What do you see when you look?

Updated: May 20

Making the Invisible - Visible:

In her book "On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes," Alexandria Horowitz has masterfully presented us with a deep understanding of the value of a walk around the block.  She has opened our eyes to the “water” that David Foster Wallace introduced us to in his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College.  In his speech Wallace tells the story of two young fish swimming along a stream and they meet an old fish swimming in the opposite direction. The old fish says “morning boys, how’s the water?”  The two young fish proceed upstream when one fish says to the other young fish “what the hell is water?” When I first read this story it felt like a wake up call.  What water have I been swimming in without knowing it?  Horowitz produced the same realization, what have I been walking by without knowing it?

Horowitz telling of what eleven different people see as they walk around the same block highlights that we all walk along without realizing what we are missing.  And, as she so clearly shares, we really cannot see what others can see.  We have a saying at Vistage about how diverse views help make the invisible visible.

With this book On Looking, Horowitz came to the realization that she does not know what other people see.  Most of us are not as aware of this simple truth. This is what I love about the journey she takes us on in a walk around her New York City block.

By recruiting eleven diverse people with eleven different eyes, ears, noses and intellects, she teaches us that there are hidden elements that we are swimming through every day. Even after reading her book four years ago and thinking I really see the world differently, it is often apparent to me that I still most often just swim through the water.

Of course, one thing that has become clear to me in the last fours years is that no two people actually do see the same thing. That is the core reason my Vistage members are able to help each other see differently.  This beautiful book is an easy read with remarkable stories of how a city block can be seen in new ways.  My guess is that after reading it you will start seeing things you did not see before in your every day scenes. Even scenes in your workplace.

Another dimension I discovered when taking one more look before publishing my review; Horowitz includes 27 pages of sources. I'm not sure what that says to you; but, it says to me that she understands "deep work."  That lesson may have come to me late in my life, yet it still offers inspiration to always go deeper. 

Yeah, I realize that this cannot be applied to every corner of my life, yet it does say to me that what is most important requires deep work to produce the most valuable outcome.  In no small  measure Horowitz has delivered a visual lesson around a city block that demonstrates the value of diversity of view to help us go deep. 


We who are DIY people need to learn from that lesson.  I hope I do; I fear that I won't.  Which reminds me of a Daily Motivation quote from Hecato, a greek philosopher now saved on my phone's home screen:  "Cease to hope and you cease to fear." 


This book review comes with a request.  If you read the book, please send me a note and let me know how it impacts your walk around your block, or your town, or your countryside, or even your workplace.  I would love to know what you see!


Here is another review from Booklist that I really like:

It is charming to take a walk with Horowitz. Engaging, amusing, and relatable, the psychology professor guides readers through 11 urban walks in the company of various experts. Beyond simply looking, this is about what makes up the world around us and the foundations of human perception. Horowitz brings the same attention to the human brain as she brought to our canine companions in Inside of a Dog (2010). She makes cognitive functioning eminently understandable by unraveling the role expectation plays in limiting what we see. The experts she walks with, from scientists to a toddler and a dog, reveal the underpinnings of a wide range of urban phenomena, such as the uncanny ability of rats to avoid traps. The descriptions of the walks are detailed but not overlong, with just enough information to give a taste of a geologist’s or typographer’s expertise. Even when relying only on your own inexpert eyes, you will look at the world with more attention after reading these fascinating essays, though it’s likely you still won’t be able to find millennia-old worm tracks or recognize the fish-like behavior of pedestrians. --Bridget Thoreson



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