You get more of what you focus on

You get more of what you focus on April 26, 2012
Slug Bug
aldenjewell, Flickr

My son Fionn and I play the drive-time game Slug Bug. The idea, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is to identify as many Volkswagen Beetles as possible while out and about and thereby rack up points against your opponent. Right now I’m creaming my kid, I’m proud to say.

Don’t feel sorry for him. He used to win all the time.

One thing I’ve noticed is that since playing, I see Bugs everywhere — all the time. Red ones, blue ones, silver ones, yellow ones, avocado-green ones, white ones. They’re inescapable for me now.

Of course, it’s not like there are actually more Bugs on the road than a month ago. It’s just that I’m paying attention to them now. You get more of what you focus on, at least qualitatively if not always quantitatively, though I suspect that’s also true in some areas.

Doesn’t this offer a powerful tool for improving our view of life — our interaction with our kids, our jobs, our spouses, our churches?

Just take children for a moment. I recently listened to Dr. Karyn B. Purvis talk about the difference between being a coach or a warden to your children. I think I default to warden very easily.

I catch them in one infraction or another, which is easy enough, but then a funny thing happens. It’s like a downward cycle of rule-breaking begins. If it goes on long enough, my kids can’t do anything right, creating just more bad behavior to ding them on.

To make matters worse, the longer it goes, the more defeated they feel. They lose heart and don’t even want to try.

There’s a difference between morality and moralism. One guides. The other suffocates. The warden becomes a moralist, policing every bad behavior. Consequently, he gets more bad behavior. The coach encourages and directs; he inspires and connects. The more good he sees and underscores, the more he gets in return.

I’m sure I should stop saving for college for my children and start saving for their counseling. But one thing that would help my kids is to focus more on their virtues — their good hearts, their creative initiative, their goofy ambitions, their praiseworthy conduct — than their vices.

Fionn’s got enough to worry about with me beating him at Slug Bug.

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  • I love this metaphor: Warden or Coach. I’ve heard it described many ways, but never that. This is now my favorite. Can I do parenting over? No? Shoot.

    But … I was thinking, when it comes to marriage, most of the time I’m Coach. Maybe even cheerleader. At times, I do default to Warden and when I do it’s not a pretty picture.

    When I get bossy, naggy, controlling, insistent, and outright demanding, things go south very fast. Not good for anyone. And, it’s usually because of what I’m focus on—things not being done my way, or in the way I think is best.

    Focusing on what I can support, encourage and champion is much better for all. Great post, Joel.

    • Now I only have to become more successful in doing it the coaching way. Easy, right? (I wish there were an html tag for sarcasm.) But your description of things going south sounds right. All that happens is everyone gets exasperated. When that happens with my kids I just feel like an idiot for letting it get there.

      Humbling question: What is it about my parenting that is producing this outcome?

      • Another great question: Sounds like an Ilene question. When Mike worked with Ilene, his executive coach at Thomas Nelson, she would always ask, “What is it about your leadership that’s produced this outcome.” Ouch!

        • It’s like something else Karyn Purvis says. When she breaks up a conflict with kids she turns to one and then the other and says, “What did you do wrong?” She doesn’t ask for an explanation of what happened, only what each child’s responsibility in the situation was. Pretty clever.

          As a parent, I find it’s easy to blame my kids for a situation that goes down the tank. But that’s a dodge for my own responsibility. And it deprives me of the kind of introspection that leads to my becoming a better parent.

  • Yuri Hooker


    This applies to so many aspects of life, as it taps into the dichotomy between “Law” vs. “Grace”. I’ve been thinking about this alot lately in the context of my work (music).  I hope you’ll forgive me for sorting out my thoughts on this subject on your blog…

    Every musician, from the rank amateur to the world class artist, knows the basic “Laws” of making music in an ensemble: play together, play in tune. This is easier said than done, so we have devised many other laws, clauses and sub-clauses that qualify the basic rules and make it easier to follow them effectively. Many musicians (including a significant number of professionals) become so concerned with trying to follow the rules, however, that we tend to forget the cardinal purpose of any artistic endeavor: communication. The laws, which are good, are there to facilitate and remove the barriers to communication. Just like the rules of grammar, it is possible to communicate without them, but that communication tends to be rather hit or miss and the content is of necessity unsophisticated. On the other hand, it is easy to become little more than a policeman of minutiae, listening only for infractions in oneself and others. This deadens the music and, in my opinion, is responsible for the distinct lack of profound expression that is found in most musical performances. In my experience, even performances given by professional musicians, who are excellent technicians and have certainly shared in profound musical experiences themselves at times (otherwise why pursue music?), can often be a dull, albeit well-executed, affair.

