Tag Archives: focus

Doubt vs. hope: the power of words

I’ve often heard people talk about the power of hope. I’ve rarely heard people talk about the power of doubt. Yet, I suspect they are equal forces, both capable of far-reaching consequences in our life.

If that’s true, then the first choice we make, time and time again, probably has far more to do with the outcome than any of the other choices that follow.

Perhaps it’s easier to think about doubt and hope more simply. Imagine you come to Interstate 5. Turn one way and without a care in the world you can drive all the way to Canada.  Turn the other way and it’s margaritas and sun soon enough.

But if someone gives you directions that start with “Go south on I-5” and instead you go north on I-5, well, you’re screwed. Every single direction from there on out is wrong, no matter how right it may seem at the time. The only way to course correct is to turn around, go all the way back and start over.

It’s the same with doubt and hope. Through each day in decisions large and small, we are given directions that start with go north or go south. Head to hope or wallow in doubt. From then on, the rest of the thing is sort of decided. If you go the way of doubt, the result will inevitably far different than the way of hope.

I suspect if given as a question on quiz–something like this: Which would you prefer, doubt or hope?– most of us would write down hope. But life isn’t much interested in our written answers. It’s what the choice we make with our actions that counts. I’m no scientist, but I suspect far more choose doubt. The result show. A lot of people lost wandering around the desolated parts of “I-5,” nowhere near their intended destination.

One of my favorite quotes is from a psychologist named Rollo May. He said, “Man is the strangest of all animals. He is the only one who runs faster after he has lost his way.”

We don’t only choose doubt, we floor it and race to it with abandon.

I started this by saying I don’t hear people much talk about the power of doubt. I do hear them talking about its crippling nature, however, which suggests a fierce, debilitating type of power whether we acknowledge it or not.

This is a more common theme. Doubt is not just powerful, it’s ruinous. Perhaps you’ve seen the glorious musical Les Miserables? When the ramrod legalists Javert is confronted with grace and love, he is not only void of hope, he becomes crippled with doubt. He sings out to the unyielding strength of the stars to course correct. In the end, the newfound doubt is too crippling. He leaps off a bridge to his demise.

This begs the question: If doubt is so devastating, why do we do it so much? Why do we, in fact, choose it over hope. We take that first wrong turn down I-5 knowing where it will lead.

Now that’s the strangest of all animals.

Choose hope. It takes a conscious choice. It takes action and then determination to stay the course even when the rest seems odd and unknown. Hopefulness requires a bit of tenacity and endurance, but life is like  a riptide, pulling us ever back toward doubt.

But here’s the real sneaky part of this whole thing, the detour on the otherwise clear highway. When we choose hope, where do we place it? Nothing cripples so much as hope misplaced, turning to doubt, challenging all we once believed in. Return again to the case of Javert. It wasn’t a loss of hope that killed him, but a lack of grace. He couldn’t accept it.

Grace may just be the thing that fuels our hope in a way that is headed truly in the right direction.

When such doubt creeps in, I’m reminded of a movie of that name, called simply Doubt, that starred the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Merryl Streep. Streep, of course, is an actor without peer, as something like 18 Oscar nominations can attest. But the very last scene of Doubt, where her Javert-like personality cripples before our eyes under the weight of doubt.

Crying she says, “I have doubts. I have such doubts.”

Her hope was built on the wrong convictions, the wrong person and the wrong way she had chosen many, many years before. She too was impoverished of grace. When doubt arrived, it met no resistance.

We are called not just to hope, but to place our hope on that which is resolute and deserving of that faith.

Where does your hope come from? That may be the most important question of all.

Whose book will yours sit next to on the shelf?

I sat at dinner with a writer and an agent talking shop. Stimtulating conversation kept us glued to our table as others came and went. We ordered dessert and coffee to further prolong the enjoyable evening.

Stories about our past work wandered back to a novel I wrote in 2003, called If Pennies Could TalkThe writer asked me to describe it. I gave it my best and offered a brief overview. I mentioned how much I loved the creative work of fiction. The agent asked me why I focused on non-fiction now. I felt my mind squirm a bit, getting restless as it does when I fear I’ve wandered off too far from my artistic path.

Then the agent asked me the most important question of our long conversation.

“What shelf would that novel be on if it was in the store today?”

I paused. Stymied.

“Whose book would yours be next to?” he asked as a follow-up question.


Gotcha. I didn’t know. My restless mind turned into an anxious squeaking wheel with a hamster running along it. I stayed up a couple of hours after I tried to go bed. I awoke the next morning as if my mind hadn’t stopped picking at this all night.

I realized how easy it is to miss the most basic things required to be successful. If you don’t know what you goal is with a book, you won’t hit it. If you don’t know what shelf in a Barnes and Noble you want your book to eventually sit on, it’s a good chance it won’t. If you don’t know whose writing is similar to yours, it’s a good chance you don’t have a style of your own.

Why am I using second person? I write to myself.

I spent the next morning polling those who read my book. I asked them who they think I write like. Their answers surprised me, especially they were all very similar. If I didn’t know now who I wrote like, I knew it then. I just lose focus too often trying to be something I am not.

I learned more from that than I had in a while. I learned I had gotten stagnant at the worst possible time, a time when I am actively shopping books, when my focus, prose and projects should resemble the edge of a barber’s blade, glistening with precision.

A couple of months back we started a writers’ critique group that meets once a month. It has become one of the best events on my calendar. I catch the motivation and creativity of the other writers like a contagious disease.  In their company, I am reminded of my most basic life goals: to write and work with writers. I rediscover the focus I need to get better at my craft. It sharpens my writing blade. It reminds me I can’t write alone. Nobody, in fact, writes alone.

