‘Art of Notcing’ by Rob Walker

‘Art of Notcing’ by Rob Walker

WHO: Rob Walker

131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration,
and Discover Joy in the Everyday

WHEN: Published by Knopf May 10, 2019

WHERE: The author lives in New Orleans.

WHY: An imaginative, thought-provoking book to awaken your senses and attune them to the things that matter in your life.

Welcome to the era of white noise. Our lives are in constant tether to phones, to email, and to social media. In this age of distraction, the ability to experience and be present is often lost: to think and to see and to listen.

Enter Rob Walker’s THE ART OF NOTICING. This gorgeously illustrated volume will spark your creativity–and most importantly, help you see the world anew. Through a series of simple and playful exercises — 131 of them — Walker maps ways for you to become a clearer thinker, a better listener, a more creative workplace colleague and finally, to rediscover your sense of passion and to notice what really matters to you.

. . . . .


Q: How did THE ART OF NOTICING come about? Did anything particular inspire you to write this?

A: I don’t need to convince you that we all feel distracted and overwhelmed these days, like everyone else is trying to steal your attention. I felt that, too. But I was frustrated that the response was always about what NOT to do. I wanted to imagine spending even just an hour a week really taking positive action to control your attention. That’s what the book’s 131 exercises are designed for.

Some are super super easy – like spending time looking out a window, or identify what’s the oldest thing you can see and the newest thing you can see. Some are more challenging, like going on a photo walk – but without a camera. Or pick five SOUNDS that define your neighborhood. And some are really adventurous, like learning to hunt for experiences that almost seem outside the five senses, like how it feels to be ALMOST touched. The point is that you don’t have to become a monk. This is stuff you can DO, that will provoke you to make a habit of experiencing the world in a more attentive way – and build up your attention muscles.

Q: What kind of research did you do for this book? You spoke to a lot of people for this – what were you looking for in experts you queried?

A: I’m a curious person, so as I was collecting my own ideas I got curious about what other curious people do to stay engaged.

That included people like Seth Godin, an expert on business and entrepreneurialism, and he talked about finding things to complain about – because that’s where innovation comes from, being the one who spots something that could be made better.

Or Dan Ariely, the behavioral economics and psychology expert, who talked about training yourself to spot the forces that guide social behavior, for instance.

Or Paola Antonelli, the brilliant senior design curator at MoMA, who had this fun idea about interviewing an object, what object would you interview and what would you ask and why — the kind of prompt that really makes you think.

Q: You write that the aim of your class at the School of Visual Arts is to “provoke [students] into thinking about what they notice, what they miss, [and] why it matters.” Why is this so important not just for designers, but for pretty much everyone?

A: My class at SVA is called Point of View, and it’s designed to help students figure out what is most important to them and their work, and how to talk about it. And one of the crucial steps in that process is to encourage them to NOTICE WHAT THEY NOTICE and PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT THEY PAY ATTENTION TO.

Creativity starts with attention, always. And often what matters in almost any field – a scientist, a coach, an entrepreneur, a manager, a journalist like me – is noticing what other people overlooked. That’s the first step to crafting an original point of view on the world, and breaking from the pack. Which is the ultimate competitive edge.

Q: You write that we are living in a sort of “21st century attention panic” – what do you mean by that?

A: The number one trending topic of the moment is that we’re all paying too much attention to trending topics! We can’t stop talking about what everyone else is talking about. And that comes at the expense of what really matters to us as individuals.

That’s the cycle the book is designed to break. And as one example, there’s an exercise that’s just called “Look Like A Child.” You could be in the most boring or irritating situation, but think about whata child – who is still experiencing things for the first time –would make of it. Try to channel that wonder and curiosity of the child. You had it before, you can have it again.

Q: You say that what we do with our attention is what makes us human. How so?

A: All animals, including homo sapiens, survive in part by responding to their environment – to perceived rewards or perceived threats. That’s how evolution works, we’re hardwired to operate that way. We react.