    The other thing I’ve noticed throughout my orchestral career is that conductors who focus only on the musical “Law”, tend to hit a glass ceiling as far as precision goes. They limit themselves to “beating time” with as much perspicuity as possible, or castigating the players for their lack of skill. Insofar as the musicians under their leadership are unable to respond to their desire for technical perfection, they become increasingly agitated and frantic (and thereby less controlled) in their gesture and verbal instructions and a law of diminishing returns takes hold (the “Law of Sin”? cf. Rom. 5:2).

    Conversely, the truly great conductors with whom I’ve worked (sadly, few and far between in my career) understand something of the biblical notion of Grace. While they have a razor sharp awareness of the issues governed by the musical law, they keep the prime directive (communication of ideas/intention) perpetually in their sights. They understand that precision is useful only insofar as it serves the goal of communicating something. This understanding allows them to let the musicians under their charge do their jobs more effectively. Such a conductor trusts that the players know the “Law” and take it seriously, and that they are endeavoring to follow it to the best of their ability. The great conductor will certainly point out blind spots in this area, and facilitate the players’ execution of it, but her main objective will be to realize the ideas set down on paper in musical code by the composer, and elucidate these ideas and make them attractive and digestible to the general public. The trust that is demonstrated by such an approach instantly both frees and challenges the musician to pursue the highest manifestation of his art. It implicitly demands an enhanced degree of personal responsibility on the part of the performer (cf. Matt. 5:20). As such it is liberating, exhilarating and terrifying.

    It takes a great deal of humility on the part of the interpreter/conductor to recognize and embrace this. Why? In invoking technical precision as a vehicle of transcendence we are essentially exalting our own prowess, believing that if we hit on the proper “incantation”, the astute listener will inevitably have a meaningful experience (ie. greater precision = “deeper” experience). In other words, we control the listener. Anyone who has spent any amount of time performing, however, knows that there is only a partial correlation between the technical quality of a performance and the response of the listener. What tends to speak to audiences universally? Commitment to the composer’s ideas, and sincerity of expression, coupled with a high level of technical excellence.

    So as we choose to enslave ourselves either to Love or to the Law, the parent can instruct his child as Coach or Warden, the student of the Bible can tread its paths as Freedman or Pharisee, and the musician can follow a score either as Artist or Policeman.   

  • Samuel Silveous

    Joel, I really enjoyed reading this post. Sometimes when things have “gone south” with my kids my tendency is to continue disciplining until behavior changes. This is something of a natural reaction, but as you mentioned, this can exacerbate the problem. Like Yuri, reading this reminded me of God’s approach to the discipline problem, i.e. grace.

    I’m certainly not advocating the removal of all discipline. But there is, as you pointed out, a time when it loses its effect. I feel that one of my roles as a father is pointing my kids toward God. With the primary goal is to raise kids who know, love and follow God. One way I do this by modeling my behavior after our Heavenly Father.

    See, the problem isn’t really behavior. The problem is sin. The problem may be magnified by our (lack of) leadership. But our kids are sinners just like we are. And while we certainly need to teach them that in this life there are consequences for their actions, it is far more important that we teach them about God’s love.

    I want from my kids, what God wants from His: people so in love with Him that they want to be near Him and transformed into His image. God’s solution to the sin problem is absolute love demonstrated by grace. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, NIV). If we get what we focus on, than I want to focus on God’s love, demonstrated by grace, displayed through me.

    Great post Joel, thanks for helping me to refine my focus.