Black Dot Focus – Overcoming the Three Causes of Error | Whiteboard

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Insight 22 | January 23, 2017

Black Dot Focus – Overcoming the Three Causes of Error

by Nick Davidson

Those of you who heard my last Town Hall may recall our discussion of “White Dot Focus” vs “Black Dot Focus,” which is basically the idea that when we’re anxious, our mind is like a radar that scans and takes in everything in our environment but doesn’t know where to focus. It’s all white noise.

Whereas with relaxed focuswe can shift that focus back to the task at hand while still being aware of what’s going on and not letting it bother us.

So I wanted to use that as a jumping off point and dive a little deeper this time.

Mastering any craft, performance of any kind of task, requires focus and attention to detail. And in the midst of figuring out where to put our focus, we are bound to make mistakes.

I want to do a little exercise.

Can you read this poem as quickly as you can for me? And if you make a mistake, I want you to stop, ok?

Silly Sally swiftly shooed seven silly sheep.
The seven silly sheep silly Sally shooed
Shilly-shallied south.
These sheep shouldn’t sleep in a shack;
Sheep should sleep in a shed.

If you made a mistake, can you tell me why you made a mistake?

Now, try again, and if you make a mistake, don’t stop, but keep going as quickly as you can.

Key Messages


Professor of Music Perception and Cognition, my musicianship teacher Marianne Ploger says that there are three causes of error:

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With reaction, when something goes awry or differently than we expect – something in the environment throws us off, somebody throws us a curveball – we can get distracted from our task at hand and if distracted too much, lose that Black Dot Focus and make an error.


When we remove ourselves from the task at hand by thinking or worrying about what’s coming up – “Am I gonna hit that note? Are the violins gonna be in time? What groceries do I need to get later?” we lose the Black Dot Focus and leave ourselves vulnerable to making an error.

Looking Back

If something has gone wrong in the past and you start reflecting on it and beating yourself up about it, or if it’s gone well and you’re congratulating yourself or getting complacent, you lose the Black Dot Focus and likely make an error.

Mrs. Ploger’s favorite analogy for dealing with Reaction, Anticipation, and Looking Back is that of the coach and swimmer. In practice, the coach can walk along the pool yelling at the swimmer, or could even be in the pool guiding and correcting, but when it comes time to do the thing, the coach has to get out of the water and onto the sidelines, and the swimmer has to trust her training, trust her preparation, and Just Do It™.

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That’s all great, and true, and if you’ve read The Inner Game of Tennis, this makes a lot of sense. But it quickly begs the question, you know, since any art or skill that we perform takes that attention to detail, that precision of repetition, how do we get to that point of mastery where the low-level details don’t overwhelm us?

Feeling this tension, I once asked my horn professor, Leslie Norton, Principal Horn of the Nashville Symphony,


“What distinguishes a high-level student from a professional, and what makes one different from or more preferable than another?”

I’ve treasured her response.

“I would have to say that many really good university or conservatory students do a lot of things well. Starting point being good concept of sound, pitch, rhythm, technique, accuracy. Moving on to the professional level would imply other things: musical style, concept, approach….

Then beyond that, do they make every note count. Is every one a pearl? Is there something special about a plain old scale they might play? Do they command your attention? Do they move you? Do they make you think, “Of course, why didn’t I think of that, that’s so obvious?

We thought Angelina Jolie was fantastic in the Changeling…I never once thought in the middle of it, “Wow, what a great actress!” I was just riveted at this character’s every move. Oh yeah, she was just acting. I think the real musicians put it out there in such an extraordinary way, you don’t care or think that it’s horn or banjo or coloratura soprano, you just know you’ve been drawn in. That’s the magic of Eric Ruske or David Jolley.”

All my later professors echo the same sentiment, including another key phrase along with it:


“Product before process.”

The low-level details are a base, but technique ultimately only serves the high-level goals of expression and connection.

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I know that this is specifically about music, but it pertains to any skill or art. For example, it finds analogue in the way programming languages have evolved.

From low-level machine code which is just 1s and 0s, to assembly code that we can barely read that compiles directly to machine code, to a language like C, variants of which are what most computers’ operating systems are written in and which are translated to assembly and then to machine code.

But ultimately, we now have languages like Ruby and JavaScript, which were derived from lower-level languages like C, and ultimately compile down to machine code, but that let us focus on the high-level expression of our goals in a language closer to natural language and not worry about the sticky details.


Here at Whiteboard, we are all at the same time craftspeople and artists.

Whether it’s in our dialogue with clients, our content crafting, our photography and interactive design, or our coding, we constantly learn new tools and techniques, and we are asked to perform with these at a high level, and quickly, which can be overwhelming.

I read a quote recently that I think sums up the balance we must strike between product and process,

“When you get to a certain level of understanding with any craft, that craft can transcend into an art. Once you know how it works, you can then express yourself through that medium.”

– acclaimed baker Zachary Golper of Bien Cuit in Brooklyn

Final Thoughts

So a toast for the new year, let us not forget why we do our art.

Let us remember we do it because it nourishes us. We do it because we want to express something with it. We do it because we believe in it, we believe that it can be helpful and nourish other people, too.

Nick Davidson

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