The Difference Between Seeing and Observing

The Art of Observation
In A Scandal in Bohemia, Sherlock Holmes teaches Watson the difference between seeing and observing:

“When I hear you give your reasons,” I remarked, “the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning, I am baffled until you explain your process. And yet I believe that my eyes are as good as yours.”

“Quite so,” he answered, lighting a cigarette, and throwing himself down into an armchair. “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”

“Frequently.”

“How often?”

“Well, some hundreds of times.”

“Then how many are there?”

“How many? I don’t know.”

“Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”

The difference between seeing and observing is fundamental to many aspects of life. Indeed, we can learn a lot from how Sherlock Holmes thinks. Noticing is even something that Nassim Taleb has chimed in on with Noise and Signal.

In the video below, Harvard Business School Professor Max Bazerman, author of The Power of Noticing: What the Best Leaders See, discusses how important it is not just to be able to focus, but to be a good noticer as well. What he’s really talking about is observation.

A number of years ago I had an opportunity to notice and I failed to do so and it’s been an obsession with me ever since. On March 10, 2005 I was hired by the U.S. Department of Justice in a landmark case that they were fighting against the tobacco industry. I was hired as a remedy witness. That is, I was hired to provide recommendations to the court about what the penalty would be if, in fact, the Department of Justice succeeded in its trial against the tobacco industry. I had spent a couple hundred hours working for the Department of Justice including submitting my written direct testimony which had been submitted to the court.

I was scheduled to be on the stand on May 4 where the tobacco industry attorneys would be asking me a series of questions. On April 30, a number of days before my May 4 testimony I was in Washington D.C. to meet with the Department of Justice attorneys to prepare for my time on the stand. When the day started the Department of Justice attorney that I had been working with said to me, “Professor Bazerman.” This occurred long after he had learned to call me Max. He said, “Professor Bazerman, the Department of Justice requests that you amend your testimony to note that the testimony would not be relevant if any of the following four conditions existed.”

He then read to me four legal conditions that I didn’t understand. When he was done talking I said to him, “Why would you ask me to amend my testimony when you know that I didn’t understand what you just said to me.” And his response was because if you don’t agree, there’s a significant chance that senior leadership in the Department of Justice will remove you from the case before you are on the stand on May 4. To which I said, “Okay, I don’t agree to those changes.” And his response was, “Good. Let’s continue with your preparation.” I was jarred by the fact that something very strange had occurred. But I was overwhelmed in life. I was trying to help this case and I didn’t quite know what had occurred. But to this day I’m critical of the fact that I took no action. I did appear on trial on May 4 and the trial ended in early June.

But on June 17 I woke up in a hotel room in London. I was working with another client at the time. And I woke up early at 5:00 a.m. and I opened up The New York Times web edition and I read a story about Matt Myers, the president of Tobacco Free Kids, who had come forward to the media with evidence about how Robert McCallum, the number two official in the Department of Justice, was involved in attempting to get him to change his testimony. And I then read basically the same account that I had experienced back on April 30. Matt Myers had the insight to know that he should do something with this information about what had occurred in terms of the attempt to tamper with this testimony. And at that point it was straightforward to come forward to the media to speak to congressional representatives about what happened. And my own role received media attention as well.

But to this day I’m still struck by the fact that I didn’t come forward on April 30 when, in the back of my mind I knew something had occurred. The reason I tell you this story is because I think a lot of our failure to notice happens when we’re busy. It happens when we don’t know exactly what’s happening. But I think it’s our job as executives, as leaders, as professionals to act when we’re pretty sure that there’s something wrong. It’s our job to notice and to not simply be passive when we can’t quite figure out the evidence. It’s our job to take steps to figure out what’s going on and to act on critical information.

***

Follow your curiosity and learn about why your decision making environment matters.

Remember Not to Trust Your Memory

think

Memories are the stories that we tell ourselves about the past. Sometimes they adjust and leave things out.

In an interesting passage in Think: Why You Should Question Everything, Guy P. Harrison talks about the fallibility of memory.

Did you know that you can’t trust even your most precious memories?

