I’m sure you’ve heard of or read many inspirational sayings around being in the “NOW,” living in the present, etc. I myself as a former youth minister and career coach and mentor to many young people have given talks revolving around this subject.
One of my favorite sayings came from my own mentor who once told me, “Be clear about your goals, then give them up to the Universe, and the details will take care of themselves.” I know, it’s a real New Age-y thing to say, but it did strike home. What it told me was to stop focusing my attention on the little process details of achieving my goals. If I’m clear about what I wish to achieve and internalize what achievement of a goal means, I’ll naturally make the appropriate choices and changes in my life to achieve a goal.
That was advice I got literally thirty years ago. But let’s fast-forward to a conversation I recently had with my eldest son. He was lamenting the fact that he had studied a creative degree in college and couldn’t seem to find a job in his chosen field of study. He has been justifiably frustrated with this, and though he has gotten several side projects, he hasn’t been able to secure full-time employment in his field.
I empathized with him and told him I understood, but in addition, I happened to say this: “Son, you’re a dreamer like me. We look into the future and see all the possibilities the future has in store, and we want them now. But the reality is that we just can’t reach out to the future and grab our dreams and make them an instant reality. We have to deal with what we have – now – right in front of us. We have real issues that we need to face – now – right in front of us. This frustration you’re feeling is because you’ve got your eyes so fixed on the horizon that you’re stumbling on the obstacles that pop up right in front of you.’
‘Look, it’s not bad to have a dream, but there are more immediate things you need to take care of first to even start making your dreams a reality. For instance, you need to pay for your current life – food, rent, car, etc. So for now, instead of looking so far ahead that you miss what’s in front of you, put your focus five feet in front of you. You’ll still be able to see the future in the distance, but I guarantee you won’t trip on the obstacles that come your way.”
That was met with a little silence, and I realized that I had said something that hit home, something that he could conceptually work with. We’ve had these kinds of talks previously, but until that particular conversation, nothing really hit home.
After we hung up, I thought about what I had said and came up with a little mantra for myself that I’ll share here:
Focus five feet in front… (repeat)
As I said to my son if your focus is too far in the distance, you will stumble over the obstacles right in front of you. With a closer focus, you can avoid those obstacles.
The problem with focusing too far in the future is that just like looking out to the far horizon, you can’t make out any detail of objects, and by the time you reach that point in the distance, you oftentimes find that what you were looking at wasn’t at all what you thought.
For instance, one day recently, I was driving down the road and saw a shape in the distance. I immediately thought it was a dead animal, and it made me feel bad. But as I got closer, it turned out to be nothing but a brown piece of cloth that had bunched up. From a distance, it looked like a dead animal lying on its side. I laughed at my assumption. But that’s the point to this. Things far in the distance aren’t necessarily what they seem.
Another thing about our future is that it’s shaped like a funnel. We stand at the narrowest part of the funnel. As the funnel widens, so too do the number of different possibilities available to us. What causes so many of us so much anxiety is that when we place our focus into the wide-open spaces of the funnel, there are just too many possibilities to consider.
A common thing many of us do when faced with different possibilities is playing “what-if” games with ourselves. It’s fine to do with just a few possibilities, but imagine if there were lots of possibilities that we had to evaluate, which would be the case when we’re looking far into the future where there are several possibilities from which to choose. Add to that what I said about things in the distance not being what they seem from our current perspective – which means we’re also possibly playing what-if games with things that are not yet clear nor distinct. The net result is we become frozen because there are just too many factors we’re considering.
The way to overcome that is to bring our focus in where the number of possibilities is at an amount with which we can deal and the possibilities are things we can clearly identify. I use the “five feet in front” analogy to help drive that home. Now, some can handle more possibilities at once, but the point is to bring our focus back to where we can comfortably deal with the possibilities or issues within the limits of that focus.
Back in the early 90’s, I got into that “Personal Power” trend. I attended a different program, but it was similar to the Tony Robbins seminars. With those programs, one of the first things they’d drive home is that one of the ways to get yourself on a successful track was to start with achieving little goals first. Get the little wins to get you in the habit of achieving your goals.
The concept of focusing five feet in front plays nicely into that. When our focus is closer, it is easy to set easily achievable goals because the possibilities are right in front of us, and there are fewer possibilities to consider. As we learn to take care of those things and make them second-nature, we can start looking a bit further ahead at more distant goals. But our priority should be to take care of those things in front of us first.
Bear in mind, that this shouldn’t preclude us from looking to the future. But we should do it with the understanding that there are things that need our immediate attention first. So move your focus back, get the little wins first, and you’ll find that a whole new world may open up for you.