what a blind haircut taught me

The Big Idea: we learn more with less information.

Let’s face it. Most of the news, photos, media, and content we consume is a waste.

We live in a noisy world, so information is sensationalized to break through to us. It has to be; we’ve grown weary from media overload. We see 3,000 unique corporate logos every single day. We consume news from eight separate sources, on average. It’s no wonder we’ve grown anesthetized to anything but headlines and highlights.

Our brains are struggling to filter through what’s important and what’s not. Our attention spans have disintegrated. They are now, in fact, shorter than a goldfish’s

This creates a considerable challenge for us because not everything that shocks us brings us life. Not everything sensational is meaningful. 

If we wish to live deep, meaningful lives, we have to start by stripping away the stimulus. While it sounds a little strange, the more we dial back the flow of information, the more we’re able to absorb. This is the paradox of our five senses. As you remove one sense, the others grow exponentially more sensitive.

This topic matters because life will always bring us hardship. When we inevitably find ourselves facing down conflict, whether it be unemployment, the death of a friend, depression, guilt, obesity, a breakup, or what have you, those of us who have been living deeply will thrive within that particular trial. If we’ve taken time to soak up life, have rich conversations, and move beyond superficial exchanges, we’ll find ourselves grounded amidst adversity.

For example, a few years ago, a massive storm rolled through Western England and Northern Ireland. This region is typically very rainy, which over-saturates the topsoil. Tree roots are able to find the nutrients they need to sustain life without spreading too deeply into the earth. Trees can live with shallow, surface-level roots. So, when a powerful winter storm system hit the region, tree limbs didn’t snap while the roots held tight, like normal. Instead, acres upon acres of trees were uprooted entirely. Generations-worth of trees were toppled and forest preserves, public spaces, and family estates were completely decimated.

In today’s age of misinformation, social media, and “alternative facts” designed to align our minds with certain political parties, products, and lifestyles, it’s worth noting we’re on an eerily similar trajectory. Like the United Kingdom’s trees, we’re at risk of living off surface-level nutrients. We rarely take the time to cultivate the kinds of deep roots that will sustain us during life’s storms.

So what does this look like, practically speaking? How do we move beyond shallow exchanges and live deeply? With a wealth of information but a poverty of attention placed on topics that truly matter, where do we begin? While there are a lot of answers to this, a blind child visiting a barbershop showed me where we all might start.

I peered past my Entrepreneur magazine and noticed a slender black pole sitting in the middle of the walkway. I was sitting in a row of seats at the front of a barbershop, patiently waiting my turn.

Someone’s going to trip over that thing, I thought to myself. 

As I looked around to determine why a tripping hazard had been left in the middle of everyone’s footpath, I realized that narrow stick was actually meant to prevent someone from tripping.

A child wearing sunglasses and a crooked smile gripped the pole's leather-bound handle. He seemed to be eight, maybe nine years old in my estimation. He gazed wistfully in the direction of a small bell that signaled another patron’s entrance. If his sunglasses and stick hadn’t already given it away, him aimlessly gazing toward the various noises in the shop confirmed it. He was blind.

“James?” A stylist called out from the back of the barbershop.

The child clutching the walking stick was evidently names James, as he quickly rose from his chair. His mother leaned his stick against the wall and guided him to an old-fashioned black leather barber’s chair. She conferred with the stylist for a moment, sharing that James liked his hair short on top, but not so short that he wouldn’t be able to run his fingers through it.

The stylist fired up her clippers and brought them near James’ ear. He winced as they touched the side of his head, recoiling from the loud noise of the mechanical shears. His nose wrinkled and his brow furrowed as the stylist moved the clippers toward his neck. 

It occurred to me that James relied on sound to help determine what’s friendly and what’s not. It was quite a curious thing to watch. He was incredibly sensitive to everything happening around him. On several occasions, the stylist had to redirect his head to face forward as he wiggled around to face the different sounds.

I realized I was staring after another minute of watching the stylist work. I wanted to be observant without being offensive, so I glanced at his mother. She had picked up a book and appeared to be focused on the pages, so I continued to observe James.

The stylist picked up a pair of scissors and started trimming the top of his sandy blonde hair. Without the white noise of the clippers drowning out the din of the barbershop, James seemed even more interested to know what was happening around him. He craned his neck toward every jingle and clanking sound as his stylist continued to reposition him. I imagined James was using the cacophony of noise to construct a scene as vivid and as detailed as anything I was watching.

Once she finished with her scissors, the stylist leaned against a silver lever and reclined the overstuffed chair towards a sink. James smiled the kind of wide, open-mouth smile you’d expect to see from a kid riding a rollercoaster. His face lit up with delight as sudsy hands and pressurized water massaged his scalp. 

After a towel dry, comb, and some gel, James stood up from the chair looking like a new man. He listened as his mom admired his fresh cut, and he beamed as she told him how nice he looked.

Will I have that much fun getting my hair cut today? I wondered.

