"The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes"
Last summer I was on vacation in the mountains of Wyoming with some friends when I pulled over and stopped at the side of the road to take a few pictures of a gorgeous vista with the Teton Mountains in the background.
After I took several photos I returned to the car where my friends were all in a gasp.
"So did you get it?" asked one of my friends.
"Get what?" I replied.
"The big elk that was standing right next to you."
"What big elk?" I said in a haze, "I didn’t see anything."
"There was a giant elk eating some grass no more than 4 feet away from you!!... you didn’t see him??!!"
The other passengers in the car starting laughing hysterically... at my expense.
"I can’t believe that you didn’t see this 8 foot monster RIGHT NEXT to you!"
Well I suppose in my defense I wasn’t looking for an elk... I was concentrating on capturing the perfect photo of the valley below. I was so singly focused on what’s in front of me, that I didn’t even bother to look to my side.
How often do we go through life only focused on what is directly in front of us but not paying any attention to what is happening beside us or even behind us?
We like to call this "out of sight... out of mind".
Now for some people... just the opposite is true. Those people find it nearly impossible to focus on the task at hand but rather they are constantly looking at the peripheral distractions unable to concentrate on the important things in front of them.
If this occurs in children... we call it "ADD - Attention Deficit Disorder".
If this occurs in adults... we call it "multitasking".
One of my all-time heroes is a fictional character. This person has an incredible talent. He can focus intently on the task in front of him... pondering a riddle or puzzle for days on end... hardly eating or sleeping... after which some time his brain discovers the solution to the riddle.
This person also has the innate ability to make keen observations about the mundane world around him with perfect recall as to what he has seen.
He may note, for instance, that the number of stairs needed to walk up to a particular doorway... whether or not someone walks favoring one foot or another... or how many cars and what types of vehicles had passed a certain intersection during a particular time of day.
The person I am speaking of is of course Sherlock Holmes, the fictional "consulting detective" created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887.
Although I already knew the name, I wasn’t really formally introduced to Sherlock Holmes during my freshman year of college while taking a required introductory literature course.
I was enthralled with Holmes’ unbelievable use of logical deduction and reasoning as well as forensic science to solve complex criminal cases that baffled the police and other experts.
In addition to his innate powers of reasoning, Holmes developed other expertise in other skills such as marksmanship, identification of the ashes of cigarettes and cigars, the use of disguises, boxing, chemistry, soil identification and swordplay.
He was also an avid yet amateurish musician, particularly the violin.
Sherlock Holmes was also a master of his emotions. He concerned himself with only the facts, with a logical progression to the truth in any matter. He did not let his own personal feelings sway his reasoning.
I have often wondered how someone like Sherlock Holmes would operate in today’s world.
There is so much information available to anyone with an internet connection. So much information in fact, that one cannot possibly discriminate all of the facts from all of the opinions and non-facts.
There is also the case of several different random data points being aggregated into a model that very accurately describes the past but has nothing to predict future data points.
A great example of this situation is when economists use incredibly complicated equations to precisely model the past performance of the stock market... but these same curves cannot, with any real correctness, predict what will actually happen to the market in the future.
The "noise" that is constantly screaming at us from all directions prevents us from focusing on the critical information that will help us to solve complex problems or allowing the creativity inside each of us to percolate outwards from our brains.
With so much noise and distraction around us each and every moment... <ding>... wait hold the thought for a second... I need to check the text that just came in...
Now what was I talking about...
Oh yeah... distractions and noise...
This is the very fallacy of being able to multi-task.
Multi-tasking does not actually save us any time, due to the inordinate amount of time it takes us to try and refocus our thoughts onto the matters at hand. And in fact, multi-tasking tends to make us less productive.
Yet, we are prone to attempt this super-human feat. Why?
The primary reason that people try to multi-task is because they actually believe that they are proficient at it... despite all of the evidence that we have to the contrary.
Several large-scale university studies have been conducted showing a great correlation between multi-tasking and inefficiency, including a 2009 Stanford study where people actually took a great deal of pride in their perceived ability to multi-task, but were actually found to be less efficient in their work than the control group.
The biggest problem that most researchers have found was the inability of subjects practicing multi-tasking to filter out what is and is not important to meet the objectives of the work in front of them... wildly jumping from one idea to another while completing very little.
Which brings me back to my fictional hero... Mr. Holmes.
The very idea of someone being able to completely shut out distractions and seeing through all of the noise to solve complex problems holds my highest admiration and respect mostly because I am unable to accomplish such a feat myself.
In the same way I respect baseball players who can hit a major-league curve ball or opera singers that can hit a note with perfect pitch.
It takes an immense amount of innate skill and years of focused training... to become great at something...
I truly wish that I had the abilities of Sherlock Holmes to remain focused on the tasks in front of me...
...excuse me... I just heard my phone ringing... gotta take this call... talk to you next week.
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Jim Kalb President
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