What it really means to resist the attention economy, focus on depth, find your center and embrace the joy of missing out
We live in a world that is constantly trying to sell us what we want – or better yet, what we don’t even know we want. When I was still in college and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, one field that I was interested in was advertising. One of my aunts headed the creative department at a leading advertising agency, and in the course of various conversations with her, she asked me this: “how will you sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo?”
This is a question that has stuck with me through the years – and one that I reflect on from time to time. It isn’t so much about literally selling a fridge to an Eskimo, but about convincing someone who has no real need for something to buy said thing. That’s what good advertising and marketing is built on.
Understanding what drives the fear of missing out
Most often, advertising pushes our emotional buttons – Coca-Cola, for example, links its brand to optimism and joy, Cadbury’s links its chocolates to love. Apple has historically linked its products to creativity and innovation, to being different from the crowd – any surprise that it has somewhat of a cult following?
Marketing is less about what you’re selling, and more about showing or telling your target customers what they want. Or like business guru Marie Forleo says:
“Customers rarely buy what you think you’re selling, so you’ve got to get clear on what they really want. For example, if I buy a garlic press, I’m not buying a kitchen tool. I’m buying future memories of cooking the perfect pasta dish for my friends. The key to getting customers to open their wallets is getting them to open their hearts, imagination, and emotion.”
Is it any surprise, then, that when you venture into the online space, you’re met with entrepreneurs using similar strategies to sell their products? If you read any advice by marketing experts – including Forleo – they will tell you to link your coaching services or other offerings to the “pain points” of your “ideal clients”. You’ve got to use the language they are using to to describe their frustrations and aspirations. That’s the only way to make the sale – or so they say. And that is precisely what I find icky about online marketing.
But this is not a commentary on marketing tactics. This is just me setting the stage to help you understand why the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) has become such a big THING. In addition to the marketing messages being bombarded on your screen everyday – businesses pushing all your buttons to try and convince you that you want what they’re selling – is the behavioral design of social media, which is meant to be addictive – and has greatly contributed to FOMO.
As former Facebook employee Sandy Parakilas says:
“You have a business model designed to engage you and get you to basically suck as much time out of your life as possible and then selling that attention to advertisers.” – via BBC
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Why embrace the joy of missing out?
It wouldn’t be a stretch, then, to say that we are living in an attention economy – i.e., a profit-driven technology landscape that seeks to co-opt our attention. In How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, author Jenny Odell says:
“What if we spent less time shouting into the void and being washed over with shouting in return – and more time talking in rooms to those for whom our words are intended? If we have only so much attention to give, and only so much time on this earth, we might want to think about reinfusing our attention and our communication with the intention that both deserve.”
Marrying Odell’s idea of reclaiming our attention from the profit-driven technology landscape with Cal Newport’s idea of Deep Work, has given me a better framework of how to avoid FOMO and move into JOMO – the joy of missing out. This is something I’ve been working towards since 2017, starting with a no-buy year that eventually became a depth year in 2019 and again in 2020.
On the surface, Odell and Newport appear to have a slightly different perspective on productivity. Odell laments that we don’t see maintenance and care as productive in the same way that we see producing new work as productive, while Newport claims that productivity is the only way to thrive.
Based on some of what I took from away from both these books, both Odell and Newport are approaching similar things from slightly different lenses. Odell’s model is focused on reclaiming our attention from big tech and social media, bringing it back to ourselves, the spaces and landscapes that we occupy, and the people we are surrounded with. Newport’s thoughts on deep work are drawn from his experiences as an academic, where producing new work and presenting new academic papers is the fastest way to move up the tenure track.
The similarity in both their approaches is on focusing on what matters to you, instead of allowing your attention to be co-opted by the distractions and messages that can so easily suck all of your time. And that, I believe, is where the joy of missing out comes in.
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Eschewing productivity for productivity’s sake
When asked to describe what she means by the attention economy, Odell says:
“It’s this perspective in which time is money, and you should have something to show for your time – either getting work done, or self-improvement, which I would still count as work. Anything that detracts from that is too expensive, from the time-is-money perspective. And it ties into this idea that everything is a machine, and it just needs to be fixed, or made more efficient.”
For someone like me, who is anxious about not doing enough, while feeling like I’ve overcommitted and overextended myself, I see this as a call to refuse productivity for productivity’s sake. A reminder to enjoy my morning coffee while listening to birdsong; to go for a walk just to look up at the ever changing landcapes in the sky; to spend an evening reading and not feel guilty for the other “more productive” things I could have done instead, to create for the joy of it, instead of trying to measure its worth or wondering if it’s useful in any way.
The invitation Odell offers is not necessarily to disconnect from social media, which she claims leads to the “colonization of the self by capitalist ideas of productivity and efficiency”, but to become aware of how our identities have become entangled with our definition of what we do, which is often determined by corporate values — like the idea that “we should all be entrepreneurs, which gained ascendancy after the defeat of the labour movements of the 1980s.”
