What you focus on

For the first time when I was about seventeen, I noticed a Dodge Charger. Bright red, powerful looking, muscle from bumper to bumper. Wow, I thought, here is a unique and beautiful car. I must have one. Over the next couple weeks, half the population seemed to share my revelation and purchase their own Dodge Chargers. They were everywhere.

You get what I mean, right? You never, ever see something. Then you start looking for it. And suddenly you see it everywhere.

I just tried googling “What you focus on expands” to see who to credit with the quote. It’s attributed to an endless list of thinkers. It has just become one of the universally acknowledged principles in life: We will find more and more of the things we spend our time looking for.

Universally acknowledged, but still worth reminder after reminder.

What are you focusing on too much? What are you not focusing on enough?

And how does that apply to your People? Your relationships? Your community?

Like your significant other, your sibling, your co-worker. What do you think about them these days? The more you think it, the more you see it–right?

Maybe you know me. I’m a really kind person. Every day, you can see me speaking thoughtfully–to someone or about someone. In fact, the more you think about it, the more amazing it is how attentive I am to other people and their needs. Every day that you try to see if I’m a kind person, you will see proof. Pretty soon, if you stare at it every day, you’ll realize I am the kindest person in the world. I’m also a really sensitive person. Every day, you can see me getting my feelings a little hurt or misinterpreting a word or a look. In fact, the more you think about it, the more shocking it is how anxious I am that people mean to hurt me and take advantage of me. Every day that you try to see if I’m a sensitive, fragile-hearted person, you will see proof. Pretty soon, if you stare at it every day, you’ll realize I am the most over-sensitive person in the world. . . . . . Do you get it? I have a thousand different Peter-things for you to know me by. “Good” ones and “bad” ones, “fun” and “hard” ones, “happy” and “sad” ones, “normal” and “weird” ones. And what you think of me, what you expect from me, what you “know” about me has a lot to do with which parts of me you choose to look at the most.

What parts of your People are you looking at the most?

What parts of your People are you forgetting to look at?

If it ever seems like you know the MOST [insert-any-characteristic] people in the world–the MOST frustrating, the MOST toxic, the MOST obnoxious, or even the MOST loving, or the MOST fun–it may have less to do with this unique set of unusually extreme people the world specially assigned you, and more to do with your focus. Because of your focus, they are the “MOST” to you.

Some people really are especially kind. Some people really are especially sensitive.

Some people who have been frustrating you these days are actually really amazing people with really healthy roles to play in your life. Some aren’t.

Some people who have been wowing and attracting and filling your tank these days really are people that you’ll be healthier letting go. Some aren’t.

But two things are for sure: If you decide to focus on someone’s “good,” you will not miss out on knowing a beautiful soul. And if you decide to focus on someone’s “bad,” a beautiful soul will look ugly and dangerous and scary to you.

What you focus on expands.

In all the world of living things, you and I are uniquely developed to see the bad. Your amygdala is why you’ve made it this far. Your amygdala also has the capacity to destroy your relationships and ruin every good thing you’ve ever had. . . . if you forget to look for the good things.

So today, scrub off your lenses a little. Your People–what normal-things of theirs have you been obsessing over and looking for until it’s all you see about them? Can you look at some of their other things today, too? The whole them? What beautiful things have been hiding behind the fog?

Do you need to do some scrubbing?

I’m going to have an embarrassing moment of honesty here and say I legit have had a really terrible grasp on American history for most of my life. To the point where I couldn’t tell you whether Martin Luther King Jr was an activist in the 1980s or the 1920s. Well actually, I had a pretty good guess: It must have been at least as far back as, say, the 30s, because the civil rights war was soundly won long, long, long ago in a distant memory.

So yeah. Let’s just chalk it up to “I’m really bad with dates.”

