observe: notice, perceive, and register
part two: creativity functions, chapter 5
“But if it is true that the act of observing changes the thing which is observed, it’s even more true that it changes the observer.”— Terry Pratchett, Soul Music
My first experience with photography didn’t involve a camera. It was my first experience with street photography, but I did it unintentionally and without even leaving my room. I was probably ten or eleven, I didn’t have a camera, and the thought of having one didn’t even cross my mind. It was a Saturday morning. The house was quiet, and with no one to rush me to get out of bed, I just lain down wandering between being awake and dreaming. And then I saw something moving on my closet.
At first, I thought I was imagining or still dreaming. I saw a tree and a house and occasionally someone or something passing by. The picture was almost static. I watched it for quite some time, hypnotized by the magic that brought the street into my room and by awareness that I could observe the external world without being seen. But maybe the more profound residue from this experience was the realization that the ordinary (and until now quite boring) street I lived in — the street I walked in several times every single day — could be something I could actually observe, explore, and rediscover by just standing still, and letting myself dive into what I see in front of me.
I obviously didn’t realize it back then, but the natural pinhole camera1 that projected the reflection of the street on the doors of my closet was, in fact, my first camera. The image created inside my room was my first exercise in intentional, mindful observation. It was a chance to see something others ignore or just take for granted and make it my own. Somehow, the blinds on my window made me open my eyes and see the street for what it was: a magical playground to explore.
Harvesting Raw Material
Fifteen years ago, I had a fantasy: to write a book. I won’t bore you with the details. I will just say that while it should have been a non-fiction book, it remained…, well, a fantasy.
During the process of writing the manuscript’s first draft, a good friend referred me to a little book with a promising title: Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method2. And with that promise in mind, I dropped everything and started to read it just to learn that the secret to writing is collecting.
Weinberg compared writing to building a wall from fieldstones, and with this metaphor came the premise that fieldstones — the raw material from which the wall is made — are practically everywhere. What you have to do to write fluently and create a compelling result is to collect enough fieldstones.
A fieldstone in writing, according to Weinberg, can be practically anything: a good quote you come across, something you see or sense, a memory, something you read about, and so on. Embedding these fragments in your manuscript is what makes it appealing and unique — it makes it alive. The raw material you collect and wisely use is what turns a written idea into a literary creation.
One of Weinberg’s key ideas is that it is not effective, and not even realistic, to start looking for the right stone — a stone that fits perfectly in place — just when you need it. What makes the fieldstones method work is collecting fieldstones in advance. And clearly, there is no way to pick “the right” fieldstones in advance simply because you don’t know yet what you will need. So instead, you just have to get into the habit of collecting — writing down anything that catches your attention, even if you don’t know if it will be useful — as many pieces of information, feelings, insights, and fragments of reality you come across.
So, the book I was set out to write remained a fantasy, but Weinberg’s metaphor impacted everything I did since. I soon realized that collecting raw material for future use is not just useful for writing. It is, in fact, essential for any creative act from finding an innovative solution to a technical problem to creating an artwork. Everything we see around us is made from fieldstones someone has collected and decided to assemble in a new or surprising way. Steve Jobs famously called this Connecting the Dots, and we will discuss the act of synthesizing bits of raw material and weaving them together later, but one thing is sure: to connect the dots you must first have dots to connect.
In the previous chapter, we learned Experience is an essential function in the Creativity Operating System. Experiencing turns anything into a playground. But experiencing alone won’t fill your mind-pantry. You have to actively take something from every experience and make it your own. If experiencing is like entering a plantation, you then have to reach out and grab a fruit from the trees surrounding you and take a bite. And the function designed for that is Observe.
Observing is hard-wired into our brain. From the day we are born, we are programmed to see, notice, and register. Children practice observation as naturally as they breathe, and it is as essential to their development. In our early years, we learn about the world by observing3, but Observing is not designed just for learning — this is the function that makes us super-creative early in life. Creative people, in that sense, manage to remain children. They are collectors of insights — the direct outcome of continually observing the world. Enabled by their Experiencing mindset, Observing is how creative people harvest the ingredients that fill their mind-pantry. They are not just experiencing the world — they are exploring it.
