Letters from Esther #49: What do you want to focus on more?

By Esther Perel and Mary Alice Miller

Shall We Begin?

An old memory keeps resurfacing. My son (at three years old), standing in front of our apartment. He’s inching ever closer to a giant hole in the street. It’s safely blocked off but he can get close enough to see people inside of it, working on the gas lines. He leans in and then—for two whole hours—stares and points into the hole while asking the workers question after question about what they are doing. 

I remember that the workers seemed to enjoy teaching my son about the pipes and wires and processes, a veritable city under the city. This was a relief to me because my son was unrelenting in his pursuit of answers. I was totally in awe of this little insatiably inquisitive being: his curiosity and intense focus on this particular thing he wanted to learn. But, in retrospect, it’s the time span that stands out—two whole hours. 

Two whole hours to do nothing but ask questions, listen, learn, observe, engage, peer into the vast emptiness of a hole in the street. No distractions. And my dominant feeling as I remember this day? 

Pure unadulterated envy. The unbounded freedom to learn new things, the unstructured time, the ability to simply focus. And that’s just the envy I feel of my son. I’m envious of the hole, too. What I’d give to have some empty space and do a little inner work. 

But I am full up. I’m full of stories, sessions, calendar notifications, emails, texts, and other pings. Every time I finally get to a temporary stopping point on my to-do list, I find that I unconsciously pick up my phone and immediately suffer the fracturing of attention so many of us have come to accept as a normal part of everyday life. It’s ironic how we have apps to make life simpler, to help us meditate, and to measure our health, when we’d likely make significant strides on all three fronts if we were to simply bury our phones in the yard for a few hours a day. 

Which brings me back to those two hours. I’ve decided that I’m taking them back. I’m harnessing the “back to school” energy of September in pursuit of three things: focus, curiosity, and learning. 

I know it’s easier said than done. I start with the question: what conditions do you need in order to find your focus? For me, first, it’s doing something with my hands that prevents me from holding a phone. Second, it’s doing it consistently. And third, it’s going deep into just that one thing. This fall, it’s guitar. I’ve wanted to pick it back up for years. I want to get that focus back—string by string—and finally calm my wandering mind. So, I’m doing it. I’ve committed to learning four songs from the old days: “Pas L'Indifférence” by Jean-Jacques Goldman; “You've Got a Friend” by Carole King; “Quelqu'un m'a dit” by Carla Bruni; and “Tomara” by Vinicius de Moraes. 

Last week, I told a colleague over Zoom I couldn’t go into “meeting overtime” because my guitar teacher was coming. And, with that, I immediately saw how committing specific time to learning also creates a helpful boundary between work and home. When my teacher arrived, that memory came up again: my son at the edge of the hole, asking question after question. I no longer felt envy; I felt inspired. 

Let’s Turn the Lens on You 

  • What conditions do you need in order to find your focus? 
  • Do you focus better in silence or with the noisy background of a café? 
  • What prevents you from focusing?
  • What would you like to focus more on in your life? 
  • What would you like to focus less on in your life? 
  • What do you want to learn this fall?
  • What investment would you need to make to bring that goal to life? 

More From Esther

"Why is it so hard to take a break?" / last month's letter

No matter where you go, vacation always comes with a choice: do you want to stay connected to the world and its realities or do you want to disconnect and simply be present where you are?

“Am I being gaslit by my partner?” / a recent article

This summer, we relaunched “Where Should We Begin?” as “always on” with the Vox Media Podcast Network. That means more episodes, more relational journeys to listen in on, and bonus content for those who subscribe for a small monthly fee—including conversations with luminaries from the arts, entertainment, psychotherapy, and beyond. Read on for the behind-the-scenes story of the episode “Am I being gaslit by my partner?”

Six Essential Practices to Improve Listening Skills in Relationships / an article

If you, too, are diving into learning new skills this Fall, consider brushing up on your listening skills first by reading our article. 

Conversation Starters

A compendium of highly recommended sources of inspiration and information

I’m Watching: 

To help me reconnect with my own musical pursuits, I’m listening to: 

I’m Reading: 

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