On Becoming Desensitized to Beauty
Walking through the streets of central Vienna, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the city’s raw architectural prowess. Everywhere you turn, there is beauty: façades with rows of exquisite Roman columns, frescoes of cherubs playing in the heavens, fountains featuring statues of nymphs writhing in ecstasy, and perfectly manicured gardens displaying the most exotic of flowers. This impressive manifestation of beauty extends far beyond Vienna – in fact, it seems that all of Austria has been blessed with architectural finesse, lush mountainous landscapes, and crystal clear waters. Better yet, Austrians get to look at it every day.
Just before arriving in Austria, I was in my home country of Italy, which is also exhaustingly beautiful. It is so overflowing with architectural, cultural, and natural beauty that I sometimes catch myself strolling past the majestic ruins of an Ancient Roman structure and not giving it so much as a second glance. After two weeks all over Italy, I walked into a lavishly decorated, divinely structured (pun intended) Basilica in Vienna and thought to myself “Eh, not the most impressive I’ve seen.”
My breaking point was realizing how ridiculous that thought was.
How could I be in one of the most beautifully, elaborately constructed cities in the world, and shrug off one of its national gems like it was just another building I pass on my way to work every morning? I may not have preferred it to another basilica, but that made it no less of an epic work of art. Being surrounded by so much beauty had actually made me less appreciative of the magnitude of what I was seeing.
It sunk in during my time in Austria that when we are regularly overexposed to beauty, we run the risk of becoming desensitized to it.
I remember thinking as I made my way through Vienna, Salzburg and then Mondsee, that the beauty I was seeing was so decadent that it almost felt like I was eating cake. It was so indulgent and delicious that at first it’s all I wanted to consume. After being given heaps of it daily, however, I started to not even bat an eye at another serving.
While forgetting to fully appreciate what we are used to is a normal human syndrome, it’s a sure way to dim the soul and dull our creativity.
A view of the public library’s architecture
Beauty plays a very important role in our lives, even if we do not recognize it. People naturally gravitate towards what’s aesthetically pleasing. It’s no coincidence, for example, that the initial success of Apple products has been heavily attributed to their simple, aesthetic design. More importantly, beauty is a crucial source of inspiration in all areas of our lives. Here’s how we can try to incorporate it into our thinking wherever we go:
When I speak of becoming desensitized to beauty, I’m not insinuating you have to live somewhere in the Austrian mountains to experience this dilemma. While some places have more external beauty than others, beauty can be found anywhere you are. If you’re not seeing it, then that’s exactly the problem. One of my favorite quotes from The Alchemist states:
“When each day is the same as the next, it’s because people fail to recognize the good things that happen in their lives every day that the sun rises.”
Recognizing the beauty that surrounds us every day goes far beyond improving our quality of life – it is a skill that, when developed, allows us to find what’s special in what everyone else overlooks as bland.
I recently met a tour guide for Bucharest, Romania. Bucharest is a city that, after having survived several war and natural disasters, notoriously lacks urban planning. That’s the nice way of saying that many people find it ugly due to its architectural disorganization and many deteriorating abandoned buildings. This guide, however, was completely enamored by the city she’s lived in for over a decade: a few hours strolling its streets with her revealed unique details about Bucharest that I otherwise would not have noticed. I came away with a newfound appreciation for the city.
Walking through the leaf tunnel at Schonbrunn garden in Vienna
While many guides focus on the much more beautiful and popular Transylvania, she is building a niche business by uncovering what’s special about the less coveted Bucharest. Observing beauty in everything that we see and do is key when we are looking for ways to differentiate ourselves from the crowd.
Not just literally, but also figuratively. Beauty houses inspiration – in addition to observing it, we should also be tracking what most inspires us in order to have a reference point when we need it. During my travels, I try to “capture” beauty through photography, as well as jotting down ideas on a notebook on whatever took me aback and why. What I loved about Vienna, for example, was how its vast beauty organizes the city visually, making it a cultural center for musicians and artists. I don’t think this movement in the arts is unrelated to the city’s heavy focus on aesthetic and visual order.
By observing beauty all over the world, I’ve seen how completely different ways of thinking can produce equally desirable results. For example, the Roman Empire and Ottoman Empire are both responsible for countless masterpieces, innovations, and architectural wonders, while being incredibly different culturally and aesthetically. I’ve come to understand that creating a masterpiece in any art is not so much about the process one follows but more so about what comes out of it. My “collection” of beauty has overall made me more open-minded, intellectually flexible, and inquisitive.
A view from the peak of Schafberg in Western Austria
Let beauty inspire your everyday life.
Observing beauty opens our eyes to alternate ways of seeing our surroundings, and collecting it helps us build a database of inspiration. All of that is moot, however, if we do not learn to actively incorporate that inspiration into our daily lives.
There is no straightforward answer to how, as everyone finds his or her own way. My way of infusing beauty in my everyday life is to turn what I capture into a story. When I see beauty, I’m inspired to think beautifully, and that seeps into my writing, social marketing approach, and the ethnographies that I conduct of people I meet during my travels. Someone else’s inspiration may produce a design improvement idea, a more emotionally effective way to market a product, an alternate approach to managing a team, and so on.
Beauty plays an important role in our everyday thinking. If we allow ourselves to become desensitized to it, we are closing the door on valuable inspiration.
Let beauty be the lens through which you see your world, and watch your world, in turn, become more beautiful.