What are you paying attention to?

I love that new car smell. We all do, right? It’s quite distinctive. Clean, a little sweet and yet undeniably industrial. You wouldn’t wear it as cologne, but it’s part of the pleasure of buying a new car, probably because of its associations with the pleasure and excitement of a major new purchase.

Something else happens when you have a new car. You start to notice similar cars as you drive around. Cars of the same brand, or similar colours and configurations. Where were they all before? Maybe masses of people just happened to buy similar cars as you in the very same week? Of course not: they were there all the time, and you just hadn’t noticed them.

We’ve all had similar experiences at one time or another. Psychologists will tell you that this is the phenomenon of selective attention. This is a staple topic of first year psychology, and, as we’ve just discussed, a part of everyday life. Even though we only notice the effects of selective attention on distinct occasions, it’s something that operates all the time. It’s part of how we’re built.

This point is worth dwelling on. It’s natural to think of the reality you experience as being objective, clear and complete, but you can only attend to a fraction of the totality of your reality at any one time.

Let that sink in for a moment. You only ever experience a slice of reality, never the whole.

Two important points follow from this.

1. We’re all in the same boat

Each one of us faces this same issue – that we can only experience a part of the full reality that we live in. Keep this in mind next time you’re having a disagreement with someone. How is it that they can’t see that you’re right? Are they crazy? Dumb? Or just ill informed?

Now just as you believe that you’re being as objective and fair-minded as possible, maybe the person you’re disagreeing with is being every bit as objective and fair-minded relative to the slice of reality that they’re experiencing. They’re just experiencing a different slice to you.

If so, then maybe their perceptions and their view of the world are just as valid as yours. And since you’re both drawing from incomplete slices of reality, maybe you can both learn from each other…

2. Choosing your slice

You’ll never be able to perceive the entirety of world; we’re just not built like that. But the good news is that you can choose what you’re attending to at any one time. So you may want to ask yourself if you’re grabbing the best slice of that cake.

Are you seeing all the possibilities in the world around you? Or are your filters stopping you from seeing opportunities for a better life? Maybe it’s time for an upgrade…

These are some of the reasons why positive psychology and a growth mindset are so important. They prime you to see the best of the world as it is, as well as keeping you alert to possibilities for further improvement everywhere in your life, not just the workplace.

These kinds of mindset adjustments are part of the stock in trade of NEP’s coaching system. I’ve benefited considerably from working with them, and believe that investing in yourself is one of the smartest decisions you can make.

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Andrew Westcombe PhD is a communications account manager and group fitness instructor who insists that studying philosophy – when it is done well – is a thoroughly practical pursuit.