“To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.” — Leonard Bernstein
Bernstein’s theorem has a certain ring to it. With a plan and unlimited time we might just manage to accomplish what we set out to, but our success often depends on just the right alignment between the conditions we anticipate and the reality we experience. But when time is of the essence, we rarely worry about the details, like process, and instead focus on essentials and outcomes.
Plans, President Eisenhower told us, are nothing, but planning is everything. Confronted with time pressure and a genuine and frightening prospect of failure we often find it easier to attend to the things that matter most. Along the way, we have to get over ourselves and accept something less than our preconceived notions about what counts for best results. In exchange, though, we discover the importance of giving our best efforts.
In her recent book, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, Winifred Gallagher writes of the neuroscience behind attention. She argues convincingly that paying attention, that is attaining and maintaining real focus in one’s life, makes a qualitative difference in the lives we lead.
Great things often strike us as exceptional precisely because we did not or could not anticipate their occurrence. Focus is not about looking for particular outcomes so much as maintaining openness to the people and events we engage. When we choose to engage others openly and honestly, we create the necessary but not sufficient conditions for trust to emerge. Trust depends not on results but on confidence that we are less interested in the outcome than the contributions and efforts others give to achieve it.
Taking an interest in others and fostering an environment in which everyone knows they are expected to bring their best produces an ideal opportunity to generate outcomes greater than the sum of individual contributions. As an accomplished composer and the distinguished conductor of an internationally renowned symphony orchestra, Leonard Bernstein could speak with some authority on this subject. Each performance presented unique opportunities to make new discoveries about the music and his musicians’ abilities both individually and collectively.
Like great music, great performance requires attention, collaboration, and fine timing. Accepting limits helps us focus on the importance of each of these attributes, which gives us an opportunity to create something unexpected yet exceptional.