Creatively successful people tend to have a well-developed ability to focus. Counting many of them among my friends has permitted close observation and the chance to ask questions. Not all of them are painters. Most tell me they had to teach themselves the art of focus. Hard addictions are the great enemy of focus, but so are the so-called “soft” addictions such as collecting cars, playing with boats and strategic charities. Petty distraction, business impedimenta and household demands can also derail focus. Fears, both real and imagined, play their role.
The ability to focus is an acquired habit that can be massaged to take over other habits. Skilled practitioners know that the other stuff only takes over if you let it. Further, successful focusers often have the quick ability to develop work plans and plans of attack — visually or committed to paper. These plans are a structure on which the component parts are gently hung. Running off willy-nilly is not often the focuser’s method. When a clear plan is decided, calm execution is likely to happen. It’s as if the focused person feels comfortable in the overall vision. Broad focus as well as close focus.
Peter Munk is a Canadian entrepreneur and philanthropist. Emigrating from Hungary via Switzerland at the end of the Second World War, he and his family barely escaped Bergen-Belsen. Picking grapes and putting himself through engineering school, Peter has thrived in several businesses. In addition to founding NYSE-listed Trizec Properties, he is also the founder and CEO of Barrick Gold, the world’s largest gold producer. You might say he has the golden touch. Peter is now in distribution mode. He recently gave the largest amount ever donated to a Canadian hospital. What Peter has to say about the art of life and business speaks also to the art of art. He’s a believer in trust, integrity and focus. Characteristically humble, Peter sees himself less well-endowed intellectually than he might wish. He feels that such a person must teach himself the ability to focus.
Failing focus is at the root of both failing business and failing art. “Is there more to this than meets the eye?” is the question that must be asked and the answer found. First solutions are not always the best solutions and marching on into the wee hours is part of the game. Focus means diligently finding better solutions when adequate solutions have already been found.
PS: “I’m not exactly an Einstein, so I compensate by being more focused.” (Peter Munk)
Esoterica: We are not born focusing. It’s an acquired skill that requires initial effort and constant upgrading. Backsliding can happen at any time. It’s as if the universe conspires to run interference on the best laid plans. The sad news is most people fail miserably in the focusing game — and that leaves the rarer ones who succeed. Character prevails. You can see it in the Munk’s offspring — they’re all super-achievers. “Though I was already wealthy I still watched them struggle to buy their own cars,” he says. “Melanie and I chose to give them the gift of poverty. They too learned to focus.”
by Amy Evans, Breckenridge, CO, USA
Focusing is difficult in this age of information bombardment. The trailers at the bottom of every news screen distract one from the news. The instant message alert on the computer screen distracts the viewer from other computer business. Then there’s call waiting, etc. Our times are bent on distracting us from focusing on anything. Our energy is diluted.
Blocking everything out
by Steve Reinhart, New York, NY, USA
I agree with the majority of the comments you made in “Focus” but did not agree with the “Running off willy-nilly is not often the focuser’s method” comment. Creativity is something that is taught to us during our lifetime boxes have 4 sides, red and yellow make orange etc., etc. If I, as an artist, follow these rules of design by methodically planning my paintings, it’s inevitable my painting will end up “designed” and planned out — thus the need for me to stay focused as you put it.”
“In my view I see two types of artist/art. One that designs and focuses on being precise and the other that doesn’t. Both types end up with something for us to look at but the latter type gives us much, much more to see. Miro confessed to creating one of his most famous works, Harlequin’s Carnival, while hallucinating due to a lack of food. Although, I have not starved myself for inspiration, I can speak from experience and say blocking everything out before creating something is an art in and of itself.
Art deserves focus and energy
by Evelyn Rose, UK
In order to focus it is necessary to believe that your objective is very important. I know that believing our artwork is very important will enable us to focus much better. It is hard to imagine there is a bold and happy army of painters who paint away when they can find that spare moment within a busy lifestyle. But I often find myself asking the question, “Why do they put their painting at the bottom of a very long list of other activities?” Why indeed is art not always taken to be a serious occupation? …One that deserves to have a lot of focus and energy invested in it.
I was reading recently about a young artist who lives in London and felt very inspired by her dedication to paint everyday. Whatever seems to be happening in her busy life — one being looking after a very fine vegetable garden and holding a knitting club (yes it seems young women do still knit jumpers!) she makes time to paint on a tiny canvas each day. This is a good example of being focused — whatever happens in her day she will paint her mini canvas. I believe this young artist to be a fine example of a painter who is truly focused on what she believes to be very important in her creative world.
