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The Power Of Deep Observation With Christian Madsbjerg

Social media and the increasing social isolation it fosters overpowered the true meaning of connecting with others. How we connect at home, work, and beyond lies in the power of deep observation. In this episode, Christian Madsbjerg, the Author of Look: How to Pay Attention in a Distracted World, talks about the skills needed to recapture our skill to pay attention. He dives even deeper into his book to capture the essence of harnessing the power of deep observation. He shows how paying attention and understanding brings beauty into human interaction. So, let’s learn to see with more empathy, accuracy, and connection with Christian in this perceptive episode today.


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The Power Of Deep Observation With Christian Madsbjerg

Author Of Look: How To Pay Attention In A Distracted World

In this episode, my guest is Christian Madsbjerg. Christian is a Danish entrepreneur researcher philosopher and cofounder of the consulting firm Red Associates, which works with its clients to apply the human sciences to business decisions. Christian is also the author of Look: How To Pay Attention In A Distracted World, which we will cover. More generally, he writes, speaks, and teaches on the practical application of the Human Sciences. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the Financial Times, the Washington Post, and Bloomberg Businessweek. He lives in New York City with his family. Christian, welcome. It’s great to have you on the show.

Thank you so much.

Let’s start by talking about your book. Tell our audience about the premise of it.

For 25 years, I’ve been an observer my whole life as a practitioner and sort of a professional. During those years, I found my own way of how to do good observation. How do you observe human behavior, human activity, and human life in an organized way? Because of that and because the company I ran did this in a way that worked, I was asked by a university in Manhattan, it’s called The New School, to teach. Can it be taught? Can good observation or innovation as a tool for innovating be taught?

I did that class with a friend of mine for ten years. After a while, a lot of students liked it and ended up enjoying it. I was asked, “Should you make that into a book?” The book is basically the class, and the class is basically my career, in a way, or the foundation for my career. That’s how it ended up becoming 250 pages.

It’s not a thousand-page tome. It’s at least more distilled down than that. The first part of the book was new for me. I’m an engineer. There are some psychological underpinnings in what you cover that go back to 19th-century Gestalt existentialism. How do they underpin the approach that you’ve taken and your work, firm, and your class?

Philosophy was my first love. I ended up teaching philosophy when I was a professor. For me, that’s the foundation for how I think. What connects, you could say phenomenology, which is a continental philosophical tradition of the 1920s up until now. Gestalt Psychology, which is a type of psychology that had a lot of traction at the beginning of the 20th century in particular is that the way humans experience the world is as holes.

You could say the opposite would be a scientific approach which would be you take individual data points, and then add them up to a conclusion, whereas human experience doesn’t work like that. We, humans, don’t experience individual atomistic data points. We experience all of it at once. When you go into a room and there’s a chair, imagine that you don’t go through the process of saying, “It’s a chair. It’s brown. It’s made of wood.”

CSCL 87 | Deep Observation

Christian Madsbjerg: We humans don’t experience individual atomistic data points. We experience all of it at once.


You probably see the chair is connected to other chairs. You also see that the chairs have tables because you know when they’re chairs, they’re often tables and it has let’s say, forks, knives, roast chicken, and other tools around it. You don’t see data points in terms of a chair, another chair, and a chicken. You just see dinner. The way humans experience anything is as holistic as what Germans would call Gestaltz. That’s quite different from let’s say a camera, a microphone, or an AI. That’s the way we experience the world. I’m not saying it’s better. I’m saying it’s different from what a machine would do. It has big philosophical consequences that humans experience the world and perceive the world in holes rather than in discreet meaningless parts.

Do you think we walk into those situations and see the hole before the parts or see the hole on the parts simultaneously?

We see the parts in the background of the hole. You normally say the whole is more than the sum of its parts. That’s the natural way of talking about it, but I would say it’s even more than that. It is that the hole defines what even counts as a part. That would be if you go into a room and there’s dinner, you wouldn’t maybe focus on many other things in the room. That would be there. It would have color and shape. You would have a distance to it.

