I have a policy about being aware.
This doesn’t mean being expert, or even having an above-average education about any particular thing.
But I find it takes incredibly little effort to achieve a base-level understanding of something, and that such understandings, in aggregate, can vastly expand the scope of one’s worldview.
This is a contrast to how I once saw things.
I had decided at some point that, because my attention is finite, and because there’s only so much time in the day, I would keep away from things I considered to be unimportant; pop culture and crafts seemingly unrelated to mine and fields of study that didn’t seem relevant to anything. I wasn’t disdainful of them, but I was willfully ignorant about them. I had decided what was important and what was unimportant, and redoubled my efforts, my focus, my energy on the former, while completely blotting out the latter.
The flaw with this perspective is that you can’t really know what’s important until you do a some digging and learn a little more than you’ll come to know by happenstance.
Further, it’s unlikely you’ll comprehend the importance of a single nail until you see how it holds together two other, seemingly unrelated pieces of structural material. To decide that component is unimportant before you’ve seen it in action, and until you’ve seen it alongside, and working in cohesion with other seemingly unimportant things, is to sell that thing short.
I’m boggled by the utility and joy I find in things I once considered non-vital and therefore ignorable. I think it’s absolutely possible to live a good life and get a lot done by fixating completely on one thing, but I suspect that doing so renders one unlikely to become a completely round, fully fleshed out human being. I don’t mean that as a value-judgement, I mean it in the sense that one is less capable of being multi-dimensional when one’s focus is on a single-dimension of life.
If you spend your entire life seeing only red, you’ll become a master at discerning between the many tonalities and tints, the variety found within that limited range. But you’ll also be completely blind to a great deal of what happens in the non-red world around you.
Can you find joy in a world made of only red things? Certainly. Are you more likely to find things to be joyful about and fulfilled by if you’re working with a more diverse spectrum of colors? I think that’s likely.
This is an interesting topic to consider at this moment, when there are so many forces squabbling over our attention; particularly here in the US, where the election coverage has come to resemble that of a horse race.
What storylines, then, should one follow, when there are so many to choose from? And particularly when so many of them prove not to be terribly important beyond keeping up with the gossip of the day? Gossip which is highly discardable, and which will be replaced by a new collection tomorrow?
This is actually a wonderful example of how knowing a bit about a particular field can keep one from having to worry overmuch about the swirling, churning day-to-day happenings within that field.
The more you know about politics, and the media, the less you actually have to pay attention to each and every specific.
This may not be evident at first, because many politically adept people are being pulled into the cloud of activity surrounding this election.
But grazing on the subject allows you the freedom of not having to stuff yourself full on junk news all day, unsure of what you should be consuming and what you can safely leave on the plate.
An awareness of what’s real and what hokum, what’s clearly a message drummed-up by click-addicted networks and what’s actually relevant to one’s own political stakes and overall mental map of the election, allows one to ride the wave of such a craze without drowning in it.
A policy of awareness, I find, allows me to use my time and spend my attention much more intentionally, because I know enough about enough to spend those finite resources of mine in a way that will help me stay intellectually involved without being consumed.
This requires constant adjustment, of course, because you don’t know how much is the right amount to learn about a subject before either deciding to throw yourself at it and become more thoroughly educated, or to set it aside, aware of the outlines so you can slowly fill in the details in over time.
But it’s worth the effort.
Deciding to be aware is deciding to take responsibility for what you know and what you don’t know.
It’s recognizing that, when you encounter unfamiliar terrain, it’s within your power to map it out and become informed, adding that new map to your ever-expanding atlas of knowledge.
This essay was originally published in my newsletter.