A big part of author Colin Wright’s lifestyle is his minimalistic approach to life. Wright travels across the world writing from wherever he finds himself living, and he typically does not settle in one place for more than a year or so at a time. Without a truly permanent residence he has adopted a minimalist lifestyle, which he believes helps him focus. In his book Considerations Wright addresses focus with a short essay about what focus is, what leads to greater focus, what distracts from focus, and how we benefit from greater focus.
Wright leads off with an explanation of minimalism expressing his ideas behind a life with less. Living with fewer things to worry about gives him more time and energy to focus on things he finds interesting as opposed to working on managing ‘things’. He continues with his dialog on focus to explain that another type of minimalism can be very helpful for us on a daily basis,
“Focus can be about mono tasking: doing one thing at a time, and allowing your brain to process everything about what’s happening with that one thing. Conversations become richer, work is easier, ideas present themselves with greater frequency and ease. This type of focus is momentary, but incredibly effective.”
I think that we all realize that our multitasking has negative effects on our output, but we defend multitasking by explaining how busy we are and by creating excuses about the timelines and urgency of our products, phone calls, emails, and reports. A constant pressure to accomplish more in less time forces us to push toward greater productivity, and drives us to perform multiple processes at the same time. What Wright’s quote shows is that everything about our work becomes more robust when we can monotask and focus on a single thing. To tie in with Paul Jun’s writing about focus, we can think of focus as a flashlight. If our flashlight of focus is shining at just one thing, then the beam of light directed in one direction will be very strong. But if we use mirror’s to split the beam to two things, the amount of light illuminating either thing will be lessened. As we subsequently split the beams with more mirrors, we reach a point where the things we focus on become indiscernible because our focus is too fractured and weak.
The other aspect of Wright’s considerations about focus that I am drawn to is the way he explains on the rewards of monotasking and minimalism without attacking the person who is multitasking. As a millennial I heard all the negative studies and stories about multitasking and it’s negative effects on my brain. The news stories and research presented in class always felt like a negative attack against my generation, and in many ways felt like a challenge for me and my peers to continue multitasking to prove the scientific community and the community of skeptic teachers wrong. Wright in his writing simply explains the peace of mind and the areas of life that a single focus strengthen. This is a much more effective way to invite the individual in to a life of monotasking and minimalism.
In his book 59 Seconds I found Richard Wiseman’s section about group think versus individual think to be incredibly interesting. Wiseman discussed the ways in which groups shift an individuals behavior and thoughts by moving an individual away from the center or moderate behavior towards actions that are more polarized or extreme. I have also written about discussions in groups, and how strong-willed people will dominate and drive group discussion, encouraging those who do not agree with them to at least appear to align with their thoughts. Wiseman adds another element of interest to the group versus individual dynamic with the following quote, “compared to individuals groups tend to be more dogmatic, better able to justify irrational actions, more likely to see their actions as highly moral, and more apt to form stereotypical views of outsiders.” The quote paints a fairly negative image of groups that I think we can easily imagine playing out in politics, extreme religious organizations, and even smaller groups that we may belong to. When I review Wiseman’s observations regarding group and individual behaviors and actions I see the importance of self awareness and reflection and also the importance of having a strong moral leader or guide for groups.
Mob mentality is something that came up in many of my classes throughout college, although I never studied it directly. When we act in a mob we have a sense of autonomy and anonymity that empowers us to make extreme decisions. When we look at the actions of mobs in America over the last few years and consider Wiseman’s evaluation of group behavior and group think, we are able to see how easily individuals can give up their personal moral stance and adopt the characteristics of an angry and amoral mob. The feeling of unanimity generated from stereotypical views allows individuals to feel as though they are in complete control of themselves and the situation by being part of a greater group of individuals. The sense of unanimity also lends itself to the mob believing that they are on the moral side, and that their irrational actions can be justified by the injustices that set them into a frenzy. Exaggerated behavior is encouraged in the group, and adherence to a particular viewpoint helps build a mindset of “us versus them” throughout the mob. From the outside we can all see how negative this mob mentality is, but I think that Wiseman shows that these behaviors have the potential to occur not just on a large scale, but also on a very small scale (in a less violent manner) regardless of what group we are in. Comparing Wiseman’s observations of small group actions to mob mentality helps me see the importance of guiding groups in a positive and creative way.
I also think that individual identity and decision making are important to consider when we are examining the individual versus the group. One of my favorite bloggers, Paul Jun, recently posted on his blog about our decision making. He explained that one of the ways we make decisions is by considering our identity, and how a choice fits in with the particular identity we are trying to build. If we want to identify or see ourselves as part of a particular group, we will envision the decisions and actions of members of that group, and apply that to our own lives. Instead of making decisions based on what we want, we consider what someone with the identity we want to project would do, and make a decision that aligns with those actions. Depending on the group we are in, and the identity of the group we want to associate with, our actions and behaviors in the group will be drastically different.
Allison Vesterfelt in her book Packing Light, writes about wisdom in a way that one of my favorite authors, Paul Jun, writes about self awareness. On wisdom Vesterfelt writes, “I think that’s what wisdom is— the ability to zoom out from where we’re standing and see the larger picture.” This idea of wisdom aligns perfectly with Paul Jun’s metaphor for self awareness. Jun writes that our focus is like a flashlight, and whatever we focus our mental attention on is illuminated. The more we focus on one thing the more clear it becomes, but also, the more we dial in on one thing, the more we don’t see around us. Becoming self aware is the process of taking that flashlight and stepping backwards. We turn our focus on our entire lives, and allow the flashlight to illuminate a grater sphere of our lives.
I love calling wisdom and self awareness the same thing. By allowing ourselves to recognize our feelings, and then take a step back to look at our interactions with the world and those around us we are able to better understand our emotions and reactions. The more we step back and spend time evaluating what is happening around us, the more we are able to connect the dots and understand not just our reactions and emotions, but the decisions and ideas of others as well.
This whole process can be called wisdom because instead of seeing the world through the narrow band of our flashlight, we eventually can reach a point where we have a floodlight illuminating everything around us and helping us connect new dots in new places.
Paul Jun is the author of the book Connect the Dots
and has a fantastic blog at Motivatedmastery.com