The dust on the floor doesn’t matter. The books on the shelves don’t matter to the setting of dinner. The hole defines what counts as a part. In Gestalt Psychology, they call it figure-ground. It’s that a figure or you could say a dot on a piece of paper is nothing without the ground, that is the paper itself. A car in the street is only a car in the background of traffic. A roast chicken is only a roast chicken on the background of all the other components that are necessary for dinner. It’d be very odd if there’s a roast chicken lying around.

The idea is that the experience of the world is that all figures, which could be everything around you, a chair, a roast chicken, or a car in the street, are always in a relationship to the background. Humans see the structure of backgrounds. We see traffic not cars. We can focus on cars and we can see which color it has and if it’s different from the others, but first and foremost, we see the cars and the background of traffic and moving people around and so on.

You use this part of the book to clear up some misconceptions or misunderstandings about observation. Can you describe a few of those that I guess trip us up when we’re seeking to observe?

There are many but one philosophical thing is called the history of empiricism, which is that the way we supposedly, at least that’s what that tradition claims, is that the world is made up of individual atomistic data points, and then it says that somehow that makes up the meaningful world that we inhabit. That’s the way we should describe what human experience is. If you pay attention to how people observe the world, that’s not how it works.

The same is that the way we see our eyes and how light hits our retinas and is then turned into us seeing the world around us. There’s a misunderstanding that that works like a camera. A camera would record what is in front of us, but that’s not how the world is experienced. An example in the book is if you stand at a train station and you see a dot far away, you have a sense that it is probably a train but you see a dot. Suddenly, that dot becomes a train. It switches from something abstract to something you know what it is.

If it was a camera it would be able to record how that dot slowly in even increments because its speed becomes bigger and bigger. If you’ve ever tried to stand on a train station and see, it’s basically small and large in a snap of experience. A camera would experience the world in what technically is going on, which is that the dot becomes bigger and ends up getting more detail and becoming a train. That’s a bad description of how we experience it. You could say we could hope it was more like a camera, but it isn’t. It’s a bad description.

With sound as well, if you hit a middle A on the piano, it’s 440 hertz that hits your eardrum. You can record that with a microphone and you can figure out the exact scientific description of that note. If you hear that A in a series of notes that are in the world of jazz, it sounds like jazz. It’s 440 Hertz, but it’s in the world of jazz. If it’s in the opera and the tenor sings an A in 440 Hertz, then it sounds more operatic. In the same, you could say that scientifically measured sounds, distances, colors, or shapes are always experienced as part of their context. The idea is that you can have context-free experiences is not the case for humans. That’s quite important. It’s a better description of how humans experience the world, then if you see it as a scientific recording.

You bring this up in the book. Humans also and almost always come into some observational exercise with some preconceived ideas about what they’re going to see. I know that you coach on the importance of suspending judgment and ingoing biases about what you’re going to see. Otherwise, you get in your own way. I’m curious to know a little bit more about how you do that.

The biggest enemy of observation seeing what’s there in the world is having opinions about things. I realized with my students that they were very well trained and increasingly trained more harshly in generating opinions or taking over other people’s opinions and being able to reproduce them. If you see the world through the lens of a very strong opinion about something then you don’t see the world. You’ve already concluded what you’re going to see rather than seeing what’s there and being surprised by the world.

It is a necessary element of observation that you try to figure out what your own opinions are and then let them go for a little while. You can always have them back later, but if you want to observe what’s going on, you should have a moment or a period of time where you try to fight it as best as you can. We always will have opinions, cultural biases, and so on but we can try to park them for a second or partially part them for a second in order to see what’s there.

Otherwise, you are seeing what you already think you know. That’s helpful for humans because it minimizes the amount of information you have to process in order to see something, but there are moments where you have to see things new and you have to see what’s there. It’s helpful to learn how to suspend judgment for a moment. It’s increasingly important because people get increasingly strong opinions about everything, and that’s the enemy of observation and therefore also the enemy of innovation.

