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Finding Your Focus(es)

Originally published on Medium.

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When I stopped playing World of Warcraft, the hyper-popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game, the highest level any of my characters had reached was 48. I had been playing the game seriously for about two years, and had a number of other characters of different types levelled past 30.

To put this in perspective, the highest level possible was then 70, and it took a serious player new to the game maybe around a year to reach that point (if they didn’t play more than a few hours a day).

So, even though you and I barely know each other at this stage of our relationship, it wouldn’t be unfair of you to ask the obvious question:

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“Ryan, why were you so terrible at playing World of Warcraft?” — You

Seriously, it’s okay. I’m not offended.

To be honest, I was actually pretty good at the game. I could hold my own in battles against similarly leveled players, I knew my stuff when it came to looking for loot or finishing quests, and I could talk shop with any max-level player about gameplay, equipment, dungeon raids, and more.

The problem wasn’t that I wasn’t a skilled player. The problem was that I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t level up only one of my characters at a time, because I always wondered if I’d prefer playing another type of character instead.

Of course, I’m not writing this essay to reflect on my time playingWorld of Warcraft. This problem of distraction offends practically every other aspect of my life, too.

I am in my sixth year of undergraduate study, partially because I couldn’t decide what to studyin my early years.

At any given point, I’m modestly involved with (at least) five different extracurricular/volunteer projects.

My hobbies include playing guitar, mixed-media art, graphic design, cooking, gaming, reading, coffee, photography, and now writing, evidentially.

Unfortunately, it will take me another two years to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree; it takes a significantly longer time for me to finish any of those projects than otherwise desired; and even though I know more than the average person about all of those hobbies, I’m not particularly great at any of them.

As popular as writing about focus is, we usually write about the otherfocus problem: micro-level I’m-going-to-write-my-novel-now-oh-wait-look-at-that-shiny-object-over-there distraction and procrastination. Clearly, there’s a huge audience of people out there worried about their bad procrastination habits. Micro-level focus is a worthy topic of thought and consideration.

Yet, I think we might be ignoring another type of focus problem — “macro” distraction — that is just as important. For if you type the words “List of Polymaths” into Wikipedia’s search box and hit “enter”, the crowdsourced knowledge of the internet will show you a list of the world’s Jack of all trades’ role models.

[Okay, I lied, but I’m sure such a list will exist eventually. In the meantime, think about Benjamin Franklin and Leonardo Da Vinci, among many other highly recognized and respected geniuses.]

So how do we rise to that level of genius? I would bet that the polymaths of history were equally distractible as you or I. Da Vinci was known for leaving projects unfinished when he lost interest. Yet, he soared to the heights of achievement, becoming the definitive example of a “Renaissance man” — a multi-talented, extra-knowledgeable being who was respected in all aspects of his distractions.

Taking advantage of practical & social synergy

I think the key to channelling our distracted efforts and getting ahead in at least some of our hobbies is finding synergy.

Your different hobbies or distractions might seem like they have little to do with each other, but think creatively about the ways in which you might use one skill to add value to the next. If you’re a photographer, for example, and you’re interested in game development, offer to be an official photographer of a local gaming tournament. This way you can get out there and connect to other people who’re probably interested in what you want to do, too.

Finding synergy with other people through sharing is incredibly valuable, too. Think about your daily reading. It is rare that a book or article can teach you a lot just by reading it. You need to test yourself — to flex your mind around what you’ve read within different contexts — as testing solidifies the memory and helps you think about the content in pragmatic ways. That’s why you have to explain or discuss what you’ve been reading with others (this is the genius of book clubs) or at least to simulate this idea by writing about what you’ve read in a journal.

This is true for hands-on activities, too. Self-directed learning, sadly, requires more than just reading instructions or tutorials — as anyone who’s tried to teach themselves to play an instrument knows. You need to be active and focused, to dive in and try things out. So find synergy not only in sharing, but also in competition or cooperation: set social benchmarks. You will never learn an instrument faster than when you’re playing with a band — the fact that you have a rehearsal coming up soon motivates you to practice, and emphasizes the importance of that practice. This, again, is the genius of book clubs.

…I should really join a book club.

Finding synergy — through linking your interests together, sharing what you’ve learned with others who’re equally passionate, and competing or cooperating with others — is the most important thing you can do to keep learning, especially as you develop new macro distractions. Perhaps even more significantly, this prevents you from simply abandoning one practice for the next distraction. It builds resilience into your learning.

In World of Warcraft, unless you’re only playing for fun, there really isn’t a point of having a bunch of mid-level characters — especially as your friends progress through the game and leave you behind. This is true for your skill set as well. Being mediocre at a bunch of things is relatively useless to the pursuit of excellence. So, take advantage of synergies to draw your abilities together, complementing practice with application.

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