Quick, name the president who’s on the dime. Or think about the letters and numbers on your license plate. Were you stumped for a moment? That’s the strange thing about our powers of observation: we can look at something a thousand times, and never really notice it.
Our struggle to notice what’s around us is even worse in our Smartphone Age, where we often have tunnel vision that limits itself to a little handheld screen.
My guest today wrote a book that aims to help us recapture the keen use of our senses. His name is Rob Walker, he’s the author of The Art of Noticing, and he argues that tuning into things normally overlooked not only provides fodder for art and business, but can make life seem more vibrant and engaging. Rob and I begin our conversation discussing what it means to notice and the benefits that come from noticing. We then spend the rest of the conversation walking through several exercises you can start doing today to strengthen your noticing muscles, including creating observational scavenger hunts and collections. Rob also suggests several ways to notice overlooked things at museums and why looking at the world like there’s a dramatic heist about to go down causes you to notice more in your environment.
- What are the benefits of noticing things that are oft overlooked?
- The empowering nature of being in control of your attention
- Creating scavenger hunts for yourself
- Why you should start an (unconventional) collection
- What does it mean to look slowly?
- Taking inspiration from kids on the art of noticing
- Making the most of your visit to a museum
- Why you should draw what you see at an art museum rather than take a picture of it
- Imagining a heist scenario in every environment
- Noticing what people are doing on their phone
- How to find things you aren’t looking for
- Noticing with our other senses
- The power of solitude
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- The Complete Guide to Breaking Your Smartphone Habit
- 11 Exercises That Will Strengthen Your Attention
- How to Effectively Manage Your Attention
- Becoming a Digital Minimalist
- How to Achieve Hyperfocus
- 5 Concrete Ways to Develop a Healthier Relationship With Your Phone
- The Joy of Missing Out
- Deep Work
- How to Start a Collection
- Getting the Most of a Visit to the Museum
- How to Develop the Situational Awareness of Jason Bourne
- My interview with Patrick Van Horne (author of Left of Bang)
- Found magazine
- John Cage’s 4’33”
- AoM articles on solitude
Connect With Rob
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Recorded on ClearCast.io
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Quick, name the president who’s on the dime, or think about the letters and numbers on your license plate. Were you stumped for a moment? That’s the strange thing about the powers of observation. We can look at something 1,000 times and never really notice it. Our struggling to notice what’s around us is even worse than our smartphone age where we often have tunnel vision that limits itself to a little handheld screen.
My guest today wrote a book that aims to help us recapture the keen use of our senses. His name is Rob Walker and he’s the author of The Art of Noticing. And he argues that tuning into things normally overlooked not only provides fodder for art and business, but can make life seem more vibrant and engaging. Rob and I begin our conversation discussing what it means to notice and the benefits that come from noticing. We then spend the rest of the conversation walking through several exercises you can start doing today to strengthen your noticing muscles. Including creating observational scavenger hunts and collections. Rob also suggests several ways to notice overlooked things at museums, and by looking at the world like there’s a dramatic heist about to go down causes you to notice more in your environment. Lots of great insights in the show. After it’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/noticing. Rob joins me now via clearcast.io. Rob Walker. Welcome to the show.
Rob Walker: Thanks so much for having me, Brett.
Brett McKay: So you just published a book called The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy in the Everyday. So what got you noticing, noticing?
Rob Walker: Well I guess a couple of things. One of which is going to be pretty obvious. I probably don’t have to spend a lot of time discussing the idea that we’re living in this information shoving economy of ideas where everyone’s trying to get your attention. We’re at a time of distraction, and it’s partly down to our phones and stuff like that. But it’s also just the nature of society now. Everybody wants your attention all day long, and it’s hard to focus and to zone in on the things that you want to zone in on instead of other things. So I felt that frustration too like a lot of people do, I think.
But then related to that, I teach a class, a short class once a year at the School of Visual Arts, a design class. And one of my big themes is getting students to pay attention to things that other people have overlooked. I think it’s an important part of the design process, but of many processes, right? That’s the beginning of innovation and progress or whatever is noticing what others have overlooked. And what I had noticed in students is that they often felt because of this attention economy that we’re in right now, they would sometimes feel that if they were interested in something, but no one else seemed, it wasn’t trending, it wasn’t hot, it wasn’t topic of discussion that maybe it wasn’t important. And I thought that’s a disastrous outcome. You can’t go through life just paying attention to what everyone else pays attention to.
