When Mark Miodownik was a young man in 1985, he was stabbed with a razor by a mugger in the London tube. As he later filled out paperwork at the police station, he couldn't help staring at the razor blade on the policeman's desk, and couldn't help noticing that it was made out of the same material as the staple on the form he was signing. When he went home and ate dinner, he couldn't help noticing that the spoon in his mouth was made from the same stuff as well.
He asked, "Why?" Why can this stuff be so dangerous and yet benign? Why doesn't it taste like anything? And why doesn't the average person know anything about where it comes from?
Thus starts Miodownik's excellent new book, Stuff Matters: Exploring The Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World. Miodownik's ability to obsess over tiny details, like the composition of the razor blade that cut him, led him to become a renowned materials scientist and develop things like new jet engine alloys.
He is what literary great Saul Bellow (and a host of psychologists and pundits after him) called a "first-class noticer." Someone with a Holmesian ability to consciously observe details that others let pass by. And though it's cliché to point out that "details often make the difference," in a business climate as hypercompetitive as 2014's, it doesn't hurt to remind ourselves how easy it is to underinvest in the small, but crucial.
DFW put it well when he said, "The most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude—but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance."
When experts talk about first-class noticing, they're talking about learning by observation, rather than instruction. As I write about in Smartcuts, and mention inthis recent post about Ben Franklin's neurotic method for improving his writing, first-class noticers have historically experienced huge acceleration in skill mastery and industry conquest.
As I've been studying people who study details, I have found that great noticers are often systematic about making everyday observations more profitable. Here are a few ways they do it:
Expand Your Focus
One of the most interesting interviews I've conducted in the last year was with a man named James Tanabe. When you hear Tanabe's list of skills, he sounds like a savant: business, badminton, guitar, theater, gymnastics, comedy writing, flute, etc. But his simple secret is he learns quickly; he's really good at shining his mental spotlight on nonobvious things that help his training.
For example, when Tanabe was training to become a circus performer, he would spend hours practicing one-armed hand balancing. This skill, he explained to me, normally takes about a year to master (to be able to balance for long periods without struggle). While his classmates repeated their hand balancing exercises over and over, James paid attention to what the expert balancers did:
“I would notice that the people who really excelled tended to have an extremely calm disposition and almost seem to be somewhere else,” Tanabe said. “It was a meditative state, whereas the people who never really seemed to progress always had this kind of anxious energy, and they were treating it like it was strength. Therein was the key!"
While novice students struggled to fight gravity, Tanabe observed the tiny differences between them and those who’d mastered the skill. “Learning a one-armed handstand [has] nothing to do with supporting your weight or balancing on your hand,” he concluded. “It is about finding body alignment and breathing.”
Tanabe imitated these experts, and ended up mastering his hand balancing in less than half the time of his peers. The difference was that he expanded his focus beyond just the obvious, muscular skill of the activity; he studied and noticed the tiny details that master hand balancers did outside of the main activity. He observed how they lived and breathed, not just how they balanced.
Question The Incongruent
Max Bazerman, in his book The Power of Noticing, points out that we humans are very good at ignoring important details that would make our lives inconvenient. Often this is more than rebellious teenager syndrome; it's subconscious.
"Madoff would have been caught many years earlier if those who should have noticed had acted on what they saw," Bazerman points out in a recent interview withFortune. "But, too often, people do not see information that would cause short-term negative effects."
We're hard-wired to be credulous. That's why stories are so powerful, but it's alsowhy skepticism is so important. The simple habit that can prevent us from being duped by Ponzi schemes and our own subconscious biases? Asking more (and better) questions—especially about new or incongruent information.
In his book, Bazerman tells the story of the time he and his wife and friends arrived at the Manchester airport and planned to take a taxi to the train station, and the train to London. He noticed a group of taxi drivers at the airport huddled together conversing. When Bazerman approached, a cabbie informed him that the trains were on strike, and offered to drive them all the way to London for 300 pounds.
Bazerman's companions prepared to accept the financial hit. But Bazerman was suspicious, so he ran back into the airport and asked the information booth if there was indeed a train strike. There was not. The cabbies were running a scam. That simple question saved Bazerman's group a lot of money.
The positive side of this coin is that those who notice the counter-intuitive are often able to seize advantage. Malcolm Gladwell has made a career and fortune out of noticing the counter-intuitive, asking "why?" and writing about it. Entrepreneurs in every industry and era have noticed peculiarities and incongruencies in markets and built businesses because they asked the questions that others didn't bother to follow up on.
Notice What's Not There
In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Silver Blaze, detective Sherlock Holmes unravels the mystery of a horse-race sabotage and murder plot by noticing what other investigators did not: what didn't happen. The dead man, a horse trainer named John Straker, was found dead with a head wound in the stables, holding a bookie's cravat, near the location of some recently injured sheep.
Holmes noticed that nobody had heard the stable dog bark the night of the murder—when allegedly the bookie had snuck in and murdered the man. Holmes determined from this that the dog must have known the late-night visitor well, which led him to discover that Straker had snuck in to sabotage a horse that was due to race, and had been practicing by cutting sheep.
In our work, simply asking the question, "What's missing?" can help us focus our searchlights on crucial information. Noticing that the woods are quiet, or that someone who should be upset is not, etc., is a useful habit.
Catalogue The Details
As I blogged last week about Ben Franklin, the painstaking deconstruction and reconstruction of master craftspeople's work can help us accelerate our learning. Indeed, it seems that the act of not just observing, but writing down all observations big and small, often leads to "aha" moments and the mastery of difference-making details.
I've become known among some of my friends for my "neurotic spreadsheets." When I'm working on a problem, or improving a skill, or writing a story, I've made a habit of dumping qualitative observations of experts' work into Excel columns and sifting and ranking them. This process of forced categorization helps me get beyond the obvious and pay attention to the little things that I might otherwise overlook. I've used it to write better speeches, analyze book marketing campaigns, and so on.
For example: The other day, when I was concerned about some weird faces I'd made in the photo line at a recent event, I made a neurotic spreadsheet of people who seemed to always look great in photos, and catalogued how they posed in their pictures, from eyebrows to head tilt to what they do with the corners of their mouths as they're photographed umpteen times. (For the record, Ian Somerhalder has thisdown.)
It's a frivolous example, but as much as nobody likes an accidental snaggletooth in a photo—or a razor wound in the back—I'm convinced that it's the habit that matters more than anything. Noticing the little things in life can help us conquer the big ones.
Shane Snow is a journalist and entrepreneur, and the author of Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success. If you enjoyed this post, join his free newsletter.