On focus

I’ve been taking time off work for the past few months to focus on cancer treatment. Healing is my singular goal in life. If all goes perfectly g-d willing I’ll be done with all this by end of December. That I could have such a tight timeline on something like this still blows me away. It’s is an incredible testament to the power of innovation & technology. So that’s my Q4.

In this time it’s been interesting, therapeutic even, to take a step back from the day-to-day and settle into a slower pace. On a typical “good” day (i.e., getting out of bed) I’ll feel strong in the morning. By noon I’m usually foggy & zombie-like. It’s weird but that’s how my body is reacting – I’m adjusting. I feel pressure to optimize those good hours. So I’m trying to be more intentional about how I spend my precious, limited attention.

Try this thought experiment to get a sense of what I mean:
Today you no longer have 16 hours (or say 8 working hours) to complete whatever is on your plate. Instead you have 3. Go!

How would you approach that?
If you’re anything like me you would likely re-assess what it is you’re doing in the first place; do you really need all those items on your todo list? You’d possibly re-prioritize your list to ensure the first ones get done instead of keeping it an unordered list. You’d likely be more vigilant about protecting your attention, e.g., reconsider the use of various social media, apps, news consumption habits etc. while the clock runs down.
I’ve basically followed the above steps. For better or worse (I’m not sure which it is yet, and it might change) I’ve mostly avoided the socials since getting diagnosed. I’ve turned off slack notifications, pulled back from reading the news. My media consumption is more oriented towards longer-form essays and books. Lots of books. Often I’ll just turn off my phone (I don’t think I ever turned off my phone before cancer except to restart it if there was some issue). In terms of communication and socializing, I’ve biased towards more intentional, high-signal forms: email, blogging, phone calls, spending time with kids, meeting face-to-face. More intimacy and actual connection. More full sentences and eye-contact, fewer emojis.

You might think it stressful to jam everything into a few hours. I think if I was fully functional right now that would certainly be the case. But lately I’ve been at peace with going the other way, resigning myself to the value in doing less. Right now less is definitely more. I’ve had to find a new perspective to come to terms with this reality. And besides, living life with stress is like driving stick and grinding the gears – makes for a bumpy ride, and the car won’t last.

Meantime clearing my plate and doing deeper work has had another interesting and unexpected benefit; reclaiming playfulness. It sounds trite but over the years I’ve come to realize the value in it and how easily it’s tossed by the wayside. One thing I’ve definitely noticed in myself is an inverse correlation between how busy I am (or am making myself) & playfulness.

Why is this important?

First, authenticity. My grandmother likes to remind me that when I was 5 I told her: Grandma, I’m a player, not a worker. I actually remember this, wishing my grandfather was around more (he worked a lot and in a pressured way from what I understand). Those words, that sentiment still rings true. This has nothing to do with work-ethic. It has everything to do with suffusing joy into how we spend our time while getting shit done. Work without an element of playfulness is drudgery. Play might not be the best word to convey what I mean but it feels right (‘lightness’, ‘joy’, or ‘flow’ could work too). Basically there’s a minimization of internal baggage, preconceived notions, ego – a loss of self. There’s right perspective.

Second, it’s deeply satisfying. I think this quote from Isaac Newton sums up what attention well spent looks like:

I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me. -Isaac Newton

Third, examples from history support play as an engine of deep insight – important for knowledge workers. When I think about some of my favorite characters from the past (the eminent dead, to borrow a term from Charlie Munger) many of them had in them a golden braid of deep curiosity, playful whimsy, and the skill to put that obsession to good use. That these folks had every right to conduct themselves with pre-occupation, stress and anxiety (and some did that too); they were shaping the future of humanity with big ideas and I think they knew it. What I appreciate most is how many amazing insights resulted from this playfulness, full immersion, the simple joy of doing. Pursuits were pursued as playful obsessions.

