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When You Change What You Focus On, What You Focus On Changes

"We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." Albert Einstein

“Be thankful for what you’ve got,” one of my family members hissed. “I have heard this a zillion times and it bugs me now more than ever,” she grumped.

My relative mocked the whole idea of gratitude. “Yeah, I’m thankful for my stiff aching bones, my fifty pounds of extra blubber, and my empty bank account. I’m especially appreciative that my son’s a drug addict and that I’ll be working until I’m ninety.”

Psychotherapist and Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello died some years before the birth of my relative, nevertheless, he had dealt with plenty of people like her. De Mello’s life work involved alleviating suffering. The most powerful idea summarized from reading de Mello, I would put into a quote: “There’s only one reason you are unhappy - you are thinking about, paying attention to, what you don’t have instead of what you do have.”

As we indulge this inclination to think about what we don’t have instead of what we do, we filter out anything positive and find more and more negatives. We know the results of this singled-minded negative focus, it causes us to feel increasingly irritated, depleted, and unhappy…and even bigger, it distorts our ability to see reality in its fullness.

The antidote to this form of unhappiness and distorted perception is to work with our attention, to take responsibility for where we allow it to dwell. Some of us have been letting our attention go wild for a long time and it’s become unruly. Also, some of us are afraid we’ll become “a Pollyanna” and overlook problems we need to address.

So, when we’re told to just be thankful for what we’ve got, it DOES takes effort …and it’s worth it. When we savor what is good, our blessings, they seem to grow. By being in a more appreciative state, we increase our ability to be resourceful, creative, and perform well (and change our mood which also affects our perception). When we change what we focus on, what we focus on changes. What we appreciate, appreciates.

And I have been practicing a bit of Naikan, the Japanese art of self-reflection which is aimed at increasing gratitude and widening perspective. Each evening I ask myself three questions. What have I received today? What have I given? What trouble or suffering have I caused others?

Since it’s Veteran’s Day, I have been asking myself these self-reflections more aimed toward my country. What have I received from my country? What have I given? What troubles or difficulties have I caused for my country?

When our sons reached out to us today and yesterday (John and I are veterans), they both thanked us for our service. But truly, in our case, we were fortunate. We gained skills, traveled, fulfilled our duties, and found each other.

However, that is not the case for many. Of the one percent of the citizens who sign up for the military, Veterans disproportionately experience trauma, PTSD, substance abuse, mental disorders, and homelessness. I learned this from Paul Steinbroner, a local documentary film producer who has done a series of films, “Called from Darkness.” All of them show the power of authentic community and caring.

Stand Down is the film Steinbroner did which takes the viewer into this three-day event where thousands of people volunteer to help veterans get the services they need. On site are people who can get vets into housing, treat their medical needs, do their dentistry, check their eyes, provide legal services, sign them up for counseling, give them haircuts, feed them and most importantly…bring them into community. Three hundred cities now have these stand downs events for veterans. Their mission is to leave no one behind.

My attention is directed to Stand Down today…and people like Steinbroner who uses his camera to direct our attention not only to the suffering veterans, but also to what is possible. What we can give to our country.

In general, we can look for what is possible, find legitimate causes for optimism and gratitude, for where we are at this time in history (understanding the work continues) and for what may lie ahead.

Let me make a shift here and offer wisdom emailed to me from retired gastroenterologist, Dr. Jim Brown. The wisdom is from physician and engineer and amazing entrepreneur, Dr. Peter Diamondis. (Jim’s son, Steve, works with Diamondis. If you google their bios, you will be quite impressed.)

I’m often asked what concerns me about the decade ahead. Do I worry about the downside of AI, climate change, terrorism, political polarization, social unrest, and other problems?

The answer is “Yes.” These are all very real challenges that make me nervous about some aspects of the future.

But do I believe, on the whole, that "the future is better than you think"? Am I more optimistic than pessimistic about the next 30 years?

Again, the answer is an emphatic yes, even though I acknowledge that humanity will concurrently face various dangers and hardships.

….Despite the immediate dangers we face, humanity has a history of finding ways to overcome obstacles, even during prolonged periods of difficulty.