In school I studied a lot of history–even a lot of early US history. But somehow I didn’t grasp much of what went on in America from the civil war through 9/11. I’m working on it now. I’m halfway through William Chafe’s book The Unfinished Journey: America Since World War II, and my jaw has hit the floor quite a few times.

So, turns out Rosa Parks got arrested not that long ago for not giving up her seat for a white person on a bus. I guess I always thought that was “like a hundred years ago.” Nope. And Dr. King was assassinated only 50 years ago this year.

I guess I figured we Americans must have had all this equality stuff figured out (at least per law and official doctrine) by the time we took issue with Nazism in Germany for mistreating Jewish people because they weren’t built like the preferred Aryan ideal. But we didn’t. Some of the details of our recent history are pretty shocking. And not just where African-Americans were concerned.

Most of my life, I had heard that, despite a few crazy racist southerners here and there waving their confederate flags, racism and discrimination and systematic oppression were mostly gone, and that all the activist noise was just people holding on too long to injustices that their great, great grandfathers saw.

But 50 years is not a long time! I’m more than halfway there. That means a lot of my friends and family remember those days–when they shared the city with other human souls who were refused service at restaurants and businesses because they were born with the wrong skin color. Where a lot of America struggled desperately not to comply with judicial rulings and legislation made to protect colored people and ensure their integration into society as fully equal fellow humans.

Suddenly I see so many things differently!

A lot more current activist movements make a lot more sense. And I am quite sure we have not made nearly as full and healthy a recovery from racism as I learned growing up. I think I understand so many more people now, people I’ve seen, people I’ve worked with, people I’ve tried to help as a manager in past jobs.

And I’m reminded of one of my all-time favorite quotes, attributed to Isaac Asimov: “Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”

 

And that’s just a specific brand of discrimination. What about our treatment of over a hundred thousand Japanese who we incarcerated in our own concentration camps 70 years ago? Or what about the very weird and disturbing treatment and brainwashing our society promoted in the not so distant past of women regarding their roles in society and their purpose in life.

And these are just assumptions I’ve had to unlearn around recent American history.

What about things I have always assumed about my co-workers and where they’re coming from? Or the motives you’ve prejudged of that friend trying to sell me on their network marketing product? Or the obvious disdain we’re all supposed to have for those silly “self-help” books and “motivational speakers” who are just trying to get rich off gullible people? Or the crazy beliefs and weird religious rituals from eastern religions–like your friend who keeps talking about his weird meditation stuff? Or the fact that you’re obviously supposed to go to college, get a car, buy a house, and climb a corporate ladder? Or even things as personal as “Oh, I could never be a reader” or “I could never be a runner” before I’ve ever ever really tried?

 

The point is this: Over long, weird, narrowly-focused lives we have all picked up hundreds and thousands of little (or big) assumptions that color our world in big ways, ways that we might not realize, and ways that we rarely if ever question.

And those assumptions, prejudices, and misunderstandings can be blinding us from insights and opportunities. They can blind us to the reality others around us are experiencing. They can automatically turn us against a co-worker or family member, leave us always on edge, and keep us from fulfilling relationships or effective teamwork.

Until we finally stop and think: Wait… is that REALLY true?

 

Do you ever question your assumptions?

What is something you always assumed that you’ve recently had your mind changed about in a life-altering way?

And if you had to look at your life right now and take a guess at what is a big assumption you really need to reconsider today if you want to take the next step in your personal development–what might it be?

Isaac Asimov - Assumptions windows on world

Are you really seeing them?

“Look at other people and ask yourself if you are really seeing them or just your thoughts about them.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn

Have you ever found yourself looking back at old memories–photos, messages, etc–and realizing that your opinion now of an old friend is entirely different than it used to be? For example, I used to have very conservative (and vocal) opinions about how people should look and talk. I always judged the “rebellious” kids I knew, felt disappointed and hopeless for them. Looking back now at the those same kids, I see who they were as very normal and healthy and in fact think I should have been a little more like them.

