Unformatted text preview: Copyright © 2020 by Emily Balcetis
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division
of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
BALLANTINE and the HOUSE colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random
Image this page: Reprinted by permission of Springer Nature: Fisher, G. H. “Ambiguity of
Form: Old and New.” Perception & Psychophysics (1968) 4: 189–192.
10.3758/BF03210466, © Psychonomic Journals 1968.
Image this page: Albert Einstein–Marilyn Monroe hybrid image by Aude Oliva and Philippe
G. Schyns, from The Oxford Compendium of Visual Illusions, edited by Arthur G. Shapiro
and Dejan Todorović, copyright © 2017 by Arthur Shapiro and Dejan Todorović.
Reproduced with permission of the Licensor through PLSclear.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Balcetis, Emily, author.
Title: Clearer, closer, better: how successful people see the world /
Emily Balcetis, PhD.
Description: First edition. | New York: Ballantine Books,  | Includes bibliographical
references and index.
Identifiers: LCCN 2019038080 (print) | LCCN 2019038081 (ebook) | ISBN 9781524796464
(hardcover) | ISBN 9781524796471 (ebook)
Subjects: LCSH: Goal (Psychology) | Visual perception. | Achievement motivation. |
Classification: LCC BF505.G6 B35 2020 (print) | LCC BF505.G6 (ebook) | DDC 153.8—dc23
LC record available at
LC ebook record available at
Ebook ISBN 9781524796471
Book design by Andrea Lau, adapted for ebook
Cover design: Ella Laytham
Cover photograph: shutterstock
Introduction Chapter 1: Seeing a New Way Forward
Chapter 2: Finding the Right Kind of Challenge
Chapter 3: Plating a Full Plan
Chapter 4: Becoming Your Own Accountant
Chapter 5: In Sight, In Mind
Chapter 6: Reading the Room Right
Chapter 7: Forgoing the Forbidden Fruit and Perceiving Patterns
Chapter 8: Getting Unstuck
Chapter 9: Doing More by Doing Less, and How to Think Beyond
Chapter 10: Showtime
About the Author Introduction On a crisp Saturday morning one spring, in a borough of Berlin
called Mitte, I sat alone at a bistro munching away on a carrot-beet
scone in between sips of a cappuccino. Or at least I thought. I could
read the German menu only slightly better than I could name the
street on which I was renting an apartment for the month. Despite
brunching solo—an endeavor considered so gauche back home that
The New York Times had once decreed it shouldn’t be done—I was
having a marvelous time.
I was flipping through a copy of New York magazine and came
upon an article about paint. While that might sound as enticing as
watching it dry, the article was fascinating. You see, the author of the
article focused his reporting on black. New Yorkers love it, I’ve
learned, having lived in the city for about ten years, not only because
of its ability to contrast starkly against any exposed sun-deprived
skin but also because of its ability to mask the grime that the streets
kick up onto you as you walk to work. However, the author was interested by a particular variant of black paint because it wasn’t
quite paint at all.
In the “Antenna” wing of the Science Museum in London, the
author explained, there sat a bronze bust of the BBC personality
Marty Jopson. It was about six inches tall and an accurate enough
likeness, especially in how light bounced off the dimples, the bushy
eyebrows, and the handlebar mustache. Jopson was a props
designer, inventor, and math hobbyist. He presented his scientific
work on television for a while. On his show he asked, from behind
safety goggles, whether an opera singer was capable of shattering a
crystal wineglass with one powerful note. (She was.) With the help of
the townspeople of Ashford, England, who lived on Butterside Road,
he tested whether falling toast always landed buttered side down. (It
mostly did.) Though the Marty Jopson bust was an unusual choice of
subject matter, all in all there was nothing particularly remarkable
Except for the nearly identical bust that sat beside it. When the
two sculptures were viewed side by side, the second bust seemed to
be only a silhouette, as if someone had taken a scalpel and cut a hole
in space the exact shape and size of Jopson’s head. You couldn’t see
the dimples or the mustache. There were no shadows. There were no
contours. Had you been allowed to touch this bust, you would have
felt all the texture of the face, the wrinkles on the forehead, and the
hair on the chin. But to the viewer, all such detail seemed to have
disappeared into a void. Or a black hole.
