Attention, Interest, and Values

columbus__article-hero-1130x430.jpgIn Kogonada’s movie Columbus, the main character Casey and a coworker talk early on about perceptions of attention and interest. The example is of a professor whose son loves playing video games, but can’t sit for 10 minutes to read a book. Conversely, the professor can read for hours, but can’t seem to sit with his son and play video games for more than a few minutes.

The son gets labeled as having a short attention span and then probably something more official sounding like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – and prescribed medication, but doesn’t the professor doesn’t? The coworker then states to Casey that the problem is much less one of the ability to pay attention — the son obviously can and does pay attention to video games for hours, but one of interest. The professor is interested in reading, so he reads. The son in video games, so he plays video games.

The real problem then is not about short attention spans, but about the perception that we are losing interest in things that matter. The conversation dialogue between Casey and his coworker ends with that question, “Are we losing interest in everyday life?”

The question at the crux of this conversation is about what matters and what should we be interested in. Both of these questions feel highly subjective. You could be the professor and value knowledge and reading, or his son and value playing video games. Each person has their own version of what matters most and the answer to that question drives their own interest(s).

Although these questions feel subjective, there is one common answer when you ask people at the end of their lives what they regret most.

Put simply, when I asked one person, “Do you wish you accomplished more?” He responded, “No, I wished I loved more.”

Andi recently sent me this article (quoted above) on the subject and when I read it, the answer now feels less subjective and more clear – what matters most as we look back on our lives is not what we accomplished, the number of books read, or the number of video games played, but the quality and depth of the relationships in our lives.

If we agree that one of the things that matters most is life are our relationships with those around us, the question (“Are we losing interest in everyday life?”) from the movie feels like the wrong one. We aren’t losing interest in everyday life. We are getting distracted. We haven’t lost sight of what we value. We are spending our time on things that we don’t value.

For me, those distractions take the form of binge watching Netflix, scrolling aimlessly on my phone, and feeling the urge to pick my phone up whenever it lets me know that someone, somewhere wants my attention. Apparently I’m not the only one.

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Other studies show that the number of minutes spent on phones has continued to rise approaching 4 hours and 15 mins in 2018 in the US. 4 hours and 15 mins. We are increasingly acting in ways that are counter to what we value most — investing in the quality and depth of relationships of those around us — to….what? To see that I have been friends with someone on Facebook for 7 years? To immediately see the Bed, Bath and Beyond coupon that always makes it past my spam filter because of one purchase 5 years ago? To obsessively check my email?

To change my own behavior, I needed to understand how distracted I really was. I downloaded an app called Space (try Moment for iOS!) that tracks how much you use your phone and what you are spending your time on. The first day, I blew through their suggested goal – I unlocked my phone upwards of 150 times and used it for 2.9 hours. And day after day, I would do this consistently. Doing something 150 times a day is the definition of addiction. I set my goal to cut my usage in half –  to get less than 75 unlocks and 1.5 hours, daily.

To get there, I deleted a bunch of apps off my phone, stopped checking my phone as I woke up and have tried to leave my phone behind when I don’t need to bring it (like on this afternoon’s walk, for example). I don’t know that I’m no longer addicted, nor can I attest to feeling any differently at the quality of my relationships, but it’s a start.

All I know is that when I’m 90-something, I don’t want my big regret to be spending time with my smartphone over my wife and daughter.

What do you value? Is it the same thing as what you’re interested in? Are you paying attention to what you value, or like me, giving your attention to things that don’t matter?

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Criticism and Connection

One of the easiest ways to connect with someone is by criticizing someone else. One of my earliest memories of friendship was hearing criticism from a kid in the neighborhood about another weird kid in the neighborhood who came from a Jehovah Witness family. Being a scrawny, short, home-schooled kid myself with not that many friends, I joined in, “YEAH, he IS such a weirdo.” I was desperate to have a friend and if I made fun of someone else, I was no longer the odd man out…right? And maybe I’d finally have a friend (in the person who originally criticized the other weird kid).

