Bob Goff should be antsy. It wouldn’t exactly be out of character for him. If you’ve read any of his books like the New York Times Bestseller Love Does, you know the man is pure energy. He’s helping Uganda launch its space program. He’s choosing one thing to quit every week, be it an old habit or any one of his many prestigious roles on various boards across the globe. He’s answering every phone call he gets, a commitment he’s had since he dropped his personal number at the end of his first book. He is the most interesting man in the world. He’s got a lot going on.
But when we talk via a Zoom call, he’s very calm. As soon as we’re finished talking, he’s heading out to a horse ranch for a few days to unwind. But until that time, he’s focused intently on the here and now of our conversation. That’s new for him.
“I have spent all my life being distracted,” he says, eyes sparking from beneath the brim of his ball cap. “I just said, ‘I’m done with being distracted.’”
Easier said than done, but Goff has proved himself endlessly capable of overcoming the odds. He’s an Enneagram Seven — an “Enthusiast,” inclined to forever chase new horizons and abandon what’s now for what’s next (“I make coffee nervous,” he chuckles). That makes him prone to distraction, obviously, but it also gives him a zeal for accomplishment. His goal now is to retain his enthusiasm for what’s next while getting better at mastering his attention span. He thinks that’s something we could all benefit from.
“We live distracted. That is just Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday,” he says. “But I think you could be enthusiastic about what’s going on around you and at the same time understand what’s going on inside of you.”
Goff says distraction comes in many forms which, perhaps, is why it’s so insidious. Obviously, there are the distractions of everyday life — Tiktok, television, tabloids, the little things that eat away at our free time — but there are broader issues at play as well.
“Everybody’s in everybody’s grill about stuff that you could be distracted by coming up with a worldview to protect you from it,” Goff says. “You think, ‘this is not a safe place. I don’t want to feel rejection, so what I’d rather do is fake it.’ Then we become caricatures.”
He uses himself as an example, referring to his well-known affinity for public whimsy and, well, balloons (if you know, you know). “If I’m always ‘Bob the Balloon Guy’ — because that’s what everybody’s expecting — then they don’t get to know that I can be a deeply introspective person, too,” he says.
He says the pressure of living our lives in public, as the social media age requires of us, can lead to us being distracted at an internal level. We’re more concerned with cultivating an acceptable identity than we are with focusing on who we were created to be.
“We can have these two personas going on,” he says. “There’s the person that your loved ones know, and then there’s the person that strangers know. What I want to do is sync those up. Understand what’s going on and why. What’s that connected to?”
Embracing the Misunderstanding
Goff believes we can be more concerned about avoiding accusations from strangers than we are in living fully in the moment. Our digital lives invite intense scrutiny, so we spend enormous amounts of energy retreating into sanitized public identities that might not be completely real, but at least they’re safe. And for Goff, a big key to living an undistracted life is being willing to live out of a less safe self.
“Part of living a less distracted life is to come to grips of the fact that you’ll always be misunderstood,” he says. “You’re going to be misunderstood.”
There’s a difference between accepting the fact that you’ll be misunderstood and deliberately seeking it out. “I’m not aiming for misunderstanding, I’m aiming for the opposite. I’m looking for clarity,” he says. “But I’m not going to sacrifice who I am for clarity to a stranger.”
“That doesn’t mean I have a high view of myself. I have just a really high view of what’s possible if we fan the flames of this unique gift that we have.”
And as an added benefit, accepting that you’ll be misunderstood might help you become a little slower to rush to judgment on others, understanding that could be misunderstanding them. “God’s got me with a certain set of circumstances and worries and concerns and blessings and all that. He’s got a different set that’s unfolding for you,’ he says. “Try to be compassionate and curious.”
Catch Up to Where You Are
Goff says one reason many of us find ourselves distracted is we’re not really aware of what’s going on inside of us.
He says before he and his wife go on a trip, they leave a penny on a block of ice in the freezer. If they return and the penny has sunk, they know the power went out while they were gone. It’s a way of keeping tabs on what happened in their home while they were gone. Goff says that’s something more of us need to get better at doing for our hearts — especially on this side of a disruption the size of a global pandemic.
“If I just checked out of a relationship or checked out of something that was causing me a lot of stress, what happened while I was gone?” he says. “I just want to check back in on that, see if there are any pennies at the bottom and then just see if there is a way I can recreate something more beautiful out of that.”
To do this, Goff says to use the same trick you did the last time you had to look for missing car keys: Retrace your steps.
“If you’re lonely, when was the last time you didn’t feel alone?” he says. “If you’re feeling hopeless to say, ‘when was the last time I felt hopeful?’ Return to the scene of the crime. What was it that made the change between then and now? If you can answer that question, you might find some clarity on exactly what’s going on inside of you, and what you need to do about it.”
And when in doubt, he says, the key is to “always move towards authenticity.”
“You have to be self aware to know what’s going on and then just get real,” he says. “Actually show up. Not as a caricature of yourself. But actually as yourself.”
Focus on What Matters
“You can’t participate in everything, but you can participate in something.”
For Goff, it’s not enough to be undistracted. You have to then take all the free energy you’ve got and focus on something important to you. “Think of it like X axis and Y axis,” he says. “Where the X and the Y meet, where the ambition and the opportunity meet, take a shot. Do it. Buy the ticket. Make the pie. Whatever it is.”
“If your head is on a swivel, looking for the opportunity, then you won’t be distracted by all the crazy things that’s trying to steal you away from the moment.”
It’s time for Goff to head to his horse ranch. I make a joke about coming along. “Do it!” he says, and I laugh, but he cuts me off. “I’m serious!” he insists. “I’ll leave a key under the mat.”
I had to pass. I still have a few distractions to deal with. But that’s Bob Goff — free to look for opportunities to be generous because he’s less encumbered now by the stuff that was in his own way. He offers an assurance that he’d be happy to answer any more questions that come up later on.
“After all,” he laughs.”I’ve got all day!”
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.