So I thought about this as a subject of a book, and what happened was for a long time the idea was going to be a book that would spend a lot of time explaining the problem and then have this section at the back with here are some things you can do in your life, add to your life to try to get your attention back, try to get your focus back. And I gradually finally realized that I was not really interested in explaining the problem because everybody already knew it. I was just interested in the tips. So the tips ended up taking over the book. So now it’s a short introduction saying here’s the problem. And then as you said, there’s 131 … my publisher doesn’t let me call them assignments, but they’re prompts, or exercises, or games, or provocations to get you, things you can add to your life and add to your daily practice that will get you back to controlling your own attention at least from time to time. Just devoting a bit of your day or your week to these things and making them fun, and getting some control back.
Brett McKay: Okay, but we won’t talk about the problems. Everyone knows there’s a problem. But let’s talk about the benefits that come whenever you experience that focus and that attention, or when you notice things that people overlook. What are the opportunities there? And how does noticing things that will get overlooked make us feel more human?
Rob Walker: Right. So there’s a range of answers to that. And different kinds of people respond to the two different ways of approaching this. So on a very practical, I think level, there’s a lot of artists in the book because artists are really good at noticing things and at drawing our attention to stuff that we had missed. But it’s also, if you think about it, that’s what an entrepreneur does, and that’s what an inventor does. And that’s what a good manager does, is notice things that other people overlooked. And whether that’s a problem that needs to be solved or whether that’s something great that’s overlooked that needs to be celebrated, or whether it’s something puzzling that needs to be explained.
And I mentioned design earlier, that’s what a designer does. I remember meeting in the course of my work as a journalist interviewing Jony Ive years and years ago, the Apple guy. And the way he critique, this was so long ago that I was using an analog tape recorder. And his comments about the way that that object was designed, it was this guy just sees the world in a different way. He picks up on details that the rest of us miss. So there are these really practical reasons to work on these skills to build the attention muscles.
But then at the other end of the spectrum, I think just as important is this softer side of it, of just maintaining focus and maintaining a control over your own engagement with the world. Being present. Sounds a little meditation, mindfulness stuff. It kind of is. And there’s a reason that that mindfulness idea is so popular right now at the same time that we’re trying to fend off all of these distractions. Is that it’s a way of reconnecting with yourself, of being really present with other people. Just very, very practical day to day stuff that I feel like we all, whether you’re a manager or whether you’re a parent, sometimes we just need to be able to pull back, disconnect from other people’s attempts to control our attention. And pay attention to what matters to us and identify what matters to us so that we’re paying attention to the right things.
Brett McKay: And that feels good when you identify and you actually pay attention to the things you want to pay attention to. It just feels good. Or whenever you get that insight you figure it out on your own without having to go to the internet to figure out. It’s empowering. It just feels awesome.
Rob Walker: Yeah, I think so. And it’s obvious in some of the big ways, but then there are at least small victories that you can have along this of just, I mean the most workaday things like just when you’re walking the dog, right? I see people walking the dog and checking their phone, and it’s why are you doing, you don’t need to know what’s trending on Twitter right now. Be present in the world that you and your dog are occupying. And maybe you’ll notice I don’t know, pay attention. I like to try to figure out what my dog is paying attention to. And he’ll make me notice things like there’s a bird over there that I wasn’t tuned into. And it just makes you feel like I’m here, I’m not somewhere else. I’m actually here.
Brett McKay: So let’s walk through some of these prompts you talk about in the book because as you said, I think a lot of people, this muscle of noticing is atrophied because we’ve had these external sources tell us what to pay attention to. So it’s helpful to have a prompt to guide this as we strengthen that noticing muscle. The first one you talk about is creating scavenger hunts for yourself. What does that look and how do you decide what to look for?
Rob Walker: Yeah, this was my, it’s the first exercise in the book because it was the gateway drug for me personally to think about this. The example that I share in the book is that I was making a business trip to San Francisco, a city I’ve been to a number of times. Beautiful city. But I’d been there enough times that I don’t want to say I was over it, but I was past that crush phase that you have in a city that’s that beautiful.
