Distracted to Death

The cornerstone of accomplishing something big is the ability to focus on a task for a sustained period of time. However these days we get bombarded with so much “information” that we are losing our focus. It takes decisive action to win it back.

The following is an excerpt from my new book, Becoming You.

It seems obvious: if you want to accomplish something great, then what you can accomplish in one day will not be enough; you must be able to make a sustained effort for a long time.

However, this is a fact that is no longer taken for granted.

The reason that this fact is no longer obvious is that the world we live in today feeds us the illusion that we need to multi-task all the time.

The idea is that there is so much information on offer that we must change our focus as fast as possible in a constant race to avoid missing out.

In his book Mastery, Robert Greene writes that the ability to focus and learn from experience over a sustained period of time was what gave the human race an evolutionary edge over physically stronger animals.

Other animals live in the moment, and their capacity for learning from experience is severely limited. Consequently, they get weaker as they get older. Humans, on the other hand, have mastered a technique for making time work in our favour.

The way to learn mastery is to maintain sustained focus and gradually unravel the depth in whatever subject is your field of expertise. As you do so you are able to replace the strength and agility of youth with the deep understanding and experience of mastery.

Human beings have stereoscopic vision, which is designed for depth of focus. We have the most powerful brain on this planet, exquisitely developed for processing and using what we focus on.

The trouble is that these days we are being taught to replace that sustained focus with the quick fix of technology. It is as if we are trying to see the world through the eyes on the side of the head of the rabbit, which is constantly scanning its surroundings for threats.

We try to scan our way through the avalanche of information that overwhelms us every day in the form of emails, TV and social media notifications.

I’m sorry, did I say “information”? I don’t really mean information, although this is what we call it for want of a better word.

The truth of the matter is that 99% of this “information” doesn’t inform you at all.

So what is the nature of this “information” that prevents you from focusing? “Information” falls into certain categories:

Cute Entertainment

This is the amusing videos of fluffy animals or children that make you smile or laugh.

Facebook Wisdom

These are insightful quotations that are posted on Facebook or other social media sites.

Many such quotations are truly wise and are pithy formulations of the realisations that took great people entire lifetimes to arrive at.

The trouble is the context in which they are read.

These quotations are posted in bite-sized chunks and read by people who are extremely distracted.

Furthermore, the way in which they are served makes them look cheap.

When someone reads a bite of Facebook Wisdom, they usually feel a buzz.

However, they are only able to focus for long enough to feel that buzz and then click “Like” and/or “Share”. As they click the button they are already forgetting what the quote was about.

This is a process that is harmful not only to the passive consumer but often even to the person posting the Facebook Wisdom. Why is this? Well, one common chain of events is the following:

Someone comes across a quote that immediately resonates deep in his or her soul. He feels the truth of the quote deep in his being. If social media did not exist he would probably examine the quote and think about what it means and how it relates to his own life.

However, at this point he remembers that he has a social media presence. So he posts the quote. Immediately, the emphasis shifts away from understanding and applying the quote to his own life. Now it is all about trying to look good in front of his Facebook friends. This is how true wisdom becomes an adornment of the ego and degenerates into Facebook Wisdom.

The news

For the most part, even “the news” isn’t information. It doesn’t tell you anything that will help you improve your life. On the contrary it chiefly brings you stories that sadden and anger you and put you into a state of apathy.

This is one of the most nefarious effects of the news: the feeling of powerlessness that it induces. When you watch the news, you are fed a narrative that says that the world is completely messed up and there is nothing you can do to change it.

It makes you feel that there is a vast gap between your life and the things that truly matter.

The implicit message is that you are living a meaningless life in a rotten world.

Think about that for a moment. Now that is a message of despair. It is the kind of message that makes people smoke dope and watch TV shows or surf conspiracy theories all day.

Fortunately it is not only a message of despair. It is also a lie.

The truth is that you have a direct connection with the essence of life.

You have access to the unlimited source of power when you pursue what I call your Great Work. You Great Work is the best thing you can do for the world. It is your unique way of making the world a happier and more beautiful place while becoming personally fulfilled in the process. But that is for a future post.

Journal of a Literary Traveller 5: The Creative Signs of Romania

For the past week, hundreds of thousands of people have been demonstrating on the streets of Bucharest and other Romanian cities against a government decree that would have shielded many politicians from prosecution for abuse of power. As an eyewitness I was impressed by the large number of people showing up at sub-zero temperatures, as well as the peacefulness of the protests. One more thing stood out: the creativity and individuality of the protesters’ signs. 

If there is something my years of experience in Romania has taught me, it is that in this country there is a personal touch to everything.

One of the many ways in which this manifests itself is in signs. Whereas in many other parts of Europe, signs are mostly impersonal and uniform, in Romania even a no-parking sign or a park sign will have some element of personality in it that displays the personality or exasperation of the writer.

The other day I went to one of the demonstrations against the government decree that would have shielded many politicians from prosecution for abuse of power. The demonstration took place on Piața Victoriei (Victory Square), which is a huge square in front of the government headquarters.

Despite the size of the square, it was so full of people that it was often very hard to move about. Apparently 300,000 people showed up for the demonstration. I was very impressed by how such a crowded protest managed to stay so peaceful. I think part of it was due to the humour and personal touch that is a trademark of Romanians.

The following is a very small selection of the many signs that have been seen in Romanian protests. Since most of my own photos came out blurry, I have taken most of the following pictures from the social media storm that is simmering at the moment through the Romanian part of the web. I have attempted to give credit to the photographers, but have not always been able to find their names. If you find any error or omission that you would like me to rectify, then please let me know.

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“Today at the protest, tomorrow at the exam” (Photo credit: Robin Wildt Hansen).

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“Your dead can vote, but they can’t demonstrate!”

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“It makes me want to HOWL!”

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“You might have taken us out for coffee before f**king us”

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In front of the New York consulate: “Dragnea (leader of the ruling Social Democrat Party), Dracula has been asking about you” (Dracula was famous for his zero-tolerance policy towards thieves). (Photo credit: Ana Ilinca).

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“Yes, Mum, I dressed warmly!” (photo credit: Julius Constantinescu)

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“Mummy taught me that it isn’t nice to steal. Didn’t yours?” (Photo credit: europafm.ro)