Distraction is powerful and bi-directional

A recent video I made touches on the prevalence of distraction in our lives and the importance of our awareness of it. The video might paint distraction in a negative light, just as many productivity nerds might do, but distraction is not always a negative thing.

When used with careful intent, distraction can be a useful tool.

If your attention is a train, then distraction is a likely culprit for derailment; however, distraction can also act as a sort of guide rail when used properly.


For the sake of illustration, let’s call these two types of distraction negative and positive distraction. Negative distraction is that which derails your attention; Positive distraction is that which enables you to maintain your focus.

When you sit down to do serious work and you’re bombarded with meaningless notifications, you’re experiencing negative distraction. The source of negative distraction is often external.

When you go for a run and you feel like quitting, but you find a way to shift your attention towards something other than that feeling, you’re experiencing positive distraction. It’s that feeling when the little voice inside of you says “quit—stop running” but you overpower the voice by distracting your attention away from it. Maybe you listen to your breath or look at a tree—you might even think about the sign that’s 15 yards in front of you—whatever it is, you have distracted yourself from that negative inner voice which was trying to get you to quit. The source of positive distraction is often internal.battery

One might argue that this is not distraction at all—it’s merely controlling your focus. Ideally, it is just focus, but we cannot always rely upon ourselves to command this sort of power over our focus. The ability to distract ourselves from that which hinders our focus is the next best thing. In a sense, the ability to distract yourself can end up helping you focus.

This sort of positive distraction is often valuable in scenarios requiring patience and perseverance—two things which depend upon the passage and endurance of time. Such scenarios are often characterized by a strong desire to quit and a lack of willpower when playing the waiting game.

Positive distraction can help look past the desire to quit and pass time while enduring.

This is not a justification for avoidance or systematic escapism. A physical or emotional feeling should not be neglected without acknowledging its potential importance, and we shouldn’t binge watch all six seasons of Lost just because it’s difficult for us to wait patiently. Rather, this is a suggestion that distraction is not always a negative thing.

Think of it this way: once we begin to recognize distraction and become mindful of it’s effect on us, we gain the power to use distraction to our advantage. When we approach the things that easily distract us (Netflix, social media, etc) with mindfulness, we gain to two valuable insights:

  1. We can learn how to better avoid negative distractions
  2. We learn how to better distract ourselves

The mindfulness is key here: watching Netflix mindlessly does not help, but something can be learned from noticing how it feels when we encounter distractions.

Distraction is powerful and bi-directional—it can hurt us and help us. This encompassing view of distraction prompts learning and allows us to approach trying times with a more dynamic toolbox.


The IKEA Effect: Why everyone around you is photographing the same scene

One of my favorite shrines I had the chance to visit in Japan was the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto. The shrine grounds are uniquely picturesque—the winding pathways are scattered with miniature shrines and lined with thousands of orange torii gates. I had a hard time resisting the urge to take photos as we strolled through the mountainside.

As a result, I took roughly fifty iPhone photos of Fushimi Inari, all of which can be found in my personal photo library. But these fifty photos pale in comparison to the thousands of professional photos that are readily available with a quick google image search of “kyoto fushimi inari.” I was completely aware of the plethora of photos available on google as I made my way through the shrine, yet I chose to take my own iPhone photos.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Beyond this, nearly every one of my friends chose to take their own photos of the exact same scene. This happens everywhere—concerts, sporting events, gorgeous landscapes—you name it. With the advent of cell phones and personal cameras, it has become commonplace to see a handful of people photographing identical scenes.

There are two main reasons why someone might take a photo: (1) to share the moment, or (2) to remember the moment. A professional photo is often adequately suited, if not preferred for either purpose. With this in mind, artists like Jack White have hired professional photographers for their shows, providing concert-goers with free, high-quality photos and allowing people to devote their undivided attention to the present moment. But people still attempt to take their own photos…why?


The IKEA Effect

A possible explanation lies in what researchers have termed the IKEA effect. At it’s core, the IKEA effect posits the idea that labor leads to love. Researchers have found that consumers tend to assign a higher value to products they have self-assembled than to pre-assembled products of similar quality. In our minds, the addition of our own labor increases the value of a product.

You might value the coffee table you assembled from IKEA more than the one your friend bought pre-assembled at Target, though they are in large part identical. Yours might even be more likely to fall apart in a few months.


This example deals with the furniture in your house, but the same could be said for the photos in your camera roll.

You might like the concert photo you took with your iPhone last weekend more than the one another concertgoer took with professional equipment, though they both capture the same thing. Your photo might even be a bit blurrier and hard to make out. Still, you will most certainly show your own photo to your friends—you might even make a print of it to hang on your wall.

The Balance of Time

As technology improves our ability to take a quality photo with little technical knowledge, it reduces the need for professional equipment and skill. Anyone with a phone can and will do it—the amount of labor required is minimal, and the increase in (personal) valuation is significant.