My frustration eventually gave way to gratitude for the talented writers I work with these days. From the sense of gratitude grew renewed energy. From that energy my resolve stiffened.

Then, I got back to work,  keeping in mind exactly where I expect my book to sit to very soon.

The Artistic Diva: It may just be necessary

My children have accused of me of “diva moments.” It is not at all an unfair accusation, though I take seriously my role to minimize it.

Note, I say minimize, not eliminate. Well, I note it anyway. Because until I now I’ve always felt a twinge of guilt associated with these moments when my concentration is so narrowed and my lens so telescopic that anything outside the frame is as unwelcome as Cousin Eddie in National Lampoon’s Vacation movies.

I was trying to explain this to my kids’ significant others the other day and the more I tried, the more I infused it with humor to mask my baseline discomfort at the idea that I was giving myself permission — at times — to be an asshole. This is fundamentally at odds with who I attempt to be as a person who values and celebrates others. The incongruence of these two opposing values stung at me for a long time after like the road rash The Bride picked up on Mother’s Day showing off on a skateboard she had no idea how to ride.

I still picked at the scab the next day. My future daughter-in-law’s question buzzed at my ears like Tinnitus. “Well, if you know you are that way, why do it?”

Sigh. It’s hard to explain I wanted to say.

Finally, I landed on something this morning that put my mind at ease just a bit. The world is noisy. It’s fleeting and skittish as if the whole of humanity share the same ADD disorder. Twitter is a billion-dollar example of capitalizing on this collective impatience and — dare I say it? —  self-centeredness.

To have any degree of accomplishment (that’s not the word I want… I think “mastery” is better, but I’m still not sure) in an art, be it words, song, dramatic interpretation, painting, even chisel to stone, it takes both a focus that is at odds with the world and an “otherness” that wants to create something of value for all.

I lack mastery in all but a very few, a select few, fields of artistic expression. But in those that really matter, and even to some extent the pursuit of learning those that far elude mastery, I can’t do what I do with the clatter of this world fighting for my attention. The closer I get to the putting three or five or seven words in the exact order to say the exact thing I want, the less patient I become, the more heightened my irritation is, as if I unconsciously call the battalions to high alert to the ramparts of my mind in defense of this moment in time and space when something outside of me, better than me, and yet a small slice of the fulfillment of me, happens. Why do it? she asks? Because I’m not sure It’s not necessary.

I realized later had I been less concerned with my own ego and entertaining them, I would have thought about the question my son’s lovely lady asked. I would have said to her — a wonderful dancer from childhood, I am told — “Because it’s a bit necessary I think. Didn’t you find it so in the studio?”

I’m guessing she would agree with me, because she too has a little diva in her, or at least I suspect she did to be as good at her art as she used to be. Don’t we all have a little of this in us, right there nudging next to our finest moments, perhaps jading them with a bit of ourselves that we know are not as colorful as the art we try to produce?

I am constantly reminded how flawed I am. I am constantly aware of how hard I work to smooth rough edges that take hours of spiritual discipline to sand away yet can become married in a moment of elevated voice and sour-filled expression of selfish pity.

I suspect it’s necessary, these diva moments,  this side of heaven to keep us humble and to keep us learning until that day when we finally get it right, on Earth as it is in heaven.

At least I hope it is, which heightens my awareness of my responsibility to do what I do while minimizing my diva moments even if I don’t really want to eliminate them.

Do one thing at a time and do it very well

This reference dates me, but who can forget Charles Emerson Winchester III and his pious preaching of excellence?

“I do one thing at a time, I do it very well, then I move on,” he blustered.


The show, of course, ruins his belief as he realizes a M*A*S*H unit is not like a Boston hospital. Hawkeye, the mad multi-tasker with magician hands saves the day and knocks the elitist Winchester III down a peg or two.

I loved it. We all did. We loved Hawkeye.

Too bad he was wrong. Winchester was right. And it’s not even close if we really think about it. Ask yourself: do I want a surgeon with focus, or one trying to be a comedian, a flirt, recover from a hangover and take care of two other patients while he works on me?

I’ll take Winchester III thank you very much. But emotionally we all want Hawkeye to be our guy. That’s where we’ve got it all wrong.

Multi-tasking robs focus. Without focus, life is blurry and off-balance. The experts — true American Type A overachievers, to be sure — got it all wrong. Multi-tasking blows. Focus, the discipline to concentrate on the task at hand, is a far more effective way to conduct ones business, though its far less sexy.

Our society loves multi-taskers, fast talkers, go-to-gals who eat stress for breakfast and then flick it away in spin class, without ever putting down the devices, plural.

But it seems the bets people made to this driven way of life are turning up losers. Emotionally bankrupt souls are exhausted and stressed and addicted and desperate. Yes, there is a better way.

More and more I read of people who are interested in mindfulness over multitasking. See some examples below. Even the Type A experts are coming to appreciate a state of zen. Time management expert Mark Forester writes,

“One of the most important time management principles, to which I have often referred in the past, is ‘one thing at a time’.”

In my own life, I increasingly have to tell myself to stop… focus… and return to the task at hand.  When I do, I do better. I am more efficient, not less.

We are not just what we accomplish. For a genuine hoof to head approach, how we accomplish the things we do matters as well. The journey and all that…

Tis’ the season … for multi-tasking. Christmas breeds frenetic anxiety. Lists grow like crabgrass with shoots creeping into every minute of our day.

Just a precious few days remain until Christmas. Stop the insanity now. Focus. Do one thing a time, do it very well, then move on. You’ll be amazed how you get more done and feel far better. You might just have some time to relax, do something like take a hike and even listen to Christmas carols. Tis’ the season… why miss it?