Too focused for my own good 

by Bill McGaughey

I believe that each of us conditions our brain to receive certain messages and ignore others. This helps us to stay focused on objects of purpose.

Now approaching 70 years of age, I recognize that I am socially awkward. I find it hard to make small talk with strangers because I have nothing to say. I don’t know enough about the topics - say, pro football games - that others are discussing. I would appear ignorant if I tried to join the discussion.

Part of who I am was determined between the ages of 9 and 14 when I attended a prep school. For the first time, I had homework to do for school, frequent tests, and papers that would be graded. I sat in class each day listening to the teacher go through the lesson plan. It got so that I could remember much of what the teacher said. I could also remember much of what I read in the textbooks.

I paid attention to these messages because I knew that they contained information that would be on the tests and affect my grade. It was important to me to get good grades. I was known as a top student. I had a reputation to protect.

What I did essentially was to narrow my scope of attention to what I needed to know on the tests. That meant that I did not pay attention to other things happening in my life. I did not pay attention to relationships with other students or to casual conversations that I might have with them. My self-esteem was based on getting good grades. I trained my brain to pay attention to what would serve that end.

At some point, I realized that life was passing me by. I could not build personal relationships based on my being an A-student. I began to realize that I was socially awkward because I had not had a full range of experiences and so I lacked the ability to talk intelligently about things that other people wanted to discuss. They would not want to discuss my high grades or the subjects studied in school. But I was focused on myself and subjects studied in school.

I have always had the ability to focus. It might have been better for me if I had relaxed mentally and opened myself up to other influences. However, I was led to believe that academic success measured in terms of grades would be my ticket to getting into a good college and being put on a path to career success. The first goal - college - I achieved, but not the second. I graduated from a prestigious college but failed to embark upon a rewarding career. I found that employers were more interested in socially skilled people than those with impressive academic records.

Actually, my academic record was far from distinguished. I was a middling college student. In my freshman year, I made a conscious decision not to pursue good grades when I decided I would not correct the mistake of a teacher who had graded my paper below what it deserved. I stopped being a well-honed learning machine and started to think randomly about ideas.

In college, I was first a philosophy major. My new mission in life was not to get good grades but discover truth in new ways. I became self-conscious about my own thought processes. I wrote ideas down on pieces of paper, numbered them, and created an inventory of topics that might be covered in papers written at a later date. Now my self-esteem was pegged to producing philosophical treatises. Hopefully, I would make a name for myself as a philosopher.

I have followed this plan for the remainder of my life. I pay attention to an even narrower range of information that is related to one or another writing project. I find that I can remember subtle points related to these interests while forgetting other experiences in my life. This writing (no longer philosophical) keeps me going each day.

Over time, I have lost some of my social awkwardness as I held routine jobs and socialized with my co-workers at odd moments. I am comfortable with friends but not with strangers of unknown interest. I never did develop the skill of making conversation in bars. I remain the awkward man who stands by himself at social gatherings while others engage in fulfilling, personal conversation.

Even if philosophy is not a good basis for social relations these days, I keep myself going by engaging in a series of personal projects. I write treatises that few people will read. What I do does not happen to fit into the context of today’s popular interest. But I have long given up the hunger for personal acclaim. It’s too late really for such things to come my way. What I am now was determined when I was ten or twelve years old.



I have run for public office as an extension of my interest in ideas - in this case, ideas related to public policy. No one else supported my campaigns. They were basically one-man operations and the results showed. But, if you have ideas, it’s better to act so that these ideas can materialize than merely set them to paper.

I never ran for public office in my first sixty years. In the last ten years, I have run six times and lost all the elections, of course. One of my worst results was when I ran for Mayor of Minneapolis in 2009. I finished ninth among twelve candidates, tying with a candidate named Bob Carney. I received 230 First Choice votes (0.5% of the total). Carney received 229 First Choice votes. It was a disappointing result.

But then something amazing happened. In May 2010, Bob Carney asked me if I would be willing to run for Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota on a ticket with him. Nothing was expected of me as a candidate. I consented. The Carney-McGaughey ticket gained 9,856 votes (7.56% of the total) in the Republican primary for Governor, good for second place among four candidates.

Better for me than the election result was that I had gained a new friend. Bob Carney is an intellectual, a man of ideas, or, in today’s parlance, a nerd. So am I. Now I have someone to talk with about my ideas and aspirations in life. Part of the social barrier is breaking down. It’s about time.


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