The art of paying attention

(I gave this talk the other night as part of an art gathering down in Rock Hill, South Carolina. I’m mainly posting this as a reminder to myself about how important it is to pay attention, and how easy it is to get distracted. Maybe you’ll see yourself somewhere in here, too. — TT)

I want to start tonight by talking about an experiment done in 1999 by two research psychologists named Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. You probably don’t know their names, but some of you will know their experiment. They brought people in – a couple of hundred people in all, brought in one by one – and asked them to watch a video. The video showed six people on two teams – three in black shirts and three in white shirts. Both teams were passing a basketball around. The researchers asked the people watching the video to count how many times the white team passed the ball. The video lasted about a minute and a half. At the end, most people got the right answer – the white team passed the ball 15 times.

Then the researchers asked another question:

Did you see the gorilla?

And many of the test subjects said something along the lines of: What the hell are you talking about?

So the researchers played the video again. Sure enough, as these two teams are passing the basketballs around, somebody in a gorilla suit saunters right into the middle of the group, turns to the camera, beats its chest a few times, and exits to the other side.

Half the people, the first time around, didn’t even see it.

In science they call this “perceptual blindness.” I think of it as not being able to see the damn gorilla dancing around right in front of you.

And I’m afraid that most of us these days have a hard time seeing the gorillas walking right through the middle of our lives, because we’re so distracted, or scatterbrained, or because we’re looking at all the wrong things.

There’s a writer named Amy Krouse Rosenthal who died earlier this year – she was best known as an author of books for kids and young adults. I know her best for a note she wrote when somebody was asking her for career advice. Here’s what she said:

“For anyone trying to discern what to do with their life: PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT YOU PAY ATTENTION TO. That’s pretty much all the info you need.”

It’s spectacular advice, really. The stuff that interests you, the things that hold your attention, is where your instinct is telling you to go.

There’s only one problem: These days, are any of us paying close attention to anything?

I’ve been a working writer for 30 years, and for a good bit of that time I’ve also taught writing. Many of you here tonight are artists, creators of one type of another, and I’m sure some of you teach, too. What I’ve come to believe about teaching writing – or any kind of creative work, really – is that you have to start by talking about the art of paying attention.

I teach up at Wake Forest, and I tell my students that if they just pay close attention to the world around them, it’s a huge advantage not just to their career prospects, but for being a better and more interesting person out in the world. But I see them struggling to focus on any one thing for more than a minute or two at a time. That’s because our culture and our lifestyle have given us all a case of severe attention deficit disorder. Our DNA has ADD.

Our job as creators – and just as people who want to live richer, more meaningful lives – is to fight back as hard as we can. We have to relearn not just how to look at the world with open eyes again, but how to interact with each other in a more personal and meaningful way.

I should let you know right here that I am a flawed messenger. I have four jobs these days – magazine writer, book author, teacher, and podcaster – and I find myself constantly thinking about one when I’m trying to do the other. I work at a lot at home and I’m always getting up to grab something to drink or pull a book off the shelf or check on the laundry. Our house is never more clean than when I’m on a work deadline, because I will do anything in that moment to avoid doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I spend way too much time scrolling around on social media. I made the huge mistake the other day of looking up my Twitter history. I’ve been on Twitter for eight and a half years. Over those eight and a half years I have tweeted 27,700 times. That’s nearly nine tweets a day, every single day since April of 2009. I am a professional writer – it’s how I make my living. I have written hundreds of thousands of words on Twitter and have been paid zero dollars. This is not a good business model.

So I need help, too, to get out from under this scatterbrained life and pay attention to the real world. And as I’ve been thinking about it, I’ve come up with three ways to think about it that have helped me. Maybe they’ll help you, too.

Number one: Separate the urgent from the important.

A few months ago my wife sent me a blog post by a writer named Melissa Febos. The title of the post was “Do You Want To Be Known For Your Writing, Or Your Swift Email Responses?” It was written as a series of tips for writers who want to deal with the constant pull of messages and requests. The first tip was my favorite: “Cultivate a persona of unreliability.”

What she means is, don’t be that person who always answers an email or a text within seconds of getting it. If it’s your mama or your spouse or your best friend, OK. But if it’s somebody you don’t know, or something you don’t need to deal with right away, don’t let those people own your time. You decide what matters to you, not somebody else.

Back in the 19th century, if you wanted to get in touch with somebody on the other side of the country, you wrote them a letter and you might not hear back for months. Now you can text somebody literally on the other side of the earth and it gets there in a fraction of a second. We are all more findable and more reachable than we have ever been, and that’s generally to the good. But when you’re trying to create, when you’re trying to pay attention to something you’re working on, it’s often better to be less findable and less reachable.

Let me suggest a little experiment. Just for one day, keep track of every email, text message, social media message, letter and phone call you get. Then sort them into two piles: the ones you really needed to know about, and the ones you didn’t. I promise you the second pile will be a lot higher than the first.

