Psychology

You are where your attention is

This line has stuck with me since first reading Andrew Sullivan’s excellent article on distraction last week:

You are where your attention is. If you’re watching a football game with your son while also texting a friend, you’re not fully with your child — and he knows it. Truly being with another person means being experientially with them, picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance. These are our deepest social skills, which have been honed through the aeons. They are what make us distinctively human.

Fear and loathing in U.S. politics

Fascinating in-depth look at the most interesting part of the Trump phenomenon–not the man, but the supporters.

What these policies share in common is an outsize fear of threats, physical and social, and, more than that, a desire to meet those threats with severe government action — with policies that are authoritarian not just in style but in actuality.

Essentially, fear of change (especially related to physical threats) leads to desire for authoritarian leadership.

Conversation — is there an app for that?

Smartphone usage is changing our face-to-face conversations–even when the phones are hidden:

[Her impatience] is characteristic of what the psychologists Howard Gardner and Katie Davis called the “app generation,” which grew up with phones in hand and apps at the ready. It tends toward impatience, expecting the world to respond like an app, quickly and efficiently. The app way of thinking starts with the idea that actions in the world will work like algorithms: Certain actions will lead to predictable results.

I’ve always thought that it was the act of programming computers that made tech geeks (like myself) talk like robots. Turns out the cause may simply be using them.

Theses of Technology

Some surprisingly good theses of technology by Alan Jacobs. He’s really not a fan of Kevin Kelly. A few of my favorites:

  • To “pay” attention is not a metaphor: Attending to something is an economic exercise, an exchange with uncertain returns.
  • Mindfulness reduces mental health to a single, simple technique that delivers its user from the obligation to ask any awkward questions about what his or her mind is and is not attending to.
  • The only mindfulness worth cultivating will be teleological through and through.
  • Digital textuality offers us the chance to restore commentary to its pre-modern place as the central scholarly genre.
  • [Kevin] Kelly tells us “What Technology Wants,” but it doesn’t: We want, with technology as our instrument.
  • The contemporary version of the pathetic fallacy is to attribute agency not to nature but to algorithms—as though humans don’t write algorithms. But they do.
  • What does it say about our understanding of human intelligence that we think it is something that can be assessed by a one-off “test” [the Turing Test]—and one that is no test at all, but an impression of the moment?
  • The chief purpose of technology under capitalism is to make commonplace actions one had long done painlessly seem intolerable.
  • Embrace the now intolerable.
  • Everyone should sometimes write by hand, to recall what it’s like to have second thoughts before the first ones are completely recorded.
  • To shift from typing to (hand)writing to speaking is to be instructed in the relations among minds, bodies, and technologies.
  • The always-connected forget the pleasures of disconnection, then become impervious to them.

How my 2-year-old son taught me to focus

I didn’t expect that having a toddler would improve my focus. After all, aren’t they supposed to be chaos embodied, a frenzy of activity, spraying attention in all directions? And certainly they take time and energy to raise, teach, and protect.

Yet toddlers also haven’t yet learned the cognitive mistake of trying to juggle more than one thing at once. Sure, my son plays with 20 different toys in 20 minutes. But he does so one at a time, first playing with a train, then putting it down and playing with a car, then putting that down to play with a different train. For him, attention moves smoothly between objects, without attachment and with total focus each time. While he is playing with a train, he has no thoughts or plans about the car right next to it. When he picks up the car, all thoughts of the train disappear.

He expects this of others, as well. My wife and I have been intentional about how we use technology around him, but sometimes the infinite abyss of a smartphone tempts me away for just a moment. My son has no tolerance for this split attention, and quickly corrects me: “Dada, will you put that down! Come sit right here!”

I’ve been working through the Focus series in my daily meditation this month. One of the key concepts introduced is that focus is not a static experience, but a dynamic one; moving from object to object, sensation to sensation. What matters most is not absolute sterility, but a robust and flexible flow that can adapt to changing circumstances.

What my 2-year-old son taught me about focus is that while the object of your focus might change, the quality and intensity shouldn’t. It is possible to focus completely on one thing at a time, and be completely present in each moment. It’s so easy, in fact, that a toddler can do it. What’s my excuse?

