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Sticky Ideas Workshop (Part 3): Concrete

Sticky Ideas Workshop (Part 3): Concrete
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

    Remember Mikey, the kid from those Life cereal commercials in the ’70s? “Hey Mikey, he likes it!” In 1983, the actor who played Mikey was at a birthday party where he ate six bags of Pop Rocks, that fizzy candy, and also drank an entire six-pack of Pepsi. The pressure from the reaction of the two in his stomach caused his stomach to explode and he died! That’s why they stopped making Pop Rocks in the mid-’80s!

    As part of their research into what makes ideas stick, Chip and Dan Heath studied reams of urban legends, likely including the one about poor Mikey above. Urban legends are almost never true — the one above certainly isn’t — and yet they prove to be remarkably sticky: I heard about the dangers of Pop Rocks and Pepsi as a child in the early ’80s, and the idea was still alive in 1998, when the movie Urban Legends mentioned “that kid in the cereal commercial” in a scene where a professor tries to convince a student to down a can of Pepsi and a bag of Pop Rocks. According to snopes.com, the candy’s manufacturers sent letters to 50,000 school principals, put full-page ads in 45 major publications, and even sent the product’s inventors on the road in a vain attempt to counteract rumors that were already widespread in 1979.

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    The Pepsi/Pop Rocks story doesn’t even accord well with common sense — we’re all pretty well aware that our bodies have two very effective release mechanisms for the release of excess gas in the digestive tract. So why do stories like this one continue to circulate after almost 30 years, when far more important information can barely get traction in the popular mind?

    What’s Sticky About Pop Rocks?

    According to the Heaths, one of the reasons urban legends stick so well is that they are so very concrete. For folklorists, urban legends express underlying anxieties and concerns shared in the culture at large; in the case of Mikey’s tale, we might read it as a reflection of concerns over the popularity of “foods” like Pop Rocks and Pepsi that owe more to the chemist’s lab than to Mom’s kitchen. It is probably also significant that “Mikey” was at a birthday party, that is, among strangers (or at least non-family members); these are the same years that saw the first (always false) rumors of Halloween candy poisonings. But these are abstract concerns, the stuff of academic papers and graduate seminars; people don’t sit around talking about how worried they are about food manufacturing processes or the unfamiliar sources of their kids’ nourishment — they talk about KFC serving rats, McDonald’s serving worms, and, of course, Pop Rocks making kids explode.

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    These rich details make urban legends compelling for a number of reasons. First of all, they add credibility by telling of real dangers that affected real people — we could, if we wanted, verify the stories at a local library or, these days, the Internet. Not that we do, of course, but the idea that we could seems to be more than enough to make us believe. Second, urban legends — though they don’t explicitly lay out a moral — provide us with a do-able, meaningful course of action: don’t eat Pop Rocks while drinking Pepsi. A story about “some foods” that might be dangerous isn’t all that compelling (think of the US Dept. of Agriculture’s “food pyramid”, with it’s admonishment to “limit the intake of added sugars”); one that tells you, implicitly, that you’ll be safe if you avoid a particular product, brand, or chain is reassuring, even as it frightens us.

    The Concrete Brain

    Stories with lots of concrete detail also seem to resonate well with the way our brains work. Concrete details allow us to imagine a scene and, crucially, imagine ourselves in it. As some recent psychological research shows, imagining ourselves doing an activity can often have the same effect on us as actually doing it — this has been especially useful in sports psychology, where visualization of exercise processes has been shown to actually stimulate muscle development.

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    The Heaths use an interesting metaphor to describe the way concreteness engages the brain. Imagine, they ask us, that the brain is like the loop side of a piece of Velcro, and our ideas are like the hook side. The more “hooks” your idea has, the more “loops” it will catch in the brain, making its “grip” that much tighter. (Aside: note how using a metaphor makes the abstractness of neuropsychology much more concrete and graspable!) Careful use of detail, then, provides ideas with more and more hooks: more imagery, more emotional resonance, more personal relevance. It’s not just some kid that got killed, it’s Mikey (or, since fewer and fewer people alive today were around when the commercials originally aired, it might be a friend’s uncle’s boss’s son or a neighbor’s sister’s boyfriend’s little brother, or whomever). We know Mikey, he’s a reminder of our own childhoods; he evokes a rich stew of nostalgia, childhood innocence, and recognition. Further, it’s not just any candy, it’s Pop Rocks; it’s not just soda, it’s Pepsi — both of whose makers have invested plenty in making their brands a part of our individual identity.

