The benefits of noticing

Noticing cloudsAs my flight to Santa Fe, New Mexico awaited take off, I flicked on my Kindle. Work had to wait until the magic 10,000 foot elevation that signaled that I could pull out my laptop. Until then, I glanced through the myriad titles on my Kindle. One caught my attention. Wired to Create. I vaguely recalled the book and was surprised to see I’d previously read almost half of it. Perhaps I’d remember more if I picked up where I left off.

Within minutes, the authors were reminding me of the value of paying attention (rather ironic since I couldn’t remember anything I’d previously read in this book). They explained how essential truly seeing things is to the creative process. As I read the words, I realized something both profound and rather sad.

It hit me that not only had I stopped noticing. I’d stopped noticing that I’d stopped noticing. In the busyness of daily business, I’d ceased to value the pause. The look. The curiosity of seeing something for the first time or as if for the first time.

And so, although on a trip for business, I decided to be intentional. I would strive to see, to appreciate. Here are just a few of the things that I beheld in new ways.

Clouds

When you look at a cloud, what do you really see there? I don’t mean just the child’s ability to discern circus animals, a car driving through a donut or other fanciful imaginings. What exactly are you seeing in a cloud? Shape? Texture? Color? Proximity? Size? Variation? Familiarity? Why is it shaped the way it is? Is it a cirrus, cumulus or stratus cloud? Do you even know the difference (I had to look them up)? How can what makes up that cloud be the same thing we drink in a glass or that sinks ocean liners? Clouds are wonders, truly. But too often for me they don’t even register.

Weather

Notice weatherI sat through my meetings in Santa Fe looking out on a wet day. I seem to endure weather rather than notice it. But in a town that gets 350 sunny days a year, beholding downpours throughout the day got my attention. Then, as we wrapped up our meetings, the sun came out. So my colleagues and I headed out for a stroll around town before dinner. Near Santa Fe’s cathedral, I noticed something that rarely registers: moisture on the road. In any other place, this might be commonplace. But here in Santa Fe, that wet street was a thing of beauty, particularly in the late afternoon light. I even paid attention to the manhole cover, as well as the more obvious colonnade and the uneven lines of its roof. An ordinary scene made profoundly beautiful not just by the weather, but by my seeing the weather in the scene.

Noticing peopleThe human element

I wanted to take a photo of the Loretto Chapel just because…well, I think because I was in tourist mode and felt it was something I should photograph. I’d been there before and had seen the famed spiral staircase built by an itinerant carpenter in a manner that defies logic as to how it can stand without support. All that initially occupied my thinking. But then I noticed the human element. A wedding. And in the doorway, the newlyweds having wedding photos shot. A whole story right before me that so easily could have been lost in the focus on the architecture itself.

Geometry

Noticing geometryI rarely pay attention to or name the shapes of things. Yet, in learning to draw, that’s exactly what I must do. If I were to draw this building, a gallery in Santa Fe, I wouldn’t think, “Door. Gateway. Fence. Window.” Those labels evoke stereotypes of what a door, fence, window, etc. should be. Thus, I’m more likely to draw the stereotype than the actual scene before me. But if I put aside the labels and see what is there, I behold mostly squares and rectangles, with a trapazoid or two thrown in their due to the slope of the street. I see what is there, not what I think is there.

The unusual

Noticing the unusualI looked down an alley. This row of cow skulls being sold alongside other Southwestern decor items grabbed my attention. When did you last see a row of dead cow heads hanging on the wall (at pretty prices as well)? But what I really noticed was the size of the eye socket. Cows have big eyes.

Seasons

Noticing seasonsYes, I’ve noticed that fall is here. Yes, I’ve even commented to my wife at home that the leaves are changing. But no, I haven’t bothered to appreciate the beauty of this season until a few bright trees framed Santa Fe’s cathedral nicely. It wasn’t just the leaves I noticed. The overall light of this evening in this place at this time of year. All that registered in a way I rarely allow in part, I believe, because I was not at home. Travel helps us perceive exactly what we see at home but in new ways.

Window displays

Noticing windowsThe entire intent of a window display is to get us to notice. But as an avid non-shopper, a store’s arrangement of goods barely gets a glance from me. But here in Santa Fe, now in the evening, the stores were closed. And when I ceased to think about them as stores and more as repositories of items that warranted my attention, I discovered a world of curiosities. Including a very well-to-do angel.

Final thoughts

It’s so easy for me to think that I don’t have the time to notice everything around me. But let me reframe that. Maybe I don’t have the time NOT to notice. Life is too short not to appreciate the fullness of it all around me. Autopilot works really well for getting us through each day. Habits help. Routines make us efficient. But just getting through the day isn’t enough, is it?

