When Rob Walker set out to write a book about the attention economy — and how to create habits that act as a cure for the mental stress of having our attention pulled every which way — he planned on diagnosing the problem and providing a few helpful tips on how to fix it. But then, he says, the question he realized he needed to ask was: What can people do about it? Aside from putting our phones in a lock box when we get home and becoming an ascetic monk? How can we see more?
Walker ended up writing The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy in the Everyday. As the title suggests, the book includes 131 exercises to help parents and working adults realize what they’re missing in everyday life. They range from describing the night sky or simply changing the world “is” to “could be” in their daily vocabulary, or, how to see the world like a kid. Fatherly spoke to Walker about this new book and why mindfulness is a little bit like rediscovering your inner child.
I saw this study published in early August that showed that while adults are better at paying attention to what they are directed to pay attention to, children are better at noticing just about everything. In the experiment, adults and kids 4 to 5 years old were given a set of instructions. They were both told information that they were then told wasn’t relevant to the problem they’d be solving, and then were surprised later when that information was actually relevant. The adults struggled and the kids struggled much less. I feel like that kind of backs up your point — it’s important to pay attention to the world, not just what we are told to pay attention to.
There is literally an exercise in the book about trying to see the world as a child would. That’s an actual piece of advice in the book. You have to work at it, but it’s all worth doing for all the reasons you just said. A child — and especially that 4- to 5-year-old child — they’re approaching the world with wonder. They haven’t seen it all before. They haven’t been socialized to adhere to what you’re supposed to pay attention to, and why you’re supposed to pay attention to it. They can be as fascinated by a shadow or a plant as a work of art, because they don’t know yet that a work of art is higher on the hierarchy of things that you’re supposed to pay attention to.
There are reasons that it’s good we grow out of that. But there are also reasons why it’s worth hanging on to, to some extent. Saul Bellow said that part of being a writer is being a first-class noticer. He likened it to trying to treat the world like he was an alien, and he had just arrived and was trying to decode these strange habits about things going on around him.
Seeing the world with fresh eyes.
Yes. It’s literally about trying to see the world with fresh eyes. [Adults] get used to just screening certain things out. What do you lose by doing that? On a practical level, there is no progress or innovation without the first step of noticing a problem that other people overlook.
That shapes design. It shaped being an entrepreneur. It definitely shapes being any kind of artist. It also shapes being a manager — because what you’re trying to do as a manager is to be attentive to the stuff that other people are missing.
On the more spiritual level, the child-like view of the world is much more entertaining, engaging, and satisfying. Indulging in the sense of wonder around you, instead of screening out the world around you and checking Twitter, is just a more satisfying way to live. It’s more true to yourself. I think that the things you notice really are a big part of your identity.
What are small ways that adults can learn to see the world like a kid?
If you have a kid, just pay attention to what they are paying attention to and engage with them about it. I talked to a number of parents since the book came out about this. One friend of mine says that when he walks his kid to school they have an ongoing game of “Who Can Spot Something Gross?” Don’t tell your kid, “Let’s not do that, that’s a bad idea.” Go with it.
There’s an exercise in the book taken from a writer named Ian Bogost, who wrote a book called Play Anything. He has a story: He takes daughter to the mall, and she’s walking weird. She’s slowing him down and he’s trying to figure out why, and it’s because she has fallen into one of those games of “Don’t Step on the Cracks.”
This made him think: What games can I introduce to my wife? I used one from him for the book, and in my actual life, which is that every time I have to go to a big box store like Walmart — you know, you have to go and you only need three things, but they’re in three distant corners so you have to walk the entire store — I always give myself a challenge as a big box archaeologist. What is the most bizarre thing for sale today at Walmart? My most recent personal favorite is Pop Tarts Cereal. That’s a thing!
Mundane tasks become an amusing and joyful experience. When I spotted the Pop Tarts Cereal, I literally took a picture of it and texted it to my wife. So, all of the sudden I’m looking at the world as a big, goofy game. That’s the genius of childhood. It converts the most mundane experiences to potential joy.
So for parents, it’s about being patient with kids. Not getting caught up in the frustration of the day to day.
[Parents] need to take inspiration from it, and say, “What games can I play when my kid isn’t even there? What can I steal from the way that children look at the world?”
[I’m not a dad, but] when I encounter my friends kids or kids at the airport, it’s interesting to observe them and try to figure out what they are looking at.
So this is about an attitude shift. Feeling amazed that you can see kids’ brains form. Being a part of it. Bringing yourself back to being a kid.
There’s another exercise in the book called “Poeticize the Irritating.” That comes from the artist and poet Kenneth Goldsmith. If you’re being subjected to someone else having a cellphone call, instead of taking that as an annoyance, think of that as an opportunity to be entertained. It’s a weird poetry, one half of someone’s conversation. Eavesdrop. Embrace it. Treat it as a dada, absurdist thing.
That spirit runs through The Art of Noticing in general. It’s just about embracing the moment in ways that make life entertaining. I’ve become a real student, at this point, of looking at people talking on their cellphones. I’m fascinated by their body language, which is directed at someone who can’t see them. It’s someone who is not there.
So they’re wildly gesticulating with their hands. They’re making facial expressions for some absent viewer. They look insane! But it’s also sort of beautiful. You could make a whole dance choreography piece based on gestures of people talking to objects and talking, by extension, to someone who is not there.
Usually, most parents are just struggling to get their kids out the door for school on time. I think poeticizing the irritating might help them cope with that.
Parents need practical tips to get kids to school. But every once in a while, they should remember how valuable and special it is to have access to this fledgling human, who is truly experiencing the world in a new way, that you can never recapture and will never recapture. The kid will grow up and see the world like an adult, like all adults. Treasure those moments and take inspiration from them, you know? It’s an invaluable thing.
Another way to frame this: There’s a lot of talk these days about efficiency and productivity, and doing things the most efficient way. In the book, I have an exercise: Let’s say you have a commute to work. You’ve figured out the best way from your house to your job, the fastest and most efficient way you go every day. The only problem with efficiency is that it makes time pass in a sort of mindless way. You’re not engaged in the world. You’re checked out. That time disappears. I recommend, every once in a while, to change your route to work.
A way a friend of mine put it is that she’s trying to have more “now’s.” These are ways to have more “now’s.” If you can have more “now’s” with your kids, that’s a pretty big deal.
Right. Of course, life is hard, and sometimes zoning out over an iPad is just a way to chill out, for mom, dad, and the kids.
I’m trying to mount an argument for the upside of reality as opposed to escaping reality. We now have this option that’s unprecedented: If you’re in a situation, like you’re stuck in line, you can transport out of reality through this object at will. It’s understandable why that’s tempting.
There’s an incredible bonanza of other realities you can check into. You don’t have to be digital monk and go on hiatus from the digital world and throw your phone into the ocean. I’m trying to put a word in for reality. Kids are good at finding what’s interesting in reality.
So how can you help parents be more mindful?
Look at the world as a child would. And to try to make that something that you can participate in — that could be a bonding thing with your child. Take interest in something silly, like a shadow. Take it seriously. Make it a thing that you can engage with. Treat it not as an annoying distraction, but as an opportunity. It’s okay for kids to look at the wrong thing. It’s okay if they’d rather look at a bug than the Mona Lisa. That’s fine. What is it about that bug that they like so much?