BUT humans are unique in our ability to override this instinctual behavior. We can control our attention and decide where to direct it, we can recognize distraction and tune it out, we can innovate, we can create, and we can see the man behind the curtain – if we try!

If you spend all your time just reacting to others, then you’re basically just a reflection of other people’s whims and desires and demands. But you have the ability to get past that. What I’m trying to do is inspire people is to embrace that ability.

Q: How does noticing and observing unlock or spark creativity?

A: We all get in ruts sometimes, when everything feels familiar, like there’s just nothing new. But of course that’s never really true, and a lot of the 131 prompts in The Art of Noticing specifically are trying to get you out of a rut. Like challenge yourself to notice one new thing on your commute every day. Or when you’re in someone else’s home or office, look around for the weirdest thing in the room, and ask about it.

Sometimes simple exercises can teach important lessons. I borrow educator Jennifer L. Roberts’ assignment in which she has art history students look at a single work for three hours. Which sounds crazy! But the students say it teaches them how we put too much trust in a first quick glance, and there’s always a lot that we’re missing, and sometimes it takes time and real attention to see it.

Q: How has writing THE ART OF NOTICING and teaching others about it helped you?

A: On a day to day level, I’m a journalist, so when I do my own exercises, like the one-object scavenger hunt, where I pick some specific thing to look for everywhere I go, such neighborhood watch signs or whatever I choose, that can lead to an article!

On a bigger and broader level, it just deepens my sense that the world is worth engaging with. I’m not addicted to my phone at all, and I’m never really bored. But most of all it’s incredibly gratifying to watch students gain confidence in their own point of view by noticing what they notice, and really pursue that, and let it guide the work they truly want to do.

Q: There are 131 exercises in this book. Which are your personal favorites? Are there any that you practice regularly, or are go-tos at particular moments or times of stress?

A: I most frequently use the ones that somehow convert everyday life into a game. So, for instance if I have to go to WalMart or something, there’s a prompt I always use, borrowed from the game designer Ian Bogost, to treat a routine retail trip like I’m an anthropologist. In my case I make it a point to keep an eye out for: What’s the most totally absurd thing for sale here? And how would I explain it to an alien?

But another one I use a lot is totally different: sitting in silence for four minutes and 33 seconds. That time limit is a reference to the composer John Cage and his most famous piece, but what it boils down to is just listening for a set amount of time. I do this in my home office a lot, and I’ve become so tuned in to the neighborhood sounds. It’s mind expanding, and I think it’s improved my awareness of sound in general. It’s also incredibly calming; it becomes a moment of focus.

Q: Which exercises best lend themselves to a professional environment, for a group of colleagues, say?

A: Sometimes noticing isn’t just about attending to the material world, it’s about attending to others. So, there’s one very fun exercise that I borrowed from a writer named Amy Krouse Rosenthal, which is her suggestion for making a group biography. The idea is that everyone discusses what they ALL have in common. Are we all from the United States? Do we all like pizza? Did we all see Black Panther? Do we all prefer the Rolling Stones over the Beatles? And so on. Eventually you agree on a set number of things and that’s your group biography. But obviously the fun, and team building payoff, is in all the questions you have to ask each other to get there.

Q: If you were going to a new city or destination, which exercises would you recommend trying as a way to better explore a new place?

A: One would be Get There The Hard way. At least once during your trip, go to some destination without
taking directions from your phone. Plan out a route in advance, and you can consult a paper map if you want, or written directions, just don’t rely on your phone – if you get confused, ask someone for help. Be engaged with the space you’re in, find your way, and be open to discovery as you go.

The other is Eat Somewhere Dubious. Have one meal at a restaurant that you didn’t find on Yelp or through any sort of recommendation and that doesn’t even look trendy or hip. First you’ll have fun keep an eye out: “Is THAT our dubious restaurant?” Second, even if you have a mediocre meal, you’ll have an unpredictable
experience! And this, by the way, is how the best food writers make discoveries, and find the places that later get hot on Yelp. So maybe you’ll get lucky.

