“focus” is overrated

The other side of the paper has a note to self:

I drew the one on the other side first while I was on the phone and then I finished it while still on the phone and afterwards I thought ‘What could I draw if I concentrated and focused?’ but this one was concentrated and focused and it is crap. I think I over-learned concentration and now I need to unlearn it so I can get out of my own way.

All my life I’ve heard that I lacked focus, whether it was in choosing a career or getting to work on a project.

I procrastinate. I daydream and dawdle. My friends in high school would tell me I needed to focus when my dreams jumped from professional soccer player to spy to archaeologist to musician in the course of a school day. When I was practicing martial arts, I would be just about to break a board when all of a sudden I’d hear, “Focus!” which of course made me lose my concentration entirely. Rather than thinking about breaking the board, I focused on focusing better.

Over time, it kind of brought me down. I wouldn’t get something just right, so I’d beat myself up for not having enough focus. Or I’d start one thing that would lead to another idea and another until eventually I abandoned the first thing, and then I’d beat myself up for not focusing, even if the later iteration was better.

What I realized through art practice is that “focusing” often just fucks me up, especially when I focus on the wrong things instead of trusting my own ability.

I think there’s a cult around the idea of “focus,” or maybe it’s just the way it feels when you’re Type Z in a Type A world. When I set my mind to make something, I overthink it.

Most of what is good in life doesn’t come from thinking, it comes from creativity. Focusing, for me, comes with external pressure and expectations. It originates in my thinking mind, meaning rules, data, expectations and hypotheses. Creating, on the other hand, comes from intuition. Yeah, I learned to think pretty well, but when it’s time to work if I shut my brain off and let my intuition run free, I can trust it to draw on everything I’ve learned and know.

I think that’s why “mindless” doodling and drawing often produce better results. I wasn’t trying, I was just looking for something to do with my hands while I was on the phone. There was a copy of Birds of the Photo Ark lying on the desk, and a black piece of paper. I picked up a pen and started. I finished the drawing and colored it in all while keeping up my huhs and that sucks! and woooooows.

By the time I hung up, I figured I could do a better job if I really “focused” on it this time so I flipped the paper over and put effort into it. I could tell almost immediately that nothing was right. I wasn’t feeling it. There was no flow.

When I work well, I just work. I get absorbed deep into the work and any interruptions make my brain feel like it just hit the brakes at 120 mph. It takes a while to recover from that. I feel jarred and shaken. I think it’s because I get deep into a meditative state, and my mind is shut off. When someone barges in the door unexpectedly and asks something simple of me, my brain is caught off-guard as if it just woke from sleep.

That’s not to say creativity requires no effort or focus, it’s just where you put it that matters. Every time I have picked up a pen or a pencil my entire life, I’ve been making an effort. Every time I draw the same thing over and over and over again, I’m making an effort and focusing, I’m just not thinking about focusing.

When it’s time to really get to work, things go better for me if I keep my mind out of it.

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