Unfortunately, such a system incentivizes us to lose sight of the present moment and its inherent beauty. We do not want to forget what we want to remember. As a result, our efforts are aimed at preserving the option to remember the present moment at a later date—an action which prompts us to discount the present moment in favor of the future.

There must be a way to preserve the sanctity of the present moment while keeping this option for future remembrance open. I believe the answer to this dilemma lies somewhere in our ability to overcome the IKEA effect—the mechanism which prompts our increased valuation for similar goods, merely because we took the photo.


What to focus on when sharing ideas

When sharing ideas with others, we often find ourselves hurling towards the communication barrier known as idea pride.

Idea pride is the deep pleasure we derive from our own understanding of an idea, the gist of it and the minutiae alike.

On a surface level, pride is an indication that our idea matters to us—that we care about effectively sharing our idea—but a little pride can go a long way. Pride gets in the way of itself, and we begin to care so much about the nuances of our idea that we neglect the gist.

We hold an intricate understanding of an idea in our heads, and we are often driven by an urge to impart every detail of our understanding to others. This tendency to focus on ensuring that the other’s perception of an idea equates to our own stems directly from our idea pride.


Bogging ideas down

When we care so much about an idea, we are prone to micro-managing another person’s understanding of the idea. This happens because we already have an understanding of the idea’s core, and our interest is focused on the applications and nuances of the idea. We overwhelm people by showing them every single angle of the idea, illustrating it’s full potential and beauty.

We do not need every nuance of a painting explained for us to appreciate it.

True thought leaders cannot let pride get in the way of effective communication. It is ok if our message is not understood completely as we perceive it in our heads—the minutiae can wait. Focus on finding and communicating the core of an idea so as to set others off on their own expedition of discovery and understanding.

Scannable Document on Mar 11, 2017, 3_01_38 PM copy 2

The Goal of Sharing Ideas

Let them bend the idea—let them twist it in every which way. Let them cover up portions of the painting—let them add a whole new layer. The idea will only evolve and get stronger as each person adds their own unique twist.

We don’t need a million Mona Lisas; we already have one. We’d be better off with a thousand paintings that stem from the understanding and appreciation of Mona Lisa’s core message.

When communicating our ideas, we are paralyzed by the minutiae, and we overlook the importance of conveying the simple message of our idea’s core. Our pride gets in the way—we like our ideas a bit too much, and many of the trivial nuances, though interesting, should be omitted when communicating an idea. Beyond an idea’s core, we should not be overly concerned, hurt, or disappointed if the details are lost in translation.


Favoring abstraction and ignoring human nature: why they won’t listen to your ideas

Most Advanced Yet Acceptable

Humans are driven by the two opposing forces of neophilia and neophobia. We’re innately attracted to what’s new, but we are apprehensive when we do not understand it.

These are the underpinnings of industrial design giant Richard Loewy’s concept of MAYA. MAYA is an acronym for Most Advanced Yet Acceptable, and it has been presented as the key to selling anything.

The idea is to find the threshold where a product is innovative, yet intuitively understood. Once found, this threshold represents the ‘optimal newness’ needed for an idea or product to take hold. People want a fresh take on an old classic.

Products and ideas that merely regurgitate previous ones have little pull, but being too novel can also diminish their allure. We can graph this phenomenon, illustrating the general idea of how novelty affects our interest.


The optimal newness of an idea or product is the point at which we experience the most advanced, yet acceptable—MAYA.


In their book Made to Stick, Dan and Chip Heath explore why certain ideas endure and others die out. They present concreteness as an essential component of sticky ideas. Abstract ideas are difficult to grasp, nearly impossible to visualize, and provide us with little to latch onto. Concrete ideas are easily visualized and understood because they take advantage of the building blocks which already occupy our minds.

Our ideas and how we convey them will move along the concrete-abstract spectrum as the language or medium we use to explain them changes.


Your economics professor using complex economic terms to describe a demand curve leans abstract. When your professor draws the demand curve on a graph, it veers more concrete. When your professor constructs a demand curve by polling how much soda each student would buy as the price increases, it hones in on the concrete.

The Heath brothers suggest that we speak in concrete terms if we want our ideas to stick. Abstract confuses, concrete conveys. Humans can’t grasp the abstract without additional effort, and humans often avoid that which is not intuitive, as the principle of MAYA illustrates.

Reinforcing MAYA with Concrete

Our ideas can benefit a great deal from this understanding of how to sell using the Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable principle and why speaking in concrete terms is better than abstract ones.

The more novel something is, the more abstract it becomes. When sharing our ideas, we want to avoid veering too far into abstraction, but we need a certain degree of novelty to intrigue.


People are afraid of anything that’s too new, but they want something “new enough.” They want that slight jolt of excitement.

People are afraid of anything that makes them think too hard. They want simple ideas that are easily understood.

People want the Most Advanced Yet Acceptable idea, and they want it in concrete terms.