They may come to you in great detail and feel 100 percent accurate, but it doesn’t matter. They easily could be partial or total lies that your brain is telling you. Really, the personal past that your brain is supposed to be keeping safe for you is not what you think it is. Your memories are pieces and batches of information that your brain cobbles together and serves up to you, not to present the past as accurately as possible, but to provide you with information that you will likely find to be useful in the present. Functional value, not accuracy, is the priority. Your brain is like some power-crazed CIA desk jockey who feeds you memories on a need-to-know basis only. Daniel Schacter, a Harvard memory researcher, says that when the brain remembers, it does so in a way that is similar to how an archaeologist reconstructs a past scene relying on an artifact here, an artifact there. The end result might be informative and useful, but don’t expect it to be perfect. This is important because those who don’t know anything about how memory works already have one foot in fantasyland. Most people believe that our memory operates in a way that is similar to a video camera. They think that the sights, sounds, and feelings of our experiences are recorded on something like a hard drive in their heads. Totally wrong. When you remember your past, you don’t get to watch an accurately recorded replay.

To describe to people how memory really works, Harrison puts it this way:

Imagine a very tiny old man sitting by a very tiny campfire somewhere inside your head. He’s wearing a worn and raggedy hat and has a long, scruffy, gray beard. He looks a lot like one of those old California gold prospectors from the 1800s. He can be grumpy and uncooperative at times, but he’s the keeper of your memories and you are stuck with him. When you want or need to remember something from your past, you have to go through the old codger. Let’s say you want to recall that time when you scored the winning goal in a middle-school soccer match. You have to tap the old coot on the shoulder and ask him to tell you about it. He usually responds with something. But he doesn’t read from a faithfully recorded transcript, doesn’t review a comprehensive photo archive to create an accurate timeline, and doesn’t double-check his facts before speaking. He definitely doesn’t play a video recording of the game for you. Typically, he just launches into a tale about your glorious goal that won the big game. He throws up some images for you, so it’s kind of like a lecture or slideshow. Nice and useful, perhaps, but definitely not reliable

Frederick W. Taylor: Time Management Skills

SteelMill_interior

There is no question that the tendency of the average man (in all walks of life) is toward working at a slow, easy gait, and that it is only after a good deal of thought and observation on his part or as a result of example, conscience, or external pressure that he takes a more rapid pace.

***

From Frederick W. Taylor’s 1904 book Shop Management, which appeared long before his Principles of Scientific Management (1911). Taylor is considered the father of management consulting.

The natural laziness of men is serious, but by far the greatest evil from which both workmen and employers are suffering is the systematic soldiering which is almost universal under all of the ordinary schemes of management and which results from a careful study on the part of the workmen of what they think will promote their best interests.

The writer was much interested recently to hear one small but experienced golf caddie boy of twelve explaining to a green caddie who had shown special energy and interest the necessity of going slow and lagging behind his man when he came up to the ball, showing him that since they were paid by the hour, the faster they went, the less money they got, and finally telling him that if he went too fast the other boys would give him a licking.

This represents a type of systematic soldiering which is not, however, very serious, since it is done with the knowledge of the employer, who can quite easily break it up if he wishes.

The greater part of the systematic soldiering, however, is done by the men with the deliberate object of keeping their employers ignorant of how fast work can be done.

So universal is soldiering for this purpose that hardly a competent workman can be found in a large establishment, whether he works by the day or on piecework, contract work or under any of the ordinary systems of compensating labor, who does not devote a considerable part of his time to studying just how slowly he can work and still convince his employer that he is going at a good pace.

The causes for this are, briefly, that practically all employers determine upon a maximum sum which they feel it is right for each of their classes of employees to earn per day, whether their men work by the day or piece.

Each workman soon finds out about what this figure is for his particular case, and he also realizes that when his employer is convinced that a man is capable of doing more work than he has done, he will find sooner or later some way of compelling him to do it with little or no increase of pay.

Employers derive their knowledge of how much of a given class of work can be done in a day from either their own experience, which has frequently grown hazy with age, from casual and unsystematic observation of their men, or at best from records which are kept, showing the quickest time in which each job has been done. In many cases the employer will feel almost certain that a given job can be done faster than it has been, but he rarely cares to take the drastic measures necessary to force men to do it in the quickest time, unless he has an actual record, proving conclusively how fast the work can be done.

