Following is the full transcript of actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s talk titled “How Craving Attention Makes You Less Creative” at TED conference. In a refreshingly honest talk, he explores how the attention-driven model of big tech companies impacts our creativity — and shares a more powerful feeling than getting attention: paying attention.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT
First of all, thank you for your attention.
There’s nothing quite like being in a room full of people like this, where all of you are giving your attention to me. It’s a powerful feeling, to get attention.
I’m an actor, so I’m a bit of an expert on, well, nothing, really. But I do know what it feels like to get attention — I’ve been lucky in my life to get a lot more than my fair share of attention. And I’m grateful for that, because like I said, it’s a powerful feeling.
But there’s another powerful feeling that I’ve also been lucky to experience a lot as an actor. And it’s funny, it’s sort of the opposite feeling, because it doesn’t come from getting attention. It comes from paying attention.
When I’m acting, I get so focused that I’m only paying attention to one thing. Like when I’m on set and we’re about to shoot and the first AD calls out “Rolling!” And then I hear “speed,” “marker,” “set,” and then the director calls “Action!”
I’ve heard that sequence so many times, like, it’s become this Pavlovian magic spell for me. “Rolling,” “speed,” “marker,” “set” and “action.”
Something happens to me, I can’t even help it. My attention… narrows. And everything else in the world, anything else that might be bothering me or might grab my attention, it all goes away, and I’m just there.
And that feeling, that is what I love, that, to me, is creativity. And that’s the biggest reason I’m so grateful that I get to be an actor.
So, there’s these two powerful feelings. There’s getting attention and paying attention. Of course, in the last decade or so, new technology has allowed more and more people to have this powerful feeling of getting attention.
For any kind of creative expression, not just acting. It could be writing or photography or drawing, music — everything. The channels of distribution have been democratized, and that’s a good thing.
But I do think there’s an unintended consequence for anybody on the planet with an urge to be creative — myself included, because I’m not immune to this.
I think that our creativity is becoming more and more of a means to an end — and that end is to get attention.
And so I feel compelled to speak up because in my experience, the more I go after that powerful feeling of paying attention, the happier I am.
But the more I go after the powerful feeling of getting attention, the unhappier I am.
And — thanks.
So this is something that goes way back for me. I think the first time I can remember using my acting to get attention, I was eight years old at summer camp. And I’d been going on auditions for about a year by then, and I’d been lucky to get some small parts in TV shows and commercials, and I bragged about it a lot, that summer at camp.
And at first, it worked. The other kids gave me a bunch of extra attention, because I had been on “Family Ties.” That’s a picture of me on “Family Ties.”
Then, the tide turned — I think I took it too far with the bragging. And then, the other kids started to make fun of me. I remember there was this one girl I had a crush on, Rocky. Her name was Rachel, she went by Rocky. And she was beautiful, and she could sing, and I was smitten with her, and I was standing there, bragging.
And she turned to me and she called me a show-off. Which I 100% deserved. But you know, it still really hurt.
And ever since that summer, I’ve had a certain hesitance to seek attention for my acting. Sometimes, people would ask me, “Wait a minute, if you don’t like the attention, then why are you an actor?”
And I’d be like, “Because that’s not what acting’s about, man, it’s about the art.”
And they’d be like, “OK, OK, dude.”
And then Twitter came out. And I got totally hooked on it, just like everybody else, which made me into a complete hypocrite.
Because at that point, I was absolutely using my acting to get attention. I mean, what — did I think I was just getting all these followers because of my brilliant tweets? I actually did think that — I was like — “They don’t just like me because they saw me in ‘Batman,’ they like what I have to say, I’ve got a way with words.”
And then in no time at all, it started having an impact on my dearly beloved creative process. It still does. I try not to let it.