Observation Skills

A beautiful thing never gives so much pain as does failing to hear and see it. MICHELANGELO

Take a look at these two quotes:

Art does not render the visible; it makes visible. PAUL KLEE

I love Paris in the
the springtime


Read the Cole Porter quote several times. Did you? Anything wrong with it? No?

Look at it again below:

I love Paris in the
the springtime

Do you see it now? Why did you miss it first or second or third time?

We know the expression so well, in fact, that we don’t really need to “read” the line, so we hardly look at it. If vision is our most developed sense, here is a vivid example of how we mindlessly exercise it, not seeing the world around us because we think we already know what it contains.

Developing observation skills to remove the unknown and to achieve better motivation requires developing skills and the ability to draw comparisons and analogies.

We can look at the world and ask how things differ (make distinctions) or how they are the same (make analogies). The first approach results in the creation of new categories, the second usually involves shifting contexts, both of which we have described as mindful activities. We have discussed the mindful nature of novel distinction-making at some length. Thinking by analogy is equally important to both mindfulness and creativity.

The ability to make or spot analogies has long been of interest to people who try to judge intelligence. Candidates for graduate work in certain fields, for instance, must take an exam called the Miller Analogies Test, which contains multiple-choice questions such as the following:

Lion is to Pride as Horse is to: (circle one) Vanity Herd Corral

In making an analogy, we apply a concept learned in one context to another one. Such a mental operation is in itself mindful. Architects who can see how one setting, say, a hospital, resembles another, say, a hotel, can come up with designs more responsive to complex needs. Intentionally mixing metaphors with an eye toward finding similarities can spark new insights. Comparing people, businesses, and religions, across and within categories, for example, can lead to a greater understanding of both sides of the comparison. 

Jean Piaget wrote that his work on the child’s conception of time, motion, and speed was inspired by Albert Einstein’s work in the domain of physics and relativity. “Einstein,” wrote Piaget, “once suggested that we study the question from the psychological viewpoint and try to discover if there existed an intuition of speed independent of time.” According to the physicist Gerald Holton, one of Einstein’s many contributions was to generate ideas that lent themselves to “further adaptation and transformation in the imagination of similarly exalted spirits who live on the other side of disciplinary boundaries.”

This ability to transcend context is the essence of mindfulness and central to creativity in any field. 

For many people motivating moments are the result of juxtaposing observations or ideas that might not ordinarily go together. This is the skills for detecting hidden patterns and putting things in a new context to help you see them in a completely fresh way.

Hiero who ruled Syracuse in ancient Greece challenged Archimedes whether Hiero’s crown was made of pure gold. Archimedes knew what pure gold weighed, but the crown was irregularly shaped. The conundrum had to be solved without melting down the crown itself.

Archimedes was motivated as he was getting into his bath as he noticed the water rise as he lowered himself. He shouted “Eureka!” He could then determine the volume of the crown by seeing how much water it displaced, then multiply that amount by the weight of pure gold.

“You have to turn things upside down, view the world differently,” says Peter Lissaman, one of the thinkers at AeroVironments, an innovative engineering firm that has come up with a long list of inventions.

It’s as though you have a beautiful Persian rug, and you see a crimson rose in one corner and a deep red sunset in the other corner. But it’s only when you turn the rug over that you notice that what you thought was the crimson and what you thought was deep red are connected diagonally by the same thread and are really the same color. They just looked different because they were surrounded by different colors. In seeking a creative solution, it helps to turn a problem over and look at it from the other side. Then maybe you’ll discover the connections that have been hidden.”

In 1945 Richard James, a naval engineer, was conducting experiments with tension springs for the military. During one experiment, one of the springs accidentally fell to the floor and began to “walk.” Although the spring was unsuitable for the Navy’s purposes, James took it home to his wife, Betty, and asked her if she thought it had potential. Betty’s vision for the spring, which she called a Slinky, as we all know, made toy history. 

The idea is to pay attention to things you hadn’t noticed before or had taken for granted. This is essential when you are trying to remove an uncertainty or solving difficult and complex problems.

Notice that to a certain degree, we do like situations that are predictable. We enjoy the same habitual and we like to avoid surprises, however, there is a downside to routine. We will be easily fixed in our ways of seeing, our expectation of how things are supposed to be, which is the most important impediment to removing uncertainty. We fall into the same trap of not seeing the new colors or your partner’s new hair. In business we find ourselves not seeing a new trend that could drastically affect the market.

Dr. Stephen Covey in his wonderful book called The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People says:

“Perhaps the most important insight to be gained from the perception demonstration is in the area of paradigm shifting, what we might call the “Aha!” experience when someone finally “sees” the composite picture in another way. The more bound a person is by the initial perception, the more powerful the “Aha!” experience . It’s as though a light were suddenly turned on inside.”

Upon viewing Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a man asked Picasso why he didn’t paint women the way they really looked. When Picasso asked him how women really look, the man produced a photo of his wife. Picasso looked at it and said that he now understood: Women are small, and black and white, and flat. (Dr. Ellen Langer, On Becoming An Artist)

Les demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), oil on canvas (96 x 92). Picasso’s early creative breakthrough.

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