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Thursday, September 10, 2009

A review of Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life

Gallagher, W. Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. New York, NY: The Penguin Press, 2009, 256, $25.95, Hardcover.

A version of this review may appear in Personnel Psychology in about a year.


Reading this book for review has presented a serendipitous opportunity for personal reflection. Bear with me a moment while I describe what happened.

Toward the end of the summer of last year (2008) on a Thursday afternoon, I reached closure on a project about three hours before I had planned, leaving me with a brief moment of down time. The project had been long, complex, and not particularly interesting, and I had been exercising a variety of outlets to keep my head sufficiently fresh to stay wrapped about the work.

To celebrate my three-hour respite, I hopped in the car and drove to the local convenience store for a fountain Diet Coke, one of my greater vices. I stepped out of the store, 64-ounce cup in hand, and walked across the parking lot to my car, which was in the shade of the aged oak tree that somehow managed to survive the construction of the store.

I was not in the moment as I walked, what with my head still stuck in the fading rigor of the project. Nonetheless, the tendrils of boisterous yelling started to make their way into my consciousness, and as I approached my car, I turned toward the sound to see what was happening. My eyes fixed on a blue sedan coming my way with four 30-something men, somewhat bereft of teeth, hanging out the windows shouting sexual epithets and making obscene gestures, all for my benefit.

I was not sure how or why they had singled me out for this moment of bullying, but they had, and my attention focused on them, that moment, and the car arcing towards me, all now in slow motion for me. Years of training in pugilistic arts left me prepared for what might happen, though I knew if they had firearms, I was likely a dead man standing.

My attention collapsed on the car and men, much as a hawk's vision collapses on it's prey when diving out of the sky. Tunnel vision, as it were, and I knew as it occurred that I had to adjust my sight in this potentially dangerous situation. Now, why is that? It’s very simple. I do not need to be the hawk swooping on the mouse by the roadside only to miss the mouse because my tunnel vision left me unaware of the truck that was about to cross my path with mortal consequence.

It is quite common in martial training for an instructor to exhort the students to pay closer attention to what they are doing, usually because people can be so easily distracted by extraneous and unimportant stimuli. However, as those students progress, they are also encouraged to cast their vision wide as they focus on the opponent before them to see more than the obvious details, or as Musashi in The Book of Five Rings wrote (Mobi locations 574-583 in the chapter “Fixing the Eyes in Other Schools) “...if you fix your eyes on details and neglect important things, your spirit will become bewildered, and victory will escape you.”

As the car grew close, enough so for the men to make good on their threats, the driver accelerated, the men laughed, and the car sped away, down the street, and out of my direct reality, leaving me in my altered state.

Now, let's fast forward to now and this interesting read by Winifred Gallagher, which presents three formal take-aways for me: The two manners in which we pay attention and the one manner in which we promote our attention in difficult circumstances.

The first half of this book is posited on nearly countless psychological studies, all of which are listed at the end in a reference section, and few if any of which are cited directly, at least as we might expect a citation to read, in the body of the text. This lack of direct citation left me conflicted. First, I wanted to see the citation to have some notion that the author wasn't making all this up as she went. However, I also knew, especially after reviewing the references, that if she had followed the usual APA style of citation, the reading would have been disrupted substantially. In hind site, I'm glad the citations were handled as they were, and I suspect those readers who are not steeped in scholarly literature will also appreciate the citations being deferred.

Those who seek to improve their personal and professional performance, who seek to mentor others, or who simply seek to understand sources of differences among people that might or might not contribute to performance but that certainly contribute to perceptions of performance are likely to benefit from the first half of this book. The second half is another story, and although I think we'd all benefit in the prolonged meditation required to come to grips with the underlying meaning of what Gallagher has presented, I do not see much tolerance in the modern American workplace for the time required to bring the meditation to useful fruition. Yes, the ROI would be substantial, but you're not likely to find many decade-long sabbaticals.

As we frame the first half of this book, bear in mind the adage we sometimes use to characterize someone's view of a particular situation: He can't see the forest for the trees. The complaint in that statement is that the person is too caught up in extraneous details to recognize the bigger picture. Musashi described that view as seeing the details and missing the important things. With that said, it's difficult to walk through a forest without paying attention to where the trees are. Otherwise, you walk into them.

We have to see it both ways, a forest filled with trees, if we are to reconnoiter the situation with success.

