Sight-Poems As A Genre Of Writing

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Tuesday, 7.32pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Only truthful hands write true poems. I cannot see any basic difference between a handshake and a poem. – Paul Celan

I’m reading David Bellos’s book Is that a fish in your ear: The amazing adventure of translation in which he writes (on page 27) about Christian Morgenstern’s German sight-poem “The Fish’s Lullaby”.

This intrigued me – I’d never heard the term “sight-poem” before. So what’s this all about? For starters, here’s the poem.

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Morgenstern was a German poet (1871-1914) who seems to have written humorous poetry that took aim at mainstream thinking including scholasticism and literary criticism.

The sight-poem seems pretty obvious when you look at it – the title is an important part of appreciating it. It sets an expectation which you bring to your viewing of the marks that follow.

This genre is not, unsurprisingly, a mainstream one. I couldn’t find any papers that talked about “sight-poems” – although I only did a very quick search. This thread has a few mini-essays on the poem and people’s views. These range from thoughts that it’s a gimmick to a radical commentary on what is normal. Maybe it’s something that makes you look from a different point of view.

Albert Waldinger in his 2009 paper “Propositions of wit and memory: ‘Englishing’ Christian Morgenstern (1871-1914) in the light of Paul Kussmaul’s /Kreatives √úbersetzen(2000)” talks about the element of humour in Morgenstern’s work, quoting him as saying that its role was to “free man from the hollow and heavy earnestness of a materialistic present.” The “highest wisdom”, Morgenstern says, is the combination of humour and insight.

Over twenty years ago I wrote a poem – I don’t quite remember why. Perhaps it was a way to express what I felt at the time. I can’t remember the words but if I were to create a sight-poem it might look like the one that starts this post. It didn’t feel unnatural and it captures the feeling for me still. For anyone else, of course, it has to be interpreted – either they have to give it meaning or ask for a narrative.

But it does stand on its own as well – sparse marks that show you a story.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Why Doodling During Lessons Is Bad For You

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Thursday, 8.25pm

Sheffield, U.K.

I learned how to draw from being bored in school. I would doodle on the margins of my paper. – Kevin Nealon

What is a doodle? According to the OED it’s to “scribble absent-mindedly” and the important part of that is the absence of mind when you’re doodling. But does it help – will you learn better if you doodle in class.

The answer, according to research by Meade, Wammes and Fernandes (2019) is no. If you absent-mindedly draw whatever comes to mind you’ll remember less of whatever you’re supposed to be learning. If you do a structured drawing – something that is like shading a shape – it has no effect. Writing stuff down does help you remember it. Drawing what you’re listening to has a significant effect on memory.

Why does drawing something help us remember it better. Meade et. al. argue that it isn’t fully explained by two theories in use – one that there are Levels of Processing (LOPs) and drawing is at a deeper level, or a Picture Superiority Effect (PSE) which essentially says pictures are better at helping you remember things.

These explanations hang on the idea that you have “attentional resources” – a certain amount of capacity to pay attention to things. If something like drawing random pictures takes up your attention you have less left for the task at hand. If you’re drawing what you’re supposed to be learning in addition to writing about it then you’re concentrating attentional resources – so you should remember it better.

Another explanation is that you’re using more parts of your mind and body when you’re drawing and writing than if you just listened without doing anything. You see, move your hands and draw and get semantic meaning from words – so there’s more going on and that leaves more traces in your brain – sort of like stamping in the idea again and again and again.

If you’re into this world of visual thinking and have read the Sketchnote handbook you’re nodding along and agreeing with this research. An art teacher, Andrew Katz (Katz, 1997), describes how he used to doodle in class and ended up with a bunch of sketches rather than useful notes. He realised that it would make sense to draw what he was listening to instead, killing two birds with one stone. He could enjoy drawing but also get the lesson content in the process. He talked about how this created a shift in his approach to making notes and led to him keeping visual journals.

Now, for a student or a researcher this is interesting stuff. If you haven’t come across this world of visual thinking it may seem strange – why would you put that much effort into drawing and notetaking when you could just read the textbook? The point is that research is showing clear benefits of combining these skills – drawing and writing – for the work we do, whether that’s studying, researching or trying to understand situations in the workplace.

