Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Focus Word

Every now and then a word pops into my life that represents a virtue that I truly respect in others and try to model in myself.  It becomes the highest virtue that I acknowledge, the greatest compliment that I can give at that time.

I steep this word within me: as it rests in my vessel, it permeates who I am with its flavor. 

I swaddle myself in this word: it rests between me and the world; all of the world's forces come to me through it and it warms me from the cold. 

I wear this word as an outfit: at first it may seem rakish and uncomfortable, not fitting, it's not yet tailored to who I am, but eventually it takes on my form and appears less of a costume and more as a fitting strength--how I wear it is changing, I become comfortable with it.  This takes time.

Of course, it is not really the word that I choose, but the virtue that it represents.  Still, words do have power (discussion on this coming soon), and focusing on a word like a mantra brings that virtue to you.  Maybe it is because it focuses the mind, maybe it puts the thoughts magically out into the universe, maybe it just makes you aware of opportunity; whatever the mechanism, it is a useful tool.

Power of a focus
“Always remember, your focus determines your reality.” - Qui-Gon to Anakin, Star Wars Episode I (I lifted this quote from the Zen Habits blog post on "The Magical Power of Focus ".)

Having a focus has been shown time and time again to make it easier to hit goals and make life more enjoyable and meaningful.  Better results just seem to show up.  Having a focus is a benefit in all areas of life, whether this is in business, in sports/fitness, or in another field.

Having a solitary focus is relatively new for me; it began as professional guidance a few years ago.
  For much of my life, I would tend to focus on three things at a time, thinking that I had sufficiently narrowed it down to the magic number 3.  Then along came a manager at work.  In my performance reviews, he did a magical thing.  He gave me one word (just 1!) to focus on at each review, to work on for the next half year.  Sometimes his word was one of the three things that I had written on my review.  Sometimes it was a blind spot that I didn't know about.  Even if I never learned anything else from that boss, the lesson of a solitary focus was a very potent gift from him, for which I will be forever grateful.  And each six months, I picked up a new virtue through focus on it.  If I were to try to focus on three things, it would likely take me two years to really nail them all, that is if I did manage to make progress - instead I could pick up three things in a year and a half.  This was definitely more efficient over the long run.  The words that he gave me to work on in turn were "consistency", "efficiency", and "predictability". 

Since then, I've naturally adopted a similar practice for myself.  I focus on a single word at a time; however, my process is a lot less deliberate (more on that below).  My most recent three foci are "earnest" (any part of speech will do, not merely nouns), then "compassion", and now "authenticity".

Of course, picking a fitting focus can be a challenge.  It is quite possible to accidentally pick a goal that is short-sighted or not the intended aim.  Marshall Goldsmith talks about this danger in his post Mission or Goal (also from his book What Got You Here Won't Get You There):

In the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai, the main character, Colonel Nicholson, is a prisoner of war in Burma who leads his men to build a bridge for his Japanese captors. Nicholson is an officer of high integrity, dedicated to excellence, a great leader of people - and thus well trained to complete any mission that he is given. / So he skillfully inspires his men to build a near-perfect bridge. By the film’s end, he finds himself in the painful position of defending the bridge from attack by fellow British officers who want to destroy it - to prevent Japanese trains from using it. / There’s a chilling moment of realization, right before the bridge is detonated, when Nicholson (played by Alec Guinness) utters the famous line, “What have I done?” He was so focused on his goal - building the bridge - that he forgot his larger mission - winning the war!

Perhaps going to war was not even the best way to meet that higher purpose.  It really requires a lot of insight and introspection to set the right goals.

How I choose a focus word

I'm not really sure where these words come from, or why they rise out of all of the possible choices of virtues in which to focus, but they do and I go with that.  It is not a deliberate process where I sit down with a dictionary, talk with a guru, or pull out some revered text.  My current word is authentic (possibly the subject of a future post), which I find fitting.  When the word rises out of my unbidden--at least as far as I know--it feels authentic to give that word a proper place of respect and focus.  There's no real set amount of time that a new word takes over in my life, but they seem to fit for 6 months of so.  It's clearly not set by an arbitrary calendar.  There's a flip side to this, since I don't really know where the word comes from in me or why it takes on such shape, it is quite possible that I have been primed deeply by society or inauthentic forces.  My approach to this is to acknowledge that it may be the case and allow for exploration of this if it arises, without over-thinking it.  How do I recognize it?  I don't know.  I'm sure that there are some false positives that I later realize are not the true focuses, that I'm really still on the previous word.

Actually, this happened to me a bit during the last word compassion.  I kept thinking that I was adopting other words like love, loving-kindness, and empathy only to realize later that these were facets of compassion and helping me explore this gem from all sides, rather than taking the prize position.

This time around, the word had heralds.  Lately I have been bandying about the terms "sincerity", "genuine", "true", "real" and other similar terms.  "Authenticity" came up in my first discussion with a new mentor.  The word authenticity is really the one that I was being prepared for.  Authenticity came to devour my world.

There's something to be said about being deliberate in the choice, too.  There are likely some great techniques for picking out a focus, maybe I'll explore this at some time in the future. For now, I'll leave a link to the The Magical Power of Focus on the Zen Habits blog, which covers the topic some.

Make it stick
My friend's mother had an annual tradition of bringing a word in and kicking a word out.  She'd pick something to leave behind in the past year, then she'd put the written word on a little boat that she'd launch ablaze on the water.  She'd watch it be consumed in fire, then sputter, fizzle, and die as it was snuffed out of her life.  She would also pick a new word to bring into her life for the new year.  It is very effective to replace the old with a new, as supported empirically in psychological studies.  The best known way to rid oneself of an old habit is to replace it with a new one, as Azrin and Nunn demonstrated in Habit Control in a Day--"It is a clinically tested method for stopping ... nervous habits. They obtained 90% reduction in the habit the first day and 95% reduction within the first week and 99% within a month." (Dr. Clay Tucker-Ladd's Psychological Self-Help, Chapter 4)

Going through a ritual such as burning the effigized out-word may not be to your style, though there's a lot of significance to ritual.  Gaelen Billingsley writes: "Ritual speaks to older and deeper parts of the brain, feeding the unconscious the food of mystery, and authentic human connection. Ritual also helps us communicate with the more creative, less verbal, right hemisphere of the brain, accessing vital creative energy, ideas and power to manifest the lives we want." 

Another great technique for making it stick is to enlist allies.  I tell my friends, colleagues, mentors, mentees, and partners about what I'm working on, and they often offer books, advice, suggestions, and reminders that help me stick it out.  Further, the broader I spread the thoughts and share the ideas, and the more they're out in the universe, forces just seem to conspire to help me work on the focus.

So give it a shot, remove something from your life and add something new, and do it through ritual to commit it energetically throughout your brain, let the universe and maybe loved ones be witness to it. 


Request for comments: (from now on, I'm going to have specific requests for comments on my posts.  I love comments and respond to each of them.)

Do you have any rituals that help you cement a focus?

What specific words of focus do you choose?


  1. I choose honesty. I don't decieve those who nurture and love me. But first my friend, you must stop lying to yourself.

  2. Good luck with Honesty! Bringing that word into one's life can be very powerful. And as you point out, being honest with oneself is often the very important first step towards an honest outward life. Good luck in that pursuit. I'd love to hear comments back on how well this word goes over and techniques that you use to develop it. Happy New Year!

  3. Faith, hope, and love; and the greatest is love.

  4. The greatest of those is love. Thanks for the sentiment. Are those words that you live by or ones that you're bringing into the new year?

  5. I try to live by those words, but often fail. It's not easy.