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TAoN No. 70: "Court awareness" for the rest of us. PLUS: A missing word, a new icebreaker, a cryptic teaser of big news coming soon, and more

The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy In the Everyday offers exercises, prompts, provocations, games and things you can actually do to build attention muscles, stave off distraction, pick up on what everybody else overlooked, and experience the joy of noticing. Indiebound | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Knopf. This newsletter offers related news and ideas that have come along since the book.

An Awareness Game

THE PROMPT: Test your powers of observation.

A recent episode of No Stupid Questionsa podcast I’ve mentioned previously; it’s essentially about behavioral psychology, and I really like it — included a great segment on whether we are as observant as we think we are. In particular, it focused on Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer’s work on the connection between mindfulness and, basically, noticing. (She literally wrote the book on mindfulness.)

It’s a thoughtful discussion, and a good overview of the subject. But what stood out to me was an anecdote from co-host Stephen Dubner. He described how his father used to play a game with him called Powers of Observation. One day when Dubner was 7 or 8 years old, they went to a diner, where they took a seat and his father said:

“All right, Stevie, I want you to just sit and look around you and really take everything in. Just pay attention. Really see what you’re looking at, and listen. … I’m gonna give you five minutes. Just take it all in.”

After five minutes, he told Dubner to close his eyes, and started asking questions: “What did the lady sitting right behind us order?” And so on.

“He’d grill me on these facts, large and small,” Dubner says. “And when we first started this game, I was terrible. I had zero powers of observation! But within a few times of playing it, I figured it out. And I got persuaded that, whether it’s the mind, or the brain, or the memory, or my observational senses — they really are like a muscle. I’ve been trying, ever since that day, to flex that muscle. So maybe I’ve been practicing my own form of mindfulness all this time.”

Dubner goes on to compare this to “court awareness” in basketball — the way a truly great point guard, for example, is tuned in to the movements (speed, angle) of every other player on the court, at all times. (This basic idea is also referred to as situational awarness, a subject I’ll return to in a future TAoN.) He concludes:

“It’s incumbent on all of us to develop some court awareness — have a sense of what’s going on around you.”

I of course like that thought, and I love turning it into a game. While the Powers of Observation game does seem particularly suited to a parent-child scenario, it could obviously work with any two people. And it’s not too hard to think of ways to modify it for solo play. (If you have thoughts or variations, leave ‘em in the comments!)

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The whole discussion is excellent, check it out here.

Programming note

I’m trying to keep it short this week, but some big news coming up two weeks from today. Now is the time to share TAoN and tell all your friends and followers to subscribe ;)

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Dictionary of Missing Words

  • Dictionary of Missing Words is an exercise in paying attention to phenomena you encounter — sensations, concepts, states between states, feelings, slippery things — that could be named, but don’t seem to be. More here and here.

This week’s missing word is from reader Lynn Mason, via the comments:

We need a word for a friend who is also a neighbor (or a neighbor who is also a friend). Lately, I have been saying "neighbor friend," but that just doesn't seem right to the ear. We have neighbors who are just neighbors (not necessarily friends) and certainly we have friends who are not our neighbors.

That’s a good one! Thanks so much, Lynn.

What else should we add to The Dictionary of Missing Words? Leave your suggestion (or respond to this one) in the comments.

Icebreaker Of The Week

  • Noticing is about other people, too. The Icebreaker series aims to help with that. There’s a central collection spot for all the icebreakers to date, here. || There’s also an Icebreaker Slack app, here. (Back story on that here.)

This week’s icebreaker is modified and adapted from a post some months back on the blog Marginal Revolution.

What is your most trivial, useless, or flat-out counter-productive superpower?

In the post, writer Tyler Cowen mentions his own prior assertion that “extremely talented people are almost always extraordinarily good at one or more entirely trivial tasks.”

One of Cowen’s readers picked up on this and referred to such skills as “useless superpowers,” offering the personal example of an “ability to pour nearly identical amounts of liquid [splitting up a bottle of wine, for instance] without thought or effort.” Cowen asked his readers for their examples.

Many aren’t actually that useless, but the train of thought interests me: Why not push a little further and think about, in effect, negative super powers? I, for example, have learned that I am capable of being completely invisible to bartenders. You?

As usual, I’m still working through the backlog of icebreaker submissions, but as always, I want more:

Send your favorite icebreaker (whether you made it up or found it elsewhere) to

In Other News

  • It’s always fun to see pix of the book in the wild, but this seemingly modest example ^^^ truly made my week. Growing up outside Houston, my visits to MFAH broadened my horizons over and over, and decisively. I love that TAoN exists anywhere in that space. Thanks John!

  • If you’ve got some writing project that’s bogged down or even unstarted, friend of TAoN Jami Attenberg has something for you: “Usually this is a newsletter about writing, and then, once a year, it turns into the #1000wordsofsummer project, where we all write 1000 words a day for two weeks straight. That day is coming soon: the project starts again on May 31 and runs through June 13.” Sign up! More here.

  • Have you heard about Austin Kleon’s “Read Like An Artistbook club?

  • World’s Most Beautiful Gas Stations.

  • The trees become characters and the canopy, a city. It’s a new way of seeing.”

  • “The aerial geometry and colours of Singapore’s communal dining areas.” By Jonathan Tan. Pretty … and somehow satisfying.

  • Design students protest the whole idea of online design school, with design.

  • How can we be better dream receivers? What can we do to encourage creative ideation and dreaming in our friends and family through curiosity as listeners?” The latest from friend of TAoN Shanna Trenholm’s always-smart life:examined newsletter. Recommended.

Okay that’s it! Next issue in two weeks. (And, again, big news coming!)

As always, I value your feedback (suggestions, critiques, positive reinforcement, constructive insults, etc.), as well as your tips or stories or personal noticing rituals, things we need a word for, and of course your icebreakers: Or use the comments!

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Thanks for reading …

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All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032 

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