And I was going to be really busy. I was going to be running around. I did not have time to do any proper sightseeing. So I wanted to get myself on assignment of something to look for everywhere I went. And my only criteria, and this is important is that it had to be something that nobody else particularly wanted me to look at. You know what I mean? It wasn’t like, I wasn’t responding to somebody else’s prompt. It was my prompt.
So the thing I chose was security cameras, which was a little bit arbitrary. I wasn’t working on a project related to that or anything. I just, oh yeah security cameras. And everywhere I went, it really was an eye opener to see how pervasive they are and to see how they’re treated differently. There are some that are flashy like they want to be noticed. And then there are some that are stealthily hidden that don’t want to be noticed. But it also shifts your gaze when you’re looking for something specific that. So you’re just looking around in a different way and you’re looking past the street advertisements and the people trying to get your attention. And it was so much fun and I did end up writing about this later. But it was so much fun that I still to this day, I look at security cameras everywhere I go. But at the end of that trip, I got to the airport and called my wife to say, “Hey, plane’s on time,” whatever. And she knew I was doing this and that I was taking pictures. And I said, “Hey, you would not believe the security cameras situation at the airport. It’s bananas.” And she said, “Rob, just please do me a favor and don’t walk all around the airport taking pictures of all the security cameras.” It was good advice.
Brett McKay: Right. No, I’ve done the security camera. I’ve done that too. I’ll go into a store and just see how many security cameras I can find. Which is fun. Another one, you suggest looking for abandoned payphones, which I’ve done as well. And those are harder and harder to find.
Rob Walker: Well I think that that, here’s the interesting thing about that is that if they’re hard to, it tells you something about the neighborhood you’re in in some ways. If there are a lot of abandoned payphones around. Another one I like to look for is no loitering signs. That’s another tell is there are certain neighborhoods where there will be a lot of no loitering signs and there are some neighborhoods where there won’t be any. And I to look for, in the past I’ve looked for neighborhood watch signs. The neighborhood watch with the shady criminal guy.
Brett McKay: Side-eye.
Rob Walker: When we lived in Savannah, Georgia, Savannah, Georgia. I used to particularly, I got obsessed with ones that had been graffitied in some way. Because I just thought it was funny that if your neighborhood watch sign has been defaced, maybe you have a problem.
Brett McKay: You don’t have a neighborhood watch. So you started the security camera thing without any goal in mind, but you said it later on it paid off because it gave you a story idea.
Rob Walker: Yeah. I write a lot about design stuff, so both neighborhood watch signs and security cameras. When I wrote a little bit about my experience for Design Observer and people sent me examples. So it turned out to be an interesting design subject because there are places where there is actually in Europe where they’ve actually given thought to what security cameras could look. Because I think that the visual impact of a security camera right now is negative. When you see them, it makes you tense. So there are places where they’ve tried to make them softer seeming. So anyway, the point is that it became, and then this is, I’m a journalist and this is part of what a journalist does for a living too. Is try to pick up on things that are right in front of you, but no one’s paying attention to, break from the ‘pack’ or find a different spin. My favorite example is Jimmy Breslin’s. Like everybody else, he had to cover the Kennedy funeral, the JFK funeral in the ’60s. But he was the one who came up with the unique angle to write about the guy who dug the grave, right? So he spent the day with the guy who dug the grave. And that’s thinking in a different way outside the pack. And that piece is considered a classic of journalism.
Brett McKay: So a similar exercise to the scavenger hunt is starting to collection, but you suggest getting more conceptual than say I’m collecting in stamps or baseball cards. What does your idea of a collection look like?
Rob Walker: Yeah. Well, so I should credit here and I should say that once I got going on it, I was explaining how I headed off in this direction and once I started thinking I want to make this about suggestions, things people can do. A lot of them I made up, but then a lot of them came from reading and things other people had done. And then I interviewed people and came up with ideas from them. And then I got my students involved.
So one that was inspired by someone else, there’s this guy George Nelson, who’s a furniture designer who wrote a book in the ’70s called How to See. But it wasn’t really how to see, it was really how he saw. And it was essentially a collection of things had noticed, photography and stuff. And he was my inspiration for this because he was a collector of images, but images drawn from reality. So he would just take pictures of every arrow he could spot, every clock, every manhole cover, certain geometric shapes. And then he would get really interestingly conceptual of contrast, like hard and soft. So a flag outside of a concrete building or whatever.