All the talented people we’ve met so far used observation, consciously or unconsciously, to explore the world and harvest the ingredients that will eventually find their way into their creative dish. They have collected things that nobody else noticed although they were there in plain sight. Arthur Conan Doyle’s experience in med school enabled him to observe his mentor carefully and use what he saw as raw material for shaping the character of Sherlock Holmes. When Eben Bayer was a child, he observed nature and his revolutionary invention is a direct result of what he learned without even realizing it. George de Mistral was evidently in an experiencing mindset during his hike, but without noticing the burrs that clung to his clothes and deciding to explore them even further in his lab, Velcro® would have never been invented.
One of the most famous and rigorous observers in the history of art and science was Leonardo da Vinci. With his infinite curiosity and eyes that could see what others could not even imagine looking for, Da Vinci filled his notebooks with textual and visual observations on just about anything he came across. And on the other end of his creative flow, every fragment of Da Vinci’s paintings, inventions, and scientific conclusions is a direct result of some things he observed.
Leonardo da Vinci didn’t only observe the world by default. He realized how central this function is to everything he did. He wisely noticed that what came naturally to him, was not common or trivial to others. In one of his notebooks, among the myriad insights he left for future artists and scientists, he wrote: “Develop your senses, especially learn how to see, realize that everything connects to everything else.”
But, if Observing is that important, and if it is hard-wired in our brain from the minute we are born, how come so few of us master this function as adults? And even more important is this question: what can we do about it? How can we become more aware of the things surrounding us and use them as ingredients for future creations?
Inattention: Our Giant Blind Spot
To understand why most of us are not realizing the potential of our Observe function, let’s start with the definition of this operation, and as you can probably guess, we will open the dictionary for that.
notice or perceive something and register it as being significant.
watch someone or something carefully and attentively.
Surprisingly, the key to why we fail to observe and how we can effectively improve that is right there in this simple definition. Our mind is indeed designed to help us learn about the world by watching it. All of us are naturally master-observers from the day we were born. This is how we learn to recognize our parents as soon as they are no more than blurry figures. Shortly after that, we use our senses to discover how things around us work and what to expect of them. We connect sounds with visuals, a smell with a taste, and gradually, our brain implicitly defines and assimilates the patterns that help us make sense of the infinite amount of details flooding us. During this formation period, a lot of details are significant: we need this diverse, sometimes random, input to be able to form these patterns and validate them until they are assimilated in our mental model of the world. We strive for as much raw material as possible to enable the building of this mental model. This is one of the primary tasks of our brain in these early years, and from it derives the need to notice, perceive, and register just about anything we come across.
But at some point, something changes radically.
Here’s the thing: our mind builds a mental model of the world so it could actually put it to use. Using the model means freeing up bandwidth used for observing “less important details” for more meaningful tasks. At least from our mind’s perspective. In other words, while we are wired to observe as much as possible as children, we are wired to significantly reduce the inflow of details we notice as we grow up and use our mental model of the world instead.
In her book On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation4, Alexandra Horowitz writes: “Attention is an intentional, unapologetic discriminator. It asks what is relevant right now, and gears us up to notice only that.” From an evolutionary perspective, she adds, our mind is tuned to what is vital to keep us alive, or if you stretch that definition a bit, to achieve our immediate goals. For our mind, being occupied with the infinite amount of details and stimuli surrounding us is at best ineffective. “Your own internal monologue about what you are doing in any given moment actually affects what you will see in that moment,” she writes.
We will soon see how we can actually use the way our brain is programmed to improve our Observe function. But first we must acknowledge the unfortunate side-effect of how the Observe function works by default: we have a huge blind spot preventing us from noticing things that could be useful for developing new ideas and refining, and sometimes even breaking, our existing mental models. We tend to be blind to things which don’t serve an immediate goal, and this prevents us from realizing our creative potential.
