Letters to my sons

A collection of thoughts and lessons I've learned along the way for my little men, and anyone else that's interested.

Posts tagged with #Focus

My sons,

Today I want to talk about one of the most dangerous phrases in the English language. Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? I assure you that the phrase itself is indeed very powerful, and is also incredibly common. It is a phrase as old as time, and has been uttered by kings and peasants, rich and poor, young and old, the educated and the ignorant, even the wise and the foolish. It is a phrase that does not discriminate against any measurable external trait, but rather is a strong indicator of the internal human condition. It is the phrase, “if only”.

You’ve heard it before, and may have even said it to yourself a time or two.

“If only I was smarter, or taller, or better looking.
If only I had more money, or more friends.
If only she still loved me.
If only I paid more attention in class.
If only he didn’t mock me.
If only they had let me into their club.”

This phrase is dangerous not because of anything it conveys, but rather because of the mindset it exposes. It is such a seemingly harmless phrase, yet it expresses so much of the underlying internal condition. And as with all habits, if left unattended, it will change our character and will permanently impact the way we approach the world. Several negative ramifications we should be wary of:

WE DWELL IN THE PAST

If we look carefully, the words immediately following the “if only” are almost always anchored in the past. If only someone hadn’t wronged you, if only you had a better teammate, or if only you had chosen differently. Even the future sounding cues are really anchored in the past! If only she would take more initiative, if only he would be more kind. While those may sound forward looking, they aren’t! If only she took more initiative implies that she didn’t in the past!

The down side of dwelling in the past is that it’s just that - the past. We cannot move life forward when we have our gaze fixed on the past. Life is designed to be forward moving. We are meant to grow, to progress. It’s wired into the very fabric of our being! Every living thing is designed to move forward. The circle of life doesn’t go backwards! It is ever forward moving, and though it is cyclic, it does not run in the reverse direction.

You cannot move forward if you are fixated on the past.

WE FOCUS ON THE NEGATIVE

If only statements are generally negative. They point towards something that we wish didn’t happen, some event that we wish had gone differently, some regrettable circumstance that may have been thrust upon us. Human nature already fixates on the negative. A single traumatic event is often enough to have us spending a lifetime avoiding that same situation again.

This is a survival instinct that helped humanity tens of thousands of years ago cope with its environment. While modern advancements in research, in categorization, and in education have allowed us to understand much of our planet, this was not always so. Our ancestors could not point their smartphone camera at some plant and have Google tell you type of plant it is along with nutritional information, whether it has any medicinal properties, and how to pair it with other ingredients to turn it into an amazing salad. No, mankind of old learned things the hard way and avoided things it did not know; especially if it had a negative or painful experience.

We no longer live in that world, and yet our instinct of emphasis on traumatic events still remains. Journalists capitalize on this fact. The news is centered on the dramatic, the traumatic, and the negative. We don’t need more negativity; in fact, we need much more of the opposite. The world is not as bad as it seems, and things are getting much better! But we are not wired to see that, and so must fight against things that focus our attention on the negative.

WE DON’T TAKE RESPONSIBILITY

If only such and such a thing happened, then the result would have been much better. If only my team was better, then we would have won. If only mom cooked better, then I would have healthier eating habits.

These statements all push the burden of responsibility off of ourselves; we shift the blame to the thing that didn’t happen instead of acknowledging our own culpability in the matter. It is no longer our fault! If the other person had done better, or if the referee had not singled me out, or if she didn’t have it out for me from day one, then things would have been different and I would have had a more desirable outcome.

• • •


My sons, do not believe those lies. Do not focus on the negative events of the past, placing blame and judgement on others. Rather set your mind on the future; look forward for the next things that will come, and be hopeful for that future! Yes, there may be pain and suffering, but there will also be joy! Laughter! Beauty, love, romance, and new shared experiences! These are what we live for and look forward to. I pray you fix your eyes on those things and not the failings of the past. Acknowledge the past, take responsibility, learn from your mistakes, then move on, move forward.

I love you boys, and am so proud and happy to be able to move life forward with you!


