#27: The Relationship Between Focus And Wisdom 🧠
let’s all become wise sages
It’s been a month since I quit my job and in just the past few weeks, I’ve already become aware of some changes around and within me. It’s not just that I’m learning more about myself, it’s also happening in tighter loops of iteration than I expected. One thing is that I value my time a lot more now. Recently, my friend recommended this show to me and then after I inquired how many seasons there are that I would be committing to, I replied:
Back when I was still working, I relinquished a large chunk of my day to the corporate overlords. My time was not actually mine. My real-life physical actions obeyed my job’s digital calendar. My personal life was only able to slot into openings that my work calendar allowed. I felt like a marionette being manipulated by a puppeteer, but in most cases, it wasn’t my manager or peers who dictated my schedule. It was myself - my corporate evil twin lurking in the shadows. I can’t be the only one guilty of scheduling back-to-back meetings for the sake of efficiency while forgetting that we humans have basic needs that require hydrating and peeing. It’s kinda sad that “Do I have 3 minutes to step outside for a breath of fresh air?” is even a question that exists today.
That lack of agency bled into the rest of my life. I viewed my leisure time with less scrutiny and barely examined whether it was aligned with my beliefs. My non-work time was for recuperating from the stress and mundanity of my job. I felt deprived of a certain level of fulfillment so I sought it out in the form of fancy dinners and more socialization than my introverted self could juggle. While the constant drum of hedonic activities was fun, it was just a temporary bandaid for a chronic illness. I’m not trying to be hyperbolic when I compare the lack of fulfillment to being sick. As a collective society, we shouldn’t accept remaining in unfulfilling jobs as the status quo. I legitimately wonder how many people use meditation apps, have a therapist, or treat themselves to an expensive meal or massage because they’re overworking. Overworking on things they don’t even care about. It wasn’t until recently that I realized if you’re working on things that you truly care about, then you need less time away because there’s less exhaustion to actually recover from.
Having time requires focus
Having more time has only made me value it more. If I had just one hour of free time every day, then I would want to use it wisely, but the opposite is just as true. Waking up every morning with the privilege of a blank canvas comes with the power of immense freedom, but also the ownership of making choices that correspond to your values. Not only do I get to decide what activity to do at any given time, I must also define the specifics. If I’m going to read, what am I going to read? Do I go with Twitter or newsletters or books? If I’m going to write, am I writing for my journal, for this blog, or my climate newsletter? I also need time to think, exercise, hang out with friends, and just chill. How am I supposed to know if I’m using this precious career break wisely?
I’ve been presented with infinite possibilities and am now armed with agency, but also the burden of deciding what to focus on. I feel re-invigorated with ambition to explore my curiosities, but also a sense of urgency because I can literally quantify the thousands of dollars I forego every month for this potentially finite, temporary chapter of my life.
As I started to think about how to spend my time, I realized I need to focus more. After all, reading, writing, and even podcasting all require uninterrupted blocks of deep work. I leveraged habits, frameworks, and even spent money on productivity tools like a website blocker. But as I eventually got into the groove of a routine and became more “productive”, I realized that my definition of focus still left me wrangling unresolved thoughts about whether or not I’m even working on the “right” things. A factory worker who stares at a conveyor belt all day plucking off defective product is really focused, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re thriving. I thought what I needed was more focus, but I was really looking for focus and wisdom.
Wisdom isn’t just for old men with long, white beards
If I tell you to picture someone with wisdom, I bet you’re thinking about someone who’s old, calm, and maybe has a beard. Maybe you’re thinking of one of these guys:
Growing up in the 00’s, I watched The Karate Kid, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, and Harry Potter, modern stories that all follow the hero’s journey. I learned to associate wisdom with these archetypes that kept showing up in one old man or another. With enough time and repeated sightings of these wisdom models, I stopped thinking about wisdom entirely, assuming that this magical suite of insights would naturally enter my life as I gained more experience (and wrinkles).
The dictionary says wisdom is “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment” which correlates with biological age, but now I think the relationship is weaker than we think. It wasn’t until recently when I came across a new frame of wisdom that I revisited “wisdom” for the first time in many years.
Tom Morgan says his favorite definition of wisdom is “knowing what information is important”.
Wisdom is knowing what to do at the right time. If you have a very accurate map of your environment, you can act decisively & correctly. Evolution rewards wisdom. So it correlates with flourishing, happiness, connectedness & meaning
It feels great.
In contrast, anxiety is having no idea what to do, or the right time to do it. This means you burn huge amounts of energy pursuing things that don’t matter. Evolution obviously selects against this trait.
So it feels awful. -Tom Morgan
When I first read this, I realized okay, maybe wisdom isn’t just for old, saggy, bearded men. I sought out this mystical wisdom after being introduced to the positioning of wisdom and anxiety as polar opposites. After all, no one wants to be anxious.
Cognitive psychology professor John Vervaeke uses a similar term relevance realization:
“The ability to ignore vast numbers of options (hopefully poor ones) and focus on a small set of potentially fruitful ones.”
