Please pay attention

“Cool neon sign,” I thought to myself as I walked by it in the hotel lobby. I was there all day for a conference, and it caught my eye each time I passed it.

First I wondered why they hadn’t turned it on. Then I wondered what it would look like if it was lit up, imagining the red glow in the hallway. I even pointed it out to someone else and we agreed that we liked it.

It was only at the end of the day that I discovered what the sign really was, and what it might mean.

The signs I pass every day

For most of my day, I’m not paying attention at all. I’ll stare at the bottle of vitamins and forget if I already took one. I’ll walk twenty minutes and not look at the sky once. Much worse, I’ll be in a room with people I love and won’t really see them at all, engrossed instead with my book or laptop.

I’m not special in this regard. In the book Strangers to Ourselves, Timothy Wilson writes that while our brains can take in eleven million pieces of information at any given moment, we’re only consciously aware of forty. It’s a dramatic statistic that shows just how precious little attention we have. “Paying attention” requires extra energy and, as the neurologist Daniel Kahneman writes, “Laziness is built deep into our nature.”

Looking at things differently

Heading out of the hotel, I passed the sign one last time. This time, I stopped and walked up to it. That’s when I noticed a small placard well beneath it to the right.

The “neon sign” wasn’t neon at all, but was made of painted wood. When I examined it closely I could see the small carving marks.

The irony wasn’t lost on me. I had passed a sign with clear instructions – “PLEASE PAY ATTENTION!” – and never took a moment to really see it. I had instantly created a truth, “Cool neon sign,” and was blind to other possibilities until I paused and examined my assumptions more closely.

Giving the gift of attention

It turns out you can train yourself to pay attention, and that the more you train, the more easily you can offer it.

You can practice offering it to yourself by paying attention to what you’re doing in any given moment. Notice the taste and texture of the food you’re eating, or the feel of the water in the shower, or your surroundings as you walk. Practice offering it to others by actively listening to them, and pausing to consider things from their point of view.

Sometimes offering attention is simply being with someone. Each time my son asks, “Want to play Sorry, Dad?” or my daughter tells me a story of what happened with her friends, I wish I had that neon sign reminding me of what I should do.

“Please pay attention.” You and all the people around you deserve it.

***

Note: My next post will be on January 7th, and I’ll be migrating this blog to workingoutloud.com, where I’ll publish an article every Wednesday and Saturday. Have a wonderful holiday.

It’s time to step up

its-time-to-step-up

Things did not turn out the way I hoped they would. What should I do next?

I could be angry, and make my anger visible with a nasty comment on social media.

I could search the internet for extreme examples and share those that validate my fears and beliefs, ignoring my confirmation bias.

I could taunt or confront people who have different opinions, mocking them for their obvious lack of principles and education.

I could defriend the few in my network who disagree with me, thereby repairing the small breeches in a social bubble I have carefully cultivated, one that brings me comfort that I’m surrounded by people who think like me.

I have done all of these things in the past, and it has yielded nothing but unhappiness.

I’m done. I am no longer willing to be part of the problem, to feed the escalation of polarizing, dehumanizing behaviors that seems to be the new normal.

It’s time to step up.

If I want more kindness and compassion, I can be kinder and more compassionate, online and in person, throughout my day.

If I see unkind behavior, I can speak up and offer my support.

If I want more opportunities for people faced with systemic bias, I can do something to give them a voice, to help them gain access they might not have otherwise.

If I want to improve how people relate to each other – to replace hate and fear with empathy and generosity – I can continue to develop and spread a practice that does that. I can make that my life’s work.

I am not angry. I am not depressed.

I am committed.

The old man in seat 8A

I was on a flight heading to Florida to speak at a conference. The plane was full. As I approached my row, I noticed there was an old man already sitting in the seat next to mine. I noticed the newspaper in his hands was shaking slightly. I said hello.

When the stewardess told him she needed to store his cane for takeoff, I assured him I would get it if he needed it. When he dropped his newspaper, I picked it up. When he was struggling to open up his bag of pretzels, or figure out how the folding tray worked, I helped him. He seemed embarrassed, but I told him it was tricky and only looked easy when you knew how.

He was worried about forgetting his cane. He told me that his son had driven him to the airport, and it was only after they had traveled 20 miles that he remembered he left his cane back at the house. “Do you really need it, Dad?” his son asked. They drove back.

“I was just glad he wasn’t mad,” he said. “I felt bad but he didn’t get upset. That was really nice of him.”

I couldn’t help but think of my own parents. Of how I reacted to their infirmities with impatience, to their limited education with visible shame, even disgust. I had more empathy for a total stranger than for the people who made my life possible.

My father died in 1986. My mother in 2003. I wanted to reach back in time and tell them “I’m sorry!” I wanted my younger self to be the kind of son who says “It’s okay, Dad. I’ll help you.”

