Watch and learn

Enya Eettickal, Staff Writer

People always are a little skeptical when I tell them I find people-watching to be a valuable use of my time. But as a writer, I stand by that. Watching how people interact, how they speak and how they hold themselves has always been the best way for me to learn how to write realistic characters and dialogue. 

For this article, when I refer to watching, I’m not referring to just lectures or staring at diagrams. When talking about watching and learning, I’m referring to observing other people execute certain skills and abilities and trying to analyze and understand what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and how to emulate it. This applies to almost any skill, from building pots in an art studio, cutting onions in a kitchen, gesturing for public presentations or cutting and styling your hair. Watching others do any of these things can greatly aid in the process of achieving said skill on your own.

You may think this is pretty self-explanatory, and I did as well. But recently, I’ve seen many people openly and actively reject watching as a form of learning. They’d rather just try and build a pot themselves, or take the knife and figure out how to chop vegetables along the way. Some seem to find watching others practice public speaking boring and have deemed it unhelpful. So the question then becomes: why? Why are some people so averse to visual learning? 

I’ve found it to stem from one of two things. Either they’re impatient, prideful or both. Some people get too antsy waiting to execute a skill they want, whether it be because they’re restless or overly excited. But regardless, they can’t dedicate the mental capacity necessary to watching before they get into it. The other option is that they find watching others to be an admission of inability. To watch someone else perform a specific skill as a form of learning requires the acknowledgment of two things—the person you are watching is proficient at a particular skill, and they are more skilled or knowledgeable than you are on this subject. Some people can’t find it in themselves to admit that they’d benefit from someone else’s help or have things they can learn from people other than themselves. 

The consequences of not being open to learning by watching are unfortunate. The biggest problem you risk running into is making foreseeable and unnecessary mistakes. Now, there’s no issue with making mistakes. However, rookie mistakes are obnoxious, especially when they’re easily avoidable. By closing yourself to learning exclusively from instructions and first-hand experience, you make many preliminary mistakes already pre-established and foreseen by people who are better versed in a skill. And while those preliminary mistakes may be trivial, there are also instances where they aren’t. If you mess up cutting a vegetable, you can grab another one to chop. But mishandling clay can cause cracks or explosions, and messing up an experimental haircut can leave you wearing hats for a full month till it grows back to a manageable state. 

Additionally, you risk building bad habits. With public speaking, for example, watching others before trying to develop as a speaker can create a solid foundation of skills. Forcing yourself to learn from experimenting may mean that small ticks—improper eye contact, stiff gestures or odd speaking patterns—may develop and integrate into your habits. And while they can be course-corrected down the line, bad habits die hard.

Now you may be saying, ‘Enya, what if it’s just a difference in learning style?’ And I think that’s a valid counterargument. But anecdotally, I have a hard time believing it. If that were the case, then in theory, people who reject visual learning would develop their skills at the same rate as those who participate and prefer visual learning. But often, that’s not the case. People commit to a path of trial and error instead of finally agreeing to learn visually. And I’ve seen people admit that visual learning may be a better path, expediting a success rate of learning better. 

Often, the path toward visual learning is a mental shift. Whether it’s dedicating time to slowing down and being more patient or acknowledging a little help never hurts anyone, try and get to a space where you feel like you can designate time to watch in an engaged and active manner. From there, find a teacher, instructor, friend or classmate you consider proficient and patient. If you can’t find anyone who fits your criteria for a mentor, YouTube should be a great resource. And after that, just watch. Take time to observe and analyze before trying to imitate. If visual learning is really not your speed, then more power to you. But if it’s something you’re willing to give a try, I hope that you find watching and learning to be a powerful skill in itself.