Seventeen years ago, Sara and I decided to repaint our house, an old farmhouse originally built in 1904, dramatically transformed in 1934 after a fire gutted half of the original, but still a classic, simple structure. (I’ve included a picture of how it looks today.)
Being the detail freak perfectionist weirdos that we are, we decided 1) that we’d do it ourselves and 2) that we’d do it right. Of course the only way to ensure a good coat of paint was to remove all the paint presently on the house, and thus to correct some of the bubbling and flaking that we knew was a result of poor prep work however many years earlier. We started with some garden-variety scraping—and quickly found that the light green top layer covered up multiple layers underneath. We had to get to the bottom of it, and so we embarked on a journey to remove all the paint from the cedar siding, determined to get down to the bare wood below. We scraped; we used heat guns; we used a belt sander; and finally when none of these proved adequate to the task we bought a $400 paint grinder and ground the paint off the house. By the end of what became a two-year odyssey (we quickly realized in year one that we’d never do it all before the rains came), I swore that I’d never, ever paint my own house again.
It occurs to me now, two weeks into what I’ve called my attention experiment, that there are going to be many layers to get through as I reorient how and what I pay attention to, and in reorienting thus change who I am and what I do. Because what I realize as I scrape away my first layer of attention is that this whole problem of attention is much more complicated, much more intertwined with my identity, than I ever expected. There’s a lot of layers of paint, and I’m looking to get down to the bare wood.
Maybe this first layer that I scraped away—the layer that consists of newsletter subscriptions, social media follows, etc. that I described in an earlier post—is like the green paint atop our house when we started: just a topcoat, hiding many layers beneath. Maybe it’s like the brittle, thin outer skin of an onion: easily removed, almost ephemeral, and hardly indicative of the thick, juicy, flavorful stuff that lies within.
For me, getting rid of that first layer of attentional noise was easy and, bam, instantly liberating. In an instant, I was no longer hip-deep in cybersecurity and privacy news on LinkedIn, with its inevitable share of loudmouths and narcissists among all the good folks. Right away, I could stop paying hours of daily attention to the “breaking news” I had deemed so important. All I had to decide was that it wasn’t important to me. The world, these worlds, didn’t need me to pay attention, and so I didn’t.
Perhaps too it was easy to shuck off these first layers because I immediately set off on a 2,000-mile road trip across the West, taking a path that ensured that for good parts of the journey, I had no internet access at all. I couldn’t have paid attention to the digital world if I wanted to. The rhythm of my days changed too, with new sights unfurling in front of me constantly.
So, removing that first layer was easy and delightful—I felt freed of noise, able to pay more attention to my present moments. And yet subtly, little by little, I became aware that there were some deeper currents to my old self, to “work Tom,” that I would need to scrape away, to get beneath and discard.
Somewhere south of Mono Lake, as we started the long descent that would eventually put us at sea level on the floor of Death Valley, I recognized that next layer that I’d have to scrape off if I really wanted to pay attention to the world differently. I put it to Sara like this: “I’ve built up some armor plating over the years and I think I may just not need it any more.” As this came out of the blue, she looked at me quizzically. “For years,” I explained, “I’ve been driving myself with this imperative to always be on top of the latest news in my industry, because I never wanted to be caught not knowing something. But that’s just one manifestation of this deeper push, push, push that always been part of my professional life. It’s what made me successful, but if I’m going to really step back from what’s driven me for the last 10 years of my career at least, I think I’m going to have to let it go.” We talked about whether “armor” was the right term for this “disposition,” this deep attitude or underlying drive that lay beneath the mere things that I paid attention to.
I compared my mental armor to the plating that you put on an icebreaker, so that the icebreaker can push through a frozen sea, breaking through and pushing aside the resistance of the ice. Yeah, we agreed, armor was the right term. But now it felt like this was armor I didn’t need, added weight. If I didn’t foresee any ice ahead, why not see what it was like to ply the seas without it?
This is all a way of saying, it’s not just what I pay attention to that shapes who I am, but it’s also why I pay attention to it, and especially the deep “whys” that drive my choices, consciously and unconsciously. I’m paying attention to those deeper drivers of my attention now—even as I’m already basking in the greater receptivity and calmness that accompanies my distance from the hum of the hyperactive hive mind.
Icebreaker, 50 Years of Victory, Christopher Michel, https://www.flickr.com/photos/cmichel67/19790888415
House photo by Kelly Clare, 2020