The Write Reasons – #01

“A man is a fool not to put everything he has, at any given moment, into what he is creating.” -Frank Herbert

I write in order to develop my powers of concentration.

Of course, each moment we’re alive presents us with an opportunity to practice developing our concentration and our ability to focus— every bite of every meal, every word of every conversation, every motion in every household chore or bit of yard work, every email written and read, every commute. Everything.

So what?

For me, it matters because I’m never happier than when I’m in a state of flow, and writing is one way I’m able to intentionally enter flow. Wikipedia explains flow as “The mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning.”

Wikipedia goes on to say, “In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task. Flow is also described as a deep focus on nothing but the activity – not even oneself or one’s emotions.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote a book about the flow state, appropriately titled Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. In it, he writes, “Contrary to what we usually believe … the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.

He goes on to say, “Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen. For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.”

Another reason to consciously develop powers of concentration is that the ability to focus is very often foundational to success. Last year I completed a training with Jack Canfield in which he shared with me that during his research for the book The Power of Focus, he and his writing partners interviewed more than 2,000 successful entrepreneurs in order to find out what made them successful.

Almost without exception, Jack and his partners found, every successful entrepreneur possesses three attributes: 1) a high degree of clarity about what they want to accomplish; 2) powerful success habits (in the form of daily routines and disciplines); 3) a high degree of focus, or concentration.

My dad certainly possessed all three of these attributes. If he was in a meeting or on a phone call, especially if he was doing a mathematical calculation in his head, it was nearly impossible to distract him. I do remember him sometimes becoming irritated by background noise, or kids playing loudly outside (of whom I was often one).

If the sound of my playing managed to penetrate his concentration he would tell me to play somewhere else or simply to be quiet, and then he would go back to concentrating. His level of concentration was extraordinary, and it was a big part of what made him successful.

For me, understanding that we can develop our ability to concentrate feels a bit like “cracking the code” of success. I mean, it’s easy to look at people who are extraordinarily successful and simply attribute their success to natural talent, sheer luck or hard work. And in many cases, of course, all three of those things are true, but it’s also true that many of those phenomenally successful people have a great capacity for concentration that they have developed consciously or otherwise. And we can do the same.

But concentration matters for another reason too. The spiritual teacher Yogananda writes, “To be able to concentrate is essential for spiritual progress; without concentration you shall never find God.”

For me, each writing session provides an opportunity to consciously slow down and deliberately attempt to fully experience the present. I endeavor to carry this mindfulness into every aspect of my life, and those ephemeral moments when I succeed in this effort are always gratifying.

It’s not always easy, but it’s a challenge worthy of a lifetime of effort. This, I think, is what author Frank Herbert recognized when he wrote the words I opened with: “A man is a fool not to put everything he has, at any given moment, into what he is creating.”

After all, our only point of power exists in the present.

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The Delicate Balance between Productivity and Play

I can’t remember the last time I read a book for pleasure. Two things have adversely impacted my ability to read strictly for enjoyment: first, earning an English degree (too much required reading to even think about reading anything for fun), and second, growing up as part of a family business where a person’s value often seems to be in direct proportion to the contribution he makes to the bottom line.

Even during my unstructured time (no such thing as “free time,” is there?) I often feel the nagging feeling that I should be doing more. I attribute much of this to growing up with an extraordinarily driven entrepreneur dad. I haven’t yet figured out how to unlearn it.   

Excluding softball, I can’t remember my dad ever playing a single game. For him, softball was much more than simply a game, or even a sport— it was a competition, something at which to win. Games, he said, were not productive.

Reading for pleasure is similarly not productive.

Last year Jack Canfield introduced me to the concept of “Free Days.” Free Days, he says, are days that each of us should take periodically— ideally once or twice a week— where we do absolutely NOTHING work-related.

In a perfect world, Free Days are also free from other responsibilities. This means that during a Free Day one should avoid reading or sending even a single email, checking voicemail, doing any work-related projects or assignments, or even reading an industry-related article, even if we find these things enjoyable.

In addition to getting a bit of distance from our work, essential to Free Days is the full and conscious engagement in things we truly enjoy. These are, of course, different for everyone, but a few of my preferred Free Day activities include getting a massage, watching a matinee, making phone calls with or going to lunch with friends I haven’t seen in a while, or simply going for a walk, making a point to bask in the sunlight.