I sat quietly for a while, silently wishing I had done things differently. Silently committing to doing things differently in the future.

seat-8a

The elephant at the piano

As a child, I saw a Gary Larson cartoon that I still remember, because it captured a feeling I had even then. An elephant, on stage in a crowded concert hall, is sitting at a piano, his ridiculously large legs dangling by his side. He’s thinking to himself, “What am I doing here?”

The Far Side® and the Larson® signature are registered trademarks of FarWorks, Inc.

The Far Side® and the Larson® signature are registered trademarks of FarWorks, Inc.

This cartoon captures the feeling you may have when you’re faced with something new. You’re unprepared and anxious, and may literally feel like you’re in the wrong room, that you’re not supposed to be there.

I’ve had this feeling so many times that I now recognize it as familiar. I had it before my first attempts at public speaking, and publishing something I had written. I had it when I was supposed to “manage” other people, and when I had my first child.

In developing my latest habit, though, I’m learning a better way to approach new things.

The elephant on the yoga mat

I still remember my first yoga class. It was over a decade ago. Trying to impress my girlfriend (now my wife), I went with her to an intermediate class. It didn’t go well.

While she was effortlessly doing all the poses, I couldn’t even understand the words the teacher was saying. “Downward dog?” “Chataranga?” He kept telling me to breathe in and out in sync with my movement, but I gave up trying to follow him. I was happy to breathe at all! I kept looking at my watch. “How much longer?”

Although I knew the benefits of yoga were undeniable, I couldn’t help but feel like the elephant at the piano, that this new experience just “wasn’t me.” Every few years, prodded by my wife, I might try again. But the same feelings would crop up.

Lessons from an inflexible yogi

Now a decade later, with my own yoga mat and a regular habit, I’m learning how to deal with that “elephant at the piano” feeling. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned.

Start where you are. Instead of comparing myself to my wife, an accomplished expert, I should just compare myself to myself, and focus on my personal development.

It’s a practice that takes practice. The goal isn’t to “be good at yoga” so much as it is to practice yoga. The doing is the point. Any advance I might make in my mental or physical health will only come as a consequence of practicing. 

Pay attention! When my mind wanders, I miss the teacher’s instructions and stand there dumbly, looking around the room so I can see what I’m supposed to do. Or, worse, I simply fall down. Nothing teaches me to be present like trying to balance on one leg.

“Do what is accessible to you.” This is one of my favorite expressions that teachers use. While many personal development programs seem bent on suffering – “No pain, no gain!” – yoga teachers provide a safe environment for me to try new things, to literally and figuratively stretch myself.

The next time you’re the elephant at the piano

When I enter the yoga studio now, I know I’m in the right room. Not because I’m an expert, but because I’ve accepted that I’m a beginner, that I can make progress at my own pace. I’ve accepted that, with effort and attention, I will gradually improve and realize a range of benefits.

The next time you’re anxious at trying something new – “I can’t play this thing! I’m a flutist, for crying out loud.” – take a few deep breaths and allow yourself to start where you are.

With practice and dedication, your initial anxiety will be replaced with calm and self-compassion, and eventually lead to new feelings of confidence and clarity.

Why Socrates thought writing was a bad idea

I hadn’t expected Socrates to appear in a book titled, Personal Connections in the Digital Age. But there he was, on page 25. 

The author, Nancy Baym, was quoting one of his famous dialogs in The Phaedrus, from about 370 BC. He was telling a story about the invention of writing, and I was surprised at how one of the leading thinkers in history could have such an opinion:

“This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.

The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

Socrates wasn’t wrong. (The way we use our capacity for memory has changed fundamentally from the days we recited 12,000-line poems by heart.) But he also couldn’t foresee the wide range of benefits that came from a different form of communication.

It turns out that’s how we generally react to almost all new forms of communications, whether it’s the printing press, telegraph, telephones, television, email, texting, and now the Internet in general. When I introduced an enterprise social networks at work, many colleagues in our global, 100,000-person company longed for the day when “people would just talk to each other.”

“Throughout the history of electronic communications, some have celebrated the ability to form new relationships across time and space, but others have seen it…as offering pale substitutes for authentic connection.”

I’m no wiser than Socrates. I recently caught myself proclaiming, for example, that “Snapchat is ridiculous!” without ever having tried it or endeavoring to learn why so many people find it useful. I’m horrified at how my children use their phones. “It’s addictive!” “It’s ruining their attention span!” “It’s rude!”

Is that true? Maybe. But it’s also true that the constant interactions they have with each other and with their friends have created a feeling of genuine closeness and familiarity I can’t deny.

The lesson for me applies to life in general: Be open to possibilities. Approach new things with more curiosity and less judgment.

I think it’s time for another session with my favorite social media adviser, the one who helped me get started on Instagram. She’s turning 12 next week. 

Socrates