Seeing vs. Observing — Key to Lifelong Learning

Jun 12, 2018 · 6 min read

We’re surrounded by stimuli. Faces, leaves, signs, screens, images. Our brain’s task is to sort it out, separating the important from the unimportant, meaningless from the meaningful. We can’t possibly process all that we see each day, there’s just too much. But there are things we can do to learn more.

Have you ever wasted an entire day? I know I have. At the end of the day you have learned absolutely nothing. Sure you did something, said something, maybe even remember something, but you didn’t learn anything.

We say: “You learn something new every day!” But that isn’t always true.

It’s easy not to learn anything. Just don’t pay attention, distract yourself, see without really thinking, and use as little effort as possible. (A day of Netflix is great for this.)

Have you ever had a super productive day? I know I have. At the end of the day you’ve learned a lot, you’re exhausted, but you’re also satisfied. It’s hard to stay on top of everything. It’s hard to exert the effort needed to pay attention to lots of things and to really learn a lot in one day. But it pays off.

What sets a day filled with learning apart from one void of any learning? Observation.


Observation is powerful. Two people can see the same thing, but observe something completely different. Observation is where real learning comes from. When we observe we see something on a deeper level. Seeing is the physical process; observing is seeing + our own thoughts. When we observe something, we make connections in our mind and develop a deeper understanding of something.

Why don’t we observe all the time?

Because it takes effort. We’re naturally lazy, and we don’t like to use effort. We don’t like to use our effort on something we don’t know will be worth it. It takes effort to choose to actively observe rather than passively see.

We say seeing is believing, but there are many people who see something and still don’t believe. Observing however, leads to believing.

Example: Seeing vs. Observing

A few years ago I was standing at a bus stop in Ukraine. Among the others waiting at the stop was a man and his toddler son. Both were holding grocery bags, with the son barely able to hold the bag in both arms. Suddenly the son lost his grip and the bag dropped to the ground, spilling the contents all over. Instead of picking up the groceries, the man began to yell loudly at his son, telling him how stupid he was and that he was a bad boy.

If I was just seeing, I would have only seen a man yell at his son. I probably wouldn’t remember this experience now and I wouldn’t have learned anything from it.

But because I was actively observing and not just passively seeing, this experience had a profound impact on me. Although it sounds simple, I learned that children don’t have the same level of understanding. I vowed to treat my own future children with kindness and respect their level of development and understanding.

How To Observe:

Observing means to actively process what is going on around you. You take what you see and you think about it. Make connections to things you wonder about. Reflect on past experiences and understand how your current experience differs or sheds insight. Ask yourself questions about what is going on and what it means for you. Why did that happen? What can you learn from what is going on? What did ____ teach you about life? When you ponder on what you see, you’ll observe insights and you’ll learn meaningful lessons. Here are ways you can learn to observe:

1. Take Time To Be Quiet.

If our minds are too busy, we can’t listen or understand what is going on around us. There’s a lot going on around us at all times, and we have to learn to quiet our minds to understand the world around us.

If you’re rushing, you won’t have the time or effort to observe.

You’ll just be seeing, not observing. If you want to keep someone from learning, just keep them busy enough that they don’t have time to realize what’s going on. It’s often when we take time to slow down that deeper learning occurs. Instead of rushing to work or mindlessly going somewhere, look around. Slow down and let yourself pay attention to the details around you. Quiet your mind to bring focus and clarity.

2. Record Your Thoughts.

If you record what see, you’re training your mind to remember. You’re teaching your mind that this is important and worth remembering. You’ll be more likely to observe and learn something in the future if you teach yourself that insights are valuable.

I often carry a notebook with me or record notes on my phone. I have thousands of notes and experiences that have taught me something that I turn to when I need inspiration. I have thousands of insights that bring a deeper meaning and purpose to my life, and I’m sure many more to come: because I have trained my mind to value what I have observed.

3. Be Humble And Willing To Learn.

One of the best things about observing is that you can learn from anyone and anything.

You never know what will surprise you.

We often look to people in power positions to learn from them (an there’s nothing wrong with that), but we can learn powerful lessons from everyone. If we all had the following attitude, the world would be a more meaningful place:

Whenever I meet people, I always have the feeling that I am encountering another human being, just like myself. I find it is much easier to communicate with others on that level. If we emphasize specific characteristics, like I am Tibetan or I am Buddhist, then there are differences. But those things are secondary. If we can leave the differences aside, I think we can easily communicate, exchange ideas, and share experiences. — the Dalai Lama

We are all humans and we can learn from each other. Even if that’s learning what not to do. I learned an important lesson about what not to do from a stranger and his son. I’ve learned valuable lessons from billboards, strangers, a homeless man I met in Ukraine, a tree that stood by itself, a ray of sunshine, and many other seemingly ordinary people, objects, and experiences.

4. Take Time To Ponder And Think Big.

If you’re just thinking of what you have to accomplish today, or what you’re next meal is, etc. it’s unlikely you’ll have any deep observations.

When we think superficially, we see superficially.

Take time to think big. Ponder what you see around you. What big questions do you have? Questions like: What makes us happy? What motivates me? Why do I act a certain way? When we think about deep topics, we’ll observe the answers around us.

Our choices define us. So it’s important to step back and ask ourselves if our choices and actions are aligned with our values and goals. Taking time to think big allows us to observe connections and insights that enable us to reach our goals and aspirations.


Observing each day leads to meaningful learning. Multiply that over a lifetime, and you’ll have wisdom, purpose, and joy. Each day we have the chance to accumulate a profound life lesson or insight. Does it always happen? No. But it is much more likely if you choose to actively observe instead of just passively see.

Observation is the key to lifelong learning. Learning isn’t limited to the classroom or a structured form when you actively observe. When you humbly approach life with a desire to observe and learn, you’ll find purpose and meaning in life.

Isn’t that what we’re all looking for?