Drawing what you hear can be a learning and productivity superpower. Maybe more people should try it out.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

References

Katz, J.A. (1997), “Visual notetaking, drawing on my doodling past”, School Arts, Vol 97, Issue 1.

Meade, M.E., Wammes, D.J., and Fernandes, M.A. (2019), “Comparing the influence of doodling, drawing and writing at encoding on memory”, Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, Vol. 73, No. 1, pp 28-36

How Squiggles Can Help You Realize What’s Significant

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Wednesday, 7.36pm

Sheffield, U.K.

All psychological research is completely barred by the interpretations of the psychoanalysts. Everything happens in the unconscious, and I don’t know what this unconscious is. – Nathalie Sarraute

Many years ago I read a textbook belonging to a friend that had something to do with psychology or semiotics. As I skimmed through it I experienced some cognitive dissonance – I didn’t understand why all these people kept talking about what other people talked about. There was something like “This person said this, and then this other person said something else, and so this idea was put forward.” For someone trained in the sciences and the idea that you could work things out from first principles this reliance on what people “thought” was bewildering.

Psychoanalysis in this category of study for me because I don’t know anything about it – the Internet tells me it’s a set of theories and techniques that are based on the work of Freud whose big idea was that there’s stuff happening in your unconscious that affects how you feel and act consciously. If you can get at this unconscious material then you can make sense of what’s going on. It sounds like not everyone agrees – but that’s for those experts to consider. I still don’t really get this but I am starting to appreciate that there are things we cannot know through the use of empirical tools, so we need to get better at talking about what we think is going on.

This is what’s interesting about a paper by Lisa Farley (Farley, 2011) where she writes about the work of D.W. Winnicott and the “squiggle game”. The game goes like this. Make a squiggle on a piece of paper and give it to a child and ask them to “make it into anything.” Then do the reverse, get the child to draw something and then make it into something yourself.

Now, I couldn’t resist trying this out so I called over one of the small people in the house, did a squiggle and then handed it over. The small person ignored my drawing and simply drew a smiley face and a house. Fortunately, it sounds like the interpretation of that is he’s happy at home. But what was interesting is that he also insisted that we do the reverse – he drew a picture and had me fill it in. I assume Winnicott also realised that the reciprocity was needed – I’ve done this so now you do it too.

Farley’s argument is that the significance of the doodle game is that it imposes no rules – we don’t start with assumptions or preconditions. The doodle is entirely random. Therefore what the other person superimposes on it is perhaps what’s important to them – something with Farley describes as taking “a detour through the unconscious on the way to becoming significant.” The idea here is that the person’s history is vast and deep but the elements of that history that matter can attach themselves to the squiggle and bring them to the forefront of your attention.

Now – to figure out what it means for someone looking for help is something that you’d need to be a trained professional to do. You can use the picture to have a conversation, maybe it will allow thoughts and ideas that have been repressed to come up so that you can deal with them.

My own interest is in whether these techniques can help us be more creative and innovative – and perhaps that’s something to try out. If you’re stuck in a rut, if you’re trying to figure out a new way to do something and you don’t know where to begin – maybe the thing to do is draw a squiggle. And then make it into something. And do that a few times. The squiggle, Farley argues, is a way of finding “history that eludes intentional or official representation; it is about the complicated relationship between inner and outer realities, between wish and reality…” It’s a way of drawing something out of you that you might not do otherwise.

And that’s a creative tool worth having in your toolbox.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

References

Farley, L. (2011), “Squiggle evidence: The child, the canvas, and the ‘Negative Labor’ of history”, History and Memory, Vol. 23, No. 2, pp 5-39.

Rock Art And Telling Your Story

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Tuesday, 9.04pm

Sheffield, U.K.

All art, from the paintings on the walls of cave dwellers to art created today, is autobiographical because it comes from the secret place in the soul where imagination resides. – Gloria Vanderbilt

We watch a film for an hour and a half and then walk away, often never to watch it again. But we’re missing out on something. It seems that the films of today are a way to explore the history and the future of humanity, but we are going to have to watch them more than once to get the messages in there.

