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Ways of Seeing, Mastery is not a DNA Thing, & Invention as a Form of Choosing (Reading Notes 6.16.18)

Resource: The Art of Looking: Eleven Ways of Viewing the Multiple Realities of Our Everyday Wonderland


Pre-existing knowledge orients our seeing. The combination of what we know, what we think we know, and want we intend to discover shapes how the outer world shows up for us.

The amount of expertise required to see the hidden gems contained on an ordinary walk is not as great as we might suppose. A little knowledge goes a long way if coupled with intentionality.

As an experiment in learning about the different ways one can see the world, Alexandra Horowitz takes a walk through New York City with eleven different “experts.” What she learns is that we’re all overlooking many complex and fascinating things all the time simply because we have not been taught to see them or because we don’t expect to see them. When she took a walk with her child, she saw all the different ways in which a walk could be experienced as an investigatory exercise. When she took a walk with her dog, she developed a deeper appreciation for the information contained in smell and the dog’s superior ability to interpret that information. When she took a walk with a blind woman, she took notice of all the other ways of “seeing” that don’t involve the eyes (ie. changes in the wind, in the temperature, surrounding sounds, the texture of objects, etc.). When she took a walk with a geologist, she took notice of how any city is teeming with minerals and organisms. When she took a walk with an expert on insects, she noticed the abundance of insects everywhere and learned to see their patterns for behavior. Beyond this being a cool-sounding science experiment, this was a profoundly philosophical exercise for Horowitz that taught her two fundamental truths about seeing: 1) Inattention is the necessary companion of attention and 2) Once you learn to see a thing, you always see it even if you’re not looking for it.


““How we spend our days,” Annie Dillard wrote in her timelessly beautiful meditation on presence over productivity, “is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And nowhere do we fail at the art of presence most miserably and most tragically than in urban life — in the city, high on the cult of productivity, where we float past each other, past the buildings and trees and the little boy in the purple pants, past life itself, cut off from the breathing of the world by iPhone earbuds and solipsism.”

“Right now, you are missing the vast majority of what is happening around you. You are missing the events unfolding in your body, in the distance, and right in front of you.”

“ (“Attention is an intentional, unapologetic discriminator,” Horowitz tells us. “It asks what is relevant right now, and gears us up to notice only that.”) But while this might make us more efficient in our goal-oriented day-to-day, it also makes us inhabit a largely unlived — and unremembered — life, day in and day out.”

“Attention is an intentional, unapologetic discriminator. It asks what is relevant right now, and gears us up to notice only that.”

“I would find myself at once alarmed, delighted, and humbled at the limitations of my ordinary looking. My consolation is that this deficiency of mine is quite human. We see, but we do not see: we use our eyes, but our gaze is glancing, frivolously considering its object. We see the signs, but not their meanings. We are not blinded, but we have blinders.

“One perceptual constraint that I knowingly labor under is the constraint that we all create for ourselves: we summarize and generalize, stop looking at particulars and start taking in scenes at a glance—all in an effort to not be overwhelmed visually when we just need to make it through the day. The artist seems to retain something of the child’s visual strategy: how to look at the world before knowing (or without thinking about) the name or function of everything that catches the eye. An infant treats objects with an unprejudiced equivalence: the plastic truck is of no more intrinsic worth to the child than an empty box is, until the former is called a toy and the latter is called garbage. My son was as entranced by the ubiquitous elm seeds near our doorstep as any of the menus, mail, flyers, or trash that concern the adults. To the child, as to the artist, everything is relevant; little is unseen. Once you look at what seems ordinary long enough, though, it often turns odd and unfamiliar, as any child repeatedly saying his own name aloud learns. I had the suspicion that walking with Kalman would be the ambulatory equivalent of saying my own name aloud a hundred times.”

“From geologist Sidney Horenstein of the American Museum of Natural History we learn that our entire world consists of only two types of things: minerals and the biomass of plants and animals. A city suddenly becomes not a sterile “man-made” object but a thriving ecosystem of living and once-living landscapes, “an ersatz natural landscape writ small … on every single block,” a place suddenly brimming with reminders of its own impermanence:”

“Eiseman reflected for a moment, and then quoted one of his tracking teachers, Susan Morse: “Half of tracking is knowing where to look, and the other half is looking.” If you understand even the most superficial elements of the life histories of different animals — such as what kinds of things they are attracted to — once you start looking, you are going to find them everywhere. … A small bit of knowledge goes a long way when thinking about “where to look.” … Once you have an eye for these things, even when you’re not looking for them, they just jump out at you. Everything is a sign of something.”

