Pay Attention


I think all creatives yearn for some kind of success, some kind of recognition for the work we do. Success is maybe not why we photograph, write, paint or travel—or whatever creative activity we do—or ought not to be. The work itself, being creative, is a reward good enough if we only let ourselves not get obsessed with the thought of success. The craving for success can actually get in the way of our creative endeavour.

Nevertheless, we do feel good when we experience some kind of success, whether it’s monetary gain or just some heartfelt feedback from a good friend. I am sure you know what I am talking about.

Success is all in our minds, though. You cannot control how the world will receive and perceive your artistic work, but you can be in command of how you feel about it yourself. If you let yourself feel good about actually having achieve your creative goal, whether it’s a book you have written or a photo project you have undertaken, your creativity may flourish even more.

I know, it’s easy to say. Because we do yearn for some kind of recognition from the outside. And when it doesn’t come —and often it doesn’t or takes a long time to arrive—we feel discouraged or even dumped. What really happens then is we fire up under our own scepticism.

Perhaps the greatest barrier for a creative life is this deeply held scepticism that we all hold inside of us. When we don’t experience the success we so want, we nourish our own scepticism. Then we start to doubt. We doubt our creative abilities. We doubt we have it in us at all, and these doubts are very powerful.

Very often when success doesn’t show up, we give up, let our creative self down. Instead, we let ourselves sink into addictive thoughts. Rather than living now, we spin our wheels and indulge in daydreams of could have, would have, should have. We stop being creative, even resent it and fall into a black hole. Life is no longer what it is, but what it could be or ought to be. According to Julia Cameron, a writer, director and producer—and the author of the book The Artist’s Way—one of the greatest misconceptions about artistic life is that it entails great swathes of aimlessness. The truth, according to her, is that a creative life involves great swathes of attention. Attention is a way to connect and survive.

So when you feel miserable and futile because success has failed to appear, instead of letting yourself sink into despair and resignation, start to pay attention to what is beautiful in your life. Try not to worry about your creative disappointment, be aware of the now. Live in the now. You still have creativity in you; you are still creative, no matter success or failure. Success or failure has little to do with quality of life—creatively or otherwise. Again, according to Julia Cameron, quality of life is in proportion, always, to the capacity to delight. If you are able to feel delight even when life is hard, success doesn’t show up or when you lose someone you love, you can recover and feel alive again. If you are able to feel delight, you will gain trust in your creative abilities again. You will start to create again.

And here is the point: The capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention. If you pay attention to what is right now, the small pleasure that always are, you are on a path to creative recovery.

The award of attention is always healing. It begins as the healing of a particular pain—the lost lover, the sickly child, the shattered dream, the lack of success. But what is healed, finally, is the pain that underlies all pains; the pain that we are all, as Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke phrases it, «unutterably alone». Attention gets us back on the track, and what more is attention is an act of connection. This I know from my own experience.

Some 15 years ago, I went through a divorce. As anyone who has undergone a divorce knows, it’s a painful experience. After my divorce, I pretty much withdrew from everything. I stopped seeing friends, I didn’t go out anymore, I didn’t engage in anything besides work and spending as much time with my kids as possible. In reality I gave up myself, I felt ashamed and I felt guilty. Eventually my creativity—that my work so depends on—stagnated as well.

I would take long, solitary walks, and I would suffer. Then one day, as I was doing a day hike up in the mountains surrounding the city I live in and was immersed in my own ominous thoughts, a little girl ran into me. She had been chasing a butterfly and hadn’t seen me at all, before she bumped into me. «Isn’t that a beautiful butterfly», I remember her saying. In fact, it was a rather dull, bleak butterfly, but suddenly I did see its delicate beauty. And then I started to notice the small flowers that grew out around rocks, I noticed birds in the sky and saw the imaginative figures the clouds formed on the sky above. It was as if I suddenly was awakened. I started to pay attention. I started to live in the now again. I started to appreciated what was.

Not long after my life got traction again—included my creative life.

The poet William Meredith has observed that the worst that can be said of a man is that «he did not pay attention».

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken on Ilford XP-2 film with a Canon EOS-3 and a 16-35 mm lens set at 20 mm. The photo was scanned and processed in Photoshop.

116 thoughts on “Pay Attention

  1. An excellent reminder to those of us who want so much out of the writing life we sometimes forget the blessings we already have. (Yes, I’m mainly talking about me. 🙂

  2. Your description of the divorce and the feeling afterwards. So aptly. I was there too. The creativity came back. After a longer period of time. But in a greater extent. Well written. Thank you. Sincerely.

