✍Journal: Reflections on Patience, Perspective, and Meaning
Jerry Seinfeld: "You must master waiting. 'Show's gonna be delayed a half hour.' Fine. Plane's gonna be delayed two hours. Fine. Career's gonna be delayed five years, Fine."
In today’s journal I want to reflect on a few important ideas and share an alternative take on finding meaning than the one I presented in my piece on focus and finding your life’s work.
Also, my post on three years of writing generated lots of discussion and this felt like a good time for a first ‘ask me anything’. If you’re a subscriber and have any more questions for me (or would like to share ways in which you’ve reflected on your own life or made changes), drop them in the comments.
Writing is a funny thing. It is a practice of observation, of trying to see the world clearly and finding little kernels of truth in a vast library of mental notes. And it is entirely possible to find one of these nuggets and fail at applying its lessons. Seeing and doing are not the same.
For example, writing requires patience. You’re knee deep in the river of your own awareness, sifting for gold. Sometimes you lift your pan all day (all week, all month!) and stare at nothing but gravel. Jerry Seinfeld once talked about this on 60 Minutes. “You must master waiting, as a comedian,” he explained. “They go, 'The show's gonna be delayed a half hour,' you just go 'fine'. 'The plane's gonna be delayed two hours,' fine. 'Career is gonna be delayed five years,' fine.” The price of doing something you love is to give up your illusion of control.
But knowing and acting like it are not the same. I can listen to Seinfeld and still find myself with moments full of impatience.
A week ago, I joined some friends for a weekend in upstate New York. The plan was to rest, relax, and explore the forest. Or was it?
I arrived with a backpack stuffed with my laptop, several journals, and two books. In other words, some part of me was not ready to rest at all. This part of me wants to be productive, active, and to get things done. It wants success now. It’s restless and impatient.
I resisted the urge to work and at the end of the first day, I journaled: “Look how hard it was for you to do nothing for just one day.” And, honestly, even that day of ‘doing nothing’ was filled with a collection of many somethings that satisfied the urge to feel productive — exploring the forest, conversation, cooking, playing instruments.
Immediately after publishing my piece on the importance of focus, I was falling for distraction.
Nir Eyal, author of the book Indistractable, argues that we need to rethink the sources of distractions. We attribute much of it to external triggers, the “pings, dings, and rings”. Not so fast! Instead, he points to internal triggers, namely our urge to avoid “uncomfortable emotional states” such as “boredom, loneliness, fatigue, stress, anxiety.”
Fundamentally, distraction is always an unhealthy response to an emotional trigger, to something that we don't like to feel. You are always going to get distracted from something unless you understand what is that uncomfortable sensation you are trying to escape. — Nir Eyal, Talks at Google
Well, there is a downside to the idea of macro focus and “finding your life’s work.” It can create lots of anxiety.
What if you haven’t found it yet (and wonder if you ever will)? Anxiety. What if you find it later in life (like Shelby Davis) and remember how Charlie Munger talked about Buffett’s success.
“Buffett’s decision to limit his activities to a few kinds and to maximize his attention to them, and to keep doing so for 50 years, was a lollapalooza.”
According to Munger, Buffett succeeded because he played the same game obsessively over a long period of time. His rate of improvement simply exceeded that of other players. How could you ever catch up with someone like that? You can’t (not at the specific game they play).
Or what if you had barely a taste of doing what you love but you are stuck in a different career, carrying your fair share of obligations? What if every day feels like you are falling behind because you’re not doing the thing you’re supposed to do?
I lived that feeling for more than a decade. I was getting paid well, but deep inside I knew that crunching numbers was not my path and eventually I would have to face up to my reality.
Back then, being alone with my thoughts could be uncomfortable territory. It was a dark forest in which goblins of existential Angst could lurk behind any given tree. Still wasting your life, lone wanderer? Being busy, doing something, anything, was a soothing distraction.
Needless to say, this mindset is a trap. But it shows how an obsession with macro focus can affect your micro focus. Eyal believes that understanding the emotional sources of distraction is the “most important and first critical step” to become indistractable. “If we don't understand the source,” he explains, “we will always try and escape it.” And pointing at the external “pings, dings, and rings,” as I did in my piece on focus, misses a chance to find the roots and better understand ourselves.
Today, I want to explore a few ideas that can help us regain perspective and find the calm and courage that can help restore focus.
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