Indeed, those who subscribe either by necessity or desire to the hustle economy may well ask ‘why shouldn’t we all be entrepreneurs?’ What Odell asks us to do is to question our unwitting acceptance of the overculture – and when we do, the absurdity of that acceptance becomes abundantly clear.
“[The] externalities of attention economy distractions keep us from doing the things we want to do […] long term, they keep us from living the lives we want to live. It’s not about disconnecting, but rather taking greater care in how we connect and what we use that connection to do, what we communicate and how.” – Jenny Odell
When you actively listen, change perspective, and question the norm, that’s when you can find out what it is that you want – not what the world is trying to convince you that you want.
And when you find that, and marry that with Cal Newport’s idea of Deep Work, that’s where the gold lies.
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Deep work: focusing on depth
“Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.” – Cal Newport, Deep Work
When you can tune out the noise of the overculture, the distraction of social media and the weight of other people’s opinions, that’s when you can listen to yourself – to what you really want, what brings you meaning and purpose and joy. But when you are constantly distracted, when you simply follow the herd, it can prevent you “from living the lives we want to live, or, even worse, undermine our capacities for reflection and self-regulation, making it harder, in the words of Harry Frankfurt, to “want what we want to want.”
In many ways, my experiments with undertaking depth years has helped me to tune out the distractions and the constant demands on my attention. In turning ever inwards to find and refine what brings me a sense of purpose, meaning, sacredness, and contentment, I could slowly begin to peel away the layers of wants and ideas that have been implanted by the attention economy, by the overculture, and even by societal and familial upbringing.
Finding your center
But added on to all of these layers is the overculture, which plays into our very psyche, making us believe things about ourselves that are inherently untrue: that we are not intrinsically worthy, or enough, that we need to do more, be more, to look or act a certain way to be accepted, to be “one of us”. And when we are caught on that hamster wheel of comparison, focusing on depth becomes ever more difficult.
Perhaps we can draw some comfort from the fact that this isn’t a new phenomenon. Human beings have been struggling with some of these untruths since millennia. As the great Roman emperor and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius observed:
“It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.” – Marcus Aurelius
Although this is a problem that has been echoing down the centuries, it appears to have grown to epic proportions in this, the 21st century. Social media, reality TV, unachievable beauty standards, and the rise of influencers have all combined into a toxic cocktail that can spin us right out of our own lives and into a game of constant comparison, self-flagellation, and an unhealthy and incorrect assumptions of what it means to be worthy, successful, beautiful, enough.
With big tech platforms designed to stoke our basest emotions, is it any wonder that we give more weight to the opinions of others? That we drown out the truth of our own wants and desires? In the constant game of comparison, we lose sight of the everyday beauty around and – perhaps more importantly – within us.
In this always-on, plugged-in society, it then becomes very easy to get pulled right out of our own experiences and get caught up in the tsunami of information that comes at us from all angles.
Embracing the joy of missing out: working with what’s working
“No person has the power to have everything they want, but it is in their power not to want what they don’t have, and to cheerfully put to good use what they do have.” – Seneca
Read that again. Slowly. It is in your power to not want what you do not have and to put to good use what you do have.
When you can tune out the noise and drop in to what is present before your eyes, you can live the life you want to live. When you can see what resources and tools you have, when you can focus on them, allow them to be enough, you can open up a space for deep listening and self-reflection, which is key to embracing and fully living your wild and precious life.
Instead of constantly reaching for the new shiny, believing the claims that it will solve all your problems, even if that isn’t really your problem, even if you’ve just been caught in the spell of the overculture, what if you drop in to what is present, examine it, enjoy it, learn it, master it, and allow your growth to be a natural evolution that stems from your curiosity?
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A compelling case for embracing the joy of missing out and pursuing depth
“What we choose to focus on and what we choose to ignore—plays in defining the quality of our life.” ― Cal Newport
What if you went deep instead of going wide? What if you focused on reading the books on your bookshelf, using what you already have, finishing the courses you’ve already purchased? What if you focused on following your curiosity deeper instead of constantly running after the new shiny? What if you focused on yourself – on identifying your own wants and desires, on remembering your enoughness and your wholeness? What would that refusal to get sucked in to the drama and into the false constructs built by social media look like? What would a life of listening, focus, presence, and personal meaning feel like?
Slowly pulling your attention back from the attention economy can help you to listen in to yourself. When you become more intentional with your sharing and your consumption, it becomes easier to set down the weight that isn’t yours. When you consciously and deliberately tune out the voices that push your buttons in all the wrong ways, that pull at you in unhealthy ways, you start to find the space to gently expand into your being.
When you allow yourself to go deep with what you have at your disposal, new creative ideas start to flourish. When you allow yourself to drop the “shoulds”, you can expand into what is possible. When you allow yourself to follow your delight, you open to a life of wonder and magic. When you step into the joy of missing out, you step into your own personal truth.
And isn’t that where life is truly lived?