The Challenge of Indifference

Here’s one from the life observation pile.

In high school I had the good fortune to have very silly friends. We’d do silly things like make loud noises, strange movies (thanks Mr. Reinstein) or sing silly songs, often in the cafeteria for others to see. And I quickly learned a surprising lesson: when you behave oddly on purpose, other people feel more embarrassed than you do. They don’t know how to respond, so they mostly pretend not to see or hear you. We’d do wild and crazy things, and instead of being picked on or laughed at, people simply left us alone.

This was wonderfully liberating.  I learned how being bold, even if silly or bizarre, tends to put people on their heels.

But now as an adult I find this distressing. I know all things equal most will pretend to be indifferent, even if, in their hearts they’re curious about what you are doing and why.

Case in point: Yesterday I was in Pike Place Market.  Walking up post alley after lunch, there was a series of buskers (street musicians). Each one with a guitar, or a banjo, singing their hearts out. Many of them were very good. So I stopped at each one to listen. And as I did, pleased with my cheap front row seat, I couldn’t help but notice all the people walking past, who pretended I and the buskers weren’t even there.

It seemed bizarre someone performing, on the street, putting their heart into something by putting it out into the world, garnered almost no reaction to most who walked past. They gave more attention to the advertisements, the street signs, the backs of the people in front of them, then real live musicians providing something unique and alive. It’s odd how we can watch 5 hours of television a day, complaining about how bad and unreal much of it is (especially the reality shows), and yet walk past musicians without even a momentary pause to absorb the vibe they are making. Forget for a moment even giving them money – I mean even acknowledging with a glance, or a pause, that they are there, which is something in and of itself given how few do it.

And as I stood there, I started to feel weird. Why am I the only one listening? Even though I knew it was right in the sense this is something alive and real and I can spare at least 30 seconds for that – it felt weird simply because no one else was doing it. Had there been a crowd around any one of these buskers, more people would stop to listen, simply because they could do it without having to stand out.

It was amazing how we can be so indifferent – until I realized I’m likely just as indifferent myself, it’s just to different things. And those things are ones I don’t notice anymore, so I don’t notice not noticing them. It’s a trap. What else am I missing that I should be attentive to, I wondered? And can I answer that question alone?

And there’s this bigger idea, that interesting stuff is everywhere all the time if you open your eyes to it. Teresa Brazen made this short, simple, video a year ago, and it’s stuck with me since. I thought about it after listening to the busker, asking myself – couldn’t that same street have been interesting if I had chosen to be patient enough to make it so?

I have this theory called the challenge of indifference.  As we grow up, we’re taught self-control and how to focus ourselves, tuning out things that are ‘wrong’, or ‘juvenile’ or ‘wastes of time’. We become indifferent to the whims of the child mind, trading it in for suits and resumes, the tools of success in the adult world. But success becomes boring. For most knowledge worker types, success is abstract. We move stuff around we can’t hold in our hands, or get paid to do boring stuff for people who never meet and don’t really even like.

The challenge then, as an adult, once you’ve found your career, or a partner, and settled down, is to undo indifference. as that’s where (some kinds of) happiness is: in paying attention in the ways we did when things were new, and were young enough not to judge everything so quickly. We all still have that little voice in our heads that whispers “this is cool” or “this is different” or even “wait – what is this? lets see”, but it’s pounded into submission by the stodgy, gruff, and stronger rational adult voice we’ve depended on to get us the external things we’ve chased most of our lives.

I know many people fundamentally bored or frustrated with (parts of) their lives and have been for some time. And they’re surprised they feel this way – after all, they’re successful, more or less. They expected that fact to be enough to make them happy the rest of their lives, as that’s the mythical bargain many of us learn growing up . But we’re never told that success often demands an indifference to the wonders of the real, or the magic of the ridiculous. I was deeply effected by films like Fight Club and American Beauty, in part because they attack the middle-class American notion of success by showing how empty a “successful” life can be and how bad we are at seeing how we created that emptiness ourselves, and can only fix it ourselves, from the inside out.  If years ago we shed the natural awe we should have all sorts of things, especially those unafraid to live primarily for their passions, like street musicians, or chefs, or craftsmen of any kind do – we forget the difference between seeing things for what they are instead of what we’ve been told, or told ourselves, they’re supposed to be.

Am I on to something? Or should I shut up and move along?

I’m trying to work on this myself. If you are too, let me know how you’re doing it.

(Photo credit: jiff89)

33 Responses to “The Challenge of Indifference”

  1. adm

    Great post…a good reminder.

