Three hours painting a fence white gives you time to think.
Time to pay attention to details that you would not notice otherwise, like the thickness of the paint, how the quality of the wood affects the final colour, and the most effective way to turn the paintbrush to avoid dripping paint on the grass.
It also created the perfect moment to self-test theories of change while my brain was engaged with a tedious task:
Resistance (why do I need to do this? Shouldn’t I be asking somebody else to do it?)
Emotional tantrum (I’m always volunteering to do DIY jobs that I hate. Why do I keep on doing this?)
Acceptance (This isn’t so bad. I didn’t realise how many birds you can hear singing at this time of the year.)
Meaning and insights (Wow! this slowing down is making me think how little time I invest in paying attention to things that happen around me.)
Presence (the ability to observe what it is in front of me: the paint, the fence, the movement of the arm or the paintbrush.)
Yes, those were three long hours.
Jennifer Roberts teaches art history at Harvard. She loves teaching her students patience as strategy or “temporal intelligence” as she also calls it.
If you were student on her art history course she would ask you to write an intensive research paper based on a single work of art of your choice.
And the first thing you would be asked to do would not be to describe your research question, hypothesis, methodologies, bibliography or sources.
You would be asked instead to put yourself in front of the artwork, preferably in a museum, and spend a painful three hours looking at it.
I know, but I think she has a point, to be honest.
After three hours we all start paying attention.
The whole point of the exercise is that looking is not seeing.
When you look at things without paying close attention you are not creating deep awareness.
Roberts says “Access is not synonymous with learning. What turns access into learning is time and strategic patience.”
Do you use patience as a strategy to deeply observe a situation without judging it? Are you open to the internal dialogue that we establish with objects and people while observing and experiencing them?
I can hear you thinking that this is maybe too philosophical and altogether irrelevant when you have ten thousand things that need to be done.
I’m not arguing with your long to-do list, mostly because I have my own in front of me right now, but I will argue that we spend a ridiculous amount of time getting Google Cloud certified and zero time on training our own mental tools and skills.
Your attention is a skill. Your ability to observe and create insights and resolve problems is a tool. And patience is your strategy.
Newspapers and TV have been reporting on the long queues in London to say goodbye to the Queen. We are told that Britain is in mourning, but it seems that this is not the case. Not entirely, at least.
When we see a queue that stretches more than four miles to see the Queen’s coffin and learn that people are waiting for eleven hours, we might be tempted to think that most of the British population are fervent monarchists with total loyalty to the King.
But Stephen Reachers sees something else.
He is an expert in crowd behaviour. His work is observing crowds, and he tells us that the reasons these people are queuing are mixed and complex. Reducing the motivation for such gatherings to a single reason is a distortion of reality. As he says: “[C]rowd participation, whatever its actual motivation, has been reflected back to us as a collective endorsement of the monarch as head of state and of the Commonwealth (leaving no space in the nation for republicanism or anti-colonialism).”
There are many voices in this long queue.
There is more going on in this crowd that you and I think; people mourning their own family members, people creating a sense of us as a nation, curious people wanting to take part in a historic event, royalists, republicans, people wanting to confront the colonial history of Britain, or people truly mourning the Queen.
But to see all this, you need to stop and listen, as Stephen Reachers and his colleagues have been doing.
Here are some practical steps you can take to train your ability to see, rather than just look:
Allocate time to see and contemplate the problem, challenge, or whatever it is you what to see with fresh eyes, and be fully present.
Make a list of your assumptions and narratives before looking into what you want to see.
When you finish, make a list of factual, objective observations (people are queuing, the paint is white).
Make a list of your insights and what new things you’ve seen.
Try to translate your insights or observations into some form of testing or recollection of what you’ve learned. Find a way to bring your observations and insights alive in a way that you can share them with others and collect some feedback, like Stephen Reachers publishing his article in the Guardian, or me sharing my insights from three hours of fence painting. How is seeing transforming what you’re looking at? How is seeing changing you?