Economics is the study of how scarce resources are allocated; whether that is housing, food, or money. However, in an era of endless amounts of information at the hands of our fingertips, what is the scarcity? Unlike the first three examples that can be empirically quantified and measured, our intangible yet extremely valuable attention is the limiting factor: we are in the age of the attention economy.
The term “attention economy” was coined by psychologist, economist, and Nobel Laureate Herbert A. Simon, who posited that attention was the “bottleneck of human thought” that limits both what we can perceive in stimulating environments and what we can do. He also noted that “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention,” suggesting that multitasking is a myth.
Paying Attention: The Attention Economy
We live in an era of a specific challenge that is only getting worse: a serious shortage of serious attention; a shortage of serious focus, of undivided concentration. And with such a shortage, there is a shortage of genuine learning.
We all know of the value of being a life-long learner. But if you can’t be a life-long focuser, a life-long concentrator, then you won’t be a very good life-long learner, will you?
Time for a reality check…
How many books do you read, with enough attention and focus, that you actually learn from the books? I mean, with enough focus that you learn the information in the book, that you can remember it well enough that you can think about the book, ponder the teachings of the book, over the days following your reading? Well enough that you can put the wisdom of the book into practice in your work-life and in the other parts of your life?
My hunch is that your attention is pretty divided. We are so bombarded by information – newspapers, magazines, articles, podcasts, broadcasts, books — that shutting everything out except for the one object of focus at this moment is practically a lost skill.
I think about this as I present my book synopses. People who attend my events tell me that they did not quite understand the value until they experienced the session.
What do I provide? I help people pay attention!
I choose good books; important books. And I have developed a synopsis approach – both verbally, and in my synopsis handouts – that helps people hone in on the useful and essential wisdom found in the books I present.
These days, my synopses are delivered over Zoom or Webex. And, these days, participants have to print out the handouts that I prepare and provide. But the experience of learning is rich. And, I think, my synopses help people focus, in order to capture thoughts that stick long after the presentation is completed.
You have to fight to focus. You might need some help to help you do that. I can help.
If nothing else, attending my events will help you put everything down and away except the one thing of the moment; this particular book synopsis. And you might focus your attention long enough to learn; and remember; and change.
My synopses handouts are 8-11 pages of content. They provide a pretty deep dive into the book. What do I include in my handouts?
- the point of the book
- reasons why the book is worth your time
- the best highlighted passages from the book
- the stories, principles, and lessons, that make the book so valuable
- my lessons and takeaways from the book
Note: the First Friday Book Synopsis always meets on the first Friday of the month. Our Zoom sessions begin at 7:30am. And the details, and book selections, of next month’s gathering are always on this blog. We are in our 22nd year of our monthly gatherings.
My synopses are available for purchase. Click on the buy synopses tab at the top of the page to search by title. Or, click here for our newest additions.
In 2011 Americans took in five times as much information every day as they did in 1986—the equivalent of 175 newspapers.
Where once an educated person might have assumed she was at least conversant with the relevant knowledge on a particular field of study, the explosion of information has rendered that assumption laughable.
General Stanley McChrystal (and others),Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World
Surprise, surprise – we are in the midst of full-bore information overload. You are; I am; we all are.
And, plenty of the information we take in is important information. Information we need to know.
And, alas, much of the information crossing our Facebook/LinkedIn/Twitter/web site eyeball path is not worth investing time in knowing.
But, we do invest our time in such anyway.
We all knew that the amount of information we take in has greatly increased, but when you read the statistic quoted above by General McChrystal – “five times as much information every day as they did in 1986” – and, that statistic is back from 2011 (a half-decade ago!) — then I’ve got a hunch we are drowning in, being covered up by, buried under… too much information.
In Deep Work, Cal Newport reminded us that our real challenge and task is to decide in advance what we do with our intellectual attention. And then, stick to that advanced decision making. Set a timer; focus and read and pay attention to the intellectual content at hand. That’s the plan to combat this onslaught.
