Ask the grumpies: Is having a singular focus a bad thing?

First Gen American asks:

What advice do you give people who are singularly focused beings and do you think there is anything wrong with that? For example, I was recruiting this week and there are some students who have never worked or done sports. All their focus was always on academia. I have known some folks like this and although they are forced to change focus over time, it’s always singular. The transitions are often difficult but they become workaholics or super moms lying on the sword for the sake of their singular focus. (transitioning to retirement is often very difficult for these people). I am the total opposite so my opinion on this is skewed so I would like a more rounded view on the topic.

The third part of this question is, do you think its just how a person is wired and there’s no sense in fighting it? If we didn’t have folks like that then there would be no Olympians because I can’t imagine swimming 5 hours a day like Phelps for like 1/2 your life.

Hush talks about this a bit in her post on Amy Chua.

My dad told me that college was not vocational school, and that I should take one class just for fun each semester.  I am a big believer in a strong Liberal Arts education, and students lose out tremendously when they focus too much, in my opinion.  Sports in school are over-rated.  Sure, it’s nice to learn teamwork, sportspersonship, etc., but you can learn that on the math team or something.  I tried sports and found out that a) I am terrible at them; and b) they are not fun, they hurt, they make you feel gross physically, and I hated interacting with the other kids.

However, it’s not like I can really talk here.  I have been singularly focused on becoming an academic almost since I knew what one was.  (Other childhood dream jobs:  scientist, rock star, astronaut, spy.  Oh wait, I *am* a scientist!)  I pretty much always knew I wanted to be a professor, but strangely, I changed my mind on what I wanted to be a professor of.  In college I changed my major several times, always thinking I would have an academic career though.  And now I do.  So I am a little bit useless on the career exploration front.

#2 never wanted to be a professor because her mom is a humanities professor and she had many crazy colleagues.  It took a while for #2 to realize that some disciplines veered more towards crazy than others, so she made that decision near the end of college.  At the same time, #2 is pretty focused on academics and only did extracurriculars before college because her mom made her.  (I’m also a well-rounded and cultured person because my mom thought that was important.)  That doesn’t mean I don’t have hobbies though, just not ones that would go on a resume straight out of college (“Watched 50 anime series with friends”).   I don’t *think* I’m a workaholic (though some of my colleagues say I am… they’re just slackers), if I am one I’m a pretty piss-poor workaholic.

I’m also not sure what’s wrong with being a workaholic if that’s what makes you happy.  So long as you’re providing value and not destroying the economy in your day job.

We’ve already covered the mom thing.

Why should a person have to retire?  I mean, sometimes you’re forced to retire, but you have plenty of time to learn how to change focus then.  Why borrow trouble?

Umm… a singular focus can be fine.  It can get you far.   So I think that last part of the question is accurate.  People who do great things tend to be both talented and singularly focused.  More power to them.

So I guess my advice to singularly focused people would be:  Are you maximizing your utility subject to your budget constraints?  (That is, are you happy doin’ what you’re doin’, considering your circumstances?)  If so, more power to you!  If not, then sure, allow yourself some more exciting hobbies.

What does the rest of the Grumpy Nation think?

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17 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: Is having a singular focus a bad thing?”

  1. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    There is an opposite problem with undergraduate students at elite universities, such as where I work. The admissions process selects for applicants who have done eleventeen different extracurricular activities in high school: orchestra, greco-roman wrestling, built houses in a poor village, edited the school newspaper, and started a phone app company. These kids get to college, and they keep running around like chickens with their f*cken heads cut off trying to keep doing every single goddamn thing that appears like it would “look good” on their resume. They need *more* focus! When I was an undergraduate, I spent twenty+ hours per week in the lab doing research. When undergrads at my institution seek to do research in my lab, and I tell them that twelve hours per week is a bare minimum requirement, and that twenty hours is what it takes to actually get anywhere, the vast majority look at me like I am flat-out off my rocker and flee.

    • Miser Mom Says:

      [As an aside, the first time I read your blog name, I mis-read it as "Comradde Psycho-Proffe". Which I think is very funny, and I can't help reading your name that way every time now -- with all due respect, of course].

      I think you’re right; that students need to be able to focus. As you note, there are two sides to this. On the one side, as you point out, it helps to be able to focus intently on one thing for a long time (an hour, a day, a year, or more). That’s a big part of solving a hard math problem.

      But another part of solving problems (as Tinkering Theorist points out below) is making unexpected connections. And that means having some familiarity with a broad variety of things. So to answer the A.T.G. question, I don’t think it’s a good idea for a person’s life to have only one focus, but I think it’s crucial that a person be ABLE to focus on one thing.

