“You can observe a lot just by watching.” —Yogi Berra
Yogi was not wrong; observation can be a powerful tool. Its effectiveness for creating good ideas is long established. This lesson will cover some of the modern thinking on the art of observing people.
What Observation Actually Is
There is more to the art of observation than just watching stuff. Sure, that’s part of it, but there’s so much more.
Observation is a full engagement of the mind into studying and contemplating the world around us. It is more than just watching—it is attempting to truly see and perceive. The difference is that “seeing” has as much to do with mindset as it does with taking in stimuli. The mindset that enables one to “see” or “observe” is called “beginner’s mind.”
Beginner’s mind is named such because it involves seeing something as though for the first time. The skilled observer using “beginner’s mind” will empty their mind of assumptions, biases, and even knowledge in order to simply see what is happening. So much of our lives is spent just doing things without thinking: We interact with our surroundings in bizarre ways simply because we are creatures of habit. Observation is about breaking free from that unthinking haze and seeing things for the first time.
Why Observation Works
The reason observation works is twofold. First, the act of switching off our everyday minds and turning on our beginner’s mind changes the way we think. New thinking can lead to new ideas.
Second, observation typically involves some sort of stimuli—usually visual stimuli, but observation could technically mean listening or taking the world in through other senses. These stimuli spark new connections and inspire new ideas.
That combination—stimuli and new thinking—is a highly effective cocktail for new ideas.
Methods for Observation
Go to where the action is. If you’re trying to think of a new idea for your business, go to where your customers are. There is a term for this in Japanese that means “get out and see for yourself.” Serial innovators swear by the practice of getting out of the building. What they’re saying is to go where the information is and where the action is happening related to your thinking. You’re much more likely to observe something useful there.
Ask why. As you observe the world, ask yourself, “Why?”, over and over. Don’t assume you understand or know anything. Re-educate yourself about why things are the way they are. Constructing those narratives forces us to think through things we would otherwise mentally skip over.
Don’t force it. You may be tempted to think about solving your problem or having your idea while observing the world. Don’t do it. This meta-thinking about your thinking can only hinder your beginner’s mind. An anthropologist does not try to both observe something and concoct theories all at once. The method is to observe, collect information, think about it, and then—later—apply what you’ve seen to your particular problem or situation.
In summary, observation is really the combination of a beginner’s mind and finding the right stimuli. Ideas will flow effortlessly from your brain if you stay silent and observe the world.
Next lesson will be digging deeper into the art of gathering and collecting potential inspiration for great new ideas.
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