Yesterday I asked the question, How much does it cost to pay attention? Though not all the responses are visible here, what surprised me most was the variety of ways people interpreted my (so I thought) simple query. Interestingly, most of them assumed a corresponding level of engagement beyond general observation.

Here’s my own answer to the question: paying attention costs nothing–or very little. I’m not talking about diving headlong into every situation you can find. I’m simply talking about taking note of the little things in the world around you. Be observant. I’ve found that sooner or later, those details become helpful in making life run more smoothly.

For example:

  • My company broadcasts personnel changes–new hires, promotions, organization changes–via email documents. We also have a searchable, online directory with title, reporting structure, and contact information for each person. Imagine my surprise when I overheard someone saying to a customer on the telephone, “I’m not sure where you got that information. I don’t believe we have anyone by that name here.” Knowing that we actually DO have someone by that name in one of our other offices, I was surprised that the person I had overheard 1) didn’t know that and 2) that she hadn’t tried to look it up. Had she not paid attention to the announcements? Had she not paid attention to the directory or the fact that we have one? Sure, she was eventually able to help the customer, but not without untangling his information on her own. Had she only paid attention, she would have at least known where to look. She could have asked her forgotten colleague and simplified the process.
  • On the positive side, I have an uncle who takes in absolutely everything. Details that seem inconsequential “stick” somewhere in his brain and he doesn’t even realize it. Colors, street names, storefronts, statistics–you name it, he stores it. Things that don’t seem to matter at the time are planted in his mind and remain dormant until a need arises. He doesn’t even know he plants them there, but more than once I’ve seen or heard him reconstruct a scenario in enough detail that he can make a connection to whatever situation is at hand. These mental associations–derived simply from paying attention–allow him to remember people’s names and details about their acquaintance. Besides being helpful in his line of work, his paying attention really makes people feel special. Who doesn’t need that?

Look around you. Listen and learn, and file those observations and lessons away until you can use them. You never know when they will help you connect the dots. Somehow, some way, those things will make your life richer. After all, in the words of John Belushi as Bluto from Animal House, “Don’t cost nothin’.”