Creative observation

Our brains aren’t built to evaluate every detail of the world around us. Instead, the mind tends to categorize the idea of objects in our field of view with placeholders. For example, if you drive past the same tree on your way to work each day, your brain does not consider each branch and leaf as the tree flies by. This well known object registers (at best) as an amorphous object labeled “tree-on-the-way-to-work.”

Grease spots and light switches

For several years after engineering school, a college buddy and I were sharing a 2nd floor apartment in Indianapolis, IN. At least once a day, I’d pass the guy who lived in the 1st floor apartment directly below us. We’d always give a neighborly wave in passing, but I didn’t even know his name.

One day, we finally struck up a conversation. Cool guy. He asked if I wanted a beer, and we walked into his apartment. When he flipped on the light, I was shocked. The apartment’s floor plan was identical to mine. Everything was the same except the furniture. It was a little disorienting.

As we kept talking, I noticed weird stains around the place. There was a big grease spot where his hand swept past the light-switch every day. There was a shoe sludge track leading from the front door to the kitchen. His kitchen trash can was overflowing, in fact, some old coffee grounds were spilling onto the floor. I was a little disgusted and made a quick exit back to my apartment.

I opened the door to my place, flipped on the light, and froze. There was a big grease smudge next to my light switch. Then I spun around and saw a discolored carpet path leading from me to the kitchen. A slice of pizza from three nights ago was perched precariously atop my overstuffed trash can! How the hell did I never see this?

Power lines

When was the last time you really noticed power lines? I bet you can’t immediately visualize many (any?) of the telephone poles and power lines you pass on the way to work. These lines for sure stand between you and a beautiful tree or gorgeous church, but you don’t even perceive them in your memory of those objects.

On your next drive to work, try paying attention to the telephone and power lines. What do you see? First, you’ll notice they are everywhere. They line both sides of the road, and cross every intersection. Second, they are usually held up by old, splintered, naturally misshapen, telephone poles. What is this, the old west? Seriously, this hasn’t changed since the telegraph!

As you conduct this exercise, I bet you’ll have the most memorable daily drive since your first day on the job. A new tableau of colors, textures, and details will suddenly pop. I’m not just talking about the power lines themselves, I’m talking about the whole picture. You’ve just given your brain a reason to “re-render” or “re-post-process” the scene.

New insights

None of the following ideas are new, but here are a few things that immediately popped to my mind when I tried that experiment:

  • Tall trucks often snag and snap low hanging telephone lines
  • Extreme weather often brings down power lines and cuts electricity to whole neighborhoods
  • Power lines and telephone poles mar the view of otherwise beautiful buildings and nature
  • Telephone poles seem like a huge waste of trees
  • If all such cables were buried, we might be one step closer to a system of electrified roadways that could inductively power electric vehicles in real time – no need for heavy battery packs!

Go forth and creatively observe

I’m by no means an expert at this, but I try to exercise the muscle often. Like any other muscle, it tends to get stronger with use. Find some way of taking a radically fresh view of your project, product, process, or life. What tricks could you use to backhand your mind into recalibrating the scene?

Got any good ones?
Please share below!

photo by: lachlanhardy



  1. Jeff, the first thing that comes to mind is the best proofreading method – read backwards. We’re so used to what we wrote that our minds skip over the mistakes subconsciously when when read the normal way. Another example from the software biz is when you’re designing a new feature and you make all these plans but as soon as you try the first implementation you realize what you missed. Good post.

    1. Thanks John, I like that!