Can you have your cake and eat it too?
In today’s world, becoming whatever you want to be has never been easier.
Once upon a time, it used to be, if you were the son of a farmer, you would most likely become a farmer too. If your dad was a blacksmith, that was the trade you were going to learn. If you were a rich nobleman, barring some unfortunate incident, your children would grow up to be rich noblemen (and -women) as well. Society was extremely stratified, and mobility between classes was non-existent.
With the dawn of the modern age, education and the increase in social mobility that has accompanied it, choosing your own path in life has become much easier. This is a good thing, of course, but there are side effects. Because of the lack of direction, you are presented with an overflow of choices to make. And making choices can be hard.
Having to make big decisions starts as early as childhood. A lot of kids today don’t just ‘play outside with their friends’ anymore. Instead, they have ‘activities’. After school, one child has football practice, another one goes to piano classes, and a third one does judo.
Having little kids do sports or having them learn an instrument is also a good thing. It helps in bringing up educated, cultured and social people. But it does add a layer of complexity to an already complex existence. Whilst giving children more potential career options, we also lay the burden of decision on them.
As we get older, the amount of choices increase. These choices have increasingly important consequences too. Will you go for a more general education in middle school, or will you learn a trade? It’s a choice that will very likely have a major impact in how your life will turn out.
Partly depending on the choices you have made earlier, in adulthood you will either find a job, start a business, or go to college. Once you reach adulthood, the effect of these earlier choices will start to manifest.
And the buffet of work and study options is almost endless in today’s world. The increasingly globalizing society also adds an extra layer to this: will you stay at home, or go to work or study in a different country?
Because the options are in such a great number, a lot of people will get the idea that, not only can they do whatever they want, they can do many things at once. We get the idea that we can be a successful businessman, a family man, a top athlete, and an academic at the same time. There is also an increasing pressure from society to perform in many different areas. We’re expected to become a jack of all trades, and everyone has to strive towards ‘Leonardo Da Vinci’-ness.
Unfortunately, this attitude is wrong. You must choose. And choose wisely.
Many people get stuck making choices. There’s even such a thing called decision paralysis. Does it come easy to you?
At some point, you have to learn how to focus. But focus is a vague term with many different meanings and aspects. In the context of doing something worthwhile with your life, I believe there are three levels of focus.
First, there is focus on the macro-level: what do you want to do with your life, where do you want to end up in forty years? What are your goals?
Second, there’s focus on a meso-level: which are the activities that you need to partake in to fulfill your macro-focus? There’s only so much time in a day.
Finally, there’s focus on a micro-level. Even if you have a set goal in life, and identify the right things to accomplish it, the digital age provides many distractions that lead you away from your chosen path.
In this article, I’d like to delve a bit deeper into each of these three levels, and tell you how to keep your focus in each of them.
Choose your favorite cake…but choose wisely…
“It’s important to keep the menu focused, because if you do just a few things, you can ensure that you do them better than anybody else.”
– Steve Ells
Our time here on Earth is limited. No matter how you cut it, the countdown timer is going down, and once it hits zero, you’re done.
That makes it important to think about what you’re going to do with the time that was allotted to you. What are your goals in life? Why this specific goal and not another? Are you choosing your macro focus for the right reason?
Example: why do you want to become a novelist? Is it fame you’re after? Fortune? Do you want to satisfy your ego, or is there a true and heartfelt desire to create real art that will inspire your fellow man?
Do you want to become a world-renowned scholar? Then you need to focus on scholarly activities, and not on trying to become an Olympic-level athlete. No matter what you want to achieve, at some level, it’s winner-take-all. Being the CEO of a Fortune 500 company doesn’t mix well with being a family man who spends lots of time with his children.
Unless you’re some kind of Nuclear Productivity God that is able to function optimally on one hour of sleep a day, or somehow you own a device to control time, life requires you to make choices.