What Leonardo da Vinci and other creative people managed to do is to overcome this natural tendency to ignore the “less important” details. They preserved or regained the ability to see everything as if they see it for the first time – not taking anything for granted. And as a result, they repeatedly discovered that what they had noticed and registered is indeed useful, sometimes to the extent it can change the world.
Creative people manage to reduce their blind spot to the effective minimum.
At the risk of sounding ancient, I have to note that today more than ever before, reaching that level of observation is even more challenging. If our natural tendency to filter out most of the details around us is not enough, our brain is now tuned to get frequent rewards in the form of social posts, pseudo-reactions, and arbitrary notifications. The evolutionary instinct of noticing things essential to our survival was replaced by focusing our attention on mostly useless stimuli from our mobile devices. Any second we are distracted by a random notification is a second we miss a potentially perfect building block for a creative idea.
But even if we manage to tame our FOMO5 — the Fear of Missing Out, most of us are too goal-oriented. We seek the fastest route to work, the shortest line to stand in, and ways to waste as little time as possible on unproductive activities. To master the Observe function, we have to relearn to go sideways, to stop for a few minutes, and to “waste” time. That is the nature of Observing. You will not be able to notice, watch attentively, and register anything while rushing to your next destination or goal. Observe, like the other Creativity core functions, requires a different pace than the one most of us are used to — a much slower one.
By this point, the connection between our ability to Experience and Observe is clear. However, it is not always trivial, and it is not necessarily a cause-and-effect relationship. When you are in an experiencing mindset, you are more likely to notice things and perceive them as significant. At the same time, if you are observing something mindfully, there is a good chance you will treat this activity as an experience. So, these two functions are, in fact, symbiotic. One is a mindset function, and the other is an action function. Creative people practice both of them naturally without really distinguishing between the two. When we aim to develop our Creativity, however, there is a huge benefit in working on both of them. Both Experience and Observe require an intentional decision and deliberate practice, at least until they become habits.
Before we understand how the Observe function can be mastered, let’s explore different types, or as I call them axes, of observation.
The Different Axes of Observing
To understand better how Observing can be practiced intentionally and turned into a habit, I would like to break down this function to different types or axes of observation. Observing is not a monotonous activity. Our brain is constantly shifting gears and changing observation modes. Creative people are masters in seamlessly changings observation modes. They can explore something from different perspectives, focus on its details one second and zoom out to see the bigger picture the next. Their ability to move from the concrete to the abstract enables them to utilize the next functions we will discuss.
The breakdown to different axes or operation modes is somewhat artificial. To be effective, the Observe function must include a mixture of these axes, and they are not always separable even when analyzed in retrospect. Still, this deconstruction is useful when trying to understand how the Observe function works and how to improve it. In fact, this is what we are doing with the Creativity Operating System as a whole: often, all the functions operate together, and sometimes it will be impossible to distinguish between them. And yet, understanding each of them as if it is a stand-alone function is the only way to gradually develop and master them.
This is also a good point to emphasize that while we usually associate the verb Observe with seeing, in the context of Creativity, we observe with all of our senses. Any form of obtaining input from our external or internal world falls under this definition. I will use a visual-driven terminology, such as Zoom-In, Zoom-Out, and Perspective. However, It is intended to be applied to any of our senses and any channel we use to perceive reality.
With that in mind, let’s examine the different ways in which we observe the world.
Zoom-In — Zoom Out
As a rigorous observer, Leonardo da Vinci was a master of details. He filled his notebooks with drawings and observations that go into the finest details of the human anatomy, physical phenomena, and just about anything that caught his attention and curiosity. Maybe one of the most amazing examples for that is where he describes in details the structure of a woodpecker’s tongue without any apparent purpose other than to capture this fragment of the world6.
