Ten Greatest Gifts I Give My Children
CHAPTER ONE Tool One: Forward Focus
Sometimes I wonder about certain drivers I see hurtling down the highway. Their driving seems very erratic. Then I pull alongside and notice that while they appeared to be looking straight ahead, they were actually driving by looking in the rearview mirror. Some are checking their hair, applying makeup, shaving—whatever—and some are just staring in the mirror for no apparent reason.
A lot of families I know, including my own for many years, steer their lives the way these drivers do their cars—by staring in the rearview mirror!
We only have a certain amount of energy, time, and potential to use each day. Of the 100 percent we have, only we can choose where to focus it. And while at times it may look as if we’re moving forward, most of us are really aiming backward—back at all our accumulated problems, what didn’t work, what
went wrong, who else’s fault it was, why we can’t get where we want to go.
Meanwhile, the families that are really going forward look forward, with only a brief glance back now and then to gain perspective and remember what worked before so they can do more of it.
It reminds me of five-year-old Jeremy’s question: “Mom,” he asked in a restaurant one day, “what’s history?” His mom, Diane, gave him a lengthy discourse, drawing on her extensive college education.
“I could see by his blank stare this was not getting through,” Diane said. “I asked him where he had heard it used.”
“The waitress over there just dropped a fork and said ‘Well, that’s history,’ ” he replied.
The waitress had the proper perspective. She could have focused on how clumsy she was, what a problem it was that she would have to get a clean fork, how it disrupted her work. That kind of thinking would have lowered her self-esteem and diminished her joy and energy, but she let it just go as “history.” Instead of reinforcing the thought that this was going to be “another one of those days,” she instead turned her attention to moving forward.
Can we actually choose how to focus our minds and energy so that we keep moving forward? Absolutely! Let’s start with three simple principles of how our minds work.
First: We can only focus on one thing at a time. When someone thinks he’s simultaneously watching television, reading a magazine and talking on the phone he’s fooling himself. Research shows that he is actually switching his attention back and forth from one thing to another. Dentists have discovered how patients listening to music through headphones experience less discomfort because they’re focusing on the music rather than what’s going on in their mouth. We all know how easily a child can be distracted from an upset with a hug or a
kiss or a toy because he or she can only focus on one thing at a time.
Second: We can’t avoid a “don’t.” Imagine I’m standing in front of you right now and I suddenly hold up a sign that reads: “Don’t look at my shoes.” Where are your eyes going to go immediately? You guessed it! You might have tremendous willpower and be able to stop your eyes before they drift all the way down to my feet, but the urge will be mighty strong to catch a glimpse of my shoes. This is because our minds have to imagine doing something before we can tell ourselves to do it or not to do it.
It took me a long time to realize that when I told my daughter not to spill her milk, she had to visualize actually spilling her milk before she could understand my words. If I tell her not to hit her sister, guess what I’ve done? If you think I’ve just presented her with a prime target, you’re absolutely right.
Third: We go toward what we focus on. Have you ever watched a pothole as you drove down the road and found that’s exactly what you steered into? Or started watching the white line along the highway at night and found you were soon straddling it instead of driving in your lane? Horseback riders know a horse will go wherever its rider is looking.
I remember the last time I went hang gliding. As I soared off the mountain cliff, a huge, soft-looking meadow spread below me. Only one tree interrupted its vast emptiness. Just one tree. Only one tree. A fascinating tree. I couldn’t get my mind off that tree. Guess where I landed?
Which child is likely to do better in a softball game — the one who’s focusing on the ball or the one who’s trying to remember where to put her feet or how to hold her arms or grip the bat?
These three factors describing how our minds work are so apparent now that I think back to how we used to struggle with my daughter Emmy’s “shyness.”
When Emmy was five, she was painfully shy. I introduced her as my “shy child” and other people would comment on how shy she was. Since we go toward what we focus on, of course, all she did was become more shy. I’d say, “Emmy, don’t be shy,” but since we can’t avoid a don’t, guess which direction her shy quotient zoomed?