That being said, it is possible to do many different things – just not at once. You can train to be an Olympic athlete for the first few decades of your life. Once you’ve gotten a few gold medals, you can then retire and focus your energy on a corporate career. You can be a world famous rockstar and an academic, but combining the two at once is near impossible.
A good example of someone who has succeeded in two completely different fields of work is Dexter Holland, the lead singer of the band The Offspring. Even though he’s mostly famous for his career as a musician, he does have a great academic reputation.
While he was in college, he got a degree in nothing less than Molecular Biology. Right after college, he wanted to go for a Ph. D. degree in this field, but ultimately decided to invest his time in music – a move that paid off handsomely, having sold over 40 million records with his band.
A few decades later, he decided to return to science and received his Ph.D. in 2017, doing genetic research on HIV. Both of his achievements are impressive feats on their own. It’s hard enough to succeed in the music business or in academia alone. Doing both in one lifetime is an extraordinary feat, yet as Holland proves, it can be done. Nevertheless, he would probably never have been able to do it if he tried to do both at the same time.
Brian May, member of the legendary rock band Queen, is also an astrophysicist. But like Holland, he had to postpone his academic career because he knew you can’t make amazing music, go on world tours, and do groundbreaking scientific research at the same time.
So many delicious cakes out there to choose from. So little time to devour them all.
Choosing can be hard. Life offers us so many roads to follow, each having their specific rewards and corresponding sacrifices. Because of the limited time we have, the choices we make have consequences and will exclude other paths.
Focusing primarily on academics and neglecting athletic activities in the first part of your life will ensure that you’ll never become a professional athlete – past a certain age, your body will decline, and you won’t be able to compete with the youngsters anymore. Unless you’re aiming for the gold medal in darts, you’ll have to choose athletics early in life.
It’s only not just important that you choose something, it’s important that you make the choice for the right reasons, and weigh the costs and benefits. Once you’ve made a choice, it can be hard to go back on it.
A good example is college. Imagine starting medical school, and after finishing, suddenly realizing that being a doctor is not what you wanted to do. Maybe you suddenly think law is a better career for you. Unfortunately, college is expensive and a second degree is financially unfeasible. You’ve also lost a huge amount of time.
In the time it has taken you to finish med school, you could have gone and started your own law firm already. That’s time and effort and money you’re never going to recover again. Before you invest time and resources in a chosen path, weigh the costs and benefits, and take your motivation into account.
And to make a good choice, you must know WHY you want to do something, and be very honest about it to yourself. If you’re planning to go to law school, but the reason is that you’re under pressure from your peers and parents to choose that path, instead of really being interested in becoming a lawyer, that is not a good reason to do so.
Now, it’s not impossible to do many great different things in your life, but you have to do them one at a time, not at once. That’s why you could, for example, create a do-it-later list. You could take some time to think about all the things you want to accomplish in life, but prioritize them, and do them in sequence instead of concurrently.
The most important thing, in the end, is that you do MAKE A CHOICE. That means not only choosing to do one (or a limited few things), but even more important, it means choosing not to do many other things.
…use the right ingredients…
Once you’ve found your macro-focus in life, you need to figure out which activities you need to to accomplish it. This is what I call meso-focus.
For example, let’s say you want to become a writer, a novelist. To become successful in this niche, you have to manage your time and choose to do those activities that are generally conducive to being a good writer. Number one being actually writing, of course. You need to get experience and write a lot to actually become somewhat good at it.
Besides actually writing, there are other activities that can enhance your daily output. Most writers agree that reading a lot is paramount to increasing your writing skills. Reading allows you to get inspiration, improves your vocabulary and gets you in a literary flow.
One could also argue that traveling and doing interesting things are also activities that are conducive to good writing. If you haven’t got any interesting experiences in your life, you won’t have any ideas of what to write about.
If Ernest Hemingway had never gone to fight in the Spanish Civil War, we would never have gotten For Whom The Bell Tolls. (this does not mean that you have to go fight in a war to be a good writer) The famous adage ‘write what you know’ applies: if you don’t ‘know’ anything, it can be hard to put something on paper.
