July 27, 2013

Focus, Goals

Mt. Shasta

It’s 2:30 am on a virtually moonless night. We are roped together and attempting  to summit Mt. Shasta by climbing a steep wall of snow and ice only illuminated by our headlamps. The scene looks surreal but we are totally focused on placing our cramponed feet in the depressions made by the person in front. This not only minimizes effort but ensures less chance of slipping. Eyes and illumination are glued to our feet. Such focused attention on a single object for hours at a time is not unusual in wilderness travel.

However, it is unusual in ‘civilized’ life. Digitized video images, strobe lighting, the intrusive notifications of the arrival of email or text messages, radio and TV sound bites, pop-up ads – all are designed to compete for our attention and seduce us away from the current locus of our concentration. The result is that we don’t learn how to focus our attention for sustained periods of time and this affects our ability to appreciate things that take time to understand, whether that be  ourselves, a long 19th century novel, a classic piece of music, or a new, deep and interesting friend. In addition, the techno-media so many of us are hooked up to makes reality appear pale and insipid by comparison.

A number of solutions come to mind and readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that spending time in the wilderness is one. But anything that slows us down, enforces quietude and opens us up to new sensations and perspectives will do the trick. Camille Paglia, in her beautiful new book, Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt To Star Wars suggests that the only way to teach focus “is to present the eye with opportunities for steady perception – best supplied by the contemplation of art.” However, I suspect the current popularity of techniques like yoga and meditation also represent an attempt to counterbalance the lack of opportunities for sustained focus in modern life. I would also add that reading Proust helps develop the ability to stay focused. Proust indirectly instructs us on how to appreciate each moment of our life and if you have managed to stay with, for example, his thirty page description of how he falls asleep, you have learned to resist the curse of modernity, or what Proust called “not having time to do what you are doing.” Of course this passed right over Monty Python who pilloried Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time in the hilarious  Summarizing Proust Competition  (uncensored).


“One reason so few of us achieve what we truly want is that we never direct our focus; we never concentrate our power. Most people dabble their way through life, never deciding to master anything in particular.” Tony Robbins

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill


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34 Comments on “Focus”

  1. cindybruchman Says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Malcolm. I’m generally a Luddite because technology hinders the true beauty of the universe. Of course, I have to remain current with technology (limited basics) but I try hard to remember how I felt about the world when 15 years ago I didn’t have a cell phone. Days could go by without communication with others and the cherished letters one gets in the mail cured lonliness. I think that’s why I am enjoying photography again after a long hiatus. It forces me to focus! Great post. 🙂


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Cindy, thank you. I’m definitely not a Luddite about technology. Technology is a tool and tools can be used in many different ways, for good or bad. As technology is not going away we have to learn to manage it better, but because it is such early days we are making plenty of mistakes, such as giving iPads to children at school without teaching them how to control their use of it.


  2. chr1 Says:

    Mind and body working together to reach a goal. It’s a good idea to get away for awhile, even if it’s to build something, or hike.


  3. Dapper Dan Says:

    The last few months I’ve not had internet at my own place and I’m surprised at how nice it is. I thought I would miss it but there’s more solitude without it. The mornings have been quieter as I can sit and sip coffee in peace without rushing to get online or what not. When I’m bored I read more or go for a bike ride or a walk. I’ll get my own internet again someday but for now it’s been nice to “do without” for a while.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Dan, thank you for sharing this. It makes me wonder whether we will reach a point where holiday cottages and vacation hotels start to attract customers solely because they don’t have access to the internet 🙂


  4. Michele Seminara Says:

    Couldn’t agree more Malcolm! I like a little single pointed exploration into the wilderness of my own mind (i.e, meditation), but the outdoor sort is amazing too. As is Proust. I think we have all forgotten how pleasant it is to be still! Thanks for the reminder. .


  5. A Gripping Life Says:

    All true. I often feel overwhelmed with the noise of our society/culture. It prevents me from concentrating on the important matters of living. Interestingly, it is my dance class, currently, that helps to ground me. It seems very primitive but during that hour all distractions fall away. It’s just rhythm, movement and lots of concentration.
    Excellent post.


  6. becwillmylife Says:

    Great post. I think most of society could be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. We are overstimulated from the time we wake until we retire to sleep at night unless we take steps to minimize the distractions. Employees have the ability to contact one another around the clock. Can you imagine what it is like to be a teenager these days? No wonder they are depressed. When I was a kid and had a bad day I could go home and get away from my peers. With social media, kids don’t get a breather. I am very easily distracted and have a difficult time focusing with so much competing for my attention. My husband likes to pretend his hand is a puppet and he’ll say….see the monkey….see the monkey…to give me a hard time about jumping from one thing to the next. The one thing that truly helps me decompress is time in nature. Climbing Mt. Shasta sounds intense.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Great comment and I agree with everything you say. Yes, nature and the exercise of mind and body that accompanies it, certainly helps me decompress. I always liked this quote from one of my intellectual heroes, John Stuart Mill:

      “A world from which solitude is extirpated, is a very poor ideal. Solitude, in the sense of being often alone, is essential to any depth of meditation or of character; and solitude in the presence of natural beauty and grandeur, is the cradle of thoughts and aspirations which are not only good for the individual, but which society could do ill without.”


