The Story of Attention

It was April 1958 and Gay Talese was at a baseball game.

Mr. Talese wasn’t a big name in journalism yet. He hadn’t written “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” or become a staple in Esquire. All that would happen later.

But on April 2nd, Mr. Talese had been assigned to cover NYU’s baseball season opener against Wagner College.

When he arrived, it was 40 degrees. The NYU student body was 31,068, one of the biggest in the country then. Yet only 18 people were in the bleachers that day in April. Several weren’t even students.

Mr. Talese was expected to write about the ballgame. But as he told Elon Green for The Neiman Storyboard, “So what’s the story? The story is not the ballgame. The story is how few people are at this game.”

Attention to the actual story is a powerful skill.

Certain things command our attention: ballgames, crises, worry, criticism. They are the 800 pound gorilla turning pirouettes in our living room.

If we give the gorilla all our attention, these stories – many of which are quite deflating – can swallow us whole. Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset explains it like this:

“Tell me what you pay attention to, and I will tell you who you are.”

No matter how big the gorilla, there is more to the world and to us than a bunch of deflating stories. We don’t need to deny the gorilla; Mr. Talese still reported the game score (NYU-5, Wagner-0).

But we can extend our attention to other parts of the world and ourselves. Because the actual story of who we are might be in the bleachers.

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