Our minds change from time to time. Enough that we should be able to remember that the way we see someone right now may not be accurate.

 

It can be helpful to spend some time thinking about what determines how we see people. There are a lot of things that silently, sneakily influence our interpretations of others:

  • What we expect to see. As John Lubbock said, “What we see depends mainly on what we look for.” When you start with assumptions about someone, you tend to see what confirms your assumptions. It’s called “confirmation bias.”
  • What we’re already focused on. Always focus on the bad in someone, and that starts to be all you see. Always see the good only, and you can be blind to problems. Have you ever bought a car and then immediately started seeing way more of those models than you used to?
  • What we’re afraid of. How have you been burned in the past? How have people hurt you or let you down? Did you get cheated on? Then you see that in others. Did someone stab you in the back when they should have been supporting you? Than you stay on the lookout for the first signs of that in others.
  • What we are hoping for. Do you ever see people through the lenses of what you’re hoping for? What you need? Looking for friends who will accept you? Looking for a special someone to selflessly love you? You can want something bad enough that you might see it when it’s not really there.
  • What we plan to do about it. One of the biggest and most powerful influences on how we see others is our own intention to react and deal with things. Stephen Covey said it best: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Who might that other person be separated from how we think we should relate to them?

 

Have you ever realized somebody is not who you thought they were? Maybe someone you always thought was mean, or someone you thought was nice. Have you ever been on the opposite side? Feeling like someone is assigning an identity or motives to you that just aren’t you?

Assuming and prejudging leaves both sides hurting and confused.

On the other hand, opening your mind and seeing someone for who they really are and what they really say–not what you expect or judge about them–can open your eyes and heart to another amazing human. And honoring someone for who they really are can make you an empowering part of their life, too.

Jon-Kabat Zinn - Really seeing people

Everybody is bad at something

Everybody is bad at something.

I’m really bad at handyman stuff. I don’t know how to fix things or maintain things. Whenever something goes wrong with my car, or something breaks in the house, I feel totally lost. I feel overwhelmed when I have to take care of it. Like I’m out of my depth. I’m always afraid I’ll break it worse. Even if I take my car to the shop, or have someone come do the work for me at home, I feel embarrassed that I have no idea what I’m talking about. I never know if I’m getting ripped off by someone who’s realized they’re dealing with a guy who doesn’t know the difference between an alternator and a radiator.

It’s one of the things I’m bad at. There are lots of things I’m bad at. There are a few big important things that I’m especially bad at and feel very insecure about or even ashamed about. Those big ones I think about a lot.

Do you ever get stuck seeing yourself and your life exclusively through the lens of that one big thing you’re bad at?

 

A while ago I was chatting with a young couple about their big thing: Credit card debt. They were feeling very defeated. Sad, scared, embarrassed, and most of all hopeless. They could have more than paid for a mortgage with their minimum monthly credit card payments. They were searching for options to pay it down quickly and avoid thousands upon thousands in interest payments for years and years, but so far everything had been a dead end. They said they thought about it all the time, and it was constantly weighing them down. It was starting to define their lives.

But this young couple was the sweetest couple you could meet. Their careers were off to a great start. They were stylish and funny. They clearly had the greatest friendship and partnership. In most ways, they were the couple everyone wants to be. All they could see, though, was their debt.

And sometimes all I can see are the things I’ve failed at or the things I’m bad at.

 

I think we forget sometimes–very often in fact–that there is so much more to life than the one big thing we’re bad at. So we’re insecure.

 

Maybe someone has massive debt that they can’t see past, always stressing them out. But maybe that same person has a fantastic career going, one they should be very proud of, and if they focused on that they’d feel confidence and hope.

Maybe someone else without much of a career–still delivering pizzas or washing dishes–maybe that someone is looking enviously and insecurely at that first person with the great career, thinking that if only they were so successful, they’d be happy. But maybe the delivery guy is also fit and athletic, playing sports with friends all summer, hitting the gym every night.

