What do you pay attention to?

What Do You Pay Attention To?

“Your world is the outcome of what you pay attention to,” writes Cal Newport in his book Deep Work. Newport builds on ideas by Winifred Gallagher in her book Rapt in which she discusses where her attention landed and how she tried to approach life and thinking after a difficult cancer diagnosis. What Gallagher found, and what Newport build’s on in the context of focused attention and work, is the importance of what we think about and pay attention to as we move through our lives. Newport includes the following quote from Gallagher in his book:

 

“Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling, similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non [an essential condition; a thing that is absolutely necessary] of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.” 

 

Newport explains that many of us make a mistake in thinking about what is important to us and what will bring us happiness. We assume that our context is everything, that we need a big house, a fancy title, a promotion, and a dream spouse to be happy. However, Gallagher’s book suggest that what we really need to feel happy is a shift in attention, away from the big things and desires, and toward the small positive things we enjoy in our life everyday, from a cup of coffee to a nightcap, and the small victories and enjoyable parts of each day. Appreciation and recognition of these small moments can mean more to us in the long run than the big fancy dream goals that we may one day reach.

 

We think it is the big context that matters, but as Newport writes, “Our brains instead construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to. Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow has a phrase for this, “What you see is all there is.” What you look at, what you think about, and what you encounter in your life is what your world will become. If you only look at your life and see the negative aspects of where you are, then your world will be awful. If, however, you can look at where you are and see good things around you, then your world will be better. This is what Gallagher learned while battling her cancer diagnosis, and this is what Newport incorporates into a life of focus. Dialing in on the important and positive aspects of life help us avoid feeling that we are not doing enough, are not good enough, and don’t have enough to live a happy and meaningful life.

Arguing for Importance

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie shares a story about a tax consultant and an argument that the consultant had with a government auditor. The two were in a heated debate over a relatively small sum of money and whether it was assessed and taxed properly. A shouting match ensued with both parties being a bit arrogant and ego driven. In the end, the tax consultant realized that the debate was no longer about the facts of tax law or the money in question, the government auditor was arguing for his own importance.

 

The consultant, Mr. Parsons, decided that continuing the debate was not worthwhile and shifted the conversation, complimenting the auditor for the difficult work and decisions he had to make on a daily basis, often in the face of recalcitrant individuals defending questionable financial practices. He didn’t provide the tax inspector with empty flattery but acknowledged that his job was difficult, yet important in a democracy. Carnegie writes about what he learned from this story:

 

“This tax inspector was demonstrating the most common of human frailties. He wanted a feeling of importance; and as long as Mr. Parsons argued with him, he got his feeling of importance by loudly asserting his authority. But as soon as his importance was admitted and the argument stopped and he was permitted to expand his ego, he became a sympathetic and kindly human being.”

 

My wife is a human development specialist, and while she typically works with little ones from 0 to 3, her studies have provided her insights into childhood and adolescent development through early adulthood. She has talked to me about the ways that children and teenagers will seek negative attention, behaving badly and acting out, because even negative attention is a form of attention. Negative attention is still a recognition of the importance of another individual, and childish as it may be, even fully grown and professional adults may from time to time seek negative attention via conflict and arguments.

 

The tax collector in the story wanted to be recognized and wanted his authority respected. It may have been petty, he may have been on an ego and power trip, but nevertheless, becoming angry and indignant didn’t help to reduce his ego and make him a more reasonable person. What it took to get him to be more flexible and cooperative was kindness, not criticism. Positive attention may not have been 100% deserved, but honest praise (as opposed to empty flattery) provided him with a sense of importance and acknowledgement and allowed him to be comfortable with being more cooperative.

 

We should be aware of both sides of this story. We should try to recognize in ourselves how often we are making a power play, not adding much real value to the argument, discussion, market, or opinion that we are advocating for, but simply trying to be an important player. When we see that we are driven by ego and a desire to feel important, we should step back and ask if it is truly necessary, if we will really make things better for ourselves and others, or if we are just being a burden. At the same time, we should try to see this in others and avoid criticizing them for having a human desire that we share and often fall victim to ourselves. We don’t have to provide them with undue flattery, but we can adopt their perspective, recognize the positive aspects of their viewpoint, and try to provide them with recognition and acknowledgement so that we can start to cooperate and work together in a more reasoned and sensible manner.

