The “I can’t focus” Syndrome

One of the most common challenges raised by business owners and other people pursuing a venture is the “I can’t focus or do things consistently” challenge. This is another variation on the classic problem of not being able to get to the gym often enough.

The common solution? Discipline. This word is often linked with the ability to focus or to do things consistently to reach a goal. It’s not a bad definition. It just doesn’t tell us what discipline is for or the many ways discipline goes wrong. In addition, we carry childhood baggage associating discipline with a form of punishment. It’s why going to the gym, writing on a blog regularly, or doing your marketing can feel like a form of punishment.

Discipline has a higher and far more powerful meaning. Consider the discipline of medicine or the discipline of masonry. In this case, we are referring to the accumulated knowledge and skills obtained over generations of inquisitive scientists or stone craftsmen.

Seen in this light, we can find some clues as to how and why people focus. On the radio, I was listening to an interview with internationally renowned chocolatier Bernard Callebaut. It turns out that he is continuously evolving his recipe, trying different cocoa beans, different formulations, adding or removing ingredients. He does so because it is his craft. He does so to create better chocolates and (I would assume) to elevate his skill. Focusing is a by-product of the desire to do better.

Although the disciplines of chocolate-making, medicine, and masonry are all very different in its output, the learning process is much the same: develop understanding, practice well, learn from others past and present, experiment and test, take on progressively more difficult challenges. Discipline is, at its core then, a continuous process for figuring out what is helpful and what isn’t.

How the boundaries of “helpful” is defined makes a big difference. Let’s say that you had difficulty getting to the gym. The reasons you give might be, “I don’t have time.” or “I can’t get up in the morning.” However, the underlying cause could be a lack of a good reason for exercising in the first place. Perhaps you don’t know how to exercise. It could be that you haven’t had a lot of practice doing things without being told to do.

The problem is most people (including me) don’t understand how they develop good habits or disciplines. We’re use to someone telling us what to do. So when someone comes to me and says, “I can’t focus”, what I really hear is “I don’t know what the discipline of discipline-making is.”

Medicine didn’t sprout from one person’s head in a moment of inspiration. It took a long time to figure out how disease is transmitted or that vitamin deficiency is a different form of illness. Likewise, it takes time to figure out how we work and what keeps us focused or not. Maybe you need to sleep earlier, or you need a partner to train with, or you need a compelling reason, but that is up to you to figure out.

Try this exploratory question. What if you viewed the work of “making yourself” as a craft? What if you are in the process of shaping and molding your own thoughts and feelings? Then, like Mr. Callebaut, you would be patient, be focused, and be endlessly curious in the pursuit of a better self.

Chris Hsiung
U Venture
Better Life… Better Business

Every Creme Caramel is a Hypothesis

Every venture that could go wrong is in reality a hypothesis. Each time I carefully mix cream, sugar, and egg for a creme caramel and put it into the oven, I am running an experiment.

This is a radical shift in perspective.

A maple creme caramel that I made from scratch
A maple creme caramel that I made from scratch

I use to get frustrated when the final product did not turn out the way I wanted, but now I get curious. I realize that the model in my head of how the ingredients interact or how I thought I put it together is wrong. My expectations did not match reality. And so I wonder what might have caused the problem.

Seeing every meal I cook as a hypothesis also helps me to improve the model in my head. Each time I change something, I see its effect on the other end. Had I retained my previous view that every failed dish is a failure of me, then I might never have discovered the effect of mixing egg with the hot cream or the variable nature of my oven’s temperature. Eventually the model in my head becomes good enough that I can speculate more accurately: what if I halved the sugar or added more egg white?

We sometimes put too much stock into our successes. When the economy was good, it was easy to find a job and so we attribute it to our own amazing ability and rest on our laurels. When the recession hit, we realized that we were woefully unprepared and scramble to learn… quickly.

It may be a universal truth that we learn more from our failures than from our successes. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that it’s easier to learn from failure because a failure is usually caused by one or two key variables whereas a success has multiple factors involved. If this is true, then like engineers, we must learn from past failures not just in our own lives, but in others as well.

As Henry Petroski says in To Engineer is Human,

“Engineers increase their ability to predict the behaviour of their untried designs by understanding the engineering successes and failures of history. The failures are especially instructive because they give clues to what has and can go wrong with the next design – they provide counterexamples.” (p. 105)

Doesn’t this suggest that we should do better at learning from the successes and failures in all sorts of areas in our lives? From the small dishes that we cook up for dinner to the kind of life that we lead, we would do well to treat it as a hypothesis in constant need of exploration and investigation.

Chris Hsiung BSc. CPCC
U Venture

Chris Hsiung is the president of U Venture, a consulting practice that helps entrepreneurs and professionals develop their adaptive learning capacities to navigate uncertain times and build meaningful life ventures. He graduated with distinction from the University of Calgary in Electrical Engineering and is an internationally certified coach through the Coaches Training Institute (CTI). He is also a student and teacher of curriculum at Leadership Calgary and at Momentum.