3 metaphors about (paying) attention 👀

Metaphor Map #13

Hey friend 👋

Welcome to Metaphor Map! Every week, I find and share three metaphors that you can remix to improve how you communicate your ideas.

Today, we’re highlighting metaphors that liven up a sometimes tired subject: attention. 

As always, if something struck a chord with you (good or bad!) let me know in the comments below or by replying to this email.

The way we talk about attention is cheap. 

Well, sometimes it’s expensive.

What persists is the metaphor: attention is currency, paying attention is an investment, and being attentive must reap returns. 

Mads Holmen, Founder and CEO of Bibblio has written that we’ve reached “peak attention,” what he calls “the moment when there’s so much competition for your attention that it reaches a saturation point. When there is no more time to spare."

Not only have we reached peak attention, we’ve reached peak discussion-about-attention. This isn’t because we’ve written everything there is to write about attention (that certainly isn’t true).

But we’ve run out of ways to write about attention effectively. We’ve saturated the attention discourse with cliches and worn out coins.

In this issue, I’m highlighting three writers who think about attention in different terms: a baseball pitcher turned memoirist, a physicist, and a trio of IT experts. 

1. Antenna

“Before my control problem, I had the ability to just concentrate on the immediate task at hand, which is a wonderful thing for an athlete. I could block out family, world hunger, or anything that was going on, because of that focus. That focus all went away, and everything was occurring in my mind. I was like an antenna.”

- Steve Blass, A Pirate for Life

Steve Blass, former pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, writes here about what it felt like to pitch. 

First, he is literal. He describes his attention in terms of concentration and focus, a beam that spotlights the pitch. This kind of attention pushed aside local issues, like his family, and global issues, like world hunger. 

Second, he turns to simile. A literal description is too abstract. Ironically, the reader’s attention drifts. How focused is he, really? What does it really mean for the mind to attend that closely?

That’s when he uses simile: he is like an antenna. This paragraph is all compound sentences and stacks of descriptions. That last sentence interrupts the flow--both because it’s short and punctual, and because it’s a comparison instead of a descriptor. 

He arrests your reading eye and focuses your attention on this simile. Suddenly, you too are like an antenna, sensitive to what you just read, absorbing the information and the meaning and the mood. 

This is when similes and metaphors get really effective--when you, as a reader, feel the comparison the writer is drawing. 

Let’s riff on this a little. 

🎸 Her attention came to a fine point, like the end of the sharp pencil she held, hovering over the text. Editing required her to push away everything else she might think about so she could think of one thing: the words in front of her. She was like an antenna. 

🎸 I always prefer a recorder. Some reporters scratch out notes as their interviewees speak, but I can’t split my attention like that. Instead, I flip on my recorder. It captures the exact words, the quotes, the references, the details. I have a different role. I turn my head slightly to the side, my eyes close, my ear angles to the words coming toward them. I’m an antenna.

Stop your readers. Focus their attention on what you want them to focus on. Metaphors and similes are the best way to create a pause and capture that pause. 

2. Glasses

“Somebody who reads only newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses. He is completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of his times, since he never gets to see or hear anything else. And what a person thinks on his own without being stimulated by the thoughts and experiences of other people is even in the best case rather paltry and monotonous.”

- Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions

Albert Einstein, famous, of course, for his contributions to physics, was also a deep thinker about matters outside of science. 

In this excerpt, he critiques people who read only from writers of their current time. According to Einstein (wow, that’s an authoritative-sounding clause), readers who only read from contemporary writers are limited to the perspectives of their era. Their knowledge depends on the ebb of the social tide, the forces that shape the readers they read. 

Einstein has the problem here of making this claim feel real. At first glance, it’s easy to doubt. Isn’t there a vast diversity of perspectives available at any given time?

Einstein defeats this objection by framing his argument in a metaphor. 

People who read only contemporary writers are two things: near-sighted and scornful. This metaphor is effective because he frames his argument physically and emotionally. 

He compares these readers to people with a visual impairment but vaults them out of innocence by projecting a scornfulness. The solution (reading books beyond your time) is readily available but the target of his ire doesn’t use what’s in front of them.

Let’s see what we can get by riffing.

🎸 Somebody who only consults with people who resemble him looks to me like someone who’s stubbornly unaware they wear glasses. What they see right in front of them stands stark and clear, but everything to the periphery is a blur. If only they acknowledged their glasses and took them off once in a while and saw that their frames gave them only one perspective.

🎸 Someone who only works with people in their field looks to me like someone who is far sighted but too ignorant to wear glasses. They have a vision of where they’re going and all the people who will take them there but all around them is a blur. Every alternative path is unclear and invisible. 

Remember that when you’re making a metaphor, you’re setting the scene and directing the play. Einstein could have just said the people he criticized were nearsighted, but by extending that description into the emotional, he made his argument even more compelling. 

3. Dark matter

“Maybe what I’m looking for is like dark matter. You can only see it by what it displaces or how it interacts with other matter that we can see.”

- Gene Kim, George Spafford, and Kevin Behr, The Phoenix Project 

Gene Kim, George Spafford, and Kevin Behr wrote the book, quite literally, on DevOps. In this book, they apply lessons from auto manufacturing plants to software development. 

The lessons learned from this transplantation come out in the form of a didactic novel, where principles sprout, bud, and flower. Characters struggle against workflows gone wrong and learn to right them with ideas that proved revolutionary in the real world.

In this excerpt, the main character is looking for a cause of chaos in his company’s workflow. Their star employee has put in all the extra hours but they’re further behind than ever. The character is staring at the problem but not seeing it.

This is a classic problem of attention and perception, one that makes this metaphor endlessly useful.

In this case, unplanned work was the dark matter that displaced planned work. It was only visible by studying what it did and what it affected. 

Let’s riff on how else we could use this metaphor.

🎸 Another meeting opened to tense silence. I realized what I was looking for was like dark matter. The mood of one person shaped the atmosphere of the room but I never would have detected it by looking in his face. I had to see everyone else react.

🎸 It was a systemic problem. I could only see it when I realized what I was looking for was like dark matter. Communication delays between our vendors accumulated across each delay, resulting in a seemingly unexplainably slow process. I never would have guessed those tiny delays would be the cause but the effect they had revealed their power.

Watch for this dynamic. Causes often appear invisible but with metaphor, we can make them visible.

With metaphors, we can refresh even the most worn out topics. Don’t let bad writing, cliches, and dull phrases steer you away from the topics that are important to you and your audience. Look to other writers and find ways to talk about the topic anew.

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