image of basketball on darkened court floor with words: Pay attention to distractions? Sometimes we must.

© Can Stock Photo / razihusin

I found myself distracted last week. A high school classmate died, and memories of school and church, basketball and softball, kept bubbling up. We were friends in certain settings, and not in others, and then we followed different paths. But still, she was someone I’d known for nigh on forty years, and she died before she reached fifty.

I carry a clear picture of her in my head: at church wearing a plaid A-line skirt and thick-soled Dexter shoes with tassels on top, her stance wide like the b-baller she was, looking utterly uncomfortable in her own skin.

I chalked it up to teenage self-consciousness and wearing dressier clothes than usual—the normal feelings of not fitting in, of worrying what others think. That is, I would have chalked it up to those things had I been perceptive enough to do so at the time. Nonetheless, the image stuck.

What I didn’t know until last week was that this classmate had dealt with mental illness most of her life. I didn’t know that twenty years ago she’d organized the first mental health support group in the area (which continues today) or that she’d been an advocate for mental health legislation. I inferred from her obituary that she’d been married and divorced, the separation likely related to her mental illness.

My attention kept wandering to this classmate during the week. I finally gave in and let it stay there a while, realizing she was not a distraction but something in need of attention.

Beyond the obvious feelings of mortality that arise when someone of one’s own age dies, I felt there was something to explore. And I think it comes down to this:

At times we all are uncomfortable in our own skins. We can be so consumed with self and perception of self that we forget others have similar fears and discomforts. We allow our self-focus to obscure our view of those around us.

What if instead we made our fears and insecurities visible? If we skipped the pretense? What could happen if we simply accepted and helped each other as imperfect humans?

Imagine the number of people supported over the past twenty years because one person had courage to shine a light on her own vulnerability.

What could happen if we simply accepted and helped each other as imperfect humans?

How does this fit into business and writing? Why am I spending time on this topic here?

Because we don’t stop being people when we go to work. Of course we must pay attention to business, but not at the expense of seeing other people as complete and complex human beings. And writing has many purposes, but at its core it explores the human experience.

We all know what true distraction looks like: dinking on social media, procrastinating by doing household chores, watching too much TV. We get distracted every day.

When a human experience catches our attention, when it distracts us repeatedly, it does so for a reason.

We must explore the distraction, pursue what it tells us. We must pay attention. This is where we expand our understanding of the human experience so we can grow individually and collectively.

And, yes, that can happen—really it must happen—even in business.