May 9, 2019
Interviews: A Q&A with Rob Walker, Author of The Art of Noticing
We have been fans of Rob Walker's work for over a decade now, ever since the publication of Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are and the manifesto he wrote for ChangeThis on The Invisible Badge: Moving Past Conspicuous Consumption—one of my personal favorites.
His latest book, The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy in the Everyday, hit bookstore shelves yesterday, and we reached out to his publisher, Knopf, to see if they had anything we could share with our audience to help spread the word. They responded with a lengthy interview they conducted with him about the book—how he came to it, what is in it, and what he hopes readers get from it. So, without further ado or filter, here it is. We hope it helps you take notice of the world around you (perhaps especially to take notice of, and head into, your local bookstore) as you make your way through it today.
A Q&A with Rob Walker
Knopf Publishing Group: How did The Art of Noticing come about? Did anything particular inspire you to write this?
Rob Walker: I don’t need to convince you that we all feel distracted and overwhelmed these days, like everyone else is trying to steal our attention. I felt that, too, and was frustrated that the response was always about what NOT to do—“just stop looking at your phone!” That’s why I suggest in the book to imagine spending even just an hour a week taking positive action to control your attention. That’s what the book’s 131 exercises are designed for.
Some are super, super easy—like spending time looking out a window, or identify what’s the oldest thing you can see and the newest thing you can see. Some are more challenging, like going on a photo walk—but without a camera. Or pick five SOUNDS that define your neighborhood. Some are really adventurous, like learning to hunt for experiences that might seem outside the five senses, like how it feels to be ALMOST touched. The point is that you don’t have to become a monk. This is stuff you can DO, that will provoke you to make a habit of experiencing the world in a more attentive way and build up your attention muscles.
KPG: What kind of research did you do for this book? You spoke to a lot of people for this. What were you looking for in the experts you queried?
RW: I’m a curious person, so as I was collecting my own ideas I got curious about what other curious people do to stay engaged.
That included people like Seth Godin, an expert on business and entrepreneurialism, and he talked about finding things to complain about—because that’s where innovation comes from, being the one who spots something that could be made better.
Or Dan Ariely, the behavioral economics and psychology expert, who talked about training yourself to spot the forces that guide social behavior, for instance.
Or Paola Antonelli, the brilliant senior design curator at MoMA, who had this fun idea about interviewing an object—what object would you interview, what would you ask and why?—the kind of prompt that really makes you think.
KPG: You write that the aim of your class at the School of Visual Arts is to “provoke [students] into thinking about what they notice, what they miss, [and] why it matters.” Why is this so important not just for designers, but for pretty much everyone?
RW: My class at SVA is called Point of View, and it’s designed to help students figure out what is most important to them and their work, and how to talk about it. One of the crucial steps in that process is to encourage them to NOTICE WHAT THEY NOTICE and PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT THEY PAY ATTENTION TO.
Creativity starts with attention, always. And what matters in almost any field—whether you’re a scientist, a coach, an entrepreneur, a manager, or a journalist like me—is noticing what other people overlooked. That’s the first step to crafting an original point of view on the world, and breaking from the pack, which is the ultimate competitive edge.
KPG: You write that we are living in a sort of “21st century attention panic.” What do you mean by that?
RW: The number one trending topic of the moment is that we’re all paying too much attention to trending topics! We can’t stop talking about what everyone else is talking about. And that comes at the expense of what really matters to us as individuals.
That’s the cycle the book is designed to break. Take, for example, an exercise that’s just called “Look Like A Child.” You could be in the most boring or irritating situation, but if you think about how a child—who is still experiencing things for the first time—would see it, and what they would make of it, you can channel the wonder and curiosity of a child. You had it before, you can have it again.
KPG: You say that what we do with our attention is what makes us human. How so?
RW: All animals, including homo sapiens, survive in part by responding to their environment—to perceived rewards or perceived threats. That’s how evolution works, we’re hardwired to operate that way. We react.
BUT humans are unique in our ability to override this instinctual behavior. We can control our attention and decide where to direct it, we can recognize distraction and tune it out, we can innovate, we can create, and we can see the man behind the curtain—if we try!
If you spend all your time just reacting to others, then you’re basically just a reflection of other people’s whims and desires and demands. But you have the ability to get past that. What I’m trying to do is inspire people is to embrace that ability.
KPG: How does noticing and observing unlock or spark creativity?
RW: We all get in ruts sometimes, when everything feels familiar, like there’s just nothing new. But of course that’s never really true, and a lot of the 131 prompts in the book—like challenging yourself to notice one new thing on your commute every day, or looking around for the weirdest thing in the room when you’re in someone else’s home or office, and making a point to ask about it, those are specifically trying to get you out of that rut.
Sometimes simple exercises can teach important lessons. I borrow educator Jennifer L. Roberts’ assignment. She has art history students look at a single work for three hours. Which sounds crazy! But they end up saying it teaches them how we put too much trust in a first quick glance, and how there’s always a lot that we’re missing, and that sometimes it takes time, and real attention, to see it.
How has writing The Art of Noticing and teaching others about it helped you?
RW: On a day to day level, I’m a journalist, so when I do my own exercises—like the one-object scavenger hunt, where I pick some specific thing to look for everywhere I go, such neighborhood watch signs or whatever I choose—that can lead to an article!
On a bigger and broader level, it just deepens my sense that the world is worth engaging with. I’m not addicted to my phone at all, and I’m almost never really bored. But most of all it’s incredibly gratifying, with students, to watch them gain confidence in their own point of view by noticing what they notice, and really pursue that, and let it guide the work they truly want to do.
