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David Brooks Thinks I’m a Superhero

December 16, 2008

I’ve always had a knack for focusing my attention on one task or project to the exclusion of almost everything else. I’m not sure where it came from, but it’s been with me since I was a kid building model airplanes in the garage. It’s mellowed somewhat over time, as the realities of work, marriage and parenthood have forced me to multitask, but it’s still very much a part of who I am.

I’ve never really thought of this knack as more than a byproduct of how my brain is wired or how I was raised. It just sort of…is. Like anything else, it has its upsides and downsides. It can give me the focus necessary to write a novel, or it can compel me to waste hours (or days) of my life playing a certain video game (I’m looking at you, Rome: Total War).

New York Times columnist David Brooks sees it a bit differently. According to him, I may as well have a friggin’ superpower. Have a read:

Most successful people also have a phenomenal ability to consciously focus their attention. We know from experiments with subjects as diverse as obsessive-compulsive disorder sufferers and Buddhist monks that people who can self-consciously focus attention have the power to rewire their brains.

Control of attention is the ultimate individual power. People who can do that are not prisoners of the stimuli around them. They can choose from the patterns in the world and lengthen their time horizons. This individual power leads to others. It leads to self-control, the ability to formulate strategies in order to resist impulses. If forced to choose, we would all rather our children be poor with self-control than rich without it.

It leads to resilience, the ability to persevere with an idea even when all the influences in the world say it can’t be done. A common story among entrepreneurs is that people told them they were too stupid to do something, and they set out to prove the jerks wrong.

It leads to creativity. Individuals who can focus attention have the ability to hold a subject or problem in their mind long enough to see it anew.

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