“Part of what restricts us seeing things is that we have an expectation about what we will see, and we are actually perceptually restricted by that expectation. In a sense, expectation is the lost cousin of attention: both serve to reduce what we need to process of the world “out there.” Attention is the more charismatic member, packaged and sold more effectively, but expectation is also a crucial part of what we see. Together they allow us to be functional, reducing the sensory chaos of the world into unbothersome and understandable units.”

“But the world around us is not entirely or even mostly defined by its light-reflective qualities. What of the odors of the molecules making up every object, and those loosened odors wafting in the space around us? Or the perturbations of air that we can hear as sound — and the frequencies higher or lower than we can hear? I imagined that someone who has lost her sense of sight could lead me, however superficially, into the invisible block that I miss with my wide open eyes.”

“Our brains are changed by experience — in a way directly related to the details of that experience. If we have enough experience doing an action, viewing a scene, or smelling an odor to become an “expert” in a field, then our brains are functionally — and visibly — different from nonexperts.”

“Simply giving a name to a sound can change the experience of it: when we see the thing that clatters or moans or sighs, we hear it differently.”

“What makes that “noise” and not just neutral “sound” is another question. The avant-garde composer John Cage famously declared that “music is sounds,” and thus appropriated ordinary sounds to be his music. In one of his compositions, the orchestra is silent for four minutes and thirty-three seconds; whatever sounds come in through the window of the concert hall or emerge from the increasingly restless and puzzled audience constitute his music. Still, if Cage was right, it need not follow that all sounds are music(al). Any sound we do not like we call noise, thereby introducing a subjective assessment to the din. That subjectivity is always there in talking about noise.”

“Decibels are the subjective experience of the intensity of a sound. Zero decibels marks the threshold for hearing a sound—and in a modern city, there is never a moment of zero decibel silence. We mostly reside in the 60–80 decibel range, which includes sounds from normal conversation across the dinner table, vacuum cleaners, and traffic noise.”

“The art of seeing might have to be learned, but it can never be unlearned, just as the seen itself can never be unseen — a realization at once immensely demanding in its immutability and endlessly liberating in the possibilities it invites.”

Resource: The danger of “not good enough”


It’s rarely the case that people aren’t good enough in some absolute sense. It’s more often the case that people aren’t good enough right here and now. The former makes being good enough a fixed and permanent reality. The latter makes it a contextual matter. And context can change.

From a coaching point of view, it’s better to think of people as being uncommitted to the work or uninterested in the task than it is to think of them as not having success in their DNA. Anyone can get better if they’re interested in the end-result and committed to the work.


“In almost every line of work, the truthful sentence is, “not good enough yet.”

“I’d like to hire that programmer, but he doesn’t care enough to get really good at his craft.” That’s certainly more true than, “He’s never going to be good at programming, because his DNA doesn’t match the DNA of a good coder.”

“It’s true that you’re not good enough yet. None of us are. But if you commit to trying hard enough and long enough, you’ll get better.”

Resource: French Polymath Henri Poincaré on How the Inventor’s Mind Works, 1908


You know a good book by how efficiently it leads you to other good books.

Inventing is a form of choosing. You are presented with a myriad of ideas and you have to select the ones you will act on. The ones you act on will lead you down a path possessing the same character as the idea itself. The others will fade to the background and may be altogether forgotten.


“Great books are always Rube Goldberg machines of discovery for other great books, with their intricately woven mesh of allusions, references, and citations.” -MP

“To invent, I have said, is to choose; but the word is perhaps not wholly exact. It makes one think of a purchaser before whom are displayed a large number of samples, and who examines them, one after the other, to make a choice. Here the samples would be so numerous that a whole lifetime would not suffice to examine them. This is not the actual state of things. The sterile combinations do not even present themselves to the mind of the inventor. Never in the field of his consciousness do combinations appear that are not really useful, except some that he rejects but which have to some extent the characteristics of useful combinations. All goes on as if the inventor were an examiner for the second degree who would only have to question the candidates who had passed a previous examination.”

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