The Skill of Observation

An Excerpt from You Can Be a Great American! 39 Steps to True and Lasting Greatness (a Growing Up Great Guide for American Boys and for the Parents and Teachers Who Love Them), by W. F. Markwick and W. A. Smith

Entry #3 in the Raising Great Americans Project! Click Here to learn More!






We get out of Nature what we carry to her.

–Katherine Hagar

Fools learn nothing from wise men,
but wise men learn much from fools.


The non-observant man goes through the forest and sees no firewood.

–Russian Proverb

Some men will learn more in a country
stage-ride than others in a tour of Europe

–Dr. Johnson

The world is full of thoughts, and you will
find them strewed everywhere in your path.

–Elihu Burritt

All conscious life begins in observation. We say of a baby, “See how he notices!” By this statement we really call attention to the fact that the child is beginning to be interested in things separate from and outside of himself. Up to this time he has seen but not observed, for to observe is to “see with attention”; to “notice with care”; to see with the mind as well as with the eye. There are many persons who see almost everything but observe almost nothing. They are forever fluttering over the surface of things, but put forth no real effort to secure and preserve the ideas they ought to gather from the scenes through which they pass.

Every boy and girl in the land, possessing a good pair of eyes, has the means for acquiring a vast store of knowledge. As the child, long before he can talk, obtains a pretty good idea of the little world that lies within his vision; so may all bright, active boys and girls obtain, by correct habits of observation, a knowledge that will the better fit them for the active duties of manhood and womanhood.

The active, observing eye is the sign of intelligence; while the vacant, listless stare of indifference betokens an empty brain. The eyes are placed in an elevated position that they may better observe all that comes within their range. These highways to the soul should always stand wide open, ready to carry inward all such impressions as will add to our knowledge.

No object the eye ever beholds, no sound, however slight, caught by the ear, or anything once passing the turnstile of any of the senses, is ever again let go. The eye is a perpetual camera, imprinting upon the sensitive mental plates, and packing away in the brain for future use, every face, every plant and flower, every scene upon the street, in fact, everything which comes within its range. It should, therefore, be easy to discern that since mere seeing may create false impressions in the mind, and that only by careful observation can we gather for future use such impressions as are thoroughly reliable, we cannot well overestimate the importance of its cultivation.

It is beyond question that childhood and early youth are the most favorable periods for the cultivation of this faculty. Not only is the mind then more free from care, and, therefore, more at leisure to observe, but it is also more easy to interest one’s self in the common things, which, while they lie nearest to us, make up by far the greater portion of our lives. Experience also proves that a person is not a good observer at the age of twenty, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred he will never become one. “The student,” says Hugh Miller, “should learn to make a right use of his eyes; the commonest things are worth looking at; even the stones and weeds, and the most familiar animals. Then in early manhood he is prepared to study men and things in a way to make success easy and sure.”

Houdini, the magician, spent a month in cultivating the observing powers of his son. Together they walked rapidly past the window of a large toy store. Then each would write down the things that he had seen. The boy soon became so expert that one glance at a show window would enable him to write down the names of forty different objects. The boy could easily outdo his father.

The power of observation in the American Indian would put many to shame. Returning home, an Indian discovered that his venison, which had been hanging up to dry, had been stolen. After careful observation he started to track the thief through the woods. Meeting a man on the route, he asked him if he had seen a little, old white man, with a short gun, and with a small bob-tailed dog. The man told him he had met such a man, but was surprised to find that the Indian had not even seen the one he described. He asked the Indian how he could give such a minute description of a man whom he had never seen.

“I knew the thief was a little man,” said the Indian, “because he rolled up a stone to stand on in order to reach the venison; I knew he was an old man by his short steps; I knew he was a white man by his turning out his toes in walking, which an Indian never does; I knew he had a short gun by the mark it left on the tree where he had stood it up; I knew the dog was small by his tracks and short steps, and that he had a bob-tail by the mark it left in the dust where he sat.”

The poet Longfellow has also dwelt upon the power of observation in the early training of Hiawatha. You will perhaps recall the lines:

“Then the little Hiawatha
Learned of every bird its language,
Learned their names and all their secrets,
How they built their nests in summer,
Where they hid themselves in winter,
Talked with them whene’er he met them,
Called them ‘Hiawatha’s Chickens.'”

The most noted men of every land and age have acquired their fame by carrying into effect ideas suggested by or obtained from observation.

The head of a large commercial firm was once asked why he employed such an ignorant man for a buyer. He replied: “It is true that our buyer cannot spell correctly; but when anything comes within the range of his eyes, he sees all that there is to be seen. He buys over a million dollars’ worth a year for us, and I cannot recall any instance when he failed to notice a defect in any line of goods or any feature that would be likely to render them unsalable.” This man’s highly developed power of observation was certainly of great value.

