Not a Goldfish by
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Prompted By Attention Span

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After I retired, I joined the board of the preschool I had founded as a community representative. We were planning our 25th anniversary year celebration, which was to include a video of the founding, history, and philosophy of the school. It was during a discussion about this video that I learned that people in 2017 had an attention span of 3-4 minutes, so that is how long a tribute to the school needed to be. I was shocked to learn from younger board members that people attending this benefit would not be able to pay attention to anything longer.

Luckily, Susan Hope Engel, the videographer who created Cherryness, thought differently and produced a wonderful 19-minute film. Those of us who had worked so hard to create the school and define its vision not only watched it in rapt attention but also re-watched it many times and made generous donations to sustain the preschool.

Everyone enjoyed the video at our 25th celebration

Until the preschool’s website was redesigned, this video was clickable link for anyone who had the time for and interest in understanding the school’s history and underlying philosophy. Now, that link gone, but there is a 3.16-minute video about the preschool designed for marketing, which is just the right length, according to industry standards, for the attention span of prospective parents. I’m sure very few would have watched the longer video.

And yet, according to MIT marketing researcher Ted Selker, the myth that claims people have the same attention span as a goldfish disrespects people who are capable of understanding complex and intelligent presentations. If you give people something worth paying attention to, they will. Unfortunately, the nature of our Internet and social-media driven world works against our innate ability to pay attention to things that matter to us. Selker states, “… if we spend our time flitting from one thing to another on the web, we can get into a habit of not concentrating.”

It’s easy to forget how recently our world changed to the point we are at now, with 2/3 of the world using the Internet and 1/3 of the world using social media platforms. Especially in America, Millennials and those born after them live very differently from the culture in which I grew up. I still remember listening to radio shows. Television entered my life in the fifties with only three channels and a nightly sign-off. I got my information from reading newspapers, periodicals, and books; looking things up in dictionaries and encyclopedias; researching topics in the library; and listening to lectures by teachers and professors without power point or media accompanying them. Granted, I took copious notes and doodled to maintain my focus, but I trained myself to pay attention to lectures, even those that were less inspired.

Life has changed so radically since my days as a student, teacher, and preschool director. Consider these facts:

  • Email became a thing in the late 1990s. Remember “You’ve got mail” and dial-up modems?
    Google started in 1998
    Personal computers were in 50% of homes by 2000
    Texting started to become common around 2000
    Cell phones were connected to the Internet in 2001
    Facebook started in 2004 and was nothing like its current form
    Twitter began in 2006
    The first iPhone came out in 2007
    Instagram was created in 2010
    Snapchat began in 2011
    TikTok, which is so popular with my grandkids, was born in 2019

While I can easily live without most of these things, there is no way I would give up my PC, smart phone, or the Google machine. I’ll admit that the latter can send me down time consuming rabbit holes and my phone, with its constant texts and alerts, is very distracting, as are the hundreds of emails I receive every day. I am a Luddite compared with my kids, and especially my grandkids, but I can appreciate the time these things steal from my ability to stay focused on reading a good book.

I can’t totally blame my wavering attention span on social media, Trumpian politics, or the technologically changing world. If I’m being honest, perhaps it’s my age mixed with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on my life. More time alone to contemplate and write, yet somehow less to say. It’s been so much harder to maintain my focus since life shut down in March 2020. I need to get out more, into the world of relating to people in person. It was supposed to happen this summer, but along came Delta and the frustration of the unvaxxed keeping me from my former life. Still, I think I can pay more attention to the things that matter to me than your average goldfish.

In case you have the interest, attention span, and time to watch that 19-minute video, here it is on YouTube:

*Thank you to Marcia Liss for her wonderful cartoons of me confronting the world of technology.

I invite you to read my book Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real, join my Facebook community, and visit my website.

Profile photo of Laurie Levy Laurie Levy
Boomer. Educator. Advocate. Eclectic topics: grandkids, special needs, values, aging, loss, & whatever. Author: Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.