My sons,

Much has been said about time management and how it impacts our productivity. There is a plethora of books on the topic by a variety of experts and researchers. There are blogs and life hacks written to help you categorically improve your productivity by tweaking a few things or by buying into some concept or movement. There is nothing for me to add to those volumes except to say that I believe time management is but a plan that one formulates. There remains the question of executing said plan.

Enter focus.

Focus is not merely the act of fixing one’s gaze on something, although it does begin there. No, focus is much more than that. It is the channeling of one’s power, the amalgamating of one’s energy, the collecting of one’s senses that, once collected, are brought to bear on the object of one’s gaze. It is the culmination and application of a disciplined life, of a mind that has endeavored to command the body. It is the single most important and impactful force in the world.

Focus is a multiplier on human impact. It is a force that when honed and deliberately practiced will multiply every endeavor you undertake. It has no boundaries and does not discriminate against its area of application. It is a skill, a tool that can be applied to the loftiest of aims or the deadliest of schemes. And it can be learned, trained, and grown.

Every human has the ability to apply focus, and almost certainly has at some point in their life. Each of us has undoubtedly experienced some situation that set off our body’s fight or flight response. In those situations, our body naturally focuses in on the perceived threat. It blocks out unnecessary noise and becomes tunnel visioned on the immediate danger, even blocking out our rational thought if it is not trained to handle the situation.

Short of constantly putting ourselves in life threatening scenarios, how do we build and develop more focus? How does one learn to harness its power and apply it to suit our needs and aid in our endeavors?

DREAM BIG

Often the biggest enemy of focus is distraction. Distractions are all around us. People will very often attempt to remedy this by either removing the distractions or by removing themselves from the distracting environment. While this is not at all a bad strategy, it is insufficient. There will be many times in our lives where we will need to harness the full power of our focus but will be unable to control or modify the environment to remove the distractions.

When we dream big, we create a large distance between the grand, epic vision and the small, often unimportant distractions. When our gate is fixed on something grand and inspiring, the little things that distract us lose their power over us.

PRACTICE

Focus is a skill. Like every other skill, it can be learned, cultivated, and improved. And like every other skill, the way to do this is to practice.

Start small. Be deliberate. Just as you would set aside time to practice your piano, your curve ball, or your speech, set aside time to practice focusing.

Pick something you don’t want to do, that you would naturally procrastinate on. Pick a reasonable interval (say 5 minutes). Use a timer. Then go. And repeat. A lot.

MAKE IT A HABIT

It is said that the journey of a thousand steps begins with a single step. Profoundly simple, the idea here is that we need to start small. We apply this principle to building habits - start small, start with a single step. In doing so, we create small wins that allow us to continue our journey and to take on bigger things.

Focus on something small, for a short period of time. Make it a habit, and presently you’ll discover that your threshold of focus has greatly expanded.

• • •


If one reasonable measure of a life is the impact it has had on others and on our world, then surely force multipliers like focus are important tools for us to pick up along the way. My hope for you boys is that you fix your gaze on the unseen things in this world and stay steadfast, focused on the things that help others and help to make the world a better place.


My sons,

Someone once said that the true measure of a life is how much of it is given away. I’m not sure if that’s the only measure, but it’s certainly a very noble one, and is one worth considering.

While the argument can be made (and certainly has been) that those in fortunate positions ought to be generous with what they’ve got, I want to go further and suggest that we remove the precondition. People ought to be generous with what they’ve got, regardless of their station in life. There are the obvious altruistic reasons for this, but it turns out there are a lot of benefits for the generous individual as well.

Focus on others

Being generous causes us to think of others. It takes our eyes off ourselves and instead allows us to consider someone else, to consider their needs, to consider how to help move their lives forward. By thinking of others and pouring into their lives, we necessarily need to know how and what to pour in; requirements that can only be fulfilled by us shifting our gaze from ourselves onto others.

Growth mindset

Whether we’re giving time, resources, or our energy, generosity naturally fosters a growth mindset. We pour into others to help them grow, to help them be filled, and to move their lives forward towards fulfillment. And with any habit, the more we practice this, the more our brains will be rewired towards that mindset.

