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Words of encouragement from William James, 1899

posted May 19, 2018, 4:46 PM by Susan Nguyen   [ updated May 19, 2018, 4:47 PM ]

The following excerpt is from “Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals” by William James.  Pub. 1899 by Longman's, Green & Company, London, New York, Bombay. This was written long before “ADHD” and “hyperfocus” were used to name the following descriptions. This is so insightful and encouraging:


One more point, and I am done with the subject of attention. There is unquestionably a great native variety among individuals in the type of their attention. Some of us are naturally scatterbrained, and others follow easily a train of connected thoughts without temptation to swerve aside to other subjects. This seems to depend on a difference between individuals in the type of their field of consciousness. In some persons this is highly focalized and concentrated, and the focal ideas predominate  in determining association. In others we must suppose the margin to be brighter, and to be filled with something like meteoric  showers of images, which strike into it at random, displacing the focal ideas, and carrying association in their own direction. Persons of the latter type find their attention wandering every minute, and must bring it back by a voluntary pull. The others sink into a subject of meditation deeply, and, when interrupted, are 'lost' for a moment before they come back to the outer world. The possession of such a steady faculty of attention is unquestionably a great boon. Those who have it can work more rapidly, and with less nervous wear and tear. I am inclined to think that no one who is without it naturally can by any amount of drill or discipline attain it in a very high degree. Its amount is probably a fixed characteristic of the individual. But I wish to make a remark here which I shall have occasion to make again in other connections. It is that no one need deplore unduly the inferiority  in himself of any one elementary faculty. This concentrated  type of attention is an elementary faculty: it is one of the things that might be ascertained and measured by exercises in the laboratory. But, having ascertained it in a number of persons, we could never rank them in a scale of actual and practical mental efficiency based on its degrees. The total mental efficiency of a man is the resultant of the working together of all his faculties. He is too complex a being for any one of them to have the casting  vote. If any one of them do have the casting vote, it is more likely to be the strength of his desire and passion, the strength of the interest he takes in what is proposed. Concentration, memory, reasoning power, inventiveness, excellence of the senses, -all are subsidiary to this. No matter how scatter-brained the type of a man's successive fields of consciousness may be, if he really care for a subject, he will return to it incessantly from his incessant  wanderings, and first and last do more with it, and get more results from it, than another person whose attention may be more continuous during a given interval, but whose passion for the subject is of a more languid and less permanent sort. Some of the most efficient workers I know are of the ultra-scatterbrained type. One friend, who does a prodigious quantity of work, has in fact confessed to me that, if he wants to get ideas on any subject, he sits down to work at something else, his best results coming through his mind-wanderings. This is perhaps an epigrammatic exaggeration on his part; but I seriously think that no one of us need be too much distressed at his own shortcomings in this regard. Our mind may enjoy but little comfort, may be restless and feel confused; but it may be extremely efficient all the same.

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