Someone else is watching the athletic guy, wishing they looked like him–that they weren’t overweight, wishing they could go running, or at least climb the stairs without feeling short of breath. They focus on their weight problem until it seems like the only thing in their life. But they’re forgetting they have a couple hard-earned degrees from prestigious universities–an education many people only dream of. They’re smart and well-read. They have a great understanding of politics and current events. They have ‘Harvard’ on their resume and an almost automatic leg up on their professional competition.

And there’s another person who can think of nothing but how badly he wants and needs that education. If only he had taken out the loans to go to school, life would be so much better now. He constantly regrets it and feels inferior to his professional peers. He dreads getting asked where he went to school. But maybe he’s taking for granted what a great family he has. He has a couple kiddos that think the world of him. He gets to come home every night to warm hugs and smiles. And maybe in reality, that can make him a lot happier than a degree.

And maybe there’s someone else who doesn’t have a family. She doesn’t fit in with her siblings and she isn’t respected by her parents. She’s had to move on, and she’s lonely. She sees happy families everywhere and it hurts her. But what if she chose to focus on what she’s good at–the great things in her life? Maybe she gets to go on adventures, exploring the great outdoors, traveling to beautiful cities and exotic mountains.

 

The point is this: There’s always a hole in someone’s heart. There’s always a big thing someone’s bad at. Something they don’t have. Their big insecurity. But that’s never all there is to them.

 

What’s the thing you’re bad at? What’s the sad thing in your life? What’s your big insecurity?

If you find yourself thinking about it constantly, defining yourself by your weakness–you’re not alone. So many of us naturally focus on the sad or bad thing about ourselves.

But there’s also always good stuff. Good stuff we may not be seeing, because we’re so distracted by the bad stuff.

When you’re feeling discouraged about who you’re not, try thinking about who you are instead. There’s amazing stuff there.

Craig Lounsbrough - We focus more on our weaknesses

Noticing this moment

Eckhart Tolle - Most humans are never fully present

I have this compulsive habit of doing stuff on my days off. Lots of stuff. Too much stuff. It’s all stuff I love to do, totally worthwhile. I get really pumped about all these things I can do with all my free time. And then I do as much of the happy stuff as I can. But sometimes the more happy stuff I do, the less happy I feel.

In fact, I often find myself feeling anxious when I have spare time. Anxious that I won’t make the best of it. Anxious that I won’t do enough stuff that needs to be done or that I want to do. Anxious that the time will run out too quickly.

Does that ever happen to you? You get to the end of a weekend or a vacation, only to realize you spent so much time worrying about making the most of it that it slipped right through your fingers?

A couple weeks ago I took an afternoon off. This time I decided on a whim to go for a walk. No running, just a walk. No earbuds. No phone. Just walking and being with myself. Lots of freedom to think and feel. And see things! Things I don’t notice when I’m hurrying. Things like a colorful grasshopper I watched up close for a while.

I felt more peace and happiness in that quiet hour than I do in some entire weekends packed full of stuff to do. These kind of days always end up being my favorite.

I don’t think the problem is the stuff I do, either. One thing isn’t necessarily better or worse than the next. Some people take walks, some people go for runs, some people watch movies, and some people read books–and no matter what the activity, they can feel complete peace and freedom the whole while.

I think the key is incredibly simple. Whatever you are choosing to do, be there.

Be where you are right now. Notice the present moment. Your life in this world at this moment is exploding with color and music and flavor and feeling. But we spend so much time trying to make sure that right now becomes a good memory, that we miss the very thing we wanted the great memory to be about. We spend so much time trying to make this moment great, that we don’t see how incredible this moment already is.

Are you going to miss this moment?

“Most humans are never fully present in the now, because unconsciously they believe that the next moment must be more important than this one. But then you miss your whole life, which is never not now. And that’s a revelation for some people: to realize that your life is only every now.” – Eckhart Tolle