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A Wildlife Biologist on How to Be More Observant

In elementary school I would, from time to time, get a handwritten paper returned with a teacher-note in the margin next to several grammar and syntax slip-ups: careless mistake.

No one — but no one — wants to be called careless. It stuck with me well into adulthood when I became a television producer. Producers are tasked with foreseeing every possible disaster scenario and planning for as many as they can. Something will go wrong, but it’s your job as a producer to minimize that possibility through meticulous attention to detail.

Now that many of us are working from home full-time, the potential for distraction — for careless mistakes — is elevated. The dog needs a walk, or the kids need lunch or the neighbor above is jumping rope and slapping the parquet floors with resounding abandon, the smart phone beckons you with its come-hither social feeds.

So, in the midst of everyday chaos, how do we develop a love for and proficiency at observation and detail?

Talk to someone who observes for a living.

Alex Troutman is a wildlife biologist and graduate student at Georgia Southern University, as well as an Endangered Species Observer. Recently, he participated in #BlackBirdersWeek, and is championing the powerful message of “nature is for everyone”.

Here, he shares his thoughts on observation in everyday life, accessibility, and the power of investing in the world around us:

How do you think ‘careless mistakes’ ordinarily happen?

If you get into that tunnel vision, that’s when you make some of the most mistakes, because you’re like, oh, I’ve done this a thousand times. Especially for me, the landscape can change every day with the water moving around and tide rising, so you may have walked this line a thousand times, but oh, now there’s a plant that wasn’t there before, so you step on it, or there’s a tire that came out of the ocean, and you step in it and break your leg.

So, you can’t have that tunnel vision all the time. You have to mentally prepare and take those breaks so you’re not just going through the routine.

If your attention drifts on the job, what do you do to bring it back?

For me, I know I’m going to be out there for five or six hours, sometimes more, so I go ahead and prioritize what I’m going to be doing. I try to make predetermined stops: ‘all right, I’m going to focus hard and get to this one camera trap, and then I will look at the SD card, see what I saw on it, and then I would take a minute or two break to see what’s around me. Work hard, then have a quick break to kind of decompress.

I’m in a marsh, there’s roseate spoonbills here, there’s wood storks flying around. I don’t want to put on a blinder all the time.

Three elements of being a good observer?

Slow down, stop and listen, and then embrace the unexpected.

What can the business world learn from the world of nature?

I think the business world definitely can learn, first of all, to stop and slow down. Everything is not go, go, go. Look at alligators. They’re some of the top predators, but they’re not just going in fast every day. Literally, they stop. They just sit in the water, bask out in the sun, just enjoying it. They’re not using all that energy all the time. So, I think we definitely need to learn how to slow down, and then also, we need to learn better how to work together and how to look out for each other.

What does “nature is for everyone” mean for you?

A bird is not going to say, ‘Hey, you can’t look at me. You’re black,’ or a river be like, ‘You can’t swim in me because you’re black.’ No. Nature is for everyone. It’s inclusive of all, and it doesn’t put any limits on what anybody can do or be in its setting.

What’s a good example of working together in nature?

Many times in the business world, people say it’s like a dog-eat-dog, but why can’t it be like a pack working together? Prairie dogs, some of them will go out and forage, and then there’s one that is kind of looking out for everybody, and if danger comes, it alerts everybody. Then, another one will look up and then start alerting to.

We should all work together and say, ‘Hey, there’s either danger,’ or, ‘Hey, I know this cool tip that can help you out, so let’s share it so everyone eats.’

Why is observing the world around us so important?

If you love somebody, you’re not going to just say, “Oh, I love you,” but you’re going to show them. You’re going to honor those words, buy them gifts, or whether it’s showing them off, like, “Hey, this is my partner.” So, with the world, you’re going to go out and enjoy it. You’re going to spend time with it, just like you would your partner.

Going out and observing the world is a way to honor it.

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