When you start to differentiate between what’s important and what just feels important, when you discard or delay the stuff you don’t really need to care about, you give yourself a precious gift: more time to spend on what you DO care about. Pick the things that matter to you, and when it comes to those things, be where you say you’re gonna be, and do what you say you’re gonna do. But otherwise, be a little more unreliable. Don’t make too many promises to too many people. Guard your time. Pay attention to what you really want to pay attention to.

The second thing I think about is this: Reject multitasking.

Did any of y’all watch the show “Parks and Recreation?” There’s a scene in one of the episodes where Leslie Knope, the main character, is trying to do too much. So her friend Ron Swanson sits her down for a talk. And it ends with this advice: “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.”

If you’re like me, you’re never just half-assing two things. You’re quarter-assing four things, or eighth-assing eight things, or whatever. We’re almost never doing just one thing.

We think we’re being really efficient when we’re multitasking – look at all the stuff we’re getting done! But researchers who study multitasking have found that just the opposite is true. We’re not really doing three things at the same time – we’re constantly switching back and forth among those three things. And every time we switch, it takes a little time for our brains to catch up to the new task. Instead of doing three things at once, we’d do work that is not only better, but more efficient, if we did one thing three separate times.

Now obviously sometimes this can’t be helped. If you’re a single mom, and you’re trying to get your kids ready for school while you’re getting ready for work, God bless you. God help you and God bless you. But I think a lot of us multitask for two reasons. One, it makes us feel busier than we actually are, and that feels good – it makes us feel like we’re doing something worthwhile. But the second reason we multitask is that we never take the time to sit down and get organized.

I hate getting organized. I hate blocking out my whole week ahead of time. And so I put it off. But I find that when I do schedule stuff, and I stick to the schedule – that’s the key part – I get so much more done during the week. And then that makes me feel so much better about taking free time to do whatever I want. It doesn’t all bleed together.

Not only that, when you whole-ass one thing – when you pay attention to what’s in front of you for a meaningful amount of time – you’ll find that whatever you’re doing, you will do a lot better. You might actually finish that song that has been in your head for a month. You might find the missing line to that poem, or sense the curve you’ve been looking for in that piece of pottery. Sustained time is the key to doing anything well. There’s a great quote from Teller, the magician who’s part of Penn and Teller, about what it takes to become a great magician. He says: “Magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.” I can promise you, no one who makes magic is a multitasker.

The third thing I’ve been thinking about, when it comes to paying attention, is just two words: Look up.

Our default posture in this world these days is looking down. Looking down at our laptops, or our tablets, or especially our smartphones. I work in coffeeshops a lot, and sometimes I can go into one that’s full of people, place my order, pick up my drink, find a seat, and no one but the cashier even looks up. So many of us are so absorbed in the virtual world that we forget all about the real one.

I can tell you right now, even though I don’t know most of you, your phones are burning a hole in your pockets as we speak. You’re dying to see if you got any new email, or you want to check the score of the football game, or you just feel like scrolling through Facebook to see who posted a cute picture of their dog. I know this because I feel the same way and I’m standing up here. There are studies that show that if you’re sitting at a table, maybe having dinner with someone, just putting a phone on the table makes everyone less attentive. We have the sum of the world’s knowledge in our pockets, updating every second, 24 hours a day. How do we ever put the things down.

I’ll tell you the most insidious feature of the smartphone: It’s the alarm clock. Because when your phone has an alarm clock, you can put it right by your bed. And it becomes the last thing you see before you turn off the light and the first thing you pick up in the morning.

Because your email and your social media are constantly updating, you feel left behind if you’re not constantly checking it. There’s an acronym for it: FOMO, or fear of missing out. Just in the time we’ve been sitting here talking, something else has happened somewhere in the world, something that you could be finding out about right now, if you would just reach in your pocket, pull out your phone, and look down.

But then, of course, you’d be missing out on what’s happening right in front of you.

And this, I think, is what we lose most of all when we don’t pay attention. We lose the power of the moment.

I’m not going to pretend that me talking to you tonight is some sort of transcendent event. I ain’t Bruce Springsteen. But it’s not nothing. And who knows? For some of you, if you pay attention, it might turn out to be a night you remember.

The nights I tend to remember, with my friends, or maybe with a group of strangers at a concert or something, are the nights when it came to feel like there was nothing else that mattered in the world. Those people, that laughter, that music, that was all there was. And I can remember those nights in detail, like a hologram that appears right in front of me. I can remember my friend Virgil’s Coleman cooler, the one where he always kept Southern Comfort and Dr Pepper. I can remember when Jason Isbell stepped into the light on the stage when it came time for his big guitar solo. I can remember the hail bouncing off the grass on the night I had the first date with the woman who became my wife.

When you don’t pay attention, when your life is a blur, you don’t give yourself a chance to make a memory.

I want to leave you tonight with question: Is there a dancing gorilla in your life? Maybe the thing you’ve been looking for all this time is beating its chest right in front of you, and you’ve been too distracted to notice it.

Our brains are powerful and supple things. The same way you taught your brain to multitask, you can teach it to concentrate on one thing. The same way you trained yourself to look down, you can train yourself to look up. There’s still time to pay attention. And there is so much worth paying attention to.

— TT




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