    Two related items that come immediately to mind:

    Gene Weingarten’s Pulitzer Prize-winning essay about people walking by Joshua Bell’s performance in the Washington Metro:

    Revolutionary Road, a great novel by Richard Yates (haven’t seen the movie yet) covering “American Beauty”-like themes:

  2. Nathan Bashaw

    You’re absolutely on to something. I think of it a slightly different way though. I can’t stand idle talk. People just playing roles, empty masks of themselves. I greatly prefer real raw conversations about our hopes fears and dreams.

    I’m fascinated by our ability to ignore this stuff, to move along and pretend we’re not afraid of dying, that we don’t have our doubts about love and truth. I have this fundamental faith that everyone is vulnerable at the core on these things.

    The funny thing is, it’s not really a vulnerability at all. Being able to be real in public is strength. And I think more people are starting to feel that way. A good example is Seth Godin’s latest book, Linchpin. He attacks the inhumanity of the modern workplace and challenges us to do emotional work. I find it moving.

  3. Peter Edstrom

    I think you are on to something.

    The challenge of indifference is an interesting one, and one that I’ve been struggling with. Not so much in being indifferent about life, but being too focused on the wrong things. There are areas in my life that I want more of: more focus, more simple enjoyment, beauty, etc. And other areas that I’ve let gain too much focus.

    You touched on it towards the end with some successes being hollow. There is remarkable courage happening every day like the buskers – focus on these, and how to appreciate the simple things. Indifference can be ok if it is appropriately placed.

  4. Scott Berkun

    Thanks for all the recos: You know, I’m familiar with the Joshua Bell performance article but haven’t read it in ages. Thanks – I’ll reread.

    The rub I didn’t mention is I can’t be aware of everything. You’d go insane. And our minds are built to tune stuff out – it’s a survival advantage to focus. But survival isn’t at stake when walking along a city street (well, most city streets). Survival isn’t what most of us are worried about, it’s something else.

  5. E. Pyatt

    When I was a grad student in Boston I was bombarded daily by a neverending parade of street performers, tourists, vendors, oddly dressed youth and panhandlers. I used to tune it all out (or I would go insane).

    But after a while, I realized that some of the performers were pretty darned good and I did actually start putting money into guitar cases and jars. I decided to live by the motto “you get what you pay for.”

    FWIW – The street musicians did get pretty good crowds on the weekends, but it was something Bostonians knew to look for. I have to say though that in other subway systems, behavior outside the norm is usually considered a warning sign…

  6. Natasha Lloyd

    I noticed something similar on the T in Boston one time. There was a girl who got on and started doing weird acrobatics on the top hand-hold bar. I thought it was pretty amazing and took a photo of her:

    After taking the photo, I noticed how all the other people on the train were actively avoiding looking at her! You can see it in the photo. They’re all looking in the opposite direction as if they couldn’t possibly be interested in a girl hanging upside down right next to them.

    I think sometimes if you see something interesting, you just have to force yourself to stop and look, regardless of what others are doing. The people ignoring it are the ones acting strange, not you.

  7. Martin Unsal

    You may be familiar with this story but it feeds right into your thesis:

    Have you been to New Zealand? I once met a talkative and rather quirky German woman travelling with her mom in Maui. She was well travelled and claimed that New Zealand was her favorite place and Germany her least favorite. The example she gave was how people reacted if she started whistling or singing on the street. She said Germans would shun and disapprove while New Zealanders might just join in. I have no idea how accurate these observations are and it probably depends a lot on the particular community you are visiting.

    I would add another hypothesis to the indifference theory. I think a lot of it is social herding, conformism, and social fear. You might be really interested in the music but if nobody else is listening you don’t want to stand out, you don’t want the musician to meet your eye, you don’t want to be accosted for money, whatever. What seems to be indifference may be feigned indifference to avoid taking a social risk. I know it sounds dumb when put that way (how much risk is it really) but I think that’s how people work.

  8. Lester Burnham

    I’ve tried at least a half-dozen other times to leave a comment on your blog, but I always bail out because it’s so presumptuous of me to think someone might actually want to listen to anything I have to say.

    I’m as deep in the middle-class trance as anyone. I have a wife and two kids, who I genuinely love and wish to care for, but I get very little fulfillment anymore out of the lifestyle which has been staged for me by the countless unspoken, latent expectations of our culture. I find it near impossible to even acknowledge these sorts of expectations, let alone be lucid enough to list them out and reflect upon them. It’s like a fluffy grey blanket has been draped over me for so long I only rarely recognize it’s still there.

