I moved to Manhattan a number of months ago and have very much enjoyed walking the streets and avenues exploring neighborhoods and places throughout the island and absorbing everything about the experience. I have seen so much, but recently I had an experience that made me realize there were things I was not seeing that were right in front of me. I was NOT absorbing everything after all. I was blind to something.
It started when I was out with a friend. We were enjoying live music on the Lower East Side. She lives on the east side in midtown, I live on the Upper West Side. I assumed I would grab a subway, which was the “least worst” option because it still involved a long walk to the subway and at least one transfer. At the time, my travel options consisted of walking, taking subway, or grabbing a taxi/Uber/Lyft ride. It was too far to walk and I did not want to spend the money on a ride; hence the subway. My friend, on the other hand, said she would be taking a bus up 1st Ave. to her place.
Bus? The option had never crossed my mind, so I decided to go along with her. When she exited, I continued up the East Side another 30 blocks and then walked crosstown to my place. On that bus ride with her, I got an education on the NYC bus system. She explained the basic routes to me and the difference between a local bus and an express (or select) bus; how the select buses operated more like subways. Among the many ways of traveling in NYC, I never considered taking a bus. I did not even know where stops were.
Now, I am not a complete idiot. Of course I knew there were buses in Manhattan. I had seen buses, but I had never NOTICED them or perceived any difference among them. During the next week or so after that initial experience, I began to see buses everywhere. I noticed the bus shelters (including one RIGHT outside my building which I had not SEEN). I saw how the bus shelters were no longer just shelters, they had electronic messaging. I noticed the ticket dispensing machines that are required by select buses. These things were plentiful, pervasive, every day things that for more than 6 months I DIDN’T SEE. I passed them every day, but never saw them.
What’s my point?
My point is that this experience is not unique to me and it does not deal with just buses. My point is that we are preloaded from our previous experience and learning to see particular things and to NOT see particular things. In a complex visual field with a rich array of items in the field, we do not see everything. We see particular things that we are prepared to see. We are programmed to see particular things and there are other things we are blind to.
Here is a simple exercise to test this. Go to a place with a rich visual field, such as a shopping mall. Stand off to the side facing the rich visual field and close your eyes. Now say to yourself, “I am putting on my red filter sunglasses. These sunglasses will cause me to see red. These sunglasses will cause things that are red to jump out of the background.” Now, open your eyes and notice what happens. What will happen is that you will see red objects first within the visual field. Your eyes will see the red dress in the display, the red sign above the store entrance, and the red sweatshirt on the person walking by. You have preloaded your brain to see red things. You did it consciously. It is a process that normally is something that happens outside our consciousness and, therefore, we do not realize that we are seeing and not seeing particular things.
The “so what?” is that this has a direct impact on what we focus our attention and energy. It helps define what our priorities and options are (Remember: I did not see buses as a transportation option for me in Manhattan, a place filled with buses!). Consider these questions:
- What are you seeing and not seeing in your community or where you work?
- When in a mixed sex group do you notice that when a notetaker is needed, a vast majority of the time it will be a woman who takes the notes?
- If you are a man, do you see the degree to which women hold leadership and managerial positions in your organization?
- If you are white, do you see the distribution of people of color in leadership and managerial positions in your organization?
If you do not see and, therefore, are not aware of discrepancies or unequal distribution of resources or responsibilities in your organization or community you will not be in a position to address them. The first step is to recognize that there may indeed be everyday things that we are blind to. Step two is to look for them. Now, I am asking myself, “What else am I blind to as I explore the city?” Just as I needed help from my friend to “see” the buses, we may need help from friends, acquaintances, and colleagues who see things we do not. Part of that step is to recognize when we dismiss an assertion by someone because “that isn’t my experience” or “I didn’t see/hear that in the meeting.”
Let me know what you discover you have been blind to! Thanks!
Follow me at @pglove33