I’m certainly thinking about the news. I try hard to find something resembling a neutral objective view of what’s going on in the world. It’s hard because short of being on the ground in a particular situation, you’re going to get a filtered version of events. You think about the examples where throngs of people protested XYZ in XYZ country. You then get into the article and it says, “Hundreds of people are protesting.” You think, “This is in a city of 10 million people. Hundreds of people is not a lot of events.” The headline sends you into that article with such bias. We’re living in a world that’s getting polarized. It makes it a lot harder to go into any situation and suspend judgment.

We're living in a world that's getting polarized. And it makes it a lot harder to go into any situation and suspend judgment. Click To Tweet

Therefore, more necessary. I mean 100 people in a demonstration is like the lunch queue to Shake Shack. That might not be traumatizing. I’m not asking for a neutral cold stance because we can do that and that’s what’s not Natural Sciences are. I’m arguing for an observation where you were immersed in the world. It’s the same if you were reading a great book or poem, or listening to a great song, it’s impossible to experience that without engaging your own humor and emotional state. It’s impossible to understand what’s going on in a song without engaging in your own world, but you can engage in a way when you’re not trying to have opinions about it immediately. It helps a lot to see how to truly experience something. I don’t think we should park our empathy and humanity. We should try to not have such ready-made opinions.

You argue in the latter part of the book that the observer is part of the observation. You can’t separate yourself and you are part of the experience that you’re observing. You can’t completely take yourself out and observe from a point of complete neutrality.

There’s a philosophical tradition of phenomenology called a humanistic circle. That the watcher is part of the watched. You have to deal with that. I’m Danish and if I go and try to understand something in South Korea or let’s say the media use in South Korea, from where I am, I still have my experience of growing up and a set of values that I might not have thought about. That would be in the way of truly understanding what was going on. In order to understand it, you might have to be from the place that you’re looking to truly understand all the way down.

I still think we can try to understand each other the best. There is a way to access what’s going on with people who are different than we are. Certainly, we should try. Not trying that would be a pretty dystopian thing to say, “We have biases, therefore, we’ll never be able to understand each other.” I don’t think that’s a very good idea. We are immersed in a part of whatever we are observing which is different from observing bacteria, molecules, or planets. Bacteria don’t change just because we’re looking, whereas if you’re looking at a family and their media use in South Korea, they might behave differently than if you weren’t there, so you have to adjust for that

You teach a class on this topic. When you send your students out into the world, like New York City in your case, to do some form of observation, other than getting them to let go of their biases, what are the other things that you find that you have to work hardest that getting them to do right?

Waiting with the conclusion for a little longer and not imposing your judgment on something. Be open and look and listen for a change. For instance, I had a student at Elegant Study. She looked at the A-train that goes from Brooklyn all the way to Harlem and goes through the town. She spent several days being on the A train and being in the different stops on the A train. What she learned was she came in with the idea that the way to understand a train like that was about the places that it touched, so the different stops on the train. She would have the opinion that if the area had a large population that came from let’s say Columbia, it would have a particular vibe, and if it was in the middle of Manhattan, it would have a different vibe.

That’s how to understand the A-train. She said that after having been there for a while, she understood that it’s not a place that defines the train. It is time. It is when people get it on and off. She said that at 4:00 in the morning, it would be construction workers. The entire train was different from the slot between 8:30 and 9:00 where all people in the financial sector would show up. The types of people and the entire nature of that train shouldn’t be defined much from space, but more from time. You only get that by being there and being open that you might be wrong, or that you’re immediate analysis of what is right or wrong about that situation might be wrong. Be open to being inspired, and experience the magic of everyday life as it happens.

The types of people and the entire nature of that train shouldn't be defined from space but more from time. You only get that by being there and being open. Click To Tweet

In the latter part of the book, you describe a revelatory experience that you had at work when in a book The Peregrine, and suggest that everybody read it. You found it to be particularly enlightening. Can you talk a little bit about why that was the case?