One of the reasons that I think people appreciate the First Friday Book Synopsis is that it is a focused time. Every person has a handout, and seemingly everyone follows along with the handout.. Their attention seems pretty focused for those 35 minutes or so once a month as Karl Krayer and I deliver our two business book synopses each month.
But I’ve seen quite the contrast. I’ve seen people “watching” presentations, by glancing up at a few slides, and then putting their eyeballs, and a major portion of their focus, on their SmartPhones while a presenter speaks on.
Divided attention is divided attention – and few lessons are fully taken in that way.
I don’t know how you handle your information overload. I know that I don’t always win in my fight in this battle. But, this much I know – I’ve got to find a way to choose in advance some key intellectual content, and then give my undivided attention until I finish drinking in that content (in my case, usually reading books).
In other words, if it is an information overload era, then I’ve got to become my own master regarding what information I take in, and when, and how.
OK – blog post finished. Now it’s time to read. I’ll set my timer, and then after that focused time, after an immersion in the content of a good book, I’ll get back to checking my email, and make a call or two, and maybe even watch a cat video…
The first steps of a creative act are like groping in the dark: random and chaotic, feverish and fearful, a lot of busy-ness with no apparent or definable end in sight. There is nothing yet to research. For me, these moments are not pretty. I look like a desperate woman, tortured by the simple message thumping away in my head: “You need an idea.”
You need a tangible idea to get you going. The idea, however miniscule, is what turns the verb into a noun – paint into a painting, sculpt into sculpture, write into writing, dance into a dance.
…Spine, to put it bluntly, begins with your first strong idea. You were scratching to come up with an idea, you found one, and through the next stages of creative thinking you nurtured it into the spine of your creation. The idea is the toehold that gets you started. The spine is the statement you make to yourself outlining your intentions for the work… If you stick to your spine, the piece will work. (emphasis added).
Twyla Tharp — The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life (A Practical Guide)
I was listening to NPR the other day. It was the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens. Any author that receives a segment on his 200th birthday (plus a birthday party at Westminster Abbey) qualifies as a significant author. But we didn’t need NPR to tell us that.
In the midst of the story by Linda Wertheimer (Dickens At 200: A Birthday You Can’t ‘Bah Humbug’), this paragraph jumped out.
Novelist Jennifer Egan is a fan who came back to the books and unexpectedly found that Dickens felt modern.
“The way that Dickens structured his books has a form that we most readily recognize now from, say, the great TV series, like The Wire or The Sopranos,” says Egan. “There’s one central plot line, but then from that spin off all kinds of subplots. And so he would go off in all sorts of directions and create these amazing secondary characters who would go in and out of focus. But then there was also this sort of central spinal column of a plot that he would return to.”
“This sort of central spinal column of a plot…” When I heard this, I remembered the section about “spine” from Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit. To Tharp, you need an idea! And then, that idea has to be attached to the “spine,” and the “spine” is what centers the piece, centers the project, centers the “idea.”
This idea of “spine” reminds me of the Steve Jobs decision, upon his return to Apple. Apple had too many products in the pipeline. They were too unfocused. They had lost their spine. Jobs got rid of practically every project except the core two or three. Jobs helped them re-find and remember their spine.
Call it backbone, but don’t think just of courage; think of connection to the core, connection to the central idea. Consider the dictionary definition of spinal column: “constituting a central axis or chief support.” Everything is connected to, and supported by, the spinal column. You can’t have a body, a structure, a company without that central axis or chief support.
The word spine is also the word used to hold the pages of a book together. No spine, no book – just a loose connection of pages.
Business books use many words to describe this concept: focus; core product… but here is the clear principle: have a solid, sound, unshakeable core.
In the devotional classic, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the main character, Christian, is trying to cross the river. The water is moving rapidly; the water is rising, and he is about to go under. But Hopeful calls out from the midst of the same dangerous river:
Then they addressed themselves to the water, and entering, Christian began to sink, and crying out to his good friend Hopeful, he said, I sink in deep waters; the billows go over my head; all his waves go over me.
And Hopeful calls out: “Be of good cheer, my brother, for I feel the bottom, and it is sound.”
“Feel the bottom.” Get the spine right. Get the core product, the core principle, the core service right. Don’t go off chasing anything that is not utterly connected to your core – your spine.