Perspective

Have you ever noticed that the happiest people you know are also the most generous? They may not be the richest people, the smartest, or the ones with the most time and uncomplicated life, but they are generally quite generous with whatever resource it is that they’ve got. No matter their station or circumstance, I’m willing to bet that when you enumerate those in your life that you know of that are truly happy, they’re also very generous with anything and everything that they’ve got.

This isn’t an accident. The more generous a person is, the more perspective on life they get. Because generosity requires us to pour into people, requires us to loosen the hold on the things that are ours, and requires us to consider others, we see things from a different vantage point. We view ourselves against the backdrop of humanity on a whole and are able to get a glimpse of the big picture. And that’s a very humbling experience. When we see ourselves on the canvas of the world painted on the timeline of history, we realize that while our individual part is incredibly significant and meaningful, we are but a small part of a much more important whole.

And so I urge the two of you to view yourselves on that canvas, and to see the role that you can play as a part of the bigger picture. In being generous, not only do you sharpen your view of yourself and of the world, but you see the movement and growth of the world that you can play a bigger part in. Our generosity allows the world to move forward, to heal, to rebuild, to refine, and to redefine. And those are all beautiful things worth giving our lives for.


My son,

Something in life that’s very difficult to balance well is risk against comfort. While these are often at odds with one another as many other things are, these two have the power to completely shape a life. Comfort can be a place of healing, of relaxation, of rejuvenation and recovery. Risk can be a place of trial, of hardship, of overcoming, of victory and growth.

Both of these in moderation can be great things, and finding a strong balance between the two is difficult. To top that off, there are many different philosophies and beliefs as to what the right balance is, and undoubtedly you have friends and acquaintances that will strike different balances and may even entice you to share their view.

I urge you to strike a balance that leans towards a risk and growth mindset.

Now, I’m not saying that comfort, rejuvenation, and relaxation are bad things; rather, I’m saying that those things reduce momentum and lower movement. There are certainly times in life where lowering movement and being still are exactly the right things to do. But those times shouldn’t be as often as our times of movement.

Life is a constant refinement; we were made to grow, to move life forward, to progress and advance our world. One cannot do that without motion.

And so I challenge you to keep moving. Let your default be to move, to risk, to take action, to grow. Know that inertia is hard to overcome. Know that comfort has many vices and becomes easier the more we seek it and stay in its embrace. Know that you are not a finished product, that the potter has much molding to do, much refinement to make. And know that I will cheer you on, in whatever race you’re running, along whatever path you find yourself on.


My son,

We live in a time when the amount of information that’s available out there is enormous. The information age is in full swing, and we’re generating data at an astronomical rate. Gartner has forecasted that the sheer volume of information that will be generated in a single year in 2020 will be four times the amount of information accumilated from the dawn of the internet to our present day.

By 2020, we’re also expected to surpass one trillion devices in the world that are connected and generating raw information for someone to consume. For a world population of 7 billion or so, that’s an astronomical amount of devices.

So why am I bringing this up? Because the average person will be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the stream of noisy information that they get, and it will become critical for you to know how to turn that information into insight that you can act on.

As with everything in life that’s worth doing, this takes practice. There’s no substitute for raw hours put in to refine your craft and your abilities. So practice. Be diligent about consciously tuning out the noise and filtering out what you need to hear.

Next, know what you’re looking for. Know what you need from each information stream and don’t get drawn in to the distractions. Remember that much of the content that’s out there is made to distract, to entertain. Isn’t it strange that when something doesn’t have actual value, we say it has entertainment value?

Lastly, tell stories. Each new insight that you take in should sharpen your narrative and provide clarity to the story you’re telling. Make sure it does that, and make sure you tell each updated version of your story often.

Because at the end of the day, the most valuable thing we’ll be able to add to this world’s story is our own.


