How To Focus The Lens of Attention To Nurture Creative Expertise
Choosing between a deep and narrow creative focus or a broad and shallow one can lead to obscurity or creative success. Let’s examine the…
Choosing between a deep and narrow creative focus or a broad and shallow one can lead to obscurity or creative success. Let’s examine the difference.
I got a call from David about a year ago. He’s a writer, and he wanted me to help him build his email list and develop an email marketing strategy. Now, although the last ten years have taught me a lot about digital marketing, servers and hosting, WordPress, email, and so on, doing the work for other people is not necessarily my bag.
It used to be. I once provided the service to others, but I became very impatient and frustrated at clients’ lack of attention to detail and their inability to absorb what I told them. You see, I’m a slight perfectionist, I’ll admit it, and therefore I can be difficult to work with. I must write about that sometime soon.
Anyway, back to the story…
I sacked the few clients I had, or they sacked me, and I went back to the work that has earned me a steady living for 30+ years.
When David came knocking, he was desperate. His website was down, he had lost important web pages, and Google ranking (or so he thought), and his business was suffering. So in my willingness to help, and my not-so-infinite-wisdom, I decided to make an exception.
What a mistake that proved to be.
He was an experienced writer, and teacher of the craft, but he was in a little financial trouble. Desperate to generate enough income to cover his outgoings, he was jumping at everything that moved. His actions came from anxiety and panic and a lack of self-assurance.
He was taking a business course, teaching, getting caught up in website problems, setting up Facebook ads, trying in vain to learn SEO, and attempting to be present on multiple social media platforms at the same time. With focus outside his core work, and with numerous fires burning, he was suffering overwhelm. He was wholly immersed in the minutiae of every aspect of his business and couldn’t see that his lack of focus was the problem.
It ended up that I was just another source vying for his attention, and as such, there was absolutely nothing I could do for him. He couldn’t hear me. His focus on everything made him master of none. He wasn’t ready or equipped to take on all these elements. As is the case for many other solo creative people, he convinced himself that to be a successful creative person in business; he needed to be everywhere.
Little did David realise that if he only focused on creating his core work to the very best level, and spent less time spread thinly across second rate tasks, then he would have begun to make some progress towards what he wanted. Instead, he went deeper and deeper into the problem and eventually blew his reserves.
I know what it feels like to be in that place. It’s like the world is falling in all around you. Perhaps that’s why it was so clear to me that David was heading for a car crash and there was nothing anyone could do for him. Nobody can talk to you or me out of it; it’s merely impossible. When we’re in panic mode trying desperately to survive, our ability to consider options rationally shuts down. Like a drowning man, they can pull others down. So sometimes the only solution is to get away from them and let them drown.
For David to build a business of one around his art, he, of course, needed to spend time in focus on peripheral tasks. A couple of hours per day marketing and such would have been time well spent, but he placed this secondary work above his core work, and this was a big mistake.
I don’t know where he is today, but I hope he managed to get rid of the distractions enough to create his art and make a few quid. David struggled because he hadn’t applied sufficient narrow focus. He was broadly focused before he was ready, and he made a shallow impact.
“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things”. — Steve Jobs
The Perfect Blend of Narrow & Deep, and Broad & Shallow Focus of Attention
Let’s talk in linear, cause and effect terms. Creative work is so much more than that, I know, but as far as the surface personality is concerned, experience and production of work seems to operate in straight lines. I get up, brush my teeth, make coffee, go to my desk, research, and write (I shower the night before. Why would anyone not shower the night before! — I digress). When I get up from my desk two hours later, I have something meaty. There you go — a linear process or sequence of events.
From that same limited perspective, I purse my goals. I realise I need to focus on my core work for most of the day, so I go deep and narrow. When that’s done, I can do other less essential things that require less intense focus but are nonetheless crucial to the creative work — broad and shallow. Then tomorrow, I repeat some version of that.
This is the process, and I just get on with it. I don’t think the shit out of it and wonder if I’m doing the right thing. I used to, but thankfully not any more. To wonder and question our natural and inherent motivations pours cold water on the fire. So these days, I follow my nose and see what happens. I’ve learned that this is the best form of action.
I have no intention of becoming world-class, at least not for the sake of becoming world-class. I hit the weights and run because I want to be fit, strong and lean. I write because I am drawn to it, and I want to write good stuff, the initial measurement of which is my own. Based on the feedback from readers I will adjust and refine the work.
I also want to be sufficiently proficient to make a reasonable living. If broad recognition comes about, it won’t be so because I intended it. It will come about merely by my engagement in the work out of curiosity and self-interest. The most important thing is that I spend large chunks of my time immersed in my work for its own sake, rather than for what I can get out of it.
Developing a broad understanding of other peripheral skills will benefit me, of course, but I don’t need to know them inside out — besides how could I? It will simply take too much time, and I’ll end up like David, pulled asunder by all these things I need to do.
With my intention set, I will invariably disappoint other people, but I don’t give a fuck, I’m long past that.
If I want to be a marathon runner, then I’ve got to run long distance most of the time and compliment that with lifting weights, stretching, etc. If I want to be a weight lifter, then the odd run will benefit me. If I want to be an artist I’ve got to be an artist and spend most of my time engaged in making art, reading, writing and thinking. As Ray Bradbury famously said;
“Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens”
Marketing people tell us we should spend 20% of our time creating, doing, writing etc., and the other 80% marketing. This might be good advice for people working vacuous bullshit jobs in highly competitive industries, but it is a flawed proposition for the creative.
The only person the genuinely creative mind has to stay true to is themselves, and the only work that really matters is the creative work. My contention, therefore, is that we must dedicate our time, attention and focus to creative work for long periods every day then complement that with other activities.
It is in not knowing where to place our focus or placing it on supplementary activities, in our inability to go deep, we lose effectiveness. We then become slaves to work that yield shitty results. We become scattered and disorganised. And in that, there is unfulfillment, disharmony, and a sense of being lost.
So go deep and narrow in one subject for long periods, then broad and shallow in related disciplines for shorter periods
This I have found is a perfect blend, to at least be happy and content (for a while).
Thanks for taking the time to read my stuff. Every morning you’ll find me sharing a new thought on life, art, work, creativity, the self and the nature of reality on The Reflectionist. I also write on The Creative Mind. If you like what I’m creating, join my email list to receive the weekly Sunday Letters