Plate Focus

What I put on my body or in it (9 servings of dessert) is not useful for you

This is NOT about food. Should you focus on what the other person has or is doing? In what context does it make sense and how can you become a master of plate focus?

You won’t lose fat by watching how slim that lady in the park is. You won’t get stronger by counting how many pullups your neighbour does. You won’t get richer by tracking what someone’s current net worth is just like listening to someone play the guitar won’t help you learn how to play it yourself. In fact, even eating the exact same food as your healthy work colleague won’t necessarily make you as healthy as she.

But that is not all.

The lady in the park, your neighbour, the guitarist and your colleague, even their happiness won’t be higher if they focus on what you are doing.

Eh, what?

Whether literal or metaphorical we do not focus on our own plate appropriately. Being inappropriately interested in what is on someone else’s plate is often a root cause of much unhappiness and suboptimal outcomes for a joyful life, a better society and a healthier planet.

So, how can we think about better plate focus?

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Preface – Process vs Goal and Introspection vs Criticism
Evolutionary Background
Evolutionary Mismatch
Birth to Death via Mammon
Poor Plate Focus at Home and Abroad
Why is there Value Destruction?
1234Missed Opportunities
1234Budget Constraints
1234The Unholy Trinity
1234Destructive Criticism
1234Missing the Background
When is it Good to Focus on the Other’s Plate?
1234Child Rearing
1234Leadership Roles
1234Fashion Trends
1234Live Race
1234Percentile Based Rewards
1234Charity and Altruism
1234Professional Assessor or Critic
1234Protecting Public Goods & Services
Positive Plate Focus BENEFITS
Positive Plate Focus PROTOCOLS
1234Step Zero
1234The Setting and Your Role
1234Patterns, Tracking and Reverse-Squeezing
1234Healthy Lifestyle
1234Wealth – Envy, Jealousy and the Nature Cure
1234Lifelong Education
A Goan Takeaway

Preface – Process vs Goal and Introspection vs Criticism [top]

I can preface the rest of this article with its summary which has 2 parts. First, external motivation can come from seeing what someone else has achieved, but to have your own improvement you need to focus on processes. Second, criticizing your neighbour won’t make you better off for long, but keeping your own house in order would.

Now let’s dive in.

Evolutionary Background [top]

We humans like other animal species kept an eye on what others in our group were doing so as to learn about the various things required for survival. Not doing so meant being the slowest in the herd and becoming the predator’s next meal or another tribe’s slave. When out gathering fruits and berries, learning from what the more experienced were collecting and plucking allowed us to flourish to pass on our genes. Escaping dangerous terrain by keeping an eye on the tribe’s best scout allowed us to survive in order to procreate and nurture our young.

Evolutionary Mismatch [top]

Jump forward to today and with no poisonous berries, barbarians at the village entrance or wolves prowling in the neighbourhood, our focus on the plates of others has taken an unfortunate turn.

Birth to Death via Mammon [top]

At the 2 ends of life, by grand design, our instinct is to focus on our own plate. A newborn baby does not get distracted from what matters – breastmilk for survival. Decades later, on their deathbed, their focus is on that which genuinely matters to them – not on their office colleague’s bonus many decades ago. The practical difficulty lies in the journey in-between birth and death.

We are social creatures, meant to foster connections with others for work and play. It is the insidious instilling of irrational greed within us that makes us unwise beyond basic survival and procreation. With life expectancy high and the risk of death so low, and with so many products and services that free up our time, why are so many people emotionally disturbed rather than thriving from within?

Poor Plate Focus at Home and Abroad [top]

The education systems in most countries suck from an early age.

In a school system with an academic ranking of students, rather than direct individual improvement relative to self, a large part of the motivation emanates simply from creating a need to be better than one’s peers. Extrinsic motivation is fine, but not if it replaces Intrinsic motivation.

When children are not chosen during team selection, rather than be motivated by skill development and focus internally, the external world’s decision to not select a child can often create a motivation black hole. And, Limiting Labels don’t help!