This second bust, like the first, was made of bronze, but it was
cloaked with something special: Vantablack—the blackest black ever
Vantablack isn’t actually a pigment. It is a substance that is
grown by scientists directly on the metal surfaces it is intended to
cover, and it has virtually no mass at all. Vantablack is a densely
packed collection of ultra-thin carbon nanotubes, like the material
that makes up the bodies of Formula One racing cars and the Enzo
Ferrari. It is as dark as it is because it absorbs 99.965 percent of light
that hits it straight-on. For comparison, the blackness of asphalt consumes only about 88 percent. For us to see something, we need
light to hit an object and to bounce back. Otherwise, we’re not going
to see much of anything at all.
Vantablack has been used to coat the outsides of stealth jets. It
has lined the insides of telescopes. And, just a few months before I
read that article, scientists from Berlin Space Technologies—which
was just a few train stops away from where I was sitting—had applied
it to a microsatellite bound for outer space.
Recently, the famous British artist Sir Anish Kapoor had been
granted exclusive rights to use one version of the product in his
work, which includes the bust in the Science Museum. Kapoor
explained that Vantablack is “blacker than anything you can imagine.
So black you almost can’t see it…Imagine a space that’s so dark that
as you walk in you lose all sense of where you are, what you are, and
especially all sense of time.”
He’s hardly exaggerating. When we look at the bust, we lose all
sense of dimensionality. What we see is not what’s really there. It’s
an illusion. A trick of the eye.
For Kapoor, the gap between reality and perception was the key
to transforming an otherwise unremarkable sculpture into a
groundbreaking work of great artistic intrigue. What we actually see
makes all the difference. Even—or especially—when what we see
diverges from what’s really there.
This book is about that “especially.”
We think we see the world the way it actually is. We think that
when we look at ourselves in the mirror, we see our face the same
way others do. We believe that when we peer down the street in front
of us, we know what we’ll pass by on our journey. We are certain that
when we scan the food on our plate, we see what it is we’ll be eating.
But none of this is always true. Instead, our visual experiences are
often misrepresentations. We form an imperfect impression and our
eager mind fills in the gaps, putting in place the missing pieces. We
do this with the things we see even when they aren’t shrouded in
Vantablack. And, interestingly, this can happen without our awareness, both in everyday circumstances and when we’re making
some of the most important decisions of our lives.
Based on the research I and my colleagues have conducted, I
believe that we can take advantage of the fact that we do not see the
world perfectly, accurately, or completely—as long as we know when
and why it happens. By learning more about how our eyes work in
conjunction with our brain, we can direct our perceptual experiences
to help us see the world in ways that will help us overcome some of
the biggest challenges we face when working toward our most
I’m a social psychologist and scientist at New York University,
and I have been conducting research on perception and motivation
for more than fifteen years. I’ve worked with some of the most
accomplished scholars and amassed my own talented team.
Together, we have conducted investigations, analyzed the data from
experiments we’ve designed, and reviewed new reports emerging
from labs all around the world on how people best pursue their goals,
and what stands in their way.
Through this work, I have noted commonalities among the
problems that people face when they set out on a personal quest to
master some ambition. I have encountered these problems too. Just
as having a medical degree doesn’t protect a doctor from getting the
sniffles, having a PhD in motivation science doesn’t inoculate me
from the challenges of meeting my own goals. But I happen to be
uniquely positioned to know the scientific data on the problems that
arise along the way, and what the solutions to these problems might
be. As a result, I have discovered strategies that work to overcome
the difficulties that challenge the likelihood of our own success. I’ve
learned what works—and what doesn’t—for myself and thousands of
others who have been involved in my research.
What’s interesting is that our discoveries align with the methods
used by successful entrepreneurs, athletes, artists, and celebrities.
Ample scientific data underscores the effectiveness of approaches
that these incredible individuals take to surmounting some of their
biggest obstacles. And their habits, routines, and practices, my research finds, can be distilled into four general strategies with farreaching application.
