Helen, the sales assistant at the local grocery shop in our suburb made our day. Sensing that we were new, she started a nice conversation with us, enquiring about our background, providing an overview of the suburb, offering any support that may be needed. This was two years ago. My wife and daughter were shy and anxious as we were still settling down in a new country. Helen did her bit to ensure they felt less as strangers.

Soon, we discovered the bigger malls, and spoilt for choice, we rarely stepped into the local shop.  Every time I did however, Helen would ask excitedly, “Is the family well?…Good!”.

Watching her interact with the shoppers, I was intrigued by her enthusiasm and zeal, and wondered if “customer service” as a responsibility in her job profile sufficiently described what she demonstrated. Her greetings are genuine and sincere.

I look at her doing her job and it feels so good. Why? Now, one does not perform a job for others to observe, unless it is not really a job. Performing arts and sports are typically the domains that involve an audience. We learn a lot from those professionals and derive meanings for our lives from their actions, attitude and outcomes, sometimes unintended by them.

But we grossly underestimate the influences of many other jobs on our lives. I mean when we pay attention to the way those are performed. For instance, I get my haircut from the same shop that I have been frequenting for two years. There are six barbers employed but I distinctly remember (and prefer) one guy. Harry is more of an artist. He doesn’t follow a routine, he doesn’t talk much. When he is finally done with cutting, styling and grooming, I sense I didn’t just get a haircut – but an experience!

This is explained by the science behind why we watch sports.

Mirror Neurons

When we watch a game (or for that matter any action), mirror neurons in our brain become active. The famous neuroscientist, VS Ramachandran illustrates how the discovery of mirror neurons have been a game changer in neuroscience during the last decade. Watch this fascinating TED Talk The neurons that shaped civilization where he explains its role in refining the concepts of empathy, imitation and our social behaviour.

Max Branson argues in this article that “our brains aren’t just watching sports — they’re trying to play”. Perhaps this explains why I feel the ecstasy when Federer steps out to hit a cross-court backhand shot! From a research cited by Gartland, “about one-fifth of the neurons that fire in the premotor cortex when we perform an action also fire at the sight of somebody else performing that action.”

Helen and Harry have given me something that I wasn’t even aware that I received: The pleasure of doing something very well.

As Yogi Berra, the famous American baseball coach would say, “You can observe a lot by just watching”.