The downside of close attention

A personal goal at work the last few years has been to become less reactive, less surprised, to take events in stride, to let the water roll off my wet duck back. With occasional exceptions, this approach has been helpful. When an exception does happen, I find I’m meta-surprised: surprised about the surprise.

So, it was nice consolation recently to read last year’s New Yorker profile of mentalist Derren Brown – a professional surpriser of audiences and (most awesomely) a subsequent explainer of those surprises to those audiences – and find even he’s still working through similar issues. After writing a book on Stoicism, he felt initially prepared when a seven-year relationship ended:

“The breakup was relatively amicable and light and easy,” Brown said. “And I remember feeling quite proud that I’d dealt with it all extremely well.” A few months later, though, when a guy he’d met on Tinder broke things off, Brown, as he put it, “totally went to pieces.”

For a long time, he remained puzzled by his reaction. “I fell apart over the little breakup that followed the big breakup, totally out of proportion to what it was—a decidedly un-Stoic response,” he said. “But I’ve thought about it since, and it makes sense. It’s the bit that takes you by surprise when you’ve dealt with this thing over here and put all your attention on that, and then something else sneaks in from the outside.”

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