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Successful People Pay Attention

Kirk Tuck, my favorite hard-working pro photographer, is at it again.

This morning, Kirk posted a humorous piece, “Lydia in quality control – why it’s good to leave the entourage at home sometimes.”

Sorry if you feel that I’ve misguided you by naming this site “something…something…Athlete.” I’m of an age when the world is very interesting to me, and I positively slaver with joy when I discover the connections between things. And if Kirk’s remarks aren’t strictly relevant for sports in the abstract, I believe they are spot-on for the individual athlete. Yes, si, da, ja, oui.

Kirk doesn’t tolerate fools gladly. And he’s particularly impatient when people try to make photography more complicated than it is. As a practicing pro who’s continually fighting deadlines, he’s deeply focused on trimming his gear and his methods to the best possible working man’s tool kit. And he’s very, very good it, and very successful.

I commented on the article:

I’m reminded of a time when I worked briefly at Stanford University after my writing biz took a nosedive following the tech crash of 2001. The university was changing its accounting systems, and we were forced to endure hours of dreary Powerpoint presentations to bring us up to speed. I found that by closing my eyes I could make much better sense of the presentations, and I realized that Powerpoint is indeed, as so many have pointed out, the Devil’s own invention for dividing our attention and making us fail.

I recognize two tendencies in myself as a photographer. One says, “If I can just make it a bit more complicated, the photos will be oh so much better – if I can just go out on a limb and spend perilously on that shiny piece of new gear.” Meanwhile, the wiser, older, experienced part of me is saying, “Forget that, pick up the camera and go deep – learn every damn function until it’s a butter-slick part of your brain’s circuitry.” And of course, guess which approach yields the best pix.

And here’s where I think we can learn a lesson as athletes from Kirk Tuck’s working style.

I’ve always loved the idea of minimalism in sports. I’ve told elsewhere how, when I ran ultras, I loved to trim my gear to the barest essentials. Often, I would set out into the wilds of the Marin Headlands bearing a frighteningly scant amount of equipment: just a simple Camelback pack with water, electrolytes, and a single energy bar, for a 30-mile jaunt of 6 to 7½ hours. (Think seven hours of hills.)

In part, it contributed to a feeling of wonderful lightness and freedom. But it also kept me focused on what I was doing, and on the inner experience of the day. And as a photographer and runner, I’ve always found that the greatest happiness comes from paying attention.

Tom Taylor

Tom Taylor

I’ve mentioned my friend, Tom Taylor, an ex-Marine who managed a small country market outside Nevada City, CA. Tom loved his job, but there was one aspect that he positive hated: stocking the shelves. But then he latched onto the idea that instead of fighting the onerous task, maybe he should give it his full attention.

In The Joyful Athlete I described what happened. In case you haven’t read the book, I’ll paste the relevant paragraphs here:

One day, he decided to make a game of it. He put all of his attention into restocking the shelves—carefully lining up the cans and bottles, making sure the labels faced forward, and cleaning any dust or stains from the products and the shelves.

Tom quickly noticed that stocking had become a very enjoyable part of his day. Soon he was looking forward to it. Tom said that narrowly focusing his attention made him more aware, not less:

What I do now is not only stock shelves, but I’m aware of everything that’s going on in the store while I’m doing it. I try to be aware of the customers. If I hear somebody ask for something, I tune in and get involved, and if somebody comes in, I’m talking to them. So I’ve made stocking shelves more than what it is. I do the best I can with every little thing I try to do, even if it’s just lining up the cans perfectly, and so I enjoy it. It isn’t difficult to enjoy something if you’re putting your energy into it. If you’re always resisting, of course it’s no fun at all. I think that’s the thing you start to realize: that everything can be fun if you’re really there with it, and it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing.

I know it sounds weird, but I’ve been able to finish some of my worst, most godawful runs feeling wonderful, by focusing my attention deeply on what was happening, even the bad parts.

Focusing attention energizes the part of the brain where positive attitudes are localized: in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and anterior cingulate gyrus. It’s a reason why yogis, Buddhists, and Christian contemplatives place so much emphasis on learning to concentrate there. The PFC is a “feel-good” part of the brain. Researchers have long known that people who have a habitually positive attitude and are good at setting and achieving long-term goals have strongly activated PFCs.

But there’s a dangerous phase in every run where we can easily lose our focus and happiness.

Every run begins with the body. The warmup is where the body prepares to run faster. And as the body finds a groove, good feelings automatically arise. The danger comes later on, when those good feelings begin to fade. Without positive feelings to hold our attention, the mind can easily drift away.

At that point, it’s important to take control. If we let our focus weaken, we’re likely to lose the happy feelings in the final stages of the run.

When our attention flags, we can bring it back by a deliberate effort, disciplining it like a child that wants to wander out into a busy boulevard.

The discipline needs to be gentle but persistent. We can think of this part of the run as a rite of passage—a test of our resolve to stay in joy.

When we keep control, the last part of the run can be wonderful, with attention and feelings merging in a positive, high-energy flow.

A practice that has consistently helped me create happy runs is repeating a positive affirmation, short phrase, or a verse of a song. It should be something that has personal meaning and evokes positive feelings. Or we can dwell on a pleasant memory—a time when our heart expanded and we were rewarded with feelings of love and joy. Another good way to deepen our focus is by sending positive thoughts, prayers, and blessings to others—giving ourselves a joyful incentive to discipline our attention.

Research shows that mental focus creates happiness, and letting our minds wander is a mistake. Not everyone will choose to be an “associater.” It’s the more difficult path, but there’s no doubt that it pays dividends.

Thanks to Kirk Tuck for reminding us that our happiness grows when we avoid making our sport, whatever it is, more complicated than it has to be. Life will bring us all the complications we’ll ever need.

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