Interview: Rob Walker
Rob Walker is a journalist who writes about design, technology, business, and the arts, among other things. He's been a columnist for the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine and Lifehacker, and has written several books, and has several fascinating side projects.
I'm interested in many of the things that he's interested in—most recently, the subject of his latest book, The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy in the Everyday.
I couldn't wait to talk to Rob about happiness, habits, and productivity.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Rob: Paying attention to something nobody wants me to pay attention to. I love spying out security cameras, or contemplating beautiful weeds, or noting incremental changes to my neighborhood while walking my dog, or seeking out the most ridiculous product for sale on a routine visit to Wal-Mart.
There’s so much competition for our attention these days, I think these small acts of attentional rebellion help us build a healthy habit of noticing what matters to us, not reacting to somebody else’s imposed agenda. Creativity begins with noticing what everyone else overlooked. I think it’s far more productive to stay focused on one’s own goals and hopes; if all you do is respond to the wishes of others, that doesn’t leave much room for you to be an actual person. The things you notice and attend to that others missed — that’s important, that’s what makes you who you are!
I also just find it more fun and even joyful to see the world on my own terms. I think you will, too.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?
It’s probably a stretch to call it research, but the experiment I’m most fascinated by right now involves icebreakers. My work around attention includes the idea of attending to others—friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and even strangers. In connection with that, I started publishing and soliciting icebreaker questions on my Art of Noticing newsletter. And the response has really surprised me: People are very enthusiastic about icebreaker questions, and keep asking if I’ll compile the results somewhere. Maybe I’ll get to that at some point, but right now I’m more interested in hearing and sharing those icebreaker questions. They constantly surprise me, and I love that.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
About three years ago I started to swim again, which I hadn’t done since my teen years. A great attraction was the way it gave me time to think without interruption or distraction. I’ve heard people say the same thing about running. And I believe Peter Sagal of Wait Wait...Don’t Tell Me! makes the point in his recent memoir that it’s better to run without listening to music or podcasts or whatever—to be more present in the moment rather than try to escape it. That’s definitely a major component of my swimming habit, and I’m now addicted. If I don’t get in three good swims a week, I am very cranky.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)
Of course! Everything interferes with healthy habits! Travel, work, the need to fill out Q&As, etc. I don’t think there’s a workaround on that. When it comes to noticing and attention, I think the only answer is to try to remember to work in those moments of attentiveness and presentness whenever you can. Try to convert bummer moments to your advantage: Being forced to wait in line can become an opportunity to deeply observe the world around you. In The Art of Noticing, some of the most helpful suggestions may be the ones that seem the simplest: Take time to look out a window, pause to listen to your environment, arrive early to an important appointment so you can clear your mind. These small, containable, doable acts can have a surprising payoff.
Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
I’m a journalist by trade, so a big part of my job is asking questions and listening to answers. There was a moment early in my career when I realized that how important it was, if you’re in conversation, to give the other person room to respond. It can require some silence—silence can be a signal that you’re really listening. Nothing is more important to a conversation than listening, asking attentive follow ups, truly engaging and caring about what the other person is saying. Too often, people don’t listen at all. We all know the feeling—answering that person who doesn’t follow up, isn’t paying attention, and who is just waiting for their chance to speak again.
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
“Treasure the dregs.” This comes from Rick Prelinger, the archivist and filmmaker noted in the book who, among other things, has made entire documentaries out of other people’s discarded home movies. I admire him because he recognizes the value in what others have overlooked, and I try to live up to his example. He’s a true Hero of Noticing.
Author portrait by Michael Lionstar.
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