08 May 2007

Invest Attention!

“Pay attention!”

How often did you hear that as a child? If you are a parent or teacher how often do you say it?

Now consider how many times you have said or heard, “Invest attention!”

As a former child and as a teacher for over 15 years, I have never said it nor heard any other adult admonish a child that way and I doubt you have, either. But, why not? Isn’t the whole point of getting children’s attention their realization of the abundant physical, emotional, mental and spiritual dividends that will accrue from following the wisdom we have to share? Of course, that is the whole point and I do not expect anyone to actually start admonishing children that way, but, since children so innocently entrust their precious attention to us we owe it to them to take a closer look at how seriously we take that sacred responsibility. It’s time we acknowledge attention as the one single internal resource that completely determines exactly how we use all the external resources (i.e. natural, economic, political and social resources) in the world.

Consider “Pay”

The word “pay” invokes a rich set of concepts. The core meaning includes a person who is paying, giving up one thing, usually money, in exchange for something else. There is also an item or something of value that is purchased, and, there is someone who is receiving the payment, oftentimes representing a business or other organization. Here’s the four key components:

1. Buyer (gives one resource in exchange for getting another)

2. Given (the buyers sacrificial resource)

3. Gotten (the buyers desired resource)

4. Seller (gives the buyer a desired resource in exchange for another)

The difference between “pay” and “invest” is crucial; if you are paying you do not expect a return on the resource that you gave up, nor any form of on-going relationship with the person or organization that sold you their item. Payments are isolated transactions that do not inherently imply a long term relationship.

When I pay for a light bulb I don’t expect a return on the money I gave away, I have simply traded my money for the privilege of an electric light source. I expect the seller to provide their product and then leave me alone to enjoy it. Here is a diagram to lay this out in an explicit visual way:


Consider “Invest”

A customer gives the company money and gets their light bulb and if there is an ongoing relationship it reflects well on the company’s ability to at least fulfill, and perhaps exceed, the expectations that the customer’s payment implies. But, any ongoing relationship is inherently beyond the call of duty as defined by an individual payment. An investor also gives the company money but the nature of an investment is such that the investor does not expect a light bulb; they expect to have a particular kind of relationship to the company. A few investors, especially in public stock exchanges, may not interact with the company beyond a few short term purely economic exchanges, but most investors, especially long term investors, expect a lot of intimate information about the company and how it is utilizing the investment (without going into too much detail). The investor is an owner in the company and is entitled to develop an intimate relationship that is distinctly different from the customer’s otherwise shallow relationship. The investor has a vested interest in the ability of the company to sustain their economic viability. When I invest in the stock of a light bulb company then I expect to be able to receive dividends, have a vote in stockholder meetings and/or sell the stock, preferably at a better price than I paid for it. Investment implies a different kind of relationship.


Consider “Attention”

Attention is a valuable resource that we have the choice to direct in some ways rather than others. In directing our attention we add value to, and by extension support, what we attend to and deny support to that which we ignore. The value of the resource is based on it’s limits, in each moment we have a finite amount of perceptual bandwidth, each day we have to contend with the limit of our sleep cycle, and, ultimately we only have one lifetime’s worth. What does it mean to invest attention, rather than merely pay? So how does this apply to the idea of paying attention?

When we merely pay attention we are inherently relying on our concepts about reality rather than testing their accuracy. Mainstream entertainment media invokes our concepts of reality through the process of selecting what will keep us attentive, without need for further mental processing.

In contrast when I choose to invest attention in my world then I am deliberately opening my mind to more data in the form of fully lived experience and all the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual processing that is required to make sense of it. In reality things are sometimes boring, confusing, and have many qualities that go beyond all our concepts about them. This means that while I still invoke concepts of reality to make sense of my experiences, I am also testing the validity of those concepts against what is really true about what is happening in my fully lived experience. If the concept fails to adequately match reality, then a healthy person alters their concept to better describe reality and not the other way around.

In education and parenting this is particularly important. What does it mean for a child to invest their attention instead of merely paying? Paying attention in the classroom as the basis for learning about reality is not much different than paying attention to entertainment media.

