Control of attention is the ultimate individual power

I must have been asleep at the RSS reader a couple of weeks ago, because I missed this gem in  “Lost in the Crowd“, David Brooks’s review of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book Outliers in the New York Times:

Control of attention is the ultimate individual power. People who can do that are not prisoners of the stimuli around them. They can choose from the patterns in the world and lengthen their time horizons. This individual power leads to others. It leads to self-control, the ability to formulate strategies in order to resist impulses. If forced to choose, we would all rather our children be poor with self-control than rich without it.

Fortunately, Mike Elgan called it to my attention in a column entitled “Work Ethic 2.0: Attention Control“. And, like me, Elgan reacts much more strongly to Brooks’s comment about control of attention than to anything he actually says about Gladwell’s book.

But  Elgan’s concern is with what he sees as the “distraction virus” of the internet in general, and of social media in particular. I don’t dispute his observations, but I have a different take on Brooks’s point.

It’s true that self-control gives us individual power, and we knew all this long before we had to contend with the online demands on our attention. For example, Herman Hesse wrote in Siddhartha:

“I can think. I can wait. I can fast.”

“That’s everything?”

“I believe, that’s everything!”

What’s new is that attention is becoming a currency to rival the tangible goods we’ve usually thought of as scarce and valuable. But, as Brooks and Elgan note, it differs from money in its far more subjective nature.

A growing economy revolving around something money can’t buy, and which is subject to the vicissitudes of individual control. That certainly makes things interesting.

By Daniel Tunkelang

High-Class Consultant.

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