Try this. Don’t worry about suddenly having to pay attention to everything around you. Just tell yourself that you will notice one new thing each day. One thing you’ve never really seen before or that maybe you’ve beheld, but never truly seen. One thing. That’s it. Then try it again tomorrow and the next day.

Now stop looking at this screen and go take a look at a world that is just waiting to be seen.

 

10 reasons why paying attention matters

The value of paying attention

Not far from my house sits a field. A small trail runs through it. I rarely see anyone on it because the trail, like the field, is both ordinary and out of the way. The other day, as my wife and I walked our dog through this field, I was struck by the beauty there, suddenly aware of the stunning flowers that I rarely notice. It made me wonder.

Why do I let the world around me fade into a blur of familiarity and under-appreciation? Usually it is because I’m too busy, preoccupied  or simply apathetic. I let the cares of life blind me to the joys of it. But on this day I decided not to miss out on the little details that add so much to life.

What follows are 10 reasons why paying attention matters. Not in some abstract, philosophical way, but to you and me personally. I’m accompanying each reason with a photo I made in that field, a reminder to all of us of the beauty that lies around us if we but take time to notice.

Paying attention - Foxglove

 1. Paying attention adds value to others.

It used to be that money was our most valuable commodity. Then it became time. Now? It’s our attention. We give it so rarely to others. But when we pay attention to people, it shows we value them. Not for their words or the cleverness of their comments, but for who they are.

 

Paying attention - Oregon Grape

 2. Paying attention adds value to you.

A client told me that he reminds his sales people all the time to, “Be more interested than you are interesting.” In other words, pay attention and listen to your customer rather than showing how fascinating you are. For when you do, they notice and appreciate it. Best of all, you learn so much more when you listen than when you talk. And that makes you wiser.

 

Paying attention

3. Paying attention enhances your creativity.

Last time we looked at how creativity is this combination of collecting, connecting and sharing. Simply put, the more you notice, the more you collect. You gather a greater amount of raw material for creative ideas. And the more you collect, the more you’re able to make connections that others don’t. Maria Popova at Brain Pickings compares collecting and connecting to working with LEGOs: “The more of these building blocks we have, and the more diverse their shapes and colors, the more interesting our castles will become.” Read her insightful piece on this here.

 

Paying attention - Red Hot Poker

4. Paying attention provides focus.

Rather than filling your mind with needless worries, pay attention to your surroundings. Concentrate on useful matters and sharpen your observation skills. Even if your looking around produces no aha discoveries this time, you’ve built your capacity to focus and observe for the next time.

 

Why paying attention matters: California Poppy

 5. Paying attention gives you purpose.

When you go out into the world noticing, every trip becomes an adventure. Even a neighborhood walk can become a treasure hunt for what is new, interesting or useful. You’re never bored when you’re open and looking.

 

Paying attention: Dandelion

6. Paying attention fosters gratitude.

Probably the most important aspect of paying attention is that we value what we notice. “Out of sight, out of mind” applies to virtually all the important things in life that we simply cease to appreciate. I guarantee that if you begin to give your full attention to even the most common object or familiar person and seek to see it or them as for the first time, you can’t help but appreciate them more.

 

Paying attention to wonder: Poppy stem7. Paying attention reveals wonder.

We plan expensive trips to pursue novelty and wonder without realizing that wonder is all around us. Paying attention makes us aware of the mysteries of people, places and things that, if displayed in a museum would likely awe us. But familiarity reduces wonder to the level of “so what?” The photo above may not be wonder to you, but I’d never realized before that poppies leave this little ring or cup on the stem after the petals have fallen. It may not rival the aurora borealis, but wonder comes in all shapes and sizes.

 

Paying attention - coreopsis

8. Paying attention encourages curiosity.

I didn’t care about any of these flowers’ names until I made photos of them. Now, I want to know more about them. I also want to understand why the flower above has water drops on its petals whereas no other flowers around it are wet. The more curious you are, the more you will likely see and the more you see, the more connections you will make.

 

Paying attention - Primrose

9. Paying attention expands your perspective.

When you pay attention, you see a different side of things. You make unlikely connections you didn’t before. For example, in the photo above, I never before realized how the petals look exactly like crumpled paper or fabric. It makes me want to try out some new art projects based on this in materials I’ve barely worked with before. In short, paying attention broadens your possibilities.

 

Paying attention - Daisy with bugs

10. Paying attention reminds us that little things matter.

I used to think that with all the big issues going on in the world, why bother paying attention to the small things? But if I can pull away from the distractions that hammer me, I come to realize that the small things ARE the big things. The taste of a favorite food. The smell of fresh coffee. The touch of a loved one’s hand or the sound of their voice. Another sunrise. Another breath. Paying attention helps us value the small moments and realize that they matter far more than we normally realize.