Fulfilling but not fun
by Donald Demers, Eliot, ME, USA
The casual layperson who sees us painting often says, “Oh, that must be fun.” I suppose that can be said to a concert cellist or some other accomplished practitioner, but it always looks like fun when someone knows what they are doing. That apparent ease of skill comes from focus and diligence. Anything that exists in the physical world, had to exist in the invisible or mental world first. To see your artistic intention with clear uninterrupted vision first, is what is necessary to manifest it in the physical or visual world. One technique I use is to visually meditate. I sit for long periods of time envisioning the image that I intend to bring forth. While I am working on the piece I often take breaks and again sit with my eyes closed to envision the work again. It helps me stay focused and faithful to my original idea. It is the power of intention that helps one focus and stay committed. It’s exciting and fulfilling but it’s not easy or “fun”! Fun is time off!
Close call with ‘distraction disorder’
by Julie Nilsson, Ft. Collins, DC, USA
I had a close call with “distraction disorder” the other day as I was finishing a trilogy of three Peru paintings. While I had been on a roll with the first two, I seemed to be dragging to the studio to face the proverbial white canvas, a particular daunting task that day. A teacher once told me, “If you don’t feel like painting, don’t paint.” Not good advice for me! My distracters will lead me astray every time if I let them! So I began and, much to my surprise, the piece took over and led the way. I can’t paint every day, as my schedule just doesn’t permit, so when I am underway, it’s especially important to stay as focused, positive and on task as possible. And sometimes when I’m finished, I realize that whatever was ailing me has vanished completely! Often my busy mind will quiet down and attend to what’s good for the soul afterall.
Completing the puzzle
by Roger Asselin, St. Petersburg, FL, USA
A double-minded man is an unstable man in all of his ways. He can be sure of little or no successes in his life. Conversely, a focused man will always walk a straighter path to all his successes and therefore will have more to gain.
Life is great enough a puzzle without trying to fit the pieces that have been dealt to us to complete it. The fitting piece will never be used until once found, twisted, and placed to fit the notch. Even the last piece has to be twisted and turned to find the right fit. There is no completion to life without focus; especially on the whole puzzle.
This painting illustrated is the now finished work of my absolute 1st painting as an artist 18 months of age. There is an under painting that I thought at the time was disgusting. Yet, I knew in my heart that there was a missing piece that could make it into something of great value especially to myself. I squirreled it away until a few months ago when I found the missing piece and completed it to what you see now. It took the regaining of my focus which was not so much the picture but the message I was trying to convey with this work.
Poverty builds character?
by Jody Smiling, White Rock, BC, Canada
Only the wealthy who have, or can purchase, pretty much everything they either want or need are able to give the ‘gift’ of poverty. I’ve heard this proudly wafted sentiment before, and it is always from a ‘self-made’ man who believes he is teaching his offspring (at least the legitimate ones) how to develop a backbone by ‘playing’ poor.
I worked for years on the downtown east side of Vancouver with real poor people and I can assure Mr. Bergen-Belsen that the gift of poverty doesn’t make strong backbones. The truth is, it tends to disintegrate them. It’s hard to “focus” on anything if you’re stomach is distended and your body is cold and your personal safety is threatened.
Anyways, to have any intrinsic value, a true magnanimous gift is giving something you have, not something that you don’t. In the case of Peter Munk, he kept what he had (wealth) and gave away what he didn’t (poverty).
Love your twice-weekly letter… it’s inspiring, amusing, delightful, and today … somewhat annoying but motivating a reply. It’s a true gift.
(RG note) Thanks, Jody. Then again, Peter gives a considerable portion of his wealth to his own and other charitable foundations for health, education and international relations. Peter has contributed greatly to the Toronto General Hospital, the Peter Munk Cardiac Center, and significant other charitable enterprises worldwide.
Mandala healing experience
by Jane Champagne, Southampton, ON, Canada
Your Focus article is timely and to the point. I spent last week at a Mandala workshop, learning about a new way of focusing. The mandala has been used in every century by most tribes and religions it’s that circular, patterned, balanced medicine wheel, rose window, sand mandala, depending on what part of the world you live in and what you believe. I had been unable to focus on my painting for months, and found that every mark I put down on the circle led to the centre, the third eye, the spiritual, emotional and physical focus of my life. It was enlightening, a healing experience. Now, I can paint.
Focus on healing the earth
by Carolyn Megill, Toronto, ON, Canada
While I admire the philanthropy of the Munk family I must admit I am left cold by the thought that Barrick Gold is busy destroying Andean glaciers and peasant farmers’ only source of water in the pursuit of profit. The process of bringing ores and metals from beneath the earth’s surface into the light is always rife with danger to the environment… like unleashing and revealing long buried psychic wounds. The art of focus should be applied to healing the earth rather than exploiting the things that should better be left “underground.” With all his monies and philanthropic gestures it is amazing to think the focus is on accumulation rather than healing and social responsibility…
(RG note) Thanks, Carolyn. And thanks to the hundreds of others who voiced similar ideas on the worldwide destruction now taking place in the name of profit. More and more sensitive people are beginning to understand the responsibility we all have to Mother Earth.
Playing dead to the world
by Karen Sloan, Haliburton, ON, Canada
I read this once on a website and copied it because it helps me focus on creating my artwork. It was written by Rabbi Noah Weinberg and, although I’m not a devout religious person by any means, perhaps the following excerpt has a lesson for us all, at least it does for me!