Other People Are Important

The golden rule is basically a recognition that other people think and feel the way that we feel. If we have complex emotions, fears, desires, and feel that we are important, then surely other people do as well. From this follows the idea that we should treat people the way we would like to be treated.

 

We know that other people are important, but our actions don’t always reflect that. We often put ourselves ahead of others for no real reason. We go out of our way to make sure we have every possible desire filled, without considering the way that our behavior impacts what is available for others. We think about ourselves constantly, often forgetting that other people have valid thoughts and opinions just as we do.  Getting outside our own heads and remembering people is not just a nice thing we should do, but it is something that is vital to living a successful life. Dale Carnegie explains in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People:

 

“There is one all-important law of human conduct. If we obey that law, we shall almost never get into trouble. In fact, that law, if obeyed, will bring us countless friends and constant happiness. But the very instant we break the law, we shall get into endless trouble. The law is this: Always make the other person feel important.”

 

When we recognize that other people are important, we can take steps to actually show them that we think they are important. Often these can be small gestures, such as letting someone in line at the grocery store with just one item jump ahead of us with our full shopping cart. It can look like grabbing flowers for our partner or their favorite candy at the store as a little something extra. Sometimes it can just be listening to another person and thinking of a way to incorporate an idea they had in the office or give them credit when it is due.  Small steps like this can help foster relationships and improve our lives by helping us work and live better with the people around us.

 

Carnegie asks us to remember, “The unvarnished truth is that almost all the people you meet feel themselves superior to you in some way, and a sure way to their hearts is to let them realize in some subtle way that you recognize their importance, and recognize it sincerely.” Carnegie does not suggest we should simply give everyone around us what they want, but to remember that we can learn from others and that in some way, everyone we meet does have something they can teach us. If we see this same superiority complex in ourselves, we can learn to think beyond it, and ultimately prevent ourselves from getting into useless status measuring competitions with people who think of themselves as superior to us. Instead we can learn to let the ego fall to the side, give people recognition, and ultimately diffuse tension caused by unruly egos and work to get stuff done.

Well Known Charities

Another interesting consideration about charitable giving addressed in The Elephant in the Brain has  to do with which charities we chose to donate large sums of money to. If part of our charitable donations is intended to impress other people and show them how generous and caring we are, then we want to make sure everyone understands how good our donation is.

 

As an example, I have an automatic recurring donation set up with the Against Malaria Foundation. If I wanted to tell someone about the charitable donations that I do and convince them that what I was doing was meaningful, I would have to convey to them what exactly malaria is, what the foundation does, and why it is effective. Just saying that I donate to the Against Malaria Foundation may not resonate with people the way that me telling them that I was donating to the Children’s Leukemia Support Network would. Malaria is not common in the United States and most people probably don’t understand how debilitating yet preventable it can be. Many people in the United States have heard, however, about Leukemia and probably know it is a type of cancer. Many people also probably have experience in their families of cancer (of one form or another), and know how devastating it can be. Attaching our donations to a terrible disease that people have experience with and trying to support a population such as children is a much easier sell in some regards than convincing people to donate to a charity aimed at malaria which impacts people living far away.

 

Simler and Hanson write, “Original research generates private information about which charities are worthy, but in order to signal how prosocial we are, we need to donate to charities that are publicly known to be worthy.” This leads us to donate to the Children’s Leukemia Support Network, even though the charity’s entire existence is a scam, rather than the Against Malaria Foundation which GiveWell identifies as one of the most effective charities.

 

The important thing is that we don’t really do much background with our donations and set out primarily to make big donations to well known charities that tackle things that we think we, or people close to us, might face directly. We want to feel a warm glow about our donations, and we want people to see our donations and immediately recognize what a positive difference we are making. Smaller but more effective charities that address less well known causes are left behind in favor of the bigger more well known charities, even if we could have a bigger impact on the world by making a donation to the smaller charity that people don’t immediately recognize.

