Attention

Prey animals are alive by default. As in, they can forage from an unresisting and generally abundant food supply. Aside from disease, they are killed by changes in the environment and by predation. Because of this, they need to constantly monitor their surroundings for such threats.

Predators are dead by default. If they do not bring down prey, they starve to death. But they’re much less likely to be killed by other animals. Consequently, they don’t need to pay attention to anything other than their mark. If they succeed there’s a brief period of indulgence, but they soon need to get back on the prowl.

Attention

I think we can view human behavior through this lens. A stable job that covers your expenses, perhaps even married = prey. You’re fine unless something upsets the status quo: a layoff, a depression, war… So it makes sense to follow the news and stay abreast of what’s going on in the world. What are people doing, who’s going to be president? But if you just started a company or signed on as a professional athlete, you’ve entered do-or-die territory. You have one very clear goal, and do not need to worry about anything else for the time being.

It’s hard to use this imagery without overtones of admonishment. I mean, who wants to be called prey? But the intention was merely to demonstrate two modes of attention that are appropriate for different situations. Two states of existence, between which we are free to choose. Truth be told I think most of us strive to achieve the ‘prey’ state, at least from our mid-20s on. And it doesn’t seem unreasonable that we have been evolutionarily selected to pay attention to everything. But biological evolution could not anticipate the 21st century, and so it might be worth scrutinizing our need for prey-mode from time to time.


NB: I am not a naturalist and the above could be bogus as a description of nature. If so, I hope that it may still be useful as a description of life.

Desire

Not long ago I noted with some satisfaction that I didn’t have many needs. (Although it would have been more accurate to say that I didn’t appreciate many common desires). I had just read Siddharta and no doubt relished the apparent affinity with its main character. In any case, I reasoned that fewer needs means more freedom, that if I didn’t need to pay for apartments or vacations I’d be able to spend my time on whatever I most wanted to do.

And yet…

Have you ever had a day where your alarm went off, but you decided to snooze a bit since there wasn’t anything in particular to get done that day? Where you get to work and proceed to spend hours checking out what’s new on the internet, thinking of things that would be nice to get done (Boy, those pencils sure need sharpening… No wait, better check if there’s a guide for that)? I’m going to assume that the answer is yes. Now, did such a day ever occur during the early stages of a relationship, or even a new hobby?

It’s hard to waste time when there are things we want badly. We hustle. Desire is like a carrot dangled in front of our souls, a $100 tip for a taxi driver to make it in fifteen minutes. All kinds of bullshit melts away, our existence becomes plain and focused. In some cases it feels like we stop existing and start living. In other words, desire answers one of the most fundamental human questions: what to do with freedom? But of course it does so at the cost of just that freedom. We now have to care about consequences, and get upset when we can’t have things our way. If we let our desire-glands run rampant we are guaranteed to end up frustrated about one or another unfulfilled desire.

That was probably slightly more rhetoric than I should be allowed in a single post, so let’s get a bit more practical: if the rhetoric is in fact true, then it’s safe to say that in terms of personal happiness desire can be both advantageous and problematic. We avoid a dreary existence, but end up disappointed. Reward, and risk. I think it can be useful to keep this inevitable trade-off in mind, but as far as happiness is concerned I’m going to leave it at that. On the subject of achievement, however, I’m willing to postulate that desire is a prerequisite for really making it (at anything). 

To explain why, let’s start with a question: How can I say that I don’t really care about clothes when my wardrobe includes dress socks in different shades of green? In this case “I don’t care about clothes” really means: “Right now there are things I care about to such a degree that if my wardrobe consisted of a pair of jeans and two tees I wouldn’t be worried about it”. It’s not that I’m totally indifferent to sartorial matters, but they’re overshadowed by other interests (for the moment at least). Naturally your life contains various things that you care about to different degrees, and these change over time. Graphically this scenario could be represented like so:

You allocate your attention to whatever you care about the most. So when nothing falls into the ‘desire’ range you have a pack of subjects, let’s call them ‘everyday life’, that vie for your attention. Almost as soon as you address one of them the noise of the system brings another one to the top of the pack, and you end often up flitting between things. Ever picked up a book and four pages in remembered that you wanted to mow the lawn? Yeah… The problem with this, in terms of achievement, is that you’re constantly doing (and thinking about) a bunch of different things. Which, speaking generally and admitting exceptions, means that you’re not going to do anything that’s really big and outstanding. “Desire”, in the context of the graph, means something that you care so much about that it stays above even the noisy fluctuations of the other things you care about. And this completely reverses the scenario I just described: on any given day the price of gas may be more or less important than what (you think) your boss thinks of you, but neither one enters your mind because you’re thinking about a book you’re writing on bonsai care. And such will be the case tomorrow, and the day after. Some of the things you’re ignoring may end up affecting your life while others don’t, but that book is going to get written regardless. There’s no guarantee of your desire bringing you any kind of success: what you create might be awful, and/or you might never have wanted success out of it. But the desire has to be there in order to keep you on track long enough to do something significant. I think most of us know this intuitively, so this isn’t really a new idea. And if you have one (or more) of what I call desires, you may not even care about this. But if there’s any truth to the graphical model I presented, it may help understand what’s happening on the days where we are merely existing.

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