26 Jul The Day He Ditched His Distractions

Once upon a time, in Spotlight Town, there lived a boy named Dana. He was a kind-hearted and observant young lad who always paid attention to his surroundings.

One morning, as Dana was waiting at the bus stop, he noticed a peculiar character waiting next to him. He was about to tell him his shoelaces were untied when he looked up at the person and was shocked.

Oddly enough, he looked exactly like an iPhone, or any other smartphone for that matter, with countless app icons adorning his face! But instead of looking like regular app icons, they were eyes – lots of eyes. Bizarrely, his eyes weren’t looking in one direction as most people’s two eyes usually do. They were darting around, up, down, sideways…all looking everywhere at the same time!

The bus arrived and Dana got on it, but he saw that the man was so, well, everywhere at once in his own world that he hadn’t even noticed the arrival. Dana called out to him, “Excuse me, don’t you want to get on?”

The man snapped out of his distracted state and got on. Once inside, he explained to Dana, “Th-thank you. Ugh. Happens to me all the time. See, I’m never in focus. It’s impossible to concentrate on any one thing and I always end up missing things, getting in trouble and unintentionally annoying people.” He frowned. And then, “By the way, I’m Mr. Smartphone. But I don’t feel very smart…”

Dana, intrigued by this admission, introduced himself and then said, “Doesn’t it bother you that you’re making the wrong impression by not paying attention? It seems like you don’t like this about yourself.”

Mr. Smartphone sighed, “Oh, it does bother me, Dana. But I can’t seem to stop.” To Dana, it looked like he was full of anxiety. A nervous wreck.

Dana nodded understandingly,”Well, I guess it’s about making the decision to be focused, hard as it is. Maybe if you had someone to help you, it would make a difference. Would you like me to be that someone?” Mr. Smartphone looked at Dana gratefully, “That would be wonderful, Dana! I would truly appreciate that.”

And so they embarked o a new friendship, with Dana keeping a watchful eye on Mr. Smartphone’s wandering attention.

They got off the bus and walked down the neighborhood high street. After a moment, a friendly gentleman approached them and asked for their help in finding the local library. He said it was very important to find it soon as the library was going to close and he wanted to sign a petition to help prevent that.

Dana didn’t know where it was, but Mr. Smartphone wasn’t being helpful at all if he knew. His eyes were darting all over the place, not focusing on the man in front of him at all, who felt Mr. Smartphone was being downright rude and angrily asked, “Excuse me. Did you hear what I said? I need to find the library. It’s very, very important. Why are you ignoring me?”

Dana nudged Mr. Smartphone in the ribs, “Ahem. This man is asking you a question.”

Mr. Smartphone came to, took a deep breath, centered all of his eyeballs on him, and said. “I apologize sincerely. I am completely with you. The library is two streets over to the left with a green awning. You can’t miss it.”

The man softened his gaze, expressed his gratitude, and happily went on his way.

After that, Dana took Mr. Smartphone to get his new friend some fresh air, which he sensed he needed. While walking, Dana constantly reminded Mr. Smartphone to look at the path as he kept tripping up and falling on his face, muttering, “Oh dear, silly me”, each time he did, rolling all his eyeballs up at once.

Just then, Mr. Smartphone carelessly bumped into a child on a scooter, causing her to fall. The child’s parents rushed over, very cross. One of the parents scolded Mr. Smartphone, “Hey, why don’t you watch where you’re going! You just knocked our daughter off her scooter!”

Dana quickly stepped in, “I’m sorry, but my friend can get a bit distracted sometimes. He didn’t mean to cause any harm. Look, he’s just staring into space…I mean, the lamppost, I mean, that poodle…sorry….the bench.”

Mr. Smartphone was looking everywhere but at the parents and the bawling child at his feet. Dana gave him a giant nudge which snapped Mr. Smartphone out of his hypnotic state. Feeling remorseful, he apologized to the parents, “I’m truly sorry for my lack of attention. I didn’t see the little girl coming. I was…in….well, I was somewhere else and just didn’t notice her….is she all right? Are you OK, little girl? I’m so sorry!”

The girl looked up and sniffled saying she was fine. Her parents, seeing she wasn’t hurt, relaxed a little and said, “She’s fine, just a little scared. But it could have been worse. Please be more careful next time. Pay attention and stay focused on your surroundings.”

“Duly noted, duly noted,” said Mr. Smartphone as he vowed to get better.

Seeing that Mr. Smartphone was feeling awful, Dana invited him for dinner with his family. His parents and sister were warm and friendly but immediately saw that something was odd about Dana’s new friend. As they sat around the table, Mr. Smartphone’s eyes were constantly wandering…he was literally all over the place! Dana’s parents exchanged puzzled glances, wondering why Mr. Smartphone seemed so aloof. They all felt he wasn’t interested in them.

Finally, Dana’s father spoke up, “Mr. Smartphone, we’re delighted to have you here, but it would be lovely if you could join in the conversation and engage with us. You see to not want to be with us.”

Mr. Smartphone snapped to attention and, flushed with embarrassment, said. “I’m sorry, I got lost in my own thoughts. Please forgive me. Let’s start again. How was your day?”

Dana’s family all smiled, appreciating Mr. Smartphone’s effort to be more present, which he was in the end. But it was during dinner that Dana decided to really help his scatter-brained friend – with patience and determination.

After raspberry pie and cream for dessert, Dana got out one of his favorite puzzles. He figured that if Mr. Smartphone could concentrate on the puzzle, he’d learn to ignore distractions and focus on putting all the pieces together. Success! Not only did Mr. Smartphone manage to make the puzzle in record time, he loved it and wanted to do another one immediately. He said he hadn’t felt that focused in years!

He went home that night feeling a new sense of self.

The next day, they went to the town hall to attend a meeting where important issues were being discussed. Namely, getting rid of the library and moving all books to a digital platform. Normally, Mr. Smartphone would have been fine with this – but he had woken up that morning firmly against it – since he’d had time to focus on how it would result in more unnecessary screen time for kids – and was resolute in defending actual books in the library.

True to his nature, it was challenging for him to focus on the speaker’s words advocating the change. His eyes were starting to wander. Dana, noticing his struggle, reminded him to look at the speaker, actively listen and stay engaged. Mr. Smartphone then asked questions and challenged the speaker before sharing his thoughts and defending the town from this disastrous digital move. His passion and commitment earned the respect and admiration of all the others in the meeting and they overwhelmingly voted against the move.

The library was saved!

As time went on, Mr. Smartphone started to grasp the importance of treating people with respect and focusing on them when they spoke. He realized that by giving others his undivided attention, he was showing that he genuinely cared about what they had to say. He became less preoccupied with himself and was more present and the people of Spotlight Town began to appreciate his efforts. Because they knew it wasn’t easy for him. With resolve and purpose (and Dana’s help), Mr. Smartphone became razor-sharp.

One fine day, as Dana and Mr. Smartphone walked past the town square around a month after they had become friends, Dana saw that a profound change had taken place.

The app icons on Mr. Smartphone’s face were no longer looking in different directions!

They were all pointing the same way! He was finally present in the moment, engaged in every sense, and was all the happier for it.

And he finally felt, dare one say it, truly smart.

The End

I love Roger Hargreaves who created the Mr. Men series. I grew up on his books and I still read them to my kids, to this day. His characters inspired me to express the concern I have with the rise of artificial intelligence and how it can make us too lazy.

Smartphones are amazing. I love mine. But the outside real world, including the people in it standing right in front of you, are even more amazing. Pay attention to them and you’ll reap the rewards.