In the 1991 film City Slickers, the wise old cowboy Curly explains something vital to Mitch, one of the three slickers who have come out to join the cattle drive and rediscover meaning in their lives. The dialogue goes as follows.
Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?
Curly: This. (He holds up his right index finger)
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don't mean shit.
Mitch: That's great, but what's the one thing? (Mitch smiles and holds up his right index finger)
Curly: That's what you've gotta figure out.
(Mitch looks uncertainly at his finger)
This is more intriguing, and more powerful, than the many self-help platitudes each of which claims to be the ultimate secret. It may not be in the league of Aristotle or Marcus Aurelius, but a one-liner does not have the same objective as a book. And figuring out what we might make of it from an impersonal standpoint is just as much of a challenge as an individual's figuring out what his or her personal one thing might be.
The phrase "one thing", while absolutely right in its original context in which Curly holds up one finger, can sound inelegant when used in other contexts. So we shall speak of an individual's project, with the implication that only one project will really matter to him or her at a given time.
In speaking of projects, we shall narrow the range of things that Curly invites us to identify. Projects have goals and results. Curly would allow an individual to select something that was not so teleological, for example "family" rather than "bringing up children". Our narrowing will allow us to be more specific in what we say than would otherwise be possible. But there would be other comments to make on a proposal to focus on things which were not defined in teleological terms.
This post will explore some complexities that come to light when we look at Curly's advice and its implications. Complexities are laid out, but not resolved. As may be apt for advice directed to individuals in relation to their own lives, resolution is left as an exercise for the reader.
What kind of project?
There are plenty of projects on which someone might focus. Examples include bringing up a family (existing or planned), pursuing a career, or undertaking a business, academic or artistic project.
We can take it that Curly's recommendation would be limited to projects that really mattered to the individual, or that would at least have a good prospect of coming to be of great importance to the individual after he or she had got involved in them.
There would be scope for false steps, as there usually is in life. The individual might pick a project, even one that was already of great importance to him or her, and after a while find that it was not sufficiently important to justify making it the single focus of his or her current life. If the risk of that kind of false step was very high, one should perhaps not follow Curly's advice.
We here take it that the appropriate arbiter of importance is the individual, not some independent standard with which the individual might disagree. This reflects the fact that Curly offers advice to the individual. There is no proposal to manage society so that the various focuses of people would collectively produce the best overall result. Curly is a cowboy, and cowboys are not collectivists.
An individual might select a project that was broad or one that was narrow. Both breadth and narrowness could have advantages. And a consequence of following Curly's advice and selecting only one project would be that there was a trade-off: an individual could not enjoy both the advantages of breadth and the advantages of narrowness at the same stage in life.
Robustness and adjustment
A broad project should be more robust than a narrow one. A narrow project, such as becoming an Olympic-level athlete, could easily be frustrated by some random accident, such as injury caused by slipping on an icy pavement. A broad project could be adjusted in its details to accommodate unexpected difficulties.
There is a risk in adjustment. Modest and rare adjustments would maintain the single focus that Curly recommends, even if the cumulative consequence was that the project after 20 years was not recognisably the same project as the one that was first adopted. But substantial or frequent adjustments would betoken a loss of focus, so that some of the benefit of following Curly's advice would be lost.
The adoption of a project should yield guidance on what to do. There might be a lot of detail to fill in, not evident from the description of the project and perhaps not even implied by that description. But the general lines should be clear.
The statement of a broad project might not give much guidance. Statement of one of the broadest ones, such as "be happy" or "achieve worthwhile goals" would give hardly any guidance beyond indicating some types of activity to avoid (in our examples, activities that would induce misery or would waste time and energy). And adoption of a project as broad as that would not amount to following Curly's advice. But statement of a moderately broad project, such as "start a family" or "write a book", might give enough guidance. And statement of a narrow project should give quite a lot of guidance.
The nature of focus
The basic idea is that of focus on the individual's one project.
We take this focus to require primarily attaching value to progress in the project. How things go in relation to anything else is not to be important. There is indeed a suggestion in Curly's words that how other things go will automatically cease to matter, so long as the individual is focused on the one project.
Focus can seem like a good idea. More will be achieved in the area of focus, and the individual will be less bothered by things going on outside that area. At least, these results should follow so long as the project is not defined too broadly. But complexities crowd in quickly.
The sense in which a project matters
A project might matter to the individual, or it might be one that would be generally agreed mattered to society or reasonably could matter to an individual. Finally, if one were to allow talk of moral facts or other facts of a comparably unusual nature, one might see a project as mattering by reference to some factual standard.
Focus would only work as a motivator and as a way to stop other things mattering if a project really mattered to the individual, and mattering to the individual might be sufficient as well as necessary for focus to work. But we should not ignore the other ways in which a project might matter.
Social acceptance that a project was at least one which reasonably could matter to an individual might be needed in order to ensure that the individual was neither obstructed by social disapproval of the project nor deprived of friends.
The existence of a factual standard by which a project mattered would not contribute anything if the factual correctness of such standards was not manifest to most people, and it would seem that it would not be. People might claim that such-and-such standards existed, but there would not be any independent way to check their claims. And while ethical intuitionists might regard their conclusions as self-evident, general agreement with those conclusions would not always be found. So all we would have to go on would be claims that the standards existed, together with whatever support particular alleged standards might have garnered by virtue of having emerged from empirically informed debate over such matters as the social effects of respecting or violating certain standards. And there would be no good reason to heed any claims that were only espoused by a few people. Thus so far as power to motivate individuals went, reference to supposed factual standards would not in terms of content take us beyond reference to social acceptance.
