In the Midst of a Shitstorm Hold onto Your Hat

A quote I found buried in the old notebooks of my late mentor, Fletcher Reese Plambech, got me thinking: “Multitasking is the coitus interruptus of mental intercourse, that pleasurable process of achieving a good idea.”

There have always been jobs that require folks to divide their attention over multiple fronts. Back in the day, locomotive engineers had to keep an eye on steam pressure, crossings, and when the coffee pot was running low. In the old one-room school house, teachers attended to the behavior and progress of an assemblage of students with different abilities and backgrounds. Airplane pilots have always had to monitor a bevy of gauges and master dozens of switches, levers, and pedals in order to keep from crashing.

In these and other jobs from bygone days, the various activities were essential components of the whole enterprise. We continue to juggle different facets of singular undertakings—such as mastering turn signals, pedals, steering wheel, and mirrors as parts of the single mission of driving a car—but now we’ve added additional layers to the age-old practice of multitasking. Thanks to higher expectations imposed by technology, we’ve burdened ourselves with simultaneously taking on disparate chores, engaging ourselves in multiple unrelated activities all at once.

I’m not going to devote much attention to the most obvious example, the ubiquitous cell phone being carried by most everyone into most every situation so their owners can stay connected and current while performing other tasks. Even during social and family activities, the gadgets are omnipresent as people look away from friends and loved ones to check out the latest celebrity Instagram posts and other social media trivia. Many of us are victims of constant self-imposed distraction.

This phenomenon—along with the deleterious effects on kids of spending excessive amounts of time staring at a screen—has been duly noted and discussed in social media and internet articles. We all agree that allowing ourselves to be divided this way is bad, shameful even, that we don’t interact personally in the here and now. No need to keep beating this horse. Instead I’d like to focus on another facet of the multitasking issue: our diminishing capacity for sustained concentration.

Think of the different hats you wear within your workplace. You’re situation probably resembles the doctor’s office receptionist who toggles between multiple roles: insurance liaison, filer of forms, compliance specialist, customer service rep, personal secretary, screener of sales reps, interpreter of medical jargon, and counselor. Note that all these are different jobs, each of which entails its own skill set and knowledge base.

Compare our multiple-hat-wearing receptionist with the guy who operates a bulldozer. He performs only one job, although he must spread his attention widely. He keeps tabs on the engine temp and fluid levels, and he must concentrate on handling rocks, trees, and steep terrain in order to move dirt and achieve the desired shape and grade. He probably sits atop that machine most all day, except for breaks and lunch, pulling levers and pressing pedals. He’s multitasking in the same sense as the locomotive engineer and car driver, but he’s never required to exchange his cap for another one; he wears the one with the “CAT” logo all day.

Teachers in public school classrooms, on the other hand, need a closet full of hats for all their different jobs: interior decorator, hostess, security guard, committee chairperson, family counselor, therapist, dispute mediator, data specialist, acronym translator, nutrition specialist, liaison between administrators and parents and students, IT specialist, graphic designer, content deliverer, chat room moderator, and progress evaluator. A mental toggle is flipped with each hat change, jolting the wearer back and forth between roles. No wonder she’s not proficient in every job her occupation requires; she never has enough time to master any of them. But time management isn’t the only issue. Also at stake is management of her Pool of Focused Attention.

We all have a PoFA and how we use it can mean the difference between success and mediocrity, or even breakthrough success and abject failure. Consider craftsmen and artists. For illustrative purposes let’s use someone who works with clay. Our potter has been fortunate enough to turn her avocation into vocation. She wears the same hat all day, even though her attention is divided between time at the wheel, making glazes, and tending to the kiln.

Of course, there are other considerations such as purchasing materials and marketing her wares. But most of her time and attention is spent designing and making interesting, beautiful, and/or useful pots, bowls, plates, cups, and urns. Her dry, cracked hands testify that this is the work that makes up the bulk of her day.

When she’s shaping something new, her mind is focused on a single task, the physical execution of an idea. The result is an object that she has used her mind, talent, and experience to create. I’m sure that when she’s in shaping mode, bringing her vision to fruition, her cellphone is off and she’s logged out of Facebook. And, fortunately, she doesn’t have to send in to an administrator each week a set of formative and summative plans with supporting data of the work she’s done and will be doing.

Our potter, like the rest of us, has a limited PoFA. Her capacity for sustained concentration can be depleted. She has learned that in order to create she must protect her Pool of Focused Attention from outside forces whose constant toggling would siphon and slosh it all away, portioning out the precious resource until its power to effect change is nullified.

The potter knows that, regarding our ability to create and use our talents effectively, the concept of multitasking is a myth. Instead of being evidence of intelligence, wearing a multitude of hats for the sake of a paycheck (or acceptance) is making us impotent and stupid.

If I could add anything to FRP’s quote, it would be this: We must be diligent in finding the hat that fits and reflects who we really are and damn stubborn about taking it off. The stuff that’s constantly flying around our heads is ephemeral; what we create with our minds through sustained concentration can be lasting.

