Peripheral Vision

January 26, 2016

I’m not big on goal-setting.

I know, I know. Heresy! Sacrilege! Blasphemy! Might as well go start heating up the boiling oil, because it’s true.

Oh, I’ve tried to be. For years I’ve read that the secret to success is to master goal-setting. And I’ve given it the old college try, put my shoulder into it, gone through the motions vigorously. But it always ends up seeming … I don’t know, artificial? Forced? Something.

Recently I was interviewing a world-record-breaking military sniper for a forthcoming book project, and as he was describing his training, something clicked.

If there is anyone who knows about hitting targets (and what is goal-setting all about if not hitting targets?) it’s a sniper.

The thing is, though, the actual shooting of bullets toward targets is a small part of what a sniper does. In real life on the battlefield, a sniper is first and foremost an intelligence asset. A good deal of his or her time consists of exercising the arts of observation and reconnaissance. An expert military sniper is not simply an expert marksman, but a highly skilled observer.

Thus, a significant part of their sniper training had to do with how to see. For example, they were taught that looking directly at something is not necessarily the best way to see it.

Looking directly at something is not necessarily the best way to see it.

That phrase — that was when the click started happening.

He went on to explain why.

Because of the structure of the human retina, the nature and dispersal of its rods and cones, you may be better off looking off to the left or to the right of the thing you’re looking at, because you may see it more clearly with your peripheral vision than with your dead-on-target focal vision.

Detecting color and movement, the instructors told their sniper students, were the two most important factors in observation. And the central area of the retina, called the fovea, isn’t very good at seeing those. The fovea is excellent at detail in black-and-white, which is what you pick up when you scan a page of text with the center of your eyes: the black and white details of letters and words.

Peripheral vision, on the other hand, is lousy at minute detail, but far more acute at picking up color and movement. Terrible at reading static words on the page, but superb at noticing an animal moving out in the woods at the edge of your field of vision.

Try this:

Hold your hand out straight and make a thumbs-up gesture. Now look at your upright thumbnail. That covers about 2 percent of your field of vision, the total area that your foveal receptors encompass. That tiny hole in the center of your field of vision is the detail-peephole you use to scan back and forth on a page when you read.

That represents the scope of your brain, for example, when it’s trying to bear down on a problem by focusing. Lots of detail. Hardly any depth or context.

Now, as you continue staring at your thumbnail, don’t change your focus but just become aware of everything in your field of vision other than your thumbnail. The first thing you’ll notice is how much more stuff there is to see out there! A vast sea of visible information — none of which you can access, or at least not very well, when you try to focus on it.

As my sniper friend explained about focal and peripheral vision, it occurred to me that of all the greatest things that have ever happened in my life — in love, in friendships, in career achievement — every single one came from somewhere I wasn’t looking.

Not one of these life-changing events occurred as a result of my aiming at it.

For example: A little over ten years ago I had my sights firmly fixed on Hollywood. I had spent the previous eight years pouring myself into the study of screenwriting. Pored through dozens of screenplay masterpieces. Read roughly a billion books on the craft. Traveled to Hollywood, went through the big-name seminars, took classes from one of the best teachers in the business.

I had goals, baby, big goals.

Until a friend interrupted by asking me if I’d like to collaborate with him on a book idea.

This was a major distraction. Writing books was not part of my plan. I did not have time to do this (I thought). I did it anyway. That book was The Go-Giver, which turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me. And I wasn’t even looking that way.

At least, not with my central, focal vision.

The tricky thing about goal-setting is that focusing on it too much presupposes that we know best where we ought to end up. It seems to me, though, that the universe often knows us better than we know ourselves. Sometimes we are nudged in a direction we hadn’t planned on, and we have a chance of getting the hint only if we’re watching with our peripheral vision.

It’s not that I think setting goals is a bad idea. It’s a fine thing. (And yes, snipers do need to be able to hit their target, even if it’s a mile away.) It’s just that sometimes, while we’re busy taking aim, there’s a much better idea floating at the periphery of our vision, something we hadn’t thought of and never would have thought of. And if we’re focused on the target to the exclusion of all else, we’ll miss it.

You can call it intuition, or staying open to possibility, or being receptive. Or, listening for the still, small voice of God. Whatever you call it, it’s something like the opposite of being in charge, of driving hard for a goal you’ve clearly defined. Of knowing exactly where you’re going and what you’re aiming at.

While this is perhaps not exactly the same thing as goal-setting, I am a huge fan of following your passions — of having and chasing big ambitions and even bigger aspirations. I suppose that is partly composed of deciding and articulating exactly what it is you want to do. Maybe even more, it has to do with deciding and articulating who it is you want to be.

But while you’re busy staying focused on all that, remember this: pay attention to what’s in your peripheral vision.

Owl image © Puget Sound Bird Observatory


  1. Bob Burg

    So, did anything actually ever happen with that, what was it, Go-Giver idea? Doesn’t sound like it would be worthwhile taking your focus off of your Hollywood stuff for something like that. And, that “friend” you mentioned sounds like kind of a dream-stealer.

    Hey Dr. Jo, I LOVE that quote from the Zen Master. Very cool!

    • John David Mann

      I know, right? How could that “friend” do such a thing! Heh heh. (Yes, everyone reading this now: the “friend” in question was none other than Mister Burg hissownself!)

  2. Connie Morin

    Just love that easy to read, familiarly phrased humor, then WHACK ME IN THE FACE JAW-DROPPING WISDOM style of yours.

    • John David Mann

      I promise, arrived at honestly: numerous experiences of self-inflicted jaw-dropping stupidity have gone into every whack. : – )

      • Connie Morin

        okay-you have just given me great joy, and helped to fill my living room with resounding laughter. I think it actually bounced off the walls!

  3. Dave Fuehrer

    “Not one of these life-changing events occurred as a result of my aiming at it.”

    This line resonates deeply. Have you heard “let go of the results … and watch how fast they start happening”? These wisdoms are insanely hard for this type A goal-setter to internalize. But, this is the first time I am passionate toward change AND truly grateful for the moment.

    Brilliantly written – and you’re a man of your word about Tuesdays. Thank you, my friend.

    • John David Mann

      So great to hear from you here, Dave! I recently read “Freedom Flight” by Olympic gold-medal marksman and mental management expert Lanny Bassham. He had a line in there I loved, about how to follow your life purpose: “Your job is not to develop the plan. Your job is to avoid getting in the way of the plan.”


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