But this ability to zoom in and go into such high resolution of details rarely stand by itself. Before we can immerse ourselves in the details, we need to see the wider scene first and decide (consciously or unconsciously) what it is we are going to focus on. The act of zooming in starts by definition with a bigger picture.
When I walk with my camera in the streets of Tel-Aviv, I am constantly shifting between the broader view and the focus on details. I am basically scavenging for special details, and to do that I must start with being attentive to a lower-resolution but a wider field of view. I can walk for some time, look around me basically in all directions, until something catches my eye. At that point, I don’t really know if I can make something of it. It is possible that once I zoom in, I will realize there’s nothing much in the specific fragment I decided to explore. But to understand that (or hopefully the opposite), I must get closer. So, I leave behind the bigger picture for a few minutes — I quite literally become blind to it, so I will be able to give my full attention to the detail I found. I move closer to it, observe it intentionally, and often realize it is a world by itself. You might be surprised, though, that this is not necessarily when I actually take a photograph. You see, at this point, after observing the detail and discovering its value, I take a couple of steps back to see the bigger picture again. I zoom out.
After realizing the beauty of a specific detail, it can actually change the bigger picture and create a new way to understand it. Only after doing that, I can decide which field of view I am going to capture in the photograph: whether to focus just on the detail or to include its context as well. Often, I will postpone this decision to later, and take a series of photographs with different zoom levels. Eventually I will have to decide, but for now, when I am with the camera in my hand, my energy is dedicated mostly to observe, so I prefer to capture a variety of views and try to make sense of them later.
Deconstruction a scene and focusing on its details is the heart of many creative acts, but it is easier to understand in the context of art. Pablo Picasso is best known for his cubist artworks. When you first see one of his cubist paintings, it might seem to be lacking in details. One might consider it to be overly abstract, but that’s not the entire story. What Picasso really did in many of his paintings is deconstruct a scene to its details and rebuilt it again, only differently. Consider, for example, Picasso’s drawing Standing Female Nude7. It looks indeed abstract (and we will discuss abstraction soon), but in fact, each of the lines in this drawing is a representation of a concrete detail. Picasso managed to capture the essence of each such detail in its purest and simplest form only to reconstruct the complete picture as an abstract figure.
The author of any good story must describe vivid details that make us connect to characters and situations, and at the same time maintain the integrity of the bigger picture — the coherency and flow of the story as a whole. The only way to do that is by mastering the zoom-in — zoom-out axis.
Artists are not the only ones continually moving on the zoom-in — zoom-out axis. When George de Mestral noticed the burrs clinging to his clothes and decided to explore them carefully under the microscope, he zoomed-in from experiencing the scenery around him to the specific detail that later turned into an invention. The discovery of gravitation, whether it started with a fallen apple or not, is a direct result of Sir Isaac Newton’s ability to observe the world, to isolate a detail and zoon-in, and then zoom-out and see how the same finding is applied to other parts of the picture. What started with an observation about falling objects, was soon used by Newton to explain how celestial objects such as the moon remain in orbit.
Our capability to seamlessly zoom-in and zoom-out affects any instance of Creativity, whether it is solving a problem, finding a problem to solve, or creating artwork. No less important is our ability to observe things from different perspectives.
If you imagine zoom-in and zoom-out as moving closer to what you observe and then moving farther from it, to change the perspective you should walk around the subject or turn it around — you have to look at it from a different angle. Observing is a spatial activity.
The phrase “change of perspective” is often associated with Creativity. We intuitively understand that coming up with a new idea requires a mental change of perspective. Many don’t realize, though, the connection between this mental process and physically changing the angle from which we observe something, and that our brain’s ability to mentally alter perspective is tightly coupled with how we physically see the world.
Remember the mental model our brain strives to build and then use to be more effective? This mental model, which often limits our ability to generate groundbreaking ideas, is derived from how we physically see the world. More often than not, we settle for only a fraction of the ways we can see something.