CSCL 87 | Deep Observation

It’s my favorite book in the world. You should read this book before you read mine if you are ever considering reading my book. It was written in the ‘50s by a writer called J. A. Baker. That’s his primary work and we don’t know much about him. He probably worked at a juice factory somewhere in Essex England. He describes a pair of peregrine falcons that comes from the North probably in Norway to the Essex area. He describes six months of these birds.

The class that I’ve been teaching at the New School was called Human Observation, so observations of humans, and the first book I gave them was a book about peregrine falcons. It is confusing at first for a student, but after they’ve read it and particularly after the class was over, people said that that was the core of the class. That book shows what good observation is and how he engages and describes what he sees.

He’s not romantic about it. Those birds kill other birds in the most brutal way possible. Even though he loved them, he was describing what happened, which was not necessarily aesthetically the world he wanted it to be, but it’s how it is. It’s what it is. He also engages himself in an obsessive way in truly trying to understand what’s going on. If you read it, you will understand his relationship to nature and human relationship to nature, particularly the peregrine falcon. It is surrounded by ecology. It is gorgeous. It’s the best observation I’ve ever read.

I haven’t read the book. I think about the people that I know who are into their bird watching or into nature watching of any form. The ones who are diligent about it notice things that you and I wouldn’t notice, like what happens in September versus what happens in October, how it might be changing due to changes in climate, how the different species interact with each other, and how weather affects them. All of those things that they only get. I presume J.A. Baker was spending a lot of time out in the marshlands watching these birds when they were in their migratory cycle in England. You only get that by spending a lot of time doing it.

It takes time to observe something well. If you make cars and you’re not taking a lot of time to understand how people interact with, use, and feel about cars, you will not make very good ones. If you need to make new types of media and you don’t understand how people interact with media and how that is changing, you will probably not be that successful. Observation of whatever phenomenon you’re dealing with in life makes it possible to describe the phenomenon you’re dealing with much greater clarity. Therefore, it’s possible to intervene and make things based on it. Most great innovations come from observation. You can practice it. You can get better at it. You can teach it. It’s a human skill many other human skills. I think it’s undervalued and glorious that we can do those things.

Observation of whatever phenomenon you deal with in life makes it possible to describe the phenomenon you deal with much greater clarity. Click To Tweet

Especially nowadays when the world is full of distractions. Attention spans are probably shorter than they ever have been. Getting somebody to go out and spend hours watching people get on and off the A-train in New York, sitting in stations, and observing what happens there during different times of the day, most people don’t have the patience for it or they don’t make the time for it.

It’s like going to the gym. It’s not always fun to go to the gym, but if you don’t do it, your body will deteriorate and you won’t feel the way you want to feel. It’s the same with your attention. You have to have a practice of strengthening and sharpening your attention. I’m hopeful about people’s attention span. I’ve been part of a few podcasts because of launching a book. People listen to two-hour podcasts. It’s incredible.

It a little bit defies conventional wisdom, doesn’t it? We want our videos in TikTok length, but we’ll listen to podcasts that go on for quite some time. It’s a little bit of a paradox.

A TV show for 7 seasons and 15 episodes per season is a serious attention span if you think about it.

The super fans will do it with hyperfocus, and then they’ll get online and write about it on Reddit and all the other places where people tend to compare notes about TV shows. The potential is there. It just doesn’t seem like it gets used a lot. We rush to judgment. We act without patience. This is what your firm is all about, the consulting firm that you co-founded fifteen years ago or so. It’s the idea of applying the human sciences to help clients, in your case, corporate clients, with business decisions. How does that play out in terms of a representative project?

