One evening as we dined in a cafe in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana, my youngest daughter, Jenna, opened my eyes to a secret of extraordinary coaching and leadership that I had nearly forgotten.

The cafe was located on the second floor of an old Main Street building and had huge windows that captured the stunning panorama of the Bitterroot and Sapphire mountain ranges enclosing the valley. Everyone in the cafe was eating or chatting quietly, when something caught Jenna’s attention. She walked over to the window. As she stood gazing out at the mountains, her eyes grew bright and a look of pure wonder came over her. Then, with great excitement (and considerable volume), she pointed out the window and announced for all to hear, “Look, Mommy and Daddy—we’re in heaven!”

Everyone in the restaurant lit up at her revelation. The more I thought about it, the more I realized, Jenna was right.

She had seen and felt the beauty that is always around us but that most of us pass without the slightest notice. We can so easily miss the heaven that is right before our eyes. Yet opportunities abound in our lives—when we remember to look for them.


Silent Mondays

Great leaders and coaches are extraordinarily alert, because they recognize that sometimes the smallest insight can make the biggest difference.

Every Monday during the last 35 years of his remarkable life, Mahatma Gandhi refrained from speaking. He made this choice for religious reasons, but found it also had a number of amazing and unexpected effects upon him. These silent Mondays helped Gandhi to heighten his powers of observation, to let go of defensiveness and the need to be right. Most important, never once on these days of silence did he find himself thinking about his response when another was speaking. Instead, he was truly listening.

Gandhi’s choice created the opportunity for him to develop keen alertness and sensitivity. You can build this same skill by quietly disciplining yourself to use your own senses to take in information more fully.


The Observation of a Child

In college I enrolled in a class called “Observation of Children.” The class was held once a week at a preschool located on the Stanford University campus.

Each of us enrolled in the class selected a child to be our subject for the eleven-week quarter. Our task was simple: During our three-hour weekly sessions, we were to observe everything we possibly could about our chosen subjects. At the end of the quarter, we would write a paper detailing our observations and thoughts from the experience. While observing, we were not to speak to our subjects, and we were instructed to remain as inconspicuous as possible. (Since the children were accustomed to having college students milling around, the challenge of becoming and remaining invisible was not as difficult as one would think.)

To be honest, I had enrolled in the class only to complete the developmental psychology units I needed for my major. I thought it would be a simple course, a break from the rigorous schedule I was facing that quarter. Little did I know that it would become one of the most stimulating educational experiences of my entire college career—indeed, that its impact would last me a lifetime.

Within minutes of beginning to observe the girl I had selected, I was completely enthralled. I watched her with total concentration. It soon became obvious to me that up to that moment, I had never in my entire life really observed another human being with such sustained focus. The three hours flew by so quickly they seemed like minutes.

The more I observed, the more I connected with this girl’s spirit.

I understood her perhaps as well as anyone I had ever known, though I never uttered a word to her.

Over those eleven weeks, I watched her grow and develop in her language skills, physical dexterity, courage and interpersonal relationships; it was like watching a flower blossom under time-lapse photography.


The Power of Not Thinking

I realized how quickly most of us make judgments about one another and then hold onto those initial impressions without ever giving ourselves the opportunity to gain those greater insights available to us through expanded, unselfconscious observation. If her teachers could have stepped into my shoes, they would have discovered so much more about what inspired her, what built her confidence, what sparked her curiosity.

I became acutely aware of how much I miss in most conversations with others, simply because I am so occupied with my own thoughts about what I will say next.

When we use our senses more acutely and sharpen our alertness, we discover opportunities to affect and inspire others as never before. It is a surefire strategy to become a dedicated lifelong learner—an absolute requirement for excellence.


BRIAN BIRO is a father, husband and coach.
He is author of
Beyond Success and Through the
Eyes of a Coach. He was the subject
of the lead story in our April 2004 issue.