Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Attention to Detail

I think people who are attentive to detail are better at everything in the world than people who aren't. Call this a bias.

Where does it fail? Creative pursuits come to mind - Einstein with mismatched socks. Something involving risk and intuition - investment banking? But it's always seemed to me that things are made or broken in the execution and not the intention. The devil is in the details, as they say. Which seems pretty spot on in this cultural climate of over-hyped, spun media and politics. Everything happens at such a large scale that the average person would have to be omniscient (or Ralph Nader, who doesn't date) to even be aware of the minutiae behind the readily apparent.

Something as simple as buying food at the grocery store is fraught with perils. Who would ever conceive that what you're buying is made from a genetically modified plant fertilized with petroleum and injected with corn syrup. Why? Because we subsidize our corn crop to the point where it's more profitable to grow corn as a waste product than a diversity of crops - and it turns out industrial waste makes great fertilizer. But this large scale mono-crop system destroys the ecosystem that keeps pests in balance and so we need modified crops to withstand stronger and stronger poisons. Who would have known?

It's to the point where something's name or claims almost always indicate the opposite. The Clean Air Act? Laxer pollution laws. Anything mentioning "Freedom" "Patriot" or "Liberty"? Guaranteed to fuck you over and take away your rights. The average person doesn't want to commit their life to uncovering the truth behind these things. And they find the people who do self-righteous and annoying. Where's the balance point?

I have this thing with people sometimes where I feel that I can trust someone who's good with their money. Someone who makes payments on time, remembers when they owe you money or the reverse. Someone who double checks the bill before paying for dinner. I feel like I can trust them not just in financial matters, but to be there when you need them. To do what they say they'll do. I guess it represents a view of the world and a certain level of engagement with it. A sense that you can control the things that happen around you. A sense of place, of having a role and a place and responsibilities outside your impulses. A commitment to others, or to an abstract notion of what society is. Intrinsic motivation - drawing upon your view of how the world should be and how people should act in it rather than what you can get away with, what's easiest, what serves you best, what you feel like doing at the moment, etc.

This line of thinking for me always comes back to the concept of the self in Eastern philosophy. The self as a sort of conscious layer of editing that acts upon a much larger system of physical impulses, instincts, reflexes and so on. Much of the Eastern philosophy and Western mystical traditions I studied were an attempt to eliminate the thinking self and bring out an almost animal simplicity. There are stories of great sages who are sought out for advice and then can't give any because they've forgotten how to speak, or don't understand the question. In Taoism, the butcher who never has to sharpen his knife is a greater source of wisdom than the sage Confucius - because he knows the meat so well as to move the blade through it without ever hitting a bone that would cause it to dull. I took away from it a sense of understanding a situation, and seeing yourself as a part of that situation - seeing other people as part of a situation.

Our decisions are so rarely self-motivated, and yet we struggle so much in vain to be the masters of our destiny. We take actions against us by others so personally. In every story, every situation, there has to be right and wrong, the couragious hero, the simple, dramatic solution, and the clear Other at fault. Is it so awful to admit there are forces beyond our control? That events are part of larger contexts and processes? That we act a certain way because our parents did before us and we grew up in a certain social class and had such experiences and find ourselves in this situation with certain threats, rewards, expectations? What is the self, anyway, beyond a lump of putty determined by experience and external influences?

There is a sense of looking at a situation, and seeing what needs to happen in it. - what will happen - and accepting that. I imagine this is what good poker players are able to do. You're not betting on your cards, but on the other player's stack of chips. This requires great attention, focus, continuity with the world around you. You see so many people waste time, energy doubting themselves, getting angry at others, being afraid to try or do something. We get so caught up in ourselves, when we don't really matter that much. We're one factor in a much larger equation. We're not so unique or mysterious or sacred. It seems to me that's what is usually most successful is a clear, objective analysis of the forces at play in a situation, including the emotions and abstract influences, and then simply to act appropriately. It seems that we get in our own way more than anything or anyone else.

People who are able to get outside themselves and focus the whole of their being on the task at hand. It seems so obvious. I don't understand how it could be satisfying to live any other way than to bring that level of attention to everything you do.

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