KPG: There are 131 exercises in this book. Which are your personal favorites? Are there any that you practice regularly, or are go-tos at particular moments or times of stress?
RW: I most frequently use the ones that somehow convert everyday life into a game. So, for instance, if I have to go to Walmart or something, there’s a prompt I always use, borrowed from the game designer Ian Bogost, to treat a routine retail trip like I’m an anthropologist. I make it a point to keep an eye out for thing like: What’s the most totally absurd thing for sale here? And how would I explain it to an alien?
But another one I use a lot is totally different: sitting in silence for four minutes and 33 seconds. That time limit is a reference to the composer John Cage and his most famous piece, but what it boils down to is just listening for a set amount of time. I do this in my home office a lot, and I’ve become so tuned in to the neighborhood sounds. It’s mind expanding, and I think it’s improved my awareness of sound in general. It’s also incredibly calming; it becomes a moment of focus.
KPG: Which exercises best lend themselves to a professional environment, for a group of colleagues, say?
RW: Sometimes noticing isn’t just about attending to the material world, it’s about attending to others, and there’s one very fun exercise that I borrowed from a writer named Amy Krouse Rosenthal. It’s her suggestion for making a group biography. The idea is that everyone discusses what they ALL have in common. Are we all from the United States? Do we all like pizza? Did we all see Black Panther? Do we all prefer the Rolling Stones over the Beatles? And so on. Eventually you agree on a set number of things and that’s your group biography. But obviously the fun, and team building payoff, is in all the questions you have to ask each other to get there.
KPG: If you were going to a new city or destination, which exercises would you recommend trying as a way to better explore a new place?
RW: One would be Get There The Hard way. At least once during your trip, go to some destination without taking directions from your phone. Plan out a route in advance—you can consult a paper map if you want, or written directions, just don’t rely on your phone—and if you get confused, ask someone for help. Be engaged with the space you’re in and the people you’re around, find your way, and be open to discovery as you go.
The other is Eat Somewhere Dubious. Have one meal at a restaurant that you didn’t find on Yelp or through any sort of recommendation and that doesn’t even look trendy or hip. First you’ll have fun keeping an eye out for it: “Is THAT our dubious restaurant?” Second, even if you have a mediocre meal, you’ll have an unpredictable experience! And this, by the way, is how the best food writers make discoveries and find the places that later get hot on Yelp. So maybe you’ll get lucky.
KPG: How can parents help their children be better observers? Which exercises would you recommend they do with their kids? (Any of these particularly great for long road trips or plane rides?)
RW: The one-object scavenger hunt is an easy one: let’s look for security cameras, or let’s look for flowers. Or maybe you let her or him pick what you’ll look for together. A friend of mine does a version of this while walking his son to school, and it’s “who can spot something gross?” Whatever it is you choose, you can both participate, and it gets kids involved in the world.
But something else I’d say here is that kids are often already quite good at converting everything to a game, and at seeing the world with fresh eyes—I mean, they have fresh eyes. There’s a specific exercise in the book to try to see the world as a child would, so if you actually have a child handy, maybe just try to tune into what they’re tuned into, and why, and what they make of it. Encourage their noticing by participating in it with them.
KPG: You divide the book into five sections—Looking, Sensing, Going Places, Connecting with Others, and Being Alone—how did you decide on these specific categories for the book?
RW: While the book can actually be read in any order you choose—it’s designed to be very accessible, and you can skip around and look for what resonates with you—the sequence is very intentionally starting on the outside and working your way in.
When we think of noticing, or our own attention, we think first of what we see, so that’s where the book starts. Then we get into other senses, and taking journeys, and engaging with others, and then it concludes with personal, inward noticing.
As you know, mindfulness and meditation have become popular aspirations. Even companies like Google and Goldman Sachs have implemented programs for the employees to help them regain focus and screen out distraction so they can think clearly and originally. And that’s where the book lands. There’s an exercise about making an appointment with yourself, and one about caring for something. Because it’s through engaging with the world that you gain the clarity to understand what matters most.
I think mindfulness and meditation practices are terrific, but I know sometimes people find them kind of difficult and off-putting—often wondering “Am I doing it right? Is it working?” That’s why the exercises in The Art of Noticing are designed to be super accessible. They’re very easy and fun, yet they help you toward that same goal.
KPG: What do you hope readers take from this book?
RW: We live in a culture that’s currently dominated by trending topics. So it’s easy to think, “Well there’s this thing that I noticed and no one else seems to have noticed it, so I guess it’s not that important.”
But what I tell my students (and what I’m telling you!) is: “No, those things you notice that no one else does—they are the MOST important!”
This is why we need to make the effort, sometimes, to tune out the white noise of other people trying to steal your attention, and focus on our own curiosity, our own observation, our own sense of wonder, our own sense of what matters.
Don’t end up going through life like a robot. Surprise yourself, pay attention to what grabs your attention, and ask why, and whether that’s something that can be celebrated—or, if it’s a problem, fixed.
The things you notice that others didn’t at first—that’s what makes you YOU.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rob Walker is a columnist and contributes to a wide of publications including The New York Times, The Atlantic, NewYorker.com, The Boston Globe, and Bloomberg Businessweek. He is the author of Buying In and Significant Objects (coedited with Joshua Glenn) and is on the faculty of the Products of Design MFA program at the School of Visual Arts. He lives in New Orleans.