Like everyone else, I am losing the attention war. I toggle over to my emails when I should be working. I text when I should be paying attention to the people in front of me. I spend hours looking at mildly diverting stuff on YouTube. (“Look, there’s a bunch of guys who can play ‘Billie Jean’ on beer bottles!”)
And, like everyone else, I’ve nodded along with the prohibition sermons imploring me to limit my information diet. Stop multitasking! Turn off the devices at least once a week!
And, like everyone else, these sermons have had no effect. Many of us lead lives of distraction, unable to focus on what we know we should focus on. According to a survey reported in an Op-Ed article on Sunday in The New York Times by Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath, 66 percent of workers aren’t able to focus on one thing at a time. Seventy percent of employees don’t have regular time for creative or strategic thinking while at work.
Since the prohibition sermons don’t work, I wonder if we might be able to copy some of the techniques used by the creatures who are phenomenally good at learning things: children.
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I recently stumbled across an interview in The Paris Review with Adam Phillips, who was a child psychologist for many years. First, Phillips says, in order to pursue their intellectual adventures, children need a secure social base:
“There’s something deeply important about the early experience of being in the presence of somebody without being impinged upon by their demands, and without them needing you to make a demand on them. And that this creates a space internally into which one can be absorbed. In order to be absorbed one has to feel sufficiently safe, as though there is some shield, or somebody guarding you against dangers such that you can ‘forget yourself’ and absorb yourself, in a book, say.”
Second, before they can throw themselves into their obsessions, children are propelled by desires so powerful that they can be frightening. “One of the things that is interesting about children is how much appetite they have,” Phillips observes. “How much appetite they have — but also how conflicted they can be about their appetites. Anybody who’s got young children … will remember that children are incredibly picky about their food. …
“One of the things it means is there’s something very frightening about one’s appetite. So that one is trying to contain a voraciousness in a very specific, limited, narrowed way. … An appetite is fearful because it connects you with the world in very unpredictable ways. … Everybody is dealing with how much of their own alivenesss they can bear and how much they need to anesthetize themselves.”
Third, children are not burdened by excessive self-consciousness: “As young children, we listen to adults talking before we understand what they’re saying. And that’s, after all, where we start — we start in a position of not getting it.” Children are used to living an emotional richness that can’t be captured in words. They don’t worry about trying to organize their lives into neat little narratives. Their experience of life is more direct because they spend less time on interfering thoughts about themselves.
The lesson from childhood, then, is that if you want to win the war for attention, don’t try to say “no” to the trivial distractions you find on the information smorgasbord; try to say “yes” to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.
The way to discover a terrifying longing is to liberate yourself from the self-censoring labels you began to tell yourself over the course of your mis-education. These formulas are stultifying, Phillips argues: “You can only recover your appetite, and appetites, if you can allow yourself to be unknown to yourself. Because the point of knowing oneself is to contain one’s anxieties about appetite.”
Thus: Focus on the external objects of fascination, not on who you think you are. Find people with overlapping obsessions. Don’t structure your encounters with them the way people do today, through brainstorming sessions (those don’t work) or through conferences with projection screens.
Instead, look at the way children learn in groups. They make discoveries alone, but bring their treasures to the group. Then the group crowds around and hashes it out. In conversation, conflict, confusion and uncertainty can be metabolized and digested through somebody else. If the group sets a specific problem for itself, and then sets a tight deadline to come up with answers, the free digression of conversation will provide occasions in which people are surprised by their own minds.
The information universe tempts you with mildly pleasant but ultimately numbing diversions. The only way to stay fully alive is to dive down to your obsessions 6 fathoms deep. Down there it’s possible to make progress toward fulfilling your terrifying longing, which is the experience that produces the joy.
© , New York Times News Service
David Brooks is a regular columnist for The New York Times.