And I was just, I love his inventiveness around this. And you could almost pick anything. Right now I’m collecting as it were, the structures at the top of, I guess there are telephone, I mean are they telephone poles or power poles? They had these big rickety weird collections of hardware up there that I guess are running power. I don’t even know.
It’s this kind of thing that we’re trained not to pay attention to, that we’re trained to just zone out and look past. And that’s the kind of stuff I find it really fun and exciting to look at. And then the birds that are up there and stuff like that, that’s what I’m collecting right now. So that’s the collection idea.
You can take pictures as he did. And I know people who this on Instagram who take pictures of traffic cones or a friend of mine does closeups of telephone poles, which is really weird. But they’re fascinating, and it’s a different way of taking in the world.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s a point where your tool, that is often the source of distraction, can be a tool used to notice more. [inaudible] share on Instagram, but you just start your little collection of, your little collection in your phone of your contrasts that you find.
Rob Walker: Or you could not bother to take pictures of, I mean, I don’t take pictures. And I think that this is an important point to make actually because I think that sometimes, there are certain kind of people who react to this stuff by thinking okay, so I need to make a dedicated Instagram account about this. It’s like no, you really don’t. Everything doesn’t have to be translated, and in some ways there’s a lot of reasons not to do that. Don’t automatically convert every personal looking project into something that gets subjected to the marketplace. Right? Where you have to start worrying about how many likes its getting. If that happens, fine. But I just think that there’s a lot of, it’s not noticing, and seeing, and paying attention is a means to an end. But it can also be an end in itself. It’s really satisfying to just learn to take enjoyment from the act.
Brett McKay: So another noticing activity you recommend is looking slowly. Yeah. What do you mean by that?
Rob Walker: Well, so this is specifically came out of the context of museums. There’s actually a slow art day thing that happens every year, but you can do it anytime. The basic premise of slow art day is that you get together with a group of people, you go to the museum. And instead of trying to, you’ve been to museums and you’ve seen people spend, I think that the average is eight seconds or something looking at any given painting. And people are practically trying to run through the museum. So instead of doing that, you just decide you’re going to look at only five things for 10 minutes each. And then afterwards you get together and talk about what you looked at, and what you took in.
So this is obviously a really different way of perception in general. We’re so used to trying to rack up as many visual experiences as we possibly can. And I think people spend sometimes more time at museums reading the little placard next to the art as they do looking at the art. So if you force yourself to look at something for that long, it does shift your perception. You obviously start to notice things that you overlooked at first. And maybe by the end of it, you even have a completely different understanding of the piece that you were looking at. So that’s the essence of looking slowly.
Brett McKay: And you can this not just with art, but with other stuff. I think you talked about some design teacher that would say, tell the students you have to look at this rock, but for an hour.
Rob Walker: Yeah. Or packaging. There’s almost anything you can do this with. There’s a different exercise in the book about looking out the window, which sounds like such a, try to have a range of things that are really super easy. The minute you pick up the book, you can start participating in this, but you could spend 10 minutes looking out a window that you’ve always walked past. I mean, think about it. In your life, there’s a window that you walk past all the time. Maybe you glance out to see if the world is on fire, but you couldn’t really tell me anything about what’s the view from that window. And spend 10 minutes looking out a window and look at every edge of what you can perceive. Then do it again a week later and see what’s changed. So it’s applicable in all kinds of contexts.
Brett McKay: Yeah, Thoreau did looking solely exercises. He would just look at a plant or a bug for hours, hours. The entire day.
Rob Walker: Yeah. And people are dismissive of that because it’s like well there was nothing to do in Thoreau’s time. Now you can play Pokemon go or whatever. And it’s true, we have more distractions at our fingertips. But there are good reasons to sometimes say, I don’t need to do that. I want to pick up on looking at watch, spend 10 minutes watching a bug crawl. Kids do it and kids love it. And there’s something to be said for reconnecting with that childhood innocence and wonder, and seeing the world.
Brett McKay: No. Yeah, you talk about kids have a natural disposition to do that. And I saw this firsthand, we were on vacation in Vermont. And my daughter is five. We went to this river to go swim, but she was in the shallow section. And she was there for probably a half hour on her hands and knees just looking. She was looking for rocks and she was looking for fish. And she just sat there for literally half an hour. And it’s also fun to see her because she has her own little collections, she’s got rock collections. And she’s always on the lookout for loose change. And she finds it all the time. Because she knows where to look. She goes to places where people overlook. So we were at an ice cream store the other day, and there was a vending machine. So she went underneath the vending machine and she pulled out all this change. “Look what I found.”
