Motivational Monthly- Learning to Look

People of a certain age will remember the Look and Learn magazine for children, revealing magic and mystery in beautiful illustrations and accompanying text that gave us a periscope with which to see and understand the world around us.

Aim high

Brave New Girl by Lou Hamilton

Learning to look, as children, via the finger drawing of a parent or teacher as they unveil stories and mysteries, brings the fuzz of unformed understanding, slowly into focus. We are hungry for more, grasping at new pictures and colours and strange things as they are explained into a collage of reality. The neurons in our little brains are firing and sparking with every new connection. We see something, look at it hard, ask a nearby adult for enlightenment and what we glean transforms it into part of our growing mental landscape. We compile a compendium of knowledge based on observation and information and what transpires in our blossoming minds is deeper understanding and appreciation.

Be wary of pretty things

Brave New Girl by Lou Hamilton

And then unless we become research scientists or art students we forget to look. Really ‘looking’ in a questioning and probing way is an art in itself, one that can be learned or indeed relearned. But why do we need to? Because when we actively observe (and translate what we see in) people, place, activities we learn not to jump to conclusions, not to judge, to compare, to idolize, to discriminate, to abuse, to terrorize. We increase our abilities to become better communicators, team players, leaders, entrepreneurs, partners, parents, and friends. In short when we are able to quickly read a situation and come up with a theory that explains it, we become better people, more able to relate to others.

What is observation? The mind is particularly sensitive to changes or differences. This is of use in scientific observation, but what is more important and more difficult, is to observe (in this instance mainly a mental process) resemblances or correlations between things that on the surface appeared quite unrelated.” The Art of Scientific Investigation (public library; public domain) by Cambridge University animal pathology professor W. I. B. Beveridge

Active observation, being mindful of our surroundings, is how we make sense of things; it’s an incredibly valuable tool. Imagine you are having problems with your boss at work. Normally a pretty congenial guy, as you’ve noticed over time, suddenly he is flying off the handle at the slightest thing. Confused, but mindful of keeping your job, you don’t fling back a plethora of pithy and frankly, witty responses, but instead hold onto your hat, sit back to ride the storm and watch; trying to figure out what the hell is going on. You notice he’s distracted, staring into his coffee cup, his fingers drumming the table, he fidgets, he jumps up, paces. A female colleague walks in to ask a question on standards and ethics and he lets rip with a barrage of, fortunately, incomprehensible expletives. She backs out under the tsunami of abuse. He slumps in his chair. Then he turns the photo of his wife face down onto his desk. Bingo. Now you get what’s going on. Noticing the subtle cues you can react to situations more subtly. You understand that he’s going through his own private nightmare, and you become less judgmental, more patient, and may even decide to offer a shoulder to cry on.

For when you need a friend

Illustration by Lou Hamilton

By taking the time to observe, without judgment, bias, preference or prejudice, by using your previous knowledge, by noticing changes, you can begin to unravel the mysterious, unlock the problem and with your naturally creative and critical thinking skills, you take the consequent correlations and connections, and begin to form understanding. And from there we can start to find solutions.

How can we cultivate it? Like any habit worth forming the ability to observe and make deductions can be improved with deliberate practice. With a creative-thinking, engaged and enquiring mind, the power of observation can be developed by cultivating habits of watching. To writers, artists, scientists and private investigators, ‘people-watching’ is as important as practicing scales is to a pianist. But who can’t sit on a bus or tube or in a café and take a few minutes each day to focus outwardly at the world around them, and learn from the interactions, the expressions, the movements, the textures and shades of human life. There is no one-way or right way to do it. Two people can visit an art gallery together; one will peer and investigate every picture in minute detail, the other will wander into each gallery space, scan the walls in a broad-brush fashion and only hone in on the work that jumps out at them. Then they approach the piece and examine it with as much stealth as a scientist at her microscope. What are we looking for when we are drawn to a painting? We look at the brush strokes, the colours, the shapes, the composition, but we also search for the story, the emotion, the meaning. When we pull back and see the painting as a whole once again it is as if we have ‘felt’ it, such is our deeper understanding of what we see. When we ‘get’ it, it resonates with us and somehow we feel better for it.

Learn to trust

Brave New Girl by Lou Hamilton

At Stanford University, they recognize the importance of this and have a created a new medical school course called “The Art of Observation: Enhancing Clinical Skills through Visual Analysis” which links the medical students with peers in the art faculty, and takes them into the art gallery to observe the paintings, often guided by PhD art graduate, and followed by discussions looking at correlations with their own medical studies. One student Sam Cartmell noted: “I was surprised at how strong the impulse was to interpret the work, before I had actually observed the entire piece,” he said. The exercises the instructors led us through, describing what we saw objectively without commentary, really forced me to slow down and really see what was in front of me, without jumping to conclusions or interpretation.”

How can we use observation to lead better lives?

Artist Frederick Franck noted: “We have become addicted to merely looking at things and beings. The more we regress from seeing to looking at the world—through the ever-more-perfected machinery of viewfinders, TV tubes, VCRs, […]—the less we see, the more numbed we become to the joy and the pain of being alive, and the further estranged we become from ourselves and all others.”

By developing our visual sense, our visual literacy we are better able to immerse ourselves in our experience of our surroundings. We spark our imaginations when we notice things. We don’t think in a linear fashion, but instead draw on the network of connections we have created over time. In this way we are better able to value the relationships between us, and the environment, and between us and other people. It is what connects our outer world with our inner selves, and when we feel connected, we feel happier.

