Sometimes, if you look very closely at the commonplace or mundane, you end up seeing the spectacular.
I’m always trying to find somewhere interesting to go on my daily morning walks. Going on the same route every day gets boring after a while. Yesterday I walked to two nearby business plazas and walked along the store fronts looking at what businesses were there.
Now, I had been to these plazas before to go to a restaurant, a bookstore and a martial arts studio. I also drive by them almost every day. But I was surprised at how little I knew about the other businesses that were in there.
By my count I walked by 32 businesses. I had only been to three of them and before yesterday I couldn’t tell you the names of more than one or two of the other ones. I’ve written before about being observant and really noticing things in the world around you. The problem is, there’s so much to notice and a lot of it isn’t relevant to your immediate life. For example, I didn’t need to know there was a women’s hair salon or a travel agency and SCUBA dive shop.
Your brain is very good about blocking out unnecessary distractions and only allowing you to see what you need to see to get you through your present situation, whatever that might be. Mindful observation is a way to hack your brain’s normal functioning so you can be aware of more around you.
I was practicing mindful observation as I walked up and down the business plaza’s parking lot looking at store fronts and making all of the early arriving employees nervous.
OK, who cares? So I made a point of paying attention to a bunch of stores in a couple of strip malls. Is this supposed to mean something? Well, sure. It means that I’ve purposefully put diverse input into my mind. That input is combined with other knowledge and ideas I already have in my head and has the potential to become new creative ideas or solutions.
Of course, I don’t yet know how my mind will combine the ideas of a prosthetics shop, a yoga studio and a cat lounge but at least the comedic implications are obvious.
For my birthday yesterday I went to a lecture by mixed media artist Mary Robinson called Shifting Perspective. She talked about the role our environment and experiences play in making art.
The writeup in the paper for the lecture used the word observation to describe this. However, I found it interesting that Mary never used the word observation in her talk (unless I was hearing but not really listening). We so often go through our days seeing things without really observing them. It takes a concious shift in thinking to truly observe our surroundings and understand what we’re seeing.
This is the same concept Maria Konnikova writes about in her book Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. I wrote a post about this book a few years ago and just started re-reading it earlier this week. It surprised me to spot the apt description of this lecture in the paper on the morning of the talk.
We see things every day but we rarely observe. Yet true mindfulness and observation of our surroundings and interactions are so important for everyone from photographers to programmers and everyone in between. It allows you to discover new ideas, methods of implementation and more efficient strategies to accomplish goals. At the very least you’ll get better at Trivial Pursuit.