    Concrete Begats Concrete

    It’s not enough, of course, to simply pile on detail after detail to create sticky ideas — if it were, “purple prose” would be the highest compliment, not a dismissive insult. Concreteness relies not so much on the amount of detail, but on providing the right detail for the intended audience. Urban legends work well because they relate to experiences we’ve all had — drinking soda, eating at a fast food outlet, staying in a hotel. The detail is drawn from our everyday experience, and helps to create a vivid, living impression in our minds.

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    To know what level of detail will work in our ideas’ favor, it is necessary to know who our audience is — to have a concrete image in mind of who our reader, viewer, or buyer is. Many writers, for example, imagine an “ideal reader” whose imagined responses to their work actually guides them in the creation of the work. Marketing companies often do the same thing, developing detailed profiles of their ideal or typical user, and then trying to figure out what this imagined character’s response to a new product or ad campaign would be.

    Ideas aren’t just “out there”; to be effective, ideas need to inspire action, whether that’s buying a product, following a leader, voting for a candidate, or accepting an offer. Concrete detail, done well, puts us — at least metaphorically — into situations that demand we take the action desired. By providing the brain with plenty to hold onto, concreteness greatly increases the stickiness of ideas. Do you have any tips to share with other lifehack.org readers about making ideas concrete, or tailoring detail to fit an audience? Share your thoughts in our forums!

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    Last Updated on May 28, 2020

    10 Success Principles for Living Your Dream Life

    10 Success Principles for Living Your Dream Life

    Are you stressed out and overwhelmed, wishing you had more time to do the things that really matter? Are you ready to do something better, something special in your life or your career?

    You were born with a gift that no one else in the world can express like you. When you dance to your own music, you naturally develop your innate abilities and excel in work and life. You are a total rock star. But when you live someone else’s idea of who you should be, it throws off your groove.

    Many people—maybe you—stopped following their dreams way too early in life because their talents were ignored, minimized, or shamed. They didn’t have the chops to win an American Idol competition or nab an Olympic gold medal, so they stopped expressing their inborn gifts altogether.

    You don’t need to be an award winner to rock your life. Living your dream life is about discovering your superpowers and feeling vibrant and joyful when you use them. It’s about owning what makes you unique and finding like-minded people to support you.

    Here are 10 success principles to help you live a rich and rewarding life on your terms that have worked with thousands of people in my workshops and will work for you, too.

    1. Get a Hobby to Move Closer to Your Dreams

    If you never became a professional dancer or a world-renowned author, it does NOT mean you should stop dancing or writing! These activities make you come alive, even if you “only” do them as favorite pastimes.

    Engaging in a hobby is one of the most important success principles you can follow to move closer to your dreams.

    When you try something creative for the first time or in a long while, you begin to see opportunities at work and in life that you were unaware of before. You also feel happier and more energized, according to a recent study from New Zealand.[1]

    Some of my most burned-out executive clients reinvigorated their careers by discovering a creative outlet that refueled them after the workday ended. Research at San Francisco State University shows that having a hobby lowers stress and helps you succeed at work.[2]

    So, give yourself permission to try new things and revisit old passions you gave up long ago. Setting aside just one hour a week for personal exploration can significantly change your life.

    Who knows? Your creative outlet could transform into a thriving business or lead to a new profession down the road.

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    2. Focus on Your Strengths, Not Your Weaknesses

    Did you know that you are more likely to succeed when you develop your natural strengths rather than work on your weaknesses? The problem is that you probably don’t know where your true talents lie.

    Here are a few options to help you discover your unique strengths. You can:

    • Take the VIA Character Strengths Survey[3]
    • Try Gallup’s CliftonStrengths Assessment[4]
    • Answer a few Superpower Questions

    Once you understand what makes you tick, you can use these skills at work and your personal life to get more done in less time. If you boost your unique abilities through practice and study, you can accelerate your career and become a leader in a field that matters to you. It’s worth investing in yourself this way.

    3. Jumping off a Cliff is NOT Required

    Here’s the deal: most people are too afraid to change. When participants first come to my workshops, they tell me they have mouths to feed, bills to pay, and fear that if they follow their dreams, someone will get hurt.

