Distracted, by Maggie Jackson (Hardcover, 2008)|
(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you
want a hardcopy)
Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.
A book that deserves your undivided attention....
A core concept of the martial arts is focus.
That's where you get your power from ("your chi is concentrated"). The
laser, which we use to cut through the hardest of steel, is nothing more
than focused light. Any endeavor that requires brainpower, from
sports to engineering, requires the ability to tune out everything
except the task at hand. The ability to focus is a learned skill, and
most people aren't learning it. In today's video and sound bite world,
in fact, massive numbers of people are unlearning it.
Why does the stupidity epidemic continue to spread,
despite its horrible cost? One answer may simply be that people are too
distracted to pay attention. Consequently, they are not fully engaging
their brains and focusing on what they are reading, saying, seeing, or
hearing. This is a real problem in, for example, the task of driving an
automobile. All of us can spot the "cell phone driver" from a distance,
and there's a reason why.
It's the same reason this country has a shortage of
qualified engineers, a shortage of senior project managers (average age
now for the SMs in the construction industry is north of sixty),
and such widespread ignorance of basic science, geography, and other
subjects that require study. It's why only about half of voting-age
Americans can correctly identify the three branches of the federal
When people are chronically distracted, something is
wrong with their ability, desire, or discipline to filter out
nonessential things and focus on what matters or what really has value.
The result is a watered down life experience and a weakened intellect.
The effect is so pronounced and ubiquitous that,
Jackson asserts, we as a society are poised on the edge of a coming dark
time. I'm the first person to cry "alarmist" when an author raises dire
warnings. But in this case, I have to agree with Jackson. When you read
her book, which is the result of intense research, you will probably
Many other factors contribute to the stupidity
epidemic, such as toxic diets, stupidity immersion (e.g., television),
idiotic lyrics blaring from radios, lack of serious reading, and a
failed "education" system. But the widespread lack of focus may be the
The cultural norms of today work against focus, as this
book explains. Fortunately, that doesn't mean you have to accept those
norms and sink into mindlessness. Jackson provides insight into the lack
of focus issue and further insight into how to avoid being a casualty of
this intelligence-sapping problem.
This book is well-researched, well-written, and timely.
Unlike many works that hit the non-fiction list today, it actually is
non-fiction. Given the subject, the author could easily digress into
editorializing her personal political agenda (which is a common problem
with "non" fiction today). But, she doesn't. In fact, I have no idea
what it is.
The author stays focused on the issues the book is
about, which, given what the book is about, should be no surprise.
If you're looking for something that will provide a
formulaic solution to our ADHD culture, or ten steps to inoculate
yourself against the stupidity epidemic, this isn't it. The author isn't
pushing easy self-help solutions that she can later talk about on
Oprah. Nor is she using a book as a way to promote herself for gigs
on the rubber chicken circuit. She wrote an intellectually serious work
that is engaging and enlightening.
As the author points out, much of what we read, hear,
and say today is just surface noise. That's not what you get in this
book. What you get is a properly developed work that is well-worth
Earlier, I said Distracted is well-researched.
That's a qualitative statement, so let me quantify it. The book is 268
pages from start to finish, followed by 50 pages of tightly-written
bibliography (nearly 20% the size of the book itself ). There are about
60 references per chapter, with 79 references for Chapter 6. Somehow,
Jackson manages to weave all this research into a flowing, engaging
Usually when a book is really good, I'll say it was a
page-turner or I couldn't put it down. Oddly enough, I can't say that
about Distracted. The reason, however, is the book made me stop
and think. The author would sometimes make a point so profound or
so worth mulling over that I just had to stop and digest it for a while.
How many books can you think of that make you want to do that?
Distracted consists of three Parts. Part I
explains where we are now, and consists of four chapters. These give us
the "lay of the land" and many examples to show how things are. Part II
delves into the "deepening twilight" and consists of three chapters.
These help us see how we're trending the wrong way and what factors are
contributing to those trends.
Part III poses the question, "Dark Times or Renaissance
of Attention?" At several points, I put the book down just to think
about some point or another, because especially in this part of the book
she says much that just makes you want to stop and think.
In Chapter 8, "McThinking and the Future of the Past,"
Jackson looks at such issues as cultural memory, how a child's ability
to delay gratification is a reliable predictor of success as an adult,
and what the difference is between cultivating information and merely
stockpiling it. A key concept I like is that the ability to select what
to retain and what to discard is an important part of being able to
In Chapter 9, "The Gift of Attention," Jackson looks at
the breaking developments in cognitive research, especially in relation
to the ability to deliberately focus one's attention. Some of what she
reveals is more academic, while other revelations have more immediate
and practical value for the reader. She doesn't wrap it all up in a
nice, neat conclusion because there are many things the reader can
conclude while reading this chapter. But a common theme in such
conclusions is that we can choose to be in charge of our minds
rather than let distractions blow us around like so much tumbleweed.
As someone who has studied the stupidity epidemic for
several years now, I am increasingly convinced we (as individuals) can
choose to let ourselves become stupid or we can make deliberate choices
that, by exercise of some personal discipline, spare us that fate. Most
people aren't making those deliberate choices or exercising that
discipline. But, many are. All of us can.
Being mindful strengthens the mind. When you're
constantly distracted, you can't be mindful--you're too busy shifting
mental gears all the time. The "default value" is chronic distraction,
but the good news is you can choose to be mindful and you can make other
choices that keep you from being chronically distracted. Jackson shows
us what some of those choices are, and that's also good news. The
choices aren't hard to make or to carry out.
Jackson's book goes beyond my pet interest, however.
While chronic distraction is sapping our collective IQs, it's also
destroying our ability to interact with each other. Here's something to
think about (not in Jackson's book). Even critics of Bill Clinton
acknowledge his charm and charisma. When Alan Greenspan went to meet
Clinton for the first time, he was doubtful that he wanted to continue
on as Chairman of the Federal Reserve with Clinton in the White House.
When Greenspan left that meeting, he felt tremendously loyal to Clinton.
From doubting Thomas to committed supporter in a single meeting. How did
Clinton do it? Greenspan said, "He made me feel like the center of his
universe. Everything else was blanked out and he was totally there. He
focused on me."
When one person focuses on another and listens to that
person, the other person feels respected. Respect is the foundation of
any good relationship. When people never truly engage with other people,
haven't they also given up on what it means to be human?
If someone is talking to you in person and the phone
rings, show respect by ignoring the phone. If you have a television on
and someone visits you, turn the television off and focus on that
person. If a child talks to you, stop what you are doing and listen. Be
completely there. If you don't understand the power of such actions and
the cost of failing to take them, read Chapter Two.