Yuval Noah Harari talks about this in his book 21 lessons for the 21st century. Take the film Inside Out for example. On the surface it’s a story about feelings and how we need all of them to live a full life. But Harari also points out that most people missed the unsettling message at the core of the movie – that we are effectively giant robots that carry out the orders of the emotional signals surging within us.

Recently we saw The Croods and again on the surface it’s a story about a family trying to survive, what they mean to each other and a father trying to stay relevant in a changing world, sticking to what he was taught while slowly coming to terms with the fact that what he knows is not enough for what is happening now.

But you need to watch out for the detail in the film as well. There’s a scene where the father, Grug, scoops up some mud and paints a picture. I’d never really thought about how that was done – I supposed I imagined they used a stick or fashioned a brush of some kind. Ben Watson, in his paper Oodles of doodles? Doodling behaviour and its implications for understanding paleoarts talks about “finger flutings”, art made with fingers and pigment, much like children might do today as finger painting. Grug does just that, using his hands, his fingers, to make images that tell you quickly, instantly, what his family means to him and how he thinks about them. If you look at the picture above you should be able to get it.

When it comes to art from several tens of thousands of years ago we have what has survived but it doesn’t tell us what was made and why it was made. We can assume people made art to pass the time, because they were bored, because it felt good to make marks of some kind. Perhaps they were messages to each other – we’re on the same side. Perhaps they were teaching materials – this is how you hunt a mammoth. But what’s clear is that the urge to make something tangible is an inbuilt part of being human. We are driven to create, and in doing so, think.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Drawing As A Way To Think Into Writing

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Monday, 8.59pm

Sheffield, U.K.

While drawing, I discover what I really want to say. – Dario Fo

When we’re young we draw unselfconsciously, making marks and following our pencils. But somehow we grow out of this – as if real grown up work is different and we have to leave behind childish ways. And in doing that we lose something. But what?

Joyce Armstrong Carroll in her paper “Drawing into meaning: A powerful writing tool” (Carroll, 1992) wonders about this – what’s the power that drawing has and why don’t we use it to make our writing better?

Before we can write something we have to find it – uncover it or discover it. An idea in one’s head is invisible, “ethereal”, it has not been brought into existence. Yet. And few of us can reach into our minds and pull out a perfect sentence that expresses exactly what we mean. Sometimes we have to sneak up on it, pouncing when we’re ready. And that process of sneaking, or quietly slipping through the darkness, is something that writers have done for a long time using drawing.

In her doctoral dissertation Ruth S. Hubbard (Hubbard, 1988) selects her title from E.E. Cummings description of himself as “an author of pictures, a draughtsman of words.” Austin Kleon, the author of “Show your work”, a book that led to me starting this blog calls himself “A writer who draws”, borrowing from the self-description of Saul Steinberg. It seems like this is something we all know aged six, but only a few remember it later.

Hubbard quotes a child as saying, “If you do the picture first, then you have something in your mind that you could write. If I do the words first, then I don’t know what to draw. But I think words can tell the story better.” There is deep insight in that statement and it’s supported in Carroll’s paper by her observations and (uncontrolled) experiments. People who draw first and then write seem to find quality and depth that they don’t normally show in their work.

Does it matter what kind of drawing you do – does it have to be good or can it be shaky and unsure? Does it have to be art or can it be a doodle? The only way is to try it out. I’ve run a sort of experiment over the last few years without realizing it. After a thousand posts that start with a doodle and then morph into words I can hardly imagine writing any other way. A blank page is too intimidating and perhaps a drawing or even an outline or framework of some kind is actually scaffolding, a mental model that holds ideas that are not yet ready, not yet formed. Or perhaps it’s like a container or a web, something that holds ideas like a gas or dew – for just long enough for the rest of one’s brain to catch up and paint what it sees in words.

This relationship between pictures and words is important – it’s one that people that prefer one or the other would like to cut, to render unnecessary. It’s perhaps more general than that as well, it’s not just about drawing a “picture” but about the process of picturing – the idea that there is a space and a place for marks in addition to concepts trapped in words.

