I deal in information, and entertainment—well, sometimes, this stuff may be neither. Nonetheless, both can and do go together very nicely. After all, if I cannot capture the attention of students, I often cannot get their attention, which is what they are in school to practice—even if they think they’re only there to increase future earnings.
However, the very idea that someone else’s attention is entirely up to me is ridiculous. Sometimes we are responsible for the state of our own attention. How about a miner’s analogy? Miners often put in enormous effort just to find a nugget of a valuable mineral. And that’s what can be so worth the effort. Learning is often the same way, one digs and sifts, and thrashes, and then they may actually come up with a valuable nugget of information for their efforts—a worthwhile nugget with a lifelong contribution. Big effort, bigger return. That’s the economy of it. But the question seems to be just how do we know, on the front side of effort, that we’re actually engaged in an economical advantage? Well, we often don’t, but is that supposed to stop us? Besides, sometimes learning requires a decidedly non-economical output of energy and attention. Let’s mix metaphors: Run after the fastest and healthiest deer and the mountain lion is likely to be faced with an enormous calorie output and zero return for their efforts. Except, when lying there exhausted and hungry, a kind of learning abacus can kick in and the lion will discerned the math of output versus input. In other words, outputs don’t always equal immediate inputs. It’s called delay of gratification, not denial of gratification.
Here’s the rub: Delay means setting things on hold, denial means the outcome has been decided. Psychologically and physiologically (they interact you know), if we rush to fill the space—as in “I’m sitting here and nothing has gotten my attention yet”—we risk capturing our own attention and directing it towards denial rather than delay. If we delay such cognitive and emotional stampeding towards the lack, we can keep the opportunity for learning open. That strategy can be a very economical long-run activity.
This is not to say that persistence is everything. Sometimes we need to stop and move on. Sometimes “it” just gets away from us. The gift is that there are not too many singular and defining “its” in our lives, if we miss one, there’s likely another one out there someplace. Still, the art and science of learning is in considering the relationship between opportunity and outcome as sacred rather than just related grains of sand on the beach. To get the special relationship between entertainment, learning, and opportunity, we might learn that the mix of these elements is not based solely on our attention being captured, but on us knowing how to manage our attention in the first place. And somewhere in there is learning that attention to something is not the same as attention to no-thing. Staying empty and poised, ready for the opportunity to learn, is at least as important as learning when and which way to leap. And when it comes to anyone or anything (from books to television to “teachers”) plying information mixed with entertainment, it is not just about the opportunity to buy into the presentation or not, sometimes it is about the opportunity to actively leave some things on the shelf, where it can shrivel from its own uneconomical existence. But that activity requires that we not be so passive about being entertained, much less about the way we are entertained. We are lazy beyond belief when we continually go for cheap entertainment packaged with even cheaper information. When we step up our level of attention and consideration, we’ll step up to the world almost all of us bemoan that we don’t have, that we can never have as long as we sit and wait for others to define who we are. And for those who argue that we are only getting what we buy in the first place, a starving attention will buy just about anything, so why don’t you step up the quality of what you are selling? If we can put the two together—elevating what we buy and what we sell—well, can you imagine living in that world?