Although the thought of “catching up” on work during a Free Day can be tempting, keeping our Free Day activities strictly to things that bring us joy ultimately helps us to perform better when we do return to work. Embedded in the word “recreate” is the notion that through this sort of pleasurable activity we re-create ourselves.

When I first began to imagine how I would spend a Free Day I thought through activities I greatly enjoy but haven’t done for a while. For one reason or another (six kids, increased responsibilities at work, duties related to becoming a bonafide adult, etc) I realized that I had stopped doing many of the things that bring me joy.

One of those things was reading for pleasure. Just thinking about spending the better part of a day reading for fun— something I hadn’t done for as long as I could remember, for at least twenty years— made me giddy.

Last week I finally decided to read Dune, the best-selling science fiction novel of all time. The book will be fifty years old next year, but reading it today you’d never know it.

It’s been on my reading list for years, along with Zorba the Greek, A Walk in the Woods, Leadership and Self-Deception and about 300 other titles that have accumulated over the last few years.  

My reading list has grown long by asking people “What’s your favorite book?” and “What are you currently reading?” If I haven’t read a person’s favorite book I’ll almost always pull out my iPhone and add it to my Amazon Wish List on the spot. I have yet to read a book that someone told me was their favorite that I didn’t also love.   

One of the things I love about science fiction is that it gives us a glimpse into the possible futures we are creating.

Frank Herbert, author of Dune, once wrote, “Humans tend not to see over a long range. Now we are required, in these generations, to have a longer range view of what we inflict on the world around us. This is where, I think, science fiction is helping. I don’t think that the mere writing of such a book as Brave New World or 1984 prevents those things which are portrayed in those books from happening. But I do think they alert us to that possibility and make that possibility less likely. They make us aware that we may be going in that direction.”

It’s apparent to me that storytelling is a way that we as human beings attempt to make sense of the universe and our place within it. It’s one way we attempt to predict, and in some cases, avert certain futures, and to preserve and understand the past. Storytelling is as fundamental to being human as is worship, commerce or agriculture.

So, productive or not, reading is essential to what it means to be a human being. Now if only I could build one of those sci-fi machines that will prevent me from aging, or that would somehow manufacture additional time so that I can read for pleasure every day, guiltlessly.

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Aliveness and Purpose

I learned a process from Jack Canfield that I sometimes use in workshops I run that’s designed to help participants find or clarify their life’s purpose.

Before beginning the exercise I ask how many people believe that each of us has a unique life purpose- something that we were put on Earth specifically to fulfill. Usually about two thirds of the participants say they believe that we do, though a few hands are clearly raised uncertainly.

Then I ask how many people know what their purpose is- how many can articulate it- and usually only a few hands remain raised.

What’s tricky about life purpose, of course, is that we didn’t crash land on Earth with one neatly typed and tucked into our back pocket. When we were young, nobody told us what our life’s purpose is, and probably nobody told us HOW to go about finding it. And, to add additional challenge, I don’t think that any life’s purpose can be put easily into words.

But if you DO believe, as I do, that our lives do have specific purposes, then it follows that in any given moment we are either living true to our purpose or we are not. (Living on purpose ALWAYS involves serving others, by the way.)

When we live on purpose we are healthy. We enjoy the work we do AND we are able to enjoy our leisure time- something that’s surprisingly challenging for the Type A, “always on,” achievement-oriented personalities among us. When we live on purpose our relationships bring us fulfillment and satisfaction. How well things in our lives WORK is in direct proportion to how “on purpose” we are. When we’re not on purpose, things in our lives don’t work as well.

If our lives aren’t working like we want them to be- if any aspect of our lives don’t look like we want them to- the good news is that in any moment we can orient our lives towards the true north of our life’s purpose. And the instant we do, our lives begin to work better.

The great American thinker Werner Erhard tells us, “The only two things in our lives are aliveness and patterns that block our aliveness.

When you get rid of the blocks, what you have is aliveness, and when the blocks are gone, purpose emerges.

There is no use searching externally for purpose, or trying to “pull it in.” It is already there. Just focus on clearing out what is between you and aliveness….

Aliveness and purpose are practically the same thing.”

Now the question becomes, dear reader, how do you get rid of the blocks in your life?

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