It evidently becomes for each man’s interest, then, to see that no job is done faster than it has been in the past. The younger and less experienced men are taught this by their elders, and all possible persuasion and social pressure is brought to bear upon the greedy and selfish men to keep them from making new records which result in temporarily increasing their wages, while all those who come after them are made to work harder for the same old pay.

The Difference Between Good And Bad Organizations

bureaucracy

Which organization do you work for?

This excerpt is from one of the best business leadership books I’ve ever read: The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers

At Opsware I used to teach a management expectations course because I deeply believed in training. I made it clear that I expected every manager to meet with her people on a regular basis.

Then one day, while I happily went about my job, it came to my attention that one of my managers hadn’t had a one-on-one meeting with any of his employees in more than six months. While I knew to “expect what I inspect,” I did not expect this. No one-on-one in more than six months? How was it possible for me to invest so much time thinking about management, preparing materials, and personally training my managers and then get no one-on-ones for six months? Wow, so much for CEO authority. If that’s how the managers listen to me, then why do I even bother coming to work?

I thought that leading by example would be the sure way to get the company to do what I wanted. Lord knows the company picked up all of my bad habits, so why didn’t they pick up my good habits? Had I lost the team? I recalled a conversation I’d had with my father many years ago regarding Tommy Heinsohn, the Boston Celtics basketball coach at the time. Heinsohn had been one of the most successful coaches in the world, including being named coach of the year and winning two NBA championships.

However, he had gone downhill fast and now had the worst record in the league. I asked my father what happened. He said, “The players stopped paying attention to his temper tantrums. Heinsohn used to yell at the team and they’d respond. Now they just ignore him.” Was the team now ignoring me? Had I yelled at them one time too many?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that while I had told the team “what” to do, I had not been clear about “why” I wanted them to do it. Clearly, my authority alone was not enough to get them to do what I wanted. Given the large number of things that we were trying to accomplish, managers couldn’t get to everything and came up with their own priorities. Apparently, this manager didn’t think that meeting with his people was all that important and I hadn’t explained to him why it was so important.

So why did I force every manager through management training? Why did I demand that managers have one-on-ones with employees? After much deliberation with myself, I settled on an articulation of the core reason and I called up the offending manager’s boss— I’ll call him Steve— and told him that I needed to see him right away.

When Steve came into my office I asked him a question: “Steve, do you know why I came to work today?”

Steve: “What do you mean, Ben?”

Me: “Why did I bother waking up? Why did I bother coming in? If it was about the money, couldn’t I sell the company tomorrow and have more money than I ever wanted? I don’t want to be famous, in fact just the opposite.”

Steve: “I guess.”

Me: “Well, then why did I come to work?”

Steve: “I don’t know.”

Me: “Well, let me explain. I came to work because it’s personally very important to me that Opsware be a good company. It’s important to me that the people who spend twelve to sixteen hours a day here, which is most of their waking life, have a good life. It’s why I come to work.”

Steve: “Okay.”

Me: “Do you know the difference between a good place to work and a bad place to work?”

Steve: “Umm, I think so.”

Me: “What is the difference?”

Steve: “Umm, well . . .”

Me: “Let me break it down for you. In good organizations, people can focus on their work and have confidence that if they get their work done, good things will happen for both the company and them personally. It is a true pleasure to work in an organization such as this. Every person can wake up knowing that the work they do will be efficient, effective, and make a difference for the organization and themselves. These things make their jobs both motivating and fulfilling.

In a poor organization, on the other hand, people spend much of their time fighting organizational boundaries, infighting, and broken processes. They are not even clear on what their jobs are, so there is no way to know if they are getting the job done or not. In the miracle case that they work ridiculous hours and get the job done, they have no idea what it means for the company or their careers. To make it all much worse and rub salt in the wound, when they finally work up the courage to tell management how fucked-up their situation is, management denies there is a problem, then defends the status quo, then ignores the problem.”