Carroll has a useful list of authors that use drawings to help their writing including

  • E.B. White
  • E.E. Cummings
  • D.H. Lawrence
  • John Dos Passos
  • William Faulkner
  • S.J. Perelman
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Flannery O’Connor
  • John Updike

Looking at this list, it could do with a bit of decolonising but I’m not sure where to start with that. I might wander around the Internet hoping to stumble on some other examples. We’ll see.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

References

Carroll, J. (1992), “Drawing into meaning: A powerful writing tool”, The English Journal, Vol 80, No. 6, pp 34-38.

Hubbard, R.S. (1988), “Authors of pictures, draughtsmen of words”, Doctoral dissertations

Why We Need To Rethink What We Recognize As Knowledge

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Sunday, 9.12pm

Sheffield, U.K.

We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology. – Carl Sagan

In the hidden moments between the big happenings I’ve found the time to watch The Big Bang Theory – and start again at the beginning. For someone trying to understand the nature of knowledge there’s quite a lot in there to think about.

Let’s start with scientific knowledge and the traditional idea of what that is. That view comes down to two things: there are facts, and there are theories that explain those facts. This approach to knowledge creation was a revolution in its time, a reaction to received wisdom as laid down in ancient texts and professed by priests. It said “No!” to assumptions and instead observed, noted, tested, repeated and reflected – creating reliable knowledge that has built the world we have today.

But just because it’s so successful we are now at a point where we try and fit everything into that way of thinking. It reminds me of a conversation I had twenty years ago with a young religious woman who claimed that because certain words in a text said something about the events surrounding the birth of a child they were scientific in their statements. She was wrong – but for centuries that sort of thinking held power over people – it still does now.

The thing with science is that it’s not one thing – instead it’s a state of mind that grapples with reality and, as one of the characters in the series says, “rips the mask off the face of God.” And reality is complex, complex enough to need other sophisticated instruments of science than the ones we are familiar with.

These are the instruments that I’m trying to understand and apply in my own practice. Bargheer (2021), for example, writes about the work of C. Wright Mills who in his book The sociological imagination (1959) railed against the excesses of grand theory and abstracted empiricism. In the former we get lost in theoretical fantasizing and in the latter we only consider questions that can be answered through quantitative survey research. Mills argued for a space for imagination, for creativity and craftsmanship in the construction of knowledge.

It takes careful thinking, however, to set the ground rules for this kind of work. The assertion that “it’s not scientific” can be quickly thrown at anything unusual. But then again knowledge in other cultures is not unusual – it’s different but you have to differentiate between that which is reliable and unreliable knowledge. You have to be careful not to fall into a colonial mindset that assumes that the victors and colonists are the ones that know everything and indigenous knowledge is valueless. Indigenous knowledge doesn’t have to be that held by foreigners – it can be that held by any group of people in any space – the knowledge of the reality of their existence.

This is a vast space, one that can consume you, called “research methods”. One challenge is whether you need to understand them all or whether you need to pick the ones that work for you in your situation.

The thing to understand is that real life is not box shaped. Real life is a funny sort of shape. That’s why many scientists do great work in their fields out don’t have a great impact in the world out there – they don’t realize that their boxes are things that exist in their minds. People who live in the real world, practical folk, don’t question the their funny shaped existence, they get on with living in the space they occupy. And make it work for them.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

References

Bargheer, S (2021), “Paper tools and the sociological imagination: How the 2×2 table shaped the work of Mills, Lazarsfeld and Parsons”, The American Sociologist, Vol 52, pp 254-275.

How Do You Calculate The Area Of A Country?

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Saturday, 8.01pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Life isn’t black and white. It’s a million gray areas, don’t you find? – Ridley Scott

In Boris Jardine’s paper “State of the field: Paper tools” the author tells a story about Edmund Halley, the guy that found the comet, who was asked by John Houghton to figure out the area of England and Wales.

That’s actually quite hard to do, when you think about it. Most of us can work out the area of a circle or a rectangle, but how to you work out an irregular shape like the outline of a map?