The difference in her was like night and day once I learned to adjust my own focus as well as hers. If she said “hello” to someone, no matter how timidly, I focused on her greeting and complimented her on it. (This is a process we work on in “10 Greatest Gifts” seminars called FAC—Find, Acknowledge, Celebrate!) If she shook someone’s hand or looked them in the eye, I noticed that behavior and gave her lots of positive messages about it.
In just a few months she became one of the most outgoing, sociable little girls I know. And many other people know and enjoy her as well, since shyness no longer holds her back.
Each of us has a 100 percent portion of personal and family energy to use every day. Where we focus that energy makes or breaks our day and takes us either several steps back into the mess we’re struggling to get out of or many steps forward to where we want to go.
On the opposite page is an illustration listing the choices we have every day on where to focus our attention and energy.
We make choices every day. We can focus on what’s not working (the left, back side) or we can focus on what’s working. Since we can only focus on one thing at a time and since we go toward what we focus on, where would you rather focus? Most people say “on what’s working,” but where do most people and businesses usually direct their attention?
Would you rather focus on all the reasons you (or your family or your club or your company) can’t get the outcome you want, or would you rather head toward the results you want to create? Do you know someone who, when faced with a new idea or solution, can think of at least a dozen reasons why it won’t work? I’ll bet you know many because, sadly, that’s the norm in our society.
When we’re operating on the back side of the energy circle, we’re stuck on the problem, on what’s not working, on all the reasons we can’t get where we want to be. We look for who else is to blame so we can justify why we’re poor, helpless victims. Since we can only focus on one thing at a time, when we’re on that side of the energy circle, we are indeed stuck there. Remember we can only be on one side or the other.
When we refocus our energy and move into the forward side, we concentrate on what’s working, what the solution is, the results we want to create and what we can do to move toward where we want to be.
It’s a simple reality of life—what you focus on is where you’ll go. Focus on your problems, and they’ll loom larger every day. Focus on solutions, and the problems begin to fade away. Focus on what uproar your household is always in and the uproar will get worse. Focus on the quiet moments when everyone and everything is functioning harmoniously and that peace will soon expand.
In the same vein, focus on all the reasons you can’t achieve something or why it can’t be done—and presto—you’ll prove yourself right, or find more reasons than you thought imaginable. Focus on what you don’t like about something or somebody and sure enough, you’ll find more and more of those traits.
“I get it now,” a woman at a recent session called out as we discussed the energy circle.
I’m a mature, rational adult and a very careful driver. I’ve never had an accident, but suddenly I go through phases of dinging and denting the car. I realize now it’s always after my dad visits from out of town. Whenever he visits he always insists that I scoot over to let him drive because, according to him, I’m not a good enough driver. When he leaves, I start running into things. I know now I go toward what I focus on. After a couple of weeks with him, I’m convinced I’m a lousy driver.
A husband and wife said at another seminar, “We’re changing from having a ‘TV’ room to a ‘family’ room since we know we’ll get what we focus on.”
Families can easily find themselves hopelessly mired in the “backward” part of the circle when they gather at the dinner table each night.
My colleague Allison, for example, grew up in a very verbal family, all lawyers and teachers and writers. But there was also a predominantly negative focus of “Can you top this?” to their dinner conversations. Her brother’s lousy day in school could be topped by mom’s crummy day at home only to be bested by dad’s horrible day in court.
We learned to score points by having the worst anecdotes. Unfortunately this translated into some pretty dismal responses when people would ask me, as an adult, how things were going.
Unlike those reticent Minnesotans Garrison Keillor describes so well, I wouldn’t even say, “OK, could be better.” or “So-so, can’t complain.” Instead, I had learned how to make sure the inquirer knew my life was going much worse than his was. He’d get the full story on why I was too tired, too overworked, too underpaid . . . whatever was my lousiest item of the day. It’s pretty scary to think what kind of life most people must have imagined I led.
And, of course, I believed all that too. We go toward what we focus on! What a disgusting bunch of barriers I had erected to really enjoying my life!
Imagine how your children will grow up if you ask questions like these at the dinner table or when you talk to them on the phone:
• What was the best thing that happened to you today?
• What did you do better today than you’ve ever done before?
• What did you do today that let you know how special you are?
• Of all the things we do together as a family, what do you like best?
(Other examples of forward focus questions appear at the end of this chapter.)