  3. How magical that the little girl reawakened your sense of wonder in such a simple and beautiful way, Otto! Thank you for passing along that lesson to the rest of us through this wonderful post. (Marvelous photo, by the way. The child’s joy is contagious.)

  4. What a beautiful story, Otto. That little girl’s role in your life sounds like a wake-up call from an angel! You painted the story vividly with your words as well!

    Sometimes that time of incubation is important – if for no other reason than to help us have empathy for those who face similar challenges. Isn’t it interesting how something can be a catalyst and trigger us back into a positive direction?

  5. Otto, this is absolutely beautiful!! I couldn’t agree more. It is so easy to ‘circle the wagons ‘and withdraw in times of duress. And yet beauty continues to surround us waiting for us to wake up. What a wonderful gift you rec’d from that little girl. Thank you so much for sharing this!!

  6. Love the part about the little girl and the butterfly. I think we have all been on the pity pot at some time. It is so wonderful to see the beauty that is all around us, no matter where we are.

  7. I love that image. It made me smile a very big smile. I’ve had days when I feel like that, although they don’t come often enough. 😀

    Thank you for this post, Otto. It’s something I needed to hear/read.

  8. I will not deny success it’s important, but as you say if you focus solely on it, you may spoil the work, I take the view that whatever activity you do, should be done in a a sort of selfless state of mind, if you work hard enough, some sort of reward will come along, sometimes from an unexpected source. In my view success it’s just the proverbial icing on the cake, but not the cake itself.
    Thank you Otto, great piece, and great picture! 🙂

  9. Such a beautiful essay, Otto. You’ve cited two of my favorite sources, anything by Rilke and “The Artist’s Way.” I really appreciate your transparent sharing from your own life and experiences that adds contextual truth. And the photo is a magical visuals of your words. Thank you for this bit of delight today!

  10. You know there are no coincidences, right? The Universe saw to it that the little girl would bump into you, point out beauty, at just the moment you were ready to pay attention again.
    I wonder why kids seem to show us the way best; for me it has been my grandchildren.

    1. I think kids are just more aware of the now and don’t have any preconceived ideas about how things ought to be. And, yes, I do think there are coincidence and synchronicity in the world. 🙂

  11. Splendid post, Otto. It is so important to live in this moment that we have, because who knows when we will run out of moments? “The capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention. If you pay attention to what is right now, the small pleasure that always are, you are on a path to creative recovery.” In the end, we are in control of our own happiness…which is a great nourishment to creativity.

    1. We are in control of our own happiness, even when circumstances take a toll on us. It’s all a matter of perspective and paying attention to whatever good is right now, isn’t it. Thank you, Linda.

  12. What a beautiful post Otto and one that resonated with me on a very deep level. Thank you for the timely reminder of what is really important. Loved this.

  13. This is an encouraging post. That is so true if we focus only on success then that is a sign of up coming crash and burn. Great advice to living in the now and pay attention to it. Thank you for sharing your personal awakening.

  14. Thank you for sharing your reflection. It is true what the poet William Meredith had stated, a great reminder for not letting us forget of the beauty surrounding us. Great post, Otto!

  15. This is a great post on how to nurture our creativity! And wellbeing, in general. Loved the story of the little girl who helped you to pay attention again. I have noticed that after I started to photograph birds and nature a bit more seriously, I “see” a lot more than I used to.

  16. Thank you so much for this timely reminder!

    I’ve been skeptical, and resistant, to sharing my efforts recently because I wasn’t receiving the external validation I expected. Perspective sure plays a large role in my perception of my progress, and if I don’t consciously realign my perspective, it will shift me away from meaningful goals.

    1. Of course you are right, sometimes sharing one’s efforts may exposure oneself in a way we don’t desire. It’s always important to keep one’s own perspective in view. Thank you for the the poignant comment, Gabe.

  17. Otto!! i’m sorry you got divorced, but that story of coming back to life was amazing, and i soooo love the message of paying attention, THANK YOU, this was a great post!!

  18. You tricked me there for a moment, Otto, with the happy children picture before I was drawn in to your very moving words. It’s hard to expose our soft underbelly, but coming out of bad times with a new rush of energy and creativity makes us appreciate the small things once again.