I did end up having a friend, and then a few more, and the lesson stuck. If I criticize someone else for being the outsider, then I am no longer the outsider, right?

As I have started dissecting my behaviors on criticism — both as a child and today, the only motivation is that criticism creates the perception of human connection. In every relationship, there is inevitability something that frustrates both individuals. The propensity to then share what those things are, not with the individual but with others is a strange aspect of human nature. We trade the social capital of one relationship for perceived social capital of another.

We justify the behavior in numerous ways — we are trying to help the person in question, and just need advice on how to help them or we are trying to make a new friend.

“Contrary to lay perceptions…most negative gossip is not intended to hurt the target, but to please the gossiper and receiver.” – Elena Martinescu.

Guilty. I didn’t want to hurt Jason – the nice boy who lived three houses down and whose family just happened to be Jehovah Witnesses – I just wanted a friend.

As I think about others doing the same thing, their act of criticism has the opposite impact on me. I remember thinking in that moment…if he thinks Jason is weird, I wonder what he says about me? At least Jason is good at sports and goes to a regular school! When you hear someone else devalue, belittle, or blame others in an attempt to connect, you think – if they are doing this to others, could they be doing it to me too?

“Criticizing others is a dangerous thing, not so much because you may make mistakes about them, but because you may be revealing the truth about yourself.” — Harold Medina

We find two incongruous behaviors in play. First, we perceive that we connect more quickly with others when we criticize someone else and second, we don’t trust critics because it reveals that you are not immune to their criticism–you just aren’t hearing it about you right now.

How do we break the cycle of criticism and work to create real connection? I’ll admit that I am not particularly good at these, but I’m working on it. And, I’m constantly looking to improve, so please give me feedback if you hear me responding in a way that is misaligned with any of the below:

  1. Start with self
    1. I have noticed that I am far less critical when I’m on vacation or after a run. When I am emotionally balanced and free of stress, I am less negative about myself and others. Increase my levels of stress, prevent me from exercising for a week and suddenly, everything and everyone around me is a problem. Investing in self by mediating, practicing the attitude of thankfulness, and being conscious to remove myself from overtly negative situations helps to create a criticism free environment.
    2. Criticism (most of the time) starts with you statements. “You did this” or “you made me feel that”. It is an attack on who the other person is and assigns feelings/behaviors/identify to that individual rather than looking inward to assess your role in your own feelings. Start by asking yourself “what do I really want?” By creating focus on the end game – for example, I want a new friend or I want to connect with this person more deeply – once you do, you realize how you get there is never by being negative or critical.
  2. Adapt your communication strategies – start by listening. Most of us are so eager to share how we feel and think that we miss opportunities to understand the people around us. Venture outside of the superficial – I recently met someone who asked me what I was most proud of instead of where I worked. We had an amazing conversation and connection just because we skipped all the superficial BS that governs how we talk today.
  3. Create an environment of safety – people are less likely to display negativity and more likely to be open to connecting when they are in environments in which they experience psychological safety. We can create these environments by being honest, eliminating criticism of others and displaying consistently in our actions, words and behaviors.

“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection. Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them – we can only love others as much as we love ourselves. Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.” ― Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

Memory and Ego

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One of my favorite podcasts right now is Revisionist History with Malcolm Gladwell. Although I have loved his takes on Wilt Chamberlain’s free throw style (Season 1) or why McDonalds fries just don’t taste as good as they used to (Season 2), two episodes of Season 3 (episodes #3 and #4) on memory have been the most substantially life altering.

Any summary will not do them justice (so go listen!), but the gist is that our memories are extremely unreliable. In his Free Brian Williams episode, Malcolm talks through the memory of his own experiences on 9/11 and how his story differed substantially from his neighbor who told him about the attack! After 9/11 took place, a number of researchers interviewed people on what they were doing at the time of the attack, and then followed up at 1, 3, and 10 year intervals. They picked 9/11 because it was a “flashbulb” event; where you were and what you were doing at that precise moment is seared in your brain (or is it?).

