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March 27th, 2019
The most difficult question and task of daily life is to ask: what should one pay attention to?
A young student of driving is on alert, paying attention to every little detail on the road for the main reason that such inexperience doesn’t know what to ignore. As we develop proficiency in a task like driving, we figure out what to ignore and what is important to pay attention to. Experienced drivers do not pay attention to a stray movement of a coffee cup behind the window of a Starbucks, but a similarly small object like a child’s ball bouncing on the sidewalk towards the road will – hopefully – evoke a sense of alert for the fact that there might be a child chasing it out into the street. This intuitive filter of attention is something that fine-tunes over time, and in such cases it seems reasonable to think that such a filter is attempting to pay attention less and less in order to ease the cognitive load. Of course, if this filter ends up filtering out too much information, important details might be lost.
Such a concept of important details overlooked or zeroed in on applies to any and all aspects of our life, especially those to which comprise the path of our goals.
Figuring out what is important may be the simplest and most basic question that confronts anyone with an aim and a goal. So often goals are thwarted by attention and effort paid to the wrong thing. Like barking up the wrong tree, we waste time and resources trying to make our aims happen with a concentration on the wrong details of our goal. Spending oodles of money on promoted Instagram ads for a product that doesn’t really translate well to the domain of photos might be a good example of this misdirected attention and effort. This is somewhat like searching one small section of a ‘Where’s Waldo’ picture where he doesn’t exist and failing to search the rest of the picture.
Knowing what to pay attention to is somewhat like playing where’s Waldo, but without having any idea what Waldo looks like. In fact, it’s even worse than this: on top of not knowing what Waldo looks like, he’s also a shape-shifter who turns into anything and everything else.
Phrased with this image, what exactly one should pay attention to in any given moment may in fact seem like an impossibly tall task. The enormity of options is why we constantly filter, though our filters can grow in dangerous directions that begin to filter out important details. This is where mechanisms usually decried as negative, such as self-doubt, hesitation and a lack of confidence can be incredibly useful tools. If we entertain no doubt about the way we filter the world. If we have supreme confidence in such a filter, and if we never hesitate with our interpretation, we are no better than a charging buffalo in the middle of a herd headed for a cliff.
The unfortunate and thrilling part of life is that time hauls us forward against any counter-wish, like a buffalo in the middle of the herd, unable to stop.
But even while moving forward inexorably, we can Zoom out on our own situation, as though taking a bird’s-eye view of the situation and ask: are we moving in the right direction? We might spot some new detail, a Waldo trailing off from the herd in a better direction, away from danger, and towards some better future.
While we cannot pause time, such an effort still requires that we pause our activities and rest our mind of the business. If we don’t exercise this ever-present opportunity often, our ability to zoom in and zoom out gums up and gets stuck, making it less likely that we’ll be able to shift perspectives, locking ourselves into some track of undecided end.