Of things, small and inconspicuous

Three years ago, in August 2017, my dad passed away. He died in peace and in the presence of his beloved wife. In his own words, and also from my point-of-view, he passed away after what can be called a fulfilled life of almost 86 years. We had just visited him the day before his death with our kids, and we were hiking in his beloved, beautiful Swiss Mountains when he passed away. It was, and still is, a loss one can not fathom.

The months, even years before, as his body became weaker and weaker after a seemingly small and silly injury from the pinch of a car door, he used to tell my mother, and my siblings and me, that “he had lived his life, had not too many big regrets. That he was ready to go.” And as painful as this affirmation was, on the one hand, it was at the same time reassuring to know that he was truly at peace with his — not always easy — life. Luckily, his mind was clear until the end, and while we saw the physical decline, we could indeed share a few more years with him, revelling in memories, and expressing our appreciation and gratitude for the years we’d shared.

Despite my intention to offer a eulogy at his funeral, I backed off in the few days after his death — although I had collected and thought a lot about the things I would want him to be remembered for by others and particularly myself. Somehow, it did not feel right.

This all changed, though, when recently, I came across an article by John Salvatier titled “Reality has a surprising amount of detail”. Incidentally, John had written it only three months before my dad’s passing. And reading it was the trigger for something that had waited too long to be written by myself and delivered. But finally, here it is. A eulogy for my dad, and a testament to his legacy.

Of things, small and inconspicuous

My father was a modest, unassuming man. Because he was barred from the opportunity to study, he learned the profession of a gardener and, after some years of travel and work abroad, he, together with my mother, raised a family somewhere in the Swiss countryside. By all measures, their life (and so ours) was anything but spectacular.

Mom and Dad, the day of their wedding, anno 1969My Mom and Dad, the day of their wedding Mom and Dad, the day of their wedding, anno 1969

During his professional and personal life, he not only acquired an incredible knowledge of botany, including the Latin names of flowers, shrubs and other plants known and unknown to me, but also of the fauna and geology. What he pursued, he pursued silently, but with much dedication and love. Although he usually worked long hours rather far from home, he shared his passions with us kids as much as he could, especially when gardening at home, when hiking in the mountains or when sharing anecdotes about his time abroad.

Unfortunately, the only passions I truly share with him are a love for the violin, for travel, foreign countries and cultures, and for reading: I have not yet become interested in botany as much as he did. And although I enjoy and cherish the wilderness of the mountains and Switzerland’s breathtaking views, or the intricate details of fern or the wild tenderness of orchids, I have yet to develop the same dedication and passion for flora and fauna as he did.

And yet: in the last years of his degrading health, when I was trying to boil down what I cherished most about the things I learned from him (and told him so), one thing consistently came to mind: my dad’s peculiar attention to the seemingly inconspicuous, almost unimportant, details of life and reality around him.

Often, when we came across a plant or an animal (mostly birds) or some seemingly random stone, he would share an anecdote or a bite of knowledge with us, or he would point out something small he’d noticed along the way. Sometimes, we couldn’t understand his excitement. And his almost childlike curiosity to perceive more of the reality around him seemed almost boundless.

Yet somehow, he’d passed this curiosity, this love for inconspicuous, seemingly unimportant detail on to me. For a long time, I was not aware of this, but later I found myself noticing the odd snail on the road, a pattern of clouds nobody else seemed to care about, or a funny coincidence of two events that I’d noticed. And when I eventually did realize I’d inherited this “urge” to notice small, unimportant things, I was at times struggling with it — especially as others would see this urge as slightly, if not outright, annoying and distracting from “important things”.

But there it was, and it would not go away. And the more I became aware of it, the more I thought about it, and the less I finally managed to care what others thought about it, the more I somehow sensed that this urge to notice small, unimportant things about reality was probably one of the lasting legacies my father had left with me.

Only that it was a nebulous, almost an anecdotal legacy: I somehow could never really pinpoint “why” it was important. Until I came across John’s article and the following passages:

[If you wish to not get stuck], seek detail you would not normally notice about the world. When you go for a walk, notice the unexpected detail in a flower or what the seams in the road imply about how the road was built.

If you wish to not get stuck, seek to perceive what you have not yet perceived. This instantly struck a whole violin of chords with me1. Finally, I can not only subtly sense the legacy— but see through it, and, more importantly, name it:

What my father taught me is this: to relentlessly seek detail I would not normally notice about the world. To notice the unexpected and to perceive what I have not yet perceived.

And while I will continue to annoy the people around me with my stubborn, relentless curiosity about the “unimportant” details of reality and life, I will now do so with an even deeper appreciation for the legacy my father left me.

In loving memory of my dad, Werner Richard, 1931–2017. I will forever be grateful for his presence in my life.

Epilogue: “Reality has a surprising amount of detail”

In “Reality has a surprising amount of detail”, @johnsalvatier writes about the stunning amount of detail we have to care about in solving any reasonably complex problem:

“The more difficult your mission, the more details there will be that are critical to understanding for success."

Yet, despite their importance, we often don’t perceive these important details as the critical element they are, as “[important] details aren’t automatically visible, even when you’re directly running up against them.

So, how to avoid getting stuck because of details we can’t yet see?

This problem is not easy to fix, but it’s not impossible either. […] The direction for improvement is clear: seek detail you would not normally notice about the world. […] As you learn, notice which details actually change how you think.

Today, I still notice details about the occasional snail, or a pattern of light, a surprising coincidence of events — and I enjoy each and every one of these discoveries.

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But more and more, I also realize how this helps me tremendously with my work, and personal life:

  • The ways a colleague works and processes information,
  • The ways she reacts when information does pique her interest — and her reasons for her reaction,
  • Details in a negotiation which, if noticed, can open a door to a compromise — or break the deal if they are not seen,
  • Small changes in the language of partners which hint at upcoming changes in policy or strategy,
  • Small, but consistent patterns of behaviour of colleagues, friends, and family which can hint at underlying unease or communications problems

If I can seek these patterns and details consistently, my work, and my interactions with the human beings around me become much more effective, but also more appreciative, empathic and kind.

I think this alone is worth being the “odd guy” who notices things no one else cares about.

21.7.2020: Edited for some linguistical clarifications


  1. The violin is the instrument both my dad and I love/d and play/ed. Another passion we shared. ↩︎

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