Eyes Wide Shut: perception and change

You cannot consciously change what you do not consciously notice.

Of course, we unconsciously change things all the time. We fail to notice the bin as we back the car out and change the shape of our bumper bar and the mood of the day. The boss is consistently late or didactic and pretty soon that defines the culture of the company. Governments choose to ignore the fact that paper theory and reality don’t match, and we get the GFC.

But to create the result we want – on purpose – we must start with observation.  With noticing.

Drawing is fundamentally an act of change or transformation.  In most cases, we are taking something out of one context and recreating it in another.  We change a 3D object into a 2D image, an imagined concept or perspective into a tangible representation, etc.  The reason most people are convinced they cannot draw (and often, by misplaced corollary, are not creative), is that what they draw bears little resemblance to either the subject they are drawing or to the outcome they are expecting.  Fair enough.  But the reason for this is not lack of capability so much as lack of attention.  Noticing what is really in front of them rather than what they assume or ‘know’ or expect to be there.

And ironically, the more familiar and less complex the ‘subject’, the more we take our knowledge for granted, the less energy we have to spend paying attention to it and the more likely it is that we’ll make mistakes and get a crummy result. (Ask any marriage councillor…)

So when drawing something as simple and familiar as a cup, we unconsciously access our mental ‘cup’ file, and instantly know that it is 3 dimensional, useful for holding liquids, sealed at the bottom, open at the top, circular around the rim, often straight on the sides, and sits flat on a flat surface.  No problemmo.  Until that’s what we draw.

A drawing is not a 3 dimensional thing. So to successfully change a 3 dimensional object into a 2 dimensional drawing requires that we change our understanding of what a cup is.  That we get curious about what makes a cup a cup in a new context and pay attention to the things that will make it cup-like in a flat world. That we notice.

And when we pay attention in this way, we notice that even though we know the rim is a circle, what we actually see is an ellipse.  And that even though we know it is sitting flat on the surface, the base is actually a curve. And that just by making these two adjustments, we get a far more successful result.

So what are you wanting to change? To improve? To create?

  • Organisational culture?  Notice how things are really ‘done around here’, and why.
  • An innovation?  Notice where a similar process or pattern happens in a different context (the Sydney Opera House sails were based on the way an orange peels, and the brassiere on a cantilevered bridge).  Or notice where people are using work-arounds and short-cuts and design something that doesn’t need them.
  • A strategic plan? Notice where you are really starting from – instead assuming you are where you were yesterday, or wish you were or think you should be.
  • Your career?  Notice what you do effortlessly (as distinct from what you are good at), and notice what people come to you for.
  • Your relationship?  Notice…everything.

All the evidence is there. The resources you need already exist.

Pay attention.  Observe.  Notice.  Then use what you see to create what you want to create.


  • I like your starting point Mo -- noticing. But I immediately run into a difficulty. You make it sound as if one 'just does it' (that is, notice). Perhaps I'm wrong about that. My sense, however, is that our mindsets many times block our noticing, or at least block letting what we receive into one of our senses work its way to our conscious mind. And there isn't any particularly easy way to unblock the pathway from our unconscious reception (noticing) to our conscious awareness. That's why we read poets and hire architects and designers, in the hope that they will help us grow new pathways for noticing. I know you are a wonderful designer Mo. I'd like to hear how you help people open up their unconscious to conscious pathways.
  • Nice observation Jim! Thank you. I agree that it's hard to shift the perceptual filters and that often the most efficient way of doing this is to get someone else to show you how they see something. That's why we have teachers & mentors & artists. But you can make huge strides just by slowing down and getting curious and paying attention. Shutting off our autopilot (see Perception Is The Root of All Error post). Learning to see is an act of choice & will & attention. It is about shutting down your inner voices and being open to what is there, then observing it without judgement but with discernment. So much of it is about being aware of how much you are not seeing, and then looking to see what you are missing. Drawing teaches this in a way that bypasses the analytical mind, which is why I use it. And it fascinates me that the exercise people struggle most with is drawing something familiar and complex (the lines on your palm, the fur on a stuffed toy, a crumpled ball of paper) at a very slllooooooowww pace, mm by mm. When the purpose is not to finish or make a picture but to explore it for its own sake, & to take 5 or 10 minutes to NOT finish. They almost invariably whiz through it and are done and bored in a minute or so, having explored - & noticed - nothing. Such busy, efficient minds we have... Forcing ourselves to slow & set aside expectations and be open & curious is hard. It is a learned and often counter-intuitive skill. The thing is, when they crack this exercise and then go to draw something with this new 'noticing' skill, the improvement in the results they get is exponential. Truly transformational. It is probably the single most important thing in enabling them to shift from 'knowing' they can't draw to proving they can in a few short hours. So the first step is awareness of how much you can't see. How you then choose to open your eyes is up to you.

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