People do not perceive primarily with their senses, but with their minds. Psychologist Egon Brunswik and others have shown that people often don’t see a thing unless they have some idea of what they are looking for. The reason for this may be biological. In On Intelligence, Jeff Hawkins and Sandra Blakeslee wrote that “for every fiber feeding information forward into the neocortex, there are ten fibers feeding information back toward the senses.” Where most people see an undifferentiated mass of green leaves, a bird watcher spots a toucan, three species of parrots, and a humming bird. Since I’ve been trained in statistics, I see the familiar bell-shaped curve when I look at skid marks on runways, smudges on doors, and wear patterns in carpets.

The need to cultivate your perception is even more important when it comes to seeing abstract ideas. I think this may have been what the New York Sun had in mind in 1897 when the paper’s editors responded to young Virginia’s question as to whether there really is a Santa Claus:

"The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see.… Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest men, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real?. . . . [I]n all this world there is nothing else real and abiding."

This makes me wonder what I don’t see because I lack the words, such as the following example of a concept from Christopher Moore’s book In Other Words:

"From Hungarian: egyszer volt budán ktyavásár [egd-zair volt bood-an koocha-vah-sha] (idiom) An enigmatic Hungarian idiom that literally translates as ‘there was a dog-market in Buda only once.’ The meaning in English is close to ‘a favorable opportunity that only happens once.’ It is something to be grasped with two hands, otherwise you will find yourself regretting it at a later date."

Nor must you leave English to find concepts that, once learned, help you to see through the glass less darkly. Anthropologist Alexander Goldenweiser gives an example with the word involution. Involution happens when a system has developed to a point when it should move to the next stage, but fails to and so grows inward, becoming ever more complex. Late Gothic art, with its ornateness, is one example. Or, compare Bach’s complexity with Beethoven’s expansiveness. I think of involution when I see the wild tricks city kids do on skateboards and bicycles—Misty Flips, nose pokes, tail whips, and X-Ups. Would they perform such tricks if they had broad open spaces in which to skate and ride?

You can cultivate your ability to perceive through practice. Ray Bradbury contended:

"I believe that eventually quantity will make for quality.

How so?

Michelangelo’s, da Vinci’s, Tintoretto’s billion sketches, the quantitative, prepared them for the qualitative, single sketches further down the line, single portraits, single landscapes of incredible control and beauty.

A great surgeon dissects and re-dissects a thousand, ten thousand bodies, tissues, organs, preparing thus by quantity the time when quality will count—with a living creature under his knife.

An athlete may run ten thousand miles in order to prepare for one hundred yards.

Quantity gives experience. From experience alone can quality come."

Because conception leads perception, you have to cultivate your inner eye. In this sense, beauty is not the only intangible that is in the eye of the beholder. You must look with your eyes, but see with your mind. Listen with your ears, but hear with your heart. When you do, you will see into the world more deeply:

• Before you’ve ever thrown a punch, an expert martial artist can tell by your stance whether you have been trained.
• An owl’s nest, if read properly, speaks to the health of a forest.
• That cloud means rain.
• Comparing their sales to their profits, I’d say that their stock is about to crash.

Your powers of perception will allow you to see and seize opportunities that others miss. Hotel magnate Kemmons Wilson capitalized on the knowledge that “Opportunity comes often. It knocks as often as you have an ear trained to hear it, an eye trained to see it, a hand trained to grasp it, and a head trained to use it.”

Excerpted from Tad Waddington Lasting Contribution: How to think, plan, and act to accomplish meaningful work.

Author's Bio: 

Tad Waddington says he achieved literacy while getting his MA from the University of Chicago’s Divinity School where he focused on the history of Chinese religions. He achieved numeracy while getting his PhD from the University of Chicago in measurement, evaluation and statistical analysis. He achieved efficacy as Director of Performance Measurement for Accenture. He is currently seeking to achieve a legacy with such books as Return on Learning and Lasting Contribution. To find out more, go to