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Conquering distraction in the name of Cherie Berry

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Dear Noah,

It’s been over a month since our last public correspondence here in the paper and I’m sure a lot has happened in the meantime. Your first round of midterms. Your second time doing laundry. Your third time losing your Duke card. It’s all really exciting stuff and I’m proud of you for making it this far!

This column will be the last in my three-part preachy life philosophy series so thanks for bearing with me! These probably don’t make too much sense right now as you must certainly be worried about more pressing matters such as “who are my college friends going to be?” and “what groups do I want to join?” Yet, it is my hope that as the puzzle pieces of this grand collegiate jigsaw begin to fall into place, these words of advice will serve as the corners, providing a grounding basis on which to connect all the rest.

As a refresher, in Parts I & II, we defined growth as the goal of college and balance as its means. Here, I’d like to discuss what I believe to be the obstacle: a sneaky, common-place phenomena known as distraction.

Distraction, loosely defined, is something that prevents someone from giving full attention to something else. Imagine you are going to the North Carolina State Fair and you are given 86,400 tickets. How will you spend them? Surely, you’ll want to buy the friend ice cream, as well as admission on the vomit-inducing centripetal motion machine of death. Perhaps, you’ll even drop a few on the autograph of North Carolina Commissioner of Labor and infamous elevator celebrity Cherie Berry. As you are going on the spending spree of your life, you get roped in by one of those carnival games where you toss an over-inflated ball into an angled bucket and have to get it to stay in. Of course, you don’t win the first time, so you try again and again and again. Three hours of ball tossing later, you’ve finally won a human-sized banana, hooray! But wait…now you’re down to just 17 tickets. What gives?

This is the face of distraction: a carnie at a state fair trying to take your tickets. In the aforementioned situation, you could have spent your tickets on what you actually wanted (food, experiences, The Berry Herself), but you became enticed by a carnival game which you didn’t actually care all that much about. Distraction, that sly fox, prevented you from spending your currency how you wanted. Our lives are much the same way. Everyday, we have 86,400 seconds to spend, no more, no less. We don’t get those seconds back once we spend them and they don’t carry over to the next day. Truly, time is our most valuable asset and as such, our attention (how we choose to spend it) is vulnerable to that sneaky, cunning thief named distraction.

I’ve found that in college, and possibly in life, there are three main disguises that distraction wears in order to perpetrate such robbery. The first is the distraction of comfort. 

This form of distraction appeals to the part of us that really doesn’t want to go to for a run or take part in a conversation that will challenge our biases or face the potential rejection of asking someone on a date or perform the self-scrutiny to unpack our greatest insecurities. It’s easier to not have to do any of these things because trying to maintain balance in our lives and grow is hard. It requires constant attention and care and it's so much easier to sleep the day away or talk about familiar topics with similar people or not try to understand ourselves. Distraction wants to take your focus away from that which will ultimately be beneficial for you in the long-run by constantly bombarding you with tools of instant gratification. We grow the most when we are uncomfortable, when our muscles or our egos break down and have to rebuild. 

The next guise is that of comparison. Distraction wants you to look outward instead of inward and make you feel bad about yourself by contrasting your life to that of others. Why are all these people so much more "____" than I am? This form of distraction is perpetuated by technology and social media, but it has no basis in reality. It’s just another distraction, trying to steal your attention away from focusing on growing yourself. 

Finally, complacency is the most socially reinforced form of distraction, and it’s the one that is the most difficult to evade. Complacency keeps us in situations we dislike because we become too unmotivated to think critically about how we are spending our time and attention. This manifests most often in the student who ends up graduating with a major they dislike, in the employee who hates their job and but continues to work at the same company for several decades, and even in the couple who marries and has a family despite a toxic relationship. Complacency keeps us in a trance of structure, preventing us from re-evaluating our decisions and changing trajectory.

Your time and attention are all that you really have. How you choose to spend them will define both your time at Duke and your life after graduation. I’m not saying you should be a personal-growth zombie who needs to focus on self-awareness and intentionality 24/7. Rather, make sure you are spending your tickets on long term rewards: friendship, knowledge, self-awareness, adventure and fun.

To close, I will say that wisdom is the ability to take one’s own advice, and even now as I write this column, I’ve checked my phone 14 times, daydreamed about my impending unemployment and taken a nap. I haven’t defeated distraction yet, and I doubt that one ever does. However, next time you go to the State Fair, make sure to spend your tickets on something that matters…like an autographed portrait of Cherie Berry.

Grant Besner is a Trinity senior who one day aspires to operate his own alpaca farm. His column, “Dear Noah,” runs on alternate Mondays.

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