Take, for example, this building entrance. Most people passing by it will not notice it (unless this is the building they are looking for, of course). When you pass by it, heading to work or rushing to an important meeting, your brain is likely to label it as “a door to a building” — a familiar part of your mental model of the world, and immediately tag it as irrelevant since this is not your target location. Put simply, your brain has nothing to look for here.
If you deliberately stop, look back, and observe this door from a different perspective — from a different angle — it might just come to life as something completely different. Suddenly, you can see that together with the chain in front of it, a smile is created. Your mind is surprised to realize that the mental-model no longer fits this particular scene. With that realization, your brain becomes more attentive to other details as well. This door is no longer labeled as irrelevant. It becomes an opportunity.
So, this is obviously not the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa and not even remotely an insight that will change the world. But this simple exercise in changing perspective can gradually rewire your mind. It can make existing mental-models more flexible, and it trains your brain to actively look for different perspectives not only when you walk down the street but also when you face challenges in your project, for instance.
A special case of changing perspective is the even less common act of inversion: focusing on the opposite than what your mental-model aims for by default. When Alexander Fleming discovered Penicillin, he did just that. When Fleming returned to his lab after a vacation, he noticed a few Petri dishes that were supposed to be used to grow bacteria. Some of them were accidentally left open and got contaminated with mold. The default mental-model of anyone working in a lab would suggest the contaminated Petri dishes to be unusable. But Fleming observed not just the contaminating mold, but what was missing around it: where the fungus grew, the bacteria didn’t. By changing his perspective and inverting the focus of what he saw, Fleming changed his mental-model: from useless samples, these Petri dishes became the source of discovery that was about to change the world.
From Concrete to Abstract
The third axis on which creative people move when they observe the world is from concrete to abstract and back.
Consider how children are playing with ordinary objects and turn them into something new and exciting. Think again of the child we met earlier, playing with a cardboard box and using it as a boat or a castle or a spaceship, or anything remotely resembling a box. Imagination obviously plays a significant role in such a game, and we will discuss the Imagine function soon. But what enables this mental creation, is first stripping the subject of the play from its concrete details. Forgetting what the box was designed for and the concrete features that make it nothing more than a box is the key to turning it into something fantastical.
This is not a one-way journey, though. Often, while being immersed in the imaginative play, children will find a new exciting detail to focus on. They will move back from the abstract to the concrete, just to abstractify this detail as well and use it for their own needs.
Moving between the concrete and the abstract is a fundamental trait of observation. It enables the viewer to see things differently, make surprising connections, and eventually generate new creative insights. One of the most known Creativity tests involves trying to find as many uses for an everyday object. This challenge requires us to move between different levels of abstraction — to ignore some of the details. And the same applies when you need to find creative solutions to problems you are facing. One of the most effective ways to generate innovative solutions to a problem is to strip it of some of the details and turn it into a more abstract problem. Sometimes, the devil is in the details, but often, the solution reveals itself when ignoring them.
We should note that moving from the concrete to the abstract is not the same as zooming-out. When you zoom-out, you see a bigger picture and a broader scope — the context of what you are observing is in your field of view. When you see something abstractly, the scope is not necessarily wider, but the level of details you see is different. The context is not relevant, but instead, you turn the subject you are observing into something else.
In his portrait of William Shakespeare8, Picasso demonstrated the essence of abstraction. His ability to deconstruct the features of the portrait to a minimal selection of free-drawn lines, and still make it recognizable, is impressive. The power of this portrait lies in its simplicity. And while there are many cases where you will need many more details, the ability to see the world through such abstract glasses is highly useful when we aim to see things others don’t — when we wish to be able to identify new problems to solve or to come up with new solutions to existing problems.
Creativity and the ability to observe the world abstractly are tightly coupled.
Rediscovering the World
If inattention and filtering what we see based on our existing mental model is an integral part of how our brain works, how can we overcome it? How can we move back to a different operation mode — a mode in which we discover things which until now were hidden by our own blind spot and collect ingredients for potential creative ideas?
