The Art of Noticing, Best of 2021
TAoN No 96: The 7 most popular entries of the past year. And more!
—> Programming note: I’ll be taking some time off, so while there will be a subscriber issue this Thursday, the next full Monday edition will be in January. Happy Holidays :)
This has been a big year for TAoN, as I experimented with greater frequency and a paid tier. It’s also been a(nother) singular year for all of us, as the world continues to be unpredictable and strange and sometimes discouraging. So, I decided it might be time to pause and reflect.
Here, then, is a list I’m calling TAoN’s Best of 2021. I consulted the top-post ranking provided by Substack1 (presumably based on traffic and engagement measures), made some subjective judgments and adjustments, and landed on this list of 7 posts that seemed to connect the most. I’ve arranged them chronologically. (The subscriber base of this newsletter is way higher than it was when the year started, so you newer readers might particularly appreciate some of the older posts.)
It seems like a nice note to end a not-always-nice year on. Thanks for reading — and here’s to next year!
1. GET A NEW PERSPECTIVE
Issue No. 62, from January 25, featured advice from author Tom Vanderbilt, drawn partly from his book Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning, in which he recounts his experiences learning a series of new skills in his 40s: chess, singing, surfing, drawing, and juggling.
“Try and look at something as an [insert profession here] would,” Tom wrote. “This is a bit inspired by Geoff Manaugh’s book on burglary and the city. So for example if you walked through a shopping mall, what things in the environment would stand out to a thief? Sometimes you don’t really know, but even guessing enhances looking.” More here.
2. INVENT A HOLIDAY
Issue No. 63, February 8 proposed this prompt as a great design-class assignment, or family project, or just an individual thought exercise requiring observation of existing “holiday” parameters, contemplation of how celebration might connect us to others, and individual reflection on what seems worth celebrating in the first place.
What are your holiday’s “traditions”? Does it involve costumes? Certain specific foods? Particular music? Mandatory rituals? Special indulgences? A color scheme? Objects, whether functional, decorative, or absurd? Etc. Much more here.
Update: For those interested in following this prompt, turns out there’s a whole guide for holiday invention. Useful! Also: friend and favorite collaborator of TAoN Joshua Glenn has an invented holiday: Micawber Day, SOMETHING WILL TURN UP! Every January 18; mark your calendars.
3. A HUMILITY LESSON
Issue No. 66, March 22 shared a prompt from Rebekah Modrak, co-editor (with Jamie Vander Broek) of Radical Humility: Essays On Ordinary Acts, a collection of short essays: Notice when you are about to make a judgment — and ask a question instead.
“My assignment for myself,” Modrak wrote, “is to be attentive throughout the day to each moment when I'm tempted to make a judgment about someone else's choices, to keep track of those moments, and to ask a question before making any judgment.” More here.
4. PLAY AN OBSERVATION GAME
Issue No. 70, May 12 described an “observation game” that writer Stephen Dubner’s father made him play as a kid: “Just pay attention,” he would say. “Really see what you’re looking at, and listen. … I’m gonna give you five minutes. Just take it all in.” After five minutes, Dubner’s dad told him to close his eyes, and then he 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 recalled. “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.” Think about ways to replicate or riff on this game, with a partner or readjusted for solo play. More here.
Update: Turns out Jay-Z and his father played a very similar game.
5. LISTEN TO YOUR LISTENING
Issue No. 82, September 6 spotlighted the advice of Ximena Vengoechea, writer, illustrator, user-research expert, and author of Listen Like You Mean it: Reclaiming the Lost Art of True Connection.
“Listening is an active process, but we often don't think of it that way — we usually just ‘show up’ and let our ears do the rest,” Ximena wrote. “But when you slow down and start to pay attention to your listening, you learn a lot about yourself, and your conversation partner.” Pay attention to your body, she advises, and try to identify your “default listening mode.”
“Are you a natural problem-solver, always scanning for the problem (and solution) in a conversation? Do you tend to be an identifier, prone to offering your version of a situation unprompted (Me too! That's just like my experience with...). Maybe you are more the defuser, ready to crack a joke and lighten the mood whenever things get heavy.” Learning how you listen will help you listen better. More here.
