The Need For Focus

One of the hardest things I ever did in my life was triple-majoring at Stanford while also working full-time and living half an hour from campus.

(For my non-fiction bio I tend to just list the Econ degree but I also completed all of the requirements for a degree in anthropology and one in psychology and all three are listed on my diploma.)

I had taken a year off from college between my sophomore year and my junior year and when I went back I realized that I needed a “real major” that would let me easily get a job after graduation.

Since Stanford didn’t actually offer accounting or business for undergrads, econ was as close as I could get to practical. (I really should’ve done computer science, but it didn’t occur to me at the time.)

By then I had inadvertently made it halfway to both a psych degree and an anthro degree and I didn’t want to just give that up. So I sat down and figured out that if I took a full course load for the next two years, I could complete all three.

(I will note here that I was partially able to do this because I was a transfer student and they didn’t make me do what I think was called CIV at the time and also this was before they majorly upped the units required to get an Econ degree. That year in fact it went from a 60 unit major to a 90 unit major and I had to declare before the switch to not have everything fall apart. Anyway. Back to the story.)

I decided on this plan before I returned to school. So when I got there I got the first job I could find, put my head down, and pretty much didn’t think for the next two years.

I had a goal: complete my degree in that period of time and with all three majors.

There were some bumps along the way. Like them changing the requirements for Econometrics to have two pre-reqs that I didn’t have yet so I stumbled through that class half-blind and only thanks to the mercy of the professor who let me still take it.

And I did not do my best in every class. I for the first time ever had some C’s show up on my transcript. I think I even had a C- which was a horror to me, but at least it wasn’t a D which wouldn’t have counted towards the degree.

And I definitely didn’t see the larger picture, so made mistakes that way. I had an opportunity to do field research the summer after junior year but there was no flexibility in my plan to do that so I missed out on what could’ve been an incredible experience and could’ve put me on a very different path. And I didn’t realize the prep work required to get an investment banking or consulting job so missed out on those opportunities because when it came time to interview no one cared about my triple major.

But because I had set this huge goal and then drove for that goal at the expense of everything else (including, some days, my sanity), I hit it.

Which means I know that when I set a big goal, put on blinders, and drive for that goal I can get there.

The problem is, life rarely gives us the time and space to do something like that.

I was in school during a period of time where I could forget about the larger world for two years. My father had already passed away and no one else in my family was in immediate crisis. I had a six-inch black and white television in my apartment. I didn’t have a computer. This was pre smartphones.

All I had was work and studying. I had almost no idea what was going on in the larger world.

I was also off-campus so not caught up in the ongoing dramas of those around me. (Unlike say, my freshman year, which was awful in that sense.)

And the world itself was stable. I just looked on Google and it seems the biggest events happening around then were the impeachment of Bill Clinton, which was more salacious than world-shattering, and the death of Princess Diana, which was tragic but not of impact to me personally.

I could afford to focus because I knew the world was going to continue on in mostly the same shape and form for that two years.

The reason I’m talking about this now is because there is a part of me that wants to do something like that again. Set an incredibly hard goal for myself, put on my blinders, and just go.

No questions, no second-guessing, no changing course. Just…go until it’s done.

I don’t even know what the goal would be. Maybe write a nine-book epic fantasy series in a year? Just dive in so deep the real world has no meaning and my goal becomes everything.

The problem is, I don’t think I feel secure enough in our world these days to do that. The current world is not stable enough to ignore for a year or two.

On the political side things have eased back a lot in the last year or so. I, like others, no longer feel a constant need for vigilance. I can go a week without knowing or caring what the President is doing right now. Whereas for the four years prior to that there was a lot of, “what now? oh dear god.”

But we’re still teetering on the edge there. I mean, if the U.S. defaults on its debt? Holy shit, the world will change in a moment.

And then of course there’s COVID. I got my family through the first year safe, but it is not over and I’m not sure I can get them through the next year safe.

And I’m pretty sure some friends of mine will not make it through the next year safe because they seem to think that these things only go in one direction and so things can’t get a little better and then get a lot worse. Since things got a little better at one point, they are full-on living like it’s over. I cringe every time one of my friends posts about taking her young child traveling all over the country like it’s nothing.

(And maybe they’ll be perfectly safe. That is absolutely possible. I told a friend recently that we’re all playing a game of Russian roulette where we don’t know the number of bullets or the number of chambers. But every exposure is a pull on that trigger. Maybe no bullet this time. But next time? Who knows.)

And then of course there’s just this shitty world sometimes, you know. This week there was a school shooting. In a county where one of my friends lives. Where that friend has a fifteen-year-old and a thirteen-year-old. So when that shooting happened, I had to wonder if it involved my friend’s kids. Only when the news published the ages and genders of the kids could I relax that worry.

Of course, the question becomes, how much of that do I need to monitor or own?

If my friend from college twenty years ago has a kid that ends up hospitalized for COVID, is that mine to carry because I see it on Facebook?

Right now I would say, yes, because that’s my friend and as a friend you care about the struggles of your friends.

But how much of that is from social media making our social circles wider than they really ought to be? And bringing in more stress and anxiety as a result? If I didn’t have Facebook would I still be in touch enough with that friend to share in their struggles?

And how much of the wider world do I really need to monitor? If I have no control over what’s happening, then should I be letting all of that into my space to derail my goals?

I could’ve spent the last few days mired in Twitter outrage about SCOTUS. Legitimately so. But what does that actually accomplish? My reading Twitter threads, if they’re not there to inform me on something I didn’t know or to help me gauge risk or to give me an action I can take, what does that actually accomplish? It just ratchets up the anxiety without changing anything.

So why do it? Why do any of it? Wouldn’t it be better to put on those blinders and focus on a goal? But can I? Or do we live in a world right now that is unstable enough that it can all be taken away tomorrow and do I need to monitor for that?

I don’t know. I don’t have the answers on this one.

I can’t tell how much is “danger” that requires my attention and how much is just a false sense of immediacy that I could safely ignore that would then let me focus and accomplish something big and great that I will not accomplish otherwise.

I’m hoping to work it out for myself before January. (Haha. Right.) That will let me know whether next year’s goals should be “write a couple novels while the world burns” or “write two million words of publishable words while the world burns.”

Author: M.L. Humphrey

M.L. Humphrey is a former securities regulator, registered stockbroker (although only briefly), and consultant on regulatory and risk-related matters for large financial institutions with expertise in the areas of anti-money laundering regulation, mutual funds, and credit rating agencies. Since 2013 M.L. has also been a published author under a variety of pen names and across a variety of subjects and genres. You can contact M.L. at mlhumphreywriter [at]

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