Traveling With Open Eyes

Neil J. Farber M.D.'s picture

Publisher’s note: We are so pleased to publish this excerpt from an extraordinary new book by Neil J. Farber, MD, entitled Serendipity: Recognizing and Utilizing Common Everyday Events to Enhance Your Life and Career. In it, Dr. Neil Farber uses powerful examples of serendipity from history and his own life to show you the skills you need to prepare for, recognize, and ultimately take advantage of everyday unexpected occurrences. 

Traveling With Open Eyes. From Serendipity: Recognizing and Utilizing Common Everyday Events to Enhance Your Life and Career

Why do some people overlook important things that others may see? I had insight to this recently on a solo trip to Arches National Park in the southeast corner of Utah. This was at the beginning of November, so the park was a lot quieter than it usually is during the peak season from May through October. I had plenty of space to park the car near the trailheads, and I could therefore leisurely hike the various trails to the spectacular aches and other rock formations. I allowed myself a full day and a half for Arches. I was able to really soak up the beauty that I saw. But as I slowly walked the trails, taking in all of the sights, some hikers power walked past me, as though they were on some kind of mission to hike the park in a record amount of time. I commented on this to another visitor, who told me the ranger informed her how long the average day visitor spends in the park. These are visitors not camping overnight; I too was one of the day visitors, staying in a hotel nearby. Keep in mind that there are over eighteen miles of paved roads in a park of almost 120 square miles in area that has over 2,000 arches. The answer shocked me: on average, about two hours. That would allow someone to drive the length of the park and get out of their car a few times to see things near the road, but not enough time to see some of the more spectacular sights in the park. I am not critical of them; some people might not have had long to spend there. But you certainly miss a lot when you can’t spend the time necessary.

So it is with other things in life. If you have little time to be observant, you are going to miss some things that might herald a serendipitous event. But another reason why some people overlook things is because they are so focused on the big picture, they tend not to notice the fine details around them that can sometimes be as important, or even more important, than the larger image they are seeing. As I hiked in Arches National Park, I came to one arch named South Window on the Windows Trail. It is a very beautiful large arch, in fact, one of the larger arches in the park, and one that you can walk through to the other side. Most people stop and look at the arch, then go through to the other side for a different perspective. I happened to stop for a while and take in the amazing vista that I beheld.

I looked to the right of the arch with some of the rock being prominent. As I looked at it, suddenly I noticed that the cracks in the rock clearly formed the appearance of the face of a scowling man. I was amused by this, as none of the guidebooks I had read mentioned anything about it. When I asked a park ranger about it, he said that no one had ever mentioned it to him, and he would have to check it out the next time he was on the trails. The arch itself overwhelms most folks, so the face is almost hidden from view. Oftentimes, what one is expecting (something which is important in diagnosing patients, for example, as in the book by Jerome Groopman, How Doctors Think) can influence our observations. I have included a photo of the rock with what I interpreted as the face of a scowling man on the next page.

South Window on the Windows Trail, Arches National Park. From Traveling With Open Eyes. From Serendipity: Recognizing and Utilizing Common Everyday Events to Enhance Your Life and Career

I must say that I am not nearly perfect in trying to be more aware; in Canyonlands National Park at Grand View Overlook, which is an amazing vista, I was looking around and noticed that the canyons below took the shape of a dinosaur footprint. I had seen this mentioned in a guidebook but thought I was really hot stuff when I mentioned it to the others around me and got noticed for it. Then someone else alongside me mentioned “that little critter” near us. Right at our feet on the ledge was a little ground squirrel that I had missed. One can always stop and try to be more aware of one’s surroundings.  

Many individuals have the gift of keeping eyes open and discovering wonderful things. In 1940, though much of France was under German occupation, a small village named Montignac in the Lascaux region was in a free zone. There had always been rumors about a cave in the area that had been covered up by workers after the First World War to prevent any accidents. However, four teenagers in the region, led by Marcel Ravidat, a seventeen-year-old, decided to explore the area to see if they could locate the cave. They found the hole, but as they did so, Ravidat’s dog fell inside. They widened the hole and were able to save the dog. Intrigued, Ravidat returned several days later with another group of friends and some serious exploring equipment. He was lowered into the cave by a rope, and upon wandering into a side passage saw by his flashlight that the walls were covered with drawings of animals. These were the first prehistoric cave paintings to be discovered and researched by various experts in the field. If not for Ravidat keeping his eyes open and being curious upon the unexpected event of his dog falling into a hole, he, and therefore the world, might never have discovered the prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux.

Neil Farber is a retired academic internal medicine physician. He obtained his undergraduate degree Cum Laude in Biology at Franklin & Marshall College, Lancaster Pennsylvania, in 1972, and was Phi Beta Kappa. He went on to get his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1976. He then completed a residency in Internal Medicine at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, PA. He practiced medicine for 40 years, teaching, researching and providing patient care in medical schools initially on the East Coast. For 12 years he was Professor of Clinical Medicine at University of California, San Diego, retiring at the end of April 2019. His academic interests are in education and teaching, especially in regards to patient-physician communication skills and medical ethics. He has received numerous awards, including Top Doctor of San Diego five times, and is a member of the FDA Non-Prescription Drug Advisory Committee. He has published over 60 research papers, and has recently published a book entitled, Recognizing and Utilizing Common Everyday Events to Enhance Your Life and Career.  Find him online at

Copyright © 2020 Neil J. Farber, MD, all rights reserved; published with permission.