    1. Sorry for having tricked you. 🙂 But you are so right, and that of course was my message. Sometimes bad times is what is needed to start paying attention to the small things. Thank you for the comment, Mary.

  19. The story of the little girl running into you, and how it woke you up, really touched me. Your post reminded me of a quotation I discovered recently that has become my mantra:
    Instructions for life:
    Pay attention.
    Be astonished.
    Tell about it.
    ~ Mary Oliver, from her poem “Somewhere”
    This is what I attempt to do in my photography.

  20. I’m sure most of us can recall similar occasions in our own lives. Attention, awareness, a sense of perspective combined with positive endeavour can produce a rewarding outcome – with or without recognition from others.

  21. Thanks to Sarah Potter for sharing this. I will as well as I know many creatives who have their moments of doubt. Wise words, indeed! Thank you, Otto (and Sarah)!

  22. Reblogged this on A Delectable Life and commented:
    Very wise words that I felt should be shared with all my creative friends and family. For those moments when you despair and lose sight of what it is that you do. And for those who have lived through difficult times that blind you to what and who you are.

    Time to sit up and pay attention

  23. I’ve never thought much about the expression “pay attention,” but I discovered something interesting about the word “attention” itself. It’s roots go back to the Latin which means “to stretch toward.” In short, it’s active, not passive. Giving attention to something requires stretching toward it, which is exactly what we don’t do when we’ve lost energy or confidence for any reason.

    “Watching television” or “watching the world go by” are essentially passive. Paying attention to the world — stretching toward it — is active, and leads to that engagement which is so necessary for creativity. You’ve captured that reality beautifully here, and provided a fine reminder that seeing, too, is an art that can be cultivated.

    1. You add a good point here, in that paying attention is indeed something we need to do actively. That’s maybe why it’s so hard. Much easier, then, to passively watch TV or whatever. Thank you for a very poignant comment, Linda.

  24. Success can be seen in different ways you have this view of what society sees success to be and than there is you own view of it. Sometimes the reason you feel unsuccessfully is because you are in one of the two meanings. You can be unsuccessful if societies view and be very successful in your own. It is all in your head, after all even the most successful of us feel like there is something missing or want something they don’t already have. This idea of recognition comes from our need to be viewed as successful, however just because you are views so dose resemble the reality of the situation. Which brings me back to that meaning that there are two views of it there is your own and the one society has. We want that recognition from society yet we forget to recognize it our self. We have that ability to say “great job to our self”, but it is not out of our own mouth that we want to hear it from. A disappointment we feel from such events not happening has nothing to do with other people but rather with our self. From a young age we learn that if you do something good you will hear something great. It is societies way of submitting out minds to fallow the rules. But at the sometime we become dependent on that “good job” or other positive words. By the time we get to adult hood we have this mind set that if someone isn’t saying it you aren’t successful. We are in need of that attention we had received from some place. You may have drowned up in not such a nice house or had positive parents. But each and everyone of us had one person tell us that at one point, so we repeated the activity we had done to receive it. We repeat our self more than ones to receive those few positive words or to get that attention we are in deep need of.

    1. You are so right about this. Nothing wrong with getting recognized by society, in my opinion. But we cannot depend on it or even try to change what we are because of this. Instead we have to define what is important to ourselves, listen to our inner voice, and enjoy the process towards creating whatever it is we are creating. Thank you for your poignant comment, Vera.

  25. So sincere and well described. Striving to live fully in the moment, every moment no matter how one is feeling or trying not to feel is such a challenge. A worthy one, however from both a human and creative standpoint. Beautiful post, Otto.

  26. Otto, sometimes I think it can be a matter of getting out of a rut. Depression can come when one sinks too deeply into a routine –especially if that routine includes being alone a lot. I moved to a new (though not unfamiliar) place six months ago and I’ve started keeping a notebook of things I ought to check out (with my camera, of course!): a nearby nature reserve, a historic town a few miles up the road, that sort of thing. Because these things are relatively close by, if I like them I can return to them again later and thereby add them to the list of things that give me joy, or a challenge, or whatever I need that helps keep the dark holes away.

    1. Keeping notes of places to check out is an excellent idea. When we feel we are in a low periode, we can use it to get out of the rut as you say. Thank you for contributing to the discussion, Nancy.

  27. Absolutely true. I have a photo project in mind that I’ve considered for years. I go back and forth thinking about doing it. Then consider that it will be difficult and maybe fail and then I think no…and then later I think about it again. I should just try.

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