Missing the Obvious

radar gunDriving home today, I passed a traffic cop standing at the entrance to a strip mall parking lot with a radar gun in his hand. It was the usual rush hour crawl on Toronto’s busy Yonge Street, and no one was traveling anywhere near the speed limit, so he looked rather forlorn. But right beside him was a lane of traffic called a ‘diamond lane’, which during rush hour can only be used legally by public transit vehicles and cars with at least two passengers plus the driver. This lane of traffic was traveling about half the speed limit, but (because it had fewer vehicles) much faster than the two left lanes. What was amazing was that nearly all the cars in this lane clearly had no passengers at all. When the light turned red, there was a whole line of illegal users of the ‘diamond lanes’ sitting right in front of the cop. But while the drivers were grimacing at the sight of the cop, the cop was focused on finding (non-existent) speeders, and was utterly blind to the stream of lawbreakers sitting right in front of him, each needlessly dreading being waved into the parking lot and ticketed. The passenger-less driver who was stuck beside me looked over at me as the light turned green again, shrugged guiltily, and drove off.

How often does this happen  — that we’re so focused on looking at (or for) one thing we miss something else, something outrageous, obvious, important, right under our noses?

If you missed my link to the famous Daniel Simons ‘basketball’ illustration of this phenomenon, go look at it now.

I write a lot about the importance of learning to pay attention, to really see. But sometimes we can be just too focused, to the point incredible opportunities are missed.

There’s a related phenomenon, one that comes not from focusing too intently but from not knowing what to look for, or not knowing how to ‘make sense’ of what we are seeing. An example: On at least a half-dozen occasions, with different people, friends I’ve been visiting have complained about their dog’s ‘annoying habit’ of running right in front of them when they’re walking and getting underfoot, or cornering the cat, or nipping ankles, or chasing cars. They tell me they’ve done everything to try to ‘correct’ this behaviour, and are convinced their dog is either stupid or doing it deliberately to annoy them. To me it’s obvious: What we’re witnessing is the dog’s inherent herding behaviour. The poor dog is trying to herd his or her people, to get them together where s/he can keep an eye on them. Likewise the poor cat is a substitute lamb, and the car a substitute steer. If these owners could witness their dog’s response to a small group of sheep, they would immediately say Aha! and understand what they’d been witnessing. They just didn’t know what they were seeing.

The consequences of missing the obvious are profound: Having the perfect career opportunity pass you by. Not noticing the potential love of your life looking with interest your way. Neglecting to consider the innovation that could solve a huge and intractable problem, when it was right in front of you. Ignoring the self-evident (but alas, only to others) opportunity for Let-Self-Change that could make you incredibly happy, or incredibly useful to society.

The most frightening thing about missing the obvious is that, unless someone else catches it and tells us, we’ll probably never know what we missed.

What can we do to prevent, or at least minimize the chance of this happening to us? How can we learn to pay attention without losing track of the forest for the trees? How can we better prepare ourselves to know what to look for, and to make good sense of what we’re seeing? Is this what friends are for?

How often have you slapped yourself for overlooking something so obvious you’re astounded you didn’t see it, or think of it? Do you have any good stories about people (feel free to change the names to protect the guilty) missing the obvious? (And if there’s a chance we’ll miss the story’s message, even if it’s obviousto you, don’t forget to tell us what it is!)

Category: Being Human
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5 Responses to Missing the Obvious

  1. Bharat says:

    Hi Dave, This post, and the post last week about “Thinking without language” both address a similar concept — How to be aware completely and “without conditioning” as J.Krishnamurti (JK) puts it. We all “see” through lens of past conditioning and memories. How to be completely aware of the present moment ? To me, this is what “meditation” is all about. It’s completely “being” in the present moment. It seems to us that we need to “analyze” every moment to take decisions. But, wise yogis of the east, say that it’s not the case. By being completely in the present moment (wihtout “analysis”), our actions can be spontaneous and perfect for the situation.

  2. Bharat says:

    I just want to share a beautiful quote regarding this:

  3. Mariella says:

    An Hermetic Axiom says : “The lips of the master stay closed until the ears of the pupil able to understand arrive.” to me, this axiom speaks about “being able to make sense”, and the finding of unexpected but obvious is related to what we call now serendipity. The “everything” that exists, is always there…. I guess that the recipe is something like atention + intention + freedom from certainty (openness to change, flexibility) + the correct moment. Our perception, limited by our physical brain capacities, extract us from the “everything” and give us a sense (or ilusion) of being separated from the rest… maybe that is “Maya´s Veil”. ¿What is the role of ilusion in our making sense need? ¿Did you know that every time we make sense, understand something, our brain rewards us with an opium related hormone that make us feel fine…. like a brain orgasm…? a very inteligent nature´s trick to make us produce more and new thoughts …. just as we produce more and new human beings… (I will look for the link and post it later)….

  4. dataguy says:

    The “basketball” video is getting to be a little too well known to be useful. Anyone know of a less famous video that teaches a similar lesson??

  5. Perhaps we see exactly what we’re supposed to, and it leads us to exactly where we need to be, whether it feels that way or not.

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