The Myth of The Short Attention Span

From the first day of kindergarten until graduation day, I couldn’t sit down, sit still, and shut up. Nobody could explain why a twelve-year-old boy full of energy and wit couldn’t sit still and learn about the things that other twelve-year-old boys full of energy and wit love to talk about – like the Pythagorean Theorem.

Did I have ADD? ADHD? AAA? ABBA? No convenient acronym could be used to explain the mystery of why I couldn’t sit still and focus. Of course, the answer had nothing to do with a deficit of my psyche. But it had everything to do with my lack of a meaningful pursuit.

If somebody told you, when you were younger, that you had a short attention span, they were lying to you.

You had a long enough attention span. What you didn’t have was a meaningful pursuit – something that would make every possible distraction completely irrelevant.

And the trick to focusing is to find something worth focusing on – to find a meaningful pursuit.

Difficult Introspective Questions

A meaningful pursuit isn’t going to be found ‘out there.’ It’s going to be found ‘in here.’

To find a meaningful pursuit, you need to ask yourself difficult introspective questions.

Why do us adults need to ask ourselves these questions? Why can’t we be like children, doing what we love to do? Because we adults like to busy ourselves with work so that we never have to ask ourselves these awful questions. Kids, on the other hand, don’t think twice about doing what they love – challenging themselves in fun, appropriate ways –  they just do it. Adults are masters of second guessing themselves.

This is not going to be a meditation in gratitude. It isn’t fun to answer these kinds of questions. But if you haven’t found a meaningful pursuit – something that you can focus on for the long-term – then asking yourself these questions is necessary.

Carve out some time to be alone, and ask yourself…

  • What self-destructive belief systems, habits, and behaviors do I need to drop?
  • What’ll my life look like if I don’t drop my self-destructive tendencies?
  • What positive habits and routines can I practice to replace the old, self-destructive ones?
  • What’ll my life look like if I did more of what would make me a better person for myself and the people around me?
  • What subjects can I talk about for 20 hours straight?
  • Why am I not talking about those subjects more often?
  • How can I create work for myself around those subjects?
  • Why haven’t I been asking myself these kinds of questions more often? (This one’s a killer.)

You’ll be amazed at how quickly you come up with the answers.

Sit Down, Sit Still, and Shut Up

If a teacher or a parent told you that you had a short attention span, what they meant was that you couldn’t sit down, sit still, and shut up. Their job was to enforce a mindset onto you whose origins can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution. Author Seth Godin writes that this mindset is what prevents many adults from doing anything creative.

The main principle of this mindset is that you need to stay in one place, specialize in one area, and do only what you’re told to do.

School tried pushing me into this mindset from my first day in the classroom until I put on my cap and gown. Just about everything in school bored me. I couldn’t stay in one place, I didn’t want to specialize in one subject, and I hated doing what I was told to do.

This mindset is nonsense for three reasons.

  1. The more you stay in one place, the less experience you gain.
  2. Specializing hasn’t led to real job security in more than a hundred years.
  3. Doing only what you’re told to do is just another way of saying, “I’m a coward.”

Breaking Out

What might happen if you broke out of this mindset? What might happen if you found a meaningful pursuit?

A few things.

You’d stop chasing empty goals. You’d pursue goals which align nearly perfectly with your personality and interests.

You’d quit working on projects that mean nothing to you. You’d start working on projects that bring you a sense of fulfillment.

You’d find the necessity of sitting down, sitting still, and shutting up so obvious that it’s stupid.

You’d be motivated by a love of the work.

And when you’re motivated by a love of the work, the quality of your relationship to the concept of work itself will radically transform for the better.

 

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