3 Steps to Unveil Your Full Human Power Through ‘Unfocus’

UPDATED: July 5, 2022
PUBLISHED: July 8, 2022
3 Steps to Unveil Your Full Human Power Through ‘Unfocus’

Inspired by the research of psychology professor Angela Duckworth, grit is widely considered an important predictor of success and performance. It has two main components as defined by Duckworth and Quinn in 2009: “consistency of interest” and “perseverance of effort.” It’s not just about being “resilient in the face of failure, but also about having deep commitments that you remain loyal to over many years,” says Duckworth.

The idea that grit is fundamental to long-term success sounds sensible enough. Keep doing what you’re doing, stay on task, be passionate, don’t give up and you will ultimately be rewarded.

I, too, tried to stay super-focused during several phases in my life. Burning the midnight oil at medical school in my second year, spending inordinate amounts of time on clinical units at the beginning of my psychiatry residency and excluding one of my favorite hobbies—music—from what seemed like an already too-diverse life when I was one of the pioneers in the field of neurocoaching.

Collectively, we seem to have bought into this—indeed, it’s a hallmark of the American “bootstrapping” mantra. As alluring as this motivational concept may be, all that glitters is not gold. Yet glitter it does, and we’re enticed by this.

Drawing the curtain away

Most of us have a profound longing for stability and long-term relationships, a resistance to change and an admiration of the kind of “character” that grit espouses.

In fact, humankind has a long history of valuing grit, beginning with the ancient Greeks. They regarded physical wandering as “uncivilized.” They would have been enthralled by the “stay put” mentality of grit. And productivity mavens of the Industrial Revolution were likewise arduously devoted to the hypnotic trance of line-worker thinking: the easy-to-imagine trudge that underscores the appealing simplicity of grit.

Regardless, with the current changes in the nature of work and the need to reclaim your much more interesting humanity, it might be time to snap out of this trance. In my opinion, it’s time for greedy grit to share the stage with “unfocus” so your full human power can be expressed. Here’s how:

1. Don’t sacrifice growth in the name of commitment.

Sticking to a long-term career plan puts you in danger of becoming irrelevant. People who have worked in multiple areas in business are far better suited to make connections across sectors. And those who have adapted their lives to the times are more likely to succeed. Even if you’re not an agile change agent, the hypnotic seduction of grit’s monotony has its limits.

At medical school, my performance soared when I added more to my day (sports, meditation, going out with my friends). During my residency, at the recommendation of my mentors, my thinking deepened when I spent more time talking to colleagues on park benches and when I went for a swim in Walden Pond. Despite the urging of mentors to choose between clinical work and research, I did both with equal intensity—sacrificing being known in either field alone for the gift of being known as a connector between human behavior and brain science.

The good news is that recent research shows that grit might have little to do with your success. In a 2018 study which combined meta-analysis and field studies, the researchers found that “perseverance without passion attainment is mere drudgery, but perseverance with passion attainment propels individuals forward. By incorporating passion into the conceptualization and measurement of grit, future research may find that grit actually lives up to its hype.”

Additionally, Duckworth herself presented new research regarding grit in 2019. “This work shows us that grit is not the only determinant of success,” Duckworth said in an interview with Penn Today following the study. “Yes, it’s very important, helping people stick with things when they’re hard, but it’s not the best predictor of every aspect of success.” 

2. Dabble, detour and take some downtime.

If we accept that grit’s place in the psychological hall of fame is in doubt, what might take its place? A combination of unfocus and grit will optimize productivity. On its own, perseverance is a useful attribute. But in the same way that endurance athletes need to pace themselves for peak performance, perseverance for success must have “off” periods interspersed throughout.

There’s ample anecdotal evidence that dabbling, detouring and taking downtime are the missing ingredients for success. Were it not for their dabbling in the mathematics of Poincaré, Einstein and Picasso might not have made their biggest contributions. The theory of relativity might have gone undiscovered and the cubist movement in art uninspired.

If Steve Jobs had not had his detour into a calligraphy class, the typography of the Macintosh computer never would have been born. And many innovations from Microsoft never would have seen the light of day had Bill Gates not made “think weeks” a biannual habit for downtime. Dabbling, detouring and taking downtime are all unfocus strategies.

When I made downtime a habit, I was able to see that brain science did not have to stay in the minds of academics; I could translate complex findings for leaders and people in the general public. I made this leap when many well-intentioned advisers told me that there would be no corporate appetite for brain science in learning (though the popularity of “organizational neuroscience” seems to be increasing).

3. Sync up with your cognitive rhythm.

As psychoanalyst Ernest Wolf pointed out, fulfillment comes by living in harmony with the self’s life plan. Self-regulation requires both the “grit” and unfocus circuits to be active. When it comes to thinking, I call this “cognitive rhythm”—something we humans happen to be wired to achieve.

Unfocus activates much-needed parts of the “self” circuit in the brain that are beyond the reach of grit. While grit is like a spotlight that illuminates selective parts of yourself, the unfocus brain circuit is like a floodlight that highlights more of who you are. Tinkering with an idea, doodling or even daydreaming all metaphorically turn on the floodlights for greater self-connection and self-control.

Daydreaming helped me realize that people could benefit from knowing more about their beautiful brains and that I could launch my consulting and coaching practice, NeuroBusiness Group, to deliver these perks. And many of the ideas in my books have come from daydreaming, too. With daydreaming, you feel more in touch with subtle elements of who you are.

In her earlier work, Duckworth pointed to the value of self-control in achieving success. She did, however, notice that self-control and grit were two separate things. Yet I have to wonder how Duckworth imagined humans might achieve the kind of resolve that grit requires without self-control. Was her definition of “self” limited to the concrete and very incomplete sense of self that grit summons? With grit alone, your brain would likely wobble to the finish line, half-identified and half-empowered.

It’s natural to be impulsive, distracted, guilty or insecure from time to time. But you need to resist grit’s monopoly on your psychology. It might promise better self-control, but it doesn’t deliver. So change your mind, change your job or methods, or change your life from time to time. You’ll have a greater chance of success, and your brain will thank you for the energy.

This article was published in November 2017 and has been updated. Photo by @ilonakozhevnikova/Twenty20

Srini Pillay, M.D., is the CEO of NeuroBusiness Group and the award-winning author of numerous books, including Tinker Dabble Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind, Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear, and Your Brain and Business: The Neuroscience of Great Leaders. He also serves as a part-time assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and teaches in the Executive Education Program at Harvard Business School. Recently, Srini created a series of videos on “Managing Depression in the Workplace” for LinkedIn Learning.