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Keeping an Eye on the Bigger Picture

Family Billboard in Vietnam

My bladder was about to burst.

Just a few more minutes, two more pages and I'll stop and run to the restroom.

OK, back to work. I'm on a roll. No time for lunch today.

And so went the three weeks that I spent putting together my first ebook. When it comes down to it I can be very stubborn, even obsessive. It's a quality I struggle to put to good use, but when it finds good use it's amazing what gets done.

The staff at the cafe knew me by name -- some of them even have my phone number. When I arrived, they knew what I would order and where I would sit. Sometimes they would inquire as to what I was working on. Sometimes they would leave me notes telling me how impressed they were by my diligence.

When the cafe closed at ten, I would walk back to my hotel room, past the crowds of drunken tourists who were loudly making their way into one of several clubs, where even louder music was blaring, filling the streets of Kathmandu with sounds that didn't quite fit with my idea of rugged and romantic Nepal -- a country at the top of the world, home to the tallest mountains on the planet.

I would plug in my laptop, lay down on the bed, and continue working until two in the morning, wrestling with unreliable WiFi and the occasional power outage while the sound of monsoon rains trickled in through my window. Five hours later I would wake up and repeat the entire process again.

I was enjoying every moment of it. There wasn't a single day where I wished I could stop and take a break. Every single day was filled with pure enthusiasm, pure motivation. There was absolutely nothing I would've rather been doing, not even catching up on sleep or exploring the back streets of Kathmandu.

But why? Why I was working so hard with no apparent short-term reward or promise for success?

It's because for the past three weeks, the only thing that mattered in my life was the completion of that ebook. Everything else -- from eating lunch, to using the restroom, to sleeping -- was simply an obstacle I needed to get around to continue working towards that goal. The ebook project was the only bigger picture in my life.

And then the project was over. The ebook was released and everything I spent day and night focusing on, dedicating all my time and energy to, was gone. I was left feeling lost and wondering where I was and what I should be doing next.

That relentless feeling of enthusiasm seemed to vanish overnight.

And that's when I realized that it had nothing to do with a lack of enthusiasm. It had everything to do with a lack of focus -- I was missing the real bigger picture.

***

There are lots of things that we do for a bigger picture. We take care of our health or save a portion of our paycheck for the long-term health effects or the ability to have money when we need it. We fill our car with gas so that we can commute to work and earn money to support our family.

We simply could not function if all we did was tackle the big pictures.

What would happen if before filling our car with gas, we tried to list every single road we would drive on and every single place we would go with that tank of gas?

What if before we saved a portion of our paycheck, we tried to list every single thing that money might be used for in the future?

What if before we started exercising or eating healthy, we tried to determine every single illness and discomfort that we might avoid?

Nothing would get done! We'd spend so much time planning and "solving" the bigger pictures that the bigger pictures would forever remain unchanged and out of reach.

To affect the bigger picture, we need to focus on smaller, more manageable chunks. We need to take a tiny piece of that big picture and relentlessly focus on it until it's ready for us to move on to the next piece.

We need to temporarily make the smaller picture our bigger picture.

And that's exactly what I did for this project. For three weeks, the only goal in my life was the completion of this ebook.

But then something unexpected happened. After spending so many days and nights focusing on the project, I was left outside looking back in; the bigger picture was now just one piece in a giant incomplete puzzle.

The urge to fall back and continue focusing on that one single piece of the puzzle was strong, but I knew that if I did that, nothing further would be accomplished. Falling back and focusing on the already-complete smaller picture wouldn't do anything to affect the bigger picture.

It didn't take me very long to remember what the real bigger picture was -- an entire world in need of help -- but the experience made me realize why there are so many organizations, charities, and even individuals who are not doing everything they can to help.

It reminded me how easy it was to get distracted and lose sight of what matters.

***

As if the universe heard my thoughts and agreed with me, I was provided with an example to reinforce my realization.

The next day, an email arrived in my inbox from a new reader who had read the sections about micro-financing in the ebook. They wanted to alert my attention to a recent article in the NYTimes about how microfinancing was being misused.

For those who aren't familiar with microfinancing, it's a type of loan provided to small business owners and entrepreneurs, oftentimes in poor countries. The loans are generally small amounts of money -- as little as $10 -- and like any other loan an interest rate is charged.

However, microfinancing has grown so popular that some greedy people see it as valuable avenue for making money. Some lenders charge exorbitant interest rates -- sometimes as high as 90% -- in attempt to make more money and reduce their own risk.

The very people who are supposed to be helping rid the world of poverty were leeching money and stealing from the poor!

They were focusing their attention on the smaller picture and they had entirely lost sight of the bigger picture.

Poverty is the bigger picture. The smaller picture is their need to make enough money to support themselves. As long as they only focus on the small picture, the big picture -- poverty -- will never be solved. Instead of solving poverty, they will be doing the exact opposite and ensuring that poverty remains an excuse to continue filling their pockets.