Rob Walker: That’s great. And it’s great that you pick up on that and that you can, I’m always telling people that kids are a good inspiration for this thing. And if you have access to a child, take inspiration from, pay attention to what they’re paying attention to. Because they don’t have that jaded feeling of having seen it all before. The world is full of wonder. [inaudible] used to talk about trying to view the world like an alien. For kids, that comes naturally. They are aliens. It’s all novel to them. So they get very excited about things and we shouldn’t dismiss that. We should embrace it and we should be jealous.
Brett McKay: So in museums, there’s a lot of exercises you provided at the slow looking, so just to look at attaining for 10 minutes, 30 minutes even if you’re filling bold. But the thing with museums though, they’re designed so that you pay attention to certain objects, right? There’s a light and the way that things are put on the wall or on a pedestal. So what can we do in museums so we notice things that we’re not supposed to notice?
Rob Walker: Yeah. It’s a really super interesting context because there’s a lot of thought is put into making you pay attention to the right things and you’re not supposed to be looking at the guards. You’re not supposed to be noticing that it’s dusty on this drain or whatever. So in a nutshell, it’s basically try to pay attention to things that you’re not supposed to pay attention to. So among the things I suggest are in fact paying attention to the guards. I often will ask a guard what their favorite piece is. You don’t want to hassle these people, they’re doing their job, but they have a different relationship to this room full of art than you will ever have. They spend so much time there. I think I like to encourage people to tune into objects that could be art. And this is a little bit inspired by because those spaces are so charged with importance there. There’ve been a number of incidents. There was one I think in San Francisco where somebody left a pair of glasses on the floor. And people started to just assume it was a piece. There were people gathering around this pair of glasses and taking pictures of it.
So I like to say look for things that aren’t art but could be. Maybe the fire extinguisher, maybe some security camera perhaps. And then another one is people don’t pay attention to this, but when you’re walking around a museum, you’re often walking into the Rob Walker wing of the thing. And it’s a name is not really familiar to you. Here’s a place where your phone is actually maybe useful. Go ahead and Google who is this person that this wing is named after, and see if there were any interesting things about them. Or in the case of, I actually got to chance to lead a museum walk in Dallas, it’s Dallas Museum of Art. And we did this. And there was this one collection of stuff that was displayed in a really idiosyncratic way. And that’s because there’s this donor who the wing was named after insisted on that format. So it’s interesting. You learn something that, not that the museum was hiding that, but that they weren’t, it doesn’t get foregrounded. So it gives you a completely different way of taking in the stuff that you’re being asked to look at.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I do that with the looking at the plaques of who the donors were. Schools, you’ll often see this. Find out who they were. I like the idea of asking people at museums who you would not think to ask what their favorite piece of art work is. And the idea just came was ask a janitor. Right? Because they’re in there all the time. And you typically think janitor doesn’t have an opinion about art. But no, they probably have their favorite piece of art.
Rob Walker: Yeah, for sure. And museums in general are, they want people to approach their work with different perspectives. You know what I mean? I think that they’re thrilled to have that and that they would like to have, they would like to have more people coming to the museum with a fresh or an open perspective that yeah, let the guard lead the tour. I think that they’re open to that. It’s not an antagonistic thing. I think that they’re into it because they are … but it’s an interesting environment because you have this feeling that you have to do it right. And you don’t have to do it right. You can do it any way you want.
Brett McKay: So everyone’s probably seen those photos of masses of people surrounding some famous work of art like the Mona Lisa, and they’re snapping pics with their smartphone. Which I never understand because it’s like your pic’s going to be really crappy. But you recommend people don’t take pictures at art museums but rather draw art they see. Why is that?
