My friend Stephen Southall is one of my favourite people in the world, and one of those “pick up the conversation where we left off three years ago” kind of friends that are so rare in this life.
Stephen has been calling me every Monday for the past several weeks, and our conversation has concerned the dueling phenomena of focus and dynamism.
I think both Stephen and I, and many people of our generation, consider one of the defining characteristics of our lifestyle is the ability to pick up and change course at the drop of a time. This ability to, say, move to Morocco for a month, or to suddenly stop eating orange-coloured vegetables, or to start a rock band before Wednesday night is sometimes more possibility than reality. But it’s an important possibility. A possibility without with we can quickly begin to feel hemmed in, trapped, and unable to function.
While some of it is personality-related — Stephen and I are both naturally easily distracted, easily made claustrophobic, and [sometimes unthinkingly] anti-authoritarian — I think there’s also a case to be made that this is a byproduct of our upbringing.
Our generation’s parents were raised in the stricter confines of the 1940s and 1950s, hits the late 1960s in their early 30s (meaning it wasn’t quite the “summer of love” for them, but something was certainly going on), and so by the time it came around to raising us, their general life philosophy was an odd mix of “you can be anything that you want to be” liberation with a healthy dose of old-style “eat your vegetables” discipline.
My parents, for example, would never in a million years dream of telling we sons what we should do with our lives. But they’ve always been pretty insistent that we do something, especially something that both requires hard work, and that we’re good at and enjoy.
I’m not complaining about this: the “you can be anything that you want to be” part of this equation was enormously powerful, and has taken me places that I could never have dreamed of going if I was one or two generations older. And I’ve even come to appreciate the “eat your vegetables” ethos, at least once I hit 30 myself, for the common sensibility of it. Consider the two put together a sort of “enlightened pragmatism.”
Put another way, the defining characteristics of our breeding are focus (“eat your vegetables,” “hard work is good”) and dynamism (“be anything you want to be,” “follow your bliss,” “be flexible”).
Scaling this all down to a very practical, day to day level, is where things start to get interesting because these two qualities are sometimes at odds with each other.
Going to bed and getting up at the same time every day, and aligning this timing with conventional community practise, is a good thing for focus. But it seems at odds with dynamism. Sticking with a one project from start to finish, and completing it on time, is a focus thing. But what if you move to Morocco half-way through?
How do you get the benefits of focus, without the boredom of focus, and how do you get the thrill of dynamism without it’s dangerous life-muddling aspects?
Perhaps it’s through dynamism containers.
Structure life within more rigid guideposts or waypoints — getting up, going to bed, eating, working — but leave the containers between those waypoints open to dynamic interpretation.
For example, for the past two weeks, I’ve been running an experiment: I’ve gotten up at roughtly the same time (and generally and hour or two earlier than usual, which isn’t saying a lot for me), have walked exactly the same route to work, and have stopped for a the same smoothie at Nature’s Harvest on the way. I’ve also endeavoured to eat lunch at roughly the same time every day, and to take a break in the afternoon when my energy has felt wiped out.
Such rigour would have been anathema to me a month ago, outside of the confines of this experiment: going to work at the same time every day would have seemed too much like catching the school bus at the same time every day. Eating something healthy every morning to ensure sufficient energy would have seemed boring and not “risky” enough.
But I’ve stuck with it.
And inside these rigid waypoints I’ve left myself free to, well, do whatever I want to do. In other words, I’ve created a series of dynamism containers. Within a walled garden of focus.
Results so far are promising. I have felt oddly comforted by the structure of the focus. I’ve benefited from the increased energy of regular eating. And by walling off the focus portion of the day into a well-defined area, thus allowing me to leave a lot of anti-authoritarisn knee-jerks at the door, I’ve found that my creative life has improved significantly as well.
If this all sounds insane, it’s quite possible that it is. Or at least that you, the reader, are sufficiently enough inside another generational plotline that you have no way of grasping the weirdness of my own.
Oops, time for focus…