Looking without seeing


Richard Wiseman, a professor of psychology, performed a study that examined some of the behavioral differences between people who were lucky and those who were unlucky. The study noted that one trait of the “unlucky” people was that they tended to focus on certain things to the exclusion of all else.

As Wiseman put it: “The harder they looked, the less they saw.”

“And so it is with luck,” Wiseman observed. “Unlucky people miss chance opportunities because they are too focused on looking for something else.”

One common term for this situation is “tunnel vision.”

It’s not just our eyeballs that can get stuck in tunnels. Our minds can do the same thing, losing perspective, flexibility, and, ultimately, awareness of what’s really going on.

On that note, the late philosopher Alan Watts said during a lecture, “People who think all the time have nothing to think about except thoughts.”

Such a person, Watts warned, “loses touch with reality and lives in a world of illusion.”

This can be more than just a temporary state of affairs. Indeed, I’ve seen people squander entire decades ruminating over the same things. That’s not just a tunnel; it’s a doughnut-shaped tunnel that’s just one big circle.

Incidentally, a mathematician would call that shape a “torus.”

Me, I call it “time to go to Winchell’s.”

Anyway, the problem, or at least a big chunk of it, is that we calculate, discuss, describe, and even conceptualize things in terms of symbols.

Symbols are powerful things. Civilization needs them. But although symbols make useful tools they also make very harsh masters.

For one thing it’s easy to confuse a symbol for the thing that it’s supposed to represent. A menu, for example, serves a useful purpose, but you wouldn’t want to actually eat it.

In like vein, getting an “A” in some topic doesn’t mean you actually know anything about it. And a business that has “healthy financial ratios” might be on the verge of doing a belly-flop.

No, I have nothing against menus or A’s or ratios, but I wouldn’t want to lose sight of the fact that they are mere tools.

Applying this distinction isn’t always easy. I’ve spent a chunk of my career crunching numbers, which, of course, are mere symbols, and it requires constant effort to keep things in perspective.

On a stand-alone basis that’s enough of a challenge. It gets even worse when groupthink is involved. I’ve survived enough committee meetings to know that when a shiny edifice of symbols is being worshiped, being precisely wrong is often more popular than being approximately right.

Another pitfall of symbols is that they can be easily manipulated to persuade people. You can pretty much convince people of anything if you’re skilled enough with rhetoric.

Some sages of the East, in fact, took this a step further and realized that non-truth is often an easier sell than the actual truth. Reality, when spoken, seems dry in the mouth. By contrast, we’ve all seen that sugar-coated illusions are always in demand.

Saipan has always enjoyed sugar, both in the literal and figurative sense, and over the decades many of the economic opportunities, particularly in tourism, were yielded to Guam, which seemed more receptive to the dry realities of grinding out success in package tourism. Of course, the casino thing in Saipan is a new chapter in this story, so we’ll just have to see what happens.

Outside of that, though, as for past chapters, of successful enterprises I’ve seen on Saipan, at least those of the entrepreneurial variety, most weren’t based on deep thinking or in particularly complex studies. They were, instead, rooted in the “good luck” that came from having vision broad enough to see an opportunity that was sitting on the sidelines.

Well, speaking of being on the sidelines, I’m not going to get anything done today if I don’t finish this doughnut and get moving. By 3pm I intend to have finished my chores, whereupon I will commence a weekend of thinking about nothing at all. After all, that’s often the best way of thinking, since we can see a lot more when we’re not looking too closely.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.

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