It should be noted that Kiva, a popular organization that assists in the microfinancing process and one that was recommended twice in the ebook, goes through a lot of trouble to ensure the money loaned through their website is not misused. You can read their full response to the NYTimes article here.

I am in no way discouraging the use of microfinancing. I'm simply using the NYTimes news article as an example to show how losing sight of the bigger picture can cause us to forget what we're working for in the first place.

***

After getting even less sleep during the night of the ebook launch, I spent the following three days sleeping nine to ten hours and eating a full meals.

I spent lots of time contemplating the prior three weeks and the strange feelings that were a result of the sudden completion of the project. I spent time thinking about how those feelings were so closely linked to how one of the greatest promises for ridding the world of poverty could so easily be misused and turned backwards.

Most bad things that happen in our life occur because we let ourselves get caught up in the moment. We take our eyes off the bigger picture and we lose sight of what really matters.

It happens all the time.

It's obsessively checking the statistics for your blog instead of providing your readers with valuable content.

It's focusing on what you want to say in a conversation instead of hearing what the other person is saying.

It's becoming frustrated with a family member instead of remembering that today could be your last chance to express how much you love them.

We all do it, but the beautiful thing is that it's never too late to start seeing the bigger picture and adjusting our priorities. It's never too late to start focusing on what really matters.

What bigger picture do you focus on throughout your day? Do you find yourself occasionally feeling lost and losing sight of what matters?

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23 Comments

  1. Hey Raam,

    This post is thought provoking for me. My conclusion is that what works best is to mix focusing on the task at hand with looking at the big picture. Anytime we forget and ignore one or the other for a long time, we lose. This being said, mixing is probably a challenge since most of us are oriented more towards one than the other.

    • Hey Eduard,

      I think you’re absolutely right: Balance is essential. However, like you said, for some of us — I’d say it’s most of us — it’s difficult to juggle both. Besides, if we tried to constantly focus on both, it would be difficult to really get a lot done.

      Frequently reminding ourselves, and each other, of the real “bigger picture” is important — whether it’s the value of family or the need for a clean, healthy future for our planet.

  2. Great, thought-provoking post, Raam. It is hard sometimes to focus on the bigger picture, especially because that can be overwhelming sometimes (because there are so many important components to it– how can one person focus on all of them?). I try to choose a few things in the bigger picture that I can do something positive about. I find that then I can add more to it as time goes by. Being around a community of like-minded people sure helps as we encourage and remind each other. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Thanks Jenna!

      Yes, choosing a few pieces to focus on and then concentrating on those is a great way to make progress. The community aspect you mentioned is HUGE. The more people around you who have similar goals and aspirations, the less likely you are to lose motivation and give up! That’s one reason why I love the community that’s forming here — so many people to inspire and remind me that people care and are willing to help — and are already helping — make the world a better place.

      • I agree, it’s wonderful to have a community online that supports and encourages positive thinking and all the other aspects you mentioned.

  3. Thanks for reminding me to not forget the bigger picture Raam… This part of your writing touched me a lot.

    “It’s obsessively checking the statistics for your blog instead of providing your readers with valuable content.
    It’s focusing on what you want to say in a conversation instead of hearing what the other person is saying.
    It’s becoming frustrated with a family member instead of remembering that today could be your last chance to express how much you love them.”

    You are right, we are so often losing focus of the big picture. Thanks for this reminder.

    • Thank you, Dina! That last part — about family — was actually what made me decide to write this post. I had been thinking about all the big things that we lose focus of and then I realized how easily the biggest and most important thing in our life can be taken for granted.

  4. Very interesting Raam. I can relate to your all consuming passion to finish your book… I often get lost for days in my writing. With the completion or victory there comes a hollowness. The true joy is the act of expressing the highest version of our self. The greatest high is when we are fully expressing our superlatively creative nature. Eventually, we do have to come back down and “do the dishes.”

    • Hi Rob, thanks for the comment!

      Sometimes “doing the dishes” simply means figuring out what we should be working on next!

      Creativity has a strange way of creating a world of its own where we can get lost and forget everything else exists. We just need to remember what’s important in the “real world” when we return to it! 🙂

  5. Great thought-provoking piece. You’re totally right, even if you try to spread a good message or contribute something good, you can still get caught up in the moment, in the whims of your own ego. I can totally fall into obsessively checking my blog stats, forgetting the original purpose of the project in the first place. It’s almost like Chris Guillebeau’s Four Burners theory, except in this case one burner is for the small chunk project, and the other is for the big picture project. Yours went ablaze for the small chunk, and now it has to switch back to being bright for the big picture and dim for the small one.

    • Thank you, Lynn.

      I think you hit on a crucial point: It’s our ego that’s looking for recognition. We work to change the world and when we realize that our goals may not see fruition in this lifetime, so we revert to being selfish and seeing what we can get out of it for ourselves.

