We think about “deep attention”—the ability to focus on one thing for a long period of time—as the normal way to process information. (And usually the normal way to find creative focus.) But what if it’s just the most recent paradigm for attention?
Here’s what Duke University professor N. Katherine Hayles writes in a recent paper:
Deep attention … is characterized by concentrating on a single object for long periods (say, a novel by Dickens), ignoring outside stimuli while so engaged, preferring a single information stream, and having a high tolerance for long focus times. Hyper attention is characterized by switching focus rapidly among different tasks, preferring multiple information streams, seeking a high level of stimulation, and having a low tolerance for boredom.
Deep attention is superb for solving complex problems represented in a single medium, but it comes at the price of environmental alertness and flexibility of response. Hyper attention excels at negotiating rapidly changing environments in which multiple foci compete for attention; its disadvantage is impatience with focusing for long periods on a noninteractive object such as a Victorian novel or complicated math problem.
In an evolutionary context, hyper attention no doubt developed first; deep attention is a relative luxury, requiring group cooperation to create a secure environment in which one does not have to be constantly alert to danger. Developed societies, of course, have long been able to create the kind of environments conducive to deep attention.
Educational institutions have specialized in these environments, combining such resources as quiet with an assigned task that demands deep attention to complete successfully. So standard has deep attention become in educational settings that it is the de facto norm, with hyper attention regarded as defective behavior that scarcely qualifies as a cognitive mode at all.
Is a new attentional paradigm on the way?
Image Icon: courtesy of The Noun Project
Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Powers of Two, speaks about the advantages of competitive collaboration in an article for The Atlantic. His famous example is that of The Beatles’ Paul McCartney and John Lennon who would regularly “answer” each others’ songs in friendly competition. When John wrote “Strawberry Fields,” Paul came back with “Penny Lane.” Paul notes that the competition made them “better and better all the time,” and created a creative tension.
Despite the tension—because of the tension—the work was magnificent. Though the White Album recording sessions were often tense and unpleasant (Emerick disliked them so much that he flat-out quit), they yielded an album that is among the best in music history.
The Beatles’ producer George Martin described the relationship as “two people pulling on a rope, smiling at each other and pulling all the time with all their might.” Not only did their competition create tension, but their contrasting personalities added to it as well. Paul was meticulous, diplomatic, and polite, while John could be chaotic, impatient, and rebellious. Although completely different, they complemented each other perfectly. As John’s first wife Cynthia Lennon observed:
John needed Paul’s attention to detail and persistence. Paul needed John’s anarchic, lateral thinking.
Although tension can foster creative productivity, remember to surround it with sufficient support and shared passions.
Creatives are subject to high levels of rejection. Even though companies seek out innovative individuals, they seldom listen to their new ideas due to the risk involved. Fortunately, research suggests that rejection may actually help – not hinder – the creative process. Rejection hurts, but if there is no pain, then there is no gain. In an article for Slate, illustrator Jessica Olien explains:
Perhaps for some people, the pain of rejection is like the pain of training for a marathon – training the mind for endurance. Research shows you’ll need it. Truly creative ideas take a very long time to be accepted. The better the idea, the longer it might take. Even the work of Nobel Prize winners was commonly rejected by their peers for an extended period of time.
Social rejection can be liberating. Once you know you don’t fit in, you can concentrate your energy on your creative projects as oppose to stressing about what others think. Barry Staw, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, says a successful creative person is someone “who can survive conformity pressures and be impervious to social pressure.” Just be sure you know when to push through and when you should call it quits.
Now in its 40th anniversary, the roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons has emerged as an initial force behind many creatives’ success. As a piece in the New York Times explains:
Though Mr. Díaz never became a fantasy writer, he attributes his literary success, in part, to his “early years profoundly embedded and invested in fantastic narratives.” From D&D, he said, he “learned a lot of important essentials about storytelling, about giving the reader enough room to play. . .
“For nerds like us, D&D hit like an extra horizon,” he added. The game functioned as “a sort of storytelling apprenticeship.”
But the skills learned through play go deeper than narrative writing:
What makes a D&D story different from novels and other narratives is its improvisational and responsive nature. Plotlines are decided as a group. As a D&D player, “you have to convince other players that your version of the story is interesting and valid,” said Jennifer Grouling, an assistant professor of English at Ball State University who studied D&D players for her book, “The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games.”
If a Dungeon Master creates “a boring world with an uninteresting plot,” she said, players can go in a completely different direction; likewise, the referee can veto the action of player. “I think D&D can help build the skills to work collaboratively and to write collaboratively,” she added. (Mr. Díaz called this the “social collaborative component” of D&D.)
If an acquaintance, or someone you’re just not that close enough to, asks for a job recommendation that you feel uncomfortable giving, New York Magazine suggests you try one of the following “humanely disingenuous” approaches:
1. Respond enthusiastically with information of limited value: “Would it help if I gave you the name of the human-resources person? I think I might even have his e-mail!”
2. Issue a self-deprecating disclaimer of helplessness: “I don’t know how much my word counts on this one . . . ”
3. Technically do the favor, but warn off the prospective employer either explicitly or between the lines: “An acquaintance of mine is looking for something. I’ve known him ever since we went to Bennington! He dropped out though.”
If they take the next step in asking you why they didn’t get picked or why you won’t personally recommend them, remember that no one can get better without feedback — just make sure you give them criticism without being critical.
How can we know which projects are worthwhile for us and which are trivial? At Hotel Genius, a letter from the late quantum physicist Richard Feynman explains why the humbler projects are also some of the most important for us to work on:
The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to…
I would advise you to take even simpler, or as you say, humbler, problems until you find some you can really solve easily, no matter how trivial. You will get the pleasure of success, and of helping your fellow man, even if it is only to answer a question in the mind of a colleague less able than you. You must not take away from yourself these pleasures because you have some erroneous idea of what is worthwhile…No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.
The advice Feynman gives is simple enough, yet how often do we feel like we need to work on something colossal in order to feel validated and purpose-driven?
While you may feel pressure to revolutionize the race to mars, to write a #1 best-selling novel, or to start a business and sell it for billions of dollars, the real worthwhile work to be done is any work that you can realistically do now. The problems you solve and the work you do now may not be work “close to the gods” (to use Feynman’s words), but that doesn’t make it any less important.
Scheduling meetings over email is like playing ping pong, where a simple “Can you meet at 4:00 pm?” could easily turn into an endless volley of back-and-forth replies.
In The 4-Hour Work Week, author Tim Ferris suggests a simple strategy to streamline things:
Email communication should be streamlined to prevent needless back-and-forth. Thus, an email with “Can you meet at 4:00 pm?” would become “Can you meet at 4:00 pm? If not, please advise three other times that work for you.”
Get into the habit of considering what “if … then” actions can be proposed in any e-mail where you ask a question.
The “if…then” statement preempts follow-up questions and prevents them altogether. By avoiding separate dialogues, you dramatically reduce emails sent. Let the other person give you some options while you get back to doing real work.