One might argue that it is a dog-eat-dog world and children need to be groomed for it. However, we make multiple errors when we use this argument. For instance [a] we do not appreciate the difference between survival and thriving [b] we often do not define for the child what it means to thrive – because we don’t know it for ourselves [c] we do not teach children about making the world a better place versus the accumulation of financial wealth beyond a level that is intellectually justifiable.

A mindset of having more than the next guy tends to disconnect us from the science that tells us that giving produces more happiness within us than receiving does!

Focusing on the next person’s plate to see if we can have more or better than them, or to provide uninvited comments on what is on their plate becomes a natural outcome of being distracted by too much external information and not paying attention intelligently to our internal information.

We see this happening on a larger scale too. Entire countries will criticize their neighbours or those whom they perceive as their adversaries instead of focusing their attention and resources on the plight of their own citizens.

Why is there Value Destruction? [top]

Missed Opportunities [top]

With survival no longer a daily concern, the logical next step for us should be a focus on a path of thriving. However, we shoot ourselves in the foot by not thinking before focusing on the other person’s plate. Having seen what is on their plate – we can often waste our time and theirs by telling them what they’re doing wrong.

Budget Constraints [top]

There is only so much physical, mental, emotional and spiritual energy we have in the day. Although we can increase that through training, what is clear from simple arithmetic is that, on any given day, the more you waste your time and energy on value reducing behaviour, the less time and energy you have to focus on value increasing behaviour. This is a triple whammy because you also need to work extra hard to offset the outcomes of the value reducing actions and you have less time left for it.

The Unholy Trinity [top]

Because they know that fear sells, media outlets stream more negative news than is representative of the actual reality out there. In addition to that form of destructive entertainment, they also know that pleasurable entertainment sells. Light entertainment is good in small doses for our health. However, you and I both have friends who never miss an episode of MasterChef on TV but will never enter the kitchen to help prepare a meal. Understand the difference between being entertained versus being useful to yourself or the world.

Wasting time on social media is just another global epidemic of poor plate focus.

Destructive Criticism [top]

It is not easy to remain silent and focus back on your own plate when you see someone else put something on theirs that you deem to be totally inappropriate for them. The following sinful behaviours of the unhappy are often fed by a focus on the other person’s plate: [a] wanting to be right rather than realizing that you actually want to be happy [b] chasing superiority [c] being overly control-seeking.

Missing the Background [top]

We typically miss the story behind some apparent star performance. That might be the many thousands of hours someone practised to master their skill. It might be the years of Healthspan they gave up, the laws they broke or the relationships they destroyed in their pursuit of astronomical external wealth. Understanding that history tempers our admiration.

It is similar when we see poor performance. We are quick to judge rather than to gather and understand the information about the conditions under which the other person was able to do what they did. Understanding that might redirect us from criticism to praise.

When is it Good to Focus on the Other’s Plate? [top]

There are many situations when it is useful or even critically important to be focused on the other person’s plate.

Child Rearing [top]

When it is your responsibility to raise a child, it is critical that you observe what the child is doing. Bear in mind that once your child crosses the age of 12, you must not stop your child from doing something they like unless you have a logical explanation for why they should. The best way to get good behaviour from your child is to have good behaviour yourself. So, don’t take your focus off your own plate!

Leadership Roles [top]

Whether placed in a leadership role by an organization, or a role you’ve assumed in society, if you are going to be a good leader, you need to ensure that everyone in your team has enough on their plate to keep them on track toward the agreed goals – whether it is in terms of the resources to do the tasks or the rewards promised for goals met. Within the corporate world, it is not uncommon for lazy but greedy bosses to be paid unfairly more if they can squeeze out more from their hardworking subordinates while at the same time providing less on their plates.

Fashion Trends [top]

It does not take much evidence to conclude that I am not fashion conscious. If your economic or social progress depends on how you dress up then it will be important to keep an eye on what is on everyone else’s bodies. A worthy health warning worth remembering is that your internal health matters more than the suit you wear or the handbag you carry.

