Up to this point my highest priorities besides napping have been occasional efforts towards the accordion, and contemplating if Facebook is worth the effort. Facebook really, it can eat up an entire afternoon, and what do you have at the end, other than knowing that Adam has gone to the gym yet again, and Jan loves Honey Bunches of Oats?
Before Focus: Achieving Your Highest Priorities, I had occasional goal impulses. Sculpture held my attention briefly, but alas no thumbs. I thought about being a Life Guard, but then remembered I really hate getting wet. Song writing had crossed my mind but a recent trip to Portland doused that nascent flame. It was a song I heard on that trip, one I hadn’t heard in a long time, a song so profound that I actually stopped dancing the first time I heard it at 3:00 a.m. at that club in the East Village whose name I’ve forgotten. I was with Thomasina an actress friend of mine, employed mostly by Disney and I remember she was annoyed no one had recognized her. Then the song started. Perhaps the catnip played a role, but I felt mesmerized, just like I do when I watch the metronome.
Now, here, so many years later I was hearing it again, reliving the moment, which is suddenly shattered when the driver’s voice interrupts the second verse announcing, “It will be seven minutes before the shuttle reaches the Hertz lot.” All art becomes commercial it seems. I shall not abase my talents.
There are those moments, like that night in the East Village as well as the Hertz shuttle where we must ponder profundities. Some spark ignites and we alter our course. Maybe that’s what sent me down the self-actualization road with a stop at Focus: Achieving Your Highest Priorities.
The course length puzzled me at first. How long should it take to “Focus”? Two hours seemed reasonable, but apparently it takes an entire day, a challenge if napping is a recurring event in your Outlook Calendar. The very idea of eight hours uninterrupted by a snooze is beyond my comprehension not to mention my abilities which is why I missed the middle part of the course. Spending an entire day focusing should have signaled to me this was more than tips to streamline your morning routine. Efficiency was not the goal here; economizing time and tasks were mere tangents, time-management afterthoughts. I figured we’d be resurrecting long-established ideas from the turn of the last century and just buff them up a little with a nod towards iphones and the internet. How hard could that be?
Our bright-eyed instructor Sean, who had that Utah Valley enthusiasm that usually hides severe passive-aggressive tendencies, had been facilitating only a short while when he suddenly posed a question, a question which was to serve as the cornerstone for the rest of the day if not the rest of our lives. Given the dramatic pause preceding his query, I could tell this was the point in the course designed to confront you, compel you to some realization hidden from you until now. It was a little bit scary. What if I didn’t want to know this about myself? Maybe I really am dull. Maybe people only pretend to find me fascinating while rolling their eyes when I’m not looking. What if I’m really not a good dancer! What if I have to tell people I hated Avatar. Could I defy popular opinion and still be invited to parties? I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.
Sean said it again, “What…… (dramatic pause) would you set out to do……….. (pregnant pause) if you knew you could not fail?” (poignant silence)
Everybody’s thoughts immediately turned inward. You could see it in the knitted eyebrows and the distant gazes fixed out the window at the IHOP across the street. At length our instructor posed the question again and turned to a Great Dane named Bijou sitting on the second row.
She stared at her paws bashfully then exclaimed, "I'd bake a cheese souffle. I'd even make it for a dinner party!" Our instructor coughed then moved on.
A man on the back row named Thad whose slack-jawed stare through this first hour of instruction made you wonder if he had a brain injury, volunteered, “I’d become a star on The Young and the Restless”. All the women in the room turned, and then went slack jawed themselves as they recognized his statuesque, smoky-eyed, soap-opera possibilities. He already possessed the photogenic features, and appeared to have the dim intelligence one suspects of the celebrities showcased in US or The Enquirer which probably explains why he’d settle for a Soap Opera rather than feature films. Aim higher, I wanted to say, at least shoot for prime time.
I nodded appropriately at both responses trying to appear non-judgmental, although I was judging them all over the place. These two had opened themselves up in a surprisingly stark way, revealing, perhaps without realizing it, how mundane or low rent their aspirations were when placing themselves in a world without limitations. I decided I must raise the bar.
Now he turned to me. “What would you do if you knew (dramatic pause again) you could not fail?”
“I think (dramatic pause myself) I would travel through time,” I said.
I knew immediately that I had given a wrong answer. That he thought I wasn’t playing along. It was the look on his face that told me. But it was the truth, and he’d made the rules. Why limit yourself to the constraints of the space time continuum? What’s the point of thinking small? Bijou and Thad had made that embarrassingly clear already, not to mention the whole point of the course afterall was "time management."
The instructor seemed caught off guard but recovering said, “And what would you do then that you could not do now?”
“I would invest. You understand compounded interest stretched over five or six decades don’t you? When I came back to the present, well let’s just say Wells Fargo would be offering me more than free checking.” And on it went.