Questions That Lead to Love

An interesting article has made the rounds recently, detailing the story of a couple who fell in love through answering a set of questions to each other.

The list of questions is now online and ranges from polite dinner conversation:

Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?

To deeply personal:

What is your most terrible memory?

And truly existential:

If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?

Seems like a worthy, though intense, exercise!

Resumés and eulogies

David Brooks shares a nice, quick talk on the decisions to live for your resumé versus your eulogy:

The résumé virtues are the ones you put on your résumé, which are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that get mentioned in the eulogy, which are deeper: who are you, in your depth, what is the nature of your relationships, are you bold, loving, dependable, consistency? And most of us, including me, would say that the eulogy virtues are the more important of the virtues. But at least in my case, are they the ones that I think about the most? And the answer is no.

In another article, he writes about the 5 “ways to be deep”, and hits on a few that aren’t as celebrated as they might be:

2. Suffering

“When people look backward at the things that made them who they are, they usually don’t talk about moments when they were happy. They usually talk about moments of suffering or healing. So we plan for happiness, but we’re formed by suffering…”

4. Obedience

“If you look at the people who are deep, often they don’t look inside themselves. Something calls to them from outside themselves,” he said. They obey a cause.

Why designers shouldn’t be smart

Recently Bruce Mau came to our office (I know, right?!). Bruce is known for his writing, including several “manifestos” over the years, and he asked everyone in the room to write their own manifesto in 3 minutes (he said he used to give people 6 minutes and they were all finished early).

The first line in my manifesto was “Be the dumbest person in the room”, which got a laugh from Bruce and prompted some followup questions from people around me. I’d written it as a bit of a lark, but the more I think about it, the more important I think it is. So why is it important for a designer to be the dumbest person in the room?

First, of course, it means that you’re always around people you can learn from. Great design is based on collecting insights from the world. If you are the expert in the room, where will you get your new insights? Always surround yourself with people whose experience and knowledge exceeds your own in important ways.

Being dumb also keeps you humble. Every designer knows how it feels to watch someone try and fail to use your design. The biggest temptation in that moment is to tell yourself “that’s just one person, and really this test isn’t representative,” and write off their experience as a fluke. After all, didn’t Steve Jobs ignore his customers? (Nope, and NOPE). But Henry Ford did, to poor results). Your confidence has to come not from your own opinions, but from the success real people have with your product.

Finally, when designers rely too much on their own experience and knowledge, they get lazy. When I’ve worked on a problem for a long time, and feel like I know it well, I’m less likely to do the research legwork needed for inspiration, less likely to ask other people their thoughts, and more likely to settle on the first idea that comes to mind. Conversely, a brand new problem forces me to start from scratch, with eyes and mind wide open to new possibilities (the next line in my 3-minute manifesto read: “When you get too good, start over”).

So really, the problem isn’t with being smart–it’s ok to get good grades, kids–but with acting smart. The best designers I know approach problems with the openness, humility, and excitement of a child seeing something for the first time. They acknowledge and work against their biases, and never let their intelligence get in the way of the right answer.

Suckers for irrelevancy

I’ve recognized this in myself and others:

A study from Stanford reports that heavy multi-taskers are worse at choosing which task to focus on. “They are suckers for irrelevancy”, as Cliff Nass, one of the researchers put it. Multi-taskers often think they are like gym rats, bulking up their ability to juggle tasks, when in fact they are like alcoholics, degrading their abilities through over-consumption.

Now, what was I just doing again?

Work without attachment

If we do not attach ourselves to the work we do, it will not have any binding effect on our soul…This is the one central idea in the Gita: work incessantly, but be not attached to it…

Do you ask anything from your children in return for what you have given them? It is your duty to work for them, and there the matter ends. In whatever you do for a particular person, a city, or a state, assume the same attitude towards it as you have towards your children–expect nothing in return. If you can invariably take the position of a giver, in which everything given by you is a free offering to the world, without any thought of return, then will your work bring you no attachment. Attachment comes only where we expect a return.