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Getting Attention vs. Paying Attention

Before you settle into your weekly routine, we have a thought-experiment for you.  

Visualize this: You’re on stage, and a theater full of people are focused on you. Whether you’re performing an etude from Chopin or reciting Hamlet’s “To Be or Not To Be” monologue, it’s all about you. Attention must be paid–and you’re the subject. 

But where’s your attention? Do you focus on the audience’s reaction? Bask in their glowing praise? “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!” It seems critical to ensure the audience remains captivated by your performance, right? Yet here’s how hams are made. 

Were you to focus on the notes and intentions of the composer, the cadence and care of the bard, you’d be better served–and the audience’s attention on you will take care of itself.

Our friend in focus, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, has mastered this concept, after some youthful misjudgments. In a recent TED talk on distraction vs. attention, he laid out the central dilemma. He argues that seeking attention will, yes, get you noticed, but not optimally. Not in service of the art, the science, the “work” at hand. No. You have to pay attention, says JGL.

It’s paying attention that enables you to sink into a state of flow, to embody, to inhabit, to manifest, to personify, a role. When an actor does that — think of Joaquin Phoenix’s recent turn in Joker — they will, as an ancillary benefit, receive the attention they don’t deserve–but earned by serving their craft and not their careers. 

It’s the difference between seeking approval — “Hey, everyone–I’m a star!” — and achieving immersion. Which will be recognized if achieved. 

JGL provides an object lesson for all of us at work when he speaks about the dangers of being “the star” — the diva/primadona — on set, the focus of everyone’s attention. In so doing, you become a distraction to the other actors in the cast (your collaborators in the work). You know, that whole diva/primadonna thing. 

If you start out your Chopin performance desiring attention, you might find that your mind is distracted, and that, as a consequence, your fingers slip over the keys. Your pedal-timing is off. You can’t tell if that note on the page is an A# or a B#. Your performance is drawing attention to you, yes, but not for the right reasons. Or, if you don’t screw up — if, in fact, you rock it — you’re still making it about you, the maestro, the virtuoso. As though you’re Shakespeare. Or Chopin. You’re not.

Now, if you choose to slip into your performance, lose yourself in the work, tune out the audience, and instead focus on the expression, timing, and simple joy of playing, you might find yourself performing like you’ve never played before–channeling Chopin himself from beyond the grave.

It’s easy to grasp how JGL’s thesis translates out of the art world and into the world of work, so we won’t belabor that point. 

In short, letting go of our desire for attention can have benefits that can transcend the rewards of receiving attention. In a world where our attention is monetized, finding ourselves able to focus for the sake of focusing (without desiring anything else) can set us apart, evolve us leaders, masters in our own right. 

So use whatever tools are necessary — including the right kind of curated music, engineered and produced to enhance that flow state — to immerse yourself in the work itself, distraction-free. Let nothing — especially outside praise — demand your attention. 

Be the attention payer–not the receiver.

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