A few years ago, I began an entirely counterintuitive practice. Yet, it had a profoundly positive effect on my emotional wellbeing, allowing me to grow in hope. Allow me first to give you some context.
We are all aware that we live in an attention economy. Social media giants like Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon seek to get our attention in all kinds of novel ways and go further in selling our private information and viewing habits as valuable resources. “If you are not paying for the product, you are the product,” as was said in the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma.
Behavioural psychologist Nir Eyal compares the tycoons of social media as equivalent to drug lords, addicting us to their clickbait, getting us obsessed about the number of “likes” we get if we contribute to the debates. Eyal, Cal Newport and others encourage developing positive habits of putting boundaries around these by time-blocking our days so that we align what we attend to with our values. Indeed, some, such as Jordan Peterson, would argue that what we give our attention to is a moral act.
Most of us are now aware of the attention economy, but can we act upon this knowledge? Can we control our impulses to check out our social media feeds constantly? It is a form of the knowing-doing gap.
And whilst awareness of the attention economy in social media might be obvious now to most, from what I have observed, the dangerous drift to follow suit by newspapers, magazines and news channels is something we are less aware of generally.
During the pandemic, we all needed to inform ourselves of the risks of the virus to ourselves, our loved ones and our communities. When it came to the news media, I found it sometimes worse than useless, feeding a spirit of pandemonium during the pandemic without informing us in any meaningful way. Conspiracy theorists had a field day, it seems.
Where is journalism as we used to know it? Where was reporting of the facts? There seemed to be a belief system growing that we, the public, are not mature enough to draw our own conclusions. It is as if we need to be spoon-fed with the implications within whatever political paradigm or narrative that prevails within each particular news organ, whether right or left. It feels like I am living in Orwell’s 1984.
So, where were the facts to be found during the pandemic? In the early weeks and moths, they were hard to find. The website fullfact.org was some help, but I found its analysis a little slow to surface, despite their best efforts. Was this a reflection of my general bias in our culture to be unreasonably impatient? “Tell me now! I need to know NOW!” was my thinking. News, and fast, please!
Newspapers and TV news programmes now seem unable to restrain themselves from bringing their ideological interpretation. I suspect it has become their default atmosphere; they no longer notice it. Even editorial decisions on what to report upon seem to owe more to what will grab readers’/listeners’/viewers’ attention. It is veering towards a socially corrosive Jerry Springer-type culture.
I find it more than sad that the media and political discourse seem less about reporting the facts and even less about engaging in deep, mutually respectful discourse. It seems more about lobbying for a particular narrative, winning arguments, diminishing individuals and all the confirmation bias that goes with that. It is clickbait, where provoking people to fear is seen as the ultimate attention-grabber.
Much of what is broadcast as news is fear-based and concerns matters that offer us, as individuals, no immediate means to resolve them with any practical steps offered. I see what this is doing to my friends and adult children, who are caught up in all this emotional noise. So, I am trying to model them a different way of living.
During World War II, the BBC, for example, was highly regarded for its factual news integrity through its continuing radio broadcasts. I cannot corroborate this as I write, but I believe that the British Government asked the BBC to lie in its broadcasts on only three or four occasions during the war. This was so rare that each time the enemy believed it. I cannot imagine such trust in the BBC today –other any other news source, for that matter. Such are the heights of integrity from which journalism has fallen.
So, how do we manage all this, apart from religiously following some paper or channel that aligns with our own personal politics and prejudices? Well, back to my personal practice. My solution is simple. It is simple but profoundly radical. And I have been practising it for several years now.
Nearly 20 years ago, I attended a leadership conference in Chicago, and one of the speakers was the late Stephen Sample, the then President of the University of Southern California. He spoke about how he abstained from reading, listening to, or watching the news for six months. This was at a time before social media had become so rampant. He found attention to the news media was an unproductive distraction and an anxious one at that. He realised that he could discover almost all of what he needed to know through friends who would add their opinions. Since he knew his friends, he could filter their commentary and work out the facts for himself. He found not only did it free up more of his time, but perhaps more importantly, he was less assaulted emotionally by negative world events whilst still keeping informed.