In the chapters that follow, I explain how knowing when to
narrow our focus of attention helps us to exercise more
effectively, save more for retirement sooner, and find more time in
our day to do what we really want to. Understanding how to
materialize a goal, our steps, or our efforts improves the way we
track our progress. Becoming aware of the power of framing can
improve our ability to read others’ emotions, negotiate better deals,
improve the relationships we have with other people, and overcome a
fear of public speaking. And a wide bracket reduces the allure of
temptations, the appeal of multitasking, and the inclination to push
on when changing course might be best.
We can think of these strategies as four different tools in a
toolbox we select from when working on a self-improvement project.
Consider them your hammer, screwdriver, wrench, and pliers—
pretty basic implements, but useful for almost every job. Sometimes
the goals we set require us to use multiple strategies, just as any
home repair may require more than one tool. Sometimes what we’ve
set our sights on can be accomplished with one plan but not another,
so having options for how to get the job done can be beneficial—just
as a fully stocked toolbox offers us the possibility of trading in a
screwdriver for a wrench when the first choice isn’t right.
Interestingly, these four strategies share one feature: they are all
about harnessing the power of our eyes. Challenging ourselves to
quite literally look differently can help us better our odds of
succeeding at things that don’t seem related to vision at all. I recently
set my sights on learning to play one particular song on the drums. (I
had my own reasons for wanting to do this, which I’ll get to shortly.)
I found that using the strategies I study in my professional life
helped me persevere despite the difficulties I knew I’d experience in
learning to lay down a beat—as well as those I hadn’t even
In telling you about my own use of these concepts, I hope that
you, too, will be able to look at the world—and what you hope to accomplish in it—in new, creative, and better ways. By investigating
the what, why, when, and how of these strategies, I have learned that
we can teach ourselves to truly see life from a different perspective.
We can take control of our own perception. We can direct our eyes to
see in ways that promote good fortune, and to avoid seeing in ways
that don’t. If we take advantage of our visual experiences, we might
see our way to happier, healthier, and more productive lives every
Indeed, it is my hope that when you’ve finished reading this book,
you’ll be able to envision new paths forward and different
perspectives. It’s not only about winning gold medals and making
more money, though I’ll cover those things too. With more insight
into your perceptual experience, you’ll obtain a better understanding
of your life’s objectives, how far you’ve come, how far you have to go,
and how you can get there more quickly. You’ll also have a better
handle on why other people may earnestly believe they’ve seen
something you don’t see, and you’ll understand how that impacts the
ways in which you pursue success. Once you understand when and
how vision is biased, you can learn to use those biases in your favor,
and to counteract them when necessary.
There is no one right way to see the world, and this book will
respect that. Instead, the work I share with you aspires to offer
suggestions for improving how you confront challenges by building
up the cache of resources at your disposal. I’ll give you a set of
powerful and largely untapped perceptual tactics you can use to
create and sustain views of yourself, others, and your environments
that will help you see the possibilities in what you can’t see now. To
do this, I’ll draw from research that sits at the intersection of social
psychology and visual perception. My work, and that of others I draw
from, taps into the neurobiological nature of the human visual
system, which is itself a kind of interdepartmental collaboration
between the eyes and the brain. When we understand the scientific
basis for how we perceive the world around us, the path to most
goals becomes clearer, success looks closer, and the process feels
better. Seeing a New Way Forward One summer, my research team asked more than 1,400 men
and women from sixteen countries which one of their five senses
they would least like to lose. Which would be the most difficult to live
without if it were taken away? Regardless of where they were from,
their age, or their gender, seven out of every ten people said that
losing their sense of sight would be the worst. The majority thought
that they couldn’t live without vision. But actually, they could.