The Experience function is an excellent starting point. When our brain is in an experiencing mode, the chances for noticing more details increase significantly. Think of yourself when visiting a new country for the first time. You observe more, you notice more, and you see details which back home would have been labeled by your brain as meaningless. When you are in the midst of an experience, your Observe function is already triggered and ready to absorb much more information about the external world. So, if we manage to develop our sense of Experience, and fill our day-to-day with more experiences, we are already in a better position to rediscover the world around us.
But we can do much more than that. We can train and develop our observation muscle until it reaches a level in which we notice things as naturally as we are breathing. How can we do that? Well, Albert Einstein might have the answer to that.
“Whether you can observe a thing or not depends on the theory which you use. It is the theory which decides what can be observed.” — Albert Einstein
I love this quote so much that I allow myself to ignore the scientific context in which it was said. When generalized, it embeds a painfully simple truth about how we observe the world: we see what we expect to see. Or, at least we have a better chance to see what our filters are tuned to. And within this idea, which seems like an obstacle first, also lies the solution. If the Observe function is using our mental model and what we expect to see to filter the infinite stimuli we are exposed to, all we need to do to see more things is to continually change our expectations. If we aim to notice more, we need to expect more. If everything we see is filtered through a lens in our mind, we can see much more with a diverse set of glasses.
And amazingly, this is so easy to achieve. Let’s do a little experiment. Throughout the rest of the day, keep the following word in mind:
You don’t have to do anything special or change your plans even a bit. But wherever you go and whatever you do, look for things (not people) that appear to be smiling. When you find one, take a snapshot of it, and continue looking for more smiles. To make this lens even stronger, write the word Smiley in a place you can see it throughout the day, for example by putting a little sticker on your smartphone.
If you want to make the most of this experiment, stop reading now and continue after at least a couple of hours of intentionally looking for smileys.
If you followed these simple instructions, by now, you could probably appreciate the collection of unexpected smileys you captured in the past hours. In most of the photos you have captured you can find ordinary things which were always around you, but you probably failed to notice or give attention to until today. By setting our brain on a quest for smiling things, we lured it to put aside our default mental model and be attentive to things we usually ignore. It is so simple to turn on the Observe switch in our brain, and see the world just like children do — like we are designed to see it: a world full of surprises.
Now, here is the best part of it. When you have such a surprising insight, your brain feels rewarded. As much as our brain loves patterns, it awakes when these patterns are broken. That’s why notifications on our smart devices are so painfully effective. When we manage to create a different kind of pattern-breaking — a different type of reward — our brain will seek to recreate this experience. By teaching our mind that it can perceive the world in more rewarding ways, it will gradually start to look for these rewards even without a predefined trigger. And that is precisely how observing can become a habit.
As strange as it may sound, the key to developing the Observe function is to expect the unexpected. This is not an oxymoron — it is a habit we can cultivate, and the exercise you’ve just done in one way to start practicing it. It is much easier to achieve this mindset if we are already in an experiencing mode, but there are few simple things we can do to blend this motto in our day-to-day and gradually turn it into an inherent part of how we see the world.
The Next Step: Plan to Observe
To master the Observe function, please refer to the Core Practices defined in the c.os model. The following activities are an excellent place to start, though. They are designed so you could experiment with Observe in lab conditions. To lead a creative life, your next challenge would be to implement all the Core Practices, turn them into habits, and seamlessly apply them in everything you do.
Just like with the Experience function, working on the Observe function has more value than merely promoting Creativity. When we develop our ability to observe, we gain the capacity and the bandwidth to see the world with more depth and surprising interpretations. It is the basis of being present. In turn, it also promotes motivation, productivity, and a sense of well-being.
And similarly to the Experience function, our plan to Observe revolves mainly around doing so intentionally. When we are tuned into seeing something, we will see it, so the more we are tuned into seeing diverse, unexpected things, the richer our observing experience becomes.
Eventually, to Observe becomes second nature and reach the level it was when we were children. At this point, it might not require special exercises. However, external triggers are often pattern-breakers, so they can help even avid observers whenever we fall into our default mental model.
