Like a bowtie, to become an influential leader, you must converge on yourself before you can expand to the world.

You may not have ever worn a bowtie, but you’ve undoubtedly seen one. Lay it out flat and untied, and you’ll see the wide end (“leaf”) that makes up the signature shape we all know. One end leads into the strap that goes around your neck—adjustable to who you are and your needs. Across the “spread,” the opposing end marks the end of the bowtie itself—the open end, the end of who you are, and the beginning of the world. But from the bowtie, there’s a valuable lesson that we can all learn about ourselves and about leadership. It’s that no matter who we are, we all begin from a wide end of the bowtie leaf. But many of our problems have arisen from starting at the wrong end.

It’s no secret, the world has a severe deficit of principled leadership. And while there are entire volumes of books offering reasons why that might be, the simple, yet profound source of this problem can be boiled down to one word: attention. In recent times, with the rise of social media and pandemic-induced isolation, we’ve all been forced into ideological echo-chambers. The progress of technology and connection has outstripped the progress of our minds. And because we can’t reconcile these two things, we look beyond ourselves for the answers.

We’ve stopped listening to ourselves and our neighbors, and have outsourced all of our thinking and attention to internet algorithms and biased news media. In the process, we’ve lost a sense of ourselves and a sense of truth. We’ve been focusing on the macro at the expense of the micro. The national at the expense of the local. The global at the expense of the personal. All the while whittling away our ability to influence positive change in our own lives and communities. Our attention is severely devalued with the almost unlimited inputs the world offers us. We are living on the open end of the bowtie.

On the other side of the attention transaction, very few leaders are able to capture such devalued attention. We no longer listen to each other, and those who do, listen only to leaders who care nothing for us, but offer a respite from ourselves. Detached from ourselves, we’re drawn to those who blame our problems on others—because we couldn’t possibly live with ourselves knowing that we are the very source we seek. We see this story play out in the storming of Capitol Hill, riots in city streets, businesses being looted, and families being torn apart at the dinner table. Our lack of principled leadership, globally, nationally, locally, and most critically, personally, is the result of living on the wrong end of the bowtie—on the outer edge, detached from ourselves.

When you start from the unattached end, your focus is wider and imprecise. Your attention is devalued and spread thin, and your empathy vanishes as a result. Your authenticity suffers because everything you think and do is based on external influences. Lack of authenticity leads to an inability to connect with people around you on a deeper level. And when that happens, people stop listening to you. And when people stop listening to you, you become angry and full of hate because you can no longer influence the world around you. And soon, you’ll realize that you’ve gone too far into the hall of mirrors. You’ll realize that your attention has been so drained by the external, that you have none left to devote to the internal. Your detachment from yourself, like the open end of the bowtie, has rendered you helpless.

But you do have a choice in this matter. Start from the inner, attached leaf of the bowtie. It’s still wider and unfocused, but it is a far superior starting point. From here, you are attached to who you are, looking at the world from the inside out. You’re more in touch with your passions, your interests, your skills, your beliefs, and your story. This end of the bowtie can be understood as what you experience in the 12 Favorite Problems exercise. Instead of staring from the array of world problems that the hall of mirrors wants you to focus on, you are starting from a set of problems that you are passionate about, and that you are most qualified to help the world solve.

This, like balancing life’s checkbook, allows you to home-in on what is most important to you. You feel full of gratitude because you’re not focused on what other people have, you’re not focused on what the algorithms tell you to focus on, but rather, you are focused on what you can control and what you want to control—in yourself and in your community. Coming from such a place of authenticity to yourself, people begin to listen to you as a result. The more you narrow your focus and attention from within, the more you will be seen as an authority, a guide, a leader in a specific and influential way. It’s at this point that you’ve converged on the middle—the knot—of the bowtie. It’s at this point that you can now begin to expand to the outer edge of the bowtie, and the world.

If you want to influence meaningful change in your life and in the world, if you want to be thought of as a reliable, authentic leader, start by thinking about your life like a bowtie. Instead of starting with the world’s problems at the very end of the “leaf,” start with your 12 Favorite Problems, the inner part of the “leaf” and converge on the middle. Once you find out who you are, where to put your attention, and how you can influence meaningful change, you can now expand to the world to complete the bowtie. If you start from the very end, you will have a difficult time finding yourself. And if you can’t find yourself, you will never be able to help others find themselves. I’ve searched the world, quit jobs, lost friends, strained relationships, and more, all because I didn’t know who I was, and I never took the time to find out. But by starting from within, by converging before expanding, I’ve begun the process of building meaning and influence into both my personal and professional life.

Like a bowtie, converge on yourself before you expand to the world.

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