The Myth of Focus

Nina Matthews photography

I like to ruminate here about things that come up during the week, month, or life otherwise spent off screen. Since about mid-June, there’s an idea that people have repeated in hopes that I will implement. Usually it comes from men who are considered successful by many. They likely feel they are giving me, a younger woman, some sound advice. The more I hear it, the less likely I am to implement because it is antithetical to who I am. Before I tell you why, let me give a window into the last few times it has come up.

My business partner and I were sitting in a meeting to discuss the potential mutual areas of collaboration between ourselves and a potential host for our budding enterprise. He quickly shot down the first few suggestions for valid reasons and so we moved on to a second idea we had planned to present.

“Too many ideas,” he said, waving his head around. “You lack focus.”

Now this probably was intended to sting, but it had the opposite effect. It signaled to us both that for all intents and purposes this meeting was now in fact over. Not because he told us no, rather because of the fact that he couldn’t grasp that we had more than one goal at a time. Because we were not in the room with a like mind, we left the meeting, not discouraging but amused at his reaction.

A few months ago I had a similar encounter but solo.

“It’s like being married,” the person speaking to me was saying. ” One husband. You’re either with us or not. No freelancing. You need to focus.”

The same individual proceeded to hand across four different business card with his name on them: one for a restaurant, another for a real estate company, a third for a publishing company, and then I lost track. The irony was lost on him but not on me.

“It’s interesting women can only have one husband,” I replied. “But men can have more.”

“We can have up to four,” he admitted and then told me a story about a Saudi woman who divorced her husband so that he could marry another.

“He wanted one of the old ones to,” my educator was telling me. “But one of the young ones did instead. She took the building he offered and now she is a millionaire. She was smart.”

Photo by Kevin Dooley

From going to university while also working as a residence hall director, I’ve never been a person who had the luxury of doing one thing at a time. In graduate school my moonlighting as a ‘dorm mom’ paid for housing and the car I needed to get back and forth not to mention live a life in a city without public transportation. The inherent ability to juggle followed me into my doctoral program where I now not only had housing but also free tuition, not to mention a readily group of mentees as I continued as the international residence hall director. This interest in student affairs, or the support arm of the university, led to my developing an interest in the complete undergraduate experience which blossomed into a second career when teaching seemed less and less the pursuit I most wanted.

This is how I found myself an assistant dean for student affairs for a new campus in Doha, Qatar; the move that led me to work closely on a start up team with a man who became my husband. And while doing this demanding, very administrative heavy job (you’ve guess maybe?) I started to miss the academic side of my brain that was allowed out to churn away at a dissertation at night and on the weekends. I began teaching a course at the national university to keep this side engaged; it was brutal some days as I ran across campus (yes, imagine how people stopped to stare at someone in Doha, not gliding but running). Eventually this university offered me a job as a consultant in student affairs and three years went by during which — yes, of course — I missed writing and started a project to help students work on their creative writing skills. These workshops turned into a series of books so that one day when friends read in the newspaper a British publisher was coming to town to set up shop, they encouraged me to be in touch.

I believe in the principle of the threes so while I had no intention of reaching out to this new project, by the third email encouraging me to do so, I paid attention and tried, thwarting the usual black hole of information to send an email to those in charge of the initiative. A month later a meeting and then a job offer. Another three years (apparently the length of my attention span) and an offer to teach two courses came up just as I was finding the paperwork, meetings, and monotony of life as a part publisher, mostly event planner overwhelming.

When I look back on more or less ten years of my life, about 1/3 of the sum of experiences I’ve had to date, it’s because of my diverse interests I’ve come to live the life I’ve always wanted. Not in spite of them.

Two things are true: when you’re in something, be in it. But if you find yourself wondering what it would be like to get better at something (Arabic) or spend time being a better you (exercise) you can. Something will have to give — the endless hours of television or surfing on the internet or extra hours at the office.

But you don’t have to live life the way someone else tells you to just because you’re not on the path they think you should be on. After all, it will be there for you if you get bored doing it your way.

Has anyone given you bad advice? Did you take it or ignore it?

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