Rob Walker's Exercises for Noticing New Things

posted by Tim Carmody May 10, 2019

Rob Walker's new book The Art of Noticing is out now. The book is structured as a series of 131 exercises, and in an interview conducted by the book's publisher, Walker explains a few of them.

KPG: If you were going to a new city or destination, which exercises would you recommend trying as a way to better explore a new place?

RW: One would be Get There The Hard way. At least once during your trip, go to some destination without taking directions from your phone. Plan out a route in advance—you can consult a paper map if you want, or written directions, just don't rely on your phone—and if you get confused, ask someone for help. Be engaged with the space you're in and the people you're around, find your way, and be open to discovery as you go.

The other is Eat Somewhere Dubious. Have one meal at a restaurant that you didn't find on Yelp or through any sort of recommendation and that doesn't even look trendy or hip. First you'll have fun keeping an eye out for it: "Is THAT our dubious restaurant?" Second, even if you have a mediocre meal, you'll have an unpredictable experience! And this, by the way, is how the best food writers make discoveries and find the places that later get hot on Yelp. So maybe you'll get lucky.

KPG: How can parents help their children be better observers? Which exercises would you recommend they do with their kids? (Any of these particularly great for long road trips or plane rides?)

RW: The one-object scavenger hunt is an easy one: let's look for security cameras, or let's look for flowers. Or maybe you let her or him pick what you'll look for together. A friend of mine does a version of this while walking his son to school, and it's "who can spot something gross?" Whatever it is you choose, you can both participate, and it gets kids involved in the world.

But something else I'd say here is that kids are often already quite good at converting everything to a game, and at seeing the world with fresh eyes—I mean, they have fresh eyes. There's a specific exercise in the book to try to see the world as a child would, so if you actually have a child handy, maybe just try to tune into what they're tuned into, and why, and what they make of it. Encourage their noticing by participating in it with them.

The question I would ask Walker is this: what are the limitations of structuring your book as a series of discrete exercises, rather than some other way?

The trouble I see is all in converting a book about noticing new things into making a book where noticing new things can be made useful. So everything is structured as an exercise for students, or as a way for folks in the business world to hone their "competitive edge." It's a byproduct of creating a buying audience for the book more than creating the serendipity of noticing as such. So there's a lot here that appeals to me, but a lot that equally turns me off.