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Pay attention

I ran across A.O. Scott’s video review of Errol Morris’s “Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control,” a documentary that weaves together interviews with four men who have an “endless, absorbing facination with what they do.” It’s clear that the four – a lion trainer, a topiary sculptor, a mole rat specialist, and a robot scientist – focus much, probably most of their concentration on their particular endeavor.

As so often happens with me, I was already thinking about attention when I found this particular data point that brought my thinking into focus. I had just been reading an article about Texas Tribune’s recent QRANK Live event, which I sadly missed – sadly because I’m a QRANK addict and was signed up intending to go. QRANK is a game you can play once a day via iPhone, iPad, or Facebook. It’s a quiz where you respond to fifteen out of twenty multiple choice questions that are presented. The questions are categorized (Entertainment, Science and Nature, Literature, History and Place, Life, Business and Government, Sports) but the categories are broad, so they’re all over the map. Successful players are eclectic, have read broadly, have heads full of random inconsistent facts. I’m often surprised at what people know (or know enough to guess correctly). I’m an average player, though a few years ago I would have been much better, but I’ve become more focused lately. I often say that “my head’s too full,” but I expose myself less often to facts I don’t seem to need and more on facts that are relevant to my work in specific areas.

The four guys in the Morris documentary probably would not have done well with QRANK. They’re also very focused on what they do, and that focus makes them very effective. But it also makes it less likely that they’re soaking up trivia.

You may think I’m going to say I think this narrow focus is better, that real genius involves focus and concentration on “just one thing.” But I’m actually concerned that a narrow focus constrains creativity. I find that when I do cast my net more widely, I find connections and synergies that I would miss if I was always narrowly focused. What’s important is balance: be focused on what you do but allow time for exploration.

Related to this is the problem of attention, and I think that’s where we really have an issue. I just spent 3-4 years studying and thinking about social media, which meant that I was also using social media more and more. Much of the activity so categorized is happening on Twitter, which I refer to as “drive by” conversation. Twitter conditions us to share and take small chunks or packets of diverse information. Thought many attempt conversation via Twitter, real conversatons via microblog form are fragmented and constrained. Facebook is similar – in its activity streams longer conversations do break out, and are still more coherent, but they’re still short bursts, all over the map, and we’re in and out of them quickly.

I find value in Twitter and Facebook conversations, and I appreciate the fact that I can sustain so many relationships, ranging from strong to weak connections, in those spaces. I’m a social media advocate and strategist, and I think we’re evolving a rather amazing environment for all sorts of productive communication and organization that were never possible before. I could go on about this at length.

But the point I’m getting to today is that we need balance. We need to work on our sustained attention and have places to go for sustained, coherent conversations. I’m personally working to manage my attention, be disciplined and focused, without losing the value of random online exploration and the power of serendipity.

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