Why you need to sharpen your powers of observation

Highly successful Innovators including artists, designers, scientists, and entrepreneurs, tend to be keen observers of the world around them. Observing is one of the keys to creativity and discovering opportunities for innovation.

This post explores the connection between seeing (observing), mindfulness and creativity and how you can improve your observation skills.


Looking and seeing are not the same

Looking and seeing both start with sense perception, but that’s where the similarity ends. Frederick Franck, renowned artist and author of Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation:[1] writes:

When I “look” at the world and label its phenomena, I make immediate choices, instant appraisals – I like or I dislike, I accept or reject, what I look at, according to its usefulness to the ‘Me’…THIS ME THAT I IMAGINE MYSELF TO BE, and that I try to impose on others.

The purpose of ‘looking’ is to survive, to cope, to manipulate, to discern what is useful, agreeable, or threatening to the Me, what enhances or what diminishes the Me. This we are trained to do from our first day.

When, on the other hand, I SEE – suddenly I am all eyes, I forget this Me, am liberated from it and dive into the reality of what confronts me, become part of it, participate in it. I no longer label, no longer choose. (“Choosing is the sickness of the mind,” says a sixth-century Chinese sage.)

Research studies on the connection between mindfulness and creativity at the University of Amsterdam, show that strong observation skills are linked to greater creativity, originality, and flexible thinking.[2]

In my experience observation is one of the least used skills in corporate environments. It takes time, and attention to really SEE. Frederick Franck was amazingly prescient back in 1973 when he said:

Never has it been more urgent to speak of SEEING. Evermore gadgets, from cameras to computers, from art books to videotapes, conspire to take over our thinking, our feeling, our experiencing, our seeing. Onlookers we are, spectators . . . “subjects” we are, that look at “objects.” Quickly we stick labels on all that is. . . . By these labels we recognize everything, but we no longer SEE anything.

How can you develop your observational skills?

One very effective way is through drawing.

Frederick Franck notes:

Everyone thinks he knows what a lettuce looks like. But start to draw one and you realize the anomaly of having lived with lettuces your whole life but never having seen one, never having seen the semi-translucent leaves curling in their own lettuce way, never having noticed what makes a lettuce a lettuce rather than a curly kale. I am not suggesting that you draw each vein of each leaf, but that you feel them being there. What applies to lettuces applies equally to the all-too-familiar faces of husbands . . . wives.

Betty Edwards Drawing from the right side of the brain

Learning to draw is really about learning to see as Dr. Betty Edwards shows in her ground-breaking book The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain[3](first published in 1979). Her teaching is based on brain science: Your left brain (L-mode) is your verbal and rational brain which thinks serially and reduces its thoughts to numbers, letters and words. For example, you are in L-mode when you balance a check-book. — you do not want creative, intuitive check-book balancing, you want step-by-step verbal, numerical, sequential analysis.

Edwards contends our challenge is to re-claim R-mode ways of knowing which tend to get buried by an L-mode emphasis in our educational system. She cites psychologist Karl Buhler[2] who in 1930 observed:

By the time the child can draw more than a scribble, by age three or four years, an already well-formed body of conceptual knowledge formulated in language dominates his memory and controls his graphic work…. Drawings are graphic accounts of essentially verbal processes. As an essentially verbal education gains control, the child abandons his graphic efforts and relies almost entirely on words. Language has first spoilt drawing and then swallowed it up completely.

Edwards says that to gain access to sub-dominant, somewhat hard-to-access R-mode, the non-verbal, visual perceptual system of the brain, it is necessary to present one’s brain with a task that the dominant verbal system, L-mode, will turn down.


Experience your L-mode and R-mode in action


Stravinsky by Picasso

This exercise by Betty Edwards is especially fun.

  1. Print out a copy of this drawing by Picasso, grab a pencil and a sheet of paper, then copy the picture as accurately as you can.
  2. Now turn Picasso’s drawing upside down and draw the picture again.

Your upside-down drawing is likely much better because you didn’t label what you see. Upside down drawing develops your ability to see only lines and shapes and their relation to each other. enabling you to see as an artist sees.