6. BE A (RE)VISITOR
Issue No. 83, September 13 mused on the subject of revisiting the same spots over and over — a tactic partly borrowed from certain photographers.
Take a look at your digital picture stash, and seek out two or three of the oldest shots of places or things that you could actually revisit. Now revisit them! Take a new picture, if you like. Commit to further visits in the future. See what’s different; see what happens. More here.
7. MAKE THE WORLD YOUR MUSEUM
Friend of TAoN Austin Kleon took that prompt so far as to actually add a museum-style label to some “art” he discovered in the wild. And that inspired this whole new post and prompt on annotating the world, and making your own museum of the everyday. Imagine the world is your museum. What gets a label? What does each label say? More here.
If you enjoyed TAoN in 2021, please please tell others and spread the word!
[EXTRA BONUS ENTRY, FOR SUBSCRIBERS]
I imagine those of you who are paid subscribers might wonder about the most popular posts that were for subscribers only. (Obviously the free posts all get a bigger audience — they’re free!) So using the same methodology as above, looking at Substack data and making some subjective tweaks, here are the subscriber entries that seem to have resonated the most, in no particular order:
Invent A Ritual (the conclusion of my special “Summer School” series on negotiating a world that was getting vaccinated and emerging from the first phase of the pandemic)
How to “Small Listen,” also a Summer School entry, focused on getting used to other people again
Ambition to … What, Exactly? Part of an occasional series on how attention overlaps with work
Against the Mission Statement, also one of the work-focused posts
Make It Art (Sequel To The Sequel), an awesome example of TAoN reader contributions, and thus a personal favorite
How To Play With The Everyday (in praise of Hero of Noticing Lenka Clayton)
A paid subscription of course gets you access to all these back issues. Just sayin’.
Give the Gift of TAoN ;)
Give a TAoN subscription to anyone you think might enjoy it, even anonymously, for you Secret Santa types ;)
Or, underwrite a subscription for some total stranger who simply doesn’t have the funds to subscribe right now, but would like to. I generally make the newsletter available to such folks who ask, so this kind of donation helps a lot.
Dictionary of Missing Words and Icebreaker of the Week will return in the new year.
Upcoming Thursday posts for paid subscribers include thoughts on how to struggle in 2022. (How’s that for a sales pitch??) Plus The Heard, sharing music that’s caught my attention (in a good way) lately.
Last Thursday’s post was about why (and how) you should get interested in your own boredom. Again, a paid subscription gets you access to past subscriber issues as well as future ones.
In Other News
Enjoyable interview by Mark Frauenfelder with Jude Stewart, author of the new very TAoN-sounding book Revelations In Air: A Guidebook To Smell in Mark’s terrific The Magnet newsletter. (Subscriber-only issue I believe.)
I don’t have HBO so I have not seen How To With John Wilson, but I sure have read/heard a lot about it, and thanks to this nicely done overview on Hyperallergic I found this collection of earlier Wilson videos on Vimeo. Some really great stuff here, recommended!
25 Most Interesting Webcams of 2021. Via BoingBoing. Includes Statue of Liberty Crown Cam. There are a couple of cams I look at once a week or so — one in midtown Manhattan, one on Bourbon Street. Do you have a favorite cam?
“I'm really interested in collective wisdom. What happens if we actually allow ourselves to not know together and to be in the place of 'Hmm... let's wonder' together. … Coming together from a place of not knowing is a muscle that's there but not well exercised.” Heidi Brooks.
“Sadly the ability to recognize beauty does not seem to be innate. Even as it is clear that some individuals are born gifted with an acute aesthetic sensibility, most of us must learn how to ‘see’ beauty. And even those folks who are gifted must practice the art of looking to maintain their gifts.” From an interesting bell hooks (RIP) essay on design.
And in conclusion2:
Okay that’s it!
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: firstname.lastname@example.org. Or use the comments!
—> Or just click the heart symbol. That always makes my day.
And thanks for reading …
All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032
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Some of you will know this, but not everybody pays attention to such things: Substack is the platform I currently use to produce and distribute TAoN.