Rob Walker: Well, so drawing, and I cannot pretend that I am the inventor of this idea. But drawing in general is widely believed to … if you have to draw something, you look at it in a completely different way. You’re looking at details, you’re looking at shape, you’re looking at form. You’re engaging with it. Whether that is drawing another artwork or whether it’s drawing, I have suggestion in the book of draw everything on your desk. You can draw what you see out the window. People’s immediate reaction to this is always well, I can’t draw. Well, you don’t have to put these drawings on the internet. Just get yourself a notebook, a cheap notebook. Because the point isn’t to show off. The point is to work on your powers of perception. And just do one, make a drawing. Don’t worry about showing it to anyone.
And then the next day, do another one, and then do another one, and just have fun with it. Don’t worry if you’re making faithful reproductions. Just think about how the act of drawing, it forces you to slow down. It forces you to pay attention to detail. It forces you to see, and that’s a really important exercise. I try to make writers do it when I teach a different workshop about writing about objects and I encourage the participants in that to spend time. If you really want to learn how to describe something, try drawing it, and you’ll force yourself to perceive it in this much more detailed way.
Brett McKay: So a lot of opportunities to flex those noticing muscles at the museum or even if just in noticing and drawing things on your own desk. Another game you suggested for people to start noticing thing is if whatever situation you might be in, say you’re at a restaurant. Is you look at all the people involved who are there and ask yourself what would be the plot of a heist story in this situation? So what does this exercise cause you to notice that you overlook?
Rob Walker: There’s a couple of people who I talk to for the book who I’m a big fan of making up stories essentially about people around you as a way to pass the time. But I had Dan Ariely, the behavioral psychologist talk about looking at forces. And Jeff Mannock, the writer talking about these heist plots and disaster scenarios and stuff like this. It’s 50/50. It’s 50% imagination and 50% observation, and they fuel each other. So seriously it is just a game, but to me it’s more fun than checking Instagram. To just speculate okay, what clues can I pick up on? What do I think this, who’s the mostly bad guy or whatever you want to say in there. And then it makes you look at what are my escape routes? How is this room really designed? Why are these tables so close together? How do I route around? There’s another thing in the book about this friend of mine who is always looking for the quickest way out of a party. It gives you a little reset, a different way of looking at it. I find this comes in super handy. And you mentioned different scenarios, but I like it when I’m stuck in line. The security line at the airport. Great place to start making up stories about, in your head about who’s going to do what, who’s going to be the hero, who’s going to be the problem.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Because you have to look at the people, their body language. So one guy might look he’s in a rush or he’s nervous, and you look at what they’re carrying. Why are they carrying that? Why are they wearing that tee shirt?
Rob Walker: Are these people together?
Brett McKay: Right.
Rob Walker: It’s like I bet this person and this other person who are 10 people apart, they’re actually in league. It’s fun. It’s just fun. Obviously I should just put in the caveat that be discrete and sane about all this.
Brett McKay: You can just do it in your head. You don’t have to narrate it out loud.
Rob Walker: You’re just doing it in your head. You’re making time go by.
Brett McKay: Well I say similar to this, we’ve had a lot of self defense experts come on the show. And they talk about situational awareness. Where you’re in a building, the first thing you do is you figure out, or decide, or observe where all the exits are at. Right? Even the exits you might not notice because people forget say your grocery store, there’s exits in the back, where it says employees only. And you got to think about that because people overlook that.
Rob Walker: Yeah, it’s absolutely a form of situational awareness, which I associate with and I’m sure you, do you know that book Left of Bang?
Brett McKay: Yeah. We’ve had him on the podcast.
Rob Walker: Yeah, I was going to say. But this is situation or awareness lite. You’re not in the mindset, but that’s a fine mindset to be in if you’re just using it to pass the time. You’re not being paranoid or whatever. It’s really interesting to think about that stuff and to try to, it is a way of engaging with the world as opposed to being the passive person who is just engaged with their phone. Another thing you can do is spy on what people are doing with their phones. I’m a big fan of that.
Brett McKay: So what do you notice people doing with their phones?
Rob Walker: My two favorite things. Well my favorite anecdote about this section, another San Francisco story is, I do like to peak at what, discreetly looking over people’s shoulders. And once I was on the BART in San Francisco, and I was looking at what’s that guy doing with his phone? And he was playing a game that it was a game that involved using your finger to direct a piece of trash into the garbage can. You would sit in your office and throw a wadded up piece of paper into the garbage can. It was that, but digital. That’s what he was doing.