  2. Tinkering Theorist Says:

    I learned from a counterintelligence person at a national lab that they don’t want their people to have too much of a singular focus. Basically, you can lose perspective that way. If you are so focused on one thing (e.g. your job/research topic at a national lab) it’s easier to think that your self worth depends on your performance or success in that. Then when something goes wrong, or you don’t get your way (again there’s less perspective so it’s easier to see little problems as big ones) you are more likely to think your career/life is in jeopardy, things are completely unfair, and nothing else matters, and may then consider being a spy, or whatever. The people trying to turn lab employees watch for this and know how to exploit it. So it’s better for people to be grounded by having hobbies and a family or strong social ties, which gives perspective and self worth outside of your job. I wouldn’t be surprised if suicide and certain other issues are more common among those with a singular focus, depending on how it’s defined, but I don’t have any numbers on that. I don’t think it’s impossible to have a singular focus and perspective at the same time, though, and also most of your post involved having a singular focus at work but also a happy home life, which I think is fine with the counterintelligence folks.

    • Dr. Virago Says:

      That is *fascinating*!

    • Cloud Says:

      I used to have some people with clearance working for me and I found the questions the investigators asked before renewing the clearance really interesting. Not just the obvious at all.

      I am no help on the main question because I always have at least two or things I am pretty into at any one time. As you say- having multiple interests helps keep things in perspective when things go poorly in one area.

  3. GMP Says:

    If you want to achieve excellence in an area such as your profession, then there is definitely such a thing as having too many focal points. I mean, to achieve excellence in anything you simply have to devote significant time to that pursuit, and, considering there are only 24 hours in a day, you cannot have too many activities that require a lot of time. For me, nowadays it’s work and family, and all other pursuits are on an “if I have a bit of time” basis. Sure, I love to read and watch movies and write and I used to draw a lot, and I would like to go back to learn a couple more languages and get better at writing in English and drawing, but the time is not there and I am simply not interested in scaling down my main two pursuits at this time.

    I played sports in high school and for a few years in college and I loved the experience. Where I grew up, teams were local/public amateur, semi- or fully professional; playing volleyball in high school meant I did not play just with high-school girls, there were older college and post-college girls/women and being part of that team was one of the most formative aspects of growing up. It was really valuable to me as a teenage girl, being around all these young awesome non-nerdy women, learning about lots of things, including dating and sex and birth control and that there are good guys and duplicitous douches… Considering that, being a straight-A student and competing is science olympiads and the like, I did not really fit with the in-crowd or even the out-crowd at my high schooI, my volleyball team offered me a wonderful and supportive environment as well as helped me build good muscle mass (exercise 7 days a week).

    Anyway, I always admire people who can do more than one thing very well, like be a great scientist and an accomplished musician (for instance, the very famous and absolutely formidable Millie Dresselhaus of MIT– who at 80+ is still very much active in research, travels more than people quarter her age, should have received the Nobel prize at least twice already, and btw had 4 kids — plays the fiddle daily and is part of a string quartet I think; it seems that the talent for music runs deep in her family). The scientist plus musician seems to be relatively common (I don’t have any aptitude for music).

    But there is probably a limit on the number of things where you can be truly achieve awesomeness and that number is probably only 2 or 3 tops (e.g. I don’t know anyone who has an Olympic gold, a Nobel prize in a scientific field, and a Pulitzer prize). If excellence is your goal (a la Amy Chua) then I think it’s a good idea to minimize distractions. I do know a number of people who could be awesome at a couple of things if they devoted more of their energy to them, but they have too many interests and don’t want to scale down on any of them, and generally don’t appreciate being told that they should focus more. Cloud posted about scanners vs deep-divers; for some people focusing on a few things is natural, for others not so much, as they enjoy dabbling in more things and then moving on. If people are content with their lives — and the scanners I know really seem to be, they are more relaxed than me and definitely have more interesting stories to tell about their varied pursuits — more power to them. Having a singular focus likely carries more risk of burnout and disillusionment (I can vouch for both).

  4. Dr. Virago Says:

    Re: “b) [sports] are not fun, they hurt, they make you feel gross physically, and I hated interacting with the other kids.” That’s why I was on the archery team in college. No pain, no grossness (very little sweat, especially in indoor archery) and lots of focused, quiet, alone time. Sure, we were a team, but a team made up of individuals — even the scoring worked that way. It was a great way to decompress and be kind of meditative without it actually being meditation. (Shooting stuff is *much* more fun than meditating!) *And* I got a varsity letter for it! :)

    On the main topic. Sometimes I wonder if I’d been more focused if I’d have been a greater success at something, as opposed to pretty good at a lot of things and merely good enough in my chosen career. Even now, I’m too interested in too many things. Despite my PhD, sometimes I feel like a “jack of all trades, master of none.”

