Focused effort

May 11th, 2011

Two years ago, I decided to get a new car. Having driven my trusty Accord for the past 17 years, I decided to get another Honda, but this time a Civic. I loved the design of the car, simple, elegant, and of course, with good gas mileage.

Now, as most of my friends know, I usually take off to another state during the summer. Two years ago, on the morning I was to leave the house, I went to my Civic, undid the battery cables, (Yes, that’s the trick I learned many years ago. If you have to leave on a long vacation, disconnect the battery, otherwise, you’ll have to get a new one when you get back.) and then slammed down the hood.

To my surprise, the hood did not close, instead it bounced back. I tried again, this time much harder, but the same thing happened. I tried again, and again, and again. Cursing at the incompetence of the engineers who designed this great looking but dumb car, I finally decided to give up after about the twentieth try.

I decided to leave the hood open, and that’s the way it stayed that whole summer, open. When I came back, the first thing I did was drive to my dealership, yes, with the hood still not fully closed. When I got there, Jill, my favorite customer rep there, took one look at the hood and without a word, slammed it shut.

Yes, it was that easy.

Apparently there’s a trick to closing the hood. That’s because it’s a small hood, and does not have the weight of the more standard-size hoods. To close it, you’ll have to aim it at the latch, and at a precise moment, let it go so it hits the latch at just the right speed.

What does closing a car hood have to do with playing guitar?

Quite a bit, in fact, and with life too. It has to do with focusing our efforts instead of just applying it. If you focus your efforts, you can generate much more power and with much less effort, as the car hood experience will attest to.

Ironically, that’s the way I’ve always operated, I’ve always believed in focused effort.

It explains my relative impatience with people who don’t. Like checkout cashiers who take forever to ring up a few items, because they’re chatting with their colleagues. Pastors who ramble on without a central message. Administrators who call meetings for the sake of having meetings, and let them drag on forever. And most of all, people who don’t come to the point.

I apply the same focus in my approach to the guitar too. Years ago, I knew that you must have a goal in mind when you practice. Don’t just practice for the sake of practicing, that’s as bad as holding endless meetings for the sake of having discussions. Always have a goal in mind. Like perhaps mastering a new technique, learning a new piece.

When you play, be very spare and focused in your efforts too. When you pluck, don’t just slam down on the strings. Direct them toward a specific goal, in this case, the strings, and know precisely when to let go. Any effort you exert after you’ve plucked the string is just unnecessary and wasted effort, so make sure you release your effort the instant you strike the string.

I’ve found that in life, many times, the appearance of having applied effort is usually all you need to do to get ahead. I worked as a student worker when I was in college, and the word on the shop floor (actually library floor) was, appear to look busy, never mind whether you’re doing any work, as long as you look busy, the boss would leave you alone.

That, unfortunately, is true of most shop floors and work places. These days, to show that you’re a good worker, you have to become very good at ‘documentation.’ Because documentation is ‘proof’ that you’re ‘working hard.’ This trend is creating a whole subclass of workers who are very good at documenting and not much else.

The point about focused effort is that everything we do requires energy and like everything else, energy is finite. If you have to direct your energy to producing fluff and keeping up appearances, it means you have less energy to apply to the real productive things in life, and in your work.

In guitar terms, if I have to spend countless hours practicing scales and technical exercises that have little relevance to real playing, it means I have less hours to devote to my real practice.

Focused effort also lies at the heart of the AOV philosophy. Focus your efforts on results. As long as you achieve your results, it doesn’t matter how you got to those results (always within legal limits of course). This takes the attention away from rigid procedures, from meaningless rituals, from any other considerations other than to achieve your goals.

Yes, quite a discussion, all arising from a pesky car hood. But the concept of focusing your efforts is a critical part of achieving an efficient and productive life, and central to the AOV.

2 Responses to “Focused effort”

  1. Lucy Says:

    I thought this was a fun and interesting article, thank you.

  2. Philip Hii Says:

    Thanks, glad you liked it.