Bumper Cars

If you peeked at my YouTube video suggestions, you’d be confused. I don’t know what led Google to think I’d enjoy videos of chiropractors cracking their patients backs, necks, and hips — but they clearly know more about my interests than I do. I’ve discovered three things from watching these videos: First, there’s something oddly addicting in witnessing the realignment of a skeletal system. Second, there’s a high correlation between the decibel level of the crack and the number of views

And third: my body and mind could use a realignment. 

Before the COVID pandemic, my “normal” life was dependent on activity. Wake up and sleepily hustle to the gym. Bounce from client meeting to meeting. Drinks and dinner with a friend. A quick weekend getaway. Filling my time with movement, productivity, and entertainment was a nonstop pursuit.

As long as my life was filled with activity, I was happy. That activity has faded away, and so has my happiness. 

The gym is closed. My friends can’t leave their homes. Trips are out of the question. 

As I reread those observations, I feel embarrassed because my concerns seem pretty insignificant. With all the serious problems going on in the world, my life should feel great. My family is healthy, I have a job, and I don’t worry about my next meal. Relatively, my life should be full of happiness. But the reality is that I’m still struggling to consistently find it.

I believe the culprit to be a disconnect between my body and mind. 

For my entire life, I’ve trained to ruthlessly hunt for activity — and I became pretty damn good at it. This training has shaped my mind’s reward system into a bumper car, constantly racing in search of something to crash into. This approach served me well for many years because there was always something I could aim the bumper car towards and smash on the accelerator.

But now the game has changed. My mind is still racing around, but my body is at home. Put a bumper car inside a 2 bedroom apartment and things are bound to break.

I’ve been contemplating a quote from Ryan Holiday, where he suggests, “there are two types of time in our lives: dead time, when people are passive and waiting, and alive time, when people are learning and acting and utilizing every second. Every moment of failure, every moment or situation that we did not deliberately choose or control, presents this choice: Alive time. Dead time. Which will it be?”

I like Ryan’s definition and distinction between dead time and alive time. Before the pandemic, I sought out activity because it fit my flawed definition of “alive time”. As long as I was doing something, it felt like I was making the most of life. But now that activity is limited, everything just feels like dead time. When I reflect on these difficult months, my happiness was stripped away not because of objective suffering, but because of my faulty definitions. A misalignment.

Just because life is different doesn’t mean the time is wasted or that I’m any less alive. In fact, I’d argue that most of my pre-pandemic, full-of-action-time, actually fit Ryan’s definition of dead time. I was busy, but I wasn’t always learning or consciously utilizing every moment. 

Like those addictive YouTube videos, I think a realignment is in order. And like an old John Wayne movie, I need to let the bumper cars out of their corral to ride off into the sunset. The world has changed but I can still find ways to make it Alive Time by enjoying what’s at hand and utilizing every second to the fullest. 

Uncertainty as a Friend

Photo by Katie Moum

My first job after graduating college was with banking giant JPMorgan Chase. The offer letter was signed October of my senior year for a job that didn’t start until the following August. To say my final semester of college was fun would be a severe understatement. 

Yet during the summer months leading up to my start date, I couldn’t kick a nagging feeling of sadness. Part of it was fatigue from repeatedly talking about starting something for 9 months. Eventually, you just gotta start the damn thing. But a deeper source of the gloom was that I felt my freedom slipping away. I was leaving my easygoing and untethered days behind and entering the machine of a 250,000 person company and an uncertain future. 

This surfaced itself in varying thoughts and projections of how the future would look. I wondered how I’d be able to fully express myself at a company with strict corporate policies against blogs and social media. I even fretted about small things like if I’d ever in my life be able to have a shaggy haircut, because the conservative company had such a (literal) clean cut image. 

More importantly, I felt that my life’s story was written — and the story was not what I wanted. Work at the same big company for 40 years, three weeks of annual vacation, house in the suburbs with an hour commute, capped off by a Florida retirement to play golf 5 times a week. The future was frightening 

Upon starting the job, I was busy enough that those feelings were temporarily kept at bay. But like a cyborg assassin, they came back. Was this really going to be the rest of my life? 

Fast forward a couple years and my story, one that I was convinced to be set in stone, turned out to be as unpredictable as shifting sand dunes. I quit my job, spent 4 months traveling, moved to a new city and started working in a different, exciting industry. My fears were blown out of proportion. 

That’s the good news. 

The bad news? For the first time since that youthful summer, similar fears have returned. With the world under quarantine and social distancing measures, the future feels scary and extremely uncertain. Will we live like this forever? 

But I’m trying to remind myself of the lesson I learned 10 years ago: Uncertainty is a part of life and the future isn’t the sum of worst case scenarios.  

