book cover
“Insights change our understanding by shifting the central beliefs – the anchors – in the story we use to make sense of events.”

Seeing What Others Don’t Book Review

Seeing What Others Don’t by Gary Klein, 2013


If you have ever had a sudden flash of inspiration or seen something in a completely new way, then that’s an insight! Insights “transform how you understand, act, see and feel.” In this book the author proposes a way of understanding how we arrive at insights.

Cognitive scientist Gary Klein collected and analysed 120 stories of human experiences that altered someone’s “core beliefs.” His analysis of these stories persuaded him that “connections, coincidences, curiosities, contradictions and creative desperation” were the markers of insight. Once we have had such insights our understanding, behaviours, perceptions and desires can all be shifted.

So What? 

“We are built to notice associations and coincidences and we are also built to detect anomalies, inconsistencies, irregularities.”

If we fail to be insightful, we expose ourselves to poor judgement, flawed decisions and unnecessary failure. In place of the established model of “preparation, incubation, illumination and verification” the author suggests we have insights when we are working hard to find a solution or an alternative, we notice flaws or inconsistencies and we do things in new or different ways. Case studies about insight reveal that it emerges from five different sources:

  • Connections happen when new information intersects with old data to form a discovery. People connect the dots!
  • Coincidences and seemingly chance incidents may signal a pattern.
  • Contradictions breed insight when new data doesn’t align with an existing belief. Sometimes a suspicious mind can be helpful!
  • Curiosities occur when further thought has been provoked by an observation. Alexander Fleming observed that an accidental contamination of mould destroyed the staphylococcus bacteria in a petri dish. Further research led to the discovery of penicillin.
  • Creative desperation occurs when for example chess players trapped in seemingly inescapable situations on the chessboard have to quickly generate alternative solutions.

The opportunity to gain insights arise when we are open to and aware of the five different sources. Insights are lost or blocked when we discourage speculation – “flawed beliefs, lack of experience, a passive stance or a concrete reasoning style” inhibit flashes of fresh inspiration or realization.”

Now What?

The author points out that most organisations are structured to conform to systems designed to reduce errors – the ‘down’ arrow – by “imposing tighter standards, increasing controls, identifying assumptions, increasing the number of reviews and adhering to schedules”. All of these interventions inhibit our capacity to arrive at, and celebrate, insights.

Klein’s solution is to increase the strength of the ‘up’ arrow by encouraging discoveries and sharing them via stories throughout the organisation. Individuals who are invited to be curious are simultaneously promoting insight and entertaining unexpected theories.