Learning Through Looking

March 14, 2019

We spend most of our days tuning out the world. But, if you put down your phone, take out your earbuds and look around, you can find massive inspiration for anything you need. All you have to do is learn how to observe.

When we’re kids, we notice everything around us. We paid attention to the smallest detail. Babies do something called “mouthing” to learn about the world around them. This form of oral exploration is an  important part of their development because it’s by putting toys and other objects in their mouth that they discover tastes and textures. As they grow into toddlers and young children, it’s through play. They observe and learn by connecting the dots through the experiences they have.

Why you miss the gorilla

As adults, we go through much of our life on autopilot. I know I’ve been guilty of driving from one place to another and not remembering a thing about the trip. It was a route I took so often that my mind was busy trying to solve other problems on my to-do list. I, like many people, pass mentally unconscious through parts of my life and don’t see it.

There’s a scientific term for this – inattentional blindness. Also called perceptual blindness, inattentional blindness is what happens when someone is so wrapped up in one thing that they’re unable to notice something else that’s obvious right in front of them.

Watch this video to understand how much you’re likely to miss even when you think you’re paying attention.

Developing awareness

When we get off the beaten path, even just a little bit, that all changes. Travel to a new country – or even a new city – and the details of everything heightens all of your sense.  You smell all the smells,  hear all the sounds, feel the change in temperature, see how people behave differently and taste different flavors. Rent a car and drive in Oslo and compare how that feels to driving in Omaha. Play fútbol in Madrid and compare that to football in Minneapolis. Eat dinner in Barcelona and compare that to Boston.

When you report back to friends and family about your experience, you recreate even the smallest details. What it’s like to circle a round-about (again) in Europe. Fútbol and football are two completely different sports. And don’t think about sitting down for dinner before 10 pm in Spain.

It’s at these times, when you’re in the midst of something completely unfamiliar, that you’re most likely to go back to those childhood patterns. You pay attention to every detail, watch what’s going on, and pause to take in the sights, sounds, smells, textures and tastes of what you’re experiencing.

Let me explain what I mean…

Observation and the zombie apocalypse

Dave Daigle headed Strategic Partnerships and Media Relations for the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) preparedness department in Atlanta, Georgia. He had a tough job in front of him – trying to get people to pay attention to public-health concerns that happened with major disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes.

One day David and his team were talking about hurricane season, which was right around the corner. They realized that they published the same information every year, but didn’t know if anyone even paid attention to it. Because of that, he started looking around and observed how much people were consumed by the Zombie apocalypse craze. And he thought, “What if, instead of inundating people with stats and facts, we shared our message through a fun, made-up disaster scenario?”

By observing what was going on in popular culture, David and his team came up with the idea of telling how to survive any major disaster through the story of a zombie apocalypse. They created a website with resources and where people could download the eBook on how to prepare.

The response to the zombie-packaged information proved so overwhelmingly positive that David and his team actually flipped the tables. Now, instead of struggling to get people’s attention before disaster strikes, people proactively reach out to the CDC asking how to prepare ahead of time.

Start slowly

We get into daily routines that we believe are efficient but they make us blind to things around us.

While observing the world around us sounds simple to do, it can feel overwhelming. Here are some simple steps to get started:

  1. Eliminate distractions. One reason that people aren’t as observant as they should be is because they are distracted by phones, social media or mental to-do lists. The fewer distractions you have, the more productive your time will become. Once you start to examine your surroundings, you may become hyper observant.
  2. Seek out diverse stimuli. Something as simple as driving a different route to work or sitting in a different chair for your weekly team meeting changes your perspective. You can take small steps that don’t disrupt your life to get a fresh outlook on your day. Simply take a few minutes every day and truly notice your surroundings.
  3. Use all your senses. When we look around us we do exactly that – look. But close your eyes and pay attention to what your other senses tell you. What do you hear? How does the bench feel that you’re sitting on? Is there a smell wafting from a nearby restaurant? Can you taste the salt in the ocean air?
  4. Keep a field journal. You can jot notes, draw pictures or stick something in it that caught your attention. You’ll start making connections between what your observe and problems you want to solve in other parts of your life. Write these insights and new ideas down, too. Some of them may help you right away, and you may come back to others years down the road.

I’ll doubt you’ll suddenly see gorillas showing up that you never noticed before. And you probably won’t walk away with massive insights from sitting on park bench for a couple of minutes. But to get good at taking Inspiration from the world around you, you have to regularly practice observing it.

About Carla Johnson

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Carla Johnson is a world-renowned storyteller, an entertaining speaker, and a prolific author.

Over the last two decades, Carla has helped architects and actuaries, executives and volunteers, innovators and visionaries leverage the art of storytelling to inspire action. Her work with Fortune 500 brands has served as the foundation for many of her books.

In her latest project, Fast Forward Files, she contributes to a larger collection of thoughts by some of the world’s greatest minds -  Shazam co-founder Dhiraj Mukherjee, activist and entrepreneur Heather Mills and behavioral designer, technologist and mental-health champion Peter Trainor. Consistently named one of the top influencers in B2B, digital and content marketing, Carla regularly challenges conventional thinking. 

Today, she travels the world teaching anyone (and everyone) how to cultivate idea-driven teams that breed unstoppable creativity and game-changing innovation.