How Do We Truly Learn To See What Is In Front Of Us?


Sunday, 9.36pm

Sheffield, U.K.

But in order to survive in this foreign world, I had to teach myself that love was very much like a painting. The negative space between people was just as important as the positive space we occupy. The air between our resting bodies, and the breath in our conversations, were all like the white of the canvas, and the rest our relationship – the laughter and the memories – were the brushstroke applied over time. – Alyson Richman

I’ve been thinking more about drawing the last few weeks – and the way in which drawings can help us see the world around us.

And it’s funny how they can help us see in the way that we want to see – they follow our approach rather than the other way around.

Let me explain.

Most people will appreciate the fact that when they see reality what they see is not reality at all – it’s instead a construction, a hugely effective virtual reality system, that creates a world in our brains using electrical signals generated by our sensory systems.

In reality, this brain of ours, which hides in a cave with no windows fools us into thinking that the movie it’s showing us is the same thing as reality.

The world is an illusion – Maya, as the Indians would say.

And because there is so much data the brain ends up using some data that is real time and a lot of data that is stored and reused.

And that’s why when we look at a house we don’t really see a house – we replace it with a mental model of a house.

Unless there is a reason for us to look more closely – we’re in the market for a house – and then we start to notice many more things about the houses around us.

We look at size, age, driveways or lack thereof, the people, schools feeling.

We’re always positively looking for things – and our brains focus on bringing those to our attention, filling in everything else with stored data.

And this makes sense because if it insisted on processing exabytes of real-time information every time we stepped out of our front doors – it might just burn up – but instead it just uses a quarter of the energy we put into our bodies and does all the work for us.

But the shortcuts it sets up create a problem – we can start thinking of these shortcuts as the same as reality.

For example, if you once dealt with a situation in a particular way it’s hard to stop yourself telling others that the same way will work for them as well.

Or, you might even start telling people how to do things because you think that approach will work – without even really testing it first – the approach taken by many how-to books over there.

Which is why reading Betty Edwards Drawing on the right side of the brain again reminded me of some very important points.

One of which is the idea of negative space.

Let’s say you’re asked to draw a chair.

If you’re like most people your mental model of a chair will intrude forecefully to influence the image you create on paper.

You know how a chair looks, how its legs are connected at right angles, how there is a seat – and this will affect the lines you put down as your mental model of a chair clashes with the particular scene in front of you.

One way of getting around this is to stop looking at what you know and start looking for what is not there.

In the image above I’ve traced the negative spaces that you find looking at a wicker chair.

Look at those weird shapes, the odd angles, the spine and fishlike backbone.

Yes, you could see a picture of the chair, but you would not see what is not there, the thing that is in between what you see.

And that’s important because as long as we look for what we expect our solutions will fall short.

In business the thing that takes you down is rarely the thing you’re looking out for.

Retailers were busy watching footfall – they never thought the Internet would be a thing.

Armies are always training to fight the last war.

The books we read, the subjects we study, the strategies we adopt – these are all things that help us deal with what we see, what’s in front of us, what we expect to find coming down the line.

But it’s the unexpected that gets us every time – governments, companies, empires are overthrown from within again and again – not from without.

And so, it is only by training yourself to look for what is not there will you come up with strategies that have the potential to save you.

What will you do when your job disappears – if you lose it tomorrow.

What will you do if you make a living with your writing and your hands stop working?

Where is the space where there is no one else – the niche that you can fill with your new product?

Space matters – because everything else is already filled with something else.

Learn to see what is not there and you will always have a place to go.


Karthik Suresh

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