We were given five senses but without attention, any one of these is flattened and is as useless as a deflated balloon. Pump up your visual sense and your day becomes a brighter place. Look up from your smart phone, look out at the horizon, or zoom in to the nook and crannies, climb to tallest building and look down at people scurrying like ants, or lie in the grass and watch the clouds turn into faces. Sit with a small child and see what they see, look through the glass into the gorilla enclosure and wonder what those intelligent eyes are conveying, search out all the public art or graffiti in your area and stop for a while to contemplate what the artist was thinking when they made it. Take a walk through a forest and see how the branches twist and turn from one tree to the next, like scribbles in the sky. Tramp along a beach and see how many colours you can count in the pebbles or grains of sand. Peer out of the airplane window when you go on holiday and marvel at the patterns below, then look at the lines on the palms of your hands and see how the DNA of the planet and ourselves are interconnected. Keep a visual journal with you to scribble down what you see, in doodles or notes, and question the make-up of your observations. What more can you learn from what you have seen?

For the Love of Books

Brave New Girl by Lou Hamilton

Do you know someone who is struggling to see the colours in their day, for whom the sky is always grey? By working with me as their Coach I can help them tap into their own natural creative thinking skills and start mining for the diamonds beneath their feet. Email me on


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Motivational Mondays- Time Out

Time is arguably the biggest luxury. Why have wealth if you have no time to enjoy it? Why wait until we retire to dabble away at what we enjoy in the expanse that time affords us? Most people get two weeks a year to do as they choose and weekends if they are lucky.

Don't wait until you are old

Illustration by Lou Hamilton

In Tim Ferris’ book ‘4 hour week’ he seems to have found the answer and in his wake thousands of people have followed. He gets asked most often “but what do you do to bring in an income?” It seems he does bring in plenty of money to live and enjoy his life, but he manages it, by being efficient with the time he spends on ‘work’. The rest of the time he travels, lies on beaches, became a kick-boxing champion, a Tango champion etc. He values his time and will do anything within the rules (just) to release as much of it for himself as possible.

He has turned the creation of time and space into a fine art. He defends his time assiduously. He has got himself into the position where he owns his time and no one else gets a slice of it without his say so. He wasn’t born wealthy, not particularly bright, but he is cunning. He taps into the creative thinking part of his brain to design his life. He worked out what he wanted to do with his time and he did what he had to, to achieve the results he was after. First he worked out what would give his life meaning, purpose, engagement and pleasure, then he set about carving out his time to suit him. He created ways to have an automated income that allowed him not to have to work for any more than 4 hours a week, but to be able to do it, in any location around the world.

He says we can all do this. Most creative people understand the importance of empty space in their lives, time to mull, chew the fat, daydream, gaze. It is in this space our best ideas come. When our lives are stuffed from morning to night there is barely a moment for contemplation or inspiration. Clever organisations like Google and Pixar recognise their workforce is a lot more brilliant at coming up with new concepts or original solutions when they haves places to go and play, think, snooze, and loiter.

Spend time with old friends

Illustration by Lou Hamilton

But many people are terrified of not being ‘busy’. They want to fill up time with as much activity as possible, most of which is non-essential. They are scared of time, scared of being bored or lonely or being faced with difficult questions like ‘what the hell am I doing with my life?’ The idea of taking a day to just do ‘nothing’ is like jumping out of a plane without a parachute. White space in the diary? What’s that they ask, no way, I am far too busy for that. With what?

Tim challenges us to think about how we would spend our time if money were no object. He wants to pin you down to explore what really matters to you. He asks you to imagine you had a heart attack and your doctor told you you could only work on something for two hours a day or you would die. How would you spend those two hours? What is absolutely essential to you? He wants you to eliminate everything that isn’t necessary, doesn’t inspire you, doesn’t fulfil you, is not essential.

People argue that they must stick at their jobs until they claim their pensions. But there are no guarantees of jobs for life, or that your pension with be worth anything when you come to claim it, or that you won’t pop your clogs the week you finally stop work, from years of accumulated stress.

The last bit's the hardest

Illustration by Lou Hamilton

Maybe Tim Ferris’ plan isn’t for you but Neuroscientists are having a field day researching the benefits on the brain, of timeout through mindfulness and meditation. They’ve tested drug-addicted prisoners, the depressed, the traumatized, the world-weary, the workaholics, teenagers. You name it they’ve studied it. The results are fairly conclusive. Give your brain the chance to slow down, notice the insignificant, observe emotions with detachment and it gradually starts to rewire itself; from hyper-frenzy, addiction, negativity to acceptance, calmness, control. Timeout is a sure-fire self-optimization tool for the super-technology age, a practice as old as time itself. The only difference is now we know why.

For Scientific AmericanFerris Jabr writes about the benefits of mental downtime, whether it takes the form of naps, daydreaming or meditation.

“What research to date also clarifies, however, is that even when we are relaxing or daydreaming, the brain does not really slow down or stop working. Rather—just as a dazzling array of molecular, genetic and physiological processes occur primarily or even exclusively when we sleep at night—many important mental processes seem to require what we call downtime and other forms of rest during the day. Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life.”

If you want to get creative with how you spend our time then work with coach Lou Hamilton to rethink your life.

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Coming soon Lou ‘s collection of 200 drawings in her new book Brave New Girl- How to be Fearless. A must for all the girls and women in your life.

Go wild

Illustration by Lou Hamilton