This is an excerpt from a piece I'm working on: Life and How I Missed It, A Complete Guide to Situational Awareness. This is from the opening pages.

I have a friend who checks the weather every morning on TV, and another who looks out the window. They get much the same answer, but my window-staring friend knows a whole lot more about local cloud cover and a whole lot less about the weather in, say, Singapore. Not that the monsoon isn’t vastly important, it’s just not as important to someone living in Tennessee. Situational Awareness is a term used about by pilots and means knowing what’s going on around you in enough detail to do something about it. SA means knowing where you are, how you got there and where you’re headed next. It means not getting lost in a “strange” city since all cities are very much alike. It means knowing the names of all the roads around your home since that’s where you live. It means knowing your body and what it can really do – since you tried it out to see.

Where Are We, Again?
Someone once told me that cyberspace is where your mind is when you’re on the telephone. Visualizing the other person and your own thoughts, you can become blissfully unaware of what’s happening in the room with you. With the increased popularity of Bluetooth headsets for cellphones it's becoming hard to discern paranoid schitzophrenia from simple cellphone use. A good friend recently showed me the the new hand signal for "Are you talking on the headset?" which looked to me very much like the Italian gesture for "He's crazy". A guy walking along in dirty rags mumbling and arguing with a park bench is probably nuts. If he's well dressed, he could just be on the phone. Probably nuts too, but let's not put too fine a point on it. Fact is, if you're on the phone and off in space you've shut down most of your highly evolved senses in favor of a low bit rate voice connection to someplace else. This is probably not good for knowing what's going on here.

For the millennia of our evolution we’ve learned to adapt and overcome obstacles to our growth. Some people just have a ”sense” for what’s going on around them, and some people have the near psychic ability to foretell what’s going to happen next. You can too, you just need a little more information, and you need to load it into your subconscious so it can do the sorting and heavy lifting while you’re off doing something else.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a neat little book called Blink, which was about making decisions without a lot of rigorous analysis based on what you already know but may not realize you know. It's essentially Bayesian probability without the mathematics, which means you can talk about it at parties (mathematicians just don't get the A List invites). In the book, Gladwell tells a story about a marble sculpture that was perfect in every way, but an expert at the Getty just knew it was wrong, somehow. The statue was a beautifully executed fake, but how did he know? He had an Awareness that something wasn’t right, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. It just felt wrong.

So, where does all this buried, unconscious knowledge come from? How did Gladwell's expert know so viscerally something he couldn’t explain he knew? Let's go for a ride and I'll show you what I've found out so far.

Driving and Flying
Ever been in a vehicle with someone who speeds up and slows down with the conversation? This is a case of attention being split between where the driver is and where the driver is thinks he is. By becoming fixated in the stream of conversation, our driver forgets to drive. You don't have to let your mind wander to see what's going on around you, just not become fixated on a single point to the exclusion of all else.


You can pick up a lot from your surroundings if you allow the focus of your attention to sweep instead of stare. As an example, this is what I do when I'm on a long ride to Memphis, Johnson City or someplace else I can't fly at the moment. Try it and see how much you can learn without learning it (thanks Lao-Tze!).

Every time you pass a road sign, truck, anything with text on it READ IT. If you pass Flat Shoals road, then pass another exit for Flat Shoals road you learned something: Flat Shoals road is a loop. You see a truck that says Covenant Trucking, Chattanooga,TN on the side. You now know a truck line in Chattanooga, and given the name, and the Pro Life bumper sticker, you also know something about the people who run the company.

Reading license plates is always a good idea, even it just to see where the car is from. Lots of Florida plates in the mountains of North Carolina? The leaves will be changing soon. An inordinate number of Carolina and Tennessee plates in Alabama? Must be a race weekend. There’s a wealth of useful knowledge to be had from just paying attention.

One of my favorites is to read all the billboards and see what the business climate is like. Lots of trucker billboards? Real Estate? Fast Food and Shopping? You can piece together who lives nearby and what kind of life they probably have. What do they make or grow here?

Advertising tells you not only what the advertiser wants to sell, but also tips his hand telling you who he is targeting and in what way. What do people buy here, sell here? What do they do here for fun? I've actually gone and Seen Rock City after checking out all the billboards and wonder of wonders, it was pretty amazing. A beautiful rock garden, or garden among the rocks, later layered with the Truly Tacky you come to expect in roadside attractions. Rock City was once the private preserve of a wealthy couple who loved their place like I love mine, who treated and planted it on much the same way as I have done 75 years later and 75 miles East. Hmm. Rhythms of Vision abound, and similar minds gravitate toward similar works of beauty. Overall, not a bad insight from a roadsign and ten bucks.

Cruising cross-country in a light airplane you also notice things when you land: the potato salad is different (yellow, white, with or without that nasty celery), the accents and dress have changed, and there are subtle hints everywhere about what these people know and do that you may not have seen before. Why is there outstanding Cajun food in Huntsville, Alabama of all places? Look around. You'll see it too.

Knowing Things You Don't
There's a wealth of information to be mined from our surroundings, but as we become more accustomed to getting our information pre-packaged in sound bites, we become less acclimated to doing the work ourselves. This dearth of localized learning, or situational awareness, also decalibrates your personal bullshit meter to some degree. When a broadcaster offers a personal opinion cloaked as fact, do you even notice it? In how much of what we take as the Truth is the message colored by the messenger? Critical thinking they called it, and it was once a college-level subject. Just training your mind to think, sort and process in the background is a powerful thing. Many times I've heard something on the radio that just rang false, and I had to look it up. Sure enough, somewhere else I heard more detail and knew the broadcaster had gotten it wrong. Global warming? Sorry, we're all out ...

As you drive or fly along, listening to the radio and looking around you're loading a frightening amount of data. Not that all of it is going to stick, or that you’ll even remember most of it. What you're doing is preloading your subconscious about the world around you that’ll turn out to be Useful in the most unlikely places. Beats me how it gets loaded or where, but it turns up Useful more often than not.

Yellow Freight? Sure they’ve got a Depot in Chattanooga. I’m pretty sure of it, but not sure how I know that. I do know they make most of the world's fire hydrants in Decatur, Illinois and that even after a life in the South I still can't talk to anyone on the Outter Banks who speaks the Old Talk they call Gullah, but I know what it is when I hear it and how it came to be. Does this stuff make me better or wiser in some way? No, but it does make life a more interesting tapestry of colors and textures than the usual grey of Strip Mall Land. There's a lot here and it's all in plain sight; hidden just well enough that you won't see it unless you want to. As I've mentioned elsewhere, some things must be believed to be seen. Everything, really.