The invention of attention

So far as I can determine, the first person history records as having read silently was Ambrose of Rome in the fourth century. (No doubt there were others in other times and places; if you find one, let me know)

Up until that time, text was considered the record of spoken word; hence, the word scribe. Scribes of Aramaic didn’t even bother to record vowels. Texts were speaking notes. Readers read aloud.

We know about Ambrose because Augustine of Carthage was one of a privileged few who would quietly spy on Ambrose as the great genius appeared to understand and process text in powerful concentration and without moving his lips. Augustine recorded the phenomenon in his journal.

Another scholar, Jerome of Alexandria, caught wind of this. Jerome was the librarian of the Library of Alexandria, Egypt, then considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Not to be outdone, Jerome taught himself silent reading, then demanded it of his students. All three were elevated to sainthood by the Roman Church, despite Jerome’s notable lack of, shall we say, the patience of a saint.

Jerome almost certainly invented the library, “SHUSH!,” and demanded his students sit quietly and listen to his teaching; thereby, inventing the lecture and upending both the Hebraic and Socratic methods of learners engaging in interactive dialogue with teachers.

Jerome was such an influential scholar that his method came to dominate Christian monastic teaching, which became the foundation for the European university system, so that 1700 years later, our way of learning is dominated by sages on stages, and, so called, conference rooms dominated by large tables, and too large chairs.

Oh yeah. And extended periods of attention so costly we use the construction, pay attention.

Who will rid me of this annoying priest.

Reading silently was the advanced technological innovation of the day. When the cool people -- who already were establing canonical texts -- adopted it -- supported by silence, isolation, and the primacy of individual experience -- they upended the way we taught and learned.

While it created a powerful path for an individual to acquire knowledge and to transmit it to other individuals, it overthrew the iterative learning of the demoi kratos and overwhelmingly established the curriculum as measured by the norm: our word derived from norma: the carpenter’s square.

Try finding your way back to your own iteration.

A client and I were in one of those conference rooms. The 24-square-foot table was big enough for our coffee cups and notepads. We sat at one end and, well, conferred for about ten minutes. Not sure which of us lost interest first, but ten minutes sufficed for both of us. We then pushed ideas out on a white board for another ten. This work defined a piece of written documentation.

“How long do you think it will take,” I asked.

“Forty minutes.”

“Go for it. Let’s see what shows up.”

The client starts writing. I quietly start a stopwatch.

Forty minutes was going to be a heavy lift for this person, as it is for nearly all of us.

What showed up was six minutes of focused work, followed by about a minute and a half of distraction, followed by three to four minutes of focus, another ninety seconds of distraction, with the pattern repeating until the documentation was finished. The distractions included coffee, snacking, and monitoring incoming.

“How did it feel?” I asked.

“Great, but if you weren’t here, I would have wandered off with the first distraction.”


Our brains behave like whales feeding; they dive, come up; dive, come up. It’s an iterative process.

The goal isn’t some standard of normal with twenty-five, thirty, forty, sixty minutes of concentration: it’s the staying in the cycle of your own iteration.

Try it. Sitting in a meeting? Note the time, then note when you first catch your attention has drifted.

Reading? Do the same.

Writing? This one has been ninety minutes so far, interrupted by accepting a delivery, wandering around the office; snacking on coffee, chocolate bits, and slivers of Vermont cheddar. (When I’m trying to hold a dog’s attention, I use thumbnail-sized cheese bits.)

Allow your brain to surface. Take the pause that refreshes. Take another dive. Find the cycle of your own iteration and put it to work.

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