Feb 23 / Simcha

The Art of Distraction

Image: Rutu Modan (NYTimes 2.18.12)

Real-estate mogul Barbara Corcoran describes how she struggled to pay attention in elementary school. She hadn’t learned to read by third grade, and accepted the label of “stupid” that the nuns had assigned to her.

“While every other kid was reading and writing,” she writes in a recent Newsweek article (1.23.12), “I had seven hours a day to practice my imagination. When do you get that space in your life, ever?  I know that it is what built my real-estate business, because I had an innate ability to picture everything in living color, as though it had already happened.”

This sentiment was echoed in a beautifully-written opinion piece that appeared in the New York Times around the same time. In The Art of Distraction (2.18.12), writer and filmmaker Hanif Kureishi weighs in on the benefits of Ritalin in helping schoolchildren focus vis-a-vis the losses that such use entails.

Like Corcoran, Kureishi struggled in school; he found himself not only unable to learn but at the bottom of his class; in retrospect, he ascribes this to a sort of tantrum, “a form of intellectual anorexia — the refusal to be given anything, to take anything in,” most likely a response to a father whom he could never please.

Without minimizing his depression or his feelings of failure and isolation as a young person, the writer reflects on the benefits of distraction.  “Some interruptions,” he writes,  “create a space for something to work in the fertile unconscious.”

“I might have been depressed as a teenager, but I wasn’t beyond enjoying some beautiful distractions. Since my father had parked a large part of his library in my bedroom, when I was bored with studying I would pick up a volume and flip through it until I came upon something that interested me. I ended up finding, more or less randomly, fascinating things while supposedly doing something else. Similarly, while listening to the radio, I became aware of artists and musicians I’d otherwise never have heard of. I had at least learned that if I couldn’t accept education from anyone else, I might just have to feed myself.”

Following a distraction into the realms of imagination and creativity, suggests Kureishi, requires a certain degree of independence and disobedience, something our increasingly regulated and conformist society does not encourage.  There is danger that as “our ideals of competence become more misleading and cruel,” many children and young adults will be made to feel like losers.

Corcoran comes to a similar conclusion.  She urges parents not to narrowly define their children and their children’s successes by such standards as school grades, and not to succumb to the pressure of forming their children to be like every other kid.  “Most great entrepreneurs I know are nothing like the other kids. They’re almost like tangent lines — those lines that seem to go nowhere.  Nothing connects them, until they get out in the real world.  Then they connect just fine.”

Leaving our children more space, on that relentless path to competence, for imagination and for “drifting and dreaming,”  inevitably broadens their exposure to knowledge, experience and culture;  affords them greater opportunities for self-actualization; and (perhaps most importantly) helps them learn to love and accept themselves.