Some examples I find inspiring:

  • Ben Franklin and his experiments on electricity, overturning millenia of religious superstition (counter arguments were put forth asserting that god’s will is for people to get struck with lightning!) with detailed experiments resulting in the ability to understand, harness the force. Plus he would float on water getting dragged by a kite, making him I think the first kite surfer by a few hundred years.
  • US president Teddy Roosevelt taking a few hours in the middle of the day for boxing to recharge the batteries. Apparently he would roughhouse with visiting dignitaries inside the White House.
  • Einstein taking breaks from developing his theories to play the violin.
  • Leonardo DaVinci throwing boxes off balconies to understand how they shape shift during free-fall and how to render it on the page. He was full of these kinds of seemingly whimsical pursuits. This ability for deep and direct observation enabled him to develop his ideas about fluid dynamics and how hearts pump from first principles (quite accurate and 100s of years ahead of his time). Amusingly, he would also invite some of the ugliest people he could find to dinner, get them drunk so they were animated and then sketch their ‘grotesque’ expressions from memory when he got home. The beauty of Mona Lisa no doubt was the result of this willingness to explore (playfully!) the full continuum and principles underlying the representation of beauty on the page; yin/yang.

The enemy is distraction. I’m concerned that we’re breaking our attention into tiny increments. I certainly do it and recognize it in myself. It’s tempting because we typically get a feeling of satisfaction and mistake activity for work: an email composed, a tweet reply, a quick SMS, reading a news story. We’re basically splitting our attention into infinitesimal chunkst. Not only is it ineffective but it’s expensive. The opportunity cost is a lack of deep focus on the things that really matter to us, that would bring us true pleasure, gratitude, awe.

This really matters for today but also for the next generation.  I see my kids playing without interruption all the time with legos or drawing – they’re young enough that they don’t have phones. If you have kids I’m sure you see it too. It’s a great reminder on how to be. It’s inspiring to watch true absorption and think about how valuable that is. I’m concerned they will lose this ability (or at least do less of it) once they start getting phones and immersing more fully in the technology of 5-10 years into the future. Personally I’m happiest if I get a good dose each day. So I’ve been biasing strongly towards whole blocks of attention as much as possible on these days. It’s been nice to have the luxury of putting down the phone for a while – the bologna slicer of attention.

Here’s a quote I’ve always loved from one from the great physicists Richard Feynman – it’s long but including the whole thing since it’s so classic. Just think, he might have been checking his email instead!

When I was in high school, I’d see water running out of a faucet growing narrower, and wonder if I could figure out what determines that curve. I found it was rather easy to do. I didn’t have to do it; it wasn’t important for the future of science; somebody else had already done it. That didn’t make any difference. I’d invent things and play with things for my own entertainment. So I got this new attitude…I’m going to play with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever. Within a week I was in the cafeteria and some guy, fooling around, throws a plate in the air. As the plate went up in the air I saw it wobble, and I noticed the red medallion of Cornell on the plate going around. It was pretty obvious to me that the medallion went around faster than the wobbling. I had nothing to do, so I start to figure out the motion of the rotating plate. I discover that when the angle is very slight, the medallion rotates twice as fast as the wobble rate – two to one. It came out of a complicated equation! Then I thought, “Is there some way I can see in a more fundamental way, by looking at the forces or the dynamics, why it’s two to one?” I don’t remember how I did it, but I ultimately worked out what the motion of the mass particles is, and how all the accelerations balance to make it come out two to one. I still remember going to Hans Bethe and saying, “Hey, Hans! I noticed something interesting. Here the plate goes around so, and the reason it’s two to one is …” and I showed him the accelerations. He says, “Feynman, that’s pretty interesting, but what’s the importance of it? Why are you doing it?” “Hah!” I say. “There’s no importance whatsoever. I’m just doing it for the fun of it.” His reaction didn’t discourage me; I had made up my mind I was going to enjoy physics and do whatever I liked. I went on to work out equations of wobbles. Then I thought about how electron orbits start to move in relativity. Then there’s the Dirac Equation in electrodynamics. And then quantum electrodynamics. And before I knew it (it was a very short time) I was “playing” – working, really – with the same old problem that I loved so much, that I had stopped working on when I went to Los Alamos: my thesis-type problems; all those old-fashioned, wonderful things. It was effortless. It was easy to play with these things. It was like uncorking a bottle: Everything flowed out effortlessly. I almost tried to resist it! There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.

Yes, sometimes we need to just get things done, put our heads down, do hard things, command & control, hit a deadline etc. More often than not though I think it’s helpful to take a step back and make things a bit lighter, find the fun in what we’re doing. Maybe this is the key to eternal youth; retaining that childish twinkle in the eye and infusing some good old-fashioned playfulness into the focus of our attention.