Focus is a Fortune Cookie
How to use oddly shaped mirrors
This piece is part of a learning loop on Henrik Karlsson’s essay “Almost everyone I’ve met would be well-served thinking more about what to focus on.” Read how learning loops work here.
The humble fortune cookie achieves a seemingly impossible feat — it can be applicable to anyone on earth, yet simultaneously surprising and at times profoundly useful. An oddly shaped mirror requires only attention to help us see ourselves in entirely new ways.
There are many similar vehicles for self exploration — horoscopes, tarot cards, etc — that cannot be falsified but can still bring us to our knees. And just to get ahead of whatever side you’re on scientifically behind these phenomena, it does not matter for my point whether there is science behind them or not. The point is that they work if you believe they work, and they don’t if you don’t.
In that sense, the cult of focus is a fortune cookie. It explains why we all feel so seen when we inevitably consume information on focus every year at about this time. That was my motivation for reviewing Henrik Karlsson’s piece on focus. Not to critique the finer points, which are well put and worth investigating, but just because it’s useful to be aware of the topics that have fortune cookie effects on us.
Henrik’s mental model for focus is a good one — where life is a multi-armed bandit where we explore many paths before choosing the best one to exploit (aka go down). It also explains my point. He argues (correctly) that some of us may err on the side of exploring too long or exploiting too early:
“People tend to gravitate to different sides of the explore/exploit spectrum. If you are high on openness, like I am, exploring comes easy. But it is harder to make a commitment and exploit what you’ve learned about yourself and the world. Other people are more committed, but risk being too conventional in their choices.”
And yet no matter whether you are a natural explorer or a natural exploiter, the advice to “focus more” will apply. If you explore too much, you need to focus on committing more deeply to one or a few promising paths. If you exploit too early, you need to focus on how to encourage more exploration.
So it’s not that the literature on focus isn’t interesting (I’ve written a piece of my own about the wrong kind of focus) or you shouldn’t try to find more focus. It is and you should! But given that focus is sort of a circular thing, a fortune cookie for our minds, it’s worth noting how we interpret those types of things — as whatever we want them to be. And so if at any point the search makes us feel bad or doesn’t seem useful, we should remember … it’s just a cookie.
I’ll leave you with the question of “if focus itself is circular, what is upstream of focus?” which might help as you do your own self-exploration.
P.S. the point of this piece wasn’t to discuss my own take on focus, but in general I’m a big believer in focusing on how we work rather than what we work on. It’s an inputs vs outputs sort of thing.
Thanks to those of you who sent me thoughts on this over the past week! If you enjoyed this learning loop — I’d love to hear from you. And better yet, send me something great I can include in the next one.
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