They could be a government agency, a hospital, or a big corporation that would have a social phenomenon that they wanted to understand in order to create something with it. If it’s a hospital, it’s understanding the relationship between nurses, wards, doctors, and patients. Understanding the world of the patient means that you can create better services and engagement between people. In order to do that, you have to understand it. They have a great understanding of it, but often people are permeated by the practices that they have that it’s like water to the fish.

CSCL 87 | Deep Observation

Christian Madsbjerg: Understanding others allows you to create better services and better engagement between people.


It’s hard to see your own culture, practices, and behaviors. That’s why you can use anthropologists or social psychologists to study how something plays out and can see things in a different way. For us, we would work primarily with very large clients around the world. With sports companies, we would study how yoga grew and became what it is today. With automakers, we would look at electrification and how electrification changes all the time.

With a big South Korean maker of TVs and mobile phones, we follow how media changed from sitting on your couch with a remote control to what we have today, which is YouTubers, Reddit, and ultra-specialized global groups of people with the same interests. It’s following how social phenomena move over time and by understanding that, you can predict the future. You can predict what might happen in the future, which is helpful if you’re what you’re doing is making things for the future.

You describe the automotive work you did in the book as well as CRN. That example that’s in the book of the Ford F-150, the most profitable vehicle in America, they doubted that the client base would be open at all to an electric vehicle. You went out and did observations and you ended up finding a much more nuanced perspective on things than what they had suspected. It’s amazing to me that here’s the most profitable car in America and you would think that the automaker in this case would have a deep understanding of its client base, but it took the level of observation that you and your colleagues put into it to be able to surface things that even they were missing. Talk a little bit about some of the things that you saw as you were doing that work.

Ford, particularly the team that deals with the F-150, is very connected to its customers. They are themselves living a lifestyle that’s quite close to what the customers of the F-150 are. Introducing a new technology like electrification, huge batteries, and a new drivetrain is a bet. In their case, electrical vehicles in let’s say 2012 or 2015 was very much a climate change idea. The reason why you would buy a Tesla was because you were concerned about CO2 emissions.

When you looked at the owners of the F-150 trucks, that wasn’t their main concern in the world. We have to figure out, “Would it be possible to introduce this new technology to a group for whom the natural story about this new technology was not irrelevant, but not the most relevant?” We need to understand the relationship between the truck and the phenomenon of the truck. We need to understand how the group of customers or the core customers of the F-150 relates to nature. It turned out that there’s a big difference between how people on the coast experience nature on average to how people in the core part of America experience nature. They use different words for it and they love it. Everybody loves it.

For someone in New York City, electric vehicles are about a graph of CO2 emissions. For someone in let’s say West Texas, nature is the outdoors and a much more concrete direct relationship to nature. It turns out that they would love electric vehicles for different reasons. It gave comfort to making a bet that could break the company. If you made electric vehicles and they flopped, the lights would be out in Detroit, which would be horrible. It’s understanding the groups of people and especially the phenomena of the truck. It’s one of the most important objects in North America. Maybe the electric guitar is another one. It’s a very important thing and understanding it deeply was important to make big technology bets on that.

You describe that as a bet. The South Korean manufacturer of televisions and mobile phones, having you look at how people were consuming television and you surface some of the early days of streaming and binge-watching in the research that you did, they are huge bets. You acknowledge in the book that not all of these fringe movements, like the people who are streaming shows that took place and Monument Valley in the American West, might not be indicative of a broader movement over time. How do you counsel your clients on how to think about the uncertainty that comes with some of these bets that they may be contemplating?

If you make a big bet on the future of TV, there are many types of explorations that are going on. Some of them are cultural, financial, technological availability, and factory capacity and capabilities. It’s the cultural input or the human input, but the risk of not doing it is also rather high. If you don’t see what’s going to happen and you have no analysis of how a culture will change its behaviors, you end up making things that are irrelevant to the future. The risk of not doing it is rather high as well.

