There is a nice little book called: The Art of Study: The Sorbonne Method by Edmond Bordeaux Szekely, which outlines the study method taught at that university. In it he talks about the problem that there is too much information to learn and too many demands for our attention. This is, of course, not news. As a result, or perhaps as a cause, people are enamored of technology and the way it can catalog and deliver ever more information. The result of this shift is that everything is measure by its utility, quantity, and efficiency, which seems at first glance quite reasonable. But what is invisibly sacrificed is quality and depth.
The New York Times Magazine this past Sunday had a small essay describing the work of Lisa Kahn, an economist at Yale, who looks at the generations who enter the work force at the bottom of a recession. She says these workers may not be able to recover the lost income of those years of being unemployed or underemployed. By the end of the article another economist finds herself reassuring the mom of a twenty-something man that although the current generation may not achieve the same material success as their parents, their lives might not be worse, just different.
At every turn we are met with the reality that the quality of our lives cannot be measured in numbers. But it is very difficult to avoid the strong social perspective that idealizes sports figures, movie stars, and tech gurus. We are curious about lifestyles of the rich and famous, and we can lose our grounding in what we actually know gives us life satisfaction. It turns out that our most precious resource is our attention, and by extension, our time. The Art of Study points out that there are way too many books to read. And this means that every book we read means we are not reading a different book.
We can extrapolate this reality to our whole lives. Every moment of attention we are giving to one thing, we are not giving to another thing. Our most basic freedom inhabits that moment of choosing the focus of our attention. Most of the time we are rather unconscious about how this happens. But we can become more reflective, more conscious, and more deliberate in those choices.
One of the most profound focuses of our attention is how we are using our own minds to create our lives. By this I mean, taking our precious time and focusing our attention on our own minds and how they operate and how they seek certain kinds of inner experience is one of the best ways of freeing ourselves to make the choices we want to be making instead of those driven by unconscious habits and patterns.