    The main problem is, to make some sort of grab for happiness and fulfillment requires a terrifying amount of effort and a willingness to fundamentally change not only my life, but the lives of those who depend on me. Is it right for me to uproot their lives, essentially rejecting the terms they’ve come to accept?

    Happiness is a very elusive thing. I’m not so sure it actually exists; maybe it’s just another one of those staged acts always on display in front of us. Maybe instead of chasing that dream we need to find the energy to simply accept the terms of life, to simply let them be what they are instead of making them what we want them to be. I just don’t know. The fog is too thick.

    Thanks for listening.

  9. Chuckles8D

    What’s up with the tiny smiley sitting in the bottom left corner of the comment section? That looks silly and out-of-place so I think I’ll ignore it. Whoops.

  10. Sean Crawford

    I once wrote in an essay on focus and commitment that I don’t walk on escalators, and that if ever you see me walking fast in a mall it’s only because I need to go put more dimes in my parking meter…

    It’s always been easy for me to be an individual and notice stuff. The one who notices a wristwatch on a busy Chinatown side walk is me. The one who has spent countless long weekends in Edmonton without ever making it to the gargantuan West Edmonton Mall (with more submarines than the Canadian navy) is me. Although as an sf fan I like futuristic mall architecture, there is just too much else to notice in Edmonton, including, by the way, a street performers festival that draws jugglers and such from all over. (I like Paprika from Texas.)

    How: As a youth, I developed being an alert Boy Scout. As a teen, I devoured Bertrand Russell’s book Conquest of Happiness where he encourages developing a zest for little things. Today I consciously try to go through life with radar, not horse blinders. As a nerd, if I conform it’s to be gentle to others, not because I feel any fear.

    As a worker, with radar, (and not an apple polisher) I’ve always very strongly related to a dimly remembered story of the CEO who said he teamed with his VP to give job interviews in his office. The office had a gorgeous view. (or was it a gorgeous jungle wall?) If the candidate, just like in a good job seeker’s book, leaned forward in his chair and focused continuously on the CEO and the VP, then… he failed. He had have awareness of the view. The CEO could tell.

    I dare say I would not only take a moment to look but If I couldn’t disengage easily then I would excuse myself to do so.

    Scott, if I talk about myself like this, it’s because I am trying to show that attitudes and skills can be developed.

  11. Robert Shepherd

    Indeed a great post Scott.

    In the past couple of years I’ve put in place a simple maxim to help me juggle the contradictory goals of a fulfilled life; do more of the things I that remember.

    There aren’t many nights of watching TV that I remember clearly, but the experience of great friends, art, food, wine, adventure, travel, and romance all dance in my mind’s eye like they were yesterday. These are the histories of my life that I carry with me, and are the base of my happiness that I can turn back to when life appears hard.

    Hanging out with you watching the sun set over Melbourne with a glass of wine in hand on a summer’s evening is something that I remember clearly, and is one of the string of events in my life that I am constantly grateful for.

    Hope you are doing well.

  12. Percy

    You’re definitely on to something Scott.

    I think a part of the problem is awareness, as in noticing what’s around you, I mean really seeing what’s in front of you and around you. (You can call it mindfulness, awareness, or “being present”.) A part of the reason that we are indifferent is that we may be in a particular place but we’re already somewhere else in our minds, thinking about something else and missing what’s in front of us.

    Also, I recently read Carl Honore’s book, In Praise of Slow(ness), and part of what he talks about is how slowing down can actually help us appreciate things that we may not have noticed in our rush to live our lives. That’s another way to overcome the indifference, by slowing down and taking time to savour things – I can say, from having tried this, that it definitely enhances what you experience.

  13. Mike Nitabach

    Scott, I don’t think you’ve got this quite right. The reason that people ignore buskers is that they know that if they openly pay attention and listen, then they will feel some obligation to give the busker some money. They don’t want to feel this obligation, so they don’t overtly listen.

    Of course, buskers know this, and that is why the good ones do everything they can to draw people in: because once people are drawn in they will feel obligated to pony up. This explains why talented buskers will address people directly, etc.

  14. Eric Brown

    I agree with Mike; I don’t pay attention to buskers for the same reason I don’t pay attention to beggars.

  15. Paul C

    Very good read. It came as a good reminder too. I’m graduating soon, and the past years have been a testament to putting on “success” clothes and practicing indifference.

    My favorite part of your reading was the way you pinned it on indifference. The usual way I hear it is the more illustrative but less helpful “forgetting your inner child”. I say less helpful because, in the end, being curious, paying attention and being mindful of ourselves and our surroundings is not a childish thing to do. Not at all.