 

Enjoy What is Inside You

A couple years back I bought a bright green GPS sports watch. I do a lot of running and I like having a nice watch for my workouts, but the watch was a bit more flashy than what I really needed to purchase, and if I am honest with myself, I really don’t need a GPS watch at all if I want to be healthy and enjoy exercising.

 

What the watch reminds me now, is how often we look at things outside of ourselves to define who we are and to make us happy. We look to others to validate who we are and purchases like my watch help us tell others what we want them to see in us. Rather than being content with an activity on our own, we want people to be aware of us doing the activity and we want all kinds of rewards for what we do and who we are.

 

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca writes, “rejoice only in that which comes from your own store. And what do I mean by ‘from your own store’? I mean from your very self, that which is the best part of you.”

 

Senecas advice is for us to work toward being happy in our own skin, with our own decisions, without needing something external to make us who we are and without needing someone external to approve of who we are. When we cherish designer sunglasses, brag about the functions of our new GPS watch, or take our neighbors on a ride along in our new car, we are using something outside of us to amplify a part of us that we want others to see. Simultaneously we are not satisfied by just ourselves and need something else to display our value. We are not satisfied with our actions and decisions in isolation, and need someone outside of ourselves to applaud us.

 

If we can be more confident in who we are without needing the validation of others, we can have a more steady and stable life. We can enjoy the times we spend with others and enjoy the things we have, but we won’t feel as though we need to define ourselves by things external to us. Those things can become compliments and we can enjoy a few simple things without a constant need for more and better stuff.

Learning Old Lessons – Body Mentality

One of the things I enjoy about reading stoic authors like Seneca or Marcus Aurelius is seeing how frequently the authors discuss something that I struggle with today even though they lived roughly 2000 years ago. We have so many problems and challenges today that feel like they are new problems for humanity, but very often people have faced the same types of issues in the past (even the very distant past) and we can learn a lot from people who came way before us. An example of this is advice that Seneca provides in Letters From a Stoic about the ways we should think of our bodies.

 

Seneca writes, “He will have many masters who makes his body his master, who is over-fearful in its behalf, who judges everything according to the body. We should conduct ourselves not as if we ought to live for the body, but as if we could not live with out it.”

 

Part of his quote and advice is about physical comfort and indulgence, but part of his quote is also about body image. Either way, both angles of viewing this quote can teach us important lessons about ourselves today through the lenses of the past. His advice feels rather contemporary in an age when how we think about our bodies is front and center in many ways in our society.

 

First, we can think of this in terms of taking pleasure in the world. If we make our whole lives about doing things that feel good like sitting on the couch, eating cheesecake, and generally looking for pleasurable and easy things to do, we will be at the mercy of others in terms of our happiness. We would be relying on things that others produce to make us happy as we would not be relying on our own efforts to build something that engages us and helps us be connected to the world. If you purely seek pleasure as your main goal, another person can always ruin your life.

 

Second, if we think of our physical body as defining who we are, we can go too far in a different direction, constantly working out, eating, and presenting ourselves in a way to make our bodies look the best they can. Our own opinion of ourselves becomes meaningless as we seek the approval of others and only define our success based on the way other people think about us. We give a great deal of control and self-value to someone outside ourselves. We likely see threat everywhere we go, and live our lives protecting our body out of fear, and not out of a desire to be healthy to live well for ourselves, our family, and for our society.

 

There are more ways to think about our physical body based on the quote from Seneca, but both ways that I presented for interpreting his quote demonstrate real world current problems in a frame from many years ago. We have evolved and changed the tools available to us to shape our body or find enjoyment, but the resulting problems and underlying psychology remain the same. It was important thousands of years ago for people to not be too indulgent in pleasure and leisure, and it was also important for them to not spend all their time crafting the perfect body to impress other people. The problems we face today are not something we have to deal with entirely on our own. We can recognize that many people have dealt with these issues and take some pressure off ourselves and act accordingly.
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Recognition is Empty

