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 greatest painter of all time was his ability to observe. His notebooks are filled with his illustrated 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, especially of the details of human anatomy, which no doubt contributed to his artistic success.

Which brings me to this: Throughout history, no matter who the innovator (DaVinci, Franklin, Edison, Curie, etc.) their key distinction is their ability to observe.

Steve Jobs, as quirky and mean-spirited as he may have been (and that’s from his chosen biographer, Walter Isaacson), was also a phenomenal observer. He loved to go down to the lab run by the unequaled Jonathan Ive (designer of many of Apple's most successful products) on the first floor of the company's campus in Cupertino, California. He and only a few other top executives had access to all the devices under development there. In that sterile room, painted white, which Jobs had helped design, he could walk up to the white lab desks, pick up the latest models, touch them, play with them, hold them up to the light, explore them and enjoy them.

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

Before developing the model for the Apple store, he watched others as they shopped and immediately recognized what other retailers were doing wrong. He was especially critical of how mobile phones and related devices were being sold. Before Jobs's innovations, 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.

Jobs understood that people liked to interact with the technology they were considering. He 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. It's what he did in his own design lab. He wanted others to experience that as well.

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 consumers, even if brilliant when it came to technology. They did not understand, as a good observer would, that you can create a great experience if you create the right place, with the right ambiance, the right color, with good access to products spaced out properly where people could interact with them.

His critics and his friends said the Apple stores would be a total failure.

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. One Apple Store in Manhattan alone outsells every other store in the New York City, including Saks and Bloomingdales (Isaacson 2011, 344-376). People are willing to stand in line for the satisfaction inherent in that visual, tactile, and sensory experience. What Jobs felt in his design lab he knew he could replicate for the public.

Jobs observed the world in the same way as DaVinci, Franklin, Edison, and Curie—with infinite curiosity and attention to detail—while everyone else was merely looking.

Those who have the ability to observe well have the capacity to achieve more, empathize more fully, act faster, and innovate 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.

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

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