Generally speaking, I love going to the barber. The brand-new feeling as you stand up from the barber’s chair is among the best in the world. But this particular trip felt more like a chore. I’d been waiting far longer than my projected wait time. My longer wait meant a later finish, which also meant I’d have less time to replace the kitchen faucet, which I had working on before I left the house. In turn, that meant I wouldn’t start cooking dinner until I was already hungry, which meant I’d be a grouch… you get the idea.

Yes, these were trivial concerns in the grand scheme of things. But nevertheless, as I oscillated between emails on my phone, ESPN on the TV, and my Entrepreneur magazine in a sad attempt to medicate my impatience, I grew increasingly restless. Sitting still, listening to the sounds of the barbershop, and reflecting on my week didn’t feel like productive ways to spend my time. I just wanted to check ‘haircut’ off my list and move to my next task.

James’ mother handed the stylist a cash tip as they strolled toward the storefront. As they walked, it occurred to me that James was leading them, and dragging his walking stick behind him. He grabbed the door handle and once outside, he walked toward his mother’s vehicle, stopping in front of the passenger door to wait for the chime signaling the door was unlocked.

Clearly, James had studied his steps. He remembered the layout of the barbershop and the parking lot alike, and he was able to retrace his path without any assistance.

As I pocketed my phone and set my magazine in its rack, I had to laugh. I often rush through my weeks without stopping to learn from them. I’m always running from place to place, distracted by the topic of the day. I mean, if I could somehow get back all the hours I’ve spent repeating mistakes I’ve already made, and should have learned from and moved past, I’d easily have a year of free time. This particular day was no exception.

I was in a rush to leave the barbershop and get on with my day. I wasn’t interested in unplanned down time. Shuffling through my barrage of email and obsessing over my too-tight schedule was far easier than spending a few moments contemplating my week.

James, on the other hand, clearly took his time navigating his weeks. He soaked up his surroundings, despite his lack of sight, and it helped him find his way.

Back in your school days, did you ever cram for an exam? You know, where you’d shove 200-pages-worth of information into your brain in less than two minutes? If so, I’ll bet you don’t remember any of those facts and figures. Everyone knew the art of cramming was finishing right before the professor handed out the exam. That way, knowledge wouldn’t begin leaking from your ears too soon.

I often feel like my weeks are one constant test that I have to cram for. You could chalk it up to my over-achieving personality, but I always seem to find myself with a progressively demanding schedule and a crowded calendar. I’ve tried to shortcut my way through various tests like managing more employees at work, or renovating a house when I get home from the office, but cramming has only served to back me into a corner.

Learning to live well has required that I move beyond shortcuts. Living deeply has meant adopting new rhythms and routines into my week. It’s demanded that I slow down the salvo of constant distractions to make time for contemplation, imagination, and higher-level thinking.

Two of our world’s most brilliant minds agreed with this view. Benjamin Franklin once said, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” Albert Einstein’s opinion was, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

Jesus (who was far wiser than these historical giants) also challenged his followers to live deeply in an era when memorizing as many laws and guidelines as possible was the norm. When Jesus walked the earth, a group of people called Pharisees were among culture’s most powerful influencers. They forced their followers to memorize and obey the 613 Jewish commandments written in the books of the Bible called the Torah. Pharisees were legalistic, highly religious, and they were ruthless.

One day, a member of the Pharisee’s leading ranks decided to go toe-to-toe with Jesus. This Pharisee was a lawyer, so he was exceptionally trained in examining others and recalling the law’s fine print. He put Jesus to the test by asking him, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

This was more than a simple test, however. It was a trap. You see, if Jesus selected just one of the 613 laws in his answer, that left 612 opportunities for the lawyer to say he was wrong. But if Jesus refused to provide an answer, he’d have been made out as foolish, uncertain of the law, and unfit to teach his followers.

Jesus, however, was not only smarter than the Pharisees’ schemes. He took a far simpler approach to defining a well-lived life. He freed his followers from the tyranny of the law, while upholding it at the same time. He distilled an entire culture that drown people in hundreds of laws, traditions, and rituals into just two simple commands.

Jesus replied to the Pharisee, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

You see, by narrowing the entirety of the Jewish law into those two sentences, Jesus not only broke the chains shackling culture, he made the most of his short life on earth.

On the one hand, the Pharisees overwhelmed their followers with information. It made them appear holier, and wiser. People literally spent a lifetime trying to learn and apply all 613 laws. On the other hand, Jesus trained his disciples for the most important mission ever – preaching a gospel of eternal life through grace and faith, not memorizing laws to hopefully pass life’s final test – in just three years’ time.

That’s pretty impressive when you consider that Jesus imparted enough wisdom to enable his followers to plant churches, restore life, and transform broken communities in less time than it takes to earn a college degree.

What’s more, beyond leaving us these two simple rules for living an eternally-significant life, Jesus he left us his church. He created an entire support system that draw upon the talents and gifts of a whole group of believers. We don’t have to lay down roots to try to weather life’s storms alone. Instead, we get to live like a colony of Aspen trees which develop a network of interconnected, 130-foot-long roots that allow it to sustain the life of hundreds of trees.

And just like James’ mother who made sure he arrived to the barber on time and his hair looked good, we’ll go further and live fuller by relying on the support of the community around us.