Let’s take a step back and make sure we’re on the same page with
some of the fundamentals of vision science. We experience the sense
of sight because of the connection our eyes have with our brains. We
pick up on the brightness of the sun or register the hue of the sky
with our eyes, but we only really experience seeing once our brains
translate those sensations into something meaningful. Consider the
following example. Linseed oil, mineral salts, bristle brushes, linen,
and wood are products in their own right, but only when Claude
Monet combined them in the right proportions and manner were we
able to see the water lilies he painted outside his home in Giverny. Alvaro Pascual-Leone is a neurologist at Harvard Medical School,
and he’s famous for discovering what happens in our brains when we
lose our sense of sight. He found that the visual cortex—the part of
the brain at the back of our head that specializes in making sense of
the signals the eyes send it—is incredibly quick to retool when
something changes in how our eyes operate. He invited people with
normal vision to experience life without sight for five days. The
volunteers wore blindfolds. These weren’t the kind you get in your
travel kit when you fly internationally. They were high-tech and lined
with photographic paper that would react to light exposure, so the
researchers would know that none of the volunteers had seen the
light of day (or bulb) since putting them on.
Pascual-Leone and his colleagues used the five days of blindness
as an opportunity to teach basic Braille. The volunteers learned that
the Braille alphabet is derived from bumps that protrude in various
places on a two-by-three grid. The letter A feels like a dot popping up
in the upper left corner of this grid. B feels like A but with the
addition of the left-side dot in the middle row. The volunteers
trained their index finger to feel the differences in where the bumps
were and how many appeared at once. By the end of the five days,
they weren’t reading Shakespeare with their fingertips, but they had
the basic alphabet down.
Each day, the researchers also invited the volunteers to lie down
in an fMRI machine that would make a movie of what happened in
their brains when they read Braille. On the first day, their brains
were most active in the somatosensory cortex, the part of the brain
responsible for what we touch and feel; their visual cortex did
nothing in response to feeling the Braille letters. But by the end of
the five days of having no sight, this pattern had reversed: the
somatosensory cortex responded less, and the visual cortex
responded more, when the volunteers felt the Braille letters. In other
words, the work their fingers were doing was now registering in the
part of the brain that for its whole life had been responsible for actual
seeing. In less than one week, the visual cortex adapted and
repurposed itself to reflect what happens in the brains of truly blind people who are proficient in reading Braille—the visual centers in the
brain registered what their fingers were “seeing.”
When Pascual-Leone blindfolded his volunteers, he was in a
sense reinventing the process of perception. The brains of his
volunteers still wanted to see, but they couldn’t do it with their eyes.
He was changing their medium, but they were still artists. When the
brushes are gone or can’t do the trick, an artist finds a new way to
apply paint. Jackson Pollock dripped it from cans. Gerhard Richter
crafted a squeegee to scrape across canvas. When Pascual-Leone
usurped his volunteers’ sense of sight, they found a new way to see.
The amazing adaptability of vision that Pascual-Leone discovered
through his volunteers’ experience is an example of neuroplasticity,
and it’s a trick for which the visual cortex has gotten quite famous in
the brain-science world. But there are more reasons to appreciate
our sense of sight than its chameleon nature. Consider its strength. If
we found ourselves in a place that was really dark and clear, without
haze in the air, we could see a candle flickering thirty miles away
with the naked eye. When we look into the night sky, we can easily
see the International Space Station 250 miles up, or all the way to
Saturn—about a billion miles off—if we know where to look.
And our eyes are speedy. They transfer data at the rate of about
8.75 megabits per second. That’s about three times the speed of the
average Internet connection in the United States. We can recognize
what’s in front of us faster than the speed of sound. And, though the
taste of salt is starkly different from that of sugar, it takes our brain
twice as long to register the difference in flavor than to distinguish
the face of someone we like from that of someone we don’t. Indeed,
scientists have discovered that it only takes ¹⁄₇₆ of a second to know
we’re looking at the face of a friend, the car of our dreams, or the
roses in our wedding bouquet.
What we see with our eyes feels real, accurate, and honest—so
much so that it can be scary. In 1896, audiences saw moving images
for the first time in history. French aficionados watched a short film
called “L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat” in a Paris cinema.
The fifty-second black-and-white movie featured a train heading directly toward the viewer on its way into a coastal station. Though
the audience sat in their seats and the film was a silent one, the
image of the steam locomotive barreling closer was rumored to have
led audience members to jump from their seats in terror.
We favor and intuitively trust ...
View Full Document