Anyone with school-aged children — or for that matter anyone who has ever been to school — should read Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn by Duke University Professor Cathy Davidson.
Davidson is a brilliant academic who, being gifted with dyslexia, noticed something radically important for everyone in the 21st century: We are being educated to act like morons. Our whole culture glorifies a form of learning in which children and adults sit in tidy rows answering standardized questions on standardized tests, always in competition with one another. Our ability to focus in this way is actually called “intelligence.” This type of task was only useful during the age when most workers had factory jobs. Sitting all day and focusing on one task is perfect for someone on an assembly line. However, in virtually all other imaginable activities, this robot-like repetitive focus is STUPID.
Davidson points out that in the 21st century, intelligent behavior is closer to the intelligence that will keep you alive in the wilderness: scanning the environment for interesting or anomalous patterns, noticing when we are uneasy, paying attention to our hunches, and learning from everything around us continuously. In the Internet age, we need skills like being able to tell good data from bad, to know the best sources for useful information, and to collaboratively create things that utilize the best skills of all available collaborators.
This type of intelligence, Davidson argues, helps us overcome the blind spots in our attention that cause us to miss dangerous problems or brilliant solutions. Her specific field is attention blindness, the phenomenon that makes us ignore things like massive flaws in our banking system or the implications of technological development. Two of our greatest allies in overcoming attention blindness are distraction and failure. These two experiences are abhorrent to our culture, yet they are in many ways our wisest teachers. Distraction is an over-focused brain nudging at our consciousness to say “Look over here, there is something you missed.” Failure is the real world saying, “You need to rethink something.” With this, Davidson advises us to not only court failure and celebrate distraction, but to talk to one another about them openly. It is only by combining our knowledge that we can discover what has been hiding in our blind spots.
This book made me very happy that the first thing every Martha Beck coach learns is to say with complete sincerity, “Tell me where I’m wrong.” We live in an age where that question is perhaps the quickest path to success. I’m committing right now to courting failure and celebrating distraction, but of course, I may be wrong.