We are three weeks into the first month of the New Year, and I wonder if any of you have already broken one of your New Year’s resolutions? If so, take heart. I have an idea for you. Instead of making “resolutions”, why not try announcing your “intentions” instead? I believe it makes for a kinder, gentler experience. Towards that end, here are my “Intentions for 2014," inspired by this Mary Oliver poem:
“Instructions for living a life.
Tell about it.”
I plan to dedicate the next 3 newsletters to each piece of advice. This month’s missive addresses “paying attention,” a critical skill if you are a Trendmaster. Trend spotting involves paying attention to the little things, noticing the synchronicities, and then recognizing the big picture.
I began my intention to pay more attention by reading Alexandra Horowitz’s lovely book “On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes." Her mission is to introduce the reader to “the spectacle of the ordinary,” and to help them practice, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle put it, “the observation of trifles.”
The premise of her book is a walk around her Manhattan neighborhood. She begins by taking a walk alone, with the intention to notice everything she possibly can. She thinks she observes a lot. Then she takes a walk with her toddler son and sees things from a very different perspective. She goes on to describe walks taken with an urban sociologist, a psychologist, an artist, a geologist, a typographer, a physician, a sound designer, a blind woman, and a dog.
Her stories are fascinating and illuminating. For instance, on her walk with “one of the world’s foremost researchers on the science of paying attention,” she watches the expert walk right by 3 twenty-dollar bills lying on the sidewalk, while discoursing on the art of paying attention.
Don’t laugh too loudly. That’s a good metaphor for what often happens in real life. If we’re not paying attention we miss the possibility of being surprised by what is hidden in plain sight. As Horowitz notes: “Too often we see things, but we don’t see; we use our eyes, but our gaze is glancing. We see the signs, but not their meanings. We are not blinded, but we have blinders on.” It’s a fascinating paradox that sometimes we see least the things we see the most.
Here are three of my favorite takeaways from the book:
1) Attention is an unapologetic discriminator. Genetically, we’re wired to notice what is relevant NOW, and focus on that alone. We notice that the traffic light has changed, but we miss the beautiful sunset. Put another way, expectation is the lost cousin of attention. When you expect to see something, you may or may not see it, but you will surely miss other things worth seeing.
2) We all have a bias in our perspective. The French call it “deformation professionnelle”—the tendency to look at every context from the point of view of our profession. In the corporate world that’s called “change blindness,” and it’s very dangerous.
3) Paying attention isn’t only about “seeing.” It’s about using all of our senses. There’s a wonderful story in the book about walking with a blind woman. At the end of the first block the woman stops well ahead of the intersection, even before her white cane taps the curb. The author asks how she knew she had reached the end of the block. “I can feel it,” the blind woman said. What she felt was the breeze of the open intersection in front of her.
My intention for 2014 is to become an investigator of the ordinary, to not let familiar surroundings prevent me from seeing what is really there, and to feast on a world of fascinating detail.
I choose not to miss the spectacle of the ordinary. How about you?
Eyes Wide Open