On how the mind is shaped by what you notice and how to define “success”

This morning I listened to the On Being podcast with host Krista Tippett. Her guest was Maria Popova, who Tippett calls a “cartographer of meaning in a digital age.” Popova is the creator of Brain Pickings, “an inquiry into what it means to live a decent, substantive, rewarding life, and a record of [her] own becoming as a person — intellectually, creatively, spiritually — drawn from [her] extended marginalia on the search for meaning across literature, science, art, philosophy, and the various other tentacles of human thought and feeling.”

I am going to share two excerpts. The first concerns the knowing subject (humans) and the known object (the world).

Popova: We never see the world exactly as it is. We see it as we hope it will be or we fear it might be. And we spend our lives going through a sort of modified stages of grief about that realization. We deny it, and then we argue with it, and we despair over it. But eventually — and this is my belief — we come to see it, not as despairing, but as vitalizing.

We never see the world exactly as it is because we are how the world is. I think it was William James who said, “My experience is what I agree to attend to, and only those things which I notice shaped my mind.” In choosing how we are in the world, we shape our experience of that world, our contribution to it. We shape our world, our inner world, our outer world, which is really the only one we’ll ever know. And to me, that’s the substance of the spiritual journey. That’s not an exasperating idea but an infinitely emboldening one. It’s taken me many years to come to that without resistance.

The quotation from William James stuck out to me, and explains why I am a teacher. The source is Chapter XI “Attention” in Volume 1 of The Principles of Psychology:

Millions of items of the outward order are present to my sense which never properly enter into my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind — without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos. Interest alone gives accent and emphasis, light and shade, background and foreground — intelligible perspective, in a word.

As a teacher, I have agreed to attend to works of the imagination (literature) and intellect (theology). My mind is shaped by noticing items of delight and wisdom. How many people can say that about their work? If I were in the commercial world rather than the educational one, I shudder to think how my mind would be shaped by noticing items in the market.

The second excerpt I want to share concerns definition of “success” that runs counter to its usual monetization:

Tippett:  If I ask you how you measure success, like, in any given day, what comes to mind?

Popova: Once again, I am going to side with Thoreau. He said something like: ‘If the day and night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers, it’s more elastic and more starry and more immortal, that is your success.’ For me, that’s pretty much it: waking up and being excited and curiously restless to face the day ahead, and being very present with that day, and then going to bed feeling like it actually happened, that the day was lived.

I welcome Thoreau’s vision of success as joyful living, which reminds me about the purpose of the Incarnation, as Jesus said: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). I think success is waking up, keenly aware that “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is [his] faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23).  If I get to the end of the day, and my soul can honestly say, “The Lord was my portion,” then my day was full (3:24).

QUESTIONS: What have you agreed to attend to? What items do you habitually notice that shape your mind? How do you measure success?


6 thoughts on “On how the mind is shaped by what you notice and how to define “success”

    • Thanks for reading my blog, William. I am attracted to any definition of “success” that is humane, and much of what passes for “success” in American society fails to reach that bar.

  1. As an undergraduate psychology major William James was mentioned in my classes a few times in passing, though his contributions were largely presented as outdated at this point. Goes to show you how far divorced psychology and philosophy have become. I’m also big Walker Percy fan!

    • Thanks for your comment, Patrick. I read William James as an undergraduate philosophy major. Long before psychology developed into a field of its own, the best philosophers were psychologists. James continues in that tradition.

  2. Excellent questions!
    As a college freshman in the tedious process of deciding a major, that which is attended to should be considered. My participation in the Torrey Honors Institute lends my attention to imagination and intellect. My business classes direct my mind to dreams of the future and the practical side of ministry. In my free time, my attention is divided many ways, including spending time with friends, music, and reading books not assigned. I wake up every day with excitement at the prospect of a new day as a child of God and thankful for the incredible mixture of things that I am able to pay attention to. This leaves me looking toward the future, speculating about which objects of my current attention will obtain vocational sovereignty.

    I agree with the Thoreau- Popova- Bensonian conception of success. However, I think there’s also a sense to which, as a Christian, my success doesn’t have to do with how my life is going. In fact, the early Church saw increased suffering as a sort of blessing from the Lord because it resulted in closeness to the Lord. In my recent reading of a few of Paul’s epistles, I was reminded that one of the Christian’s greatest joys in life is community with fellow believers. This defines success in a way that opposes individualism. Hence, I would say that what one does for their job and for pleasure can only be successful to a certain extent without others in community.

    • Regarding your last point about community, I regard my vocation as a “success” because I teach with good people who are doing a good work for a good purpose, all in service to our good Father.

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