Mackay: Unlock your powers of observation

Look around you. What do you see? If you were asked to be a witness at a trial, would you be able to remember details and conditions?

One of the qualities successful people from all walks of life have is a keen sense of observation. They notice things about people, human nature and the general world around them. Many of us, unfortunately, go through life with our eyes half-closed.

Most people are easily distracted and not aware of what is going on around them. Being a keen observer is very important in life.

Perhaps one of the most famous “observers” in history is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes character. Holmes’ method of detection was “based on the observation of trifles.” To him, absolutely nothing was insignificant. Clues and information were all around, if only people would take notice. Doyle’s readers are challenged to recall and relate details of his stories to solve the mysteries.

Dr. Joseph Bell was the physician said to be the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. Doyle was particularly interested in Bell’s emphasis on the importance of close observation in making a diagnosis.

For example, Bell told the story of a famous surgeon who used to tell his students that a doctor needed two abilities: freedom from nausea and the power of keen observation. One day he poured kerosene, castor oil and mustard into a little cup. He dipped a finger into the foul liquid and then sucked his finger. He passed the cup around to every student in the class and asked them to do the same. Reluctantly, the students did as the professor requested.

After all the students had dipped into the vile liquid, the professor remarked to the class: “I am afraid that not one of you used your powers of observation. The finger I put into the cup was not the same one that I stuck in my mouth.”

Observation has practical applications in business, according to a newsletter from the Royal Bank of Canada: a businessperson being able to “size up a situation accurately and quickly; an engineer who can scan a factory floor and notice key aspects of workflow; a sales representative who can tell how best to approach a person after a glance at the desk ... An effective businessperson sees what others overlook, whether in a production line, an administrative routine, or a balance sheet.”

Good observers filter out preconceptions, prejudices and cultural biases so that they see things as they are, not just as they want them to be.

An old lion realized he’d have to give up the title of king of all beasts. With failing eyesight, he grew dizzy from hunger and couldn’t even muster the energy to roar. So he devised a plan to fill his belly before the other animals could figure out his secret.

He limped back to his den where he collapsed, feigning grave injury and illness and announced that his time on the plains would soon fade into the sunset. One by one, the animals of the forest came to pay their respects. And one by one, they disappeared as the lazy lion licked away any evidence of their visits.

But when the fox came to visit, he maintained a cautious distance outside the lion’s cave.

“Who is that I hear stirring about?” whispered the lion.

“It is I,” said the fox.

“Come closer, friend, for I can barely see you.”

“No,” said the fox. “Some distance between us is best. I see many footprints leading into your den, but none leaving.”

The lion roared in anger, causing the fox and other animals to scurry into the forest. The fox was hailed as a hero, and the animals of the forest learned a valuable lesson: Those who are wise and observant learn from the mistakes of others.

Mackay’s Moral: If what you see is what you get, make sure you’re looking closely.

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