At the end of the day after a dizzying number of exercises and videos with contemplative music and a lot of homilies and platitudes, you leave the course armed with a mission statement and a description of your governing values, the principles that guide your decisions identified, articulated and documented into some sort of a pyramid, or a matrix useful in a PowerPoint presentation, that illustrates hopefully for you, but definitely for your colleagues and the course instructor, and of course your boss, that you have gotten it. You have grasped the concepts, and your paradigm has shifted into clarity and motivation; the natural results that come when you formally describe the timeless principles, natural laws and values that govern your choices. There they are all laid out, with commas and capital letters in Arial Narrow, a font you deemed appropriate for such profound thought, staring you in the face.A derivative of this documentation of course should be a good set of goals, things you want to accomplish that inform and shape your activities each and every day as you work towards their completion; long term achievements deconstructed into short term tasks, the daily activities that get you there. And now you finally know where “there” is. What a relief!
That is until you realize you have no goals. There really isn’t anything in life so compelling that you feel a desire to accomplish it: trying to understand the dialectic that prevents Conservatives from having intelligent conversations – pointless; reconnecting with your best friend from the old neighborhood – I’d have to find the number and I’d spend most of the reunion wondering, “Has she had an eye job? Are those tiny little scars?”; snorkeling in Costa Rica – that getting wet thing again. Sad experience has taught me that things aren’t always “worth it.” Is it my advanced age that has brought me to this world-weary place? I mean I am three.
I am skeptical when it comes to things others tell you are important. As a Scout I was told by every Scoutmaster, and there were a lot of them, that learning Morse code was a highly desirable skill since one never knew when one might find themselves adrift at sea or stranded atop a remote mountain, with only a flashlight some mixed nuts and no sweater. This seemed important when I was young, but as an adult the only time I’ve really been stranded was on my way to Madrid where I spent 5 ½ hours stuck on the runway at Kennedy International. But they gave everyone a Diet Coke and some smoked almonds and let us watch the movie for free, so how bad was it really. Should I have signaled an SOS to the next plane over or the baggage handler? Did they know Morse code? Would they care?
Before this course I never realized how narrow my vision was. As a cat, obviously I have my limitations; a short attention span that prevents me from tackling the more difficult tunes on the accordion; Stairway to Heaven, It’s Been a Real Nice Clambake, anything by Shakira or Barry Manilow. I am handicapped by my predilection for being nocturnal, a quality that is not well received at church, where as second counselor in the Relief Society I am always suggesting our next meeting be at 11:00 p.m. rather than 6:00 a.m. as President Richards insists. She thinks there is virtue in getting up early, treating climbing out of bed at 5:00 a.m. as the equivalent of giving to the poor or taking in an orphan. I say there is virtue in staying up late, fighting the flesh with its narcotic desires for sleep. Conquering one’s own flesh is much more character building. Staying up late requires endurance and focus as opposed to the momentary effort of waking up, something we all eventually do every morning. I mean which is harder, to not wake up or to not fall asleep?
But, back to my values and their articulation. There was an insight, a slightly disturbing one if you live in Utah that began with dim realization and then alarming clarity that my governing values, what few of them there were, did not include obedience. I think this is good, my friends and family don’t. Marci Purr who had just been rebaptized into the Mormon Church after some problems stemming from her brief but lucrative career as a massage therapist in Vegas, was shocked that obedience had not made my list. Now as any good Mormon will tell you, “obedience is the first law of Heaven.” They can’t provide any scriptural support or foundation for that statement, but that never seems to stop anyone from throwing it out if you question them about something you don’t agree with or think is just plain wrong. For example, the church spending all that money in California to fight gay marriage, but remaining stone-cold silent about health care reform or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’d like them to weigh in with some revelation from God on the Public Option in healthcare which has so many people in a dither or reveal God’s troop-reduction ideas. That would be useful. We need a Conference talk on this.With my completed mission statement I made another discovery. It’s not easy dealing with people when they don’t understand the clarity, ease of decision making and empowerment that a good mission statement brings. I determined the day following the seminar that in most situations I could just let my brain idle, which was so appealing since I always found thinking exhausting to begin with. I decided to just filter things through my mission statement. Do they pass through or don’t they? But just like quantum physics or Pilates, it’s harder than it looks. How should the Democrats govern? Is Florida a good or a bad idea and when do I need to decide? What song should I sing at Uncle Harlan’s funeral? A mission statement answers none of these questions, the things that plague us from day to day. And I don’t know about you, but these decisions are where I spend most of my day. I’m out of diet Coke, should I drink the Dr. Pepper or go to the store? I still must think, something I was so excited to give up.
So my mission statement is framed and sits on an upper shelf between the portrait of me I had taken at the Mall and the snapshot from my trip to Cincinnati. I don’t think about it that often, usually only as I’m dozing off, which come to think about it is pretty often and is my highest priority. So maybe those brief but cumulative pre-slumber contemplative minutes will result in an accomplishment someday, or maybe I’m already a success and just don’t realize it. After all I do have dreams, with every nap actually, and what are dreams really but just grand possibilities, possibilities that evaporate each morning as we put the Pop-Tarts in the toaster, retrieve the paper and face the cold light of day.