Change Glasses Every Day
One of the most effective methods to Observe more and find new, surprising insights to collect, is wearing different glasses every day. In her book On Looking, Alexandra Horowitz beautifully describes eleven walks she took around her block, each of them with a different person (and one of them with her dog). Each guide enabled her to see different things or see the same things differently. Each guide helped her tune to a different frequency and see a different subset of the infinite potential insights surrounding us. And that is precisely what happens when you wear a new pair of glasses.
When you were doing the Smiley exercise earlier, you wore a pair of mental glasses. Just like a lens can be used to focus your vision on different things or filter out part of the visible light, the Smiley trigger helped your mind focus on things you don’t typically focus on. So many things around you started to smile just because your brain actively looked for them.
Now, imagine taking these metaphorical glasses with you throughout the day. Imagine capturing unexpected smiles all day long. And then, switching glasses the next day: looking for something else, even if you spend your time at the exact same places.
When you use a different pair of glasses each day, you observe and discover new things every day. You collect new insights and store them in your mind-pantry. Every day can become a unique experience.
- Start each day by wearing a new pair of metaphorical glasses. You can use seempli Seeds™ for that.
- Use the glasses you are wearing throughout the day. Observe the world using these glasses, look for things inspired by them, and try to collect as many Insights as you can.
- Capture your insights in an Insight Journal.
Just like with experiences, recording your observations and insights is invaluable. It will help you slow down (which we will discuss next) and focus for a couple of minutes on what you observed. At the end of the day, you will be able to use the insights you have captured to reflect on your day and relive the surprises you found along the way.
And this brings us to the second issue.
Eventually, it’s all about physics. When we rush through places and events, we notice less. It’s as simple as that. Our brain’s bandwidth is limited. We cannot absorb more external stimuli if we don’t slow down and allow our mind to take it in. Imagine this text scrolling before your eyes at increasing speed. The faster it scrolls, the less you are able to read and understand. At some point, you will just see black lines moving without any ability to identify letters and words, let alone combine them to meaningful sentences.
I already mentioned how non-trivial it is for our mind to observe and notice things beyond our immediate goal. When we are heading somewhere, we are usually focused on getting there, not on enjoying the scenery. With the ongoing stimuli from our smart devices and with the “need to get to our goals faster” mindset, the chances of having the bandwidth to see “less important” things becomes practically zero. Unless…
Unless we actively and intentionally slow down both mentally and physically.
When I was in my twenties, I didn’t do much physical exercise. The one thing I did do is walk fast. No matter where I was heading or what was the purpose of the walk, I just couldn’t slow myself down. Physically. And in retrospect I can say, I rarely saw anything “worth seeing” on my way. But then I bought a camera.
When I started to walk with my camera, I slowed down. I didn’t plan to — it wasn’t a conscious decision at first. But there I was, holding my fancy new camera, trying to capture cool photos, walking in the street with no particular destination. And so, I began to walk slower. There was nowhere to rush to, and my goal was to see things. And sure enough, it worked: I was physically able to see more, and I had the time to process what I saw. I didn’t just see — I observed.
Now, the interesting part is that the reward of being surprised — of seeing things I didn’t expect to see — made me slow down even when I didn’t have my camera with me. What started as a hobby, soon affected everything I did throughout the day. I physically and mentally slowed down.
- Plan to slow down.
- Leave enough space in your schedule to go slower from one place to the other.
- Leave some time in your schedule with no concrete goal.
- Use the time to look around you and observe.
Proactively slowing down will not happen in one day. However, there is no more to it than being conscious about it. And doing the first (slow) step.
Don’t Dismiss Anything
Slowing down and allowing yourself to get lost can start with a tactical decision: you free up time in your agenda, add a task to your task list and you are ready to go. As mechanical as it seems, it is an essential first step in the road to developing a habit. To become master observers, however, we will have to overcome our acquired tendency to dismiss things we see as trivial or lacking interest.
