Category Archives: Life

Building a Better Fence in the Attention Economy

gold thumbs up

Living as we do in the much-heralded Attention Economy, where wealth is created (or captured) by harnessing the attention of electronic network users,  every connected person’s conscious (and even unconscious) life represents a little hill of gold that can be exploited by freewheeling prospectors, miners, and mining-supply merchants.

I, for one, have decided to put some better fences around my attention.  

You could say that I’m defending my attentional rights with greater intention.

Every major economic revolution begins with players who figure out how to derive exponential value from some previously undervalued resource.  Whether it is copper, silver, gold, bronze, iron, coal, uranium, petroleum, labor, land, water, energy, or information, the early winners of any new economic era are the ones who figure out how to cost-effectively locate, procure, transform, distribute, and resell a given hot new commodity at a high margin.

To get the best margin, the strongest players will often figure out a way to muscle out their competition early on and grab the resources without waiting for permission. They generally don’t spend too much time worrying about the wider impact of their resource-grabbing.

In the Attention Economy Gold Rush metaphor, we are both the gold itself and the prospectors looking for the gold — since one of the things we love paying attention to is each other (and each-other-paying-attention-to-each-other-and-so-on-and-so-on). Therefore, the best way for a company to exploit our attentional resources is to create a platform — a web site, an app, or a device — that we feel compelled to use.

The competition for our attentional resources has become so fierce that some of the best minds in the business are devoted to tracking and optimizing user “engagement,” harnessing human psychology and behavioral science to create ever-more addictive user interfaces. Even mainstream news headlines are written like clickbait vying for our precious eyeballs and sweet, sweet, delicious outrage. Given this rapid escalation and increasing fierceness of the competition, what price are we paying for letting others exploit our attention?

What is the point at which someone says, “Get off my land?”  

Or perhaps, “No thanks, I’d like to design, build and manage things for myself?”

Macraes Gold Mine - Fraser's Pit

Over the years, I’ve had an on-again off-again relationship with my use of electronic media generally, and social media in particular.  I’ve experimented with various use (and non-use) patterns, temporarily constraining or even suspending my use of particular platforms and noticing how each pattern affects the rest of my life, my relationships, my happiness, my focus, my productivity, my creativity, and my wider contributions. These have not been controlled experiments because these electronic media are in constant flux, and my life has its own independent variables.

Nevertheless, toward the end of last year I reached a firm conclusion that merely limiting my use of email, social media, news, etc. to specific hours was not enough. Things had gone too far. I needed to kick some of these guys off my land completely.

At the end of last year — at one minute before midnight on New Year’s Eve to be precise — I deactivated Facebook.

Since then:  Relief.

 

This has also had the effect akin to a carb-reduction diet, where if a person stops eating bread, they eventually start to lose their craving for other kinds of sugar. Not being in the chattering environment of likes, shares and comments, when I now try to read the news, it’s so much less compelling.  News content is increasingly packaged to serve as a chemical solvent which extracts attention from the social media mines… and since I’ve kicked the attention mining company out, the news has less appeal. I don’t want to breathe in too much of those fumes. So, I’m dialing back on my news consumption as well.

Yes, I know the news lately has been recommending that I keep consuming more news. And no, this has nothing to do with politics, ideologies, or issues around “fake news.”   This is just about clearing more space in my head to do the things that matter.

This land is my land… and I intend to build on it.

 

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Autobiography in Five Short Chapters by Portia Nelson

Last week someone shared with me a wonderful poem, “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters” by Portia Nelson.

I

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.

II

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place
but, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

III

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit.
my eyes are open
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

IV

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

V

I walk down another street.

Context: We were discussing a phenomenon that I call the “willful confusion mindset,” which is a kind of cognitive learned helplessness where a person seems to deliberately seek obstacles to comprehension when it comes to a particular matter. This is something that workshop facilitators can face due to external factors beyond their control — politics, personalities, etc. — in and among the participants that they work with. Facilitators are also capable of triggering this state in participants if they push the wrong psychological threat/reward buttons. That’s the part I was trying to figure out.

Hence the poem.

I loved the poem so much I decided to share it with others.

One person asked, “I don’t understand this poem. Why don’t they just cover up the hole?”

Why, indeed.

What purpose does the hole serve, especially for those who seem to be stuck in chapter two?

Postscript

There are other people walking down the street, too.  Some are moving in different directions, some are operating in a later chapter, some in an earlier chapter. Some are repeating a lesson previously learned and some are just taking a break, reflecting in a private space of their own making.

All of these people have the potential to help or hinder each other as individuals… and also have the potential to coalesce or disband as an impromptu collective that will work (or not) through its own series of chapters, at a larger scale.