Is there a more worthy goal than spending ourselves—depleting daily our PoFA—to make lasting contributions? Each of us must decide and keep deciding as the shitstorm swirls, gaining mass and velocity. Hold on to your hat! Your legacy depends upon it.








Timeless Truths from Fletcher Reese Plambech

At his time of passing Fletcher Reese Plambech left his writings in my care, boxes full of mostly unfinished stuff: stories, essays, blueprints, limericks, songs, sketches, and journal entries. Sadly, much of it makes no sense. In digging through, though, I occasionally find gems worth sharing. Even though FRP was reclusive, I believe he secretly longed for recognition, at least a nod that he was doing his best at trying to figure things out in a way that could benefit others. I think he would be happy for me to share this following list of universal truths, each written in a single sentence. I’ve taken the liberty to provide a bit of elaboration—based upon countless hours of discussion with the author—for each of his enumerated principles:


A Dozen Life-Governing Truths We’d Do Well to Acknowledge and Understand

  1. The various character flaws that all people have stem from basic selfishness.

RY: Not being selfish is a learned response. Little kids are a good example. They want stuff all the time. They pout and throw tantrums when they don’t get toys, dolls, and treats. They learn to manipulate adults to get what they want. We have to teach them to share. Many never learn.


  1. Pursuing life with love of others as your primary driving force is easier said than done.

RY: Well, obviously only a few people have actually done this with any consistency. That doesn’t stop zillions of folks from posting about LOVE on social media. These people are often the most hateful. Just saying. Trying to cultivate love in our hearts, though, is a worthwhile goal.


  1. Unintended consequences accompany every implemented change.

RY: Kudzu is a good example. Introduced to America from Japan in the 1930s and 40s, farmers were encouraged to plant this invasive species to combat soil erosion. Reducing erosion is a good thing, right? Sure, but good intentions usually produce mixed results. The kudzu experiment brings to mind an old saying about a road. Maybe we could grind up the vines and use them in asphalt.


  1. Discipline is required to reach any important goal.

RY: Laziness comes naturally and we tend to take the path of least resistance. I know this from experience. Any worthwhile thing I’ve ever achieved, though, required focused effort, sweat, and pain when I’d have rather been goofing off. I even had to make myself write this blog. Whether or not it’s worthwhile is debatable. Geez. But we’ve gotta do hard things. Otherwise, we’re just blobs.


  1. There are good people who have belief systems drastically different from yours.

RY: Sure, they’re probably going to hell, but it doesn’t do any good to beat them over the head with that. Instead, try to work with them and accomplish something good together. Let’s try to measure others by their works and give credit where it’s due.


  1. Evil exists.

RY: Hitler, Charles Manson, Hannibal Lecter, kudzu, ticks, mosquitoes, cancer, tomato hornworms, paper cuts. Examples too numerous to mention. We’ll never eradicate all the monsters, but we must kick ass whenever we can. Notice I named only a few humans. Rarely are people totally given to evil, but we’re all subject to evil influences.


  1. Objective truth exists but can be difficult to find.

RY: Remember the X-Files? Agents Scully and Mulder struggle in every episode with the Sisyphean nature of getting to the truth, but that doesn’t stop them from trying. It’s still out there; finding it, though, as our good agents demonstrate, can be more painful than keeping our heads buried.


  1. A little anxiety is your friend; too much, your enemy.

RY: We should consider and prepare for worst-case scenarios. Lack of preparation often leads to disastrous outcomes. Don’t rely on your ability to “wing it.” Study and practice a bit more than you think is necessary. Then rest, confident that you’re gonna kill it!


  1. Some traditions are worth upholding.

RY: Enjoying a meal with family, taking a kid fishing, car shows with hot dogs and hot rods, face-to-face conversation, carving the holiday bird, homecoming festivities, holidays that involve fireworks, respecting our elders, prayer, celebrating anniversaries and birthdays, and pride in one’s cultural heritage are on my list. What would you add?


  1. We are over-stimulated with “information” that is really ephemeral garbage.

RY: Not a new phenomenon. The history of our various media is replete with fillers, fluff, misleading ads, smear campaigns, and all manner of sensationalism. The internet, though, has amplified our natural tendencies toward hyperbole and outright lying for the sake of making a buck or casting an enemy in a bad light or promoting the latest “cause.” Marketers exploit our perverse curiosities in order to wave something in our face or to gain our personal info. I advocate consciously stepping away from the noise from time to time. I know FRP would agree because he often did.


  1. We need each other.

RY: I’m a lazy slob when I’m alone. If nobody cares about my housekeeping or hygiene, why should I?


  1. Actions speak louder than words.

RY: Focus your energies on worthwhile activities that speak for themselves. Washing your car is a good example. Don’t go around bragging about washing your car. Just drive a clean machine.


  1. The “baker’s dozen” as an applied concept brings blessings to the provider and the recipient.

RY: Always try to deliver more than what’s expected. That will set you apart from the crowd, most of whom do less. Aren’t you glad FRP included one extra? Strive for thirteen and it will become your lucky number!