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We know that it is important. Peter Drucker said so and myriads of gurus tell us daily that focus is what makes things work. I agree, but what is focus? Is it just the end value of a project? Is it a skill? Is it speedy grasp or rapid retort? Trying to answer the question for myself I studied three examples of people I think had outstanding focus. Please note that I am not saying these people were necessarily ‘right’ or ‘good’. Right and good don’t always command success in the world’s terms, although focus for failure would seem absurdly counterproductive.

When you cannot define something it is always useful to see who epitomises it. My three examples are:

Mother Teresa of Calcutta, now canonised as a Saint. Her focus was so clear that whenever we think of her we mentally add “the poorest of the poor”. It is a terrific bit of copy. Roll it around in your head and on your tongue. It is synonymous with Mother T. It was her focus, her mantra, her confession for all the troubles she caused the authorities to create and develop her religious Order. To the moment she died Mother T had focus. Her faith gave her focus beyond death, too.

Oscar Wilde is almost the opposite of Mother Teresa. Lucid, arrogant, challenging for the morals of the time, contentious and really sad at the end, he did not have the sort of purpose that she had. His was a different focus. His creativity shines as much today as it did in 1900 when, at the age of forty-six, he died. His focus was to discover a meaning of life that could be expressed in words and lived in practice. Did he succeed? Most people might say ‘no’, I think. For me, he did. His success is illustrated by a comment he uttered – and the reply it received. When someone he was dining with made a clever remark he said “I wish I’d said that”. His companion replied “You will, Oscar, you will”. Fast focus, perhaps.

My third choice may startle you. Rasputin was not a good man. I dislike saying that about anybody since I think people are generally good even though they often do bad things. So we’ll say that Rasputin did many bad things. His focus was reading people. Whatever his intentions, however distasteful his behaviour, Rapsutin had ‘focus’ on those he dealt with. The survival of the Tsar and Tsarina’s haemophiliac son until they were all shot, when the boy was fourteen, was largely due to the attention Rasputin devoted to him. It was a focus of preparation and judgement rather than one of protection.

Common to these three very different people is that they all had purpose. They honed their focus skill relentlessly to enable them to achieve that purpose. That didn’t guarantee that they were good for the world. Like the curate’s egg, they were good in parts. Just as we all are. Indeed some of today’s most undesirable leaders have a focus on their purposes which is terrifyingly driving success precisely where we don’t want it.

Focus is a tool, almost a religion, which can be used for good or ill.

If you have the skill of focus you need the morals of kindness to make it useful to others. Unsurprisingly, if you have the morals of kindness without the skill of focus you will be a voice in the wilderness.

Can you learn ‘focus’? You can. Doing so demands one of the toughest disciplines we know of. It is the discipline of forgetting yourself to concentrate on the other person. It requires an overwhelming curiosity in people and objectives, but a curiosity that doesn’t lose sight of strategy. That’s the real business test of focus. I worked with a very bright and clever colleague whose interest in everything was terrific. He could shut out the world to study an intricate new technology. In doing so, he lost sight of strategy. His focus failed.

The world today needs focus but not the sort that loses sight of the horizon. Today’s focus needs to be on life’s fundamentals.

Without it we shall be amoral technological wonders.

Lost in a life of trivia.

Good morning
John Bittleston

Your comments always welcome at [email protected]

24 May 2024