April 12, 2019

Author of How to Do Nothing doing something with NPR


I was so psyched about Jenny Odell’s fantastic interview with NPR’s Think with Krys Boyd that I had to share it with our dedicated Mobiers. Here’s the first snippet of conversation between Odell, author of How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, and Boyd:

Krys Boyd: When you say “do nothing,” what do you mean, exactly?

Jenny Odell: So, I obviously don’t mean literally doing nothing. I think I mean nothing by the standards of sort of what we traditionally imagine as productive. So, the example that I give in the book is birdwatching. Obviously birdwatching is not nothing, but it is a way that I spend time that I don’t really have anything quote unquote to show for, it’s just for me to be in a place paying attention. It’s not about producing anything, it’s just about observing.

Boyd: I like that you say, you know it’s called “birdwatcher” but you actually prefer the term “bird listener.”

Odell: Or “bird noticing.” Yeah, because, you know, anyone that has gone birdwatching or whatever you want to call it, knows that a lot of that activity has to do with listening. Listening tells you where to look. So, it’s kind of being aware with all of your senses at the same time. 

Boyd: So what does that do for you? That use of all of your senses when you’re not making money or creating something that you can do something else with?

Odell: For me, it just creates a really valuable state of openness. One of the artists I talk about is Pauline Oliveros, who came up with this idea of deep listening, which is listening to everything you could possibly listen to, including your own thoughts. And something that she says is that our culture sort of prizes snap judgement or just a judgmental stance toward everything and the practice of listening is the reverse of that. It’s like total receptivity, quieting oneself enough to be able to receive what’s actually in front of you and I personally find that state, just on one level to be a relief, on another level sort of necessary for me to have a certain type of thought.

Boyd: Yeah, it’s interesting. I’m not an artist myself, obviously, but you point out that assigning importance to things that don’t have obvious utility or commercial value has implications for a lot of art forms. 

Odell: Yeah, art has always been in that category of, sort of, supposedly useless or it has a value that can’t be quantified or easily demonstrated, but that is, in a way, a measure of how valuable it is. It’s like, you know, if you talk to someone who has made something in a film or a book or a piece of art, you know they say like, “okay, what’s it about in one sentence?” And, it’s like, well, if you could say it in one sentence you wouldn’t have gone through all this effort to make this huge thing. I just think that subtlety and interiority and things like this are sort of underrated and have always been underrated, but I feel like are especially under threat right now. 

Boyd: You write about this magnificent tree in Oakland that’s been called “Old Survivor.” It owes its survival to the fact that it did not seem immediately useful to anyone and so it was spared. What can that tree teach us?

Odell: I think it teaches us how narrow our idea of usefulness is and as well as our definition of productivity. Something that I ask a lot in the book is productive of what? Or useful for what? So, you know, if we were all algorithms, right? That optimized ourself for productivity, we just wouldn’t sleep. Or we would figure out ways to not sleep. And, don’t get me wrong, there are people who are actively trying to figure out ways to not sleep and develop drugs for not sleeping and study other species that sleep in different ways so that’s, you know, very telling. But things like sleep are a really good example of areas of space or time that we sort of take for granted or don’t understand that they have a value. That is just not something we can articulate in a super obvious way. 

Boyd: So there’s pressure to show that we’re productive but also it’s surprisingly hard for many of us to do nothing. When offered the time and space to do nothing, we can’t stand ourselves. Why is that?

Odell: I don’t know. I mean, I think that one reason birdwatching has been useful for me is because it’s not about me. I was just talking to someone earlier about how she finds meditating so difficult. I’m terrible at meditating by the traditional definition of meditating, like sitting in a room with my eyes closed, but sitting outside and just kind of staring at a tree or a bird is very easy for me and very absorbing and doesn’t feel difficult, it feels … I just feel curious, you know? And that’s something that we all remember from childhood, is just being so curious and absorbed in something that you can’t actually be distracted from that. So, there’s a lot of writing about how to use your phone less and there’s a lot of apps for that and that’s all great, but for me, it’s like, I’d rather… Rather than putting all this effort into trying to not pay attention to this one thing, it’s like I’d rather just pay attention to something else. 

Listen to the full interview here.

Learn more about what Jenny is thinking here.



Christina Cerio is the Manager of Direct Sales & Special Projects at Melville House.