It’s also quite an important question because the areas of places have implications for what can happen there – what kind of industry might arise, how many people can live there, and what sort of taxes you can raise.

The technique Halley used was one that is a little unexpected, although it was well known in the 1600s, called “cut and weigh”.

Halley selected a map that he felt was a good representation of the country and cut it out. Then he cut circles from the same paper as the map until the cut out map and a circle weighed the same. Now, he could work out the area of the circle and based on the scale of the map calculate the area of England and Wales. He came up with the number 38.7 million acres, which is not far off the modern number of 37.3 million acres.

We think of paper as just a place to hold ink, but it turns out it can do more than that, and sometimes its weight matters more than you might think.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Are We Living Through A Forgotten Century?

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Friday, 7.58pm

Sheffield, U.K.

There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other, wings. – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I have been thinking about how digital content is so easy to make and also so easy to forget about. If you keep a journal in digital form, for example, it weighs nothing, takes up no space. It’s simply a file in a space somewhere and it’s easy to forget it exists. And if you forget it then it’s as good as gone. And it will really be gone when the last hard drive has been thrown out and the webserver deletes your pages.

I read somewhere, or heard a news report, that there are moments of the history of this new century that are hard to find, that may have been lost. They were recorded on media that is old and obsolete, that has been overwritten or deleted or corrupted.

In 2015 I remember writing a sentence that said something like “If it’s not online it doesn’t exist.” It was an alternative to a thought I’d held for a long time before that which was “If it’s not written down, it doesn’t exist”. I wrote that first sentence down, took a picture of it and used it in a blog post. On a website that I can’t remember creating. In a folder I will struggle to find.

I am beginning to think I was wrong. Not about writing things down but about the online part – about the digital part – because unlimited space creates its own problems, not the least of which is why we need so much.

Here’s the thing. If you own a digital camera or a phone you’ve probably taken thousands of pictures over the last ten years. Many of us are too busy to do anything with that material – one day we’ll sort it out we think. But sorting takes time – organising stuff takes time. So we put it off. But if we put it off for long enough it’s like having no record at all – there is a gap in your history, one that used to be filled with photo albums and diaries, but now it’s gone. The abundance of the digital age threatens an unexpectedly dark age, one where there is no material to look at.

Social media companies exist to harvest your attention. They are starting to realise that your feed, the scrolling list of things that you look at, is insufficient to keep your attention. I heard a segment on the news recently that said their plan is to make their platforms more engaging, more interactive, more ephemeral, more like the real world. This is a “metaverse” a world with which you have to interact like you do with the real world. Where you have to pay attention when something is front of you or it will vanish, never to be seen again. Like a sunset. If you don’t see a sunset when it happens you won’t see the same one again.

What we end up with, then, is a world where we interact with everything but we don’t pay attention. It doesn’t matter whether the world is real or virtual, it’s experienced but not… seen.

To understand the difference you have to think like a photographer. I grew up with a film camera, one with 36 shots, and you had to pay attention to what was in front of you to try and get a good picture. These days you take 200, review them instantly and think you’ve got it. But that’s just looking, not seeing.

I think I’m falling out of love with digital – perhaps because I’m a digital immigrant rather than a digital native. Paper exists in a way a text file does not. There are innumerable advantages to having digital tools – but they should complement rather than replace one’s photos and notebooks.

And my plan is to tilt the scales, get the balance back towards the analog and see what’s really happening around me.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Think About Content Using Paper Tools

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Thursday, 10.15pm

Sheffield, U.K.

We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us. – Marshall McLuhan

I’ve been wandering down a path looking at how scientists, writers and artists used their notebooks – in what we might call their workshop – and the nature of the marks they made. In doing that I came across the idea of “paper tools”, a methodological concept introduced by Ursula Klein in a few papers.

The term caught my eye – “paper tools” – a nice term for something that we’re all familiar with even if we don’t really think about it much. Bargheer (2001) goes into one specific tool in more detail, the 2×2 table, and shows how it became a popular tool in the first half of the last century among sociologists.

