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Marie Howe is the poet laureate of New York and a professor at New York University. At the beginning of every school year, she asks her students to write down ten sensory observations. “Just tell me what you saw this morning. You know, ‘I saw a water glass on a brown tablecloth and the light came through it in three places.’ No metaphor. And to resist metaphor is very difficult because you have to actually endure the thing itself, which hurts us for some reason. But then about the fourth week, suddenly all this stuff comes clanking out. The slice of an apple. The sound of a trash can closing.”

In advertising, it’s our job to be aware of what’s going on around us: See it. Hear it. Smell it. Taste it. So do me a favor. Get a pencil and paper and try Marie’s exercise. Write down ten things you saw or heard or smelled or tasted on the way to work today. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Not easy, was it?

This, my friends, is a problem. We think we understand the human condition. We think we understand why people gravitate to this brand, but not that. Why they like rap, but hate country. Why they adore Jennifer Lawrence, but loathe Miley Cyrus. Why they’re willing to wait in line for days for a new iPhone, but can’t wait to go all Red Wedding on it at the first sign of a glitch. Well, of course we think that. In advertising, we see things that no one else sees. Don’t we?

David Roberts is a blogger for Grist. In 2013, he made a big decision to unplug and go digitally naked for whole year. No e-mail. No texts. No Facebook or Twitter. No iChats or Hangouts or Spotify. No notifications. In an article for Outside, he shared where he had landed: “Digital technology pulls us in a million directions. It is designed on purpose to destroy your mindfulness.”

It’s hard to dispute this. Quantum physics might tell us that an object can be in more than one place at the same time, but creativity doesn’t work this way. It’s the rare creative who can make something of genius while her mind is off in the digital weeds, shuttling between screens, her awareness of the real world smothered beneath the crushing weight of tweets and statuses and meaningless videos.

I turn back to Howe for more wisdom. “I loved Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke and all of those old-school science fiction writers,” she says. “Remember all those books we read? How the machines were going to take over? And then it occurred to me, what face do I look into more than any other? The face of my iPhone. I have no will when it comes to the computer, the hours doing e-mail. What happened? It happened in ten years, fifteen years. They rule.”

Journalist William Powers understands this as well as anyone. In his book, Hamlet’s BlackBerry, Powers lays it on the line. “The digital consciousness,” he wrote, “can’t tolerate three minutes of pure focus.” And lest you think all this is much ado about nothing, in 2010, the New York Times published a test to see how well you can focus. If anything, keeping your focus is exponentially harder now than it was then. Don’t think so? Try it yourself.

In “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Sherlock Holmes tries to explain to his assistant, Watson, how they can witness the same things, yet Holmes somehow sees so much more. To make the point, Holmes asks Watson to tell him how many steps there are leading up from the hall. Keep in mind that, like Holmes, Watson had been up and down those steps hundreds of times. And yet Watson didn’t have a clue, if you’ll excuse the expression, as to precisely how many steps there were. He saw the steps. But he had never observed them.

As the kids in Howe’s poetry class discovered, being mindful of the world isn’t something that comes easily to most of us. Not if you’re a student. Not if you’re an advertising creative. It’s easy to be swept away by technology. It’s easy to let it hijack our creative focus. But if we’re driven to do great work, letting distractions rule us is also insane.

But you, I’m not worried about. You, I’m thinking, aren’t like most people. In fact, I’d bet on it. Just like I’d bet you know exactly how many songs you have on your iPhone, how many traffic lights are on your commute and the hair color of the barista who made your latte this morning. ca

Ernie Schenck (ernieschenckcreative.prosite.com) is a freelance writer, a creative director and a regular contributor to CA’s Advertising column. An Emmy finalist, three-time Kelley nominee and a perennial award winner—the One Show, Clios, D&AD, Emmys and Cannes—Schenck worked on campaigns for some of the most prestigious brands in the world in his roles at Hill Holliday/Boston, Leonard Monahan Saabye and Pagano Schenck & Kay. He lives with his wife and daughter in Jamestown, Rhode Island.
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