To reinforce your belief in this somewhat bold statement, we need only reflect on the past century.

Let’s dive in…

Getting Perspective: The Past 123 Years

Consider this thought experiment: Is life today better than it was 123 years ago? Simply put, would you prefer to live now or at the beginning of the twentieth century?

Reflect for a moment on life in 1900, a time when existence was harsh, short, and labor-intensive. The average life expectancy barely exceeded 50 years, and survival often depended on backbreaking workweeks of 70 to 80 hours. There were none of today's conveniences such as smartphones, electricity, or Starbucks. And it's easy to overlook the unique challenges of that era, such as the 100,000 horses in New York City alone producing over 2.5 million pounds of manure daily.

Regardless of today's challenges, nearly everyone I've spoken with prefers living now to the early 20th century. It's understandable, considering the hardships and brutality of life back then.

But there's a deeper historical insight that's even more compelling, one that strengthens my belief in our continued progress and abundance. It is the realization, that during the last 123 years we have witnessed extraordinary increases in humanity’s living standards, even while facing untold hardships, death, and destruction.

What do I mean by untold hardships?

It's easy to lose perspective and forget that between 1900 and 2023, humanity endured over 265 million deaths due to war, famine, and pandemics…a somber yet inspiring testament to the resilience and growth that have brought us to the world we treasure today:

Total of 265,524,000 deaths due to war, famine, and pandemics between 1899 – 2023.

The Problems Ahead

….it’s important to me that this isn’t viewed as a techno-utopian treatise. Instead, my goal is to provide a compelling and hopeful vision of what might be possible—to acknowledge the challenges we have and the possible solutions that the approaching Metatrends might offer us.

Ultimately, I hope that this can offer an antidote to the relentless fear and pessimism that bombard us 24 hours a day from our media outlets. We’ll examine these [recent] challenges [humanity has overcome] in three distinct categories:

1. First, those challenges from decades past, which initially seemed ominous and insurmountable, but were ultimately solved by innovation, hard work and/or policy changes.

2. Second, today’s challenges represent very real and present dangers, that can’t be ignored and deserve the attention of our brightest minds.

3. Third, a class of challenges that I believe are misperceived. While many consider them to be serious issues, they may in fact not be challenges at all.

One of the saving graces of humanity’s ability to overcome grand challenges is being able to perceive problems way in advance of them impacting us at scale.

That early detection—perhaps the result of our curious minds or our survival instinct—ultimately sets into a motion a domino of events, calling into action the world’s changemakers and problem solvers (scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs) to address the problem before it fully arises.

The even better news is that during the time between the first detection of the risk and its full potential impact, technology continues to accelerate at exponential speeds, enabling the problem solvers to attack the challenge with a new generation of tools at their disposal.

Why This Matters

Albert Einstein famously stated, "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." An appropriate reinterpretation of Einstein's quote for our technological age might be:

"We cannot solve our problems with the same technologies that created them."

Technology is accelerating rapidly.In this decade alone, both AI and quantum technologies will unleash new generations of tools that entrepreneurs can use to solve grand challenges created during the last generation. As I like to say, “the world’s biggest problems are the world’s biggest business opportunities.”

And an early warning of an impending danger can act as a clarion call to activate innovators, policy makers and entrepreneurs who dare to solve these grand challenges, and in the process spin-up a new generation of multi-billion-dollar businesses….from ozone depletion to smallpox— (events) that were solved by smart innovation and policy.

On this Veterans’ Day, I offer these thoughts from Diamondis (via Dr. Brown) to invite us to take more responsibility for where we put our attention… remembering how it affects not only our emotions (our happiness, and also our health and relationships), but also our perspective, our mindset, our creativity, literally what is possible.

May we remember …what we appreciate, appreciates. We can use that in our personal lives and in our wider society. Let’s look for the helpers like film producer, Paul Steinbroner, and all the stand down volunteers…and all those who call us toward gratitude for what we have now and what is possible now and in the future…and journey together to the Good life.

(And maybe we can use those three Naikan-like questions to cultivate more gratitude and perspective today. What have I given to my country? What have I received? What difficulties and challenges have I caused?)


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