Paying Attention is More Important Than Thinking

By David Creelman

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
My favourite book on neuroscience is Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary. He describes the right brain as constantly observing the broader world, while the left brain narrowly focused on a logical task. In a pigeon, the left brain might be pecking at seeds and to it the world is comprised of only two things “seeds” and “not seeds”. At the same time the pigeon’s right brain would not be so obsessed with simple categories. It would be broadly paying attention to patterns in the world and if something seemed important (such as a sound and shadow that might indicate a hawk) it would tell the left brain to stop thinking in terms of “seeds” and see if there really was a danger.

The two sides of the brain work well together. The risk is that the logical left side of the brain, the thinking side one might say, can only see the world in terms of narrow categories; it can completely miss what’s going on because the focus is so limited.

To effectively pay attention, we must allow the right brain to do its thing; to let it share its moods, its intuitions, its hunches and then turn to the narrow attentive power of the left brain to dig into the clues the right brain has given us.

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. It’s 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.

Wrapping up
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.

David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research. He is best known for his workshops on Agile Analytics, Evidence-based Management and the Future of Work. You can connect to him on LinkedIn or email him at dcreelman@creelmanresearch.com.

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