Relearning The Art Of Concentration
Last week I enjoyed my 12th Japanese calligraphy lesson. It was a beautiful, blue-sky kind of morning as I walked to class. One of those days when dressing seems effortless; a shirt and jeans with no concern about feeling too hot or too cold, no precautions for the effects of heating or air-conditioning.
My teacher’s welcome was warm and inviting as I made my way to my favourite spot in the third floor studio, at the intersection of two big windows, which were open. The faint sound of birds and the occasional steps of passers-by provided a gentle, almost musical backdrop.
I felt great as I set up my station, taking my brush from my bag and placing it in the ceramic holder, pouring ink into the well and collecting some sheets of paper.
As I started making marks, this feeling of ease quickly faded, replaced by a growing sense of frustration. I was ruining my characters by loading too much ink onto the brush and creating ugly, black, bleeding veins. Or I was forgetting the stroke order and making shapes that seemed kind of right, but were really very wrong.
I wasn’t concentrating.
Does Concentration Matter Anymore?
We don’t talk much about concentration these days. As a skill, it seems to have gone out of fashion. When I was I kid, concentration was treated like some kind of superpower. It had the ability to solve any problem. Making mistakes at sport? Not getting good grades? Falling off your bike? Just concentrate and it will all work out.
Perhaps concentration isn’t a priority in our education system any more. Teachers now focus less on memorisation and rote learning, less on individual solitary work and more on collaboration and managing the infinite online resources.
Reading Cal Newport’s book Deep Work has challenged me to think about concentration again. Newport’s theory is this: the digital age, with all its flashing notifications and bottomless well of online information and entertainment, has eroded our capacity for concentration.
Rather than take this criticism in the direction of morals (we suck for being so easily distracted), or marketing (we are feeding social media corporations), he makes a more personal and practical argument: the ability to concentrate, to do deep uninterrupted, focused work free from distraction, is an economic advantage in an increasingly competitive job market.
Making The Connection Between Distraction And Concentration
Unless you’re one of those people who has already quit social media (or maybe never even jumped onto the bandwagon), this should be making you feel a little uncomfortable. I know it has caused me a few sleepless nights. Way back in 2009, when I wrote Responding To The Distraction Economy, I had a sense this was happening to us on a collective level, as a culture, but I never really accounted for what was happening to me on a personal level.
Everything worthwhile I’ve done has come from a place of deep solitude and intense concentration. While I can make a case for social media helping me get known, helping make friends and acquaintances and helping land work, it also helped me become someone who doesn’t concentrate as well as he used to.
From my anxiety issues last year, to the way I almost had to retrain myself in reading without getting frustrated, it’s clear my brain wasn’t able to settle into the deep patterns of concentrated work that had been so important in the past.
This is why the calligraphy lessons have mattered so much.
I’ve already written about why I started these lessons and how they fit within my artistic goals and desire to feel more grounded about living in Japan. But, there’s an important third benefit.
They’ve helped me relearn how to concentrate.
How Concentration Grows
For three hours every other week, I’m totally offline. I perform a task so simple it’s almost banal. There are a few characters, maybe only two. I copy them. Then I copy them again, paying attention to the many small ways each attempt differs from the original.
Then I do it again.
Hopefully this description sounds painfully boring, because in one sense it is. The revelations, the learning, the joy only ever comes once you push past the boredom, past the urge to reach for some semblance of electronic stimulation (or at the very least another cup of tea) just to add some colour to the moment.
Except the moment is relentlessly rendered only in only black and white, ink and paper. Your desire to make the right mark against all the forces conspiring to catch your brush at just the wrong angle, creating an errant, unsure or messy figure where only assurance and clarity will do.
It’s hard to get it right. But more importantly, it’s hard to keep trying to get it right. It feels odd, anti-contemporary, like some kind of rebellion against the way we’ve become used to doing things.
Concentration Shapes Our Lives
This rebellion might be a good thing. Maybe a few of our assumptions about the benefits of the digital age are wrong. We all feel busier than ever. But I suspect if we really audited our working lives, we might find we aren’t that much more productive for all the extra effort we make. Email seems to have become this huge drain on our time, a thing we do for the sake of doing it, often with little connection to actual production. Not to mention social media, which often fragments our attention, slowing us down as we move through our day like a virtual version of those traffic calming features, speed bumps, roundabouts, used to slow down city drivers.
Are we busy? Yes. But how much of this business is invested in the kind of high quality work that helps us stand out from the crowd?
Since starting calligraphy, I’ve been chasing the feeling of disconnected concentration in everything I do and my findings match Newport’s: a productive day doesn’t require six to eight hours of deep work. String together a few consecutive days of three hours of deep work and amazing things will happen. I’m at the beginning of a new journey. I hope you’ll travel it with me.