On the Art of Observation

Or, what you can learn from Sherlock, Gandalf, and some Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins.

I am, and always have been, something of an observer, I like to observe things, to watch, to see what conclusions I can come up with, and then compare them with information I may later learn. More often then not, I’m right.

There is a part of me that feels a little like there is something wrong with me, because when I find something, or even someone, interesting, I get genuinely fascinated by them. I have to admit, I am genuinely interested in how it is that people think, work, act, and so forth, and I have always enjoyed the art of observation, and the lessons I’ve learned through it about how it is that people ‘tick’ as they say.

Before I continue on, I should say that something to note, however, is to be aware of assumptions and so forth. For example: It is true that for many people, there can sometimes mistakenly appear to be an obsessiveness here, when all it really is, is observation, the appearance that can be presented is pretty much regarded in popular thought to be romantic things, crushes and so forth, or to be maliciousness; stalkers, perverted folks, etc. These things are better defined as an obsession.

My interest in the art of observation is neither romantic or malicious, it is that I sometimes find people to be particularly fascinating, it is a genuine curiosity about people and how it is that they operate. If it is an obsession it is the obsession of scientist for his study.  Observation seeks to know, obsession seeks to take. There is a vast world of difference between the two. Nevertheless, it is something to keep in mind, as it will not do to creep people out if you can by any means help it.

You could say that people, especially on an individual sense, are my study. I like learning how it is that they interact with the world around them, and in some ways I think it gives me ‘new eyes with which to see the world with’ as it is an art that gets me out of my own head and my own world. You have to climb into the worlds of others, even if all you ever do is observe them. But you will see things differently if you do. I appreciate the empathy and compassion it brings me for those around me, to get out of my own head and consider how things might look from their perspective.

A good example of what good observation is like, is Sherlock. Sherlock has an astonishing ability to observe little details, think about them differently, and come up with a conclusion that others missed.

It is true that I sometimes so accurately predict people based on observations of them that it can seem at times I know them more then they do themselves. They do something, and are all surprised at it, but I was expecting it. I’m often wrong of course, but it is weird, I’m often right as well, and people do exactly what it is that you thought they would.

Here’s the thing, people are people, and will repeat themselves, and will generally act within a very select set of parameters  First, they will act within the confines of humanity’s abilities. Second, they will generally act within the confines of their language. Third, their culture. Forth, their sub-culture(s), Fifth, their beliefs as a whole (for example their religion in general). Sixth, their beliefs as a part of a group, (for example a particular church or denomination), Seventh, their individual beliefs, blindnesses, and prejudices. Eighth, within their perception of their peers, friends, and relatives and the expectations perceived as desirable by these groups. Ninth, their fear. Tenth, their feelings. Eleventh, their intellect. These all narrow it down significantly enough that you can make a fairly good guess about what it is that someone is going to do. Yes, I am just scratching the surface of the complexity of the human psychology  but the point is, people are far more predictable then they might realize. This doesn’t even take into account habits, rituals, and the like. It is purely deductive reasoning, and is highly useful, and presents a fascinating ability to know people better then they believe themselves to be known. Hense, caution must always be taken on my part not to creep people out by spilling out all their, in their minds, most deeply guarded, but completely obvious to an observer, secrets.

People believe that they are known only by how they make themselves known. In other words, if they hadn’t told you about something, usually in words, then it remains unknown. This isn’t true, this is almost completely untrue actually. The reality is, an observer can pick up on the slightest clues, just by watching you for a little bit, and then applying human nature to it, come up with a fairly close idea of what it is you are up to. There really are very few things you can actually keep a secret, if any attention is at all paid to you.

As an observer you can use to your advantage the tendency of most to think primarily of themselves. It gives you a fairly good notion about what is most likely on a persons mind at the moment. Probably something that centers around themselves in some fashion. Usually this can be confirmed by how they speak, you’ll know in seconds how this person’s thought processes go once they speak, then you’ll have a fairly well versed idea of what this person thinks about almost any given topic.

Remember though, these are guesses alone. Still, people reveal a lot of information about their thinking, a lot more then is intended. A single sentence can reveal vast areas of your personality, what and how you think, what your strengths and weaknesses are, your prejudices, and so forth. Sometimes even a single word.

Then there is body language, as they say. People speak a lot of what they are feeling and thinking, a lot of times, not even intending to, just by how it is that they are carrying themselves.

If you know how to observe these things, it can seem as though you know a person, but remember, observation is observation alone, you can’t really know a person on observation alone, but only by empathy, and by putting yourself in their shoes, do you even begin to understand what it is that they truly are. You have to be involved with people, personally, in order to know them. You have to offer yourself, your time, and so forth. It takes effort, and understanding, a forgiving heart, a tolerant mind, and the ability to forgo all these preconceived notions we just spoke of in the face of new information, something we didn’t learn before, or something revealed that changes our expectations. Once we realize that our expectations and preconceived notions of a person are all based on our own desires, thoughts, and such, we have to choose whether or not we care about the person even if they don’t match what we think they are supposed to be. Are we willing to accept people as being an individual person apart from our expectations of them?

Now, this doesn’t mean we do not offer council, help, and interveine as required, which is why I cannot ask if we are willing to accept people as they are. I understand what is meant by that, but sometimes accepting people as they are is wrong. What do I mean? Sometimes how a person is, is well, it’s kind of like asking a doctor to not give a patient help because the person should be accepted as they are. To not seek to help those who are destroying their own bodies through destructive habits and so forth, is it right or wrong to not try to help them or to help them? I believe sometimes, it is required to interviene for a person’s greater good, rather then present comfort. Not an easy thing to do and it is an exceedingly fine line between genuine concern for a person’s welfare and just getting involved in something that is none of your business. If the first, you may cautiously proceed, being careful to not force them, manipulate them, and so forth. If the second, you are better off leaving them alone and minding your own business.

It is an exceedingly complicated matter and their are no cookie-cutter solutions to it. You really do have to take people on a individual basis. You have to personally invest, sometimes sacrificially, with no thought of return, on a personal level with them. You have to make yourself vulnerable.

We humans will do anything to keep ourselves from having to do that!

As you observe you learn the most fascinating things about humanity: For example, two people who are otherwise fairly similar may be exceedingly different, almost on the order of being different species, but a quick glance will lead you to believe that they are nearly identical in thoughts, beliefs, actions, and so forth. A lot of stereotypes are formed because we never take a closer look at someone, but just let the quick glances be our guide to our entire perception of what it is that a person is, and reenforced when we hold to it, even if new information is presented to us that says we’re wrong. We’d rather be bigoted then right in most cases.

People are nearly always so much more then what they appear to be. They will always surprise you. Always assume you are wrong about people, especially if the belief about the person is a negative one, and always consider that perhaps there is a great deal more about them then anyone realizes, including themselves.

It’s what Gandalf saw in Bilbo Baggins, and even Bilbo didn’t know these things about himself. So, be Gandalf, and be compassionate, but yes, be Sherlock as well. Observe your fellow people, you might learn some interesting and beautiful things about them, and you might just set them off on an adventure of their own as they discover it about themselves.