Mind Over Matter – Focus


I’m looking at the coolest membership card I’ve ever had – blue, with a figure surfacing towards light – my AIDA freediving membership card. It’s been a while since I got back from a freediving course on Pulau Weh. A magical experience but a fight every step of the way. Consciously holding your breath with your diaphragm convulsing, your peripheral vision narrowing, your every instinct fighting for air, knowingly pushing yourself to the very limit, and throughout it’s that constant refrain – why am I doing this?

I get this on a much simpler level with running – no surprise there. Pretty much everyone I know who runs goes through this starting out. Your body could easily do another kilometre or more, yet the mind is going, that’s enough now, you’re tired, you’ve done enough, why don’t you just stop here and walk a bit? Etc, etc…

Every day we learn more about just how strong an instrument the mind is. Guru after guru tells us that if you put your mind to it, you can achieve anything. More than anything else though, as Dan Goleman (1) and others emphasise, it’s a question of focus. In drawing parallels between running and writing, Haruki Murakami (2) adds endurance to focus – which brings us back to the old theory of excellence requiring 10,000 hours’ practice and graft.

When I run, all manner of things go through my mind – 99% of them totally unimportant. And into this maelstrom creeps doubt and the nagging voices that soon have me struggling to keep going when my mind is telling me there’s a very nice sofa with my name on it.

Among many other activities, running and freediving share with meditation the use of mantras and other stratagems to keep the mind focussed or occupied. Anything from mentally going over each tiny step of the process in making the perfect cappuccino to picturing every single flower in your garden. I watched Diana Nyad’s Ted talk recently in which she recounts how she sang John Lennon’s Imagine over and over again during her epic swim from Cuba to Florida. It’s a good talk – the clarity of her focus there for all to see, her endurance undeniable.

The strength of this focus, this ability to close out everything other than one single objective – one big hairy audacious goal if you wish – is an essential element in driving sustainable success in everything from performance planning to start-ups to New Year’s resolutions to Olympic gold medals.

And it’s not just mental focus either. Taking the concept of focus out wider, the days of jacks of all trades are gone. In a knowledge economy with resources and information readily available, we look to those with a clearly defined and specific expertise for enlightenment and advice. Centres of excellence, people of excellence.

And so….Define yourself. Define your objective. Define your focus.

And my mantra during freediving? A couple of lines from a Bob Marley track. Over and over again. And then again a few times more…

  1. Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, Daniel Goleman
  2. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami

About Julian King

Julian King is an international HR consultant and certified executive coach with a keen interest in intercultural matters.