Steve: “Okay.”

Me: “Are you aware that your manager Tim has not met with any of his employees in the past six months?”

Steve: “No.”

Me: “Now that you are aware, do you realize that there is no possible way for him to even be informed as to whether or not his organization is good or bad?”

Steve: “Yes.”

Me: “In summary, you and Tim are preventing me from achieving my one and only goal. You have become a barrier blocking me from achieving my most important goal. As a result, if Tim doesn’t meet with each one of his employees in the next twenty-four hours, I will have no choice but to fire him and to fire you. Are we clear?”

Steve: “Crystal.”

If you liked that you’ll love the book — The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers. You’ll also love this insight from Charlie Munger on bureaucracies.

Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture

BigData

“Which would help you more if your quest was to learn about contemporary human society—unfettered access to a leading university’s department of sociology, packed with experts on how societies function, or unfettered access to Facebook, a company whose goal is to help mediate human social relationships online?”

In 2005, when Erez Aiden Jean-Baptiste Michel were grad students, they spent a lot of time “thinking about the kinds of scopes scientists had access to and the ways in which those scopes made science possible. We became intrigued by what seemed like an off-the-wall idea. For a long time, both of us had been interested in the study of history.”

But how does big data and history combine?

At its core, this big data revolution is about how humans create and preserve a historical record of their activities. Its consequences will transform how we look at ourselves. It will enable the creation of new scopes that make it possible for our society to more effectively probe its own nature. Big data is going to change the humanities, transform the social sciences, and renegotiate the relationship between the world of commerce and the ivory tower.

Fascinated by how human culture changes over time, they ended up writing a book Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture.

Some of these changes are dramatic, but often they are so subtle as to be largely invisible to the unaided brain. Wouldn’t it be great, we thought, if we had something like a microscope to measure human culture, to identify and track all those tiny effects that we would never notice otherwise? Or a telescope that would allow us to do this from a great distance— on other continents, centuries ago? In short, was it possible to create a kind of scope that, instead of observing physical objects, would observe historical change?

[…]

As we were mulling this somewhat esoteric question, a revolution was occurring elsewhere that would sweep us up in its wake and lead millions of people to share our strange fascination. At its core, this big data revolution is about how humans create and preserve a historical record of their activities. Its consequences will transform how we look at ourselves. It will enable the creation of new scopes that make it possible for our society to more effectively probe its own nature.

Ten thousand years ago, shepherds lost track of their sheep much like we lose track of things today. To solve this problem they hit upon the notion of counting.

In retrospect, it might seem surprising that something as mundane as the desire to count sheep was the impetus for an advance as fundamental as written language. But the desire for written records has always accompanied economic activity, since transactions are meaningless unless you can clearly keep track of who owns what. As such, early human writing is dominated by wheeling and dealing: a menagerie of bets, chits, and contracts. Long before we had the writings of the prophets, we had the writings of the profits. In fact , many civilizations never got to the stage of recording and leaving behind the kinds of great literary works that we often associate with the history of culture. What survives these ancient societies is, for the most part, a pile of receipts. If it weren’t for the commercial enterprises that produced those records, we would know far, far less about the cultures that they came from.

Today many commercial enterprises make their living off those records. Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the like keep digital and often personal and permenant records of your activity.

Google will remember every word of that angry e-mail long after we’ve forgotten the name of the person we sent it to. Facebook’s photos will chronicle the details of that night at the bar even if we woke up with a fuzzy brain and a massive hangover. If we write a book, Google scans it; if we take a photo, Flickr stores it; if we make a movie, YouTube streams it.

These digital breadcrumbs provide a lens on human culture. To answer the question posed at the top:

On the one hand, the members of the sociology faculty benefit from brilliant insights culled from many lifetimes dedicated to learning and study. On the other hand, Facebook is part of the day-to-day social lives of a billion people. It knows where they live and work, where they play and with whom, what they like, when they get sick, and what they talk about with their friends. So the answer to our question may very well be Facebook.

Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture chronicles a seven-year quest to quantify cultural change through the lens of Google’s archive of books. This is both big data and long data. The core of the project is to explore how word usage changes over time and hypothesize about what that means to culture.