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Characterizations: moving, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Thank you for this rich history of the waning attention span of the younger generation (which has seeped into our own lives). I think you get it exactly right, Laurie. We are not “digital natives” and remember the era before all these wonderful gadgets that are also time-sucks. We all were big readers (and probably most on Retro still are). Yet, like you, we now can’t live without our smart phones, computers and Google. Technology has changed our lives, but doesn’t have to change our ability to pay attention (though it may cause interruptions). You have made great points.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Betsy, I fear my attention is interrupted more and more by the gadgets in my life. They all demand what feels to me like immediate attention. My kids say to ignore texts and phone calls that arrive at inconvenient times. I know that’s what they do, but I can’t.

  2. Marian says:

    Love this, Laurie, and I agree that people will pay attention to some things that are worth paying attention to, although they must be produced in a compelling way. Thanks to Marcia for the great cartoons. I hope to look at the entire video you posted, but my attention is split a gazillion ways this weekend, between elder care, college issues, my niece’s wedding shower (on Zoom), etc. With COVID, ironically I have more responsibilities and less time, but sometimes it’s worth it just to turn off the phone for 30 minutes and focus on one thing.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      I so agree, Marian. Wish I could ditch my phone for a bit each day, but without a landline, I always fear something important may be coming in a text or call. Usually it’s not, but having the phone nearby all of the time makes me anxious. It would be heavenly to go somewhere without service so I have an excuse to ignore it.

  3. Wonderful video Laurie, altho nothing was surprising as in so many of your past stories you’ve given us a look into the heart of your beautiful Cherry school!
    And still amazing how you made it happen in so little time.
    Brava Laurie!

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Thanks, Dana for checking out the video that young people told me was far too long to watch. I’ll confess I was hurt by that meeting but glad the woman who created the video made it the length she did for those of us who were there from the beginning.

  4. John Shutkin says:

    First and foremost, Laurie, what an amazing video about Cherry — and such a trivute to you! I now really understand the place so much better and the monumental role you played in it. And, while nearly in tears watching it, I trust you understand that I was also thinking, “Why, Cherry is just like the Family Center [pre-school] at Bank Street!” Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

    Meanwhile, back at the prompt itself, to state the obvious, you were so right to decide that a video could sustain nineteen minutes of viewers’ attention. I was glued to it, as you can gather. Though I must also note that Ms. Engler brilliantly put it together from very short video clips, photos and statements, so that I think even the most attention span-challenged could keep from wandering away. That said, you are also right to note that even those of us who decry increasingly shorter attention spans — and thank you for the statistics to confirm it — find our own spans shrinking for myriad reasons.

    That’s enough from me. Time to move on to other comments.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      John, thank you so much for taking the time to watch it. I know from your work with Bank Street School that you get it. The history of an institution cannot be summed up in 3 minutes. I think young people confuse marketing with history and telling a compelling story.

  5. Suzy says:

    Laurie, I just watched the video, and I am so moved! At first I thought hmm, 18 minutes and 41 seconds, do I really have that much time? But once I started watching, I didn’t want it to end! Very inspirational! Great to see your daughter in it, as well as you.

    As to the rest of your story, you make some great points, and I agree with all of it. Interesting to see your list of facts about how things have changed in the last 25 years. Thanks for this comprehensive story. And of course Marcia’s cartoons are wonderful too.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Thanks, Suzy, for taking the time to watch the video. Because it had disappeared from the school website and I didn’t have a DVD or flash drive of it, I contacted the woman who made it and we had a great email exchange. I love that Alissa is in it and also that I knew all of the people interviewed so well. I think younger people tend to confuse marketing with storytelling and history, which we both know take more time but are worth it. When I realized how many things we take for granted that are relatively new, I was a bit shocked. By the way, so nice you were able to see Molly graduate. At least the pandemic didn’t steal that from you.

  6. Khati Hendry says:

    I really appreciated your description of the electronic developments, and also the work with the school. Seems that my phone isn’t cooperating with the YouTube clip, but maybe I can make my computer do the trick. I feel like those great cartoons you included.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Thanks, Khati. Those great cartoons are the work of my dear friend Marcia, who occasionally posts on Retrospect. We are still trying to figure out a way to work together like we did years ago when we were both posting on HuffPo (before they changed their format). It was a wonderful collaboration.

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