“Attention must be paid.”
-Linda Loman, character in the play Death of a Salesman
Your attention is valuable. It’s so precious that advertisers are willing to pay over $5 million for a 30-second advertising spot during the Super Bowl to capture your attention. Yet, how valuably do you treat it? How often do you give your attention away to the slightest distraction?
Attention Shapes Your Brain.
Your attention is valuable to advertisers because they know your brain changes in response to what it repeatedly experiences through the five senses of sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. Scientists call it experience-dependent neuroplasticity. These repeated experiences strengthen neural pathways that become your brain’s default wiring to interact with the world.
Your brain is malleable, plastic and open to influence. Your experiences continually shape it to be the best it can be for the environment it inhabits. In essence, what you put your attention on matters a lot. It’s reshaping your brain moment by moment—the very same one you will need to make critical decisions with tomorrow.
Be mindful of the activities and conversations you engage in. Nothing is free. Even if it doesn’t cost you money, you will always pay with your attention. That’s why it’s called paying attention.
If you aren’t intentionally shaping your brain through your attention, the world will do it for you by default. The people, situations, circumstances that you focus on repeatedly will create lasting impressions on your brain. It will happen whether you agree to it or not.
A Lesson From Death of a Salesman.
In 1949, American playwright Arthur Miller won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for Death of a Salesman. It’s the story of the last twenty-four hours of Willy Loman’s life, a washed-up and unfaithful 63-year-old traveling salesman. In an anguished last-ditch effort to save her husband’s mental state, his wife Linda pleads with their eldest son Biff to not rebuke his father any longer for his failings. Instead, she demands that he take notice of his father’s downward spiral.
She warns “He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog.”
However, it’s too late. Soon after, poor Willy Loman deliberately kills himself in a car crash so that his family can have the life insurance money. The play is a sad and sobering comment on the loss of the American dream.
Not paying attention to what is significant can be as dangerous as paying attention to what is not. As human beings, our attention is our first line of defense and offense. Where and how we focus it can means the difference between life and death.
So how do you harness this precious resource called attention?
The Power of Purpose.
When you have a compelling reason or “why” for what you do or don’t do, it will be easier to control your attention and safeguard your brain’s neural wiring. When you are unclear and confused about your purpose, your attention is easy to steal. It will also be easier for you to unconsciously give it away since you don’t have anywhere to direct it consciously.
Purpose can be as grand as the meaning of your life or as small as the reason you are attending a meeting. If my life’s purpose is to explore the boundaries of my potential, I will engage with every challenge as a welcome opportunity to see what I’m capable of. If my purpose in joining a meeting is to offer support, I will listen carefully to what is said and unsaid to be constructive with my feedback.
Your purpose is personal. You don’t need anyone to validate it. You only need to be sure that it’s meaningful enough to keep your attention invested. When it comes to success and happiness, you want to have clarity as to why you want your particular version of fulfillment. Is it to provide for your family? Be a good role model for others? Prove that you are worthy? Ensure that you live a good life? Make the world a better place?
Be true to your purpose, whatever it is. You can’t hide from what is truly meaningful for you. You can’t pretend to care about something that you don’t. With purpose, start from where you are. Let that be your guide. Be aware that purpose can change along the way. As you grow, develop and learn more about yourself, the reasons “why” may shift and change.
Wrapping Up Success and Happiness.
Most people say they want to be successful and happy without actually knowing what that entails. The goal of this three-part newsletter was to give you a primer on an extensive but essential topic that is on the minds of many.
Success and happiness are the results of finding the right fit for your unique combination of character, values and skills. When you define what you want in a way that aligns with what’s most natural for you, it’s a great head start. To keep your enthusiasm strong and your energy high as you navigate the inevitable wrong inevitable turns and detours, create a state of mind that aligns with the outcome you want before it occurs. Finally, be mindful of the cost of squandering your attention. Utilize a compelling purpose to make sure you direct this most potent and precious asset towards the success and happiness you want.
- Practice finding purpose today. For the activities on your calendar, come up with a short phrase to describe why you want to be there. This reason may be very different from the original reason you decided to be there.
- If you discover that you don’t want to be there, figure out why you committed to it in the first place. Try to uncover how you gave away your attention without realizing it.
- For one area of your life, career, personal relationships, health, etc., think about what your purpose could be for it. For example, the purpose of good health could be to run a marathon, survive an illness, grow old enough to see your grandchild become adults, compete in the Olympics, etc.
Thanks for reading. Until next week,
(reprint from Authentic Success newsletter. Sign up here.)
Jo-Aynne von Born, Certified Professional Coach