How to Be a Beautiful Business in the Attention Economy

Paying attention is a start, regenerating attention is the end.

By Tim Leberecht

Can I please have 5 minutes of your undivided attention?

Attention is the currency of love — and of the digital economy. Both intersect (in fact, collide) at the very moment when the primary challenge for anyone in a relationship is to be more compelling than the partner’s smartphone, as the writer Alain de Botton once put it.

“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” the French philosopher and activist Simone Weil said.

And yet, attention is a zero-sum game. The attention we’re paying here, we are not paying there. It’s a spotlight that illuminates some things, while leaving others in the dark. How we manage our attention is therefore not just a matter of our own wellbeing. It’s also a civic and moral responsibility.

The responsibility of leaders and creators

Attention is a finite resource. Once it’s spent, it’s gone. This is a lesson to be heeded by anyone working in the field of art and entertainment, or in fact, any creator or leader. The experience economy is the attention economy, and for any experience you pay twice: first, in the memories — good or bad — which can absorb your attention long after they were created. And secondly, you pay in terms of opportunity cost: precious minutes of your life you will never get back.

This is why a beautiful life — in business and beyond — is a life where we pay attention to the right things: striking a balance (and perhaps even congruence) between what matters to us and what matters to others.

From digital wellbeing to the greater good

When it comes to business, noticing beauty is a start — and yet not enough. A beautiful business creates beauty, helps us see beauty in the seemingly mundane, but most importantly shifts our focus to the ugly, which is not-so-beautiful precisely because no one or not enough people are paying attention.

This means three responsibilities in particular:

  • Use your products and services to enhance individual wellbeing through features that enhance focus and presence rather than minimizing them.
  • Allow your customers to manage their attention themselves rather than manipulating them into how you think they should spend it. Now, that’s a noble principle, but of course the reality is this: You cannot not steer their attention. There is no neutral player on the field, no attention referee.
  • That said, what you stand for is what your customers and employees will pay attention to. So use the power of your brand as a curator of impressions and expressions deliberately to direct attention to the unheard, unseen, and underrepresented.

Former Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario and “livelihood”

Outdoor clothing firm Patagonia is widely heralded as the epitome of a mission-driven brand, and it checks many of the boxes here. It does pay attention — and acts on it. The privately held company is dedicated to using business to help solve the climate crisis, and in this case, it is certainly more than just lip service. Patagonia was one of the first retailers to embrace organic materials, offering to recycle and repair customers’ clothes rather than urge them to buy new items, and once even ran ads asking them not to buy its products. It consistently took a public stance on political issues, openly endorsed senatorial candidates in the U.S. that it thought would protect public lands, and sued President Trump.

Former CEO Rose Marcario, who resigned from her role in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, gave her first interview (to the New York Times) after her surprise departure from the company last summer, and it reveals a remarkably self-conscious and servant leader who paid attention to what the world had been telling her: that it was time to step down and make way for the next chapter of leadership at Patagonia:

“Honestly, I felt like I had accomplished everything that I wanted to accomplish as a leader. I felt like I had learned everything that I wanted to from Yvon [Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia]. A lot of CEO’s stay a little too long at the fair. I think it’s good for companies to have new leadership.”

Marcario still believes that “business can be the greatest agent for positive change in the world” but, ever so outspoken, lambasts the leaders of digital platforms:

“I would say right now we don’t have a functioning society, partly because of Twitter and Facebook. They have no commitment to the objective truth, and no strategy on how to handle what they unleashed. They’re spineless in my view.”

Borrowing from Buddhism, she considers herself a “happy warrior”: “It doesn’t mean you let people walk all over you. Instead, you cultivate a fearless heart, you’re fierce and you call out wrongdoing.”

She cites the Buddhist eightfold path to enlightenment, which centers on livelihood. “We’re not here to chase material wealth. We’re here to learn how to develop a compassionate heart and become better people, and that in turn makes the world better,” she says.

Are you weird enough?

Philosopher L. M. Sacasas, in an essay on “attention austerity” and freedom, pinpoints the root cause of the attention crisis: the Western division between subject and object. He cites the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who noted that “in ancient China and Japan subject and object were understood not as categories of opposition but of identification,” and:

“This is probably the source of the profoundly respectful descriptions of what surrounds us, of flowers, trees, landscapes, for the things we can see are somehow a part of ourselves, but only by virtue of being themselves and preserving their suchness, to use a Zen Buddhist term.”

The poet and activist Bayo Akomolafe, who will be one of the speakers at our Concrete Love festival this fall, proposes a related set of questions:

“What if the ways we frame and meet our most troubling crises are part of the crises? What lingers in our blind spots, disturbing the supposed incontrovertibility of seeing? What are we missing? What questions are we not able to ask? What if we are not weird enough?”

Circular attention

What Akomolafe articulates is that in order to embody beauty, business must take a sustainable approach to attention itself. “Is a regenerative attention economy possible?” Linda Gorchels asked in a 2019 blog post. The answer must be yes. Our life depends on it.

And indeed, what if attention were regenerative, even circular? Which business models and digital services might help us create new attention resources while we are exhausting the existing ones?

The answer to this question must go beyond mindfulness apps, anti-distraction features, or the occasional cause marketing. It must require any company to develop a sustainable attention strategy. Otherwise, beautiful business is just a mirage.

Tim Leberecht is the co-founder and co-CEO of the House of Beautiful Business, a global platform and community for making humans more human and business more beautiful.

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