I haven‘t always loved New York.
I first visited New York City in 2002. It was, coincidentally, the 8-month anniversary of 9/11. Julia’s brother Joel and I had been in Providence scoping out jobs and apartments so we took the train to NYC for a couple of days, and we walked everywhere during that visit. With no real destination, we wandered all over the city so he could check off buildings and landmarks from his list of places to see. But that was it. As soon as we arrived somewhere, we were leaving. We walked for miles and miles, my knees swelling and buckling beneath me.
We saw most of Manhattan in those two days, including a Mets game in the freezing rain. We even walked right up to David Bowie playing a free concert in Battery Park! But it was exhausting. Not just physically, mentally too. I kept wondering, “Where are we going? When will we get there? Why are we doing this?”
The social web is like that. As much as I love it, it exhausts me. I feel like I’m constantly leaving when I’ve only just arrived. Twitter (my social media of choice) is a constant stream of surprise not unlike walking down the streets of New York City. It’s excellent people watching, socializing, breaking news and entertainment. From crazy to sad to laugh-out-loud hilarious, Twitter is available for non-stop distraction. And as a maker, it really is that: a distraction.
Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.
I’ve been thinking lately about attention and how much of it I have to offer, and as it turns out, it’s not much. And the more things I try to give attention to the less attention I have to give.
Our minds have a depth of field, much like the lens on a camera. When we think about one thing, everything else becomes unclear or temporarily ‘forgotten’. To pay attention to a thing means we must ignore everything else, if only briefly. The more complex a thing is, the more uninterrupted attention is required.
Do the things that make you interesting.
There are many things vying for our attention, and while some of them are a good use of time, many of them are only keeping us from what we should be doing. Our time and headspace are the most valuable things we have, and what we can do with them is virtually unlimited. I am learning (or perhaps re-learning) that cutting out distractions can be more valuable than any to-do app or time in front of a screen. We need to spend less time looking to others for interesting things, and start spending more time doing the things that make us interesting. Perhaps you need to dedicate more time to that thing that got you where you are or that thing that will get you where you want to be.
Similarly, and I am saying this more for myself, it’s easy to give time and attention to the things you enjoy or are easy, but true character comes when you give focus to the things that are difficult but must be done. This means you have to ignore everything else, and know that you will be better because of it.
That’s really the heart of it for me. I feel depressed the moment I realize I’ve wasted time. Like my first few trips to New York where I just wandered around not really knowing what I wanted to be doing. Sure, wonderful serendipitous stuff happened (like the Bowie concert), but I was generally at the mercy of decisions others made. I was just following. But I want to turn the lens of my mind towards the things I care about, the things that make me interesting. And to do this, I will have to ignore a good amount of things I enjoy doing knowing I will be happier for it, and perhaps others will be able to delight in what I have made as a result of it.
Since this post comes from a place of introversion, and my efforts to become comfortable with my own introversion, I thought it might be helfpul to begin a collection of links of other folks talking much more brilliantly about being alone.
- Susan Cain: The power of introverts (via TED)
- William Deresiewicz: Solitude and Leadership (via The American Scholar)
If you have a link you’d like to share with me, you can do so on Twitter.