  16. Joe Wagner

    I have 2 thoughts on your “The Challenge of Indifference” post.
    Contrary to what most people think, the opposite of love is not hate. It is indifference. If you think about this more deeply, the things, or people, your really hate you really do care about or you wouldn’t hate them. Often times relationships (e.g. marriages) go from a stage of love…to hate…to indifference.
    Regarding our growth to adulthood and losing our appreciation for creative things and different perspectives, I think parenthood reminds us of this marvel. One of the joys of being a parent is seeing the world through your child’s mind…the epiphany of when it hits you that you’ve never really looked at it that way. Or, that you vaguely remember something from your childhood, but now you see it and appreciate it much differently. Parenthood reminds me daily of what my real priorities are and not the priorities I sometimes get caught up in, in the suburban race.
    I should probably stop shoeing away my kids and go play with them now. From what they say, they will be gone before I know it. Come here you little punks!

  17. Scott Berkun

    Mike/Eric: Good point. I’ve made the mistake of combining two related but distinctly different things.

    A) The busker is just one kind of thing that perhaps should be noticed.

    B) The general concept that there are things around us often that we claim to want, or care about, but when around them we either don’t see them or choose to ignore them.

    For me A is an example of B. But if A is not an example of B for you I suspect there are many other examples you can think of.

  18. Mike Nitabach

    While the busker example is a special case that we can differ about, I agree with your general position. In a sad coincidence to this post, someone just died in Queens, perhaps due to a combination of the busker situation–not wanting to get “entangled” in a “transaction”–and your general case–intentional indifference.

    Mr. Tale-Yax, 31, was pronounced dead by medical workers who responded to a 911 call around 7:20 a.m. on April 18. The police confirmed the authenticity of surveillance video on The New York Post

  19. Scott Berkun

    The most famous case of collective indifference I know of is this one. It’s a well told tale about NYC (‘woman murdered but neighbors do nothing’ is how it’s usually told):

    Unfortunately it seems the details of the story are significantly less sensational than how I, and most people I know, heard the tale told, but there are some nuggets of truth to the story.

  20. ASN

    You are certainly on to something, Scott and have a whole lot packed into this single post. One of my immediate thoughts was of people’s general reaction to television shows. As a person who watches very little television, I get a lot of recommendations from my co-workers. Often, they’re recommendations fall into three categories: It’s not bad, I like it once I got used to it, and it’s pretty good. Exuberant recommendations are woefully rare.

    I think this topic merits much more exploration and clarification. I do not think we become indifferent to our own whims. I think it is more as Martin suggests, we are fearful of expressing them, giving them life. In part, this is because our perceived notions of success does not include wild fancy but instead diligence and hard work (good values, but taken to extreme in the USA). Then, because we have been worn down and constrained in our expression for so long, we react negatively or with indifference to those who act “out of order.”

    Thanks for all to questions you’ve sent racing in my mind.

  21. jen

    I think we are all born with a unique set of gifts – including opinions, talents, perspectives… When these things are beaten out of us and/or we choose to ignore them, not only does the world lose but a haze of indifference sets in. It’s often accompanied by depression and frustration.

    We can undo indifference in ourselves by letting go of fear of failure and embarrassment and recognize that we, like others, have something unique to bring to the table, and that is valuable. Remember the things that made you happy and excited as a kid. Try that again and think of a way to work that in to your current life.

  22. sara

    Thanks for the post. The challenge of indifference is a tough challenge. This weekend I got a hamster and named him Winston Churchill… which is of course laughable and considered weird to most other fellow adults. But he’s the cutest little thing I couldn’t resist.

    It’s interesting what some people are ok with and what others aren’t. I hope that every once and a while people can get past what they think they should be doing and live what is “spontaneously welling up within.” (Hesse)

  23. Almad

    Well, I actually enjoy to see different levels of sensitivity that is developed in our society.

    As said, one is so buried in the perception he developed. I found myself thinking ‘yeah yeah’, when someone was telling me about yoga, vegan style and such, as a lot of them sound like hippies…even though I’m kind of interested in those things.

    This aside, I’m doing a little experiment, walking barefooted in the office (not corporation yet, but ~300 employees in the house). And yes, *they* are uncomfortable (a lot) and I am getting questioned a lot.

    If it’s easy to stand out with such a small thing, what about the big ones?

  24. Ramanand

    I also think it helps if one has sources of randomness in otherwise structured lives – which make you sit up, go ‘aha!’ or simple “I didn’t know that’. It is hard to remain completely indifferent if one allows surprise (via people/nature/events) to creep in from time to time. That punctures the bubble and makes you look around.

