'The Art of Noticing' Is a Guidebook to Seeing the World With Fresh Eyes

child palying

Hugues de BUYER-MIMEURE / Unsplash / Public Domain

These 131 exercises will teach you to block distractions and deepen your focus.

My brand-new copy of Rob Walker's book, The Art of Noticing, is already heavily dogeared and I've only had it for a month. While reading it, I couldn't help marking the places I want to come back to, and there are so many of those that the bottom half of the book is tangibly thicker than the top, thanks to all the folded edges.

Walker sent me The Art of Noticing to read in full after I wrote about his tips for sharpening one's noticing skills while traveling. The book is unlike any other I've read. It's a delightful guide to seeing the world differently, to training oneself to notice the curious little things about ordinary life. It contains 131 exercises designed, as the subtitle says, to "spark creativity, find inspiration, and discover joy in the everyday." And we certainly need more of that these days, considering how chronically distracted and glued to our smartphone screens we are.

Walker, who teaches an annual graduate class at New York's School of Visual Arts, has always made a point of asking his students to "practice paying attention." This is a vital skill for any designer. He writes in the introduction,

"Cultivating the ability to attend to what others overlook, experiencing 'enchanting reality' as a new and fortuitous gift is crucial to any creative process. And when I say 'creative process,' I mean it as an idea that applies to a broad range of professions and pursuits. The scientist, the entrepreneur, the photographer, the coach: Each relies on the ability to notice that which previously seemed invisible to everybody else."

So he offers the exercises in an attempt to deepen our focus, to teach us how to be present and to consciously direct our attention. While reading, I found some of the exercises to be delightful and heartwarming, while others made me squirm with discomfort. "I could never do that!" occurred to me on a number of occasions, although after having a chance to digest the ideas, I'm now wondering if maybe I could.

These are a few of the exercises that made the biggest impression on me. For context, the exercises are divided into five categories: looking, sensing, going places, connecting with others, and being alone.

1. Observe a week of digital silence. By all means, check your social media feeds, but do not contribute. See how it affects your urge to communicate. Walker writes, "What would we se if Facebook or Twitter or Instagram enforced limits – if we were allowed only three updates a month, let's say. Or what if we could instant message just two people per week?"

2. Look for ghosts and ruins. These are the "faded records of the past still apparent on the landscape." It could be a majestic old building, or it could be a dilapidated phone booth, defunct gas station, or abandoned bicycle. Are they there because they're historically significant or because of neglect? These clues reveal a lot about a place.

3. Randomize your movements. Stop taking the same route to work, following the same routine, participating in the same activities. Shake it up by adding chance to your decision-making process, whether it's picking a restaurant or deciding which way to turn. Another exercise suggests carrying a compass while walking and occasionally stopping to look north to "introduce a degree of randomness" into one's view.

4. Let a stranger lead you. Mildly creepy but fascinating, this exercise suggests following a stranger for a few hours (if possible) in order to go places you wouldn't normally. It's a "genuine adventure in seeing the new and unexpected."

5. Construct a collective biography. Get a group of people together and try to come up with a collection of autobiographical statements that are true for the entire group. Walker suggests, "Throw out questions: Are we all from America? Do we all like flannel?"

This is just a tiny taste of what The Art of Noticing offers. I urge you to get a copy of the book and allow it to challenge and enrich your worldview, too.