If you have no analysis of how a culture will change its behaviors, you end up making things irrelevant for the future. Click To Tweet

The best you can do is apply enough resources to understand a phenomenon in order to make the best possible bet that you can make. What I’ve found over the years is as William Gibson said, “The future is here, but unevenly distributed.” What’s important is to find the pockets that are indicative of what will happen in the future. It’s often behavior that is surprising and insightful to learn about, but that could be the norm in the future. You see marginal practices on the periphery, but if it looks like something that a normal Tuesday in a normal family somewhere would do, then you can make bigger bets on it.

Design thinking is something you hear a lot about today. I was curious as I was reading the book to think about how would you describe your approach to generating insights that lead to innovation relative to the way that design thinking is typically applied.

Design thinking is driven by designers who are inspired by ethnographic practices or engineers. It’s quite often done in a way that’s quite fast. It’s based on the designers’ intuition, then you go out and you do a little bit of research. The real goal is quite quickly to get to new ideas, and that’s fine. It’s different from having trained social scientists do the heavy work and slow work of observation. It takes a little longer. It’s different in its approach.

Designers, I found are better at design than social scientists. Design thinking is appropriate when you need to adjust features or come up with marginal improvements to something. It’s quite appropriate. If it’s a cultural shift that is relevant at a corporate strategy level, it’s not always appropriate. I’ve been in too many design thinking processes in my life to want to be in another one. It’s become industrialized and often the results are quite boring. The ideas are very banal in a way and it’s fine. It has its purpose but it’s not what I like to do.

It may work better when you’re looking at features or something marginal. The way we’re describing it brought to mind that there’s often a rapid iteration as part of the process. You can’t rapidly iterate going from gas power to electric powered Ford F-150 truck or fundamentally changing the way that people consume television. You can test things certainly like a software product. You can design-test and continue that iteration to the point where you might ultimately get to something groundbreaking. It allows that iterative process of generating insights, which is to a different input or different design in that case, which you can’t do in some of these bigger things that more often I would imagine that you and your colleagues work on.

It’s different things. We need to bring all kinds of tools. The ones I like and that I think I’m good at are different than fast iterations. Design sprints and things like that, I’m not very relevant for that. Someone else with a different skill set is. Design thinking unfortunately has been applied to anything that has to do with innovation in the past twenty years. We have seen peak design thinking now. Maybe five years ago was the peak of design thinking. It’s less influential now than it was.

Do you see anything taking its place?

What’s happening is that the logic of software. The logic of software, you can release new features every Friday and you can learn and have input from that. That’s certainly a big deal. It is very appropriate for software. There’s a lot of hope that language models can synthesize enormous data sets and create insight. I’m open to that idea. I just haven’t seen it yet, even though I have access to some of the best that exist. I’m not sure that language models understand anything. I think they reproduce ideas that already exist. It’s exciting and interesting, but then it turns out when you look at it, it’s not this. It’s not cultural insight in the same way.

Changing topics. You mentioned you grew up in Denmark. You describe parts of your childhood. How did your childhood shape what you’ve pursued professionally?

I grew up on the hard left. My family was quite left-wing and in the way that people were left-wing in the ‘70s and ‘80s, which is different from nowadays. It was much more radicalized. I learned after a while that it wasn’t for me. That story about the future, the world, and how it works wasn’t intuitive to me. When I was maybe 15 or 17 or something, I tried to learn why. It is that I don’t like opinions. I don’t like when people are certain about how the world works and how something works that they apply quite simplistic stories to it. I learned that I’m not against judgment, but I don’t have a deep affinity for it. It made me an observer in a way. It made me wait a little bit to conclude and it made me more of a listener than a talker. I’m scared of people with strong opinions in general.

How did that influence some of the things that you did in the early part of your career?

It’s an intuition that “Let’s wait and have a look first.” I started a company when I was maybe 21 or 22, which was based on this idea. That was before I even fully understood what anthropology is, which of course is the practice of observation, but it was an intuition of mine that maybe we should look at patients before we have a lot of ideas about how to treat them in a new way. Maybe it’s important to understand people who run when we make running shoes. It was intuitive to me. I often found that that particular perspective was not the only one, maybe not even the most important one, but it’s a perspective that’s helpful if you want to make public policy or corporate strategy or anything like that. I found quite quickly that people thought it was helpful. That influenced me and it comes from this aversion against strong opinions.