For those who want to start their own business: if you want to run a company, you have to do things that are good for the company and your ability to lead. You read books to gain new insights and improve your management skills, get to know the right people to build your business network, make good business deals, learn to negotiate, and so on.
Preparing a delicious cake requires the right ingredients, in the right proportions.
Playing League of Legends for five hours a day is not going to help you in running a company and making it profitable. On the other hand, if you were to play fifteen hours a day, you could reach pro gamer status, and winning competitions and getting sponsor contracts can win you hundreds of thousands of dollars. But only do that if you want to make pro-gaming your macro-focus.
Going on a safari, even though this might prove useful in providing inspiration for novelists, is also pretty much useless in improving your company’s finances.
The activities that you choose to perform during the day, the ones you will spend all your time on, should be aligned with your macro-focus if you want to succeed in that area.
The big issue here is that a lot of activities that provide high rewards are winner-take-all. As a writer or a musician or even a businessman, the cake is usually not evenly divided depending on the amount of hours you put into it.
A professional pianist who practices for one hour a day does not earn one tenth of a pianist who practices ten hours a day. Two musicians who score a four out of ten and a five out of ten on the talent/skill metric, together do not produce the same quality of music that a nine out of ten would produce.
Top musicians get positions that allow them to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a month, exactly because they are such rare commodities. But there are many mediocre musicians that merely earn a few thousand at most, and that’s being lucky.
People who want to be successful have to learn to say no to a whole lot of things. If you divide your attention between many things and don’t focus on the activities that matter, the payoff will be rather low.
And cake doesn’t taste better the more ingredients you put into it. It requires a select number of ingredients that go really well with each other, in the right amounts and proportions.
…don’t eat two different cakes at the same time…
Once you’ve figured out what you want to do in life, and which activities you need to perform to attain these things, it’s important that you don’t get distracted while trying to do these, and actually do them, without interruptions. This is what we call micro-focus.
Imagine, you’re trying to write your novel, but all the while you get e-mail notifications, or you get the urge to watch TV. Or you can’t stop using social media all the time.
Maybe your friend is calling you every evening to go have a beer. Whatever it is that is distracting you, our days are filled with these little distractions. Usually, these tend to be tech-related.
In today’s age, the worst offenders that keep you from doing things are:
- social media
- video games
Even though you’ve made a conscious decision to choose a certain path, and focus on certain productive activities, our brain can still get in the way. And it loves doing silly, unproductive things that offer instant rewards. Unfortunately, no matter how much we like to think we’re autonomous, rational beings, we are not in total control.
If you were to make a pie chart (haha, get it?) of your time, you’d be amazed at how many time you waste on frivolous stuff like e-mail and Facebook
In any sort of career or intellectual activity, you will most likely often have to use a computer, and with that come the risks of digital entertainment: procrastination and internet addiction.
Platforms like Facebook and Twitter are specifically engineered to draw your attention away and keep you addicted. You’re up against your own monkey mind, sponsored by a few multi-billion tech giants. No, the odds are not in your favour.
To keep your focus, it’s important that you figure out ways to simply block these out of your life. The macro-focus and the meso-focus are things that you can consciously manage. The micro-focus is something that you have much less control over.
You’re going to need some outside help. Our app, FocusMe, does just this and blocks all these distractions. That way, you can perform all your tasks smoothly, without the risk of your mind wandering off.
Lessons learned from eating cake
There are many different cakes to choose from in the bakery of life. You are, in fact, allowed to eat many different ones, but only one at a time. If you want strawberry cake, you can eat strawberry cake.
Once you finish eating your strawberry cake, you can choose to have chocolate cake, cheesecake, carrot cake, whatever cake your heart desires. But at one point, it might occur that the bakery is out of bananas, so be sure to eat the banana cake before it goes bad or someone else runs off with it.
Whatever you do, don’t try to eat many different cakes at the same time. It will just ruin the flavor.