An ex-FBI agent on deception, espionage, interrogation, and reading people.

Is Observation the Key to Everything?

Lessons from a great observer on the single most important skill for success

When I am asked what is the number one skill that differentiates the average from the good and the good from the exceptional, it has to be the ability to observe.

What made Leonardo DaVinci perhaps the best painter of all time was his ability to observe. His notebooks are filled with illustrations of his observations of everything from fortress walls, to how birds move their wings, to how horses move, to how dissected muscles interconnect in and around the face. He is arguably the greatest observer of all time and no doubt contributed to his artistic skills, especially the details of human anatomy.

Which brings me to this. Throughout history, no matter who the great inventor or innovator (DaVinci, Franklin, Edison, Curie, et. al.) their key distinction is their ability to observe. Steve Jobs, as quirky and mean spirited (and that’s from his chosen biographer Walter Isaacson) as he was, he was also a phenomenal observer.

Steve Jobs loved to go down to the design laboratory run by the unequaled Jonathan Ive (the designer of Apple’s most successful products) on the first floor of the Apple campus in Cupertino, California. He and only a few other high executive had access to all the devices under development. There, in a room he had helped design, painted in white and very sterile, he could walk up to the white lab desks and pick up the latest devices. He could hold them up to the light, touch them, play with them, in essence explore them and enjoy them.

Steve Jobs understood the power of observation, especially through all the senses. Seeing was important but so was touching, sensing, and smelling. For him the use of space and distance as well as appearance mattered. So too were colors. Aesthetics, to Steve Jobs was important because he too was a consumer, he too liked to shop and he wanted it to be a pleasant experience.

He watched others as they shopped and immediately recognized what other retailers were doing wrong. He was especially critical of how mobile phones and technology was being sold.

Before Steve Jobs came along shopping for a cell phone was one of two experiences. It was either like buying chocolates (you could look at it behind a glass counter but you couldn’t touch) or it was like a public health clinic where you took a number and sat in cheap folding chairs waiting your turn.

Steve Jobs understood how people like to interact with technology. He himself understood what it felt like to be able to hold a product in his hands, unencumbered, to experience it visually as well as through the other senses. He got to do this in his own design lab. He wanted others to enjoy that also.

So he decided to do the unheard of, create an Apple Store. Keep in mind, there were a lot of smart people around Steve Jobs who said don’t get into retail sales, don’t buy real estate, don’t get into the store business this is a bad idea. They said so because they were poor observers of humans, even though very smart when it came to technology. They did not understand, as a good observer would, that you can create an experience if you create the right place, with the right ambiance, with the right color, with good access to products, spaced out properly where humans can interact with them. His critics and his friends said this was a mistake and would be a total failure.

Steve Jobs simply understood people better. Today Apple stores have a higher return on investment per square foot than any other store in America, perhaps the world. The Apple Store in New York alone out sells every other store in New York including Saks and Bloomingdales (Isaacson 2011, 344 - 376). People are willing to stand in line and have that experience (visual, tactile, sensory) because there is great satisfaction in doing so; the same kind Steve Jobs derived when he visited his design lab. What he observed and felt he knew he could replicate.

Steve Jobs observed the world, in the same way as DaVinci, Franklin, Edison, and Curie did – with infinite curiosity and attention to detail; while everyone else was merely looking at the world around them.

Those who have the ability to observe have better will achieve more because they will perceive the needs of others, empathize more fully, and they will be able to act faster because they observe earlier. That’s what makes for exceptional individuals – the power to observe


Isaacson, Walter. 2003. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster  Paperbacks.

Isaacson, Walter. 2011. Steve Jobs. New York: Little, Brown.

Navarro, Joe. 2010. Louder Than Words. New York: Harper Collins.

Navarro, Joe. 2008. What Every Body Is Saying. New York: Harper Collins.

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Joe Navarro is the author of the International Bestsellers, What Every Body is Saying, as well as Louder Than Words. For additional information and a free bibliography please contact him through www.jnforensics.com or follow on twitter: @navarrotells or on Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Joe-Navarro/236255193080893  Additional Psychology Today Articles: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/spycatcher

Copyright © 2013 Joe navarro


Joe Navarro is a former FBI Counterintelligence Agent and is the author of What Every Body is Saying. He is an expert on nonverbal communications and body language.


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