In your current firm, how did you and your co-founders meet and what did you each bring that was complementary to the forming of the company?

I’m not at Red anymore. I took an academic a few years back. It was founded on the idea that you could observe people and that was helpful for corporate strategy. My co-founders had the same intuition. One was a sociologist. Two others were reformed economists who found that modeling the world in big economic models was very precise. People who have models let’s say of interest rates have had a hard time explaining what happened in the last few years, and have a hard time predicting anything about what it would be in three months.

They were skeptical towards the idea that you can model the world, and that they’re one quantitative model that can be built in order to predict the future. That intuition was very overlapping with mine, even though I came from philosophy. I came from the world of phenomenology. How on earth are we going to predict anything if the models can’t? If you take the COVID experience that we’ve been through, the predictions that came out of the quantitative models’ work were quite off, and very big decisions were made based on flawed code in a way.

That’s not very different from economists trying to do that. I don’t know how long have they told us that we are on the precipice of a recession. It’s ten years or something like that. They don’t know. Experts of language models that I’ve talked to also say that that’s no different now. We can’t predict the future. We thought one input was social analysis or social science. It’s not the only one but it is one and we’ve found it helpful over the years.

What did you look for in terms of the people that you would bring into the firm? You must have had a fairly unique profile that you are seeking.

Thankfully, a lot of people wanted to work there. We hired 1 for every 500 that wanted it because it was such a specialized thing, but we looked for people who didn’t follow a straight career trajectory. We also often hired people who were on scholarships rather than paying themselves. Quite often people came from all walks of life. We wanted a global group, so we hired people from Kenya, Brazil, South Korea, and Indonesia instead of hiring locals. In the beginning, when we were residing in Denmark and we opened offices in different places, you had to rely on whoever lived around. We ended up being able to find people from all over the world. We did that because it’s fun to have people who come from all kinds of backgrounds. It strengthens the conversation and the analysis of the people who disagree and have different approaches.

How else did it manifest itself in the culture itself? How is your culture different from a typical corporate culture?

It’s chaotic and very human. People were interested in humans. The conversation was often about things people have seen in the everyday activities of people, but they were highly fascinating and quite academic in a sense, like intellectually stimulating and thoughtful people.

I would imagine that there was a tension between when you’re the timeline that your clients were looking for you to operate against relative to your desire to have that hyper-reflection that you talk about to have the appropriate amount of time to do your observation. How did you manage that?

By doing things over a very long time. If you take the mobile phone during from maybe 2005, which was flip phones and little screens, discussing whether we should put a camera on a phone and things like that. Until today, that is 15 or 18 years of 50 projects together. Following the same phenomenon through a series of projects means that it’s 5 or 10 people on one phenomenon for 15 years in a very wealth-funded setting. That’s not a short project. That’s a very long project.

We did that with the rise of diabetes, digitization of finance, and things like that, where the social phenomenon might have been 8 or 6 increment projects. Over the years, it would be these monster projects of many people all around the world for more than a decade. We found this way of doing deep longitudinal work within the framework of not short, but shorter projects.

We talked a little bit before we started the show about how you can apply observational techniques in an entrepreneurial context, but If I’m not an entrepreneur and I’m not doing product development work, how can I think about applying some of these concepts to help me better manage my career?

The book I wrote before this one that you read was called Sincemaking. Sincemaking is the activity of humans understanding other humans. If you are working at a bank or if you reduce costs, optimize processes, teach children, or deal with patients, understanding humans around you seems like a reasonable activity and career improvement. Understanding the phenomenon of money if you work in a bank can come through observation of how people relate to money. It’s figuring out what’s the core phenomenon that I’m working with and studying that on a daily basis as a personal research project. I’ve seen people getting promoted fast if they have that attitude to it, and being able to provide things that no one else can. I think that whatever you do, whether you’re in a band or a nurse, understanding your audience can be helpful.

