There are life lessons that if learned and applied, can change the trajectory of your life and solidify the foundation of your growth. I learned my biggest life lesson in 2005 while I was in graduate school working on my chemistry master’s thesis. It’s a lesson on being a keen observer and how we can use the power of observations to cut through the noise, gain greater clarity, and expedite our success.
Completing a Master’s of Science in North America typically takes a couple of years. The first year focuses on coursework. My classmates and I attended classes, wrote tests, and completed projects. In the second year we split up into our perspective research groups and worked on our individual thesis projects in the laboratory. We had one year to complete a research project and write about our results.
One year is not a very long time to work on a chemistry project. Often I spent a few days on an experiment only to find that it didn’t work and I needed to try a different approach. The good news was that there were others in my group working with similar types of compounds – small sugars with somewhat similar functional groups. Although our research paths were different, and our sugar compounds had different characteristics, the ones that closely resemble each other’s structure behaved similarly in experiments. I learned that I could save myself a lot of time by paying attention to and learning from others’ failures and successes.
My project was to synthesize a novel sugar product using a 13-step process. This wouldn’t have been a problem to complete in a year except that once I started the experiments I found each step had an average of only 30-50% yield, which meant by the time I got to step 6 I barely had enough compound to move forward. I only had four months left to finish my thesis and I was stuck on step 6. I had to repeat steps 1-6 over and over again to try to accumulate enough product. This slowed me down a lot. The bottleneck was the purification steps. Chemical reactions not only produce the product you desire but also a whole bunch of by-products that you need to remove before moving onto the next step. To purify, I ran my crude product slowly through a long vertical column packed with silica gel to carefully separate each chemical.
One day I passed by my labmate’s bench and was thoroughly confused. He was purifying his crude product using recrystallization. Without going into too much detail, recrystallization is much faster and easier than silica gel columns. All you do to recrystalize is dissolve your crude product in a right solution and wait for the pure product to crystalize out. Then you decant the left over solution that contains all the by-product junk.
But sugar compounds form a syrup and don’t usually recrystalize, so the only way to purify them is to run them through a silica gel column. When I asked my labmate about it, he said he found a research paper where they successfully recrystallized a sugar molecule and he was curious to see if it worked for him. After learning about the research paper I immediately went back to my bench and created five different test solutions to experiment recrystallization with. I dissolved my crude product in the five test solutions and left them overnight. The next morning I came back to find two of them had formed white crystals! I ran a test to see what these crystals were. It turned out the first solution’s crystals weren’t pure and it had a bunch of junk mixed in. But the second solution – the crystals were the pure desired compound! I was ecstatic! Once I found this method I purified all my crude compounds and accumulated so much material in no time, which easily allowed me to complete the rest of the steps of my project.
Keeping awareness of and keenly observing my surroundings allowed me to find the answer to my problem and complete my thesis successfully. Since then I’ve applied what I learned to all areas of my life. I have become a keen observer of people, methods, and procedures. I seek out the people who are doing what I want to do and follow them closely and try to learn from their successes as well as their failures.
Keen observation is how we learned when we were children – by observing and listening-in on activities of adults and other kids. Numerous studies in the behaviorist tradition have determined that observation can be very effective for learning (Abravanel & Ferguson 1998). For example, children can learn complex concepts – conservation, rules of games, categorization schemes, or rules of syntax – from modeled examples, without explanations (Zimmerman & Rosenthal 1974). Findings indicate that people learn from observing models on television and other media. For example, children are able to learn new vocabulary words after exposure to television stories that contained those words (Huston & Wright 1998). Learning through observation of television and other media, as well as with companions has been shown to be highly effective.
In our schooling much of this observation based learning is replaced by learning from textbooks and lectures and we often forego the power of keen observations as we grow up. As adults, we have much to learn about a life well lived through observing other people’s habits and mindsets. Habits include behavior patterns, routines, and how one spends their time. And you can get a sense of people’s mindset by paying attention to how they talk about themselves or others, how they talk about obstacles, challenges, mistakes, and failures. Comparing their habits and mindset to how their lives unfold – how much satisfaction they have with themselves, at work, and in their relationships – can teach us lessons that take years to learn otherwise. Our habits and mindsets create our lives. If you like the direction of someone’s life, you can learn a lot about how they got there by paying attention.
There is also a lot of learning that can be achieved from observing others’ mistakes and failures. You do not have to make mistakes to learn from them, instead you can save a whole lot of time avoiding others’ mistakes. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.” If you see that a person is unhealthy and miserable, you can observe their habits and mindset to help you make different choices in your own life.
Keen observation is how the best world leaders have responded to the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic, learning from the experiences of other countries and implementing strategies accordingly. A big part of becoming successful is not deciding what to do, but also what to avoid. With the same resources, knowledge, and opportunities, we can substantially expedite progress by remaining open to learning from not just our own experiences, but others as well. Keen observation holds the power to an exponential boost to our success.