Dickens, and Tharp, and Jobs, and Bunyan had it right.
What is your spine?
“We are a citizen-centered organization.”
Lynda Humble — City Manager, Rowlett, Texas
Focus… What are you “centered on?” This may be the first lesson in business success. You have a better chance of accomplishing what you focus on, and little chance of accomplishing what you don’t focus on.
Lynda Humble of Rowlett is clear about her focus, and she is constantly pointing her people to that focus. “We are a citizen-centered organization.” Clear. To the point. And if this is truly lived out, this is the corrective needed when people go off track. (And people will go off track!)
Cities, and companies, and organizations, can focus on many things. And whatever gets the focus gets the attention, the resources, the innovations, the upgrades – and the loyalty and possible gratitude of the “customers.”
If you are a city government, then focusing on the citizens seems like the right call. But many cities lose this focus. The pull of the universe is a pull to get us all off focus. We have to resist that pull – all the time!
So what are you centered on — what is your focus? When you are pulled away, how do you get back (to) your focus? These are not unimportant issues…
The incoherence, I think, is a sign of something deeper: Research in Motion doesn’t know what kind of company it wants to be.
Farhad Manjoo, What on Earth Happened to BlackBerry?: Research in Motion’s new tablet is a misguided mess.
I know practically nothing about technology. I use a Mac, an iPhone, and I’m on a waiting list for the iPad 2. These are made for a non-techie like me.
But I like to read Farhad Manjoo on Slate.com. He teaches me, enlightens me, and though he must be some kind of techie genius, he writes in language I can understand.
In an article on the current state of Research in Motion (Blackberry), this quote jumped out at me:
The incoherence, I think, is a sign of something deeper: Research in Motion doesn’t know what kind of company it wants to be.
Of course, it reminds us of Peter Drucker’s famous first question:
“What is your business?”
(Drucker’s other two questions: “Who is your customer? What does your customer consider value?”)
Clarity; focus; definition. These are not “modern,” innovative” concerns. These are always absolutely required for business success.
What kind of company do you want to be? Start there, and start building. And if you ever forget this — if you can’t answer this in a crisp, short, coherent, sentence — then it’s time to start over.
I have written before about this simple concept: you get what you pay attention to. (read this earlier blog post). I am convinced that this is as true a maxim as you can find. What gets attention determines the areas in which progress is made. What is ignored goes downhill… pretty quickly.
My friend, Larry James, is a genuine expert on poverty issues. The CEO of CitySquare (formerly Central Dallas Ministries), Larry has a terrific blog. (Larry James Urban Daily: read it here). In a recent post, he excerpted an article about the fight against poverty in Brazil. Here’s a key portion:
Today, however, Brazil’s level of economic inequality is dropping at a faster rate than that of almost any other country. Between 2003 and 2009, the income of poor Brazilians has grown seven times as much as the income of rich Brazilians. Poverty has fallen during that time from 22 percent of the population to 7 percent.
Contrast this with the United States, where from 1980 to 2005, more than four-fifths of the increase in Americans’ income went to the top 1 percent of earners.
Why is Brazil making such progress in its struggle against poverty? Because… this is what they are paying attention to. The people at the top pay attention to this problem – with serious focus.
Consider this portion of the inaugural address from the new President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, delivered Saturday, January 1, 2011. (find the full text here: )
My Dear Brazilians,
My government’s most determined fight will be to eradicate extreme poverty and create opportunities for all.
We have seen significant social mobility during President Lula’s two terms. But poverty still exists to shame our country and prevent us from affirming ourselves fully as a developed people.
I will not rest while there are Brazilians who have no food on their tables, while there are desperate families on the streets, while there are poor children abandoned to their own devices. Family unity lies in food, peace and happiness. This is the dream I will pursue!
This is not the isolated task of one government, but a commitment to be embraced by all society. For this, I humbly ask for the support of public and private institutions, of all the parties, business entities and workers, the universities, our young people, the press and all those who wish others well.
What do you pay attention to? Whatever it is, it is likely that that is the area where you will make the most progress.