  7. cattalespress Says:

    Yes, Malcolm, another excellent post…focus…the answer to “living in the solution” versus “the problem”…thanks for your keen insight…as always!


  8. unfetteredbs Says:

    great words Malcolm. I find my peace every morning with an early walk.. something I need and I miss dearly if I do not partake. It is nice to shut everything and everyone out even for just an hour. — Audra


  9. Ishaiya Says:

    Although to a great extent I agree with you on this, I also believe that people will naturally lead their lives in the way that is best for them, and that if it is beneficial for them to focus their attentions they will. Life as I see it really isn’t as haphazard as some would have us believe. I think there should be more of an appreciation for the beautiful synchronicity that already exists for all of us all of the time, whether we charge through life or appreciate the moment. But that’s just me, and my view of the world is far from conventional. There is a lot of great advice in the world, but the best guidance comes from your own inner impulses, that if followed will invariably lead to you the most fulfilling experiences.
    Have a great day Malcolm!


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      I wouldn’t expect anything else but deep wisdom from you Ishaiya. I don’t know if you are referring to Carl Jung’s description of how synchronicity or meaningful coincidences work in the world but I have always thought there was something valid in this beautiful concept.


      • Ishaiya Says:

        Actually Deepak Chopra, he has written a few interesting books about it. But it’s a conclusion that I had arrived at just from experience and personal observation. A long time ago I decided to stop reading such books because I didn’t want to unduly influence my own experience. I believe very much in the validity of subjective knowledge, and if it can be backed up and validated further by others then all the better for it. It would seem that certain lines of questioning lead to much the same answers, or at least similar perspectives. For one I don’t believe in coincidences at all, which doesn’t mean that I necessarily believe in predestination. Quite the contrary, I think there is an enormous wealth of experiences to be had, but that they fall within a pattern of synchronicity that is deeply complex and far reaching. In short you have a huge amount of choice, or free will. But everything and everyone is connected by this synchronicity in every way. All you’ve got to do is see the clues that are already there.
        Thank you for the complement Malcolm, coming from such an astute and skilled observer as yourself that means a lot.


  10. Gregoryno6 Says:

    My Saturday routine used to be: chores, an hour’s walk to the city, lunch at my favourite cafe, and walk or bus home. Then the cafe was sold – the new owner eventually absconded owing rent – and the cinemas in Perth’s CBD were knocked down to make way for ugly apartments. Or converted into stores.
    So, for the last six years I’ve been doing all of the above at home, watching movies on my computer.
    Just a month ago Perth had its annual Revelation Film Festival (Google it, there’s no biblical connotations) and I spent a couple of afternoons sitting in a cafe and musing over coffee. It created a pleasant sense of space inside my consciousness, a sense that being homebound and computerbound didn’t offer. In other words, I gotta get out more.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      “It created a pleasant sense of space inside my consciousness”

      Well put. I think this just shows that each of us has to find what works for us, whether it is long walk, music, art or just sitting in a cafe. Personally, I prefer to write most of my posts sitting in a cafe like you.


      • Gregoryno6 Says:

        I’m usually there alone; I think it has something to do with being a solitary point amidst activity. Either in the cafe itself or out on the street.


  11. Michael Edelstein Says:


    Beautifully written and expressed!

    Warm regards, Michael

    Michael R. Edelstein, Ph.D. Clinical Psychologist San Francisco 415-673-2848 (24 hours)

    Author of Three Minute Therapy (with David Ramsay Steele, Ph.D.) Features help for anxiety, depression, relationships, panic attacks and addiction *A Quality Paperback Book Club/Book-of-the-Month Club Selection

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  12. bravesmartbold Says:

    I love it when you write these kinds of posts. It’s comforting and inspirational.


  13. The Savvy Senorita Says:

    Whilst reading your post, I once again find myself nodding in agreement. So true, the art of completely focusing our attentions, and appreciating the moment, has seemingly become more of memory than practice. I haven’t ventured too far into the wilderness, not on such great expeditions as some may have had, but walking, and being out doors seems to indeed recalibrate something within me. Recently I have been restoring woodwork within and outside my property, and I felt such achievement and a sense of tranquility. In fact, when I felt a little down, that one activity really regathered me!! Oh, also agree with a previous comment you made on technology, and children.


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