How to Develop the Situational Awareness of Jason Bourne

[8/23/17]  There’s a scene at the beginning of The Bourne Identity where the film’s protagonist is sitting in a diner, trying to figure out who he is and why he has a bunch of passports and a gun stashed in a safety deposit box. Bourne also notices that he, well, notices things that other people don’t. Watch:

That superhuman ability to observe his surroundings and make detailed assessments about his environment? It’s not just a trait of top secret operatives; it’s a skill known as situational awareness, and you can possess it too.

As the names implies, situational awareness is simply knowing what’s going on around you. It sounds easy in principle, but in reality requires much practice. And while it is taught to soldiers, law enforcement officers, and yes, government-trained assassins, it’s an important skill for civilians to learn as well. In a dangerous situation, being aware of a threat even seconds before everyone else can keep you and your loved ones safe.

But it’s also a skill that can and should be developed for reasons outside of personal defense and safety. Situational awareness is really just another word for mindfulness, and developing mine has made me more cognizant of what’s going on around me and more present in my daily activities, which in turn has helped me make better decisions in all aspects of my life.

I’ve spent months researching and talking to experts in the tactical field about the nature of situational awareness, and below you’ll find one of the most complete primers out there on how to gain this important skill. While the focus is primarily on developing your situational awareness to prevent or survive a violent attack, the principles discussed can also help hone your powers of observation in all areas of your life.

How to Develop Situational Awareness

Many of the resources out there on situational awareness say it can be cultivated by generally keeping tabs on your surroundings — “checking your six” and “keeping your back to the wall.”

This definition isn’t wrong. That’s exactly what situational awareness is: knowing what’s going on by scanning your environment. But I always found this explanation lacking. What exactly am I looking for? How do I know if I’m paying attention to the right things? Are there behaviors or warning signs of an imminent threat that I should know about?

Today we’re going to start by discussing the general principles of increasing your observational abilities, and then dive deeper into situational awareness itself to answer these important questions.

Observe + Orient = Situational Awareness

The thing that helped me finally understand situational awareness was framing it within the OODA Loop. For those of you who haven’t read my in-depth article on this important cognitive tool, here’s the CliffsNotes version:

The OODA Loop is a learning system and decision-making process that was first laid out by Air Force fighter pilot and military strategist John Boyd. The four steps of the OODA Loop are Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. In a head-to-head competition, like air-to-air combat, a violent confrontation in a parking lot, or even political contests, the person who can cycle through the OODA Loop the fastest wins.

Obviously, the Observe step in the loop is what most people associate situational awareness with.

But it’s the second step in the OODA Loop – Orient — that answered my questions about what developing situational awareness actually involves. Orientation tells us what we should look for when we’re observing, and then puts those observations into context so we know what to do with the information.

So Observe + Orient = Situational Awareness.

But how can we become better observers so that we can improve our situational awareness? And how should we orient ourselves so that we observe the right things and understand the context for what we’re seeing?

Observe: Stay in Condition Yellow 

In his seminal book, Principles of Personal Defense, gun-fighting expert Jeff Cooper laid out a color code system to help warriors gauge their mindset for combat scenarios. Each color represents a person’s potential state of awareness and focus:


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