Live Race [top]

You are in the middle of a race and need to perform better than your nearest competitors to take home a prize – it makes sense to observe them, to change your tactics to finish ahead of them. Applying game theory in real-time makes it necessary to observe what is on the other person’s plate. The situation is applicable whether it is chess or squash. The speed of play might differ.

Read: Competing & Comparing – Targeting Happiness Maximization

Percentile based Rewards [top]

If you are in an industry where you are routinely benchmarked relative to your competitors there is a need for you to keep an eye on what others are producing. It will be good for you to also understand how much of their performance is because of luck rather than skill. As you cannot rely on having good luck, your own effort should be focused on your skills.

Charity and Altruism [top]

There would be few acts of charity or altruism if you did not keep an eye on what those less fortunate have to deal with. Even for this, beware of where your attention is being drawn to. Coverage of a sweet little girl trapped in a landslide in a rich country raises much more money from the charitable public than 1000 unknown, unseen children dying of starvation in a foreign land.

Professional Assessor or Critic [top]

Unlike politicians and some of your annoying friends and relatives, academics are usually skilled in the art of providing a critical review. First, they do it when invited to – at a seminar or during a peer-review of proposed journal articles. Second, they follow some set of guidelines for this feedback. Other professional critics e.g., those in the art, book-publishing, food and fashion worlds, are also required to provide feedback in a respectful manner.

Protecting Public Goods & Services [top]

Whether it is paid for with your taxes or provided by nature, it makes sense for you to speak up when someone is destroying what you and others are enjoying. Those selfish individuals are also not the most pleasant to interact with, so keep your cool, deliver your message politely and logically, and then walk away.

Positive Plate Focus Benefits [top]

Having understood some of the negative consequences of wrong plate focus, the benefits of positive plate focus follow logically.

A better relationship with yourself is probably the most important outcome. You will notice that the less unwise attention you expend on others, the more at peace you are with yourself. Healthy self-absorption. [Healthy Narcissism]

A better relationship with others happens for two types of targets. Those whom you have a responsibility towards will appreciate the more relevant focus and sensible advice you give them. The rest of the population is happier that you left them to their own devices.

It is not only our children whom we can lead by example. You have the potential to create a positive change within anyone who observes your good behaviour.

Positive Plate Focus Protocols [top]

When trying to improve anything, what is needed is a willingness to think harder and deeper to prepare and be proactive rather than being inattentive and reactive. Reading what follows is great in theory but what eventually matters is that you close the Implementation Gap.

Step Zero [top]

Even if we don’t know where it came from, there is a duration of time, usually very tiny, when a thought arises that we should focus on something. It is at this step that you should be engaging the go-or-no-go filter. Whatever the set of mindfulness practices you have built into your life, the self-awareness that you develop will help you become better at the judicious operation of this filter. Ideally, everything you do is interconnected and merges smoothly, and the ability to use this filter well would itself be a superb mindfulness practice in your everyday life.

The Setting and Your Role [top]

Understand the setting and work within your role – that may require you to focus on someone else’s plate or to remain focused only on your own.

If it is not your responsibility to provide feedback or criticism or correct someone – don’t!

If you realize at some point that you made an error by walking in where you were not invited – stop, walk back out! It is wiser to cut your losses with immediate silence than to try to justify yourself when the other person objects.

Also, ask yourself, “Is this entertainment for me, or is this educational?”

Then, reverse the question and ask, “Am I being used as entertainment or is the other person asking questions because they genuinely want to work on their own improvement?” You know which answer will make you smile politely and walk away.

Patterns, Tracking and Reverse-Squeezing [top]

To create better patterns of behaviour, pattern recognition is the first step. If you have not yet explored the immense benefits of daily journaling of different aspects of your life, today is a good day to start. End-of-day reflection and progress tracking will push you towards better plate focus. You can try to observe, through your notes, as an unemotional bystander what transpired through the day in your interactions with others.

