I’ve always been too lazy to be successful. My ambitions have always been greater than my ability to focus, so I’ve lived a life of quiet desperation (for those of you who remember your Thoreau). The constant rationalization throughout my adult life was I had to work and thus didn’t have the time and energy to pursue those ambitions. Of course that’s bullshit. Successful people always find the time to pursue their dreams no matter what situation they find themselves. And now that I’m retired and have all my time free, I have no rationalization to protect myself from my own crapola.
What’s required to be successful at any goal is focus. People who can concentrate to the point of getting into the zone and finding their flow have a much better chance at being successful. However, relentless focus isn’t the only answer, many people on the autistic spectrum can focus obsessively, and just ordinary people with decent hobbies can find flow for escaping reality. Success is focus, 10,000 hours of practice, and a creative awareness of the past with the ability to imagine something new and different. Of these three qualities, I believe I have little of the first, a fair amount of the second, and quite a bit of the third.
My will is flabby, but my ego is buffed. (I’m sure all us Walter Mittys can say the same.)
An astrologer once told me that there are two kinds of people – those who create and those who consume. I’ve spent my life consuming thousands and thousands of books, documentaries, essays, stories, songs, movies, television shows, and so on. This is my 765th essay for this WordPress blog. In my life I’m sure I’ve written over a thousand essays. That’s a long way towards my ten thousand hours of practice. I’ve been working on both fiction and nonfiction books, but I can’t focus enough to stick with them. I can write these little short blog essays, but that’s about as far as my mind can focus. To break through my concentration barrier will require changing myself quite a bit. I don’t even know if that’s possible.
Anyone who reads my blog regularly knows I’ve written this essay before. I write essays like this one to talk myself into changing, but I never do. At age 62, change does not come easy. I’m a man who loves his rut, so it’s odd for me to even desire change. But I’ve known all my life that if I want to succeed with my writing goals I have to change. I assume I never will, because I never have, but the desire to write a book never changes either. It’s an odd Catch-22. And the funny thing is I know exactly what I must do. I must give up all my distractions and focus on a single goal.
Like many times before, I have to tell about the parable of Destination Moon, a movie made in 1950 about the first trip to the Moon. Like Neil Armstrong nineteen years later, these movie astronauts had to do some last minute maneuvering when they went to land, but unfortunately they used too much of their fuel. They landed okay, but didn’t have enough propellant to take off. Eventually one of the scientists figures out if they jettison enough weight they’d have enough fuel for the return trip. They had to throw out all their collected samples, their scientific equipment, their radio, all the unnecessary rocket control instruments, even their space suits. Getting back to Earth was an all or nothing gamble. That’s how it is with ambition – you have to jettison all the extra weight to be light enough to take off.
There are writers who published bestsellers by getting up two hours early and writing before they have to hit their nine-to-five job. I never could do that. I never could eat just two cookies. It was always all or nothing with me. When I read books like The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin that took seven years to write, or The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson which took ten, I realize what it means to be a writer, you have to be dedicated in a way that most normal people never can be. Wilkerson interviewed 1,200 people. And the source material Goodwin had to read would have taken me more than seven years just to read.
It’s easy to fantasize about doing something, it’s hard to actually do it. That’s because success takes unswerving focus. Last night instead of watching Nature, Survivor, Nova, Nashville and part of The Glass Bottom Boat with Doris Day, I should have been writing, or at least researching. Yesterday afternoon instead of reading News360 and listening to music, I should have been writing. Instead of reading Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, I should have been researching.
Sometimes I wish I could just commit to four hours of dedicated work, say from 9am to 1pm. But I can point to two of my recent blog posts that show you how distracted I am: “Reading: A Compulsion, An Addiction, Or Obsession?” and “Too Many Distractions While Running in a Thousand Different Directions.”
Now that I’m retired, and have all my time free, it’s all too obvious just how little discipline I have. The momentum of my life feels like I’m the Titanic and I see the iceberg, but to change course with all this momentum behind me is impossible. If I could ever write my first book in my sixties, I’d be the poster geezer for late bloomers. I still have hope though. Even the tiniest course changes can affect the destination of a big ship hundreds of miles out.
I figure if I keep writing these essays nagging myself to change, I just might.
[By the way, did you get the ironic humor of the song?]
JWH – 3/27/14
3 thoughts on “Focus–Finding My Flow”
“I figure if I keep writing these essays nagging myself to change, I just might.”
Maybe. Or you might just make yourself miserable, Jim. Don’t let that happen! It’s like those people who are always dieting and always unhappy about their lack of success. Is it worth it?
Of course, we’re different people, and I have far less ambition than you! Now that I’m retired, especially, I’m happy being a consumer, just enjoying the creations of others. I’ve accepted that I’m not going to change in any significant way.
There are, however, minor changes I continue to attempt (with varying degrees of success). Life is change. But if I haven’t changed in the past 63 years – except, perhaps, negatively – when it comes to the exact same flaws you point out (plus some),… how likely is it now?
Is that surrendering to reality, or just surrendering? 🙂 Good luck with your attempts, at least. I’m rooting for you!
Jim, have you ever considered doing NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month)? It’s not till November but in the time until this event you could think about a story to write and even outline.
What first got me to think I could write was just doing the simple calculation that a page a day would lead to a novel at the end of a year. For years I tried that, only finishing an occasional short story and never a novel. I thought I was the slow and steady tortoise.
In 2012 and again last November I tried NaNoWriMo and finished it both times. In 2012 I finished the first draft of a book worth of related short stories. Last November I finished a first draft for a novel. I view this as being successful both times although a short story collection is not officially recognized. It turns out that I am really a hare when it comes to writing.
True, I am now being a tortoise in the follow up of editing, but I intend to finish editing those short stories in two months and begin sending them out. Then I will polish the novel. But the point is I have something to polish now. And I had been trying to write since 1997. I believe that NaNoWriMo can start you on the path to changing your life with respect to writing.
Of course it’s a big commitment during that month, so I cut back on a number of activities. For example I cut my blog writing back to one post a week instead of two. That became a permanent change this year.
Good luck with your writing no matter how you go about it.
I did NaNoWriMo year before last and finished a first draft on time, but never went back to polishing it. I should start doing it every year though, now that I’m retired. I’m pretty good at cranking out first draft material – where I’m weak is polishing until its done.
I should cut back on blogging too, but I do consider it piano practice for writing, and its very good for keeping my brain exercised. Plus it gives me a sense of accomplishment. With working on a novel, nothing ever seems done.
But thanks for the encouragement Larry. I did start a to do list (Todoist) to help me get on track.