It is not enough to LOOK; it is only enough to SEE

observationOne of the most important skills necessary to function and rule globally is the skill of observation; and interestingly, only a few ever engage it. While it is important for today’s students of life to be able to look for information on the web, they must also be able to synthesize and interpret the material they find. This requires observation. According to Michael Canfield, a Harvard University entomologist, “These are the essential capacities that all successful people will need to navigate life in the twenty-first century.” And if there was one place to look in order to understand the power and results of observation, it is to scientists.

Do you know that many of science’s most important breakthroughs, from the discovery of microorganisms to the theory of general relativity, have come about through observation? The scientist’s gaze is clearly a powerful tool for making sense of how the world works. It is important to note that seeing is not observing. Observation is a rigorous activity that integrates what is seen with what is already known and what might be true. Scientists master the art of observation by training their attention; that is by learning to focus on relevant features and disregard those that are less salient. One of the best ways to do this is through the old-fashioned practice of taking field notes: writing descriptions and drawing pictures of what you see. This forces you to make the decision on what is important and what is not. Keeping a field notebook — whether the field under observation is a sales floor, a conference room, or the garden in your own backyard — keeping a field notebook makes everyday observation more scientific in another way: Scientists keep careful records of their observations, quantifying them whenever possible.

Try attaching a number to each episode you observe: how many times a customer picks up an item before deciding to buy it, how many minutes employees spend talking about office politics before getting down to business. While casual observers simply sit back and watch what unfolds, scientific observers come up with hypotheses they can test. What happens if a salesperson invites a potential customer to try out a product for herself? How does the tone of the weekly meeting change when it’s held in a different room? Scientists actively engage with their perceptions in another way: they organize and analyze what they’ve seen after the observation session is over. The creative life is imperative to the survival of those coming up in today’s world, and the creative life demands the mastery of observation. It is the key to strength and power in our time.

Frijof Capra was one of the waves of brilliant young physicists who helped revise human understanding of the orchestration and workings of the universe—how the universe was put together. In his book, the Tao of Physics, Capra shared some interesting insights and discoveries in the course of his work. According to Capra, ancient Chinese seers five thousand years ago had come up with essentially the same picture of the universe that Capra and his band of brilliant young physicists had constructed using the disciplines of modern physics. “We arrived at those advanced concepts though careful scientific reasoning. The Chinese got there by simply observing,” Capra said.

There’s a whole body of knowledge out there that holds the potential to revolutionize your life and the world around you. And you can access it by observing. Observation has practical applications in business. According to the Royal Bank of Canada newsletter: A businessperson being able to size up a situation accurately and quickly; an engineer who can scan a factory floor and notice key aspects of workflow; a sales representative who can tell how best to approach a person after a glance at the desk. “An effective businessperson sees what others overlook, whether in a production line, an administrative routine or a balance sheet,” the newsletter says. Good observers filter out preconceptions, prejudices and cultural biases; so they see things as they are, not just as they want them to be. They are better able to size up what’s working and what isn’t, and adapt their approaches to fit their environment. It’s also easier for good observers to pick up on unspoken messages and cues, resulting in stronger and more empathetic relationships with other people. They observe a few basic principles to make this possible. One is: look. Observe everywhere and everything. Tune your eyes and ears to the world around you. Walk the streets for hours. Look at signs and posters and traffic lights. Watch people cross the street and navigate the sidewalk and go in and out of stores. Map their movements. Chronicle their habits. Notice their hesitations. Count the points of interaction.

Two, see. It’s not enough just to look. You have to train yourself how to see. Seeing comes not from your eyes, but from your mind. Seeing means more than noticing; it means understanding. Understanding comes from introspection. The only way to remember everything you’ve noticed is to write it all down. Keep an observation journal with a section for each setting that you choose to study. Force yourself to systematically and consciously break down each action a person takes so that it reads like the captions of a storyboard. Use bullet points. Structure your phrases as verb-noun-adverb — describe what they did, what they used, and how they did it.

Three, foresee. The more regularly you purposefully integrate observation into your life, the more it will become your natural way of being. Soon, you won’t be able to turn it off. You’ll notice interactions everywhere, and be amazed at the parallels between settings. You’ll find yourself predicting how people will move through a space and react to the obstacles that come their way; and you’ll give yourself a pat on the back when you discover you were right. The patterns that you come to know will make their way into your work. They will help you shape design frameworks and develop metaphors. You’ll be able to accelerate people’s learning and assimilation because you’ll be creating familiar spaces and intuitive touch points. It might not even be intentional, but you’ll be doing it.

Posted on April 22, 2014, in Smooth-Life*Clinic* and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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