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Cognitive load and the convenience problem

Why do smart people trade away so much money and freedom for just a little convenience?

We do it all the time. We take the easy path, the simple shortcut or the long-term bad deal simply because it feels easier.

The reason? Thinking is not worth the hassle.

Cognitive load overwhelms us. Too many choices. The stakes feel too high. Every day, we make 1,000 times as many different decisions as our cavemen ancestors did. We’re exhausted from all the decisions, and more than that, from the narrative we have about making them poorly.

Over the years, marketers have offered us one wonder or another in exchange for just a little cognitive load. And those promises have often been empty. Not worth the hassle.

So now, we’ll press the re-order button like a pigeon in a lab. It’s easier.

If you want people to stop and think, you’ll need to do two things: Make a very big promise… and then keep it.

On winning

Most people try to win.

The real question is, “at what?”

If you focus your sights on winning the local bowling league, the effort can consume you, and you will be aware of your progress and your competition.

Or, if you turn the poetry you’re writing into your game, with the goal of winning that next stanza–not in the eyes of a publisher, an editor or a reader, but in your eyes–you can turn that into your thing.

If, instead, your goal is to raise more money at a higher valuation in the Valley, then that’s the game you’ve chosen.

Or, perhaps, your game is to bend others to your will, to prey on yet another human you see as weaker than you are…

Often, we choose games we can’t possibly win. That approach might be working for you, as it lets you off the hook because you won’t have to work out what to do if you win.

And sometimes, we choose games where we can’t win unless someone else loses. And these games can often have long-term, toxic after-effects.

As you can see, modifying a game you’re already playing because you don’t like how it’s turning out isn’t nearly as useful as picking the right game in the first place.

Justifying mediocre work

The list of reasons is nearly endless.

We need all of them to explain the shortcuts, phone-ins and half-work that we’re surrounded by.

All of them are pretty good reasons too. We’re in a hurry, the system is unfair, the market demands it, no one will notice, it’s not my job, I was handed a lousy spec, the materials are second-rate, the market won’t pay for quality, competition is cutthroat, my boss is a jerk, it’s actually pretty good, no one appreciates the good stuff anyway…

On the other hand, there’s only one way to justify work that’s better than it needs to be: Because you cared enough.

The timing of side effects

Loosen the constraints on a system and the system will almost always do better in the short run.

That’s if we define better as the visible outputs of what the system does. And short run as, “the stuff that happens before we have to live with the side effects.”

So… if you remove environmental regulation from a factory, it will probably make more stuff faster. For awhile. But then the river is sludge and the workers are dead, so in the long run, not so much.

If you stop paying taxes, you’ll have more money today. But the civilization you depend on to enjoy that money will soon disappear.

If you stop taking medicine because you don’t like the stomach ache it gives you, you’ll definitely have a better day today. Until you stop having a better day, because of the illness that comes back because you stopped taking your medicine.

All side effects are more simply called “effects.” And getting clear about the time frame we live in is the first step to leaving things better than we found them.

Accountability vs. responsibility

Accountability is done to you. It’s done by the industrial system, by those that want to create blame.

Responsibility is done by you. It’s voluntary. You can take as much of it as you want.

Organized crime

Best I can tell, most of the folks in the organized crime industry care a lot more about the ‘organized’ part than they do the ‘crime.’

Organized as in: who’s up and who’s down. Who gets to decide. Who’s in charge and who has power.

The crime is simply a shortcut.

The same is true for people on Wall Street. The money is simply a means to keep score of the organized part.

When people are willing to sacrifice their principles to take shortcuts, when they’re willing to bully or cheat or lie to get more status, we are understandably disdainful. Because the boundaries matter. Because we can see that once someone is willing to cheat a little to win, they’re probably willing to cheat a lot.

On finishing well

If you start a book, you will do better if you have a plan for finishing your book.

If you take the time and spend the money to go to college, it’s worth considering graduating as well.

Aretha Franklin died without a clearly stated will. As a result, her heirs will waste time, money and frustration, because Franklin was both naive (a will doesn’t make it more likely that you will die) and selfish.

If you’re born, it pays to plan on dying.

Every year, millions of people needlessly suffer in old age because they didn’t spend twenty minutes on a health care proxy.

If you’re going to take a job, everyone will benefit if you think about how you’re going to leave that job.

And if you start a company, you should realize that you’re probably going to either sell it or fold it one day, and neither has to be a catastrophe or a failure.

Beginning is magical. So is finishing. We can embrace both.

Defective apologies

Civilization depends on the apology. When humans interact and something goes wrong, the apology builds a bridge that enables us to move forward.

But apologies are failing more often. Two reasons: First, organizations aren’t humans, and organizations often seek to avoid or industrialize the human work that civilization needs. And secondly, the apology is a complex organism, one with many structures and purposes, and our culture models (or fails to model) how it’s supposed to be done.

Consider that we can say, “I’m sorry” at a funeral even if we didn’t murder the deceased, but we also say, “I’m sorry” when we bump into someone in a crowded train station and “I’m sorry” when we get caught shoplifting. Three different situations, with fundamentally different amounts of complicity, blame or guilt.

