Be a first-class noticer

Don’t overlook the obvious.

Have you ever faced a situation at work and wondered, “How could this have happened?” or “Why didn’t I see that coming?

  • You lose a bid for a project you assumed was a lock.
  • You learn employee engagement scores are much lower than expected.
  • You discover that your top salesperson is leaving for a competitor.

Even the best of us fail to recognize the signs that are hiding in plain sight. It could be the result of willful blindness. Or a lack of self-awareness. But when we aren’t picking up on the clues and cues around us, we get second-class data, make second-class decisions, and end up with second-class outcomes.

The solution? Become a first-class noticer.

First-class noticers do more than just pay attention. They observe and absorb situational and behavioral patterns. The term “noticer” was coined by Noble prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow in his 1997 novella, The Actual. In the story, Bellow’s protagonist, Harry Trellman, catches the eye of a wealthy financier, Sigmund Adletsky, who brings Harry into his inner circle because of his extraordinary “first class noticer” skills.

And for good reason: Noticing can be a competitive advantage. It allows us to spot trends before they emerge and consider the long-term consequences of short-term conditions. First-class noticing helps us become more aware of what others are thinking or feeling without them even saying a word. It spares us from making costly errors and enables us to size up business opportunities and threats. At its core, first-class noticing sharpens our understanding of people and situations and positions us for more informed decision-making.

Some people are natural-born noticers. They can recall the agitated look on a coworker’s face during a meeting. They can discern the non-verbal reactions of a client during a sales pitch. They remember who was taking notes during the all-hands meeting and who was checking social media. And then there’s everybody else, who somehow manage to overlook the obvious.

How can we become first-class noticers? By starting with small acts to build our awareness.

Set aside judgement

Too often, we pay more attention to what we’re looking for rather than what we’re looking at. (The “monkey business” illusion makes that abundantly clear.) These visual blinders keep us from seeing the whole picture, or worse, cause us to distort it entirely. A good rule of thumb: When you size up a situation – how people or places look, sound and feel – be a reporter, not an op-ed writer. Describe what you see, not what you think it means. Without that objectivity, it’s much harder to spot the patterns or connections hiding in plain sight.

Challenge initial assumptions

Sometimes we miss information simply because we don’t want to acknowledge it exists. Psychologists call this “bounded awareness” – the tendency to notice things that fit inside the bounds of our preconceived beliefs. As a countermeasure, it’s vital to challenge our assumptions. Are we seeing the picture clearly? Have we ignored something important?

A good way to stretch the bounds of awareness is to seek alternate perspectives. Ask a colleague or trusted partner to put forth their point of view.  Since different people have different bounds of awareness, getting multiple views can help us see past our blinders.

Build a noticing habit

Noticing is conscious choice. When we pay attention to the way we pay attention, our visual field become sharper and more deliberate. To train myself on becoming a first-class noticer, I designate time each day for “noticing bursts” – short, intentional periods of time when I heighten my visual awareness. At first, this can be very difficult. Given our bias for action, we’re more naturally drawn into a state of doing, not being. My initial “noticing bursts” lasted barely a minute. But with time and practice, I’ve managed to sustain my awareness for longer stretches of time.

We’re living in an age of busyness, distraction and disconnection. But when take time to engage with our surroundings, challenge our beliefs and assumptions, and reflect on what’s right in front of us, we can become first-class noticers. What we see might just surprise us.


  • Build a habit of being mindful of your surroundings, especially familiar ones.
  • Keep an observation journal detailing irregular occurrences, sounds, and events happening around you. This builds a habit of observing details. You can also do this conscientiously without writing everything down.
  • When talking to others, take into account their body language.


  • Overload yourself with stimuli to the point of distraction.
  • Check email/social media incessantly.
  • Schedule deep focus activities at high-activity moments in your day.

Leave a Reply