“Life pulls us in many different directions and it’s hard to stay on track. Imagine a store owner who barely has a moment to breathe. He’d like to have a more meaningful life, but his business demands constant attention. Customers just won’t leave him alone. One night, he dreams that he dies from working too hard. The dream is so startling that he wakes up, gets out of bed, looks in the mirror and sees an old man with white hair. He immediately goes to the living room and begins reading philosophy books. His wife notices that he’s missing from bed. “It’s 3:30 in the morning! What are you reading at this hour that’s so important?”
“Dear, do you realize that I could die at any moment, and I would have spent the best years of my life at the store? So I’ve decided that from now on, I’m not coming to work until noon every day. I’m going to spend my mornings studying wisdom.”
“Are you crazy? You can’t do that!” his wife exclaims. “What will I tell the customers?”
“What will you tell the angel of death when he comes for me: That the customers are waiting? So for three hours each morning, just consider me dead!”
Of course, it’s not simple to take off time from work. But whatever you do, whenever you do it, be totally immersed and involved. Pretend as if you’re “dead to the world.” For that time, nothing should pull you away from the more meaningful task at hand. Nothing else exists.”
Queen of Distraction
by Susy Boyer, Nobby Beach, Queensland, Australia
I’m pretty much the Queen of Distraction, partly due to regularly having too much on my plate (sole parent, three teenage sons, running own business etc.) but excuses aside, I confess to being a shocker when it comes to concentrating on the same task for long periods…and I seem to be getting worse! Funnily enough I am quite good at being organised and run some efficient systems in my studio and household… I always start a task with great planning, time management and enthusiasm, but before long I find myself being distracted by the veritable ‘shiny lizard’ and from there it’s a slippery slope to a land of abandoned ideas, unfinished tasks, stressful late nights or missed deadlines. I have for a long time felt that I am capable of achieving more, been frustrated that I seem to sabotage my own success and have struggled to find a solution. So I’m thrilled to hear that the ability to focus is a skill that can be learned! How?
(RG note) Thanks, Susy. When the time and opportunity are appropriate, set yourself up for total concentration on one project or another for a specific, short period of time — say twenty minutes. Pay attention to the clock. If you can refuse to be distracted for this short period, you can do the same for incrementally longer times. This is how habit paths are built. This is how a new you will emerge as the Queen of Focus.
Meditate to focus
by Toni Ciserella, Marysvale, UT, USA
I have struggled with focusing all my life. I have ADD. I chose not to medicate -instead I meditate. At times I can hyperfocus so intently that all else is blocked out. When I use this adaptability I have learned, I can lose myself in my art. Self-hypnosis (trance-like state) is what I use to help me get into the hyperfocus mode. Shutting off the phone, removing any loud distractions helps. One can learn to focus more intently, but it takes alot of practice and discipline to control ones mind. A simple technique to practice is to stare at an object and see how long you can keep your mind on it without it wandering. You’ll find that just by concentrating on it you start to see the object in a new way. You begin to notice it’s texture, color, form. It’s relation to it’s surroundings. Pulling yourself back to the object each time your mind begins to wander, forces you to focus more intently on it thus seeing things in it you may never have noticed. Wonderful way to get new ideas.
Enjoy the past comments below for Focus…
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Helen Musser of Terrell, TX, USA who wrote, “Creating art is an all-consuming desire. Finding focus on a particular subject can be elusive but rewarding when you finally decide your inner voice is guiding you in the right directions.”
And also Kil Linford who wrote, “I am too focused. On writing. Sometimes I let other things that I ought to be taking care of just sit there and I continue to write. It’s because you have this idea and you’re focused on it, and if you don’t get it all down now, you think you’re likely to forget it or alter it, and it’s got to be done before that happens. Once you get it down, another one hits. It’s never-ending.”
And also Luke Charchuk of Surrey, BC, Canada who wrote, “I know a lot of creative people who are borderline schizophrenic, a.d.d., bi-polar, dyslexic, etc., who get lost in their creativity and are very susceptible to distraction because of their hyper-sensitivity. Focus is like a camera, you can set it to auto and just press the shutter, viola~! but is it discerning and is it valid, or simply more noise?”
And also Louis A. (Tony) Curiel who wrote, “As I get older I find that the “art” of focusing becomes a little more difficult. One has to practice it continuously.”
And also Katherine S. Harris of Bracciano (Rome), Italy who wrote, “In today’s ruminations, you risk excluding women who pay attention to their children, run a household, serve as a taxi for the family, attend PTA, garden, volunteer, etc. etc. Who can “focus” with several kids vying for one’s attention?”
And also Catherine Jones of Melbourne, Australia who wrote, “I have “baby wheels” on my paintings, and the thoughts, guidance and tips you put on cyberspace have really inspired me and have pulled me out of a lack of confidence.”