In The Adventure of Silver Blaze, a famous racehorse “Silver Blaze” goes missing on the eve of an important race.
During the investigation, Scotland Yard detective Gregory asked Sherlock Holmes: “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time,” Holmes responded.
“The dog did nothing in the night-time,” Gregory said.
“That was the curious incident,” Holmes said.
For Holmes, the absence of the dog’s barking was a clear sign that the dog knew the intruder.
But most of us wouldn’t even have considered this, let alone dismiss it. We’re so accustomed to observing only what happens that we fail to observe what hides in plain sight.
Why We Cannot See What is Invisible
It doesn’t take a lot to notice what’s missing. Yet, it skips our attention over and over again because we get in our own way.
We overwhelm our senses with irrelevant information. In this information era, we’re too busy consuming content to let our minds do anything else. When we encounter a phenomenon, our minds notice patterns that fit our experiences and past experiences. But they don’t pay deep attention to details.
This pattern-noticing shorthand is important for the brain to conserve energy. And that’s good. Imagine how drained you’d feel within an hour if you paid deep attention to everything.
But this desire to conserve energy makes the brain apply the shorthand everywhere. The result is that we rush to label things without pausing to think what’s missing. It’s like having so much fun at a party that you fail to notice that a good friend didn’t turn up.
I’ll let Holmes prove this again.
He and Watson went camping one day. They pitched their tent under the stars and went to sleep. In the middle of the night, Holmes woke Watson up and asked, “Watson, look up at the stars and tell me what you deduce.”
Watson said, “I see millions of stars and even if a few of those have planets, it’s quite likely there are some planets like Earth, and if there are a few planets like Earth out there, there might also be life.”
Holmes said, “Watson you idiot, somebody’s stolen our tent!”
Reputation is another reason why people get in their own way. A man’s reputation – at work and outside – is tied with what he knows. That’s why he focuses too much on it and seldom stops to ask himself, “What am I missing here?”
Case in point, the Yom Kippur War in 1973. In the preceding months, the Directorate of Military Intelligence had received plenty of warning indicators of an imminent attack from Egypt and Syria. But Eli Zeira, the general who oversaw operations at the Directorate, ignored them all because he believed that neither country had an air force or long-range missiles powerful enough to challenge Israel’s superior firepower.
In spite of not having either of these, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel who were horribly underprepared for war. Israel repelled the armies of both countries, but at a huge cost.
Over 30,000 Egyptian and Syrian soldiers were estimated to have died. More than 10,000 Israeli soldiers were killed or wounded. An Israeli newspaper wrote, “The state was saved, but our faith was fractured, our trust damaged, our hearts deeply gouged, and an entire generation was nearly lost.”
All this because Zeira built a wall around what he knew – that Egypt and Syria were no match for Israel’s superior airpower. By his own admission decades later, in the buildup to the war, Zeira failed to ask himself, “What am I missing here?”
A New Way to Look at Situations
When you’re thoroughly convinced about something, ask yourself, “What information could make me change my mind here?” This question forces you to resist the desire to apply the mental shorthand. Instead of seeing a phenomenon straight on, this question will help you look at it from different angles and find missing pieces of the puzzle.
These missing pieces can turn scenarios on their heads.
Holmes gave the investigation of the missing horse a new perspective by pointing out that the dog didn’t bark.
If Zeira had asked himself “What am I missing here?”, he would probably have spotted red flags and the Yom Kippur War could’ve been averted.
Steve Jobs figured out what the technology world was missing and pushed his teams to give us the iPod, iPhone, iPad, and MacBook.
Most people are trying to improve what’s already there. This yields tiny improvements in what they’re already doing. But you cannot do the same things as everyone else and expect different results. If you want to level up, something in you has to change.
Let that change begin with your perspective.