When someone accidentally bumps into us, we don’t expect compensation or punishment, but we very much want to be acknowledged. On the other hand, acknowledgment is insufficient when someone sought to profit from our pain.

We can start by asking, “what is this apology for?” What does the person need from us?

  • To be seen
  • Compensation
  • Punishment for the transgressor
  • Stopping the damage

The first category is the one that most demands humanity, and it’s also the most common. A form letter from a company does not make us feel seen. Neither does an automated text from an airline when a plane is late. One reason that malpractice victims sue is that surgeons sometimes have trouble with a genuine apology. This non-human behavior is getting worse and is being celebrated in parts of our culture (mistaking it for strength), which leads to a demand for the other three.

Compensation is the ancient tradition of seeking to make a victim whole. Unless the injury is solely financial, financial compensation is insufficient, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t tried to build systems that use money to atone for ills.

Punishment is different from compensation. Punishment allows the victim to feel seen, because he or she is now aware that the transgressor feels some pain as well. (Punishment is unsatisfying to the victim if he or she is unaware of it). Punishment is economically suspect, though, because other than the second-order feeling of being seen, the punishment doesn’t directly help the person who was injured. It also can spiral forward, leading to ever more damage.

And finally, stopping the damage, which often co-exists with the other three needs. This is the affirmative act of making sure it doesn’t happen again. This is correcting the website so that the next person who reads it won’t see the same error. This is fixing the railing so the next visitor won’t trip and fall. This is the organization investing time and energy to actually improve its systems.

Compounding these totally different sorts of apologies is the very industrial idea of winning. Victims have been sold that it’s not enough that your compensation is merely helpful, but it has to be the most. That you won the biggest judgment in history. That the transgressor isn’t simply going to jail, but is going to jail forever, far away, in solitary confinement. We’ve all ended up in a place where one of the ways to feel seen is to also feel like you came in first place compared to others.

There’s an old cartoon–an irate customer is standing at the complaints desk of a store, clearly not mollified by the clerk. She then asks, exasperated, “well, what if we shut down the store, burn it to the ground and run the owner out of town… will that be enough?”

The challenge that organizations have is that they haven’t trained, rewarded or permitted their frontline employees to exert emotional labor to create human connection when it’s most needed.

The traveler goes straight from, “my flight is overbooked,” to “I want a million frequent flyer miles and a first class ticket on the next flight.”

The patient goes from, “the scar on my leg isn’t healing,” to “I’m going to sue you.”

And the most common unseen situation is the customer who walks away, forever, because you have a broken system and you’re not hearing from your people about how to fix it.

Organizations that refuse to see the pain they’re causing because they’re afraid of being held responsible have missed the point. You’re already being held responsible. The question is what to do about it? You can stonewall, bureaucratize and delay, and hope that the system will suffice…

The alternative is to choose to contribute to connection by actually apologizing. Apologizing not to make the person go away, but because they have feelings, and you can do something for them. Apologizing with time and direct contact, and following it up by actually changing the defective systems that caused the problem.

“Yikes, I’m sorry you missed your flight–I really wish that hadn’t happened. The next flight is in an hour, but that’s probably going to ruin your entire trip. Are you headed on vacation?”

“You’re right, you booked a front-facing seat, but you got one that’s facing backward–and I hear you about getting motion sickness, my sister does too… I know that Amtrak has been having trouble with our systems, but I have the hotline number of the head of ops–I’m going to call and let them know.”

“Yeah, I shouldn’t have written that review. I was in a bad mood when I wrote it. I apologize. But, to set the record straight, I’m going to delete that review and write a new one, just as loud, but this time telling people about how much you care.”

Consider that an effective apology has a few elements to it:
1. You know what sort of apology you’re offering.
2. You share your story with the aggrieved as well as hearing their story, thus becoming human, and then taking the time to help them feel seen by you.
3. You engage with the person who was harmed and find out, beyond being seen, what would help them move forward, noting that it’s impossible to make complete amends.

[It’s worth noting that these are not the same steps you’d take if you’re simply hoping the person will shut up and go away, without you seeing them. That’s not going to happen, and acting as if it will, will only make your problem worse.]

Empathy –> Connection –> Trust

The mob fears the truth

It’s not that they don’t know the truth (they might, if they stopped to think about it.)

It’s not that they want to know the truth, either. Information is available if they looked for it.

No, they fear the truth.

And being part of a mob is a good way to hide from that fear.

Blockbusters vs. building blocks

It’s the blockbusters that get all the hype. The home runs, the viral videos, the hits.

It’s the sudden shifts, the ideas that change everything, the fell swoops.

Fell swoops seem like they’re worth chasing, but a hit isn’t a strategy, it’s an event. Nice work if you can get it, but hard to plan on or build on.

It takes patience to avoid planning on swoops. It’s more productive to live in a house that’s built out of bricks, one at a time, day by day.

Here’s to a swoop-free journey.

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