The Power of Observation: I Think There's Something There

The genius finds the signal in the noise and says: See what you have here? See this? This is important. Pay attention to this.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

You're not quite sure, but you have this sense that this is important, but you don't know why. Something you saw, something you heard, perhaps something you read — something that occurred to you while stuck in traffic. Maybe you like it but you're not sure why you like it. Or it's the reverse, you hate it, but you don't know why you hate it. So you tuck it away into your memory, just in case the importance comes to you later.

In Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy, Jerry Seinfeld explains to a young Judd Apatow:

Well, it’s one thing to see something, you know? And I think the next step is to do something with it, you know? Like, I’m doing this routine now about this guy that was on ‘That’s Incredible!’ last year that caught a bullet between his teeth. And, it’s like, you see a thing like that and you go, what the hell is that? — you know? A guy catches a bullet between his teeth. And now, I don’t know what’s funny about that. But I think to myself, there is something funny about that, and that’s what I like to do. Other comedians do different kinds of things, you know? But that’s what I want to do. And I’m — so I’ve explored that and I think, you know, what job did he have before he got into doing that? What made him go, you know, I’d rather be catching bullets between my teeth? You know, and — I don’t know. Just, I have a whole routine about it. But to me, that’s funny, you know? I don’t know. That’s the way my mind works, I guess.
A young Jerry Seinfeld on "The Tonight Show" starring Johnny Carson

A young Jerry Seinfeld on "The Tonight Show" starring Johnny Carson

How is this developed? Seinfeld says:

Trial and error. You know, just try out one joke.

I saw something, I sense this is interesting, so let me figure it out why this is interesting to me, and if I can make it clear to others — that's comedy, that's good writing, that's good art, that's good thinking.

When I read Judd Apatow's interview of Jerry Seinfeld, I knew there was something there. I had never heard it explained that way before. The process of finding your voice through observation — reflecting then delivering it in a new way. It struck me the same way the joke about the guy who catches bullets with his teeth struck Seinfeld: I should take note of this, this may be useful. I can figure out why, later.

Cathy Lee Guisewite, the creator of the comic strip Cathy, says of her work:

My happiest moment was when I found a joke and when I thought I’d said something in a way that was unique, but that everybody else probably had sort of felt the same thing but wouldn’t have put it that way.

The creative process is a conversation with yourself: I see something there, let me go find out what it is, it might be something, it might be nothing, but let's see. This is how I am able to write daily. As long as I can observe, I have no blocks, I have no resistance. Whether your creative process is art, law, or science, it's about finding connections — connections that perhaps no one else saw. That is what is new and unique. What already exists, exists. What is new is combing them in new ways, taking the preexisting and making something new. And if you're not sure of what you saw, as Carl Sagan puts it: "Let's look." And all it takes to observe and find evidence for your connections is to slow down and pay attention. That is not a mystery, that is a choice.

Your observation, your unique take is what is valuable. You can only discover things that are already there. Discovering an island, an old artifact, a young talent — it's taking a highlighter to the world. In college, I would only buy used textbooks, but I was very particular. I would only buy the books where the pages were already highlighted. Highlighting everything was just as worthless as highlighting nothing. I looked for the books where only the key elements were highlighted. If I was lucky, I would find a book that had multiple owners who whittled down the highlights until only the essential was left. The genius finds the signal in the noise and says: See what you have here? See this? This is important. Pay attention to this.

Pay attention to your attention. Pay attention to what you feel connected to. That’s your taste.
— Jessica Abel

How many notable ideas are lost because the weight of it doesn't strike us right away? When a blue mold appeared in a petri dish, Alexander Fleming could have said, so what? — and thrown it away like so many other scientists had. Instead, he won the Nobel Prize for discovering penicillin. Most discoveries are like that, they aren't always an epiphany. Usually there is a slightly raised eyebrow, then lots and lots of work and thought until something is pulled from something that didn't initially seem like much.

This is practical intelligence. Like a detective who collects evidence because it might be valuable to the case later, our brain does this with information. And if you trust your instinct and keep working the "case," you might find something. There is something to be said of dogged perseverance.

Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow writes:

Intelligence is not only the ability to reason; it is also the ability to find relevant material in memory and to deploy attention when needed.

I think there's something there, I think there's something to it, so I should pay attention. The next time you have that feeling, go with it. It's what the best do. And don't wait for a lightning bolt, at best it might be a mild tingle. And when you're ready, tell everyone else why they should pay attention, why this is important. The people who add magic and beauty to our lives highlight the little somethings we miss every day, they show us why we ought to pay attention to it, and why even the ordinary is special. Reminding us that we the ordinary are also special and worth paying attention to. Special is not in trying to be unique, special is the ability to see that we are already special just for existing.

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