The Clash of New and Old

Let’s draw a picture.

It is the picture of a man purchasing a car from a car salesman. Buying a car is not easy, and the customer must decide between two types of cars: Car A and Car B.

Car A is the experimental model with copious amenities–it has USB ports, bluetooth technology, and it’s own app store. Car B is the simplistic model with no extravagant features–it comes only with necessities.

Both cars will get him where he needs to go, but Car A is obviously built for the modern era, whereas Car B emulates the long-standing tradition of cars that predate it.

The customer knows that Car A, and it’s promise of total integration, will impress his friends; however, he also knows that Car B, though lacking in flashy features, is less complicated and likely more reliable.

For this reason, Car A comes at a premium–a premium for technology which may very well become obsolete during the car’s lifespan. What’s to say that USB ports and app stores won’t be replaced by some new technology next year? Car B seems old fashioned; it’s been stripped down to only the technology deemed necessary.

The customer would love the latest and greatest, but its promise comes laced with uncertainty. When the option of the old standby exists, the uncertainty is amplified, and it becomes harder to make a choice.

Ideas, just like car models, are constantly evolving, and we’re faced with the same clash of old and the new as the customer shopping for a car.


New and Old

What’s ‘new’ is often attractive, captivating, and incredibly relevant to the times. It’s easier than ever to publish content, which means it’s easier than ever to share ideas–generally a benefit to society. But, a potential downfall of this is the increased difficulty in valuing the new and the old.

Many of the ideas, products, and media that we encounter fall into one of two broad categories:

  • Hyper-relevant: ideas incredibly important in the modern context. Social media. Diets. Trends. The new.
  • Tried-and-true: ideas from a previous era that maintain their relevance in the modern context. Stoicism. Dale Carnegie. Lasting. The old.

Both categories are scattered, and often intertwined, throughout our world.

How are we to know when it is best to engage with ideas of the hyper-relevant nature, the new, and when to favor the tried-and-true variety, the old.

Ideally, we would consume information built on a foundation of the tried-and-true, and presented in a hyper-relevant way.

Ryan Holiday does this well in The Obstacle is the Way. Stoic teachings that have lasted for hundreds of years are presented with examples and applications relevant in our modern era. The old is blended with the new, and we’re left with an enduring idea.Blend

Unfortunately, our intake is rarely comprised of this ideal blend, and we’re often left with this question: this very moment, is the old or the new more valuable to me?

The Difficulty of Valuation

The age of an idea is not particularly important; it really only acts as a measuring stick to see if an idea holds water.Ruler

The words of any book still standing long after publication are likely to have some merit. If a book is still held in high regard 75 years after its initial release, it is likely more than just a fad. Their ideas have stood the test of time and are thus tried-and-true.

The same measuring stick provides little indication of worth for a recently published book. It’s difficult to know how a book’s ideas will hold up over time when it’s only been available for a year. New books are written to address new phenomenons and introduce new ideas or perspectives; their content is often hyper-relevant to our modern times.

This makes intuitive sense; we wouldn’t want all of our books to address old phenomenons and ideas. If social media blows up, people want to know about how to master it, and people will  write and buy books about the topic. A book about Instagram or Facebook might be incredibly valuable right now, but in five years the two platforms may be completely different, or even non-existent.

How To Approach The Feud

Acknowledging this volatility, should I focus on the intake of new, hyper-relevant information or old, tried-and-true information?


As with most, this is a question which does not have a definite answer. The value of the question arises from the thought it prompts, rather than the answer it may lead to.

Think of a small business owner who wants to learn about marketing. Should they target their efforts towards social media marketing skills, or should they aim to study more traditional marketing thought? Social media’s power is unparalleled right now, but this could change in the next few years.

A hyper-relevant book might lead to incredible returns with relative ease during the social media boom, but the skills might not directly transfer over to future platforms. A tried-and-true book might lack modern context and application might seem more difficult initially, but the foundation might allow for easier transitions to future platforms.

Both types of ideas, hyper-relevant and tried-and-true, are important; neither should be wholly neglected. Tried-and-true ideas are more versatile and can be applied more creatively. Hyper-relevant ideas are more precise and help in the execution of a more specific problem. Both are useful components of a toolbox, and having an understanding of them will improve how effective you are in using them.scannable-document-on-jan-27-2017-9_54_21-pm


An Overlooked Art Form: The Quotation

Quotes have become commonplace in our everyday lives.

They’re on our billboards. They’re on our tee shirts and phone cases. They’re in the final lines of our emails. Ask anyone for their favorite quote and they will surely rattle off a line or two.

But given their ubiquitous nature, quotes are oft-forgotten as an art form, even though they occupy a unique space in the world of artistic mediums.

As an art form, the quote is distinguishable from other mediums through it’s derivational nature, it’s contextual freedom, and it’s portability. These inherent qualities create a high density platform for expression of the shared human experience.
Read More