My son,

I love the end of the year, because it's a natural time for us to wind down, to think back on the events of the year, and to think ahead of the year to come. It's a good time to reflect on how the year has gone, to examine the goals that we had laid out for the year, and to evaluate how far we've come. It's also a good time to look forward to the year ahead, to set some goals for where we'd like to go, and to it back and look at the big picture.

As you know by now, I love to think about things as they ought to be, and how I can play a part in facilitating that. That naturally translates into a combination of introspection and visioning.

Introspection.

In order to know the role that I can play, I've got to understand myself, and need to know my strengths and my weaknesses. I've got to assess where I've come, how my choices this year have panned out, and determine how I can improve on the character traits that I'm working on.

Visioning.

In order to know the role that I should play, I've got to understand the big picture, and need to know given my capabilities what I can do to advance that picture. No matter how small my impact, I've got to be constantly looking ahead towards the goal that I'm called to play, and understand how that fits in to the whole.

My hope is that you'll take time - whether it's now at the end of the year like I do, or some other time that you set aside for yourself - to think back on where you've come, evaluate how you've gotten here, and look forward to what's ahead. I firmly believe you've got a great part to play in his-story, and can't wait to run along there with you!


My son,

I love speed. You know this. But every so often, life needs a speed check.

Don't get me wrong - speed is great. It's exhilarating. It's adrenaline-inducing. It's memory-making.

But there comes a time when you need to slow down and take special care to the details that you might miss at high speeds. Here's why.

  1. Speed requires you to be looking forward always - since things come so quickly at you, you need to be focused on what's ahead to make sure you don't slam into a wall. And this is a great thing - focus enables us to do great things. It gives us purpose, gives us goals, gives us a drive to continue onward. But it also makes the things not in front of us relegated to our peripheral vision only.
  2. Speed requires you to act on instinct and intuition. Again, this can be a great thing - if we know the path ahead and are sure footed, this isn't a problem. But when the road becomes less clear and the path less obvious, speed gives us less time to react and adjust.
  3. Speed dulls your other senses, and you can get tunnel vision.

While all of those things aren't bad in themselves, life is about balance. Sometimes you have to slow down in order to see clearly. Sometimes, you need to take in all that's around you, examine the details, and see the hidden beauty in the things that are all around.

Remember that life isn't just about having a singular goal, even though at times those may be there. Life is about more than that - it's about the journey, about the people that are with you, about the small unexpected circumstances that you may find yourself in. It's about the small shared moments of disappointment. It's about the shared experience of comfort. It's about walking together through struggles. It's about celebrating together through victories. It's about making the most out of every moment that you've got, and sometimes, sometimes, you need to slow down to notice those things.


My son,

I love being inspired.

One of the most inspiring things is witnessing the things man can accomplish. Watching a painter pour their soul onto their canvas, experiencing for the first time a new piece reflecting a musician's inner turmoil, reading a short story written to celebrate life's great virtues, or walking into the great architecture of the ages built as places of worship or safekeeping - all of these things inspire me to be better, to reach higher, and to aim for the stars.

It's a beautiful thing about life, this ability to create. We are all created beings, created in the image of God, in His likeness. That means we have God's spark in us, and with that spark comes the ability for us as created beings to in turn create. Now, obviously we don't have God's omnipotence, so we can't make something from nothing, but we have a glimpse of his creativity and imagination, and can in our own way create beauty where there was none before.

Whether it’s taking a year to write your own symphony or taking an hour to paint a sunset, I believe that something within us pulses stronger when we create. It is in that moment, that space where we forget about the world, abandon its distractions, and focus solely on the object of our creation that we are elevated from the temporary into the timeless. We see the world from another angle; we gain a new perspective, and with new perspective comes new understanding.

Have you ever noticed how things of great beauty are often epic and awesome in nature? Sunsets, canyons, monuments, masterpieces, mountaintops - all of these things are vast in their being, and bring us to a place of awe and wonder.

I believe that the wonder we feel is the creator in us resonating with the creation we're experiencing.

And so with that, I'll leave you with a challenge. Create! Build, paint, compose, craft; express the experiences, thoughts, and dreams that are uniquely you. Because you are beautifully and wonderfully made.


