“Tell me to what you pay attention to, and I will tell you who you are.” — José Ortega y Gassett, Spanish philosopher
Your attention is one of the most valuable things you possess, which is why everyone wants to steal it from you. First, you must protect it, and then you must point it in the right direction. As they say in the movies, “Careful where you point that thing!” What you choose to pay attention to is the stuff your life and work will be made of. “My experience is what I agree to attend to,” psychologist William James wrote in 1890. “Only those items which I notice shape my mind.”
We pay attention to the things we care about, but sometimes what we really care about is hidden from us. I keep a daily diary for many reasons, but the main one is that it helps me pay attention to my life. By sitting down every morning and writing about my life, I pay attention to it, and over time, I have a record of what I’ve paid attention to. Many diarists don’t bother rereading their diaries, but I’ve found that rereading doubles the power of a diary because I’m then able to discover my patterns, identify what I care about, and know myself better.
“For anyone trying to discern what to do with their life: Pay attention to what you pay attention to. That’s pretty much all the info you need.” — Amy Krouse Rosenthal, American author
If art begins with where we point our attention, a life is made out of paying attention to what we pay attention to. Set up a regular time to pay attention to what you’ve paid attention to. Reread your diary. Flip back through your sketchbook. (The cartoonist Kate Beaton once said if she wrote a book about drawing, she’d call it Pay Attention to Your Drawings.) Scroll through your camera roll. Re-watch footage you’ve filmed. Listen to music you’ve recorded. (The musician Arthur Russell used to take long walks around Manhattan, listening to his tapes on his Walkman.) When you have a system for going back through your work, you can better see the bigger picture of what you’ve been up to and what you should do next.
If you want to change your life, change what you pay attention to. “We give things meaning by paying attention to them,” author and editor Jessa Crispin writes, “and so moving your attention from one thing to another can change your future.”
“Attention is the most basic form of love,” says author John Tarrant. When you pay attention to your life, it not only provides you with the material for your art, it also helps you fall in love with your life.