Not that you should only play things that the audience wants as a band, but understanding is a good starting point. Understanding your fans seems helpful. It’s basically a tool like being good at spreadsheets or many other things. It is a life tool that is relevant even if you’re raising children. Understanding the school and the entire environment that your children are operating in, instead of enforcing opinions that you might not even hold, is a good way of spending time. It’s also interesting. It’s fun to do.

If you're raising children, understanding instead of enforcing opinions is a good way of spending time. Click To Tweet

If you give yourself the time to do it.

We have time. People spend so much time on so many things. Everybody has time. The executives of some of the companies I work with have 150,000 employees and hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue. If they have time, so do you.

It’s a good point. What’s ahead for you?

I don’t fully know yet. I’ve been an academic for a while, teaching and writing. I’m not sure that’s what I’m going to do for the rest of my life. I have another big project in me. I’m still discussing that with people and thinking about it, but I want to be sure that I’m doing the right thing before I start.

Doing observation of your own career at the moment. Any last advice you want to give our audience in terms of thinking about observation and the power of it in terms of their day-to-day work, careers, or anything else?

It’s a two-step process. First, figure out a phenomenon that you are interested in or that seems fascinating, and then two, describe it. Don’t have opinions about it. Don’t conclude. Just describe it. For instance, I play chess and I go to the people who play chess for money at Union Square in New York. I often lose because they are extremely good at it. I try to figure out, “What’s the phenomenon at stake here? What is it? What’s the social activity going on?”

CSCL 87 | Deep Observation

Christian Madsbjerg: Don’t conclude, just describe.


I thought, “Let’s try to understand winning and what it means to win. Is winning destroying your opponent or is there more to it?” If you observe it and describe what’s going on, quite a lot of parents come with their children not trying to win but trying to teach. It’s often friends. Somebody might win but that’s not the point. The point is something else.

If you think of winning in chess, you could say Deep Blue against Kasparov in the late ‘90s, but did It win that way? Maybe not. I mean it technically won, but they did not even play chess. You can study a phenomenon that is down the street for me or two blocks away from where I live, and see an everyday activity. I walk past most days and see the magic of what’s going on there and the complexity of what’s going on. Everybody should do that. It’s like a gym. It’s an attention to the gym. Do that for half an hour a day like you would go running or something.

CSCL 87 | Deep ObservationAs you say, people come there for different reasons. Some are there to win money. Some are there for a brief break in the day. Some are there to teach their kids how to play chess.

Some of that is to have the identity of being a chess player.

It was a thought-provoking book and a thought-provoking discussion. I appreciate your time and getting to talk with you a bit.

Thank you for inviting me. This was fun.

You have a good rest of your day.

Thank you for joining me to cover his book Look and the practice of hyper-reflection, the work that he did with his firm, Red Associates, his broader career journey, and some of the things that he’s learned along the way about himself in the world. There are certainly some powerful lessons here in how to truly see in our fast-paced and increasingly distracted world. If you’re ready to truly see how you’re approaching your own career, you can visit We can certainly help you with that. If you’d like more regular career insights, you can become a member. Basic membership is free. You can also sign up on the website for the PathWise newsletter and follow us on LinkedIn, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, and Facebook. Thanks and have a great day.


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About Christian Madsbjerg

CSCL 87 | Deep ObservationChristian Madsbjerg is a Danish entrepreneur, researcher, philosopher, and cofounder of the consulting firm ReD Associates, which works with its clients to apply the human sciences to business decisions. Christian is also the author of Look: How to Pay Attention in a Distracted World. More generally, he writes, speaks, and teaches on the practical application of the human sciences. His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Financial Times, The Washington Post, and Bloomberg Businessweek. He and his family live in New York City.


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