Not only does the sidewalk provide more than one path from A to B., but it is also a dynamic, fractal landscape.

 

Adam Grant: A Giver and an Original… and a Generalist?

Adam Grant OriginalsAdam Grant’s new book is coming out this month and it already looks like a best seller… and not just because of the amazing marketing machine that is already in place.  This guy is on fire.
Grant’s style combines the rigor of research with a semi-autobiographical tone that is compelling and enlightening. On a more personal level, Grant is teaching me important lessons in my exploration of the generalist mindset and how it relates to patterns of success or failure in the contemporary economy.

 

Adam Grant Give and TakeHis previous book, Give and Take  looked at different reciprocity styles and strategies.  His new book, Originals  discusses themes of creativity and nonconformity… with perhaps a dash of novelty-seeking / openness-to-experience traits. Grant is plumbing the depths of under-appreciated aspects of human personality — more technical details on that below.

Givers in a Taker’s World, Generalists in a Specialist’s World

Adam Grant is a Giver, an Original, and a Generalist.  He seems to live the values (and struggles) of the Givers he describes in his earlier book, and very likely, exhibits many of the tendencies of the Originals showcased in his new book. Certainly the being a magician part. He also seems to characterize the mindset and skillset of a highly successful generalist.

Back in late 2008, during the long tail of the global financial crisis, I was talking to an investment banker named Fred.  I told him I was researching the subject of “the relative career success of generalists versus specialists” in a world of hyper-specialization and rapid change (a long-standing fascination – nay, obsession — of mine).

Here’s what Fred said:

“Yes, we live in a hyperspecialist age, but as a result, generalists can be overpaid or underpaid.”

Fred elaborated that there are circumstances where it’s not good to be a specialist. He asserted that being a generalist is a matter of disposition… and therefore inescapable. He later noted that having a generalist mindset can also be the result of one’s education style.

Fred’s language of “overpaid or underpaid” struck a chord in me at the time.

What separates unsuccessful generalists from successful generalists?  Especially in an economy that seeks to perfectly compensate “perfect fit” specialists for each and every function?

Another way of phrasing the question: What’s the difference between a wannabe Malcolm Gladwell from an actual Malcolm Gladwell?

…apart from Outlier circumstances and the embracing of a specialty (aka the 10,000 hour rule)?

Short answer:  It’s about having the right mix of Conscientiousness and Openness to Experience.

Longer answer:  It’s kind of like Adam Grant’s successful versus unsuccessful Givers… and very likely something to do with his Originals.

Personal Tendencies + Adaptive Strategies

In Givers & Takers, after giving props to Robert Benchley and his Law of Distinction, Grant proceeds to define a proposed “reciprocity style” spectrum between “giving” and “taking,” with “matching” somewhere in between.   He then goes on to show how the Givers occupy the bottom and the top of the career ladder.

Grant notes that while Givers at the bottom get walked over, there are a few things they can do to enable themselves to make it to the top without sacrificing their natural tendency to give. As they approach the top of the ladder, people will tend to root for them and push them even higher.  Structurally this resembles the following:

(values-or-temperament-based trait) + (skill-based behavior) = (outcome)

or

PERSONALITY + STRATEGY = WIN

Thank you Adam.    This potentially answers my conundrum about generalists vs. specialists which Fred characterized as “overpaid or underpaid.”

It’s more than just luck, circumstances, talent or IQ. My hypothesis is that, just like Grant’s Givers, generalists have a temperament at keeps them at the bottom due to the often unforgiving nature of business.

However, generalists can also occupy the top tier of organizations, especially when they adopt the right strategies and develop certain skills.  Also, part of it is about moving across the generalist-specialist spectrum and becoming an Eclectic.

I suspect some of the winning skills and strategies for generalists will be mentioned in Grant’s about-to-be released book, Originals. I also suspect that his notion of an “Original” may be a closely related concept to my beloved “Eclectic” type. We shall see.

Finally, according to some personality research studies there is a troubled relationship between high Conscientiousness and high Openness-to-Experience.  My view is that learning to turn on or off obsessive focus by pairing it (or decoupling it, as needed) with distracted curiosity is the key to building an eclectic and useful portfolio of expertise.

For those who identify with being an Original, an Eclectic, an Eccentric, or even just a run-of-the-mill Creative, understanding and mitigating these personality and behavioral distinctions can make all the difference between frustration and fulfillment.

 Adam Grant vs. the BFF (Big Five Factors)

From a bigger picture perspective, Grant is a high functioning generalist who is exploring a series of under-appreciated aspects of human personality.

