Are you suf­fer­ing from focus-not-us? Hocus-pocus hap­pens when words are used in a mean­ing­less way, usu­al­ly as part of a trick. “Focus-not-us” is my own phrase for a phe­nom­e­non I have observed in the read­ing and think­ing habits of many stu­dents, asso­ciates and clients (and myself!). A recent arti­cle by Michael S. Rosen­wald in The Wash­ing­ton Post has giv­en me pause. I think we have a big prob­lem — think­ing!

Let’s nail the prob­lem upfront with a con­fes­sion­al. I have a shelf full of books of which I have read with enthu­si­asm the first (and some­times the sec­ond) chap­ter. Then I stopped and nev­er went back. This was not because the books were not well-writ­ten or the authors’ ideas unwor­thy. In my mind, up till now, I sim­ply thought that there just was­n’t enough time to read these books all the way through. Then, too, I’m always find­ing more books to read, which I add the book­shelf, read a bit and then move on. I’ve spo­ken with many oth­ers who con­fess to the same behav­iour.

Abstract chess boardRosen­wald’s news arti­cle caused me to pon­der whether this behav­iour is much more wide­spread.

In the arti­cle, “Seri­ous read­ing takes a hit from online scan­ning and skim­ming, researchers say” [link], Rosen­wald tells of a gen­er­a­tion of oth­er­wise intel­li­gent peo­ple who, because of tech­nol­o­gy, have now lost their abil­i­ty to read deeply and think hard. After speak­ing to sev­er­al researchers, Rosen­wald notes, “Humans, they warn, seem to be devel­op­ing dig­i­tal brains with new cir­cuits for skim­ming through the tor­rent of infor­ma­tion online. This alter­na­tive way of read­ing is com­pet­ing with tra­di­tion­al deep read­ing cir­cuit­ry devel­oped over sev­er­al mil­len­nia.”

Put sim­ply, it’s one thing for me or you to read a chap­ter of a book quick­ly and then move on because we want to. It’s anoth­er thing if we have become con­di­tioned to read­ing so many short-stroke words and thoughts online that we can’t read and com­pre­hend com­plex and extend­ed writ­ing. Rosen­wald real­ly nails the prob­lem with this para­graph:

With so much infor­ma­tion, hyper­linked text, videos along­side words and inter­ac­tiv­i­ty every­where, our brains form short­cuts to deal with it all — scan­ning, search­ing for key words, scrolling up and down quick­ly. This is non­lin­ear read­ing, and it has been doc­u­ment­ed in aca­d­e­m­ic stud­ies. Some researchers believe that for many peo­ple, this style of read­ing is begin­ning to invade when deal­ing with oth­er medi­ums as well.

He then quotes Andrew Dil­lon, a US pro­fes­sor and expert on read­ing: “We’re spend­ing so much time touch­ing, push­ing, link­ing, scroll­ing and jump­ing through text that when we sit down with a nov­el, your dai­ly habits of jump­ing, click­ing, link­ing [are] just ingrained in you.”

Is this new or could this be the age-old debate, recast, about the trade­off between being “an inch deep and a mile wide” (usu­al­ly said with a pejo­ra­tive tone) ver­sus being the sub­ject-mat­ter expert who may know his sub­ject a mile deep but can’t see any­thing beyond that nar­row scope (also usu­al­ly said with a pejo­ra­tive tone)?

One answer to this might be the think­ing of Howard Gard­ner, who has talked and writ­ten exten­sive­ly about the “five minds” that all of us will need to sur­vive the next cen­tu­ry. An exten­sive sum­ma­ry of his think­ing can be found on the tomor­row­to­day blog [link]. It could be that we need to con­scious­ly exer­cise and grow our mul­ti­ple minds.

My sense is that we’re fac­ing a new prob­lem here. And it’s a prob­lem that I have tried to address via our nextsens­ing process. This flood of short-cycle think­ing via Inter­net bits and bytes is real­ly focus-not-us. It’s tak­ing in such a vol­ume of infor­ma­tion that a pat­tern nev­er takes hold and, thus, very lit­tle sense can be made of it all. I’ve called this dis­rup­tive ambi­gu­i­ty; and when I chal­lenge peo­ple to use our Oppor­tu­ni­ty Can­vas to get their ran­dom thoughts down to one page, it’s amaz­ing how refreshed and stim­u­lat­ed they feel.

Rosen­wald talks about a bud­ding “slow read­ing” move­ment that advo­cates read­ing slow­ly, on pur­pose, much as the “slow food” move­ment advo­cates tast­ing every bite. One can’t crit­i­cise any pro­gramme that address­es focus-not-us behav­iour. Go for it.

And, to be sure, there are prob­a­bly many ways to address this prob­lem, nextsens­ing among them. What’s clear to me is that tech­nol­o­gy is real­ly not the prob­lem; we are. And there are lots of things that we, indi­vid­u­al­ly and organ­i­sa­tion­al­ly, can do to counter a world that can be chaot­ic but per­haps seems so more often sim­ply because we no longer think deeply about what’s hap­pen­ing.

Maybe a read­ing group inside your depart­ment, with time giv­en to dis­cuss what’s being read, is an answer. Maybe bring­ing in a chal­leng­ing speak­er over an extend­ed lunch hour to dis­cuss one idea, in depth, is an answer. Maybe a spe­cial day once-a-month to “bring an idea to work” would allow a dif­fer­ent work asso­ciate each month to think deeply about how to improve a work process and present it — per­haps that’s an answer.

I remain pro­found­ly opti­mistic of what human beings are capa­ble of. Isn’t it time for our wor­places to be a lot more sup­port­ive in help­ing us think our way — for­ward?

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