    That said, I agree that some breadth of knowledge is an important tool to have in one’s creative-thinking, problem-solving toolkit, and that *overly* focused people can be prone to putting all their sense of self in that one thing they’re focused on.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Fencing was, for me, similar to how you describe archery for you. But I didn’t discover it until relatively late.

      • Dr. Virago Says:

        Ah, fencing, the *other* medieval sport! :) (We always felt an affinity for the fencers. Our team captain even dated their team captain.) I found even fencing a little too strenous for me — my thighs would scream afterwards. Funny that I grew up to run marathons — those aren’t strenous at all, LOL!

  5. MutantSupermodel Says:

    I personally am one of those people who lack singular focus, and in my case, I think it works against me instead of for me but I’m trying to fix that. I know a pretty good mix of both types of people and they are all equally successful pretty much. I don’t really think there’s anything wrong with either approach as long as you’re making it work for you and as long as you’re making it work for your co-workers (if you have them and if that’s even important in your job). I even know some people who fluctuate– they are all over the place with their hands in various pots and suddenly they are laser focused on something for AGES only to get let it go and scatter everywhere again.

  6. Jacq Says:

    For your hiring process, Sandy, I don’t think it necessarily matters since you need both types and probably more of the specialists.
    Generally you have two types in an organization – generalists and specialists. The generalists will probably go on to be great PM’s since it’s a multi/inter-disciplinary type of occupation. Generalists will define the problems and maybe manage the project (delegate etc.), the specialists will go to work and make the solutions happen.
    If those students have a driving need for success/achievement in school, that may have required complete focus for them.
    What I think happens later in life is that you begin to see a pattern in your behavior that is likely unconscious up to that point – that there’s an overarching theme of sorts (like all good fiction).
    Mackinnon talks about this in this post:
    http://www.think-differently.org/2007/06/are-you-scanner-or-deep-diver/
    I’m a “deep scanner”.
    As do the folks on the multipotentiality site: puttylike.com

    At the age that you’re looking at for recruiting, it probably says more about the parents than the kid if they’ve been mono-focused to date. Anna Quindlen talks about this in her Mount Holyoke commencement speech:

    “But we are only human, and being a parent is a very difficult job, more difficult than any other, because it requires the shaping of other people, which is an act of extraordinary hubris. Over the years we learned to want for you things that you did not want for yourself. We learned to want the lead in the play, the acceptance to our own college, the straight and narrow path that often leads absolutely nowhere. Sometimes we wanted those things because we were convinced it would make life better, or at least easier for you. Sometimes we had a hard time distinguishing between where you ended and we began.”

  7. theoutliermodel Says:

    I tend to get really focused on something I want to achieve, get to a point where it can run itself, and then shift my focus onto the next project. So I can come across as being very intense about one item and kind of ambivalent about others. This isn’t too bad at work – it tends to help me focus on the current project at hand. But it also means that I tend to ignore projects I find less interesting.

  8. First Gen American Says:

    Man, I just lost my long response. Sorry for being late to the game here but I was moving house this week. Still dont have my bed setup but do have a working stove now.

    I think Jacq summarizes it well. Back when I worked at GE they would flip flop senior managers from the big thinker motivational types to the numbers type with just about every job function. You need one type to devise a vision and another to implement it. Rinse and repeat as needed. I think that is why people change jobs as often as they do because they know and embrace the fact that you need both kinds of players to drive change successfully and efficiently.

  9. chacha1 Says:

    I was always academically-focused, but not singularly so. It was too easy to excel in my low-expectations environment (everywhere but inside our house was low expectations, *especially* for girls) so I had plenty of mental bandwidth available for self-enriching nonsense like art, music, and lots lots lots of non-curricular reading.

    I have never been a sports fan. The childhood environment was one in which it was a commonplace for people – especially men – to say that the best years of their lives were in high school when, not coincidentally, they were on the football team. I resented the regional preoccupation with high school and college football because the sports obsession took resources away from everything else.

    And for people who weren’t on the few actual teams, sports activities were pretty much a waste of time. Nothing about anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, etc was taught, and barely any rules. So one did not actually learn anything in gym class. I still think our nation’s high schools would be much improved by doing away entirely with team sports.

    • First Gen American Says:

      I never did sports, but I always had a job in high school and college. I think you can learn the same stuff about teams and leadership from working vs sports. I just needed the money more than I needed to do athletics. One data ointment though, if I look back at senior managers I knew in high school, college, they were almost all sports people as youth and their team’s captains on the sports they played.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        That sports thing was a very common way to keep women out of upper management in the 70s and 80s and a big push for Title 9. I recently heard one of our terrible asshole administrators say that he would never promote anyone without team sports experience like football. I suspect middle school softball doesn’t count in his mind.


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