I used to think that if only I could get organized enough and follow the right disciplines, I could find a way to fulfill my goals and obligations in my personal and professional life without having to leave work undone or relationships unsatisfied.
I no longer believe that. I now believe that time and energy are so limited that I will have to neglect something important to me. I simply have to choose what that will be. Will I write less than I want to? Will I devote less time to my family than I want to? Less time to my church? Less time to my students?
The Limits of Our Attention
A group I am in is studying the book, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In one section he discusses the idea that attention is a limited resource but crucial to creativity. Since we have only so much of it, we must decide where we’re going to put it. Then he makes this memorable point:
“Another consequence of limited attention is that creative individuals are often considered odd—or even arrogant, selfish, and ruthless. It is important to keep in mind that these are not traits of creative people, but traits that the rest of us attribute to them on the basis of perceptions. When we meet a person who focuses all of his attention on physics or music and ignores us and forgets our names, we call that person ‘arrogant’ even though he may be extremely humble and friendly if he could only spare attention from his pursuit.” (10)
As we pursue our passions, few of us want to be perceived as selfish, arrogant people who care only about our writing or our music or our art or whatever other work we feel called to do. Better to be a generous, well-rounded person who cares about others but also makes a meaningful contribution to our field. However, with the truly creative person who brings about a groundbreaking change in a domain, Csikszentmihalyi writes that “it is practically impossible to learn a domain deeply enough to make a change in it without dedicating all of one’s attention to it and thereby appearing to be arrogant, selfish, and ruthless to those who believe they have a right to the creative person’s attention” (10).
Is he right? I am writing this in the midst of the Olympics, which I have been watching occasionally. One commercial I saw shows athletes training vigorously, and in voice-overs we hear them tell some of the things they have given up. “I haven’t eaten a dessert in two years,” says one athlete, and others say they have sacrificed television, burgers, etc. The list they give focuses mostly on trivial pleasures, but I’m sure many of them have also sacrificed more important things also, such as spending time with family, hanging out with friends, and so on.
At certain points in life I have practiced the kind of focused discipline those athletes are talking about. While I was still single and in graduate school trying to finish my dissertation, I gave up television for a couple years, dedicated one room of my apartment to nothing but a computer and dissertation materials, and set rigid hours for working on the project until it was finished. Even now, when I write a book, I commit to working on it at least a little every day until it is finished.
Deciding Where to Set the Limits
As a writer today, I am willing to sacrifice for my passion, but I will go only so far. I believe all of us make trade-offs, but we don’t always knowingly make them. Often we simply slide into letting things get out of balance in one direction or another.
The choice I knowingly make now is that I am not willing to sacrifice my family for my work. When my son says, “Let’s go play soccer in the backyard,” I go. I take him and his sister to their sports practices. I take long walks with my wife. I have more writing projects than I can ever complete. I want to get to them. I do the best I can with those projects, and I get some of them done. But I know that I will simply have to neglect some of them.
My teaching also holds me back. So does my church. So do my friends. So do my other interests. So be it. I care about those things and intend to give each of them some of my Attention. When I teach American literature, I sometimes teach authors who had writing as their only priority, even when it brought shipwreck to their personal lives. They were creative people. They made a contribution to literature. The cost was high.
For me, writing has an important place, but as much as I love it, it doesn’t get all of me.