Marcus Aurelius and stoic philosophy have had a huge impact on my life. I came to stoicism through Colin Wright and Ryan Holiday, whose books Considerations and The Obstacle is the Way greatly changed my perspectives and the ways that I think about who I am, how the world works, and what is good or bad. Aurelius two thousand years ago and Wright and Holiday today demonstrate over and over in their writing that there is nothing more important in our lives than our focus and attention. How self-aware we are, how focused we are on things that truly matter, and the perspectives we adopt shape how we understand and view the world, and in turn determine how we react to the world. I see this same concept carried through lots of the media that I consume, especially in writing about success, happiness, and fulfillment. Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit is one of the latest places where I have come across the ideas of focus and attention.
Bungay Stanier looks at the power of questions in coaching interactions, specifically the question, “What’s on your mind?” He explains that this question is so powerful because it reveals to both the coach and the individual where the individual’s focus and attention is. A lot of times we are not quite consciously aware of the things we spend our time focusing on and thinking about, and when we are asked this question, our focus is turned inward to the things that have been taking our mental energy, even if we are not verbally honest with our coach. He continues, “one of the fundamental truths that neuroscience has laid bare: we are what we give our attention to. If we’re mindful about our focus, so much the better. But if we’re unwittingly distracted or preoccupied, we pay a price.” The things we focus on are the things that define us and make us who we are.
Do we see a large bank account, a big home, a flashy car, and lots of vacations as the definition of success? Is our mental energy spent thinking about how we can obtain and achieve these things? Do we focus on our thoughts and reactions to events and people around us to cultivate the person we want to be? Do we direct our attention to politics and try to better justify our position and our tribe relative to the opposing side? Whatever it is that we focus on will define our actions and our behaviors. Drawing this out and thinking through it will help us to be able to ask ourselves whether we like where our brain is and what we are doing. If we find that we do not like the person we are becoming or that we are spending all our time and effort straining toward something that ultimately does not help us grow and make the world better, then we should step back and try to refocus on the things that matter most.
As a coach, the best thing we can do is help the other person become more self-aware and attentive to the things that are on their mind and taking their mental energy. We can help paint a picture of success, growth, and achievement that takes away the pressures and expectations placed on that person by other people such as family, high school cohorts, or even other people in the work place. Coaches can help people refocus their mind after expanding on self-awareness and guide them to think more thoroughly and completely about the things that have been subconsciously eating away at them. By cracking into the mind we offer a chance for real change and growth through awareness and refocusing.