The battle for your attention – a fresh look

I was sitting with my teen-age daughter in the marble rotunda of one of the nation’s great art institutes listening to a live jazz concert. The trumpet player was fabulous. We were surrounded by magnificent art. I sipped white wine from a clear cup. The woman seated next to me was wearing just the right amount of rose perfume.

Guess what hijacked my attention from this feast of the senses? The sight of my daughter text-messaging her boyfriend about this great concert. fast texting

Amazing, I mused, that back when I was her age, being “all thumbs” was a bad thing. Not any more. Her thumbs are a whirlwind over her smartphone’s touch screen.

That observation triggered memories of working (or trying to) in a cluster of other always-on-the-phone reporters in a receptionist-free newsroom next to a fax machine and a police scanner squawking every service call in a three-county area. When I set up a Tweet Deck to better monitor tweets (the early warning system for news) so I could start reporting a new story before finishing writing another, it suddenly occurred to me: To do this job well, I’d have to have the attention span of a gnat.

An inability to focus – like being “all thumbs” – has become more of an attribute than a deficit.

David Zach

David Zach

I didn’t re-examine that observation until I interviewed David Zach, a professionally trained futurist. He works with schools, associations, and businesses to help them make choices about change and continuity as they move forward.

“One of the most important challenges of our age is to focus our attention because that’s the most valuable thing you own,” David told me. “The assault on our attention is absolutely intentional. And the spoils go to the distractors.”

The siphoning of your attention

David likes Twitter, but says, for the most part, social media is like a digital refrigerator. You open the door and stare in there not because you’re hungry, but because you’re bored.

Instead of frenetically trying to fill all the empty spaces in our lives, David says people need to make room for silence, which is necessary for experiencing what’s most important: awe, joy, wonder.

“In our grandparents’ time, people could focus on a single thing for about 20 minutes,” David said. “Now, it’s about nine seconds, which is not much better than a goldfish. We’re heading the wrong way on the evolutionary scale.”

Many adults have never learned to manage their attention, David said. And kids are suffering big time from the disorder he calls ADOS (Attention Deficit Ohhhhh Shiny!).

(Do yourself a favor and take nine minutes to watch this clip from my all-time favorite TV show, “Northern Exposure.” It shows Dr. Joel Fleishmann, a Type A personality, brought to the brink of existential crisis by silence.)

[pullquote]In addition to reserving quiet time for contemplation and reflection each day, David urges people to give less attention to “what’s new” and devote more time to what endures.[/pullquote]

He’s talking about core values: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”  . . .  Declaration of Independence . . . foundational virtues.

David believes schools get sidetracked with fads when they should be teaching the classics, which explore topics like love and hate, war and peace, and other big questions of the human condition.

In fact, he’s the only guy I’ve heard on the speakers circuit in 20 years that recommends students memorize anything other than the Gettysburg Address. (Why can’t second-graders learn the Alice Cary poem “November” and seventh-graders memorize “Rienzi’s Address to the Romans”? Are we afraid they might actually become eloquent?)

Adults need to engage children early on to think deeply, debate and defend ideas, navigate around obstacles, and not fear failure, he said.

“If we’re always jumping on the latest education bandwagon, aren’t we saying that, until now, humans have learned nothing?” David said. “I wouldn’t want any child in a school where everything’s younger than the students.”

As a call to action, he made me promise to tell you about two websites where you can go to download works of Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, the Bronte sisters, and other classics published before 1925 for free:

I wasn’t expecting to interview a futurist and end up hearing so much about the past, but David made his point. The world is changing fast. We need stories with “guts” to ground us or we might fly off.

(Hey, didn’t Archimedes say, “Give me a place to stand and I will move the Earth”?)

I don’t know whether the iPhone4S that my daughter was using to text her boyfriend will stand the test of time. But I don’t want it to distract me again from the enjoyment of great art and fabulous music.

“Wealth is the accumulation of good things,” David said, “and not all of them can be valued in dollars and cents.”

Check out David’s great website.