  25. Deepank Gupta

    Hi Scott,

    You gave an example of musicians playing on the street and yet nobody noticing them citing them as unique. But the people walking on those streets have walked past the same streets, listening to the same old songs, many-a-times. For them, it might not be unique. Heck, people don’t even have time while going on the road. And how can you assume that those people were watching the advertisments littered around within their eyesight on the road.

    But yes, even if a new person goes by the road, seeing the indifference of the usual passer-bys he would also be tempted to go past the same way as others.

    But yes, having said all that, we all are indifferent to a lot of things. But if we were not, then we would also not be focussed on the one thing that we really care about.

  26. Scott Berkun


    I have no way of knowing what’s in the minds of other people.

    But my hypothesis is this: for some people, some of the time, the things they claim to want are right in front of them and they don’t notice. In part because they’ve forgotten how to notice things, including things they claim to want to see.

    I’m not saying the goal is to notice everything. You’d go insane, assuming it were possible.

    But I do think, certainly for myself, I’m happier, wiser, and more connected with all the things I claim to want, when I’m fully aware of what’s going on around me. And it’s a goal for me, when I see a busker, or a dancer, or a painter, or a film, or a waiter who does an excellent job, to be fully present in the moment and acknowledge them for it.

  27. ET

    Going further…

    Indifference reigns in cooperative communities, i.e., condominiums. Until somebody wants something, or until something comes up that somebody doesn’t like.

    Then it’s explosive. Angry words, nasty notes, petty differences. And usually from normally quiet people who are truly apathetic and indifferent about their living situation.

    It’s astonishing to me how many people in the west, where cooperative communities made up of owners is relatively new, are so utterly naive about governing documents, rules and regulations and even common civility.

    There are too many assumptions in indifference; it’s tragic, since humans are supposed to be so smart.

  28. Jason Cohen

    No don’t “shut up and move along,” but then again I don’t think you’re done either. :-)

    Specifically, in your last paragraph you romantaze the happiness that (you’re claiming) comes with the philosophy of going back to our primitive, humble, almost anarchistic roots (Fight Club, especially if you read the book) or simple, human endeavor that doesn’t strive to be bigger than it needs to be (street performers).

    However I think if you scrape one layer away it’s hard to argue that the characters in Fight Club are happy or peaceful. I’ll bet if you ask street performers whether they’re happy or whether they’d be happIER with well-paying gigs in front of many people or a record deal and a paid-for house, they’d be interested.

    It’s easy for you to say it must be nice to not strive, but that’s little consolation for those of us — you included! — who do strive.

    It’s perhaps not a wonderful world in which everyone decides that “barely enough” is happiness.

    I realize that this comment is not exactly a counter-argument and not exactly making a clear point either. But food for thought.

  29. Scott Berkun

    Jason: On Fight Club (I am always looking for ways to talk more about fight club) – I actually think both the book and the movie don’t work very well taken literally. But that book and, moreso the movie, has been a reference point for me in provoking questions in myself about what I value and why. Everyone in fight club, and mostly in American Beauty (and definitely in the Road), and lots of other films I tend to list as being important or meaningful to me, nearly everyone is miserable – either that or crazy.

  30. sheena

    Wow this is precisely what I needed to hear!! In a desperate search of a cure or at least possible explanation as to why I feel so indifferent in my life right now I typed indiference into google, thank god I came across your article. Altho I am not “successful” as such because I am only a young adult but I really feel like your article spoke to me. All too often we are made to feel small, insignificant and unworthy shrunken by the suffocating presence of Media, advertisments, tv “unreal things”which we choose to be absorbed in providing correspondingly “unreal” and unltimately unachievable goals and expectations therefore we never truely get to experience success no matter how high up the ladder we are because we haven’t accepted it within ourselves because we measure our achievements against unrealistic comparisons. Is it any wonder we at some stage when our fuses are burnt out, give up the struggle and our detemination is exchanged for indifference. As you say, the only true happiness lyes within simple pleasures with a “child-like” mind set. What is real is all around us willing and able to enrich our lives and yet refuse myself that liberty.. Why?! I know I still have a lot to experience and learn but I feel this is a major default in our society, a barrackade I wish I was never conditioned into viewing.. One that needs to be knocked down in order to bring people together and generally happier.. Rant over :P



  1. […]   And as I stood there, I started to feel weird. Why am I the only one listening? Even though I knew it was right in the sense this is something alive and real and I can spare at least 30 seconds for that – it felt weird simply because no one else was doing it. Had there been a crowd around any one of these buskers, more people would stop to listen, simply because they could do it without having to stand out. via […]

Leave a Reply

* Required