Leonardo da Vinci and Losing Your Mind: The Importance of Seeing What Matters
WHEN DERRECK KAYONGO stepped into the shower in his Philadelphia hotel room, he noticed something that millions of business travelers and families on holiday before him had seen and not paid any particular attention to: the tiny bar of soap on the corner shelf. It was different. Instead of the smooth green oval he had used the evening before, a small cardboard box sat in its place. Inside was a brand-new bar of soap.
The Ugandan native, who as a child had left everything behind when he and his family fled Idi Amin’s murderous dictatorship, was a recent American college graduate, and on a tight budget. He turned off the water, dressed, and took the unused soap down to the concierge desk.
“I want to make sure I am not charged for this,” he told the employee. “I have not used it, and do not need it.”
“Oh, don’t worry, it’s complimentary,” the concierge answered.
“Thank you, but I already got one yesterday when I arrived,” Kayongo explained. “Where is that one?”
“We replace the soap every day for every guest,” the concierge assured him. “No charge.”
Kayongo was shocked. Every room, every day? In every hotel? Throughout America?
“What do you do with the old bars?” he asked. Unlike the slivers of soap used in the African refugee camps he had grown up in, the bar from his shower was fairly substantial; it seemed almost brand-new even after he had used it.
“Housekeeping throws them away,” the concierge said, and shrugged.
“Just the regular trash.”
“I’m not a great mathematician,” Kayongo tells me, “but I quickly realized that if only half of the hotels did this, it was an incredible amount of soap—hundreds of millions of bars just being dumped into landfills. I couldn’t get it out of my head.”
Kayongo called his father, a former soap maker, back in Africa and told him the news. “You won’t believe it. In America, they throw away soap after they have used it only once!”
“People there can afford to waste soap,” his father told him.
But in Kayongo’s mind it was a waste no one could afford, not when he knew more than two million people, most of them toddlers, still died every year from diarrheal disease, a malady easily prevented by the simple act of washing one’s hands with soap. Soap was a luxury item many in Africa could not afford, yet in America it was simply thrown away. Kayongo decided to try to do something with his new country’s trash to help his old country.
Back home in Atlanta, he drove around to local hotels and asked if he could have their used soap.
“At first they thought I was crazy,” he remembers, a smile spilling through his voice over the phone. “Why do you want those? They are dirty. Yes, that was a problem, but we can clean them. We can clean soap!”
Kayongo found a recycling facility to scrape, melt, and disinfect the bars of soap he collected, and the charity Global Soap Project was born. He has since recycled one hundred tons of soap and distributed repurposed, life-saving bars along with a hygiene education program to people in thirty-two countries on four continents. In 2011, Kayongo was deservedly named one of CNN’s “Heroes.”
Unlike the heroes of old movies and swashbuckling fables, we don’t have to be the strongest, fastest, smartest, richest, handsomest, or luckiest to get ahead or make a difference in the world. The most successful people in modern times—people such as Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Oprah Winfrey, and Derreck Kayongo—prove that it doesn’t matter what physical attributes we have or don’t, our level of education, our profession, our station in life, or where we live.
We can survive and thrive today if we know how to see.
To see what’s there that others don’t. To see what’s not there that should be. To see the opportunity, the solution, the warning signs, the quickest way, the way out, the win. To see what matters.
Even if we don’t long for front-page accolades, acute and accurate observation yields rewards big and small across all aspects of life. When a housekeeper at a Minneapolis hotel noticed a young girl alone in a room who wouldn’t make eye contact, wasn’t dressed for the cold weather, and had no luggage, she reported it, and helped uncover an international sex trafficking ring. When an astute waiter at a crowded Israeli coffeehouse noticed that the schoolboy who asked for a glass of water was sweating profusely while wearing a heavy overcoat on a mild day, he looked more intently and saw a small wire sticking out of the boy’s large black duffel bag. His observation kept the boy from detonating a large explosive that the local police chief said would have caused “a major disaster.”
The ability to see, to pay attention to what is often readily available right in front of us, is not only a means to avert disaster but also the precursor and prerequisite to great discovery.
While millions of people have enjoyed using a new bar of hotel soap each day, only Kayongo saw the potential for a life-saving recycling program. What made him see exactly the same thing that others had, but see it in a different way? The same thing that allowed Swiss hiker George de Mestral to look down at his burr-covered socks and see a new type of adhesion; Mestral’s discovery of what he christened Velcro revolutionized the way astronauts and skiers suited up, saved an entire generation of kids from learning how to tie their shoes, and still posts $260 million a year in sales. The same thing that made Houston mom Betsy Ravreby Kaufman see plastic Easter eggs as a way to cook hard-boiled eggs without their shells. Tired of wasting food and time when the process of peeling eggs left behind a mess, Kaufman envisioned boiling eggs in an egg-shaped container from the start, thereby eliminating the need for shells altogether. Her invention, Eggies, plastic egg-size cups with lids, sold more than five million units in 2012 alone. The same thing that helped propel Apple icon Steve Jobs to the top of the technological heap: an ability to see. Jobs reported, “When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.”
Leonardo da Vinci attributed all of his scientific and artistic accomplishments to the same concept, which he called saper vedere (“sah-PEAR veh-DARE-ay”)—“knowing how to see.” We might also call his gift “visual intelligence.”
It sounds easy, doesn’t it? You just have to see. We’re born with the inherent ability; in fact, our body does it involuntarily. If your eyes are open, you are seeing. But there’s more to the neurobiological process than just keeping your eyelids propped up.
A Brief Biology of Sight
I’m not a scientist, but I was raised by one—my father is a parasitologist—so I knew that the best way to investigate why we see the way we do was not to just read the cutting-edge studies on human vision and perception but to go out and meet the people who conducted them. My first stop: Dr. Sebastian Seung.
Thanks to his captivating TED talk and EyeWire, the visionary retina-mapping project he heads, Dr. Seung is something of a rock star in neuroscience. As I pull open the front doors of his lab at the new Princeton Neuroscience Institute, a labyrinthine complex of glass and alumi...