I think Ozan Varol put it best when he said, “uncertainty rarely produces a mushroom cloud. Uncertainty leads to joy, discovery, and the fulfillment of your full potential. Uncertainty means doing things no one has done before and discovering things that, for at least a brief moment, no other person has seen. Life offers more of itself when we treat uncertainty as a friend, not a foe.”

It might not be tomorrow, next month, or even next year. But life will be very different from anything I can imagine today. I just need to treat the uncertainty as a friend. 

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Last Impressions Also Matter

Photo by Marcus Dall Col

As the saying goes, “you only get one chance to make a first impression.”

But what about last impressions? It turns out, in many scenarios, last impressions are even more important. 

Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics, explains how we remember events with a definite beginning and end. It’s not based on the first impression or overall enjoyment, “but our memory…has evolved to represent the most intense moment of an episode of pain or pleasure (the peak) and the feelings when the episode was at its end.” This memory phenomenon has been dubbed the Peak-End Rule.

The rule was first observed in the context of medical procedures. Kahneman found that patient’s remembered colonoscopies to be more painful if they ended abruptly or had a high peak intensity, regardless of the overall duration of pain. Hats off to those study participants.

“If the objective is to reduce patients’ memory of pain, lowering the peak intensity of pain could be more important than minimizing the duration of the procedure. By the same reasoning, gradual relief may be preferable to abrupt relief if patients retain a better memory when the pain at the end of the procedure is relatively mild.”

This finding in the context of medicine leads to a broader, and more impactful, observation: How we remember things isn’t objectively tied to the actual experience. As Kahneman explains,  “Odd as it may seem, I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.” 

Let’s do a quick experiment to reveal the differences between your experiencing self and remembering self. Imagine you’re at the movies watching an academy award winning film. The first two hours was a pure masterpiece. World class acting, stunning special effects, and edge of your seat drama. Even the popcorn was perfectly popped. But with 5 minutes left, the theater lights flashed on and the audio screeched to a halt. How would you remember that movie?

Most people would agree that the entire movie was ruined. Your experiencing self had a great time for 96% of the movie. Yet the peak (and final) moments hijacked the entire experience which is now remembered negatively. 

Kahneman explains that “…the experience was not actually ruined, only the memory of it. The experiencing self had had an experience that was almost entirely good, and the bad end could not undo it, because it had already happened…Does the actual experience count for nothing?”

The experiencing self counts in the moment, but the remembering self has the lasting power. The memory is what we tell our friends. The memory is what we include in a Yelp review. After the event is over, the experiencing self fades away and the remembering self takes charge. 

I can’t help but wonder how this phenomenon impacts common business interactions. Here are a few scenarios with “definite beginning and end periods” that are candidates for maximizing the peak and end — and thus, positively influencing the remembering self:

  • Customer service call
  • Industry conference
  • Business meeting
  • Hotel stay
  • Doctor appointment 
  • Speech at an event
  • Job interview

Let’s use a customer service call as a case study. These interactions almost always begin when a customer has a problem — an uphill battle in terms of positively influencing the remembering self. Here’s how most of my customer service calls go:

I call Acme Inc. because of an issue with their product — their anvil is starting to rust. I press 0 repeatedly to get to a real person. After a few minutes on hold, I explain my problem and it’s 50/50 whether they’re able to resolve the issue. The support rep thanks me for calling and asks if I want to participate in a satisfaction survey. I decline, and hang up frustrated. 

In these instances, my experiencing self has a bad time and so does my remembering self. 

But what happens if my peak or end experiences were different? Would this give Acme Inc. a fighting chance to positively influence my memory of the interaction? 

My favorite example of this approach is Zappos, the shoe company acquired by Amazon for $1.2 Billion. Zappos’ key differentiator is their support, or Customer Loyalty Team (CLT). Instead of simply helping their customers purchase and return shoes, they’re “empowered to help and WOW customers”. Each CLT member actually has a small budget, to spend at their discretion, to go above and beyond in helping customers. This freedom allows them to create peak and end experiences that will not only create a positive memory, but potentially last a lifetime. 

A great illustration of this was when a customer called Zappos to explain that she needed to return 5 pairs of shoes due to a medical condition that impacted how those shoes fit. Instead of the typical transactional and frustrating customer support call, Zappos created an unforgettable experience:

“Two days later the mother received a get well soon message attached to a bouquet of flowers. Along with allowing them to return all the shoes, the customer service team upgraded all their accounts to VIP, granting them shipping on all orders without charges.”

Talk about a peak end experience.

Where have you seen the Peak-End Rule in effect? How could you use it to create a positive, lasting impression? 

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