Careful observers become accurate thinkers. These are the men that are needed everywhere and by everybody. By observation the scholar gets more out of his books, the traveler more enjoyment from the beauties of nature, and the young person who is quick to read human character avoids companions that would be likely to lead him into the ways of vice and folly, and perhaps cause his life to become a total wreck.




In 1828 a wonderful book, “The Birds of America,” by John James Audubon, was issued. It is a good illustration of what has been accomplished by beginning in one’s youth to use the powers of observation. Audubon loved and studied birds. Even in his infancy, lying under the orange trees on his father’s plantation in Louisiana, he listened to the mocking bird’s song, watching and observing every motion as it flitted from bough to bough. When he was older he began to sketch every bird that he saw, and soon showed so much talent that he was taken to France to be educated.

He entered cheerfully and earnestly upon his studies, and more than a year was devoted to mathematics; but whenever it was possible he rambled about the country, using his eyes and fingers, collecting more specimens, and sketching with such assiduity that when he left France, only seventeen years old, he had finished two hundred drawings of French birds. At this period he tells us that “it was not the desire of fame which prompted to this devotion; it was simply the enjoyment of nature.”

A story is told of his lying on his back in the woods with some moss for his pillow, and looking through a telescope day after day to watch a pair of little birds while they made their nest. Their peculiar grey plumage harmonized with the color of the bark of the tree, so that it was impossible to see the birds except by the most careful observation. After three weeks of such patient labor, he felt that he had been amply rewarded for the toil and sacrifice by the results he had obtained.

His power of observation gave him great happiness, from the time he rambled as a boy in the country in search of treasures of natural history, till, in his old age, he rose with the sun and went straightway to the woods near his home, enjoying still the beauties and wonders of Nature. His strength of purpose and unwearied energy, combined with his pure enthusiasm, made him successful in his work as a naturalist; but it was all dependent on the habit formed in his boyhood,–this habit of close and careful observation; and he not only had this habit of using his eyes, but he looked at and studied things worth seeing, worth remembering.

This brief sketch of Audubon’s boyhood shows the predominant traits of his character,–his power of observation, the training of the eye and hand, that made him in manhood “the most distinguished of American ornithologists,” with so much scientific ardor and perseverance that no expedition seemed dangerous, or solitude inaccessible, when he was engaged in his favorite study.

He has left behind him, as the result of his labors, his great book on “The Birds of America,” in ten volumes; and illustrated with four hundred and forty-eight colored plates of over one thousand species of birds, all drawn by his own hand, and each bird being represented in its natural size; also a “Biography of American Birds,” in five large volumes, in which he describes their habits and customs. He was associated with Dr. Bachman of Philadelphia, in the preparation of a work on “The Quadrupeds of America,” in six large volumes, the drawings for which were made by his two sons; and, later on, published his “Biography of American Quadrupeds,” a work similar to the “Biography of the Birds.” He died at what is known as “Audubon Park,” on the Hudson, now within the limits of New York city, in 1851, at the age of seventy.

This Article is an Excerpt from You Can Be a Great American! 39 Steps to True and Lasting Greatness (a Growing Up Great Guide for American Boys and for the Parents and Teachers Who Love Them), by W. F. Markwick and W. A. Smith, which is available from Better Days Books in quality hardbound, sturdy trade paperback and convenient .PDF e-book editions starting at just $4.95.

Industry, Ambition, Self Control, Self-Respect, Courtesy, Faithfulness, Courage, Duty, Honesty, Enthusiasm, Humility, Patriotism… In every era of our Nation’s history, the true alchemy by which ordinary boys have been transformed into Great American Men has always and only occurred where these indispensible moral principles have been successfully applied. In an age like our own, where such manly ideals are openly mocked and derided by our popular culture, it’s time to turn to the past to recapture a clear vision of what it takes to be a Great American, and the true moral and ethical ladder that leads reliably to its attainment.

You Can Be a Great American: 39 Steps to True and Lasting Greatness was first published in 1900, under the title The True Citizen, How to Become One, and contains 39 essential lessons in manhood tailored to each age and transition in a boy’s life, from infancy to adulthood. It is the clearest roadmap to American Greatness ever compiled for the youth of our Nation, and remains as life-changing today as it was when first published, over 100 years ago.

Whether you are an adult raising boys in a Traditional family setting, the single parent of a son, or a boy abandoned to no or poor parenting, left to grab your own bootstraps and lift yourself up to a life of achievement, success and All-American Greatness (or an adult who knows a boy in such sad straits), You Can Be a Great American!: 39 Steps to True and Lasting Greatness is the only guidebook you’ll ever need.

Also available through in quality trade paperback and Kindle e-book download editions.


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