mean. It’s espe­cially true for very curi­ous, inquis­i­tive types — and I know I am one of them. I am always eager to learn some­thing new and try out some­thing I per­ceive as inter­est­ing. Prob­lem is, this works fine when we’re younger, still try­ing to fig­ure things out, but once we get older and life, aka respon­si­bil­i­ties, set in we are more or less forced to pick some­thing. It’s not nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing, it does make us aware of focus, but if we don’t know what it is we should be doing we can either end up doing the “wrong” thing (for a long time) or con­tinue sort of dab­bling in a mil­lion dif­fer­ent things — and appear irre­spon­si­ble or inde­ci­sive in the process. I find this to be a major issue for guys in general.

    I am “the com­puter guy” as well, at least that’s how I always sold myself. I got my first com­puter when I was about 10 (a Sin­clair ZX 81, that “black box”) and have been hooked ever since. But what ini­tially fas­ci­nated me about com­put­ers (that strange new world cou­pled with sci­en­tific pos­si­bil­i­ties) hasn’t really man­i­fested itself in any long last­ing man­ner as I, and prob­a­bly many other guys, always felt the need to apply my skills in a seri­ous way: in the “pro­fes­sional” busi­ness world. I’ve done lots of things in that field, from tech sup­port to teach­ing to cod­ing to devel­op­ing cor­po­rate sized data­bases. But it always even­tu­ally wore me out. My, slightly more dom­i­nant, cre­ative side was left out of the game. I had to really stop and make myself focus on what I need to be doing so I can keep doing it, prefer­ably in some way or another till the end.

    At the very core of myself there sits a writer eager to tell sto­ries. I’ve been writ­ing it all — arti­cles, mus­ings, fea­tures, reviews — of course code in all dif­fer­ent pro­gram­ming lan­guages — and music. There’s an explorer who wants to find brave new world and tell the tale.

    It’s ulti­mately a refine­ment process. And as much as we some­times want things to be sin­gu­lar (espe­cially us Ger­mans) life is mul­ti­fac­eted and so are our tal­ents. That I-talent can man­i­fest itself in dif­fer­ent expres­sions and I believe rec­og­niz­ing these expres­sions and real­iz­ing they are all part of one whole thing (e.g. writ­ing words > writ­ing music) makes it more ratio­nally explain­able (a guy thing, not so much a girl thing).

    I still want to mul­ti­task, I think any cre­ative soul wants to. It’s quite innate. But it has to be guided, it has to be given form, and bound­aries, and it has to be pri­or­i­tized. Bal­ance, to me, is key.

    Thanks again for that food for thought Olv! Do feel free to stay in touch and share your pho­to­graphic and musi­cal endeavors.

  • Hi Thorsten — this is really weird: I started with a sin­clair as well, first the zx81 and then the spec­trum with the rub­ber key­board! I guess we are the same kind of ‘com­puter guys’.

    Re pho­tog­ra­phy: At some point I went all Nikon — that started with an F801 (back then when there was film), get­ting pro-ish with an F4 — and then dig­i­tal later — and learn­ing in-between that lenses are much more impor­tant than bodies.

    I am very impressed that you shot Holly lat­est book — as I find good stu­dio pho­tog­ra­phy and light­ing very hard. A friend of mine went all the way through Brooks Insti­tute in Santa Bar­bara and actu­ally for­mally learned every­thing about pho­tog­ra­phy and is now mak­ing a liv­ing of it. Where did you get your light­ing skills from?

    Re music — another friend of mine in Han­nover actu­ally runs a stu­dio (base­ment soft­ware) and also co-wrote a rock-ballet (love or war) — and turned me on to macs and logic. I am still just dab­bling — it’s much eas­ier to just sit down in front of the piano and let her rip :)
    Speak­ing of audio: nice pro­duc­tion on the byw pod­casts — with a lit­tle reverb, sounds really good. I appre­ci­ate the tech­ni­cal qual­ity you pro­duce with — that seems to never get in the way of the con­tent, nice work!
    I’ll PM you in the forum to not hijack your com­ment sec­tion here further :)

  • @Lebenslustiger’s tech sup­port: No wor­ries about hijack­ing the com­ment sec­tion, this all very much per­tains to the con­tent of this post, i.e. doing things we enjoy. Great point about lenses being more impor­tant than the cam­era, absolutely! I found that Olym­pus makes some of the finest lenses on the mar­ket and that’s how I ended up with my cur­rent Oly E-30.

    Thanks so much too for the kind words about my pho­tog­ra­phy. I do have to give credit where credit is due as Debi Tre­loar shot most of Holly’s upcom­ing book (as she did with Dec­o­rate). I did some addi­tional pho­tos such as Holly’s mood­boards, extras of our apart­ment and Holly’s portrait(s). I fol­lowed Debi’s lead and shot using only nat­ural light. It does require a solid under­stand­ing of light though as well as angles and the right cam­era set­tings since you can’t just add another light to get a more even exposure.

    How­ever, I also do stu­dio pho­tog­ra­phy, specif­i­cally close-ups and macros — which require more tricky light­ing (see http://cinematictoys.com for some off-topic exam­ples). I have var­i­ous LED stu­dio lights (inten­sity adjustable and with addi­tional fil­ters) as well as lots of LED flash­lights in vary­ing inten­sity and col­ors for spe­cial effects. I’ve been doing it for many years now and really enjoy it. I am self-taught only though, I’ve never taken a for­mal class (I did and do read lots of books and mag­a­zines and online articles).

    Thank you to for the com­pli­ments on Holly’s pod­casts. I think the first one had a bit too much reverb (due to hav­ing >3m ceil­ings) so for the sec­ond one I mic’ed a bit more dry. I use a Blue Yeti USB mic and Sony MDR-7506 head­phones for mon­i­tor­ing; Holly just wants to keep going with that setup even after she’s done record­ing :). I used to do voice overs for some major cor­po­ra­tions in the US years ago (Adobe, Microsoft, EMC), learned a lot on the job which I can now apply in my own stu­dio work.

    Do feel free to email me any time for some “tech talk”.

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