Focus Is A Verb

This morning, after engaging in a solid morning routine involving some Wim Hof breathing exercises and a cold shower, my wife and I sat down for breakfast and thoroughly enjoyed our first meal after a short 30-hour fast. We were sipping our tea, enjoying the aftermath of this intense start to the day, when she said: “Ugh… I don’t feel very focused right now.” I knew she was referring to the heavy workload that she was going to bury her head into.

I smiled because I totally understood her feeling: I myself felt really calm and relaxed but also a bit slow and tired – in part due to the very busy week abroad we both had just come back from, but also perhaps due to the very early start – 5am – and the new routine which we are not used to yet and which impacts the mind and body significantly.

However as she said this I also immediately noticed an unhelpful use of language in her sentence. We are constantly prey to such deceptive phrases and meanings, and we speak them out each and every day without conscious awareness of our doing so. I do it all the time and sometimes she catches me on those. These distortions limit our experience of reality.

Language describes and language creates.

I have a bias to look for the creative power in everything, and how our thinking and our speaking have a direct impact on the life we live. When we got married about 9 months ago, I sent an email out in which I was referring to a friend commenting on my decision: “I don’t know how you managed to do this. I really like my girlfriend but I don’t feel committed enough to get married“, he said, using the same cognitive distortion in language as the one my wife used this morning.

My friend didn’t “feel committed”. My wife didn’t “feel focused”.

By doing so, both of them used language to describe a feeling, an emotional state in the moment; that very same language inevitably – and perniciously – created a sense of powerlessness in their internal experience. Through this use of language, both of them described something that was seemingly happening to them, and which therefore limited their possibilities. They described a feeling which was constraining them instead of looking at where their power resided. We do this all the time. In a way, we create our reality and then we forget that we are the ones who created it, and we experience it as if it is happening to us. No agency. No power.

I smiled and thanked my wife for giving me the idea of a new blog. She laughed and asked me what about.

I told her: “About the fact that focus is a verb, not a feeling”. She squinted at me and then grinned as she often does, getting what I was pointing her to. (Yep, she’s incredibly patient and open-minded to hang out with me…!)

I gave my friend the same answer some 9 months ago: “commitment is a choice, not a feeling”. I still firmly believe so, because this is my experience of marriage and it has been my experience of every achievement I ever created.

Anyone can focus: it’s about making a proactive choice in the moment to connect deeply with the task at hand. It has little to do with how you feel. Same with commitment. And probably a good many other verbs which we inadvertently turn into feelings. Consider that when you do so, you let the victim in you take over the owner, and you undermine your power to create.

Over to you now. Which feelings will you turn back into verbs?

Un-employed vs. Self-employed

Not very long ago, one of my clients published a great article in which she touches upon a distinction that I’ve thought about multiple times before, but never quite articulated in language. This distinction is the following: un-employed vs. self-employed.

I have never been ‘un-employed’, although I have not been ’employed’ for the last 18 months. I am not setting up a company nor do I have the desire to lead a team, so I’m also not your typical entrepreneur / startup founder. I could have applied for unemployment benefits, at least for a little while, but I did not. I could have called myself un-employed, but I did not. What I have been is selfemployed, ever since I quit my corporate job in investment banking 18 months ago.

But here’s the thing. On my first “self-employed” day, which was literally the day after my last day in the bank, I had very little to do. I had no client. I did not have a clear product. I did not have a niche. I did not have a business plan. I did not have any income. All I had was an idea of what I was going to start doing. I was, de facto, un-employed.

I am not sharing the above to illustrate what anyone should do when they quit their job. By many standards, this was not very smart and definitely not the ideal way to go about making a living on my own term. But even in the midst of this reckless exploration – some might say ‘stupid’… – I never considered to call myself “un-employed”. Why? Because unemployment is a state of affairs, while self-employment is a mindset.

I was unemployed as a matter of fact, but I was self-employed as a way of being. Even though I was terribly unhappy in my job, it was still my choice to leave. I was proactively directing my own career even if that meant being de facto un-employed. A career is not a linear path anymore. I knew I would rather burn through all my savings before asking for financial support to anyone. Because this decision to quit came from a place of choice. I also made a commitment to myself that by the point I needed help, I’d either be financially profitable with my own activity or employed again to avoid having to do it.

I am not from a fundamentalist free-market and ultra-capitalist background. I come from a country where asking for public support is like meditating for a Tibetan monk or working 2 jobs for a working-class American. It’s the national sport. Yet even there, it never once crossed my mind that “unemployed” is what I would call myself if I: a) did not find a job after business school, b) ended up out of a job, especially if I chose to leave.

I am not saying that the financial support mechanisms in place are not helpful for some people: they are! Many people don’t choose to be put out of a job, and don’t want to be out of a job. Many people don’t desire to do their own thing and that’s perfect! We need people who want to work in organisations, companies and NGOs. Many people have terrible life situations to deal with, like a terminally ill parent that they are looking after or some personal mental or physical health issues to confront. For these people, having some temporary support – whatever the form – is a fantastic contribution from society to offer them time, and allow them to get back on their feet so they can find something to do that would give them meaning and allow them to contribute back.

But for anyone, especially for those choosing to quit their job or explore the world or whatever else, calling oneself “un-employed” is not a useful mindset. It confuses circumstance with identity. It relinquishes agency and encourages passivity. It embodies a subtle but pernicious form of entitlement. It is harming the grand concept of the welfare state. By destroying any possible sustainability for it, it is fuelling extreme individualism.

The alternative is a different mindset. One that those who are self-directed actually know and own. One of self-reliance. One of hard work, contribution and service. One that anyone can adopt. After all, we are all entrepreneurs.