To Be Great At Anything You Must Focus

I used to take piano lessons. My teacher — an older Russian lady — would come to my apartment and sit next to me as she conducted the lesson, an hour each week.

One day she told me she was impressed by my ability to concentrate.

“Most people cannot sit still for an hour anymore,” she said. “With kids, you expect it. They’re never going to sit still for very long. Maybe you get thirty good minutes. It’s the adults that are the problem. They always need to answer a call or send a text; or they talk, because talking gets them out of having to sit and concentrate on playing.”

I asked her what she thought the problem was. It was very simple, she said.

“People have lost the ability to focus.”

But why, I asked.

“Because there’s too much going on,” she said. “Phones, work, kids. They’re sitting in the seat, but the person inside is not actually there.”

After many lessons, I had shown some improvement, and she seemed pleased. But not too pleased.

“You have to practice,” she said. “I know when you practice, I can tell. When a week goes by and you haven’t sat down for an hour each night, it’s obvious. In order to be great at anything, you must be practice. One hour, minimum, every day. And to practice, you must be able to focus. You must shut everything and say — I am here and only here now. That takes discipline. Again, not that many people have it.”

I come back to this exchange often in my day-to-day life now. Sometimes I lose focus, and days go by without much getting done. Or, my skills in one particular area seem to soften. And I think — it’s because you are not practicing. Why are you not practicing? Because you cannot focus. The two go hand in hand.

It’s really just a simple concept. Do the same thing, every day, and you will get better. Disciplining yourself to do it, however, requires shutting everything else out. And in an increasingly noisy world, this is the hard part.

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Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.

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