First, Learn To See

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Put a business-person in front of a cat and ask them to draw a picture…

Scrawled on the page, with rare exception, you’ll see some kind of two-dimensional, cartoonish line-drawing of a cat. Not the cat sitting in front of that person, but the representation of a cat that person was taught to draw as a kid. The one that’s been imprinted on that person’s mind since she was nine. And they’ve got no idea that’s what they’ve just drawn. They just laugh it off and say, “I can’t draw.”

Put an artist in front of that same cat and you’ll get something quite different. A three-dimensional, shaded, life-like image of the actual cat. Well, of course, you say, she’s an artist. Thing is, that explains why the image is beautifully drawn, but it doesn’t explain why one person drew a “stock-art” cat that existed in her head and the other drew what she saw in front of her.

The difference is that the artist was trained and practiced not just in the art of drawing, but in the art of seeing. Dropping the filters, leaving behind the childhood patterns and imprints that stopped her from observing what was actually right in front of her. The objective image, rather than the conjured illusion of sight.

You can’t hope to draw the truth or build on the truth until you see and know the truth.

The non-artist never learned this, so she defaulted to pattern-recognition. And the sadder thing is, she had no idea she was doing this.

The best of the best don’t just do more with what they see, they see more before they do.

I wonder what might happen if we all spent more time learning to see?

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36 responses

36 responses to “First, Learn To See”

  1. Josh Wade says:

    Thanks for this great reminder! I’m learning that considering others before my self is seeing the truth.

  2. Katie Hart says:

    I am just going to go with it here –

    In January 2013 a post you had written inspired me.

    And it all led to where I am today. Posting about seeing – and being seen.

    The recent writing has been thin. “One for the memoir” is all there seems to file one moment under before the next “one for…” arrives.

    Thanks Jonathan. Ripples far and wide.


  3. Melissa Lennox says:

    Great point. I love this..nice work Jonathan.

  4. monica says:

    What a powerful phrase, “The best of the best don’t just do more with what they see, they see more before they do.”

    So true.

  5. Kala says:

    As an artist and a NYC yoga teacher I have to say you hit it on lthe head. When teaching drawing the hardest part and what a teacher does-is to get teh person slowing and with various tricks to actually SEE, if they can see then they can draw! I’ve taught beginner drawing for years and it’s so. The concept of reality in our heads plus beliefs of not being an “artist” do hold folks back. And then the idea of how this affects us in all things that is really profound. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Carm says:


    For some people, like myself, our expertise isn’t in seeing and sharing our truth in an artistic way. Ignore truth, hide it, gloss over and create fuzzy images so as not to hurt people.

    Unlearn and relearn has new meaning.

    BUT it does take creativity to hide truth. It’s an art that lacks beauty and depth and meaning. It’s like putting a throw over a spot on the couch. The true beauty is the story about how that spot got there. Some of us only know how to cover the spot with superficial distractions. Practice is all any of us can do.

  7. Conspiracy theory or not, we’ve been trained from a very young age to “conform”. Often times, we stop seeing because we’re told what to see.

    There’s a study I read a while back about kids in a classroom being asked to draw a bird – and they do their darndest to draw birds – some with great detail. And then they’re shown pictures that include “birds” – you know those stylized, curvy “v” shapes that we often put into our drawings to represent birds? Those.

    The next thing that happens is pretty incredible: the kids are asked again to draw a bird and almost ALL of them draw those stylized v shapes. Here’s a link to a similar study:

    Our brains work on shorthand. When we process out creativity and try to shorthand it, we get less creativity, and we’re certainly not seeing the world around us for what it is, only what we imagine/fear it to be.

  8. Robert Cowham says:

    See and her book “Drawing on the right side of the brain”.

    As a martial arts practictioner this is easy to experience – the more practised you are at seeing, the more you see and appreciate the finer details. Sometimes it can be frustrating that students don’t see what you can see so clearly, although they can often feel differences in techniques or body movements…

    Dancers are often able to reproduce intricate sets of movement after seeing them just once.

  9. Yvonne W says:

    …and Jonathan drops the mic! Booooom!
    Wow, that was really profound. I am going to chew on this a long time. Thanks for this paradigm shift, Jonathan!

  10. Rob Y says:

    Your example of two completely different renderings of the same cat vividly made your point.

    Could you suggest how or where we might start beginning to learn how to see better?

    Thanks for this reminder!

  11. atlasphere says:

    zing! JF, always stunning and concise!

    Currently reading Rollo May, The Courage to Create.. SO, so relevant today. Also Smile at Fear, Chogyam Rinpoche…

    creativity is the antidote to fear!

  12. Nancie says:

    I wouldn’t even see the cat, because I was told from a young child that I can’t draw. I’m too busy trying to get around that message in my head. Time to do something about that!

