Dr. Jordan Peterson, a leading Canadian psychologist, says, “Paying attention is more important than thinking”. For a person who makes their living thinking, it’s an odd thing to say. However, it immediately brings to mind the work of another great Canadian thinker: Dr. Henry Mintzberg. Mintzberg launched his career as a management expert when his studies showed that managers did not sit in their office thinking deeply about strategy; instead they spent their days running about dealing with short-term issues. He didn’t reach that conclusion by thinking, he reached it by paying attention to what was actually happening.
This claim that paying attention matters more than thinking is important because we live in a culture that glamorizes thinking. We presume that the person who gives an effective presentation is the one who has brilliantly thought out what they will say. In truth, it may be the person who is paying close attention to the audience who will be most effective. I recall the former Managing Director of Hay Malaysia, Farouk Ahmed, telling me that, when giving presentations, he was always looking around the room, person to person, to see what was going on. Paying attention to each individual was, in his experience, more important than concentrating on the next thing you wanted to say.
The Neuroscience of Attention
Lack of attending to reality in business Over-valuing the logical thinking brain can lead to problems in business. For example, we may be swayed by what people say (language is a left brain function) when we should be paying attention to what they do. We may see the world through a certain management theory (“there are three types of customers”) when we should be paying attention to the fact that our actual customers don’t map into that framework.
McGilchrist also points out that the left brain tends to be over optimistic, as well as being openly hostile to the fuzzy suggestions from the right brain. I think we’ve all seen the numbers-driven left-brain thinker in love with a theory while being contemptuous towards the fuzzy right-brain observer who says his “sense” of things is at odd with the theory. The two sides of the brain are meant to complement each other, but they can often get locked in battle. In fact, that’s where the rather odd title of McGilchrist’s book comes from a parable (which the author attributes, probably incorrectly, to Nietzsche) about how a Master gives a task to an Emissary, who then oversteps his authority which leads to ruin. McGilchrist warns that the right brain may pass something it has observed to the left brain, which then goes too far in ‘thinking’ and stops paying attention to the world.
How we think things are is often different from how things really are. Paying attention is what keeps us on the right track. There is great power in the humility of simply trying to see the world as it is without trying to fit it into your preconceptions. Jordan Peterson is right, paying attention is more important than thinking.