The View from Here: Habits of Attention

Habits, Part 5

If you’re not a bird watcher but go for a walk in the woods with someone who is, you’ll probably be surprised at how many birds your companion notices that you don’t see until she points them out to you. And even then you might not see all of them. While you’re enjoying the warmth of the sun, the myriad of wildflowers, the physical exertion of walking, or maybe the general ambiance of being on the trail, your companion is screening a lot of that out in order to focus her attention on birds. Essentially, she’s scanning the environment for birds. And no matter where she is, she’ll likely notice more birds than the other people around her will.

In one way or another, each of us is traveling our respective path or trail scanning for birds. We’re just not all scanning for the same species of bird. And in order to pick out, say, all the red-winged blackbirds, we have to screen other things out—like the rustling of the wind in the trees, the squirrels scurrying about, and all those other irrelevant birds.

Each Enneagram type has different priorities and biases, and those priorities and biases determine what we’re aware of (screen or scan for) and what we’re not aware of (screen out). In other words, we habitually notice some things and habitually try to push other things out of our conscious awareness. Some people claim we create our own reality, as if there is no objective reality whatsoever. It’s a gross oversimplification. But we do each experience reality differently by virtue of our habits of attention.

  • Type 1s scan the environment for chaos or disorder to right (in themselves or others). They screen out anything they perceive of as frivolous or purposeless.

I once worked with a Type 1 who kept a supremely neat desk. Another co-worker liked to tweak him occasionally by waiting until he left for the day and then moving one object a few inches to the left or right. The next day, the first thing the 1 would do was return the object to its “correct” location.

  • Type 2s scan the environment to see what needs to be done. They screen out awareness of their own needs.

A Type 2 friend who worked in an office told me she could tune out everything around her and be completely engrossed in a work project, yet her ears invariably perked up at the sound of someone needing assistance. It was like a whistle or bell only she could hear.

  • Type 3s scan the environment for opportunities to achieve. They screen out any evidence of failure.

3s are always looking for a “win.” Years ago, a Type 3 friend and I took a biology class focusing on the brain. We supported each other throughout the challenging course by studying together, but he turned our exams into competitions. Whoever got a lower grade, the “loser,” had to buy dinner for the “winner.”

  • Type 4s scan the environment for raw material. They screen out whatever is boring, monotonous, or ordinary.

The raw material 4s scan for can be tangible or intangible. My Type 4 partner was hooked on both. His pack-rat habits drove me kind of crazy, but I had to give him credit for the frequency with which he was able to put his hands on something he needed for a task—and which he’d kept only on the off chance he might have a use for it someday.

  • Type 5s scan the environment for information. They screen out “demands” for attention from others.

I’ve never known a 5 who wasn’t really well-informed in more than one area. My partner had a 5 wing, and he consumed information as if it were a form of sustenance. He could hold forth at length on a number of subjects to educate, entertain, or bore any audience, depending. Although I wasn’t always receptive to his discourses, I was in awe of how much he knew about so many different things.

  • Type 6s scan the environment for problems or potential problems. As a result of their constant vigilance, they don’t do as much screening out as the other types do. You never know what danger might be lurking around the next corner.

Some of my best friends are 6s. No, really. It’s true. As contradictory as 6s can be in so many ways, their penchant for anticipating problems remains constant. A 6 friend who has been successfully operating his own business for the more than 15 years I’ve known him—and for many years prior—still seems uncomfortable making a positive prognosis about the future.

  • Type 7s scan the environment—and make plans—for the next interesting activity or experience. They screen out anything painful or unpleasant.

The consummate Type 7 question is, “Where’s the fun?” Because if there’s no fun, then what’s the point? 7s can get through the less pleasant parts of life as long as they know they can do something enjoyable afterward—like my friend’s husband, who rewards himself at the end of the day with a session of World of Warcraft.

  • Type 8s scan the environment for opportunities to make things happen. They screen out whatever they perceive of as irrelevant to their agenda.

Years ago, I volunteered with an organization that put on personal growth workshops. At one hotel event, I was getting my team ready for a complicated project when one member became upset after noticing his wallet had been stolen. As an 8, my priority is to “get the job done.” So, since there was nothing we could do about the wallet, I told him he needed to focus on the task at hand and deal with the wallet afterward. He pulled it together, and we successfully completed our project. [That was my happy ending. The happy ending for him was his wallet later turning up at the front desk with everything still inside.]

  • Just as I don’t think 6s are really screening much out, I don’t think Type 9s are actively scanning their environment—unless it’s to look for an escape hatch. They screen out problems so they don’t have to deal with them.

A type 9 supervisor I once had actually arranged his desk so his back was to the door of his office. Although he was responsible for supervising and training a number of people, what he really wanted was to be left blissfully alone. If you were to be so bold as to disturb him, he would very agreeably tell you whatever he thought you wanted to hear so you would go away.

Each type’s hyper-awareness is part of a feedback loop that keeps us caught up in and solidifies our compulsions. Just like any other bad habit, it’s all too easy to stay in our ruts by focusing on the things we always focus on and screening out all that other stuff. If we want to change our habits of attention, identifying the cravings those behaviors satisfy might be a good place to begin.

2 responses to “The View from Here: Habits of Attention

  1. Pingback: Fuzzy Focus: a 4 “lets ‘er rip” « Nine Paths

  2. Pingback: Subliminal Persuasion? | Nine Paths

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