Living in New York, there is no shortage of things to see. Too much, really. At a recent gathering, I noticed how often I look for the same iconic buildings. Sometimes it keeps me from seeing other gems in the city. My focus is on what I know, what I want to see. And it is a microcosm of the way I perceive everything in my life.
The Chrysler and the others
We gathered on the rooftop of a building that is something around forty stories high. I’ve lived in NYC for almost two years, but the kinds of views from these places never cease to amaze me. As we did a quick assessment of the concrete jungle all around us, we immediately noticed the Chrysler Building just a few blocks away. We were almost nose-to-nose with it.
The Chrysler Building is one of my favorites in the city. Along with a couple others, I search the skyline for this iconic building. I point it out to those around me. I smile and think about the beauty of the city.
As we continued to scan the scenery, my wife noticed a building with four unicorn gargoyles perched on its edges. There were buildings of different colors, shapes, and sizes. There were people on other rooftops, the rushing river pressing against Roosevelt Island, and a dizzying parade of traffic far below.
Why We Look Where We Look
The same pattern has informed my daily perspective in ways much more important than city skylines. I see what I am looking for. I see my best intentions. I see the way other peoples’ actions hurt me. I see negativity.
In short: I see what I want to see. I see what I am looking for. What am I looking for and why am I looking for it?
Just like with the Chrysler Building, I am looking for what I already know. When I moved to the city, I was already familiar with the Chrysler Building and have been looking for it ever since. There is a kind of safety in seeing it. A safety that is not inherently bad.
There is comfort to familiarity, even if that thing we are familiar with is bad. I find myself repeating negative behaviors simply because they have been practiced and reinforced in my past. I repeat what I know and I cling to what I know.
The patterns of my life are constantly searching to validate themselves. I walk out the door with certain predispositions, biases, and preferences. These perceptions feed on themselves and I spend my day looking for evidence to validate and reinforce what I already know.
All of this happens rather subconsciously. I am so used to seeing things the way that I do, so used to looking for what I’m looking for, that it becomes a second nature. We call this system one thinking, a patterned behavior that has become so familiar I do it without even thinking about it (think driving a car or tying a shoe).
Some of my patterns are good, some have been developed to teach me how the world works, how to operate within society safely, and how to calculate my risks, and some of my patterns are bad. They are too self-serving, too exclusive, too rooted in fear of the unknown. And some of my patterns are just not good enough. They are incomplete, just like the Chrysler alone is an incomplete representation of the New York skyline.
In order to see more, I have to look for more. On the rooftop, I was frozen, trapped in a little area, inviting my scanning eye to slow down and see more. I was also at a different angle. My system one was strained, slowing me down and inviting me into system two.
The key to seeing more is slowing down and looking with intention. The fast pace of modern society and the cult of busyness keeps us from exploring more than the rushed agendas we have set for ourselves. Until we slow down and take in the sights and smells and relationships and opportunities around us, we will miss some of the hidden gems we pass by every single day.