It's easy enough to say, “Okay, I need to focus.” For example, if we want to be more resilient, then it's easy to say, “I'm going to focus on developing a deeper sense of meaning in my work and life.”
The trouble is that focusing takes more than talking about focusing. It takes actually doing it. But in an ever more distracted age, focusing is so difficult that it's more apt to compare it to climbing Olympus Mons than to climbing Everest.
Let me suggest today, then, that one of the reasons we struggle to focus on important things and neglect unimportant things is because we don't value focus highly enough. I'd like to help us with that. I'd like to help us consider that focus = life.
In Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, author Winifred Gallagher argues that life isn't an objective thing that happens to us, but rather it is the sum of what we focus on.
Consider me right now as I write this. My life isn't the people sitting over at a nearby table. It's not the socks I'm wearing. It's not my students or my family. Right now, my life is the act of writing this post. That is where my attention is, and so that is my life.
So think back on my last post, where I shared that one pillar of teacher resilience is having a strong sense of purpose. I shared some ideas there for how you and I can cultivate a stronger sense of purpose in our work. But here, Gallagher gives us the reason why this matters so much. The degree to which we train ourselves to focus on the meaningful aspects of teaching is the degree to which we will end up finding that teaching is in fact meaningful. In her book, Gallagher demonstrates from the disciplines of anthropology, education, behavior economics, and family counseling that “the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life.” She goes so far as to say that the skill of focusing is “the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience, from mood to productivity to relationships. And hers is a book rooted not just in research but in personal experimentation, as she sought to deal with a bad cancer diagnosis by focusing not on the disease but on her life.
This isn't to say that our circumstances are irrelevant or that they are morally neutral. I think that many of the working conditions in which teachers, administrators, and students find themselves are bad, unnecessary, self-defeating, wrong, and inhumane. Let's just call it what it is!
And yet, even the worst conditions do not change the fact that every day a teacher has a chance to do powerful, meaningful work. (Here's a wise intervention study I wrote about years ago that demonstrates the power of brief interventions.) Each time that we seek a moment of genuine connection, each time that we reduce the unit plan down to six essential things, each time we act in humility or love toward a colleague or parent — we shape our lives.