When I heard this and later read his book, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, where he referenced this practice, this did not come over to me as living in denial, but more about our need to create our own emotional and cognitive boundaries. Something resonated in me as I pondered his experience.
So, I have follow this example ever since. I don’t watch or listen to the news. I don’t read newspapers or news magazines.
Here is what an American friend commented recently when I shared some of this with him regarding his distress about the current state of American politics:
I was intrigued by your comments on the news fast and have taken it to heart. I’ve been fasting since your response last month, and I certainly do not feel any worst for the wear as a result. This is an extraordinary revelation, especially as we roll into the election cycle here in the States.
After my son informed me that the new PM had resigned, I found it interesting that it was not difficult at all to stifle the impulse to jump on the internet and dive into every nuance regarding this event. That it was so easy to let it go was very refreshing, indeed.
I commend my friend for this. Awareness and action are two different things. He has bridged the knowing-doing gap. And when he fasted from the news, he was surprised by the positive emotional outcome.
Yet, what is happening worldwide is probably very different and probably much more positive than is being portrayed in the media. For example, during my work as a consultant and facilitator I have had the privilege of connecting with scientist and engineers who work on projects in Antarctica. Individuals I talked with confirmed for me, for example, that the hole in the ozone layer above the South Pole continues to heal over since the 1990s and that large schools of whales now flourish in the Southern Ocean, consuming vast amounts of CO2. And do we hear about this good news in the media? Since I’m not plugged into the media, maybe I have missed this, but when I ask friends, they are surprised. I suspect such good news is not deemed “newsworthy.” It is not clickbait.
The background anxiety among some friends about living in a world that is presented them as doomed is very concerning. The negativity bias of the news media reinforces a mythical view of reality that feeds much mental dis-ease. Surely that is wrong?
A friend in France, for example, tells me that a TV news channel there spends 15 minutes each programme at the end dwelling on the beauty and delights of some part in that wonderful country.
Also, my news fast has made me reflect on some deeper questions about how we as individuals can and should respond to all this. I ask myself, “How much of the world’s problems can one human being reasonably bear? Is it reasonable or even responsible to carry a problem when one cannot act upon it?”
I remember a dialogue in the movie Crocodile Dundee, where Dundee was asked his opinion on some public issue, and his reply was, “It’s none of my business.” When I saw the movie years ago, this response struck me then and continues to amplify for me down through the years. You might object: taking advice from a mythical comic hero! Really? Well, offer me practical solutions that I can act upon. Otherwise, please don’t be offended if I ignore you while I try to work out a positive life to my own agenda.
Turning Into the Skid
So much about what Brené Brown calls Wholehearted Living is counterintuitive. For example, in my book Practical People Engagement, I began with the story of how I turned into a skid to correct the rear-wheel drive vehicle I was steering in fresh snow. I used it to illustrate how managers facing the clamour of senior people about the urgency and costs projects they were managing and take the counterintuitive time-consuming practice of talking with the people affected, and how it often would pay off.
Much of growing to maturity is when we notice how we are inclined to respond and react, so we pause to choose to do the opposite. When the social or news media clamour for my attention, I turn away. Irresponsible? In what way? Could those of us who do this be more responsible in navigating these times?
Allow me to close this with a more trivial example to illustrate: popular celebrity culture. What would happen, say, if noxious celebrities were starved of our attention? (I won’t mention any names to reinforce my point! And frankly, I’m finding it harder to recognise the so-called “celebrities.”) Would these people not just wither away? So, by allowing our attention to fixate on whatever the media are offering as newsworthy, are we not part of the problem, reinforcing this negative culture of news broadcast? Instead, maybe each of us can become part of the solution. Just switch it off. Don’t buy newspapers. What’s the worst that can happen? What’s the best that might happen if enough of us went on a news fast?
Let us be more counterintuitive about what we focus upon. Maybe it is a moral act.