What they found was that the majority significantly changed their story after the first year and were extremely confident that their new story was actually what happened. Through a process of memory consolidation – moving from short to long term memory, we rehearse these memories and the memories become extremely vulnerable to change. What is crazy about this process is that we accept the new memories as truth even when confronted with evidence to the contrary (in the case of the 9/11 study, written evidence for what they said had happened at that time)!

These two episodes on memory share the incredible stories of the “world’s greatest harmonica player” and the Brian Williams story. Both stories feel like famous individuals grasping for further fame as they re-write their own history. Brian Williams’ story goes from riding in a helicopter in Iraq to taking fire and being shot down in a helicopter in Iraq. He eventually recants the embellishment (he only heard about another helicopter going down the same day), but even the helicopter pilot who did take him couldn’t remember if they took fire. The story feels wrong and self-promoting. But is it? Or is it just a fault of his mind consolidating multiple memories – the story of riding in a helicopter in Iraq, the story of taking fire and the story that he heard about a helicopter going down?

I consider myself to have a fairly good memory. Not infallible, but definitely better than most. I can recall events/dates, precise locations of objects in a room or on a page, and memorize things very easily. This over time has built up an Ego (yes, intentional capitalization) where I will pick my memory, my story over that of anyone else and immediately issue judgement if the other party disagrees with what I remember.

Because my memory is that good right?

Or what if it really isn’t?

What if all these memories – or at least the majority – are just stories that I have been telling myself? Maybe there are pieces of truth, but the events…in precisely the way that they have been laid out in my head…are just how my memory has consolidated over time?

Based on all of this, this is how I think I should show up differently. How will you?

  • Shut up my Ego. No, I am not perfect, so don’t act that way.
  • Listen first, speak second. If I jump immediately into my story, how do I give space to hear and understand others?)
  • Give others the benefit of the doubt What actually “happened” matters less than how I engage with my friends/family/coworkers in their own story

 

Tools of Titans – Review

If you prefer not to read, I’d highly recommend the podcast where Tim Ferriss has most of the interviews in the book. The book is organized into three sections: healthy, wealthy and wise and Tim has managed to get the habits and perspectives from an absolutely incredible cast of people.

At first, I was super skeptical – Tim Ferriss is the guy that does the “4 hour” books (week, body, chef etc.) and just the title of those bothered me. Want to get rich, strong fast kids? Just be like me…

All that being said, the prior COO at Lyft (Rex Tibbens) recommended this to me a few years back so finally took the time to read it, and it did not disappoint! Highly Recommend. I think I annoyed Andi for weeks talking about the different interviews, habits and perspectives of all these amazing people as I was reading them.

Must read (or listen!) interviews:

  • Jocko Willink – Navy Seal, all around badass who when faced with adversity says “Good” and faces it head on.
  • Jamie Foxx – “What is on the other side of fear? Nothing…When we talk about fear or a lack of being aggressive, it’s in your head.”
  • Rainn Wilson – “I was cast in a Broadway show when I was 29 or 30 years old. It was my first Broadway show and I sucked….after I finished that show, I thought: ‘You know what, fuck it. I’m never doing that again….Life is too short. I’ve got to be me as an actor.”
  • Reid Hoffman – “I have come to learn that part of business strategy is to solve the simplest, easiest and most valuable problem”
  • Gabby Reece – “I always say that I’ll go first…That means if I’m checking out at the store, I’ll say hello first. If I’m coming across someboady and make eye contact, I’ll smile first. [I wish] people would experiment with that in their life a little bit: Be First, because–not at all times but most times– it comes in your favor.”

Finding Perspective

In a sleep deprived haze at 1am, I let @princejackpup out to use the bathroom. *Usually* he doesn’t need to go out in the middle of the night, but we had been traveling, Lucy had been crying, and the path of least resistance (and least mess) was to just let him out.

