I’ve always thought that a background in the liberal arts was a good foundation for just about anything. Spending some time thinking and wandering around in a variety of unconnected fields gets your synapses going. It teaches you to consider all kinds of random ideas that seem to have no connection at all…and to learn how to speak knowledgeably about all of them.  When else are you able to spend your time flitting between art history, botany, psychology, mathematics, and Latin? With a bit of dance, music, and theater thrown in to leaven the learning.

So I was greatly pleased to read “A Cure for the Age of Inattention” by Molly Finn. It is a wonderful Wall Street Journal article discussing a cure for our growing inability to pay attention.  According to a study commissioned by Lloyds TSB Insurance “our average attention span halved in a decade, from 12 to 5 minutes.”

And yet, so much of what we do requires more and not less attention. Noticing the big picture is fine but the details are important also.  In particular, we are losing the ability to observe in situations where subtle differences have large implications.  Our attention span has shrunk to the point where we are unable to focus long enough to read the cues others give us. In some ways, we’re all exhibiting the symptoms of Asberger Syndrome.

This has huge implicationsin all kinds of business activities…think sales. In her article Finn discusses the implications in the field of medicine and how prominent Medical Schools are now teaching Enhancing Observational Skills.  There in medical schools they are sending students off to museums to study paintings, in particular Victorian and similar era paintings that include people. 

The goal…to slow down diagnosis and force considered observation, to stop immediate diagnosis and find the deeper situation.

As I read the article I was thinking how this validated my thinking of the need for this type of considered judgement in the business world.  As the world spins faster and we pay attention less, those who have the skills to read the signs correctly will gain a larger and larger advantage.  Again…think sales.

Imagine my delight when at the end of the article Finn mentions that Wharton, where I am Project Faculty and Region Manager Africa for the Wharton Global Consulting Practicum, has incorporated a similar use of paintings into the executive education program.

Want to improve the effectiveness of you leadership and that of your managers? Think art. Next time you wander through a corporate building filled with art, stop and look, really look. It’s not a frivolous indulgence of the CEO but a tool for improving executive effectiveness…if you stop and look, really look.

No art in your office? Take a field trip with your team. Visit a museum and improve your ability to notice the details.


For those of you paying attention, if you clicked on the link to the article in the Wall Street Journal you noticed it’s called “How to End the Age of Inattention”.  I saw the article in the printed version and found the title there, “A Cure for the Age of Inattention”, to be so much more poetic…and enticing. So much more the painting than the paint.

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