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A Brief Lesson in Observation 6

A Brief Lesson in Observation

When my niece was a baby, her mother sang the following song to her and every time the words “see” or “sea” came up, she’d raise my niece’s hands to uproarious laughter.

A sailor went to sea.
To see what he could see.
But all that he could see,
Was the the bottom of the deep blue sea.
The sea, the sea, the sea.

One of the keys to a rich life is to see what we can see. It’s called being observant and while it may seem obvious, it’s often the obvious things that go unnoticed. In other words, we don’t always see what we could see.

Recently, I asked the members of my audience to look around the room and find something they had not previously noticed. Amazingly, everyone discovered a couple of items even though they’d been sitting in the room for several hours. What had been missing was the intentional attention necessary to truly see everything in the room. Ironically, while they were noticing the room, I noticed that my fly was unzipped. So, the exercise was beneficial for all involved.

Jerry Seinfeld is a master of observation. His stand-up comedy routines are based on attention to details — details that are often so obscure, his sitcom was referred to as a show about nothing. In one of my favorite Seinfeld routines, he notices that his girlfriend bought a bag containing 500 cotton balls. He’s curious as to why she needs that many cotton balls when he has never used one. So, he attempts use five cotton balls over a week’s time. By the end of the week, he has struggled so much to use the five cotton balls, he has a headache. He opens a bottle of aspirin and discovers, of course, another cotton ball.

By making this obvious, yet often unattended observation, Seinfeld developed a wonderful comedy bit. And, his observation caused us to see a bag of cotton balls in a new way.

When it comes to humor, the key to finding it is to enhance our observational skills. The more humor we see, the more humor we’ll see — because there is a natural reinforcement that occurs when we begin to see things in our surroundings that we had previously not noticed.

The first step in improving our observational skills may seem obvious. It is to look. Pay attention to everything in your environment. Watch what people do. Listen to what people say. Don’t get lulled into the “driving hypnosis” we all experience when we don’t remember the last mile we just traveled down the highway.

Once, my wife and I were walking through a mall when two young men got into a fight at the entrance to one of the stores. One of the men shoved the other one across the floor about 15 feet in front of us. My wife never saw it. She was focused on something else and failed to see a man flying by us. Let me just point out that her lack of attention to some details affords me certain benefits at home — especially when I want to snatch that last brownie.

Our lack of seeing is more common than we realize. We cruise through life on auto pilot and often we pass right by something extraordinary. In simple terms, it’s a beautiful flower, a funny sign, or an unusual building. In more significant terms, it’s the car we cut off in traffic, the friend who needs our help, or the bad habit we’ve developed. Seeing, in these situations, changes our behavior for the better.

The second step in enhancing observational skills is to ask ourselves, “What’s unusual or incongruent about this?”

A few days ago, I did a presentation at The Modern Maturity Center in Dover, DE. The center began in the 1968 as a place to provide services to senior citizens. As the facility grew, a banquet hall was built to serve the community as a meeting facility and generate revenue to support their senior programs. It’s a wonderful place.

However, the name of the building was a bit different from most locations where I have spoken. So, I commented on this by saying, “Well, I averted disaster tonight. When I put the name of this facility into my GPS, I misspelled it. My GPS took me to the Modern Immaturity Center. You definitely don’t want to go there. The people were talking loudly, spitting out their vegetables, and running with scissors. Very immature.”

By simply asking myself, “what’s unusual about this name,” I was able to come up with a funny observation — at least to me.

Lastly, we truly benefit from our observations by recording them in written or digital form. That way, we’ve kept the observation for future enjoyment, for use in casual conversation, or for inclusion in a more formal presentation. Using pen and paper or our phone to record the details also allows us to remember these observations. Trust me on this one, if you don’t record it, you will likely forget it.

Recently, I was driving home from a speaking engagement and saw a very funny sign. But, I failed to write it down and did not take a photo. I would share this hysterical observation with you here but I have no idea what it was. Unfortunately, when we rely on our memory, our memory is not always that reliable.

Observing our surroundings means that we truly see what we can see. And most importantly, the details of what we see often reveal humor. To find more balance and humor in our lives, all we have to do is to see the see the see.


  • Sherie nigh says:

    Thank you for this bright spot in my day. I so appreciate it!!! We need the positive as much as we can get it. Thanks for ‘filling my cup’ = D

  • Jean says:

    We’ve had a rough few days in Baltimore and I appreciate your piece as I read it today. I usually try to find humor in things and will now be more focused on it. That’s funny coming from someone with ADHD, but I will eventually get around to it! Jean

  • Thanks for the reminder about not getting – tunnel vision. Managing a small but growing company, with very complex projects, and customers it’s easy to get pulled in 50 directions all at once. I normally hate yet another interruption in my work email–and rarely subscribe to any type of blogs or newsletters. (With numerous emails crossing my desk–who has time? right?) I saw you speak at the Financial Management conference of the MGMA. The impression that you left on me after your presentation was stronger than all the “business” that occurred during the conference. Thanks for the reminders to stop back, and look around.

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