Reference to supposed factual standards might however take us further in terms of motivation. If an individual thought that focus on the chosen project complied with standards that he or she took to be factual, or even better, if the individual thought that focus on the chosen project was (for him or her) positively recommended by such standards, that should encourage focus on the project.
Correspondingly, if relevant standards were supposed to be factual, an individual's fear that his or her choice of project might conflict with those standards would undermine motivation. It would not be possible for the individual to think that the conflict was merely with views of other people that could be disregarded because one was entitled to follow one's own star.
Neglecting other things
A focused life might have advantages, but one would need to ask whether it was acceptable for an individual to attach little or no importance to concerns outside the scope of his or her chosen project.
Whether it would be acceptable to the individual would depend on his or her psychology. Some people would not worry that other things which they might at other times have thought important were being neglected. Others would be seriously concerned. And while we might say that the former turn of mind would be more effective, we could hardly make an ethical judgement as to which turn of mind was psychologically preferable.
We could however discuss substantive ethical questions without judging the individual's psychology directly.
We may start with the positive benefits of focus. In favour of not worrying about the neglect of other things, one could say not only that more might be achieved but that a focused life would itself be a good life. It would not be the only kind of good life, but such a life would offer a better prospect of turning out to be good than several other kinds of life because it would be likely to be a life of high or at least respectable achievement. (We could only be sure of the quality of a life in retrospect. While it was being lived, the best one could do would be to act in such a way that there were good prospects.)
We now turn to the disadvantages of neglecting other things.
At the level of society as a whole, or by reference to long-term measures such as human progress, neglect would be very unlikely to matter. It would be exceptionally rare for what any one individual might have done or not done outside his or her main project to matter much. Someone else would have done something just as good. It is true that very widespread neglect of certain things, such as friendship, family, or civil society, would be a serious loss. But that is not a likely consequence of many people focusing on their single projects. Different people would focus on different things, and some people would focus on friends, family, or civil society.
There is a more troubling ethical question about the effects of neglect on people close to the individual, whether family or friends. (Work colleagues are not included here because someone who did not work hard enough would simply be replaced by someone who was willing to devote more effort to the job.)
We may distinguish two types of case, although the boundary between them would be decidedly hazy.
In a case of the first type, someone might gradually evolve into a highly focused person, with his or her personal relationships evolving in parallel to fit around that focus. Someone who needed a lot of time, or a nomadic life, to pursue his or her chosen project would form friendships of types that would fit with such demands. There would not need to be any specific person who could legitimately claim to have been unjustly left out of friendship, because those unable to be accommodated by virtue of the demands of the individual's focus would not have become friends, or at least not close friends, in the first place.
In a case of the second type, there would be existing personal relationships which would be damaged by the individual's coming to focus on a demanding project. One might expect this to apply to relationships with family members, who would automatically have a status of closeness to the individual and who might be counterparties to obligations on the individual. It could also apply to close or long-standing friends. Here there would be an ethical argument against adopting a project, focus on which would damage existing relationships. Having said that, one could also argue that each person was entitled to give priority to his or her own life and that it would be wrong for some friend or family member to expect that the individual should abandon his or her own aims. There is little hope of general rules to adjudicate individual cases. But we can say that there would be some dependence on whether the individual had voluntarily taken on the relationships in question, as when someone had chosen to start a family with a partner. There might also be some dependence on whether the individual's chosen project actually succeeded (something that could only be confirmed too late) or had a good prospect of succeeding (something that might be assessed in advance). We might here bring in what Bernard Williams said about Gauguin, who abandoned his family in pursuit of the fortunately fulfilled project of becoming a great artist ("Moral Luck", in Williams, Moral Luck: Philosophical Papers 1973-1980, Cambridge University Press, 1981).
Finally, we can ask whether an individual's life might fall short of being among the better sorts of life by virtue of constraints on relationships. Certain types of engagement with others which are widely considered to contribute to a good life might be ruled out by a focus on some demanding project. And it might be that while close relationships were formed, they would be at higher than usual risk of having to be broken off. That risk might taint relationships even before any break.
Change over life
Suppose that an individual selects a project and puts a great deal of energy into it for a few years. Various goals that fall within the scope of the overall project and that are worthwhile in themselves are achieved, so that the effort to date would not be wasted even if the project was no longer pursued. But there is a good deal more that could be done within the scope of the project.
Now suppose that the individual's priorities or attitudes change, as can easily happen as people get older. As a result the individual either deliberately abandons the project or, without a decision to abandon, devotes less and less energy to it.
There is no reason why such a change should devalue the achievements to date. The project was at the time worthwhile, it would still be directly perceived as worthwhile by anyone who had the priorities and attitudes the individual used to have, and its worth could still be appreciated indirectly by anyone who could imagine having those priorities and attitudes.
There is however a way in which the possibility of future change could legitimately concern an individual and might undermine his or her current motivation. Future change might arise not out of the kind of development in priorities and attitudes that is natural to human beings, but out of a realisation that a mistake had been made in selecting the project. The project might turn out to be too challenging, given the individual's abilities. Or it might have appeared to be one that was appropriate to the individual's priorities and attitudes, but only because there were implications of pursuit of the project that did not come to light early on. Careful thought in advance might reduce the risk of such a mistake, and once a mistake was appreciated there would be nothing for it but to start again. It is the possibility that a mistake would in due course come to light that might undermine current motivation. Not to lose motivation for that reason would be to exhibit the virtue of cheerfully living with uncertainty.