JMT Certified

Collateral Beauty

“How many yellow cars have you seen this week”

The yellow car phenomenon involves a classic question asked to illustrate the point that we don’t notice something until it’s been brought to our attention, and then we seemingly notice that same something all over the place.  

When was the last time you saw a yellow car? In normal circumstances, you might see a yellow car once a day or so, although in the current lockdown period it may be significantly less frequently.  So depending on where you live and how socially isolated you are a better question might be “when was the last time you saw a car”!  

It’s rather like when someone first described the song chirruped by a particular bird to me.  Previously I had only heard “birdsong”, and now I could recognise the particular song of a sparrow, which is a popular bird where I live.  Or like when someone mentioned that they were thinking of buying a particular type of car or liked a particular song, and suddenly I saw that car everywhere and heard that song all over the place.  

Since I asked you to think about yellow cars you will probably notice many more of them than you had previously observed, or at least you will when we start seeing cars driving around again.  Now, is that because there are so many more yellow cars on the roads now?  Of course not, it’s simply that having focused your mind on yellow cars you’ll seem to see more “yellow cars” around, rather than including them in the “all cars” group.

I experienced the yellow car phenomenon when I started to use a MacBook in place of a Microsoft laptop.  All of a sudden, everywhere I looked people were using MacBooks and I hardly saw any Microsoft laptops anywhere.  The same happened when I bought a Ford Ranger.  Suddenly there were Ford Rangers everywhere, when I could have been positive there were absolutely none on the road before that.

The same thing happened again recently.  In the midst of this lockdown Sue (my wife), mentioned that birdsong appeared to be louder and more prominent as we walked along the main road near our house.  We were on our one-hour COVID-19 exercise break taking a walk near our home.  Maybe it was because there were fewer cars driving along what is usually a fairly busy main road, but the birds certainly did seem to be singing more loudly.

“Daily walks or runs should be a maximum of one hour and take place near the home”

~ Michael Gove, Crown copyright

Between Sue and me we have also had extra time in the day to catch up on home maintenance, reading some books that we have wanted to read, and there have been fewer shirts to iron and we’ve had so spend a lot less on fuel for the car.

This brought to mind a film that we watched recently.   It was a fairly unremarkable film called Collateral Beauty, in which Will Smith plays the part of Howard, a man with a successful and promising career who starts retreating from life after experiencing a deeply hurtful family tragedy.  From the depths of his grief, he calls out from his agony and torment and questions the universe and then proceeds to write letters to Love, Time, and Death, not expecting to get a reply.  

The film introduced me to a topic that I have thought about many times since and was brought back to mind in this lock-down season where our freedom to move about and physically meet our friends and family, and our colleagues and customers is severely limited.

As I recall, in the dialogue between Will Smith and Helen Mirren (playing the part of “Death”) towards the end of the film, Death encourages him in the midst of these tragic circumstances and in the depth of his grief, and advises him not to overlook the “collateral beauty”.  

When I first saw that portion of the film it took me a little while for the meaning of this simple encouragement to actually sink in.  I understand about “collateral damage”, which could be described as any unintended injury or damage inflicted on something other than the intended target, particularly in military conflict.

“Don’t overlook the Collateral Beauty”

So what could “collateral beauty” mean?  Well, maybe it could be described as an unintended bonus, benefit or beneficial consequence resulting unexpectedly from the midst of a tragedy.

You’ll have to watch the film to see how the plot unfolds, but maybe at this time, it would be helpful for us all to look out for the Collateral Beauty that is to be found all around us if we are prepared to seek it out.  One such example was found just yesterday when a friend called me up.  

Sue and I meet up most weeks with some close friends and discuss life’s journey with each other, sharing some of the highs and lows of our experiences and keeping up with news about mutual friends.  We often engage in practical support for each other too where the need arises.  

Well, one of the people in this group (I’ll call him Steve) had started coming along less frequently, and in the last few years, we had seen him only infrequently.  It turned out that he had recently had to visit the hospital with what turned out to be a chest infection not related to COVID-19, but the experience had left him quite shaken.  Steve was currently staying with his daughter for a few weeks and was quite a distance away, however, our little group had started meeting up online instead of at someone’s home.  So, we were able to invite Steve to join us online, and it was really lovely to see a good friend go from being quite downcast at the start of the meeting to become quite animated and conversational during the evening, and by the end of the evening, his spirits seemed to have lifted quite significantly.  

If we take the time to think about Collateral Beauty during this time of great national and international tragedy, then maybe we will notice the “yellow car” effect, and see evidence of collateral beauty all around us.  

Like many in the professional speaking business, I have had virtually all of my existing event bookings cancelled, with the only exceptions being with some US clients that were the events were planned as remote meetings anyway.  As a result, I have turned my attention to investing time into getting some more of my ideas into print, giving my marketing plans a well overdue update, and getting my business plans in place for when this season comes to an end.  Many of my existing customers will have joined the Connected Generation (Gen-C, see my previous post here: https://rogerfairhead.com/2020/04/generation-c/) and will embrace more work remotely, and this season will inevitably bring some new customers within reach of an online connection too.  

When was the last time you saw a yellow car?

Once we start looking out for collateral beauty we will see it in places we didn’t expect to see it, we might even start to see evidence of it everywhere.  So long as we’re not looking the other way at the time and keep our eyes open we can appreciate the richness of the silver lining that this particularly dark cloud has brought with it.  

Don’t overlook the Collateral Beauty

About Roger Fairhead

Roger is a leadership specialist delivering Leadership for Business Achievement through Speaking, Training and Coaching to business leaders and entrepreneurs.

“He is articulate, tracks complex issues with ease and has an incredible gift for raising pearls of wisdom out of the murky depths of people and process.” His passion is to help people to learn effective leadership skills to lead their teams to capitalize on their strengths and passions to realize their dreams.

Leadership for Business also invests into the dreams of families in the world’s underserved communities to offer them small loans that empower them to invest in their future, to provide for their families and give back to their communities.