But then a lot of people, the other thing that’s great to look at is how people who are talking on the phone, their body language. It’s almost like a dance performance because they’re reacting to the conversation that they’re in, not the world that they’re in. So they’re gesturing with their hands, and they’re making facial expressions. All for some audience. And they’re holding their phone in that weird way up to their mouth a tray.
Brett McKay: Right. Yeah.
Rob Walker: And it looks like, someone needs to do a dance performance that’s based on phone conversation gestures. It’s like a madcap visual poetry thing. I love it. I recommend, and that’s something good to draw as well.
Brett McKay: So another exercise is a find something you weren’t looking for. What does that look?
Rob Walker: So this was inspired by, have you ever had Davy Rothbart on the show?
Brett McKay: No.
Rob Walker: So he’s this guy who he’s this author, and then podcast, and books in all kinds of stuff called Found. And he is a proponent of you’re walking down the street, you see a piece of trash blow by that has some handwriting on it. Don’t kick it out of your way, pick it up and look at it. You weren’t looking for it. And he has built a whole mini empire of finding these fascinating, it started for him with someone left a note on his car that they mistook his car for their ex boyfriend’s car or something. And said, “I can’t believe you’re here. You’re seeing her again, aren’t you?” And all this stuff, this crazy note. And then at the end of this hostile note, it said text me later. And he realized there was a whole short, there was a whole novel practically built into this random thing that he wasn’t looking for. So he says a lot of times you’ll pick up a piece of a discarded writing somewhere on the street and it’ll be nothing. But one out of every 10 times, one out of every 20 times, there’s a little story in there. And it’s an opportunity again to be surprised and delighted by something you weren’t looking.
Brett McKay: Right. Grocery list can tell a story.
Rob Walker: Grocery list can be really interesting. Yeah, they’re worth scrutiny. They’re worth a little bit of attention.
Brett McKay: I had a friend, this reminded me in high school, this was before cell phones. So whenever you wanted to communicate somebody, you wrote notes, right? In school. He would collect notes that he found on the ground that are discarded, and then he would turn them into songs.
Rob Walker: Perfect. Yeah.
Brett McKay: Some of them were really poignant, because they’re these angsty teenage love letters. And other ones are just silly because teenagers are silly.
Rob Walker: That’s perfect though. That’s a way of embracing the universe and taking it as this isn’t trash, this is potential inspiration and it’s a personal challenge. What can I do with this? How can I convert this thing that it was literally discarded by the world? How can I redeem it? Turn into some piece of creativity. That’s again, one of the reasons there’s so many artists in the book is that the artists are so good at recognizing that the overlooked is the beginning of creativity.
Brett McKay: So we’ve been talking about noticing with our eyes because that’s what people think of. But we can notice things with our other senses. What are some things we can do to notice with our ears, our smell, our taste, etc?
Rob Walker: Yeah, the book is actually set up this way. We start with visual stuff, and then it moves into the other senses. For exactly this reason because I think that people immediately associate, when you say noticing, they immediately think visual. But, there are a couple of things that I would suggest. One that I do in my life all the time. It’s in the book. It’s described as there’s a famous John Cage composition called 4’33” that when it was first performed consisted of someone sitting in front of the piano and not playing it for four minutes and 33 seconds. And this was not a very popular piece when it was performed, but it’s a comment. People read it as a comment on silence, but it’s really a comment on listening, and it’s really a comment on engaging with everything you can and can’t hear.
So I suggest hijacking that and covering, as a way a cover band would cover something. Cover 4’33” which you can do at any time. You can not play the piano for four minutes and 33 seconds, and I’ll literally do this. I’ll put my phone, the timer on 4:33 and just sit in my office, and see what sounds come at me. Which could be, I live in new Orleans. I work at home at residential neighborhood pointing. My office points at a quiet street. So there might be some bird song, there might be a train in the distance. My neighbor Peter might be out holding forth on the porch as he does from time to time. You over time build up a little repertoire of what are the sounds of my neighborhood. So that’s challenge that I put in the book is think about having, what if you had to draw a map of the most interesting sounds in your neighborhood, the five most interesting sounds?
Then you can extend that to other senses. What if you had to do a map of the five most interesting smells in your neighborhood? And there are artists who have done elaborate smell walk tours of cities trying to capture. And we all know how visceral that sense of smell can be. Or you could build something around textures. Taste is trickier.
