What is art but a way of seeing? – Saul Bellow
I watched Wendy MacNaughton’s TED talk about paying attention and it reminded me of a challenge we face all the time in situations. Should we go deep into something or should we quickly sort things out? How do we tell which one to do?
MacNaughton writes a visual column for the New Yorker and she started her talk with an exercise that I’ve seen in Betty Edward’s Drawing on the right side of the brain. Pick something to draw and then draw it, never lifting your pen from the paper or taking your eyes off the subject. If you’re drawing a leaf, for example, slowly follow every curve of the outline of the leaf and let your fingers follow your eye. You’ll end up with something that is rubbish – like my picture above where I drew an eye – but you also end up with something real because, perhaps for the first time, you’ve drawn what you’ve seen.
Let me explain.
Most of the time we view the world and see not what’s out there but what we expect to see. We are pattern recognizing machines, we have patterns for houses, patterns for trees, patterns for people. Our brains recognize patterns – that’s why a simple line drawing of a few essential features can tell us whether the drawing is of a person or a thing. We’re particularly wired to notice other people and expressions because it’s a vital survival skill to know if that person coming towards you is friendly or not.
That’s why when we try and draw the world we tend to revert to icons, to a visual shorthand representation of the things around us. We may think that’s because we’re bad at drawing – but that isn’t the case. It’s simply quicker to have a library of icons that can be expressed as simple drawings because we can get them done quickly. If you want to show the state of mind of someone else you can do that with a circle, two eyes, eyebrows and a mouth. That’s quite enough to convey quite a large range of emotions.
But although you can draw a general emotional state that doesn’t mean you understand what’s going on. You don’t see the other lines that tell you the history of the person, the unwrinkled lines of a young person or the leathery skin of a weatherbeaten outdoorsperson. To see that you have to take your time and draw the detail, to see what’s really there rather than the pattern you’ve imposed on the world in front of your eyes.
The same thing happens when you try and understand a situation. You can see people in organizations as roles engaging with each other or you can talk to a specific person and understand their point of view. It doesn’t take long to draw an office hierarchy. It takes much longer to understand any one of the individuals in that diagram and what their daily experience looks like.
Much of the time the efficient thing to do is ignore the detail – to just use pattern recognition to notice the general working of things. Being oblivious to most things is the way to go.
But when you are involved in a situation and you care about getting an outcome that improves what’s going on you have to be prepared to take the time to get into the detail of what’s going on – to see what’s really there.
What matters is deciding whether you’re an onlooker or a participant – and then doing the work that’s necessary to get things done.