To phrase it in Five Factor Model of human personality terms, his first book  and related stories of “Powerless Communication” describe behavioral strategies characterized by high levels of Agreeableness. His recent New York Times article, “Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate,”(cf.  wandering and letting things stew), draws out the relative merits of low Conscientiousness… and provides a direct lead-in to his new book that pokes around some corners of the domain of Openness to Experience.

As of this moment, Adam Grant’s marketing bio says he “specializes in building productive cultures of generosity and originality.” Let’s wait and see his niche expand further. Will the book he writes in about 2-3 years shine a light into the adaptive goldmines of low Extroversion and high Neuroticism? Or have those mountains been stripped bare already by others? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, it’s wonderful to read and be inspired by this arch-generalist who has mastered and braided for himself an eclectic and intertwining set of skills, interests and domains of expertise.

Photo essay: Breaking the Dam

1-IceDam-Roof-Gutter-Mansard-Dormer

Underneath the dreamy pleasure of sunny freeze-thaw icicles trimming a snow-laden roof, there lays the nightmarish pain of ice dams and massive interior water damage.

2-Ice-Damage

Sharp, sparkling rows of glass stalactites may look ornate and perfect, but to be managed well, they require a firm hand. The dam must be broken.

3-1-Icicle-Trim-Strip

3-2-Ice-Damage-Strip

Dam –  n. – A large reservoir of stuff trapped inside a person’s psyche: ideas, energy, and aspirations; concerns, criteria and conditions; wants, desires and passions. Normally these feed in and flow out reliably. However from time to time the floodgate gets frozen shut and a self-reinforcing build-up occurs. As the blockage persists, intervention becomes increasingly necessary.

4-Ice-Dam-Corner

The first rule of being an Ice Dam Master (or Mistress):  At first, you will fail.  You will not completely subdue the ice dam. You will also cause physical damage to the building and possibly to yourself as the intervener.

6-Hammer-Dont-Hurt-Em

This does not diminish you – in fact it provides you with the starting point of your credibility. Know that the vast majority of people won’t even step up and try their hand. They’ll call you crazy, but pay them no heed. The title ‘Master’ is one that is continually earned, continually improved upon.

5-Ice-Hammer

There is a difference between being ‘dominant’ and being ‘domineering.’   The icy core of confidence is a deep sense of humility and fearlessness. True confidence is a big part of that difference.

There is also the critical difference of having compassion and a purpose that is greater than yourself. A compassionate, purposeful focus on others makes (almost) all the difference.

8-Hammered-Ice-Dam

As you sculpt the ice and strip away its unnecessary blockages,

know that it does those things for you, too.

9-Ice-Dan

Making the most of your MTA (Money, Time & Attention)

Every day we’re issued an “MTA” ticket – a ticket that allows us to earn and spend three precious commodities: money, time and attention.

Everything we have – and everything we have to give to others – boils down to one or more of those ultimate resources.

How can we get (and also, provide others with) the best possible ride for our MTA ticket?

MTA - NYC subway station


Last year I looked at the “good problem to have” of having too much to do, time allocation being a recurring theme of this blog (e.g.. this post here… and this one here among others).  Now as I cycle back over last year’s posts, in this post (#15 out of 27) I’d like to take a stab at things from a slightly wider and more structured perspective.

The inspiration for this post comes from Thales Teixeira, Assistant Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, who was quoted in a recent New Yorker article as follows:

“There are three major fungible resources that we as individuals have. The first is money, the second is time, and the third is attention. Attention is the least explored.”

– Thales Teixeira

I’d add that, in addition to being the least explored, attention is the most real of those three resources.  Money and time are abstractions used to explain aspects of human reality. Attention is arguably, all by itself, human reality.

But never mind the philosophy. Let’s keep things practical and look at how each of those resources work for us:

Earn Money.

Like math, money is not a real thing but nevertheless is incredibly well understood, documented and learnable. In fact, when a superior understanding of money and mathematics are put together, the resulting combination can move mountains. Yes, actual mountains.

To be effective in most endeavors, we as individuals must have a basic facility with money. The following simple diagram provides a good starting point, whether you’re looking to earn for yourself or contribute to others:

Earn Money

It’s a simple diagram, but how well do you manage it?  Here are just a few of the questions you can ask yourself:

  • How can you improve the quality of your income, both actively and passively?
  • How can you maximize the quality of your purchasing power, both fixed and variable?
  • How can you best develop, invest and/or diversify your assets?
  • How can you best manage, reduce and/or leverage your debt?

Making money is easy… if that’s all you want to do.