At some point in human history, we were living in small tribes of maybe 50 to 250 people and we were evolving ever more complex brains because our small political groups put pressure on our ancestors to be socially skilled in order to pass on their genes. In a small social tribe, actions and motivations mattered. There was a pressure to do good and impressive things and to appear to be doing those things for noble rather than vain reasons, but it was also not enough to just do good, you had to be noticed by your tribe. You had to make sure your status improved, that people saw you doing positive and noteworthy things so that you could progress up the social hierarchy of the tribe and be permitted to pass your genes along. The traits that flowed from these evolutionary social group pressures are still with us, but the need to seen doing physically and socially impressive things in order to pass our genes to the next generation (and potentially even just to survive on a daily basis with the help of some friends/allies) is mostly gone. This leaves us in an awkward place where our brains still want to impress people and climb up a social ladder (remember that our ancestors social ladder was only about 50 to 250 people tall) in a world where we can connect with millions of people and where competition for security, shelter, food, and a partner just isn’t as life threateningly dramatic as it was one hundred thousands years ago.

 

Pushing back against some of these natural feeling and evolutionary favored behaviors can actually lead to a more fulfilling and meaningful life. This is at the center of the idea in Ryan Holiday’s book, The Ego is the Enemy. Holiday encourages us to avoid acting in the interest of our ego, which is to say he encourages us not to act out of our own self-interest with the intent to be seen and with the intent to deliberately rise up the social hierarchy. We can certainly do that and we will have lots of opportunities in our live to chose that path, but Holiday argues that to live a more fulfilling and complete life today, we should look to do great work as opposed to simply being impressive to other people. Regarding a fulfilling life Holiday writes, “It’s about the doing, not the recognition.”

 

This quote has stayed with me and helped me think about why I do some of the things I do and how I chose to do those things. I could go work out in the gym and make sure I take up as much space as possible and exercise as extravagantly as possible so that everyone sees how physically impressive I am. Or, I could find a spot that doesn’t interfere with other people and doesn’t necessarily put me in the center of attention and I could focus on making sure I really do the exercises that matter to keep me fit, healthy, and injury free. I might get stronger with both strategies, but the first strategy is really about my ego and about being seen, where the second approach is actually about health and physical development. I believe much of life is like this.

 

We can make excuses for doing the flashy things that help us rise through the social ladder and we can lie to ourselves and others about our motives for doing those things (our brains literally evolved in small groups to do this). However, with several billion people on the planet, we hit a point where this strategy is counter productive if we actually want to be fulfilled and content with our lives and actions. We no longer live in the small tribes we evolved for, and we have more options to make an impact for the people in our lives and societies in which we live. We no longer need to set out to make sure we are seen and recognized for doing great work to build allies for survival. We will likely receive all the recognition we need from the people who matter most in our lives if we set out to do good without setting out to build a reputation. Part of us may still want that recognition and be happy when we receive it obliquely (maybe even more happy to receive it this way) which is fine. The point is that we can be more content and fulfilled when we take this oblique path to success and recognition and build habits and work that are about doing and not about being applauded.

It Comes Down to Purpose

John Boyd was a brilliant military officer, strategist, and consultant who helped shape a generation of military leaders. Boyd is the focus of one chapter in Ryan Holiday’s book, Ego is the Enemy, titled, “To Be or To Do?” Boyd, Holiday explains, was a terrific air force pilot and a very insightful and influential mind within the armed services. He raised to the rank of Colonel,  but never was promoted to become a General and is not someone that most people have ever heard of. What Boyd represents for Holiday, and why he is an important figure for the book, is someone who chose his duty and service to his country over his own power, pride, and greed. Boyd set out to be the most meaningful version of himself possible, not to be the most impressive, rich, or comfortable version of himself. Holiday wrote the following about a piece of advice that Boyd gave to a young officer (emphasis Holiday’s),

 

“The choice that Boyd puts in front of us comes down to purpose.  What is your purpose? What are you here to do? Because purpose helps you answer the question “To be or to do?” quite easily. If what matters is you – your reputation, your inclusion, your personal ease of life-your path is clear: Tell people what they want to hear. Seek attention over the quiet but important work. Say yes to promotions and  generally follow the track that talented people take in the industry or field you’ve chosen. Pay your dues, check the boxes, put in your time, and leave things essentially as they are. Chase your fame, your salary, your title, and enjoy them as they come.”