[Quick note on context: we live in an apartment on the first floor with access to a dirt patch that could pass as a backyard that we share with six other units in the building. The backyard is right below our property manager’s apartment. No one ever goes down there because you have to walk down at least two flights of stairs, down a creepy hallway with a low ceiling, and past some trash cans to get there. Jack knows where the backyard is and as long as the doors are open, he will run down, do his business and come back up saving us from going out in the cold, at 1am.]

I waited inside listening for him to sprint back up the stairs, but after 5 mins and then 10 mins, no Jack. Piercing the quiet – a loud growl, and then a series of barks. I rush downstairs to stop Jack from waking up our property manager to find him frozen in the center of the backyard with his lips snarled and body tense staring at the fence. I turn on the flashlight on my phone and I just see the fence. Confused, I try to calm him down, but he sprints away all the while barking and growling at the fence.

I walk closer to the fence with Jack following at my heels and finally see a small piece of ivy growing over the top of the fence and swaying in the wind. I pick Jack up and hold him closer to the ivy comforting him that it is OK and the little ivy is definitely not a threat that any of us need to be protected from. He cranes his neck out sniffing the air a few inches around the ivy and finally agrees – yes, this isn’t a threat and we can calm down.

So many times we get stuck in the middle of a terrible [insert relationship, situation, job, belief, etc] because we have only seen things from one perspective. We are Jack in the sense that we visit a place we have been to many times before and get scared and frustrated by the one thing that is uncomfortable or out of place.

It almost always something outside of ourselves to shift our perspective – to make the uncomfortable known, and help us to see that maybe the thing that we are so scared by is just ivy swaying in the wind.

“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Most of the time, we get forced into these catalytic moments – we have a child, someone we love passes away, we get sick. In those moments, we will sometimes find new outlooks on life, but because the event “happened” to us (even planned), it takes us much longer – if ever – to learn whatever the universe is teaching us.

If we actively seek to open ourselves up to new experiences, we can also engineer these moments in our life, forcing ourselves into the process that I forced Jack into by picking him up and bringing him face to face with the scary piece of ivy growing on our backyard.

  1. Start by identifying where you might be stuck. Hint: it is almost always the thing that you talk about changing / doing but somehow never get around doing or a belief that you were taught and have never challenged. If you still don’t know what this could be, ask for feedback from close friends, family or coworkers – “what am I always talking about doing but never do?” or “what beliefs am I the most stubborn about?”
  2. Think of ways to get unstuck. Update your resume to find the job you have always talked about. Find a person that believes the opposite of what you believe and just become friends. Research books that expand your perspective – message me if you want some recommendations depending on the topic! Travel to a new country.
  3. Take one small step closer to the unknown. Book a flight, read the book or tell a friend what you are stuck on and how you are planning to get unstuck.
  4. Create a tipping point. Tell enough people what you are going to do or quit your job so that going forward into the unknown is easier than going back.

One of my own moments occurred when I was traveling during my study abroad program in Argentina. I didn’t know that I was “stuck” at the time, but knew that having only been out of the country once prior and never having traveled alone, I needed to expand my worldview. My decision to get unstuck was to stay in South America over the Christmas holidays and travel for two months alone. I talked about it with friends from school and finally by the time everyone was leaving to go be with their families, I started regretting my decision- did I really want to spend Christmas alone?

The beauty of engineering your own moments to get outside of your comfort zone is that you can create your own tipping points – tell so many people (for me it was everyone in the study abroad program) or quit your job so it becomes more difficult to go back than to move forward into the unknown.

Over the two months traveling, there was a lot of moments where I started to expand my perspective around the United States (read about my reflection a few years later on the banana republic in Guatemala here), religion, and what it might mean to live a fulfilled life (read here). A lot of the perspectives I gained stay with me today.

My two months traveling was like the fence getting torn down in the backyard revealing that the ivy growing over the fence was actually part of an amazing park beyond.

What fences are in your life? How can you engineer experiences to get to the amazing places outside of the fences in your way?

