I’m a starter. A person who starts things, makes things. I’m a little bit addicted to the blank page, the open field, the undefined future.
In my career as a magazine editor, I was a part of four start-ups and led the rebirths of two magazines. I’ve written one book and am at work on another, lining up words and ideas and moving them around the page until they eventually add up to a focused emotional experience.
Seeing what isn’t yet there and building it? That’s my specialty.
But I want to share a secret about how to have “vision” — a talent that is generally attributed to a person’s having unusual creativity; the ability to pull, seemingly from thin air, an idea that is so relevant and alive we can’t resist it.
It seems like vision is magic — yanking the rabbit out of a hat — but for me, my vision has always come from a very simple and readily available resource: seeing people in the world around me very, very clearly.
Remember that chilling line Haley Joel Osmond uttered in “The Sixth Sense”? “I see dead people.”
Well, I see live people.
When I meet someone, I have a sixth sense that fires up. It comes from a hundred actual observations I can name—that person’s body language, how he laughs, her level of engagement, the way his eyes move—but it also comes from just receiving them, feeling their energy or anxiety or enthusiasm, and seeing how they carry that. I usually don’t judge or react to these things; I just see it.
In my magazine work, I talked to my teams about our job being to “witness” our readers. And by that I meant “see” our audience, give them a sense of being known and understood through the articles we wrote, the photos we chose, to address both their desires and motivations as well as plumb their fears. Doing this work with the goal of creating an environment of empathy on every page. Meet the readers where they are in their lives and give them that moment of, “Yes, that’s me, that’s my life you’re talking about” within the magazine.
Remember that chilling line Haley Joel Osmond uttered in “The Sixth Sense”? “I see dead people.” Well, I see live people.
Witnessing is journalism’s great skill, a skill that is more and more rare in our overheated, internet-shoutfest culture. And that skill is the ability to remove oneself from any equation, conversation and situation and just see: take in information, visually, intellectually, emotionally, in a pure, unbiased way, without one’s own natural filter casting its color on the moment. Think Instagram: You may see the world in Valencia, and I may see it in Hefe. That choice doesn’t make either of us inherently wrong.
The most valuable vision has no filter, because that is how you can see people most clearly and receive information the most plainly. And that’s a skill—a gift, I’d argue—that any of us can learn.
When I took over Redbook magazine in 2004, it was very much a laundry-and-sex tips magazine, a holdover from the time when magazines were primers on how to do. But at that time, women were turning to the internet in large numbers, writing very naked journals on this new thing called “blogs.” They were sharing stories and questions about how to be, writing posts about wine and sippy cups and mom fails and tears and insecurities and the relentless poignancy inherent in motherhood.
I saw the motivations behind the posts: they were stories of the identity struggles of becoming a wife and mother, disappearing into caring for other people while also at the same time trying to hold onto the woman you want to be — you get to be — just for yourself.
“I see you,” I wanted to say to every single wife and mother in America. Or at least the 4 million of them who were reading Redbook. “I see who you are.” I knew the magazine needed to be about connections: with friends, with husbands or partners, and most important, with oneself. I resolved to add more essays, be more honest about the hard stuff (see also, staying connected to husbands or partners), and incorporate more joy and brightness into the magazine — small delights and distractions from the endless pressure of life tasks, whether a lipstick or a gorgeous fashion shoot of clothes anyone can afford.
In my first months at the magazine, I held staff meetings in which I would express this vision for the magazine. But before I talked about any of that, I started with this: “Close your eyes. Sit and think about yourself and why you came to New York City. What it is you wanted when you started working in magazine publishing. What it is you love most about living in this big, bustling city, in your fun, cool job.” People were smiling, nodding. Then I said, “Now, what I want you to do every morning when you walk through those glass doors to come to work is to put all those thoughts and reasons into a basket. Because those motivations have absolutely nothing to do with the Redbook reader.”
I carry that basket for setting myself aside everywhere I go, and not just for work. That basket got me through my divorce — so I could set aside my own anger to see my husband’s pain clearly enough to be able to forgive both of us the failure of our marriage. (Not everything is about you.) I use it when my son is having a such a crazy-making fit over not being able to take the bus to school today. (It’s because his friends are just that important to him right now, dummy.) And I use it when I’m falling in love, letting in that person in all his his-ness, so I can be sure I’m seeing him and not what I want him to be for me. (Because therein lies heartbreak, folks. Can I see a show of hands from others who have walked that road of well-intentioned blindness with me? Thank you.)
In fact, more often than saying “I love you,” this man and I say to each other: “I see you.”
I see you. I witness you. I know you. The you you are in yourself.
This is the greatest gift we can give the people in our lives: to try to see them openly, without judgment. To understand their motivations — even if they aren’t the motivations we ourselves would choose. To notice whether they are fulfilled most by laughter or hugs or shiny objects. To observe where they stumble and how they act when they succeed. To register the whole picture of who they are, individual quirks and talents recognized, weaknesses forgiven as a necessary part of any personality.
People can’t help telling you who they are — but the trick is that most of the time they don’t use words to do that. So you have to rely on more than your ears. You have to use your vision.
We may easily lionize the visionaries of American business for building our future. But in my mind, seeing people plainly and clearly for who they are is the greatest “vision thing” I know.
(Photo credit: Stocksy.com)