The utility of attention

Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle is the Way, is based on these words from Book Five of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations:

“The impediment to action advances action.
What stands in the way becomes the way.”

Casting my mind about, I can think of many things that stand in the way of our ambitions. Limitations on hard resources like wealth; limitations on soft resources like energy or focus; not having the necessary skills or experience; lack of confidence or of connections; conspiracies of circumstance that skew timing or perception. All of this impedes, but Ryan’s point is that it doesn’t have to: constraints limit us. But they can also compel creativity and act as compasses which we can use to ensure we’re heading in the right direction.

Ryan talks about this more eloquently and effectively than I can, so allow me to draw your attention to an unexpected impediment to our actions and ambitions: attention from others.

Do you want to change the world? Do you want to build a dynastic company that lasts for centuries? Do you want to write a book that remakes the cultural landscape and changes the course of society? Do you want to create a new technology, a new device or a new process that solves one of humanity’s most insidious problems? Do you want to, in Venkatesh Rao’s words, undertake a “great work”? Okay. Then answer me this:

How much attention do you need?

Would it be helpful if everyone knew the scope and scale of your vision? Would it be helpful if no-one knew the extent of your ideas? It’s likely that the answer is somewhere in between; you need the right amount of attention from the right type of people. Visualised:

attention, blessing or curse

Until a certain point, attention from others is a blessing. It confers aide in terms of resources and support. Past that point, it is a curse. Too much attention eats resources and harms more than it helps. But what is interesting to me is that the curve on the graph above shifts.

For example, a modern-day writer benefits from a certain amount of attention. First up, it will mean he can make a living from his words. Second, and perhaps more importantly, a certain amount of attention will increase the diversity of his inputs; it will cause him to evolve new thoughts and sure up the foundations of old ones—or tear them down altogether. But it doesn’t take long for the utility of attention to fade. In fact, for most creative types—writers, artists, musicians, etc.—the curve above should be shifted to the left. Attention from a small core of dedicated followers is sufficient. As Maria Popova has noted many times on Brainpickings, an abundance of attention often detracts from a creative’s ability to do the work that got them all the attention in the first place.

Conversely, an entrepreneur attempting to revitalise a stagnant industry and obliterate its incumbents needs way more attention—his curve is shifted far to the right. The more people that know about what he is trying to do, the greater the field of resources he has to draw on. The drop-off point for a mission of such audacity, where attention becomes a burden, is almost unreachable.

Eric Weinstein is quoted in Tools of Titans as saying, “General fame is overrated. You want to be famous to 2,000 to 3,000 people you handpick.” The nature of this statement is correct: the utility of attention—or “fame”—is bounded, but the ideal upper limit differs depending on the individual and his or her intentions. So consider your ambitions, their scope, their scale, and the timeline upon which they could play out. But keep in mind that when you ask the question, “How much attention do I need?”, the answer will usually be, “Less than I thought.”