Seeking vs. Paying Attention

Attention is important. Look at that sentence again. What kind of attention were you thinking of? Getting it or giving it? So much of culture today is devoted to getting attention, increasingly by any means necessary. For creatives this produces a particular dilemma, one that Joseph Gordon-Levitt describes very eloquently in this TED talk:

While being creative a person’s attention becomes very focused on that process. You become engrossed, in the zone, inspired. It can be an amazing and very fulfilling feeling; rewarding in and of itself, without there necessarily being an outcome to show.

But, I hear you ask, if there’s no magnificent #livingmybestlife outcome, then how can you get likes for it on Instagram? Who will retweet it if it isn’t #awesome? Is it even worth doing if it won’t get many shares on Facebook? And here we see the crux of a very big problem that has emerged for modern creatives thanks to social media.

‘I think that our creativity is becoming more and more of a means to an end, and that end is to get attention…If we’re going to talk about the perils of creativity becoming a means to get attention, then we have to talk about the attention driven business model of today’s big social media companies.’ — Joseph Gordon-Levitt

As Joseph explains, and I covered as part of a previous blog, it is in the interest of social media platforms to make you work, for free, to get as much attention as possible, so they can sell advertising based on that attention. But seeking attention on social media doesn’t make us happy, quite the contrary, it makes us unhappy. Why? Because these platforms condition us to crave attention, they addict us to attention, and no amount can ever be enough. It seems set up to provoke feelings of inadequacy, these feelings drive us to get more attention to feel better about ourselves, but there is no amount of outer attention that can satiate us once we are hooked into this cycle.

The way we are presented on social media results in an environment of constant competition through relative positioning: there is always someone with more followers and more likes. But we then also compete with ourselves: will this post get more likes than the last one? Will I have more followers next year than last? What can I do and change about myself to effect all these numbers and comments from avatars that will make me feel happy? We are trained to derive our validation from external sources in as much as possible, because those external sources become sources of advertising revenue for platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Our locus of control is slowly but surely eroded away from being internal to being external, and that is if it was particularly internal to begin with. Our sense that we are in charge of ourselves and that our actions and reasons for them are the deciding factor in our lives, becomes overwhelmed by the sense that the opinions and actions of others are more important as guiding principles and to deciding our behaviour and it’s outcomes. This external focus on the opinions and reactions of others is deadly to the creative process.

‘If your creativity is driven by a desire to get attention, you’re never going to be creatively fulfilled.’ — Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Franz Kafka published very little in his lifetime, and seems to have been inspired to write by dream-like states and insomnia, as well as to soothe his tortured spirit. His work was read mainly by friends and family while he was alive, and he requested that upon his death it all be destroyed. Luckily for lovers of art and story, his executer could not bring himself to do this. Kafka’s brilliance came from within, from paying attention to the music of his soul. If he had been focused much on outside opinion, let alone obsessed with it and how to market himself to it, he would never have created the prescient masterpieces that make up his body of work.

Being in the zone, focused on a creative task, is a special feeling, both meaningful and fulfilling. It engages your entire being, making suffering more bearable, as it likely did in the case of Kafka, and providing a much needed source significance and happiness. You could have it all and you would still be empty without the meaning that paying attention to the creative yearning at the core of your being can birth.

But if you are too busy thinking about how others will perceive and react to your work, if your work becomes based on that, it becomes less and less possible to pay attention to that inner creative voice and feel fulfilled by it. And even if you succeed at getting lots of attention and admiration, it will feel hollow by comparison and never be enough. That which you are driven to do from deep within you is far more important than any amount of external validation for being a good performing monkey.

Creatives are told we must market ourselves and our work to the masses for it to be of worth – by marketers and social media companies that profit directly from our labours. We toil for attention, rather than pay attention to our souls. We let crowds of people we will never meet, who do not really care about us, decide what direction our work should take.

But we don’t have to, and would be better off not. We can decide for ourselves, from within, and that is the only way to truly satisfy our creative hunger. Aim to impress you. No one else matters more.

‘If there’s one thing I can share that really helps me pay attention and focus, it’s this: I try not to see other creative people as my competitors, I try to find collaborators.’ — Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Joseph ends his talk on a really lovely note: the massive potential the internet has for creative collaboration. One of the biggest joys I have had from working online as an illustrator and a writer has come from collaborating with other creatives. One of the biggest downers has been trying to connect with other creatives and being treated with contempt as competition, not famous enough to be seen with, or both. This has been especially true on social media.

I’m not a naturally competitive person, I’d rather do my own thing than compete with others at the same thing, and with art I don’t tend to view any other artist as “doing the same thing” as me. We’re all doing our own thing, as far as I can see. I like and appreciate that in artists I have sought to connect and collaborate with. I would very much like to see more emphasis on collaboration rather than competition, along with paying attention rather than seeking it. It seems to me that this would produce a much more creatively fulfilling environment. One thing seems certain though, that’s not going to happen on social media, so we’ll have to make it happen somewhere else.


  1. Good article Janice. I’m paying attention! The world would certainly be a better place without competition, because that leads to win/lose scenarios, and I’d rather have win/win! 🙂 I’m certainly not motivated by the attention I receive, and if that was my motivation I would have given up a long time ago, as I’ve always being considered ‘weird’ and I don’t receive much attention, and most publishers are not interested in my work, as I am not ‘the norm’ and do not follow the crowd!

    I am happy delving into the creative process for my own self-development and for joy and satisfaction it gives me, and hopefully it helps raise collective consciousness along the way… and if others happen to like or agree with my work, then that is their choice. We are all in this game of life together, and I am happy to do my thing, and I am respectful of those who do their thing too. And, often great projects are created through collaboration.

    It can be disappointing that so many lies, half truths,distortions, and collective mythos’s, are often seen to be ‘the truth’ instead of facts, because it is sold to to the public that way, and those who are torch bearers, and great visionaries in all fields, are often neglected or put on the back burner, cast out like lepers!
    Remember this quote, ” Prophets are often not recognised in their own country or in their own time”, and I’d like to think that many great artists and prophets are leaving seeds behind them for future generations…hopefully for when the world is more receptive to receiving them! :).

    • Hey Bridget, long time no see! I hope all is well with you.

      Glad you liked the article. Being able to carry on as a creative regardless of the attention you get is, I would say, essential to getting anywhere with it. As is following your heart rather than following the crowd.

      Hopefully there will be more emphasis on collaboration rather than competition in culture at large in the future, as that really seems the best way to survive in the long run, and the way things are in so many areas we really do need to get our collective act together!

      I like the image of people leaving seeds behind them. It reminds me of an ancient Greek proverb I really like: “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.”

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