Q: How can parents help their children be better observers? Which exercises would you recommend they do with their kids? (Any of these particularly great for long road trips or plane rides?)

A: The one-object scavenger hunt is an easy one – let’s look for security cameras, let’s look for flowers, whatever it is you choose, you can both participate, and it gets the kid involved in the world. And maybe you let her or him pick what you’ll look for together. A friend of mine does a version of this while walking his son to school, and it’s “who can spot something gross?”

But something else I’d say here is that kids are often already quite good at converting everything to a game, and at seeing the world with fresh eyes – I mean, they have fresh eyes. There’s a specific exercise in the book to try to see the world as a child would, so if you actually have a child handy, maybe just try to tune into what they’re tuned into, and why, and what they make of it. Encourage their noticing by participating in it with them.

Q: You divide the book into five sections – Looking, Sensing, Going Places, Connecting with Others, and Being Alone – how did you decide on these specific categories for THE ART OF NOTICING?

A: While the book can actually be read in any order you choose – it’s very accessible, you can skip around and look for what resonates with you – the sequence is very intentionally starting on the outside and working your way in.

When we think of noticing or attention we think first of what we see, so that’s where the book starts. Then we get into other senses, and taking journeys, and engaging with others, and then it concludes with personal, inward noticing.

As you know, mindfulness and meditation have become popular aspirations. Even companies like Google and Goldman Sachs have implemented programs for the employees to help them regain focus, screen out distraction, so they can think clearly and originally. And that’s where the book lands – there’s an exercise about making an appointment with yourself, and one about caring for something. Because it’s through engaging with the world that you gain the clarity to understand what matters most.

I think mindfulness and meditation practices are terrific, but I know sometimes people find them kind of difficult and off putting – like “am I doing it right? Is it working?” That’s why the exercises in the Art of Noticing are super-accessible, they’re very easy and fun, yet they help you toward that same goal.

Q: You write Lifehacker’s Human Resource column which focuses on work advice (and before that, penned the Workologist column at the New York Times.) What kinds of questions do you get most often? How can THE ART OF NOTICING help?

A: So many of the questions I get boil down to problems that stem from poor communication, misunderstanding, lack of connection. So, this idea of connecting with others, clearly that’s an important part of the workplace experience.

One of the sections in the book is called Connecting With Others, and it’s full of exercises designed to help us attend to other people better, whether that means loved ones or strangers, because we can learn so much from others if we really listen and really notice what they’re saying and doing and offering. For example there’s a “walk and talk” exercise, where instead of going with your friend to a meal, you take a walk together, and you can share that experience. There’s also an exercise about walking in silence with others, so you really tune into your environment, maybe on a nature walk, and can discuss and bond later about who noticed what, and how your experiences differed. There’s an exercise about interviewing an expert, and suggestions for asking
questions that lead to more revealing answers.

Q: What do you hope readers take from this book?

A: We live in a culture now that’s dominated by trending topics. So it’s easy to think, “Well there’s this thing that I noticed and no one else seems to have noticed it, so I guess it’s not that important.”

But what I tell my students – and what I’m telling you! – is “No, those things you notice that no one else does – that’s the MOST important!”

This is why we need to make the effort, sometimes, to tune out the white noise of other people trying to steal your attention, and focus on our own curiosity, our own observation, our own sense of wonder, our own sense of what matters.

Don’t end up going through life like a robot. Surprise yourself, pay attention to what grabs your attention, and ask why, and whether that’s something that can be celebrated, or, if it’s a problem, fixed.

The things you notice that others didn’t at first — that’s what makes you YOU.

Jacket photo

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About the book and author | Author tour | Download the jacket | Download the author photo

Knopf. 40 illustrations.
229 pages. $22.95 ISBN 978-0-525-52124-2

To interview the author, contact:
Erinn Hartman | 212-572-2345 | ehartman@penguinrandomhouse.com