      The Four Burners Theory that Chris talked about originally came from an article by David Sedaris (Chris was asked about it during an interview, and it was after that he started writing about it). I like Chris’ responses to the theory. My own thoughts are that while there may be four burners, there’s still only one gas source, one life, one stream of time. How we choose to allocate energy is entirely up to us, but even the smallest amount of gas can ignite a raging fire. 🙂

  6. Raam, you have alot of really great ideas here. I’m also glad to hear you finished your ebook – congrats, man! I am a real firm believer in focusing on small parts of the whole, one at a time, focus is a powerful thing. And poverty is a HUGE problem, one that a lot of people can contribute to solving with a minimal amount of effort. Most people seem to wrapped up in their own little bubbles, only thinking about “their” world.

    • Thanks Eli!

      I think it’s important to exist in our own bubbles, but while doing so also recognize that we couldn’t exist without the larger bubble that encases us all. Like you said, there’s a lot that can be done with minimal effort — we don’t need to all join together and attack this one giant issue. It’s a matter of recognizing that we’re all already in this together — we just need to become a little more focused as a group.

  7. Brilliant Raam!
    I know that feeling of let down and emptiness after completing a long project. We feel kind of lost as if the wind has been knocked from our sails. You make a great point that this reaction is due to a sudden lack of focus after all the effort we put into the project.

    Another great point to keep your eye on the big picture, the long term goal, not the quick hit – short term goals. That’s extremely important.

    Thank you for another amazing post!

    • Thank you, Angela! 🙂 I’m so happy you enjoyed it!

      I think the trick after any big project is to immediately start working, or at least start planning out, our next project. Of course rest and recuperation is vital — just not too much of it! Balance, balance, balance. It’s all about balance.

  8. Hi Raam!

    I have a lot of pictures right now on my mind later of read this article. From my perspective, the only thing that I know it’s that life is so short, and we need to collect the moments like pictures. Made them a collage and live every moment like it was happened today, ( I mean the good memories the bad ones were lessons to learn). Like you wrote: “It’s never too late to start focusing on what really matters.” I’m completely agree, and you know what? … I really wanna live my life with that words that you wrote.

    Excellent post!

    • Thank you, Viviana!

      You’re so right about life being short — I think that’s one of the biggest pictures we so often lose sight of. If we always remember our limited amount of time here on planet Earth, it helps put problems into perspective. Suddenly things that seemed like such a big deal are seen as blips in time.

      However, its equally important to remember that even after we’re gone, time doesn’t stop. People continue living. There’s an entire world that comes after us, complete with other humans who have the same worries and aspirations as we do.

      The best thing we can do is ensure that we do something to improve that future — to leave something behind that is in some way beneficial to others who come after us. Even if that just means being remembered as a happy, positive, helpful, and generous person.

    • Hey Evan,

      Making a living doing what we love is a great goal. If we can help others in the process, even better! There are a lot of great resources and helpful bloggers out there who can show you how to make a living doing what you love. You can find some of them in the contributors list for my latest ebook.

      If there’s anything I can help with, please don’t hesitate to ask!

  9. Raam,

    This is a provocative question! As usual! The bigger picture for me has to do with remembering that I am a spiritual being above all else and keeping that as my main focus and priority. Action on the material plane ideally occurs within that context, that rememberance.

    I agree that it can be very easy to get lost in the details – in blogging or any other activity and begin to think that is the priority or picture when it’s only the action. This post is a good reminder and I appreciate how deeply you think.

    I was wondering if you might have “post-project blues.” It’s only naturally that it occurs. How wonderful that you’ve used the dip as a springboard to great self-awareness. I appreciate you so much!

    • Hi Sandra,

      Thank you for the stimulating comment, as always!

      This whole feeling definitely manifested itself as I began to think about what my next blog post would be. The launch was so big and the previous posts so popular, that I felt like I needed to “out do” the launch. When I accepted that this wasn’t the case and that I just needed to focus on doing what I have been doing, that’s when I recognized I had lost focus.

      And yes, I saw it as the perfect opportunity to share with everyone here what I was going through — especially when I realized how applicable the experience and lessons were to everything in life!

  10. I felt the same way the day after I arrived at my cycling destination Raam…empty, but Zen empty, I cried and sweat loads as I crossed the last bridge into a Green City built into the side of a mountain like Gondor…

    I met the girl I came to check on and it was bizarre, delicious, but bizarre to be balancing this feeling of emptiness from arriving, completing the goal, and yet a big new love project staring you in the face…so you need to listen to the silence….

    When I fast On water for 7 days during the new moon in the 6th house of health, I often repeat this mantra when I get hungry and just drink more water…

    “we’re always trying to fill the emptiness, but never allowing the emptiness to simply fill us from within…”

    Let the emptiness fill you from within my friend!

    • That bridge you crossed sounds incredible! I can only imagine the feelings you must have been processing after such a long journey!

      The emptiness mantra is perfect and I think I’ll start using it! Emptiness can be a powerful force when it’s channeled correctly.

      Thank you for the comment, Kelly.

Webmentions

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