“Just” Paying Attention

One of my favorite Zen stories is about paying attention. I read it as a kid, and it stuck with me:

A student said to Master Ichu, ‘Please write for me something of great wisdom.’
Master Ichu picked up his brush and wrote one word: ‘Attention.’
The student said, ‘Is that all?’
The master wrote, ‘Attention. Attention.’
The student became irritable. ‘That doesn’t seem profound or subtle to me.’
In response, Master Ichu wrote simply, ‘Attention. Attention. Attention.’
In frustration, the student demanded, ‘What does this word attention mean?’
Master Ichu replied, ‘Attention means attention.’ [1]

Paying attention is hard. We’re distracted, we think too much, we are too self-absorbed. Technology has made focusing even harder, but we have always craved distraction, whether it’s a smartphone game or a nervous habit like tapping the table. It’s easier not to be here, wherever “here” is.

I make digital products for a living, and the exact opposite of distraction—Attention, attention, attention—is The Thing™️. To make a wild claim, I might even argue that there’s nothing else.

“Enso” by Gibon Sengai. The inscription says, “Eat this, then have tea.” [2]

Is It Enough to “Just” Pay Attention?

Yes. Simply paying attention is enough.

This is as true for digital products as it is for raising children.

I have two young kids — a girl and a boy. At home, my kids soak up attention (like they’re supposed to; it’s great). Bath time, eating, diapers. “Watch me, Dad!” My children and their needs highlight a crucial fact: Paying attention is the most important thing I can do as a father.

If I pay attention, my family feels loved, and my daughter doesn’t fall and hit her head (she’s small). If I pay attention, my son learns how to build that Lego set (he’s a little bigger).

Now you’re saying, “Well, Phil. You’re talking about more than just attention. You’re talking about actually doing something.” You’re right. I’d say that paying attention means 1) That you care, and 2) That you will do something about what you see. No person in their right mind would let a kid fall, if they notice it in time. No product manager worth their salt would see a product failure and let it slip by unmentioned. But it’s still “just” paying attention. The action, like stopping a kid from falling, comes automatically when you’re paying attention properly. So there :)

I fail to pay attention all the time. When I’m tired at home, I don’t have the energy to take my kids to the park. I fall asleep when reading to my son. My daughter grabs one of our cats and gets scratched. Not good.

If I don’t pay attention, the world around me gets worse. If I do pay attention, the world around me gets better. All of this goes to illustrate: It’s enough to just pay attention.

The Monks of Reikado and the Eternal Flame

Now that we know attention is good, let’s see how to apply it.

I think there’s no better example of attention than Japan’s eternal flame at Reikado Hall on Miyajima, an island off the coast of Hiroshima. Here are some pictures I took on a recent visit:

The eternal flame lives inside, and the monks have been keeping it smoldering day and night for around 1200 years [3]. As you can see, the hall can be quite smoky:

The walls are covered with a thick layer of soot, and if you like the smell of woodsmoke, then this might be your favorite place on Earth. It’s good luck to drink a bit of hot water from the cauldron. The water does not taste smoky, but since the air is so pungent, the smoke transfers to the experience of drinking the water. It feels good.

I remember the times I’ve lit a grill or a fireplace, and keeping the flame going for two or three hours is hard. Maintaining a flame for 1200 years requires a shocking level of attention. It’s a matter of opinion, but I’m not sure that anything we’ve done recently, including inventing the smartphone or sending humans to space, really compares. The eternal flame is a quiet achievement, but one that requires many generations working in unison towards a common goal, without faltering, ever. And it’s still going. The achievement is a living one, still in flux, still requiring the same attention it always has.

The achievement of the Reikado monks and their eternal flame puts attention in perspective. “Just” paying attention, over time and in service of a goal, is one of the most difficult and most important achievements humankind has to offer. This achievement applies to mothers and fathers molding the next generation, to craftsmen forming a perfect object, and to little old people like you and me, building digital products.

Tending the Flame

Creating a digital product, or making anything, is about tending the flame. Paying attention every day until it’s done. And then continuing to pay attention to the bugs, maintenance, and enhancements that inevitably come after.

Like with kids, attention makes the world better. And like the eternal flame, attention must be consistent over time. Attention, consistently applied. That’s it.

If Reikado monks can tend the flame, so can we. Sure, making digital products is hard, but it isn’t magic. It’s “just” paying attention, along with all the hard work that implies.