Why is this especially important today? According to Tom in The Idea of the Year:
We are now allegedly exposed to more information in a single day than someone in the 15th century would experience in their entire lifetime. But our moment-to-moment processing power hasn’t changed. Poor relevance realization is like trying to use the internet without a search engine. We’d be hopelessly lost in an ocean of information. Wasting massive amounts of energy and attention on irrelevant things is a recipe for anxiety, or worse. …. So how do we know where to focus our attention across the infinitely complex landscape of our entire lives? The short answer is: where our environment tells us to focus.
The generation and distribution of information has rapidly outpaced our biological capabilities. We’re living in an era of infinite optionality, but are physiologically the same as our primitive ancestors. Our brains haven’t adapted to YouTube, TikTok, and especially those 4D movies where the seats move and water gets shot at your face.
I had already listened to the Tim Ferris podcast with lion tracker Boyd Varty, so I was pleasantly surprised to see it reappear in the same article on wisdom:
The idea that there is information in your life, if you are looking for transformation, but you have to teach yourself to attune to it. And so, what do you need to attune to in transformational processes? Things that make you feel expansive, things that make you feel alive, letting go of your rational idea of what you should do and noticing what you move towards. Noticing what you’re curious about, noticing the people who energize you, the activities that make you feel more alive.
- Boyd Varty
Counterintuitively, the way to figure out what to focus on is by zooming out, being maximally open, and letting things naturally flow. There is no perfect balance or step-by-recipe to follow. From reading about the explore vs. exploit tradeoff repeatedly in different packaging, I think most of us could use a bit more exploration, especially early on.
Wisdom is applied knowledge. Having information is not enough. You also need to know what to do with it. If acceleration is the derivative of velocity, then wisdom is the derivative of focus. Are you focused on the right things to focus on? I know, pretty meta.
The Aperture of Focus
As Meek Mill would say, there’s levels to this. Now that I’ve leapt off a cliff into unemployment, I’m forced to confront deep topics like “what do I want in life?” and “who am I?” There’s no more steady paycheck and calendar of back-to-back meetings to dull the senses and sedate my consciousness. I’ve started to dial in my awareness, figure out who I enjoy being around, and better understand myself. Depending on the aperture, the lens of focus resembles wisdom, intuition, or mindfulness.
Learning to say no
I sense that I’m still overcommitted at this point and could use more slack in the system. Back in April last year, I felt lost and was planning to travel for a year and just hope that I’d figure it out. It felt like I was treading water in the ocean and lunging at anything that resembled a buoy. I was in default-yes mode. If a friend invited me to hang out, I would first tell them I’m down and only after figure out the logistics of whether I could actually make it. If someone recommended any book, article, or podcast, I’d consume it without second thought. I’ve had to do a complete 180 and switch into default-no mode which I’m still getting used to. Saying no is an act of self-respect. It’s not only valuing your time, but also other people’s time because if you’re only half-interested then only half of yourself will show up.
In The Ultimate Productivity Hack is Saying No, James Clear pulls together some wisdom on saying no:
If you don’t guard your time, people will steal it from you. - Pedro Sorrentino
Saying no is so powerful because it preserves the opportunity to say yes.
- Brent Beshore
Every time we say yes to a request, we are also saying no to anything else we might accomplish with the time. - Tim Harford
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. - Steve Jobs
One trick is to ask, “If I had to do this today, would I agree to it?” It’s not a bad rule of thumb, since any future commitment, no matter how far away it might be, will eventually become an imminent problem. - Tim Harford
There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all. - Peter Drucker
Focus means giving up on trying to be cool
As kids, the definition of “cool” was well-defined. New basketball shoes, whipping out your Lunchables at the school field trip, getting the Nintendo Wii before everyone else. Those things were cool because there was consensus. As we get older, we diverge as individuals while our set of interests narrows. What society thinks is cool is an average of what the aggregate deems is interesting and important, but as you focus on your craft, you stop trying to appeal to the masses. Focus means doing things you like which doesn’t always equal what everyone else likes.
Giving in to your obsession means surrendering most of the commonalities you have with the world around you. - intensity by Isabel
As I was thinking about focus and wisdom, I thought maybe people would picture me holed up in a countryside cottage surrounded by dusty books on philosophy. In reality, I spent yesterday celebrating a friend’s birthday at an OG Chinese restaurant in San Francisco with 15 people sitting around a spinning wheel covered with a ton of dishes. Then we mobbed to our table at the club and stayed until the 2am closing.
“Wisdom is knowing what to do at the right time.” Last night I was focused on having fun and celebrating my friend. This morning I’m focused on writing about focus. I’m not sure if I can actually justify going out and drinking by saying it’s because I’m seeking wisdom but here we are. May we all focus a bit more in 2023, whether it’s enjoying a late night out or writing about deep topics like wisdom.
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So true, Matt! I am also valuing my time much more now that I have more of it. Free time has always been finite but, as you say, we did not have agency over it.
I have also noticed that I embrace much more experimenting and taking action rather than thinking and planning. For better or worse that's how the independent me wants to live :-)
Great read, thanks for sharing