Focus is a Virtue

The modern world craves our attention—but only in short bursts. To give your attention to any one thing for too long is failing, it seems, because you might miss out on something else of interest. We have entered the long tail of the attention economy, grounded in finding every smaller slices of time in which the user’s attention can be captured and used.

The damage of the attention economy is wide-ranging, including the politicization of everything, and the replacing ideas in politics with hate and fear. But for the network engineering world, the problem is exactly as Ethan describes— Technology mastery will be increasingly in the hands of the very few as a dwindling number of folks are willing, or perhaps even able, to create a mental state of focused learning. The application delivery stacks are enormously more complex than they were 25 years ago. Learning them requires a huge amount of focus over long periods of time.

The problem is obvious for anyone with eyes to see. What is the solution? The good news is there are solutions. The bad news is these solutions are swimming upstream against the major commercial interests of our day, so it’s going to take work and determination. The problems are platform based, while the solutions are personal and hard.

Begin here—treat focus as a virtue. We normally think of virtues as things like being kind, or giving money to charity, or (in the modern world) signaling that we support the right things and think the right way. But virtue reaches far deeper than just believing the right things or being “nice.”

Sertillanges, in The Intellectual Life, says the virtues are bound together. A person with only one virtue will often find that virtue twisted into something it is not. A clump of trees, no matter how small, is more likely to survive a storm than the singular tree, no matter how strong the single tree might be. You must not only develop the virtue of quick thinking, or of curiosity, but also of focus. \

How do you develop focus? I can tell you the wrong way: try to make yourself focus for a long period of time. Maybe this will work for some people but forcing attention onto a single topic often backfires in very spectacular ways.

Instead, I would counsel a two-step program: eliminate distractions and expand slowly.

Sertillanges says, “As to the public, if it sometimes stimulates, it often disturbs, scatters the mind; and by going to pick up two pennies in the street, you may lose a fortune.” What is social media other than “the public?” Simply having too much information to hand can also be problematic, as well—”There are books everywhere and only a few are necessary.”

A distraction people don’t often think about is reading too many books at once. Most of the people I know are reading (if they are, really) five or ten books at once. They switch back and forth between books, picking up a little here and a little there. It’s a dandy application of multitasking to an old technology.

But I don’t think it actually works. Pick up a book and read it. Learn to follow the line of a single argument from start to finish. I find it helpful to outline information-rich books, or books that have complex lines of argument. The act of rethinking what the author is saying, and rebuilding their line of thought, is really helpful.

As for expanding slowly, this means two things. First, don’t try to jump from a six-minute attention span to an hour-long attention span in a day. Try to go from six minutes to eight, and then eight to twelve, etc. Don’t try to have an infinite attention span, either—it just is not humanly possible. Setting unrealistic goals is a recipe for failure.

Second, expand slowly by building mental maps, rather than trying to consume the outer shell first. The outer shell (“what does this command do?”) might be the most immediately useful, but if you stay on the outer shell your entire life, jumping all over the place to find the next bit of useful information, you’re never going to learn to focus.

Further, if you jump all over the place, you’re never going to build the mental maps that will allow you to focus. When I first started reading philosophy, I was often more confused than anything else. It was like jumping into the middle of a conversation—there were (and still are) terms and ideas I had no idea how to relate to. Over time, I built a mental map. While I’m still not able to read philosophy (or theology) like many of my friends who have spent their lives reading this stuff, I am at least becoming somewhat competent.

So… slow down. Remove distractions. Set goals. Build mental maps.

If you want to find the path to success in life, it is going to be through focus.


  1. Devang on 26 January 2021 at 11:43 pm

    Thanks Russ for the nice share. BTW one thing i definetly miss from school days is highlighting the parts where i had built a mental map, somehow it has just stuck better