Talking Big Ideas.
“You can’t sit on two chairs at the same time.”
~ Czech proverb
Felice Bauer met an attractive young man at a dinner party.
It was a warm summer evening in Prague. She was already seated to eat when the gentleman walked in the door and caught her eye. He was funny and mysterious. In contrast to her stable life as a successful marketer, he was an aspiring writer.
They hit it off.
He began sending her letters. Often two on the same day. She fueled his creativity. Within weeks he’d write and publish a short story that would be widely read – for more than a century.
The writer, Franz Kafka, found that Bauer’s confidence complemented his neuroticism. Several months and hundreds of letters later, they met in person for a second time. He was scattered and distant.
Kafka wrote to her daily but refused to fully commit to a relationship. They got engaged, twice, only to have Kafka back out both times. Their courtship lasted half a decade.
Bauer eventually moved on, married a banker, had children, and settled in the United States. She ran a knitting store with her sister, spent her time surrounded by loved ones, and lived well into old age.
Kafka got engaged a third time to another woman. But once again backed out before the wedding. He died sad and single at 40 years old.
By failing to commit, Kafka lost out on a lifetime of love. He wrote privately: “What a state I’m in now, indeed, alienated in general from the whole of everything good.”
The historian Morris Dickstein argued in the New York Times that “Kafka’s neuroses are no different from ours, no more freakish: only more intense.”
Fully committing to something is hard. It means saying no to lots of other things, which can create a fear of missing out (FOMO). We often succumb to this fear and stretch ourselves thin.
As I’m writing this I got an email from Peghead Nation. They have a new online bluegrass guitar course. It has me excited. I’ve signed up for several of their offerings: clawhammer guitar, fingerstyle blues guitar, flatpicking guitar, mandolin, theory for fiddle, Celtic fiddle, etc. They’re all excellent.
But I’ve never completed a single course. I jump in for a while and then move on to another. I own a bunch of instruments – guitar, mandolin, fiddle, harmonicas, hand drum, tambourine, keyboard, even a Native American flute – but I don’t focus long enough to get good at any of them.
Because I want to play everything, I fail to commit to any one thing. And so I remain mediocre at best.
I see this same dynamic every week with my clients.
Give someone 5 minutes to talk about a topic they love. More often than not, they’ll try to squeeze in 10 minutes of content and then firehouse it out as fast as they can. The audience gets lost along the way.
We have so much we want to say. And so much we want to do. We try to cram it all in. We think if only we’re more organized, or work harder, or speak faster, we can get it all done.
But we can’t.
During my first summer in Washington D.C., I started working at the Institute for Justice. My boss was a woman named Lisa. She taught the attorneys how to write powerful op-eds. She would say, “if you really like it, cut it.”
We have to be willing to make tough choices. We have to limit our focus to succeed.
What matters most for an upcoming speech or conversation? What’s the one thing you want to make sure your audience walks away understanding? How about an upcoming practice session? What do you need to focus on?
What matters most right now? We can ask ourselves this at any moment. On Memorial Day the doctor Peter Attia tweeted:
When we have the awareness to see what matters most, and the courage to fully commit to it, we can experience peace. Exhilaration even.
The anxiety of FOMO fades.
Danish philosopher Svend Brinkmann calls this the joy of missing out. When the clutter is gone and the path is clear we can be fully present with what matters most.
The joy of missing out is about being intentional. As the poet Michael Leunig wrote:
Oh the joy of missing out.
When the world begins to shout
And rush towards that shining thing;
The latest bit of mental bling . . .
You spurn the treasure on the shelf
In favor of your peaceful self;
Without regret, without a doubt.
Oh the joy of missing out.
Bourke Cockran, the legendary statesman who mentored Churchill and FDR, believed that every speech should make one point. And it should be crystal clear to the audience. Regardless of how long a speech lasts, just one core idea should be driven home.
In speaking, as in life, decide what matters most.
Fully commit to it.
Embrace the joy of missing out.
This weekend, find one way to embrace the joy of missing out.
For more on different ways to approach time:
- #30: Four thousand weeks on the pale blue dot
- #48: Holidays, permanent revolution, pretty flowers
- #46: The secret to success
If you find this useful, please subscribe to our free weekly newsletter.