The Best Books of 2014: Your Overall Favorites

best reads 2014

From how to read books and raise kids to philosophy and finance.




The third annual (2012, 2013) look at your favorite reads featured on Farnam Street. You’re a well-read bunch.

In no particular order:

Fiasco: The Inside Story of a Wall Street Trader

FIASCO is the shocking story of one man’s education in the jungles of Wall Street. As a young derivatives salesman at Morgan Stanley, Frank Partnoy learned to buy and sell billions of dollars worth of securities that were so complex many traders themselves didn’t understand them. In his behind-the-scenes look at the trading floor and the offices of one of the world’s top investment firms, Partnoy recounts the macho attitudes and fiercely competitive ploys of his office mates.

Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In

Since its original publication nearly thirty years ago, Getting to Yes has helped millions of people learn a better way to negotiate. One of the primary business texts of the modern era, it is based on the work of the Harvard Negotiation Project, a group that deals with all levels of negotiation and conflict resolution.

It’s Not All About Me: The Top Ten Techniques for Building Quick Rapport with Anyone

Despite the age-old saying, individuals everywhere still have a hard time realizing that it’s not all about them. Robin Dreeke uses his research and years of work in the field of interpersonal relations and behavior to help readers focus on building relationships with others in “It’s Not All About Me: The Top Ten Techniques for Building Quick Rapport with Anyone”. As the head of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Program within the Counterintelligence Division, Dreeke has used the techniques listed in “It’s Not All About Me” with skilled professionals within the FBI as well as with sales professionals, educators and individuals across the country and world.

Collected Maxims and Other Reflections

Deceptively brief and insidiously easy to read, La Rochefoucauld’s shrewd, unflattering analyses of human behavior have influenced writers, thinkers, and public figures as various as Voltaire, Proust, de Gaulle, Nietzsche, and Conan Doyle.

Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son

A must read.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character

Why do some children succeed while others fail? The story we usually tell about childhood and success is the one about intelligence: success comes to those who score highest on tests, from preschool admissions to SATs. But in How Children Succeed, Paul Tough argues that the qualities that matter more have to do with character: skills like perseverance, curiosity, optimism, and self-control. How Children Succeed introduces us to a new generation of researchers and educators, who, for the first time, are using the tools of science to peel back the mysteries of character.

Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience

This spectacular collection of more than 125 letters offers a never-before-seen glimpse of the events and people of history—the brightest and best, the most notorious, and the endearingly everyday.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised Edition

You’ll learn the six universal principles, how to use them to become a skilled persuader—and how to defend yourself against them. Perfect for people in all walks of life, the principles of Influence will move you toward profound personal change and act as a driving force for your success.

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading

Originally published in 1940, this book is a rare phenomenon, a living classic that introduces and elucidates the various levels of reading and how to achieve them—from elementary reading, through systematic skimming and inspectional reading, to speed reading. Readers will learn when and how to “judge a book by its cover,” and also how to X-ray it, read critically, and extract the author’s message from the text.

Meditations: A New Translation

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (a.d. 121–180) succeeded his adoptive father as emperor of Rome in a.d. 161—and Meditations remains one of the greatest works of spiritual and ethical reflection ever written. With a profound understanding of human behavior, Marcus provides insights, wisdom, and practical guidance on everything from living in the world to coping with adversity to interacting with others. Consequently, the Meditations have become required reading for statesmen and philosophers alike, while generations of ordinary readers have responded to the straightforward intimacy of his style.

Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger, 3rd Edition

Seeking Wisdom is the result of Bevelin’s learning about attaining wisdom. His quest for wisdom originated partly from making mistakes himself and observing those of others but also from the philosophy of super-investor and Berkshire Hathaway Vice Chairman Charles Munger. A man whose simplicity and clarity of thought was unequal to anything Bevelin had seen.

Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight

Confessions of a Sociopath takes readers on a journey into the mind of a sociopath, revealing what makes them tick and what that means for the rest of humanity. Written from the point of view of a diagnosed sociopath, it unveils these men and women who are “hiding in plain sight” for the very first time.