On Attention


There’s a story about two young fish swimming in the sea. As they swim, they come across a third, much older fish. “Fellas, how’s the water this morning?” asks the older fish. The two young fish glance at each other, and back at the older fish. Not to be rude, they exchange pleasantries with the older fish and then swim along in silence for a moment. With the older fish out of sight, one fish turns to the other and says, “what the hell is water?”

The moral of this story is that the things that are all around us, the things to which we might owe our most quintessential existence and survival, can often be the easiest things to miss. It’s all too easy to disregard, fail to notice, or take for granted the things that truly matter, and it all boils down to what we pay attention to. 

Last week I wrote about how it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the state of solitude that is necessary for creativity. Having spent the past few days examining my daily activities and the things I pay attention to, I’ve been thinking about my everyday life, my career, and my creative pursuits. I realise now that it’s all too easy to get hung up on everyday minutiae that it causes me to miss out on things that are glaringly obvious. 

I know I’m not alone in this. This phenomenon has been extensively studied and is well documented in literature. For instance, one of the most popular studies on selective attention is known as the invisible gorilla study. In this experiment, participants were shown a video of six people – three in white shirts and three in black shirts – passing two basketballs amongst themselves. The participants were tasked with counting the number of passes made by the people in white shirts. After watching the video, the participants were asked for their tally, and after they gave their answers, they were then asked whether they saw the gorilla. This is where it gets interesting, because in the video, while the ball is being passed back and forth, a person in a gorilla suit walks into the frame, stops and faces the camera, and thumps their chest, before disappearing out of the frame. Why is this interesting, you might wonder? Well, it turns out that half of the participants tasked with counting the passes did not notice the gorilla. 

This finding is revealing. A significant amount of people stared intently at a screen and watched a video for over a minute, and yet they failed to register something as unusual as a gorilla that drew attention to itself. The reason for this, the scientists concluded, is that the participants were so focused on a task, even if it was as basic as counting ball passes, that they missed out on everything else going on. The interpretation of the findings is two-fold. First, we miss a lot of what goes on around us, and second, we’re unaware that we miss so much. The key takeaway is that it’s all too easy to be hyper-focused on our daily tasks or goals, causing us to miss out on what we should pay attention to. 

This is an all too familiar phenomenon with creative types. I speak from experience and others’’ anecdotes in my creative circles. We all have these dreams of doing big things with our art – our music, our paintings, our stories – and we get so hung up on them that we fail to spot the little moments of delight along the way. Musicians may find themselves pining for the big festival slots because that’s what musicians should aspire to (according to some), and in the pursuit of this aspiration, it’s easy to forget that it is the feeling of engaging with live music in intimate spaces that got them interested in performing in the first place. Sketch artists may long for an exhibition or residency in the shiny, new gallery in town, and may work obsessively towards finessing their pieces and adapting their style to put them in the running for the gallery slots, but in the process, the process of sketching that was once a solace from life’s hardships may turn into a chore that they have to get through. We get hyperfocused on the things we’re told we should do and the things we see other people doing, and this creates an attention deficit that robs us of the ability to focus on the things that truly matter. In other words, we get so focused on counting the passes that we fail to spot the gorilla in the frame. 

The antidote is to lead a life void of distraction, one that prioritises focus, selective attention and intentional solitude so that we have the bandwidth to pay attention to the things that matter based on our values. Of course, this is easier said than done. I recognise that we’re not always in a position to appreciate life as it is. Things may be overwhelming, our cups may be full, we might feel like we have no control over our days, or even our lives. I’ve been there, more often than I care to admit. But, even if I have no control over what’s going on, I have control over how I notice and acknowledge the hard times, and I have faith that those hard times won’t last forever, because nothing ever does. 

Every now and then, it helps to stop, slow down and take in the little things around us. It helps to stop and notice every breath, to turn our faces to the sun when the skies are blue, and to let the raindrops fall on our faces when the clouds are grey. It is a great shame to stumble through our days in pursuit of one goal or another, that we miss out on this miracle of life, that we’re here, now, in this very moment. And that is all life is, really, the sum of all the moments we experience. Thomas Wolfe put it best when he said “we are the sum of all the moments in our lives - all that is ours is in them: we cannot escape it or conceal it.”

PS: Just a reminder that my latest single, Feels Like Rain is out now, everywhere. You can listen to it on several platforms. Please share it with a friend, share it with your social networks, and consider subscribing to the newsletter (below), my YouTube channel, or wherever else you listen to music.

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