As you consciously force more positive behaviour into your day, you will automatically squeeze out negative behaviour.

Healthy Lifestyle [top]

A genuine interest in a healthy lifestyle will make you look out for protocols to follow that will be good for you. Along with that focus on your own plate remember to not criticize or shame someone for doing what you think is not good for them. Instead, invest that time in understanding the extent to which what you are doing is backed by scientific research.

There will be many uninformed and unhealthy folks who even in 2022 will ask “if you are vegan, where do you get your protein from?” or “aren’t you afraid of skin cancer when you go out in the sun?” or “if you don’t have dairy, aren’t you worried about your bones becoming weak?” Just as you’d like them to leave you be, it’s best you leave them be too.

Wealth – Envy, Jealousy and the Nature Cure [top]

Compared with rural settings, feelings of envy and jealousy are highest in urban settings, pretty much by design. No matter how much someone flashes their wealth in a village in the countryside, it pales in comparison to what nature shows us that is beautiful and available to all. You might not live in a village but if you connect with nature at least once a day, you might appreciate easily how the have-lots and the have-nots both miss out often on many zero-cost experiences truly worth having on their plates.

Fashion [top]

Humans use fashion mostly to portray themselves in a certain light to the outside world. It’s good to look good. It’s not good to let what you wear on the outside of your body, stress you out inside your mind.

Wearing classics and having simple dress rules both prevent decision fatigue. Be less interested in what others are displaying on their outside, and focus more on what is inside your own body and mind.

Unless someone has asked for it explicitly, there is no need to, and little upside in, commenting on someone’s appearance negatively.

Food [top]

What we desire to put into our bodies via food and drink is extremely personal. It takes into account things that are as external as your religious and cultural beliefs to something as internal as the diversity of your gut microbiome.

Unless you have been made responsible for someone’s well-being or been requested to provide a comment, there’s little to be gained in criticizing what is on someone else’s plate.

I comment on what people eat and drink and guide them towards a better future in exchange for a professional fee. Outside of such a request, I prefer to focus on my inner peace and not waste my energy commenting on someone else’s meat or poison.

Lifelong Education [top]

If you have an Internal Culture of lifelong education for yourself, you might better appreciate what others have been able to put on their plates and why. It also makes you more aware of what you could sensibly put on your own plate in a reasonable manner in this lifetime and what you should avoid.

Parenting [top]

Teaching children that unhealthy comparisons are just that, unhealthy, is critical at an early age. A frequent point of failure at home is the comparison between one’s own children. It is natural to compare – but it is not necessary to voice. Positive statements like “ask your sister if she can give you a hint for solving that maths problem you’re stuck on” or “ask your brother when he might have time to teach you how to peel and slice garlic” would be cooperative win-win rather than comparative lose-lose.

Self Control [top]

All of the above hinge in some form and to some extent on self-control. If you can control yourself, you will have mastery of all the important things in life that ensure a long Healthspan – not just physical but mental, emotional and spiritual health too. There are many ways to do this from the moment you wake up in the morning until the time you drift into sleep at night.

A Goan Takeaway [top]

When living in Goa recently, I stepped out of my gate in the 39C afternoon sun to head out for a run on the beach. A man in his 40s approached me and, without checking if I wanted to have a conversation, asked me what my best race times were for specific distances. Rather than give him the answer he wanted, I gave him an answer I think he needed. “What will you get by knowing my race times? If I am much faster than you, you’ll feel bad. If I am much slower than you, you will get a pointless ego boost. How about you ask me something that is actually useful to your development?” He looked puzzled. I could not wait for him to rearrange his thoughts. I started my stopwatch and my run.

If everything you do is consistent with your core beliefs and desires, then a long and healthy life of joy is pretty much guaranteed to be yours. If you want to be guided in detail, you know how to reach me, and if you found this useful, please do share it with others.



Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.


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