Full transcript of precision shooter Christina Bengtsson’s TEDx Talk: The Art of Focus – a Crucial Ability @ TEDxGöteborg conference. Christina Bengtsson is a world class athlete, author, lecturer, entrepreneur, and military officer in the Swedish Armed Forces. She is the author of the book “The Art of Focus: 10,9.”
Listen to the MP3 Audio: The art of focus – a crucial ability by Christina Bengtsson @ TEDxGöteborg
Christina Bengtsson – World Class Athlete, Author, Lecturer
In the fall of 2005, I find myself at the Military World Championship in shooting.
I’m in the lead in the final, and I have one shot left to shoot.
The target is 50 meters away, and the ten is 10.4 millimeters.
What is it that determines if I shoot a nine or a ten? Is it the physics, the technique, the relaxation or the breathing?
No, those are abilities that everybody at that level has been training for years. It’s all about the thoughts I think and why I think them. This is what focus is about.
When I was 23 years old, I felt that I had a kind of capacity, an inner drive and an energy that I didn’t really know how to handle. And it frustrated me, not knowing what to do or where to go in this world.
I was completely lost. And the only solution I could think of was trying to become best in the world at… something. I had no idea in what. But I decided to become a world champion.
I was quite athletic, but my helpful brother pointed out that I was too old to become a world-class sprinter. So I choose shooting.
This determination brought me into the military arena, and since that very day, I started my practice. Thousands of hours were spent on the shooting range. I ate on the range. I slept on the range.
And still today, I can remember that smell of lead and loneliness. I traveled all over the country, competing, for three years, but I lost over and over again, not getting any reward or recognition.
In my world, I was programmed to win, but I didn’t. And I couldn’t understand how it could be so incredibly difficult.
It was only my perseverance that kept me going. In this very moment at the World Championship aiming at the target with these irritatingly tight margins, and these nervous thoughts running through my head, this potential triumph could easily become yet another fiasco.
But then, suddenly, I saw, and I focused on, a beautiful autumn leaf playing in the wind. I give this leaf my full attention. And suddenly, I am completely calm.
And the world champion title is mine.
This was — This action was a deliberate choice and the result of persistent mental training. Because this leaf relieved me of distracting thoughts and made me focused.
And the phenomena of focus interested me more and more, not only in peak performance but also in the longer perspective and in life in general.
I studied this vital capacity, and what I saw was that the human mind struggled with focus on three distinctive ways.
First, our minds are often full of disturbing thoughts, often worried about not being good enough.
Second, instead of working with what we already know, we are constantly focused on what we will achieve.
And third, we are frustrated for not having time.
So, how can we help ourselves with these problems?
Well, before we can discuss that, we need to find out what focus is.
In today’s overflow, with new waves and trends, the ability to focus has been somewhat overlooked despite its great value. It’s, however, a particularly complex function of our intelligent brain. So, let me simplify it for you.
The pre-eminently thinking human beings, all of us in here, I guess, have the ability to think forward and backward in time. And we often go down the alarming path of thinking, What happens if … ?
What happens if I shoot a nine?
If I forget what to say having a presentation? If I don’t finish my report on time? If I start losing followers on social media? If life doesn’t turn out the way we had anticipated? Or we worry about why it didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to.
Can we then, at moments of need, free ourselves from these disturbing and worrying thoughts, a kind of undemanding present arise? Because it’s in this undemanding present that we are focused. It’s here that we perform and function exactly as well as we are.
So, standing there, shaking with nervousness but giving that leaf my full attention, this is what happened.
So, focus is simply about choosing the right thought among thousands of thoughts.
Now, how do we get focused?
Well, firstly, regarding the disturbing thoughts. We need to learn to notice disturbing thoughts and to distinguish them from not disturbing thoughts. A not disturbing thought is something completely neutral, like a lamp, a chair, a belt, a toaster or an autumn leaf.
Because as the brain, in broad terms, only can focus on one thing at a time, a not disturbing thought knocks out all the disturbing and worrying thoughts. And this is enough to reach that inner capacity we in fact already possess.
Second, regarding how we constantly focus on what we will achieve. In the performance-based society of today, we often lose focus because we constantly strive towards the new and better instead of finding our inner power and constructively working with what we are best at at each given moment.
Because if we always think about the goal, about what we want to achieve, about where we want to go, about who we want to become, our focus is constantly on the future and not on the work that needs to be done now.
So, removing the goal now and then is not as crazy as it sounds. Well, scary at first. I mean, where we’re going now? But that is how focus ends up on who we are and what we have instead of chasing after what we are not and do not have.
So, focus is not about becoming something new or something better, but simply about functioning exactly as well as we already are and understanding that this is enough for both general happiness and great achievements.
Third, regarding frustration for not having time. We live in a time with endless possibilities around us, and this seems to have created the notion that life must be lived intensely. We try to exceed on all arenas at the same time, and one’s self-confidence ends up on all that we do instead of placing focus on one thing and doing this really, really well.
Our focus shatters into a thousand little must-dos and must-haves, and time is somehow eaten up.
But the principle is quite simple: The more possibilities, the more there is to refrain from. Today is no longer about prioritizing but about prioritizing away.
Imagine yourself sitting at your desk in the morning and making a must-to-do list. Now challenge yourself and make a not-to-do list, and your brain will automatically shift in focus.
Also, it’s funny, despite our unique ability to think long term, we want immediate response on our efforts. Posting a picture on social media, for instance. We live our life with short-term focus, and we are losing the ability to build our own self-esteem without constant feedback from others.
So, how do we find a long-term focus, that focus that moves your life in the right direction?
Achieving long-term focus requires that we learn to direct our attention inwards. To that what I call our inner core. To that which doesn’t need a constant response. Because it’s here, and perhaps only here, that we find genuine contentment and satisfaction with who we are.
So, why is all this so important to us all?
Focus is important because several essential abilities are linked to this innate skill. The ability to listen, to learn, to empathize, and not at least, to steer our self and our life in the right direction.
And as the pace in our society will increase even more, it will require quite a lot to navigate in this new unpredictable era, with a constantly growing roar around us.
And you know what? We must control the intense society. The intense society must not control us. And for this, we need to stay sharp and focused.
But do you know what I’m worried about? I am concerned that our ability to steer our focus with our own power is something we are about to lose.
I’m worried that we, in the future, will see two groups of people: those with the ability to co-exist and handle the intense society, and those who will become more or less slaves under the same possibilities.
Although we as adults are struggling with our focus more than ever, we still have a sense about what focus is.
But what about our coming generations? What if our generation is the last one with access to this life-affirming tool?
Here, we own a responsibility in ensuring that this ability is maintained in the future. Because focus, this vital force, is what brings out the best in ourselves and in others, something our world so greatly deserves.
Now, finally, embrace the ability you have within yourself to be able to see the value of a small autumn leaf playing in the wind.