My son,

There are many virtues that great men of necessity have and strive for, but at the top of that list is Integrity. No matter what sphere in life you think of; sports, friendships, academics, politics, or your professional career, integrity is extremely valued. So what is it?

Integrity is the ability to stand by an idea.

It is the ability to stick to your guns, to stay upright in the face of adversity and not waver. It is the ability to say come hell or high water, I will hold fast to my convictions and stand my ground.

In construction, the term integrity is used to describe the wholeness of the object. When an object's structural integrity has been breached, it is no longer whole and can no longer perform its function, and needs to be repaired or replaced. It is prone to damage, and can no longer withstand the loads and impacts that it was created for.

So too is man.

When a man maintains his integrity, he is able to continue performing the functions that he was created for. He can fulfill his God-given purpose, and can reach the paragon of virtue that he was designed for. But when his integrity is compromised, he becomes incomplete, not whole. He is no longer able to withstand the forces, impacts, and influences that he was designed to overcome. He must be repaired.

Nothing in life is harder to repair than trust and integrity. Once lost, the damage man can cause may be permanent, unable to be rectified. By God's grace the man may be repaired, but his actions may have irreversibly negative and lasting impact. One can spend a lifetime trying to repair the damage and never fully succeed.

There comes a time in every man's life where he is tested. He is put to the fire, and is forced to decide what kind of man he is, and more importantly what kind of man he will be. When that time comes, I pray that you will have the strength rooted in a firm foundation to stay strong and resolute in your beliefs.


My son,

Recently, I took the opportunity to look back on some of the key moments of my life, and realized that while each of those moments was vastly different, there was one thing in common across all of them - I went big. I threw caution, fear, hesitation, and laziness all to the wind and went all out. I gave it my all, and the result was that I got it all right back.

If I haven't yet, bug me to tell you about my 30th birthday party, about proposing to your mom, about my bike trips around America, or about a hundred other stories from my college days. The common thread across all of them? We put all that we had into those experiences, and were rewarded because of it.

Now, I'm not saying that every adventure has to take months of preparation, weeks of practice, or days of concerted thought and effort. Rather, I'm encouraging you remember that time is the only resource in this life that we'll never get back, and to make the most of that time. When you go big with your time, you'll make lasting memories that'll span your lifetime.

So I urge you to go and wait in line for 3 hours with your best friend for the latest release of Halo, or to go and plan a big surprise for your mother's next big birthday. Go and plan a world trip with your friends, or take a spontaneous day off to try something really new.

Whatever you do, I guarantee you that if you go big, even if you flame out big, you'll build a memory that will last you a lifetime, and will make a great story for you to tell your children too.


My son,

By now, I'm sure you've heard many slogans and jingles about how short life is, and may have even come to terms with that notion yourself in your experiences. I love the timeless sentiment from Robin Williams:

But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? Carpe diem. Seize the day boys. Make your lives extraordinary

I love that word he chose, "legacy". Listen to the legacy of those who have gone ahead of us. And what is that legacy? To seize the day, to make the most of the days that you have, to aim to live an extraordinary life.

Extraordinary, in this sense, is not a judgment of value upon the life or the series of actions that make up that life; rather, it is merely a description of those actions. Extra, meaning "outside of", the ordinary. The charge is to live a life that is different, that takes chances, that strives to be more than what society funnels us to be. Like we talked about last time, Be a first-rate version of you.

The phrase Carpe Diem goes slightly further, and suggests not only to be the best you that you can be, but to make that you something unique, something unexpected, something different than the well-trodden path that the world tries to impose on you. Set your heart and your mind on being extra-ordinary.

This concept of choosing your own path is really part of your namesake. Maverick means one that doesn't conform to society, but chooses one's own path. Romans 12:1-2 speaks also of not conforming to the patterns of this world, but being transformed by the renewing of your mind so that you can determine, test, and approve God's will for your life.

That, ultimately, is the prayer that your mom and I have for your life - that you will intentionally choose your path, and that it will be a God-pleasing path. Seize the day, and encourage others to do the same.


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