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The importance of what we pay attention to


In my first quarter at Stanford, the Graduate School of Business asked me to predict my future: “What major will you choose? What new lasting friendships will you make? How will your journey unfold?”

That’s a quote from the email I received, which I had to dig up because I’ve forgotten all the questions the survey asked me, except for one: “What major will you choose?”

I was utterly undeclared at that point, but I knew two things: I was going to take Structured Liberal Education (SLE), and I was going to take the freshman theoretical math series. I’m not entirely sure why I chose these two series, but I did, so when faced with the question, “What major will you choose?” this was the information I had to go on.

What I would major in would probably be a function of what I was most exposed to, I reasoned. I didn’t know at the time what sorts of majors SLE was affiliated with, so absent any additional information about what courses I would take, the most likely major was math. I answered, “Mathematics.”

Only last quarter did I reflect back on that survey answer and realize that my prediction had been correct, and that this was a problem. In the meantime, I had declared both a mathematics major and a philosophy and religious studies major. Still not sure what I was doing, I began digging around for things that I might find really important — things worth my attention, care and contribution.

As I discovered topics in political philosophy, education, technology and ethics that I found crucially important, something became clear to me: In the process of choosing my majors, I was comfortable choosing from what I knew, especially since it seemed like my peers were utilizing this same method. I hadn’t paid attention to other topics, subjects and disciplines, and thus knew about far too few of them to make an informed choice about what was really important to me.

And I knew this going in: I had predicted, in freshman year, that I would major in one of the two subjects in which I took classes. I had the foresight to predict that I would make a choice about my major without adequately exploring the possibilities, but not the foresight to do anything about it. Crucially, I hadn’t bothered to look far outside myself and my interests for topics that might be important for reasons other than being interesting.

In my column last week, I made an argument for salience, suggesting that to move ourselves to action on something important, like injustice or inequality, we should bring it right in front of our attention. With these topics in ethics that I now find crucially important, I had failed previously to do just this. It wasn’t that I didn’t know these things existed, but that I knew only vaguely about them — not enough to realize that I could find them important, and certainly not enough to find them important enough to change what I was doing. Instead, I chose my major from the small set of things I had given my attention.

Digging around — excavating — for important things is an endeavor that I think I should have begun much earlier, and I think we all have a responsibility to do some amount of it. The set of things we find deeply important to us is necessarily a subset of the things that are salient to us — the set of things we pay attention to. The set of things that we aren’t just vaguely aware of, but have made an effort to know more about and understand better.

I say we have a responsibility to do this, and not just that we should do it for our own good, because what is really important in a larger scheme often involves the lives of those outside ourselves. The things that make our other interests pale in significance are often those with wide-ranging implications. There are a lot of really important things. Our responsibility, through excavating, is to find them and see which ones are especially important to us, so we don’t end up doing something that, upon reflection, we come to realize wasn’t all that important after all.

Excavation, then, is the process of making things salient to ourselves. It’s the process of finding a class far out of our comfort range that seems to deal with something really critical. It’s about thinking closely about what our values are and what sorts of coursework or extracurriculars can awaken them. It’s not only digging things out of the earth, but brushing them off and examining them closely to see what’s actually there.

It’s certainly difficult to do this. Our university both enables and inhibits excavation; I’m in an environment where I can explore a plenitude of subjects from the top departments in the world, and I don’t have to take all my classes in one discipline. But I’m not immune to the magnetic draw of CS, or the excited buzz that tells me with electrified conviction that technology will continue to effect the most important changes of the future and that I can be a part of it. I’m not immune to consulting’s promise that my philosophy degree can be useful and that whatever I did in consulting, it would be deeply impactful. And I’m not immune to the pressure to have things already figured out, to have my four-year plan and after-school employment all in a neat basket with a bow on top.

The drive to figure out one’s life already comes partly thanks to our peers and partly thanks to the University’s gentle request that we declare a major by the end of our sophomore year and finish it soon thereafter. Neither are intrinsically bad, but they do make us more susceptible to hasty decisions on what is important, and more susceptible to the voices that convince us that they know what is most important. And, should we acquiesce, we then stop finding more things to pay attention to, and the set of things that are salient to us — and thus that we could find important — does not grow.

We have a responsibility to begin exploring early and to keep excavating, even if we think we’ve found something important. We have a responsibility to remain aware of the limited circle of things that are salient to us, and to continually push that circle in different directions. I have a responsibility, having found a field now that I think is crucially important, to keep digging and see which realm of this field has the most potential to engage my values, or what aspects seem most pressing, or how I can best be a part of it. I have a responsibility to keep reaching out into other fields so I don’t convince myself that what I think is important is actually the most important thing — or the only important thing.

We can’t know if something is important, or care about it, unless it’s salient to us — so we should be acutely aware of what we pay attention to, and why we’ve chosen to do so.


Contact Adrian Liu at adliu ‘at’

Opinions Editor, articles in Opinions and Arts & Life. Philosophy, 2020.