I’m an absent-minded engineer; my mind wanders and so does my wallet

I fear I lack common sense in life, and this affects my performance.

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUL 24, 2008

Dear Cary,

How does one build common sense? I’m a 31-year-old who has been plagued for most of my adult life with this problem. I’m a software engineer by trade, but I really love the theoretical aspects more than the practical aspects: algorithms and design as opposed to debugging and being very, very careful.

Unfortunately, even though I work in a national lab that does research, most of my job is fairly mundane, building software, with occasional forays into the higher-level thinking I really enjoy. Also, I’m a fairly serious musician, and have been playing piano for 15 years, studying jazz and Latin music for the past six, practicing and gigging regularly and making a part-time living that way. I went to a top university, where I reveled in subjects in and out of my major, including chamber music, dance and drawing.

But this problem of common sense affects me in several ways. First, I tend to space out at work — often music is the culprit, or else ideas I happen to be thinking of at the time. I’ve become highly forgetful, from where did I put my wallet to the details of what was given at last week’s presentation at work, to the point of probably losing some professional standing. In a way, I feel like I’m living life as if insulated by some invisible suit, like there’s a layer between me and the rest of the world somehow. This layer goes away when there is an intense emotional experience, like when I’m really in the groove musically, or having a great conversation, or eating a great meal, or having my heart broken (i.e., pain).

I also have rather sporadic discipline; whereas in high school and early college I could be counted on to go above and beyond the call of duty in my own free time to prepare for some long-term goal, now my commitment wavers, whether it be regular daily music practice, regular exercise, keeping my apartment clean or reading science journals during spare time at work.

Overall, I’m doing fine, but I would like to increase my common sense and moment-to-moment awareness if I could. Or is it time to simply “accept who I am,” the absent-minded professor type with his head in the clouds? BTW, I do have friends whom I have a pretty good connection with and do not have much trouble with meeting women, but when out of my element I can be socially awkward, in case these are related.


Kind of Spacey

Dear Kind of Spacey,

Overall, you are fine. You really are. Common sense is overrated.

Now, I am no expert in software, but I know that software engineers seek elegant solutions. If a software program had 11 different places where one variable might be stored, and if every time this variable were needed the program had to look in 11 different places, you might seek a more elegant solution. You might say, well, let’s give that variable an address, or whatnot, and have it always stored in the same place.

Analyze the systems that are your own life. Analyze them as you would analyze a software-engineering problem. Define your wallet as a variable. Define your glasses as a variable. Look at all the places your wallet could be. Look at the system of where you put your glasses. You didn’t mention glasses, but that is probably because they are lost. We will help you find them.

As if from space, watch your movements through your house, through your town, through your office. Map your movements and see where the glasses go. Take notes for a week on where your glasses are. Where are the weak points in the system? When you stop to do the dishes, for instance, or when you answer the door? Or when you come in the house? Where do you put your glasses? Where do you put your wallet? Do you put them just anywhere? If you put them just anywhere, stop doing that. Put them someplace. Name the place. Name it: front table by the door, or kitchen counter. Name all the places.

Basically you have two stable areas, your home and your office. And then you have this phenomenon of travel, in which you are moving through space. You may be in a car or on a train or a bus or you may be walking. When you are traveling you are wearing clothes and you are carrying something. Your glasses are probably in a container and the container is either in your clothes or in what you are carrying. Your wallet is in the cargo area of your clothing.

Analyze the travel of the glasses and the wallet, their journey through space. Analyze your body’s proximity to the glasses and the wallet. Is there any way the glasses can always be attached to your body? If they were on a strap or string?

How many places can the glasses go? Eliminate most of those places. Do the same for your wallet. Stop when you are taking out your wallet and ask, Why am I taking out my wallet? Is it because it is jammed into my hip most unnaturally? Examine the architecture of pants. The back pocket attracts wallets. Naturally, the wallet seeks shade and warmth. So it gravitates toward the back pocket. But perhaps it does not belong there.

Today’s clothes are built with several cargo areas. Examine the cargo areas. As the status level of clothes changes, so the cargo area changes. High-status men carry no cargo.

Couldn’t there be just one system of wallet carrying? The left inside pocket of a blazer works. But then you take the blazer off. The wallet has cards and money. It has secrets. If you take the blazer off and hang it on a hook, you take the wallet. You might need it at the table to display your card status, your remaining strength, your devolving credits.

The wallet is inefficient. Soon electronics will solve that. It will all be in a device. Then where will we carry the device? The hip is no place for a device. It makes you look like maintenance. You are not maintenance. You are big-time. You are aerodynamic. You are not encumbered by key rings or pouches. The architecture of your ensemble forbids it. So where will it go?

The backpack or biker bag seems to be the way. The man purse or fanny pack is not the way. But a backpack or a biker bag can be manly. Strap it to you like a weapon. Keep things in it.

If you have a bag that is always with you, assign that bag as the place where the glasses always are. Practice putting them there. For a week, even though it may at times take more effort or time than you feel is efficient, always put the glasses in the bag. Carry the bag with you and always put the glasses in the bag.

Once you have mapped out a system for tracking your glasses, think of your attention as a pair of glasses. You always want to have your attention with you but sometimes it is not there. Where is it? Where did you leave it? Where did you put it down? Watch yourself as you go from the house to the mode of transit to the office: Where does your attention go as you travel? Watch it and see what it does.

The difficulty of this is that the attention is moving even when you are sitting still. It is hard to carefully observe the attention when the attention is in motion. So slow down the process by meditating. Sit for 15 minutes on the floor and breathe in and out. Watch your attention. See where it goes. After a few minutes you may see that your attention slows down. Like a bird, it settles somewhere. Take note of how long it settles and when it moves.

Scientists first observe. Then they hypothesize. In this case the instrument, or method, is the meditative pose. It is a duck blind from which you observe but are not seen. Observe where your attention wanders. Watch what it does.

After a while, you can learn to call to it. Call to it in a whisper. Say, Hey, attention. Over here.

It has, of course, its own devices. It is autonomous and wandering. It flits. It can be skittish. You will never control it completely. It has notions. But you can learn its habits and how to find it. You can learn to call it when it seems lost.

So to sum up, my suggestion is that you not worry too much about common sense because common sense is common. Instead, bring to these questions your unusual intelligence and your training. Analyze these phenomena as you would analyze something in your area of expertise. View them as systems. Become alert to the way they twist and turn, how they vary, how they wiggle. Elementary particles wiggle, don’t they? Wallets wiggle. Even time wiggles as it flows close to its opposite-flowing twin, does it not? Are we not in a tangle of strings? Is it not all music?