 

What we can learn from Boyd’s life is that there are often conflicts and decisions that we have to make about doing meaningful and valuable work and trying to receive recognition and praise for who we are and what we do. Quite often, we can do meaningful things and be well compensated and rewarded, but not to the same degree as those who may do less meaningful things but make more of an effort to capture attention, please others, and maintain the status quo which rewards the talk but not the walk. This can be seen in the way that we compensate teachers relative to financial traders or in the way that lawyers like Bryan Stevenson working to protect the rights of death row inmates are compensated relative to lawyers like Michael Cohen who have worked in less meaningful fields for wealthy and powerful clients.

 

The lesson that Holiday tries to teach with the life of Boyd is that we can be content with living a life where we don’t feel that we get all the dues we deserve, where we don’t get all the praise and attention from others that we may feel we have earned, and where we are not always recognized for our valuable contributions equal to the impact of those contributions. But living this life is not somehow a loss. The praise and recognition I just described ultimately hold no real value in our lives. Making a difference, working on meaningful projects and helping shape the world around us in a positive direction is what brings true value and meaning to life. The conflict is that success is typically viewed through the lens of the first set of rewards, and it is true that we need to earn a decent wage to be able to eat, house ourselves, and live comfortably and happily. I don’t exactly do a great job of following the advice of Holiday in my own life, but it is helpful to keep his advice in mind and recognize when I am living for my ego and pursuing recognition and praise as opposed to when I am living to do meaningful work and striving to make a difference in the world.

Benefitting from Doing Good for Others

A quote from Marcus Aurelius that I keep returning to is “When thou hast done a good act and another has received it, why dost thou still look for a third thing besides these, as fools do, either to have the reputation of having done a good act or to obtain a return?” The quote reminds me that I should focus on doing good work and not on being rewarded or praised for doing good work. Simply knowing that I am helping others and making a positive impact in the world should be enough to justify the effort put into a good deed. At the same time, however, I do want to be recognized for my hard work and ability. I am ultimately unable to escape the human side of me which evolved in small tribes over hundreds of thousands of years desires recognition and enhanced social status as a result of my good actions.

What is important to remember is that the recognition I seek and the praise I desire has nothing at all to do with the good actions that I may undertake. I am not able to control who sees me doing a good deed, and I am not able to control their mental state and the extent to which they will thank me or praise me for what I have done. The only control I have in this context is control over my decision to do a good deed or not. With this in mind, another quote from Marcus Aurelius shapes the way I think about the positive things I do, or sometimes avoid, and why I do them (or not!). In Meditations he writes, “Have I done something for the general interest? Well, then, I have had my reward. Let this always be present to they mind, and never stop [doing such good].”

Aurelius is not talking about altruism in the quote above but simply talking about the reality of doing things that help the general population and not just our individual selves. As a practical day-to-day example I often think about unloading the dishwasher at work. It is not part of my job duties to empty or organize the dishwasher, but I know that if I take an extra minute or two, then everyone will benefit from having dishes put away and having more space in the dishwasher for dirty dishes. It may be extra effort and something I think everyone should do (not just myself or the office manager), but everyone benefits from my couple of minutes of extra effort, including me. The reward and benefit that I get from emptying the dishwasher is the same as everyone else, regardless of whether I am thanked or not. A lack of help and participation in doing a public good does not diminish the benefit that society or even oneself receives, even if there is no direct reward from a third party.

Aurelius’s idea is what forms the core of public service and volunteering and his idea is what we need so that we can improve society today. When we focus on doing something good for the general interest, we are rewarded by helping others and improving some aspect of the world for everyone. It is incredibly tempting to only take action that benefits us directly as individuals, but looking beyond our self-interest and doing something that is in the general interest can have a much longer and much broader impact. This cannot be done if we don’t become aware of our actions and motivations, and if we don’t get past the idea that we must be rewarded and recognized when doing positive and beneficial things.