As is often the case the outdated tools of yesterday’s research are used by businesses and consultancies today as the latest thing they’ve learned. But while there are better approaches now the 2×2 table is still powerful because it lets you analyse pairs of concepts in a rough but useful way.

Take, for example, a problem I have been facing with writing content for this blog. As I read academic research it gets harder to find ideas that I can write about quickly. Some of the concepts I’m coming across need time to work through and understand before one can write about them with any authority. At the same time it would be nice to keep going with the blog as I carry on towards my goal of getting a million words out as I try and learn how to write better.

This is a good problem to analyse using a 2×2 table – looking at the length of content vs the content of content. You can write stuff that’s long or short or you can write stuff that’s deep or shallow.

When you put this information into a 2×2 table it helps you make sense of your options. For example, most of the stuff that comes up on your feed is short content that’s shallow – it’s click bait that delivers nothing of value. At the same time you get long content that’s just as shallow – usually a tired sales pitch that thinks that long form content selling some rubbish is going to work on you. All this does is waste your time.

On the other hand you can have short content that is insightful – something that you can take away and use immediately. A tip, a hack, a method. I saw one recently on how to draw gears – a useful trick for a visual thinker. You could argue that this is the kind of material Seth Godin puts out, writing short content every day but aiming to make it punchy and insightful.

At the other extreme you have long form content that is genuinely useful – Tim Urban’s blog comes to mind here. Perhaps a few others.

So there are two takeaways here – the first is the use of the 2×2 table as a paper tool that helps you think about key features or elements of a situation. There is real power there. And then there is the bit about content types.

For me, I think it would be nice if the material in this blog was short enough to read but good enough to be insightful. There is little point in writing shallow material. The long form work, however, needs to make its way into papers and books.

I’ll aim for fewer words next time, then.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

References

Bargheer, S (2021), “Paper tools and the sociological imagination: How the 2×2 table shaped the work of Mills, Lazarsfeld and Parsons”, The American Sociologist, Vol 52, pp 254-275.

Drawing The Contours Of An Object Without Looking At The Paper

Friday, 6.41pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Seeing much, suffering much, and studying much, are the three pillars of learning. – Benjamin Disraeli

Betty Edwards, in her famous book, Drawing on the right side of the brain introduces the idea of “Pure Contour Drawing”, based on Kimon Nicolaides’ 1941 book The natural way to draw.

The method is simple. Look at an object and let your eyes slowly follow an edge. As you do so draw the line your eyes are tracing with your pen or pencil, moving it at the same speed at which your eyes are moving. Do this very slowly – like your eyes and your hands are connected – the latter moves only when the former does and exactly the same amount.

Edwards writes about how this is an intensely hard thing to do. You will be tempted to look at the paper. You will want to move slower or faster. But you have to resist, you have to set a time and then slow down into the exercise. Eventually time will fade away and there will just be the movement of your eyes and your pen. That’s why you need the timer – to tell you when to emerge again.

This exercise is not going to result in a good looking picture. You’ll be lucky if you or anyone else can recognize it, as you can see in the video above. So why would you do this?

The reason is because most of us draw what we think we see rather than what we actually see. If I asked you to draw a maple leaf you could draw one from memory. If you drew one from a picture you would probably draw the lines quickly, relying on your memory of what the lines should be. We are not trained to see what’s actually there, whether there is a nick in the leaf, whether the join between segments of the leaf is triangular or an odd elongated nipple shape.

A pure contour drawing takes away your ability to just draw what you think you see. Instead, by slowing down, and following each edge you really see what’s there. And as your pen traces the movement of your eyes you draw what is really there. Artists develop this ability with practice over time but for the rest of us it’s a disorienting practice and we wonder what’s the point.

Most of the time we go through life relying on shortcuts – and that’s fine – we can’t pay attention to everything. But sometimes we should slow down and really look at what’s in front of us. What your child really looks like, for example, rather than the picture you carry around in your mind. Because that moment exists for a moment and then that child is a moment older and you can never see that moment ever again the way it was.

One day, perhaps you’ll be glad you paid attention to the things that mattered.

Cheers, Karthik Suresh

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