May 19, 2003
Powers of Observation
"Perhaps there is no property in which men are more distinguished from each other, than in the various degrees in which they possess the faculty of observation. The great herd of mankind pass their lives in listless inattention and indifference as to what is going on around them, while those who are destined to distinction have a lynx-eyed vigilance that nothing can escape."
-- American jurist William Wirt
"You can observe a lot just by watching," Yogi Berra said. This pronouncement invariably draws indulgent smiles from admirers of the great baseball guru's off-the-wall way of putting things. But when you think of it, its simplicity masks profound truth. In a broad field of life, people would observe more if they would only watch more deliberately what is going on before their eyes.
Why be observant? Because it mightily helps carry a person satisfactorily through life in all its aspects. Indeed, observation can be crucial to life itself. The graveyards of the worlds are strewn with the remains of mortals who died before their time because they failed to take note of lethal hazards. The most poignant of all last words is "oops," or its equivalent in other tongues.
One character with a keen sense of observation is fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. In one of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories about him, Holmes says of a man he has just met for the first time: "Beyond the obvious facts that he has at some time done manual labor, that he takes snuff, that he is a Freemason, that he has been to China, and that he has done a considerable amount of writing lately, I can deduce nothing else." One glance at his visitor was enough for him to take in all these points of identity. His method of detection, he claimed, was "based upon the observation of trifles." He once scolded Watson: "I can never bring you to realize the importance of sleeves, the suggestiveness of thumb-nails, or the great issues that may hang from a bootlace." In his own specialized way, the great detective was making the basic philosophical point that nothing, absolutely nothing, is insignificant.
Another outstanding observer was Marcel Proust, who could spend almost a whole page describing in the minutest detail the effect of looking through a window on a rainy day. It is amazing how rich an experience that fine French novelist could extract from a situation that would seem banal to almost anyone else.
When W. Somerset Maugham, the best selling author, abandoned a career in medicine to become a writer, he went through the exercise of spending hours in the British Museum, jotting down everything he could gather about the shape, color, and decoration of the artifacts on display. Maugham later developed the habit of entering every little detail about the people he met, and the places he had been, in notebooks which he carried around with him constantly. He proceeded to turn these realities into fiction acclaimed for its ring of truth and its insight into the human heart.
The same spirit applies in the visual arts -- painting, sculpture, photography, cinematography. The masters of each of these disciplines look long and hard at scenes and objects to discover what small details add up to an image that brings out their true significance. But observation is more than merely visual. One can observe by sound, by touch, by taste, or by smell. Johann Strauss Jr. was said to have drawn some of his most famous melodies from hearing birds sing.
Observation is also one of the chief operating principles of science. Thomas Edison spent countless hours observing electrical and mechanical phenomena. In his invention of the electric light bulb, he conducted 3,000 experiments before he found the formula that worked. He trained himself to take in all he saw and note it. He wrote: "The average person's brain does not observe a thousandth part of what the eye observes. It is almost incredible how poor our powers of observation -- genuine observation -- are."
One of the benefits of being observant is that an observant person is seldom lost for something to say; the passing scene provides a succession of conversational topics. As the revered Canadian newspaperman Gregory Clark noted, good observers are sometimes accused of making up stories. In reality, though, they simply remember more of what they have experienced than others people do.
"It is to be regretted that habits of exact observation are not cultivated in our schools," wrote Baron Wilhelm Humboldt in the late 18th century. He deplored the lack of schooling in observation mainly because it leads to fallacious reasoning. Systematic observation -- seeing and recording reality with one's own eyes -- saves the mind from being led astray. In this tricky world of ours, we all have to fight our way through thickets of erroneous assumptions, misleading generalizations, and deliberate misinformation. By making focus on the actual rather than the presumed, informed observation can free us from the tyranny of theory. It can show us paths through the intellectual jungle which lead us as close as possible to the plain truth.
We are all inclined to see what we wish to see according to our preconceptions, prejudices, and cultural conditioning. Good observers try to filter these misleading factors out of their thinking as far as possible. The act of observation itself is an antidote to self-delusion, teaching that things are as they are, and not as we would prefer them to be.
How does one become that kind of effective observer? First, by the conscious practice of "just watching." It is not as simple as it seems; to really watch what is going on around you requires a clear mind. Good observers try to rid themselves of preoccupations and slow down their mental processes in order to take everything in. Effective observation also depends on a cultivated memory. Impressions picked up in the course of everyday life are worthless if they are not retained. Good observers file away what they experience in the backs of their minds for further reference. A person who has taken note of how a certain thing is done will bring that knowledge to bear when he or she is faced with doing it.
A simple practical rule for those who want to improve their observational skill is, "Walk, don't drive." Though they see a lot with peripheral vision, drivers (and cyclists) have to keep their eyes on the road. The habit of walking exercises the mind at the same time it exercises the body. A city-dweller who strolls to the office every day is never without mental stimulation as he or she observes buildings, traffic, and other people. Connoisseurs of urban life vary their routes to savor a city's variety. A trail through the woods may seem devoid of life to an unobservant person, but it will be teeming with interest for an informed observer. Every tree, every wildflower, every mushroom has its own identity.
And observation is by no means restricted to the outdoors; it has practical application in business. A sharp businessperson can size up a situation accurately and quickly. A trained engineer can scan a factory floor and notice key aspects of the workflow. An alert sales representative can enter someone's office and tell how best to approach the person after a quick glance at the desk. The American industrialist Eugene C. Grace wrote: "If I were to prescribe one process in the training of men which is fundamental to success in any direction, it would be thoroughgoing training in the habit of accurate observation." An effective businessperson sees what others overlook, whether in a production line, an administrative routine, or a balance sheet.
In conclusion, observation is a major key to success. The observation of the passing scene is proof against boredom; every day brings new sensations, new things to enjoy and to think about. And by providing constant mental and emotional stimulation, observation lets people know what it means to be truly alive -- to live life to its full potential. Whatever other successes one may have, the leading of a vibrant and fulfilling life is the highest success.
This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in the Royal Bank Letter (vol. 77, No. 4, Fall 1996) and is reprinted here with permission from the Royal Bank of Canada.Posted on May 19, 2003 3:14 PM