Children have to give adult’s their attention, but the child who wants to invest should also be able to reasonably expect:

a) to receive some intimate information about how that investment is being utilized,

b) to participate in certain kinds of decisions,

c) at some point in the future to receive dividends, and

d) eventually, be able to put their resources elsewhere in a profitable way.

I will go through each of these in more detail.

a) Parents and teachers should not keep their plans and purposes a secret from children. While it is certainly not necessary to explain and defend every decision, it is crucially important to share a vision for the future and make every effort to include the child in your planning for how to bring it about. As with any organizational mission you are acting as a leader and the child, as with any follower, is quite capable of sabotaging your best laid plans if you have not succeeded in aligning the team.

Andy Stanley in his book Visioneering writes about how important his father was in aligning Andy with the possibility of living a life guided by faith. His father said to him early in childhood, “Andy, God has something very special for your life. He is going to use you in a great way.” Andy credits this vision with positively guiding him through his adolescence and when he shared a similar vision with his own children it opened up a whole new kind of conversation with them. The kind of conversation that allows him to reflect on his own path and choices, as well as helping his children understand the choices he makes with and for them.

I remember a time when I was in fifth or sixth grade and my mom asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I replied that I wanted to be a professional student. That has been a guiding vision in my adult life, although it took a while after leaving the bleak wasteland of my formal schooling to regain some confidence in that choice of path.

b) The children are participating in the decision making process one way or another, the question is whether you are inviting them to do so consciously and with an aim towards reconciling the inevitable differences of opinion, or are you forcing them to participate unconsciously through decisions and choices that they make unreflectively and without the benefit of collaborative input.

c) John Dewey, in 1938, said, “We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future. This is the only preparation which in the long run amounts to anything.” The primary dividend of every attentional investment is meaning. The greatest gift we can give another is to give them the opportunity to realize new possibilities for understanding who they are and how their existence has uniquely created the world as we know it. I received that gift from 8-year old Dale, who I wrote about in my post called Discovering Context. He did not know then, and most likely does not know now, that he gave me that gift. In the special moment when I received my unique vision of teaching, we were sharing intense concentration focused on achieving a particular goal of his choosing (hitting a ball with a bat) and in that moment I just happened to receive a huge windfall on my investment in teaching. Extracting the full meaning of that one moment has been paying profits for over a decade. My being positioned to make that one pitch, such that it resulted in a powerful vision, was many years in the making. It probably helps that I have had teachers in my family every generation going back over a hundred years, so in that sense it was multiple lifetimes in the making. Getting a return on attentional investments does not require a spectacular global vision, it is enough to have the skills to participate effectively in our society and make a difference in the lives of your family and friends by expressing love and compassion.

d) What children need are investment opportunities; it is not enough for us adults to simply accept that they pay attention to us and we in turn simply provide them with mental light bulbs that will turn on in their heads once in a while. We must provide access to the kind of relationships that allow them to observe and participate in using attention to create and maintain physical, mental, emotional and spiritual value. We need to help them use attention productively. We should strive together with them to generate the kind of value that encourages long term investment; that is, opportunities for reliable and consistent dividends rather than an endless series of short term gains. We must acknowledge how they participate in the decisions that shape our relationships and we must cultivate their ability to participate more and more meaningfully and effectively in making those decisions. We must also build into our planning viable exit strategies for them; methods and means for them to profitably extract themselves from us and venture forth into the wider world with a wealth of resources to support themselves and invest in others.


Consider Our Legacy

Perhaps the reason we don’t hear adults imploring children to invest their attention is because we are in the habit of expecting children to be passive, seen-and-not-heard sorts of people. The notion of invoking mutually responsible and respectful relationships between adults and children just doesn’t fit with some of the long standing traditions of teaching and parenting. Whether or not that is the case, I, for one, am not satisfied that having children merely “pay” attention to adults is enough. I want to ensure that there will be a sustainable society for them to inherit in the future and in order for that to happen I believe that it is my responsibility to invest my attention wisely, and share with the children in my care how I do it and why.

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