In fact, I recommend that every person spend a chunk of their life focused primarily on making money. Those who know me may think this a strange statement coming from a guy whose message is often about being mindful, being grounded in reality and having sense of higher purpose, but, um, yeah… just go ahead and do it. Make money.

Feel what it’s like to be the off-the-boat immigrant with nothing but the shirt on your back.  See what’s it’s like to be the hyper-caffeinated Wall Street investment banker. Listen to the impatient voice of your inner entrepreneur. Walk in the shoes of Ecclesiastes or Siddhartha, who in their seeking of Ultimate Truth spent some years accumulating riches, appreciating the goodness of material existence and also facing squarely into its limitations.

As you devote yourself to concentrated efforts of financial gain, just be sure of three things:  Keep it legal, keep it ethical, and save up enough money to pay for all the therapist bills that will come later.

Pro-tip: Of all the ways to generate wealth, one of the surest strategies is to leverage time, especially other’s people’s time. Which brings us to the next resource:

Make Time.

There are innumerable ways of looking at and conceptualizing time.  Since this is a topic that I touch on a lot, for the purposes of this post I’m just going to focus on two simple aspects of time:  Quality and Duration.

My definition of “Quality” here will be based on whatever you choose to value. Good quality time means you’re getting what you value.  Poor quality time means you’re not getting it, or even worse, getting the opposite of what you value.  “Making time for yourself” implies an effort to experience quality time.

As for “Duration,” I’m referring to the standard units of time that we typically anticipate or reflect upon, e.g. minutes, mornings, evenings, days, nights, weekends, weeks, months, quarters, and so on. On the short end there are micro-moments, which may only last a fraction of a second. On the long end there is a lifetime, which is an accumulated impression of innumerable micro-moments, as well as a good number of days, decades, and life stages.

Here’s the graph:

Make Time

My current theory of Quality Time:  For any given person within a population, the quality of time that they experience has greater variability on the shorter and longer time frames. Some people are masters of making even the smallest moments (“micro-moments”) matter, whereas other fail miserably at those little moments.  The same is true over the long haul, the span of a lifetime — there is a great deal of variation in how effectively people anticipate and reflect on the “bigger picture” of their lives.  However, where people tend to average out in their experience of time is in that middle range of multiple years or decades.

The implication of this theory is that we have more to gain by getting better at how we think about the shorter and longer time spans, how we control our focus, how we detach from the things that don’t matter, how we apply ourselves to the things that do matter, etc. The other implication is not to sweat the mid-sized spans too much as they’ll tend to average out based on whatever milieu we happen to be in.  Also – and paradoxically – the less we worry about those mid-sized spans, the better they will tend to be.

I’ll have to come back to this idea at some point.  My time is currently being crunched by self-imposed deadline of getting this blog post done today.

Which brings us to the most real and yet most fleeting resource of them all…

Pay Attention.

If life is wave, then our material experience (aka, inputs/outputs of money) is the tip of that wave… and we surf that wave with varying degrees of success at different times. However the force driving that wave – the animal spirit driving all of our micro-moments and fleeting fortunes – is our attention.

This is how our attention is configured:

Pay Attention

Thales Teixeira and others are spending a tremendous amount of money, time and attention trying to figure out how to capture our attention in order to get us to spend our time and money on advertiser’s products.   They are working on elaborate theories to modify the environment that fills our ambient awareness, in order to direct our conscious focus and unconscious anchors.

In his HBS working paper, “The Rising Cost of Consumer Attention: Why You Should
Care, and What You Can Do about It,”  Teixeira advises marketers to modify their advertising approach based on the level of focus vs. distraction in a given audience.

He calls it the Attention‐contingent Advertising Strategy (ACAS) and provides the following diagram in his paper:

Teixeira-Attention‐contingent Advertising Strategy-ACAS

Seeing this makes me want to reverse-engineer it to provide us “consumers” a strategy for becoming something more than just “consumers,” i.e. to become individuals capable of enjoying meaningful experiences and becoming better “producers,” aka, life contributors.

What I’d like to do is turn Teixeira’s ACAS into a BCAS (Being Carefully Attentive Strategy), factoring in my earlier diagram and outlining strategies for its three areas of concern:  Where we put our conscious focus, what we allow into our ambient awareness (e.g. the environment and people we surround ourselves with), and how we direct our unconscious mind.

As an example, having now explored the Money-Time-Attention triad and having looked at a few simple sub-structures of those concepts, I’m going to park these musing into my unconscious mind so it can go to work on it at its own pace.  My conscious mind is closing all the open browser tabs I’ve got around these topics, making a mental note to re-read this post at some later date, and is moving on to my next task.

In other words, “to be continued.”

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