On Assuming the Best in Others

Whenever Lucy starts crying, I run through a mental checklist — is she tired? is she hungry? does she have a dirty diaper? is she overstimulated? does she want to be held? I quickly try to quickly assess what is bothering her and then take care of whatever that need is.

I never once assume that something intrinsic to who Lucy is as a baby is what is causing her to cry. The checklist is all external factors and all the “problems” are grounded in what Andi and I need to do for her. Think about it — have you ever blamed a baby for crying?

Lucy’s mood swinging from happy to upset…My first thought is — What did I do / what changed in her environment to cause this?

Although there are some evil people in the world, I generally believe that people are good. But somehow when anyone not a baby is upset, my first thought is not, “I wonder what their day/week has been like leading up to this moment that could have caused this behavior?”

We are *mostly* rational beings, but we all have moments of irrationality. Mine, right now, are at 3am. Lucy is going through sleep regression which has caused her to wake up every hour or two wanting to be held. I don’t blame Lucy for feeling lonely / scared when she wakes up, but instead blame Andi for anything my sleep addled brain can think of (it’s her turn to get up or if only she put Lucy in those pajamas to sleep). And then if Andi gets upset because she definitely hasn’t been able to sleep for more than 1–2 hours either, I go further down the blame spiral. This spiral is all about how her reaction to this situation is driven, not by the fact that she is strung out, but driven by my internal 3am commentary of who she is as a person.

And we don’t just do this to people we love but also to complete strangers. That person that cut you off on the highway (1) isn’t a person; they are an [insert whatever expletive you want here] and (2) they cut you off because they are the devil reincarnate.

Stephen M.R. Covey — ‘We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behaviour.’

How can we start assuming the best in those around us? I love the books Crucial Conversations and Tools of Titans because they have some practical advice for these moments. Here is some of theirs, mixed with my own:

  1. Deep breathing when the spiral is starting
  2. Start with heart — what do I really want right now?
  3. Notice the role that you play in the stories you are telling — When I’m driving, do I subconsciously speed up to keep people from passing causing them to cut me off?
  4. Think and then genuinely wish the other person is happy!

On Being Present

Over the past week, I have been able to take a bit more of my paternity leave to hang out with Andi and Lucy. Lucy is now almost 4 months old and is incredibly aware of everything going on around her — smiling when you smile, “talking” out-loud (think baby dolphin mixed with monkey) and looking with great interest at anything you are doing.

I started to notice over the past week that every-time my phone was in my hand, Lucy would immediately look at the phone. After a while, if I was holding her and still looking at my phone, she would start to cry.

The first time it happened, I brushed it off — she just wants attention and the fact that I didn’t give it to her right now was frustrating to her. The next time and then the next, it dawned on me. How many times have I given up the opportunity to have a real connection for scrolling through my phone?

We go to dinner with a friend, we walk down the street, we call our mom, we have a meeting or we rock our child to sleep all the while only giving half of our attention to the person right in front of us. And this action is self perpetuating — once you are no longer present, those around you also stop being present too. Amazing that this behavior now is just normal; it took my 4 month old daughter to tell me that I was being rude!

Reality of Modern Society — New Yorker cartoon by Liam Francis Walsh

Luke recently recommended Ezra Klein’s podcast “Is modern society making us depressed?” (answer, yes and definitely worth a listen!) as we were talking about this issue. The salient point being that we have systematically alienated ourselves from others to the severe detriment of our mental health.

Just saying “be present” doesn’t seem to fix the issue so here are 5 actions that I am doing to be more present for Lucy and those around me:

  1. Delete social media apps off phone (don’t need to go cold turkey, but easy to avoid scrolling Instagram if you have to open your laptop to view)
  2. Connect daily with one person that I normally wouldn’t speak too
  3. Stop checking my phone when I wake up (this one has been incredibly hard!)
  4. Reflect daily on three specific things I am thankful for
  5. Clear time in my day to slow down and enjoy the little things. Which right now is making silly faces at my daughter and discovering her laugh!