When We See What We Want To See

The other night I watched an old movie – The Undefeated. John Wayne westerns are popular in our house (thanks to my husband). And I have to admit, since spending so much time in Arizona over the last few years, I always enjoy looking at the topography to see if this movie was filmed near where we now live.

While the plot isn’t important to this post, in short, The Undefeated takes place shortly after the end of the Civil War and concludes with a wagon train coming out of Mexico along the Rio Grande River into Texas. It was late and I was tired, so imagine my surprise when I notice something out of place in the background during the last close-up of John Wayne riding along the wagon train. Thanks to the magic of a DVR, I backed up the footage, not exactly knowing what I was looking for. Something was amiss.

There it was! In the background, an old pick-up truck was driving on the other side of the river. I can’t tell you exactly how many times that movie has been seen in our home (more than once, less than a hundred), it was the first time I had seen the 1960’s pick-up truck ride through the closing scene of a 1860’s movie!

In truth this happens all the time. Such as:

  • Someone in your home looks in a cupboard or refrigerator and exclaims, “I can’t find the (fill in the blank).” Upon being told a second (or fifth) time that you just bought some yesterday, they look again and there it is – right in front of them.
  • You are driving to work on your favorite route and notice a new restaurant. You tell your spouse about it as a new place to try and are surprised to find out that the “new” restaurant has been there for over a year.
  • You tell someone to turn at the white house on the corner only to find out that it was painted brown six months ago.

Our brain shows us what we want to see or tells us the story we want to hear and unless we have the keen observation powers of Matt Damon in The Bourne Identity, we will most likely see what we think is (or isn’t) there.

One now famous YouTube video (here) demonstrates this phenomenon by asking viewers how many times the basketball players who are dressed in white pass the ball. Even those who know what they are looking for miss some of the obvious incongruities in the video. We are looking for one thing and miss the others. (Hint: It involves a gorilla.)

This doesn’t just happen just in our personal lives. I have participated in countless improvement projects in companies where we look to document (or video) a process we are trying to improve.  The participants are almost always shocked at what actually is occurring. And once they can see and understand what is happening, it is much easier to make the change necessary for success.

Most of the CEO/Entrepreneurs I coach have amazing visioning skills. The ability to see a product or a future where none exist is amazing. I have watched some take a small idea and turn into multi-million dollar businesses from literally nothing.  And yet, like most things, some of our best talents and skills can also cause us problems.

Have you heard of the saying, “If you can dream it, you can do it?”

I have found the corollary for some of entrepreneurs is “If I think it, it must be true.”

Like the gorilla walking through the video or the pick-up truck in the movie, we don’t always see everything. This is why I encourage my clients to solicit feedback from trusted colleagues, peers and advisors on a regular basis and to use data as well as their “gut” to make decisions.

With the numerous distractions and the pace of our lives, the ability to truly “see and hear” what is going on around us is more critical than ever. Not doing so could risk missing something that is literally, right in front of us.


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