A successful pickpocket depends on distraction and misdirection to get the job done. What do you stand to lose if you’re not paying attention?
It’s one thing for Apollo Robbins to steal from someone without getting caught.
It’s another thing for him to call up a volunteer from an audience, explain exactly what he’s about to do, and then steal from him or her without getting caught.
That’s what Mr. Robbins does. According to his website, he’s picked the pockets of more than a quarter million men and women, including a member of Jimmy Carter’s Secret Service detail. And if you search his name on YouTube, you’ll find video after video of him doing exactly that—calling an audience member onstage and then rifling through his or her pockets, completely unnoticed, while everyone else watches in a mixture of amusement and disbelief.
“What I think is interesting about the term misdirection is it’s a misnomer,” he explained on National Geographic’s Brain Games. “Most people think it means, ‘Look at this hand while I do something with this one.’ But actually, what I want to do is direct and control your attention—at least know where it is.”
Which makes sense—where you focus your attention will either help or hurt a pickpocket’s ultimate goal:
“Your attentional spotlight,” Robbins says, “is only the size of your thumbnail—one one-thousandth of your field of view. That means if I can see where your eye motion is, I can now navigate around that and do certain things. Plus, because you have to make choices between all your senses—your vision, your hearing, all those are coming into one spot—if I can tap into your priority system, I can now start hacking to reprioritize certain things so that other things will go under the radar.”
As Robbins explained to The New Yorker, “If you think about where the spotlight is, the dark space around that spotlight is where I dance. So basically I just play in the dark around where your attention is moving.”
A con man always has a goal
As much as I enjoy watching (or, more accurately, failing to watch) Robbins ply his craft, there’s something deeply unsettling about the whole thing too. It reminds me that Robbins isn’t the only one out there with that skill set.
Robbins does what he does for entertainment and education, but there’s another being who enjoys playing in the dark and manipulating your attention, and he has more nefarious aspirations.
He’s had about 6,000 years to practice his tricks on the human race, and the Bible tells us he actively deceives the entire world (Revelation 12:9). His name is Satan the devil—“a liar and the father of it” (John 8:44).
But what’s his goal? What does he want from you?
You have potential, and Satan hates it
You exist because a long time ago—before time began, technically (2 Timothy 1:9)—the eternal beings we know as God the Father and Jesus Christ decided to grow Their family.
From the beginning, They created the human race “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27), and since then, They have been steadily moving forward with a plan that will give everyone who has ever lived the opportunity to fully and completely join that family. Some people are receiving that invitation now (1 Corinthians 15:22-23), while the vast majority will be receiving it sometime in the future (2 Peter 3:9).
A long time ago, Satan tried (and failed) to usurp God’s throne (Isaiah 14:12-15). Since that time, he has been active as an enemy of God—of His nature, of His plan and of His family. Satan is “the accuser of our brethren, who accused them before our God day and night” (Revelation 12:10). He wants to derail God’s plan, and he devotes himself tirelessly to that cause.
But he can only do so much. In fact, when God opens the doors to train for eternal life to a potential member of His family, Satan is powerless to shut those doors or to take away God’s offer.
Jesus explained, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand” (John 10:27-29).
Satan doesn’t need to take anything away from you to achieve his goals. He just needs your attention.If we stay focused on Jesus Christ, “the good shepherd” (John 10:14), if we dedicate ourselves to following and keeping His commandments (John 14:15), if we continue to repent of our sins (Acts 26:20) and seek first the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33), there isn’t anything Satan can do to take away the future God has in store for us.
That’s a lot of ifs. And because of that, Satan doesn’t need to take anything away from you to achieve his goals.
He just needs your attention—and if he can get that, you’ll take care of the rest for him.
What happens if you wander off?
That’s Satan’s game. That’s his con. He can’t take away your future by force, but he doesn’t need to.
You can only pursue the teachings and example of Jesus Christ if you’re focused on them. You can only develop godly character if you’re focused on what goes into that character (2 Peter 1:5-7). And you can only seek first the Kingdom of God if that becomes your highest priority, your primary focus.
If Satan can capture your focus, all that starts to fall apart. It’s a two-sided coin: no one can snatch you out of the Father’s hand, but the Father isn’t going to stop you from wandering off either. You have your free will. You can look where you want to look. You can walk where you want to walk.
In fact, your enemy is sincerely hoping you will.
We have less attention to spare than we think
“They have control,” Robbins says, explaining his technique, “and that’s a big thing is them having the illusion that they’re in control.”
And we have control too, don’t we? Of course we do. We have lots of control. There are a thousand things we could choose to do at any given moment, and so many of those choices are perfectly acceptable activities.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with using social media, for example. There’s nothing wrong with keeping up with the news. There’s nothing wrong with having a hobby, or with shopping, or with eating, or with exercising, or with watching a movie.
The problem is that these fine, perfectly acceptable activities all require your attention—and you probably have less of it to spare than you think you do.
During his TED Talk, Robbins explained, “Now, for my job, I have to … play with your attention as a limited resource. So if I could control how you spend your attention, if I could maybe steal your attention through a distraction. …”
There is a fixed and unalterable limit on exactly how much time and attention we have available to invest. We all have the same 24 hours to work with every day, and we all have to decide where those hours go. Satan wants to convince you to sink as many of them as possible into things that will take your attention farther and farther away from the things that deserve your focus the most.
A little more time perfecting that Instagram post. A little more time working out. A little more time polishing your latest project. A little more, a little more, a little more, until …
“If you could control somebody’s attention …”
We don’t know what the other five virgins were doing instead of preparing their lamps, but whatever it was, it couldn’t have been worth missing the wedding and standing outside the door in disgrace.Jesus told a parable about 10 virgins who were waiting for a groom to arrive for his wedding. Only five of the virgins had come prepared with extra oil to fuel their lamps. The other five had to hurry off to the marketplace to buy some at the last minute—and as a result, they missed the wedding entirely. When they begged the groom to open the door, he replied, “I do not know you” (Matthew 25:12).
All 10 virgins had access to the oil they needed—but only five of them made it a priority to have that oil ready beforehand. We don’t know what the other five virgins were doing instead of preparing their lamps, but whatever it was, it couldn’t have been worth missing the wedding and standing outside the door in disgrace.
Here’s how Apollo Robbins closes out his TED Talk: “Attention is a powerful thing. Like I said, it shapes your reality. So I guess I’d like to pose that question to you. If you could control somebody’s attention, what would you do with it?”
Protect yourself from Satan’s weapons of mass distraction
Satan can’t take your future from you—but if you hand him the reins of your attention, he can keep you from it all the same. He can distract you from preparing for the spiritual wedding until the doors are locked and God’s response is, “I do not know you.”
Jesus told us, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). Satan has plenty of distractions to offer us—but if we want the future God has in store for us, it’s up to us to treat it like the treasure that it is.
Satan can only distract us from the things we’re willing to stop looking at.
For more about the wonderful future Satan wants to distract you from, read “The Greatest Story Never Told.”