  13. “You can’t hope to draw the truth or build on the truth until you see and know the truth.” Dang. You always get right to it…and that’s why I love you. Great reminder!

  14. Piotr says:

    I can SEE your point! An exquisite food 4 thought

  15. Caron Harris says:

    Great insight!

  16. Geoffrey says:

    Great topic, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. One of the weaknesses of most education and much HRD is that it stops short of helping people actually come to see the world with new eyes. When learning new subjects and skills – any subject and any skill, from marketing and programming to biology and history – learners of all ages acquire information, perhaps gain intellectual understanding, and develop some capacities to perform, but they often miss out on the deeper aspects of coming to know.

    In everyday words, learners need to “get a feel” for their subject area or profession. When that happens we (my wife and I) suggest that they have begun to acquire new “situation lenses” and “situation tools.” They have made the shift into spontaneously “reading” their world with new eyes acquired as they gain a feel for the new subject or skill.

    A second point – seeing and doing go hand in glove. It takes a lot of doing and experience and reflection and feedback to “get a feel” or acquire new lenses. Just watch kids pick up a new culture when they get dropped into a new place.

    I’d love to see you address this topic in more depth some time.

    Many thanks.

  17. David says:

    Ah…the comments are as interesting as the piece. The fact is that both artists, trained and untrained are drawing what there mind was taught to see. The reality is the vision is different for each of us uniquely created persons.

  18. Thanks for validating the point I was making. You are a water type Jonathan and this makes you a profound thinker. And this is a beautiful point you make! Thank you.

  19. Hmmm…
    Yep, my cat would definitely be an anemic little scraggly poof of fluff…
    But in my heart she would be a mighty little tigress 🙂

    Love your posts and how they cause me to re-think my perspective. Thanks for adding to my life.

  20. Jonathan. I always read your work but rarely comment – this time I’m compelled to congratulate you on refreshing a well worn aphorism and injecting it with depth and immediacy. Yours, as you might say, with gratitude, Henry

  21. Lee says:


    Thanks for a very powerful lesson! Our preconceptions and indoctrination are something that we should all learn to challenge. I am still trying to “see” clearly and you are moving people in the right direction.

    Best Regards,


  22. Lesley says:

    Perfect words to remind us to step aside from the “conditioning” and look beyond to possibility. As always your wise words inspire and are great food for thought. Thank you!

  23. Doing more with what we see versus seeing more before we do…. Awesome stuff here Jonathan. Thanks!

  24. Someone above asked “how do we learn to see?”
    Two books come to mind: “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron, and “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”

  25. Kamini says:

    Fantastic. I am still under the influence of the write up. True. training…..”I wonder what might happen if we all spent more time learning to see?”
    Powerful learning….

  26. Venki says:

    Awesome Jonathan !!!

    Very powerful message….

    Learning to see deeply is both a change in attitude and willingness to let go our preconceptions..

    Many thanks

  27. Well, I expect things would be different. Probably more colorful and fleshed out. 🙂

  28. atlasphere says:

    ‘We have art in order not to die of the truth’
    Friedrich Nietzsche

  29. Jim M says:

    I have a cue-card on my desk to remind me (I forget who said the original quote, but it’s likely Tim Brown from IDEO):

    Good Design Thinkers observe
    Great Design Thinkers observe the Ordinary.

  30. I’ve been an art teacher for ten years. I’ve worked with all ages. And something I regularly speak of to my adolescent and adult students is the story you just shared about schemas. Schemas are a psychological construct that we use when we try to make sense of the world. It leads to generalizations, so when someone thinks of the word “Cat,” a specific image comes to mind, which can be different for each person. It doesn’t allow for the many versions of cat that can come to mind, and it can impede our view of the very image in front of us. Art can be a tool for so much more than seeing an object as it really is. As you suggest in your writing above, this way of perceiving changes my experience with family, friends, when I travel, learning, you name it. I wish more people would embrace the arts as a tool for personal growth and development. Thank you for your arts based example!

  31. Scott Asai says:

    Very good illustration. It reminds me of drawing on the right side of your brain. It’s a hard skill to re-learn, once you’ve built bad habits, but a worthwhile one re-investing in. Thanks for the reminder.

  32. […] Adding this timely link // What if it’s not your skill that’s holding you back, but your ability to see? […]

  33. Sara says:

    Thank you! We see differently – and we shouldn’t feel that we are the ones who get it wrong!! The world is currently skewed towards logical thinking – that is how we learn at school – at last there is an understanding that those weird kids gazing out the window are not stupid they are seeing things differently…..

  34. […] Fields is one of those people who comes at his topics in an unusual way. Take this story about two people who were asked to draw a cat. The first, a business-type, drew a stick figure cat, like we drew as kids. The other, an artist, […]

  35. Sean Rogers says:

    There’s a great book related to this: On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes.