The letter to the co-op board sounds likely enough. The tenant is up in arms because air fresheners and other common household odors are seeping into the writer's apartment, giving him severe migraines. What to do about this chemical onslaught?
There's no doubt that these odors are giving the letter writer a debilitating headache, but also little doubt that there isn't a likely double-blind, testable, organic chemistry cause to the headache only in this setting.
The migraine in this case, like many things that bother us, is caused by a nocebo.
A nocebo is a placebo that makes things worse.
In this case, the lack of control over his home, the unwelcome and unasked for odors, are making him feel trapped, and thus annoyed, and angry, and so they lead to a headache. It's pretty clear to most of us that if that very same bundle of molecules wafted in the door when the clever and happy grandson came to visit, there would be no problem.
Of course the nocebo is real. And eliminating it is a great way to improve your life or the lives of your customers.
The TSA intentionally brings a nocebo to the airport, stressing out innocent travelers. And schools know precisely how to raise the blood pressure of stressed out students. In many situations, loud noises, uncomfortable seats, moments of lost control… these create actual physical discomfort.
We can use the nocebo to give you a headache, a backache, or even a chronic degenerative disease…
But you don't remove the nocebo with medical tests. You remove it with a better story, with a situation that makes us feel powerful and in control, with a setting and a narrative that gives us agency and dignity.
[I'm not asserting that all migraines are caused by nocebos. Far from it. I apologize to anyone who got that impression. But there's plenty of evidence that there are very real problems caused by nocebos.]
Human beings are prediction machines. Successful humans skate to where the puck is going to be, predict what's going to happen next, have an inkling of what's to come.
We do this by creating models. A really good model is a theory, a testable method for asserting what's going to happen next under certain conditions–and being right.
The pundits have models, of course. In writing about this one, the Times admits that they've been consistently wrong–in both directions–with their predictions. But rather than acknowledging that they have a broken model, they persist.
The thing is, when your model doesn't match reality (when you have trouble predicting how your investments will do, whether a sales call will resonate, whether a presentation will work, whether a new hire will work out) it's tempting to blame reality.
Consider that it might be much more effective to get a better model instead.
Don't finalize the logo before you come up with a business plan that works.
Don't spend a lot of time thinking about your vacation policy before you have a product that people actually want to buy.
There are endless small details to get right before you have something that you're truly proud of. No doubt about it. But there are frightening and huge holes in any bridge to the future, and until you figure out how to get across, I'm not sure it matters if you have a typo on page 4.
Hiding takes many forms. Inappropriate attention to detail is a big one, because it feels like a responsible thing to do.
By all means, get it right. Get it right the first time. Successful makers of change embrace the hierarchy of importance, though, and refuse to engage with a fight about right when it's vitally important to focus on important instead.
How far in the future does your agenda extend?
One way to tell: of the things you worked on last week, how many were due last week?
The marketplace has always tempted us with short-term cycles (they require less trust) and the internet amplifies this temptation to buy fast, sell fast, work fast, measure fast, move on.
But the work that leads to change is rarely written on an order slip or an RFP. Selling to the next buyer is easier than changing the culture, but easier isn't always the point.
It's fun to believe that people buy the goods and services we make merely because they are excited, delighted and eager to engage.
But often, particularly in b2b selling, the call to action is very different. "Get off the tracks! The train is coming…" combined with the rumble, the smoke and the visuals of the train arriving. That's what causes action.
Action means change and change means fear, so of course we shouldn't be surprised that people (and organizations) are often as motivated by the fear of loss as they are by the desire for gain.
We're wired to return the favor. When someone opens a door for us, our instinct is to hold the next door for them.
This generous response has led some marketers to aggressively take advantage. They do a favor for someone and then reap the benefits when the favor is returned. All under the guise of, "I'm helping other people."
“Helping other people” is not what they're doing.
What they're doing is hacking reciprocity as a tool to help them get what they want. They're trading favors.
Some people have had success with this, but please don’t denigrate the very human activity of actually helping others by conflating it with trading favors.
If you want to help other people, go help them. Without regard for credit or for what you get in return.
"But in practice, I'll need to be more hard-hearted, practical, selfish, mass-oriented, short-term, callous…" Principles, it seems, are for other people.
Because business is business.
Because my boss won't let me.
Because he'll never get elected.
Because we've never done it that way.
Because the buyer will never take it for the store.
Because it's too risky.
Because I'm under a lot of pressure.
Because I'm afraid.
Principle, of course, is for us, not only for other people. One of the great privileges of not living on the edge of disaster is that we have the ability to act on our principles.
The hard part is realizing that it's never the edge of disaster, and that the long run is always shorter than we imagine.
"It's me, not you."
"It's you, not me."
What happens when you're unable to serve a customer well, or engage with an employee, or work with a partner?
One instinct is to blame the other person, that your art doesn't match their expectations, and they ought to change, or leave.
And the other is to put the blame on oneself, to state that, "it's up to me to change to make them happy."
Either might be true.
For some people, that's hard to swallow, but it's true.
If you're not getting what you seek from the work you do, it could be because your instinct is to go too far in one direction, a belief that doesn't help you very much.
Blame too many other people and you become a lonely diva, bitter and alone.
Blame yourself too often and you become a wishy-washy panderer to the masses.
Mismatches have to happen. The opportunity is in dealing with them in a way that leads you (and your publics) to the place you want to go.
Before Van Gogh was Van Gogh, he painted some pictures of streets in Ramsgate, a village in the UK.
What if he had stopped, saying, "This isn't good enough, it's a failure, I'm never going to amount to anything?"
Nobody, ever once, pops to the top. You walk there. Step by step, each a failure until it's not.
If you're not yet at Ramsgate, you've got some walking to do. And then, when you get to Ramsgate, more walking.
[Inspiring video on this topic.]
It's pretty easy to figure out what you're competing for—attention, a new gig, a promotion, a sale…
But what is your edge? In a hypercompetitive world, whatever you're competing on is going to become your focus.
If you're competing on price, you'll spend most of your time counting pennies.
If you're competing on noise, you'll spend most of your time yelling, posting, updating, publishing and announcing.
If you're competing on trust, you'll spend most of your time keeping the promises that make you trustworthy.
If you're competing on smarts, you'll spend most of your time getting smarter.
If you're competing on who you know, you'll spend most of the time networking.
If you're competing by having true fans, you'll spend most of your time earning the trust and attention of those that care about your work.
If you're competing on credentials, you'll spend most of your time getting more accredited and certified.
If you're competing on perfect, you'll need to spend your time on picking nits.
If you're competing by hustling, you'll spend most of your time looking for shortcuts and cutting corners.
If you're competing on getting picked, you'll spend most of your day auditioning.
If you're competing on being innovative, you'll spend your time being curious and shipping things that might not work.
If you're competing on generosity, you'll look for ever more ways to be generous with your time, your insights and your work.
And if you're competing on always-on responsiveness, you'll spend your time glued to your work, responding just a second faster than the other guy.
In any competitive market, be prepared to invest your heart and soul and focus on the thing you compete on. Might as well choose something you can live with, a practice that allows you to thrive.