White Space and Perceptions
Perceptions of white space, negative space, space that is—seemingly—without form or function, begins with that which our eyes see, or that at which we aim with acts of looking.
The human eye is a powerful bundle of tissues, nerves, and liquid.
As the most complicated mechanism (short of the brain) in the human body, the human eye can see, take in information, and transmit that information for interpretation in the brain.
The very first skill that a practicing artist must learn while still a student, is how to “see” and interpret the value of white space, or negative space in an image or a collection of images.
Those negative spaces are the places in an image where there is perceptually nothing, instead of something, at first glance.
The artist must dismiss what her eyes—and brain–initially see as being “there,” and search diligently for what is not. Thus it will not only be her eyes that determine and shape meaning and aim, but also her mind and her perceptions.
The artist who is unable to do this perceptual work fails at art and creates stilted, boring, derivative work that fails the test of meaning, even though it may be technically beautiful.
Understanding that seeing begins with the eyes and ends with the mind, has an application for leaders and those pursuing persuasive end goals.
White Space and Problems
With the explosion in the last twenty to thirty years—some may say forty or fifty—of information available for interpretation by not only the human eye but also the human brain, mental white space has become more and more crowded.
The human mind has a limited attention span, and messages, information, ideas, images—all designed to persuade, convince, convert, or otherwise engage the “fast-twitch” reactions of the human brain to increase dopamine and to decrease deep thinking, have continually sped up.
These messages “crowd” the human mind, creating distractions that cause a loss of focus, a loss of clarity, and sometimes, a loss of personal purpose.
The person, or organization, pressuring you to make a decision right now, to hurry up, to do the quick and easy thing, are ruthlessly crowding decisional white space for persuasion, deception, and, in some cases, outright manipulation.
Such purposeful acts of crowding are the summation of rhetorical and persuasive techniques where all the methods of persuasion and influence from reciprocation to consensus, meet at the head of a pin.
The framing the person, or organization uses to convince you that the crowding is optimal, is that the quick decision is benefiting you, but in reality, your quick decision benefits them.
Make a quick decision and don’t think about the future, because maintaining the status quo is really what matters, and besides, who can know the future?
Hurry up to achieve harmony, or ensure stasis.
Make a quick decision for immediate gain—or at least, the perception of immediate gain—based on the appearance of an immediate need that needs to be filled.
Don’t slow down.
Don’t consider all of your options.
Even better, you have no options other than the ones that the organization—or the person—in charge gives to you.
Full pedal to the metal driving 105 miles per hour.
“They” know that this works to make you change your mind. That’s why they’re crowding you.
And you know that something is happening to influence your decision-making process— you feel the pressure and the stress emotionally and psychologically—but you’re not quite sure why or how.
But how to get out of this, improve your aim, refocus your seeing, and regain clarity and distance over what goes into your mind?
The solution to this limited attention span problem (or limited bandwidth problem) is not to absorb more information and to “crowd” the already limited white space available in the mind to gain one more thousandth of a second of tactical advantage over an enemy, over a situation, or over a friend.
The solution is to focus and commit ruthlessly to acts, habits, and behaviors that carve out more mental white space.
White Space and Solutions
Here are three initial questions to ask yourself while considering how to carve out more valuable white space in your mental model of the world:
Is this action I’m taking right now (or think about taking later) going to give me the highest value beyond just this moment (or the next)?
- Am I providing value to someone else by having this interaction with them, or am I not?
- Am I playing the long game, the short game, or not playing a “game” at all by having/not having this interaction, taking on this task, or engaging with this person?
- Am I aiming at the smallest possible outcome, or am I aiming at the largest possible goal that will make me “happy?”
Carefully considered answers to these questions can lead to really understanding and appreciating that your attention—next to your time—is truly the most valuable resource to protect intentionally when it is under constant visual and psychological attack.
Here’s a list of other practical ideas to consider taking up as you think about how to protect that which is the most valuable to you:
Remain silent and considerate in the face of a “new” idea.
Ignore the ideas that don’t provide appropriate meaning—or that confuse your aim.
Choose to put down or limit engagement with devices and media that encourage “fast-twitch” thinking.
Work diligently on developing focus and concentration by reading hard books, listening to long lectures, and doing hard activities.
Establish routines of patience through breathing and meditative practices.
Read and absorb difficult ideas that you may disagree with prima facia.
Patience, slowing down, meditating, praying, contemplating, thinking deeply, disagreeing, exploring options, taking your time, being mindful of your surroundings and your inner life—these are skills, based in deeply held values, that resonates through your decisions.
These skills expand your decisional white space and make it less likely that the person—or organization—pressuring you to make a decision across the table, will have any success at filling your white space.
And they will have even less success crowding the white space of your overall life.
The future is unknowable, uncontrollable, and imprecise, as always has been.
But, today is the place where you have the most control over what you aim at.
Through discipline and with an understanding of the power of absence, your human attention span can focus and aim at the things that matter, and be more productive, less anxious, and more of an effective leader.