What made Leonardo da Vinci an avid observer was his ability to take nothing for granted. The simplest, most ordinary detail made him alert, his senses ready to take in any minor detail and make the most of it. Others probably thought he was eccentric as he would stop with no other purpose than to take notes of a detail that caught his eyes — a detail only he could treat as significant. Remember the definition of the verb Observe: registering something as significant is the key to observing more.
Luckily, “not dismissing anything” can be practiced too. Changing glasses is an essential part of it, and the following exercises are effective additions to the process of adopting the notion that anything can be used as raw material. But maybe unlike the other aspects of observation, this one requires us to first get rid of a bit of our inherent cynicism. It requires a leap of faith. Without it, even an honest attempt to slow down, to take detours and to get lost will not be effective for long. If our brain is not rewarded by being surprised and registering things as significant, we won’t gain the required momentum to reinforce these habits.
Our lack of attention to things is a vicious cycle we need to break and turn into a positive feedback loop, and the only way to do that is by convincing our brain the effort is worth taking.
- Whenever you are idle, look around you and write down what you see, no matter how trivial it may seem.
- Set a reminder to random times during the day to look around you and write down what you see for five minutes.
- At the end of each day, reflect on what you managed to capture (using these and the previous exercises) and appreciate its value.
When we manage to get rid of the cynicism, we start to dismantle the blind spot that prevents us from seeing the potential in everything we come across. When we learn to take nothing for granted, we begin to see the beauty in the most ordinary things. This ability is not just a cornerstone of Creativity — it is the secret of getting a second chance to be a child.
Use All Observation Axes
Last but not least, to master our observation skills, we shouldn’t settle for using any opportunity to observe. We also need to make the most of any such opportunity. When you manage to slow down, take detours and get lost regularly, and when you already avoid taking things for granted, the next step is to apply all observation axes to what you find.
Like the other steps we discussed, using all observation axes starts mechanically: by intentionally and consciously trying to apply them one by one to things we observe. With time, you will realize you don’t need to be conscious about doing so — your brain will automatically iterate through all the observation modes and switch between them seamlessly.
There is an inherent connection between using all observation axes and our ability to slow down. When we are rushing toward the next target or destination, it is hard to imagine stopping for a few minutes in the middle of the street, or in the middle of a project, to consider different ways to observe. By default, we don’t have the bandwidth for that. Slowing down and allowing ourselves to take some detours is a precondition not just to find new things, but even more so to seriously explore what we find in different ways.
- Whenever you find something that catches your eye, stop and deliberately apply the three observation axes.
- Record your insights and make sure to have different insights derived from each axis.
- Apply this routine both to things you find along the way and to things you observe in your work, in a project you are working on, and in your relationships.
This last point is essential to understanding and practicing the Observe function. Anything we come across is a potential target for observing. We should not limit ourselves to dedicated activities designed to observe more (such as wandering aimlessly or avoiding the shortest path to our destination). We can, and should, observe as part of anything we do, whether it is a project we are working on or a discussion with a family member or a friend. Being more attentive and applying the different observation axes will have enormous value for any activity we are engaged in on top of filling our mind-pantry with ingredients for creative dishes.
It’s a Wonder
The Experience and Observe functions are designed to work together to fill our mind-pantry with raw material — with ingredients that can be used later to generate creative ideas. By now, you have probably realized just how much these two functions are symbiotic. One can exist without the other, but to ignite creativity, they have to feed each other. The more we experience, the more we can observe. The more we observe, the more we experience. This positive feedback loop is the first and essential part of the engine that makes Creativity work. Creative people seamlessly apply these two functions all the time.
Our next stop in the Creativity Operating System is where we start to use the incredible raw material we collect. It is the function that opens the gate to generating creative insights. And it is nothing less than wonder-full.
3 We will soon define what Observing means, but bear in mind that Observing is not limited to seeing. You can observe using any of your senses. ⤴