Seeing/Drawing as a form of meditation

Franck advocated a “seeing/drawing” form of meditation, as “a way of getting into intimate touch with the visual world around us, and through it . . . with ourselves.” Unwavering attention is all-important. This Zen of seeing is a way to shift from being half-sleep to full awakening. “Suddenly there is the miracle of being really alive with all the senses functioning.”

Try this exercise from the Zen of Seeing

Let your eyes fall on whatever happens to be in front of you. It may be a plant or bush or a tree, or perhaps it is just some grass. Close your eyes for the next five minutes . . .

Now open your eyes and focus on whatever you observed before — that plant or leaf or dandelion. Look it in the eye, until you feel it looking back at you. Feel that you are alone with it on Earth! That it is the most important thing in the universe, that it contains all the riddles of life and death. It does! You are no longer looking, you are seeing.” Do not to think about the drawing but simply allow the hand to follow what the eye sees.

Real-world benefits

“To empty one’s mind of all thought and refill the void with a spirit greater than oneself is to extend the mind into a realm not accessible by conventional processes of reason.”
— Edward Hill, The Language of Drawing, 1966

Drawing develops your ability to hone your observation skills, cultivate your creativity, reduce stress and practice mindfulness.

John Ruskin —the great Victorian art critic, philosopher, philanthropist and accomplished artist—argued that the practice of drawing has value even if you have no talent for it. Not only does drawing teach us to see —to notice properly rather than gaze absentmindedly—in the process of recreating with our own hand what lies before our eyes, we naturally move from a position of observing beauty in a loose way to one where we acquire a deep understanding of its parts.[4]

Ruskin was distressed by how seldom people notice details. “The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace.” With this beautiful passage, Ruskin illustrates the value of noticing that comes with drawing.

Let two persons go out for a walk; the one a good sketcher, the other having no taste of the kind. Let them go down a green lane. There will be a great difference in the scene as perceived by the two individuals. The one will see a lane and trees; he will perceive the trees to be green, though he will think nothing about it; he will see that the sun shines, and that it has a cheerful effect; and that’s all!

But what will the sketcher see? His eye is accustomed to search into the cause of beauty, and penetrate the minutest parts of loveliness. He looks up, and observes how the showery and subdivided sunshine comes sprinkled down among the gleaming leaves overhead, till the air is filled with the emerald light. He will see here and there a bough emerging from the veil of leaves, he will see the jewel brightness of the emerald moss and the variegated and fantastic lichens, white and blue, purple and red, all mellowed and mingled into a single garment of beauty.

Then come the cavernous trunks and the twisted roots that grasp with their snake-like coils at the steep bank, whose turfy slope is inlaid with flowers of a thousand dyes. Is not this worth seeing? Yet if you are not a sketcher you will pass along the green lane, and when you come home again, have nothing to say or to think about it, but that you went down such and such a lane.

Ruskin believed in the beauty of things humans make, ranging from buildings to chairs, paintings to clothes and came to realize that the quest to make a more beautiful world is inseparable from the need to remake it politically, economically and socially. HIs activism in the 19th century is an inspiration for those who aspire to change the world in the direction of beauty and wisdom today. Read more about his ideas and ideals in the Book of Life at the School of Life.

Practice your observational discovery skills

Observation is one of the key discovery traits of disruptive innovators that make up The Innovators DNA [5], and an effective way to spark uncommon ideas that can develop into a winning innovation.

  1. Make it a habit to observe the details of the world around you. The more time you spend looking (especially when you are sketching), the more you see.
  2. Observe people and situations around you and notice how things work as well as what is not working. Practice this in all your interactions including your workplace, your customers at work, travels, shopping, entertainment, etc. This is one of the key discovery methods
  3. Make a list of your observations and look for patterns across disparate data.
  4. Combine 2 or 3 observations to generate a new intersectional idea.


[1] Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation by Frederick Franck, Vintage (1973)

[2] Baas, M., Nevicka, B., & Ten Velden, F. S. (2014). Specific Mindfulness Skills Differentially Predict Creative Performance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(9), 1092–1106. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167214535813

[3] Cited in The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards, HarperCollins; 3rd edition (November 1, 2009)

[4] On the Importance of Drawing from The Book of Life, an offshoot of The School of Life (No date or author info available.

[5]  Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators by Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen, et al. Harvard Business Review Press; Updated edition (June 4, 2019)