Brett McKay: Right. You don’t want to go lick in buildings or whatever.
Rob Walker: You don’t really want to go lick building. But you can think about five tastes that define your neighborhood being restaurants and things like that. And then in the book I even get into the idea of, Duchamp talked about this idea of the infrathin, which is stuff that’s beyond the five senses. Like the feeling of the chair that someone has just gotten out of. Things that don’t really get … so that gets kind of advanced, but it’s fun to think about. What can I detect that doesn’t even fall within the five senses? And it becomes again, it becomes game like.
Brett McKay: I licked buildings when I was a kid.
Rob Walker: And you’re still here to tell the-
Brett McKay: I’m still here. When I read that about taste. Because I remember, the memory came flooding back. I grew up in Oklahoma City, and we did our banking at the Murrah building that was bombed. But I remember distinctly licking that building for some reason. Your book helped me remember that.
Rob Walker: Well, maybe we could convert it into you don’t want to lick buildings, but be really ambitious and adventurous about where you can taste things as you move about your city or your neighborhood, or the neighborhood you work in. Short of licking buildings. But where tastes can be found. That’s a good challenge.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Rocks have taste. People don’t, they do have a taste. So we also talk about in the book, you talk about the role of solitude in noticing. do you think most noticing, it’s an individual thing primarily or can you do this with a group?
Rob Walker: You can do both. And there’s the way that, what happens next and the way the book is structured, the way the exercises are organized is there’s a batch that are specifically designed to help you in noticing other people basically. But then it does end on a more personal inward note with ideas about … and I think this is important now to go back to what we were talking about at the beginning. There are very logical reasons why we need to, why that fear of missing out thing is real. We want to be generally aware of what the pack, the tribe, the society is thinking about. But it’s also kind of vital and it’s harder now to take that time to devote to yourself, to devote to your own reflection. Some of the ideas literally come down to in one case, make an appointment with yourself. The same way that you make appointments all week long with people for work reasons, or social reasons, or whatever. Give yourself that hour a week where, and this came from Mike Birbiglia talking about the way he put it was you have an appointment with your brain [inaudible 00:39:05], so he could work on a personal project and feel that’s as important. And you have to honor that as much as you honor business meetings.
And then I had a student who I make my students invent their own exercise, attention exercise. And I had a student who said, “I misunderstood the assignment. I did it wrong. Because what I did was I bought a cactus, and I took care of it for a week.” And I said, “Okay, that’s definitely not what I had in mind. But caring for something is the ultimate act of attention.” And that is the goal of building those attention muscles is to make sure that you’re paying attention to what you care about and you care about what you’re paying attention to.
Brett McKay: Well Rob, this has been a fun conversation that like I said, there’s a ton more of these exercises in the book. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Rob Walker: So the best place to go is robwalker.net. And robwalker.net/noticing is the section that has stuff about the book including the, there’s a newsletter that comes out every week or two where I share new exercises or ideas that I’ve come up with since the book. And also the very popular icebreaker of the week feature where I get people to submit. And if you have listeners who have a good icebreaker question, I really hope that they’ll zoom on over there and submit it because that’s a reader driven feature. So that’s the best place. I’m on Twitter @notrobwalker and Facebook at facebook.com/consumed. So any of those places are good.
Brett McKay: So the icebreaker, that’s intrigued me. What is the most bizarre, interesting icebreaker prompt you’ve gotten?
Rob Walker: Well, this is a little bit of a cheat because it’s something that I got from this gal named Whitney. Who she in some ways inspired this whole thing and had this amazing question that I experienced in real life. I was seeing her for this part of a group work thing and we were at lunch. And she had this question about whether under the right circumstances, if you were offered a chance to eat human flesh, but you were guaranteed that somehow no one was harmed. Would you taste it? Would you taste it? And listening to people answer that, and their rationales, and the looks on their faces. I know that sounds weird, but it’s really interesting. It’s a really good icebreaker.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Do that on your first date.
Rob Walker: Do not. Do not do that on your-
Brett McKay: Dating advice from Rob Walker asks if you-
Rob Walker: Yeah, right.
Brett McKay: No, well Rob, this has been a great conversation. Thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Rob Walker: Listen, I really appreciate. You were great.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Rob Walker. He’s the author of the book, The Art of Noticing, it’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website, robwalker.net. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/noticing where you find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
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