Gallagher begins this discussion in the first chapter by presenting what she calls “bottom up” attention where your focus is not so much driven by your intention but rather the salient object in your immediate environment, the twittering red bird, the threatening rattlesnake, or the spoiled food in the refrigerator. Our response to focus carefully on novel stimuli that present danger or reward has promoted our survival since the dawning of human time. The men in the car at the convenience store motivated my rapt bottom-up attention.

In contrast to bottom-up attention, Gallagher presents, oh yes, top-down attention. (I found the names of these forms of attention quite distracting for the first while, but in time, I came to accept the names and their usage.) Whereas bottom-up attention occurs often without conscious thought, likely as the direct result of a species surviving in a hostile world, top-down attention requires effort and concentration, and it results in fatigue.

The author's example involves sitting in a park while recording the various species of birds observed. At some point, you'll grow tired of the watching and have to stop to give your eyes and brain a rest. Nonetheless, top-down attention receives equal credit for advancing humankind because it presents the opportunity to decide just what we will later focus on with bottom-up attention. For the angry men in the car, my top-down attention involved an assessment of where other cars and people were, their apparent physical strength, when they would be close enough to make good on their threats, the likelihood that they carried firearms, and the lack of nearby policemen.

As with most human characteristics, an over-dependency on top-down or bottom-up attention can create problems, and the author describes in some detail instances where an individual with a preponderance of talent with the one but a paucity with the other is beset with challenges that can be difficult for someone else to understand. Consider for example, the student in the lab focusing broadly and intently on the design of an experiment such that the fire alarm blares to no effect. (On a more personal note, as an undergraduate student, I was more than once locked in the library because I failed to hear the closing signal. Yes, I could really get into my Physics homework.)

Concomitantly with how we pay attention is the emotional baggage we bring with our attention. In particular, the authors cite seeming endless studies that demonstrate our propensity to focus on the effects that negative emotions bring to bear on our ability to pay attention, but expanded far beyond our ability to focus, and into our physical ability to see and perceive peripherally. How many readers here have walked on egg shells in the period preceding an evaluation, knowing from experience that management will be far more likely to be swayed by recent events than by a composite year's worth of productivity, and you want to make sure that there are few, if any, negative events in the brief period leading to the evaluation?

As a final take-away, we have a discussion of the manners in which we pay attention when the object on which we must focus is not something that would ordinarily hold our attention. For those readers here who teach, just how do you manage to read 90 essays all written, likely poorly, on the same subject? For those readers who work elsewhere, how do you bring yourself to write that report one more time when the only change from the past ten times is the client's name?

What do we do? We find something else to distract us briefly while we build the energy and focus to dive back in. A lot of managers in this world would do well to understand this point. Your direct report isn't so much goofing off as she is gathering her strength to dive back in, and does it really matter so much how that strength builds as it does that it builds?

When I taught statistics during summer school, I graded those repetitive papers at the community pool. Last week when I wrote that repetitive report yet one more time, I had Twitter, Facebook, and two e-mails running. Like clockwork as my energy faded, I surfed through the tweets and the status updates until my head and eyes had cleared. It would be easy to make the case that I squandered repeated five minutes' worth of company time on superfluous activities, and I'm sure we've all heard such in the workplace. However, bear in mind that report was finished ahead of schedule, and everyone was happy, just as my students never complained about how long it took me to return their papers. (Their complaints were generally about the grades, but that’s another matter.) More to the point, there's absolutely nothing new here: Gathering (e.g., wasting time) by coffee pots and water coolers has occurred in the workplace pretty much since there was a workplace.

Gallagher presents this material in fourteen chapters, including in each countless examples of how personal preference and situation present something positive or something negative to the person's efficiency. Toward the middle, the tone become more metaphysical, and for that reason is less likely to be of substantial use to the practical development of many people. Nonetheless, if you're taking a week off, and you want something worthwhile to read while you're out of the office, Gallagher can teach you something about yourself and others that you likely already knew but weren't consciously aware of yet.


Musashi, M. (2005). The Book of Five Rings. (Translated by Thomas Cleary, and electronically reformatted by MobileReference for the Kindle) Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications.


The Crow said...


Stopped by to gather fuel for filing monthly reports, entering deposits and other pain in the bottom stuff of which my (thank-god-i-have-it) job is comprised.

I have Musashi's book, too. Back when I thought I had an opportunity to rise in position in the bank where I worked, I'd bought it for its vanquishing enemies wisdom. I went back to school, instead.


Jim Penny said...

There's a lot of professional development out there posited on The Book of Five Rings and The Art of War. I've never attempted to apply them to my work, probably because (1) I'm not that smart, and (2) I depend too much on my colorful vocabulary.