The Attention Game vs. The Recognition Game


If you value basketball, find it very fulfilling, and want to craft a life around it, would you spend the majority of your time watching, playing, and practicing football?

Probably not.

It’d be simple to see that you are playing the wrong game.

I want to explore two games that nearly all of us play: the attention game and the recognition game. Much like basketball and football, these two games share some similarities, but they also have many stark differences.

When you are playing the attention game the goal is to command attention. To get “likes,” retweets, and comments, to have as many people as possible become aware of you. Attention is like junk food: it feels great in the moment but never satisfies you and always leaves you craving more.

When you are playing the recognition game the goal is to have people genuinely know and care about you, to see you for what you do and who you are. Recognition is much more fulfilling than attention.

The internet—especially social media—promotes and rewards the attention game. So does our modern era’s obsession with “growth” and building a big “personal brand” or “platform.” Unfortunately, the more time and energy you spend playing the attention game, the less you have to play the recognition game. The result is that you may have all the followers in the world, but you lack deep connection, and thus meaning, in your life.

Writing in an essay aptly titled “On the Internet, We’re Always Famous” Chris Hayes uses former president Donald Trump to illustrate the point:

We are conditioned to care about kin, to take life’s meaning from the relationships with those we know and love. But the psychological experience of fame, like a virus invading a cell, takes all of the mechanisms for human relations and puts them to work seeking more fame. In fact, this fundamental paradox—the pursuit through fame of a thing that fame cannot provide—is more or less the story of Donald Trump’s life: wanting recognition, instead getting attention, and then becoming addicted to attention itself, because he can’t quite understand the difference, even though deep in his psyche there’s a howling vortex that fame can never fill.

It used to be just the seriously famous that had to worry about getting addicted to attention. But, as Hayes writes, the internet democratizes this experience:

In the Internet age, the psychologically destabilizing experience of fame is coming for everyone. Everyone is losing their minds online because the combination of mass fame and mass surveillance increasingly channels our most basic impulses—toward loving and being loved, caring for and being cared for, getting the people we know to laugh at our jokes—into the project of impressing strangers, a project that cannot, by definition, sate our desires but feels close enough to real human connection that we cannot but pursue it in ever more compulsive ways.

You could argue that the majority of modern life comes down to optimizing for recognition or attention. It is crucial to define what game you are playing, and why you are playing it.

There is nothing inherently wrong with playing the attention game. Many of us need to play it from time to time—for our careers, to share our work, and to get traction on the ideas and values about which we care.

The problem arises when we convince ourselves that the attention game will offer the rewards of the recognition game, which it never will. If anything, it only gets in the way.

The more time you chase the rewards of deep connection, fulfillment, and mattering by playing the attention game (the wrong one), the more you cannibalize the time, energy, and opportunities for playing the recognition game (the right one).

If you want to build a life around basketball then you can still play some football, but your focus should be on basketball. This means showing up at the basketball court more than the football field. If you want to build a life around recognition, then you can still dabble in attention, but your focus should be on recognition.  It means showing up on your front porch, for dinner with friends, at the local gym, and for the intimate mastermind group more than on the internet and especially social media.

You can take different tactics to ensure you are playing the right game. Some people remove certain apps from their phones. Others schedule recognition activities before anything else and build their calendars around them. Still, others set limits on internet time.

But if you don’t know what game you are playing, it’s hard to make progress on playing it well. Even though they may appear similar at first blush, the attention game and recognition game are actually quite different. It’s more important now than ever to distinguish between the two.


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