    The old saying “leap and the net shall appear” does not comfort them. Because they are hesitant to plunge into the unknown, they believe their only option is to stay put where they are in life. Can you relate?

    You do not have to sacrifice the life you have now to start a new one. I was a psychology professor by day and singer by night for years before I transitioned into a full-time music career.

    Just take a little time out each week to do what enlivens you through a hobby, volunteer work, etc. Get a feel for it.

    Is it what you really want? If so, increase the time you spend doing it and make the transition when the time feels right.

    4. Give Your Inner Critic Some Love

    The main culprit that keeps you from stepping outside your comfort zone and getting the life of your dreams is KCRP or K-CRAP – the radio station that plays 24/7 in your head. The moment you try to do something interesting with your life it slaps you down with such chart-topping killer hooks as “Who do you think you are?” and “You’ll never be good enough!”.

    Have you ever noticed that KCRP’s mean-spirited DJ sounds like your parents, teachers, bosses, and other authority figures who shut you down creatively? These folks don’t need to stifle you any longer (although they often still do) because your inner critic does it for them. That keeps you stuck in a rut.

    To break free, try thinking of this DJ as a gruff old grandfather who gives you crap to keep you safe. Remember, this grumpy grandpa is woefully out of touch with the times. So, his stern opinions don’t really matter much, do they? Give him a pat on the back for his good intentions, and put your focus back on what makes you come alive.

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    This success principle will give you the courage to venture into the unknown where you can dance to the beat of your own drummer.

    5. Embrace Your Inner Weirdo

    Many of us don’t go after our dreams because we’re afraid folks will find out how odd or strange we are. But our little eccentricities often turn out to be our greatest strengths. Yes, it’s good to be quirky.

    Odds are, you lost track of your true passions and talents before you were even old enough to know you were getting off-track. You became slowly “adulterated” by learning to:

    • Take on family roles that don’t match who you really are.
    • Spit back what teachers taught you in school rather than risk getting bad grades for being original.
    • Hide parts of yourself that don’t seem acceptable to certain social groups.

    The price for fitting in is that you may wind up leading a life that doesn’t fit you all that well. Your true calling becomes clear when you embrace what makes you different from others and allow yourself to stand out from the crowd, even if it feels awkward.

    Often, the very qualities you view as your flaws are your greatest gifts.

    6. See the Bigger Picture to Find Your True Calling

    I cannot stress the importance of this success principle enough. Your true calling is right in front of you. But you may miss it because you’re looking for it in the wrong place.

    To “see” it clearly, try widening your point of view.

    Case in point: Maria felt she needed to retire early from being a police detective, so she could travel abroad. I encouraged Maria to think of ways that she could continue to serve as a law enforcer (a career she loved) and travel overseas at the same time.

    A few months later, Maria landed a job with the United Nations in Bosnia training the local police force to understand and embrace human rights procedures.

    Like Maria, you are an everyday rock star capable of accomplishing greater things than you can imagine. Is what you’re looking for right in front of you, too? Do you have an inkling of what it may be?

    Look beyond your day-to-day activities, your current job, and even the town you live in. View your life from an eagle’s perspective and be open to new possibilities.

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    7. Try a Little Wish-List Magic

    Pretend I’m your fairy godmother and I give you permission right now to be your most magnificent self. What kind of life would be music to your ears? It doesn’t matter whether it seems unattainable or even downright crazy. Write it down on a wish list.

    Get quiet. Be honest. Think big.

    What would you like your career, your relationships, your health, your finances, and your spiritual life to be like? Jot down enough details so that your wishes seem tangible to you. Then, look at this list every morning before you start your day and every night before you go to sleep.

    Sounds silly? It’s not. It works! Permitting yourself to daydream about a rich and fulfilling life is the first step to manifesting it.

    8. Take Breaks to Get Clues About Your Ideal Future

    Did you know that working straight through to a deadline leads to diminishing returns? Research shows that taking a break for 15 minutes every 75 to 90 minutes can help you recharge, refresh your focus, and get more done in less time.[5]

    Wait, it gets better! A Stanford study shows that walking increases your creative output increases by 60 percent. Doing repetitive activities such as walking, running, riding your bike, swimming, and sweeping allow solutions to problems to pop into your mind out of nowhere.[6]

    What does this success principle have to do with creating your dream life?

    These mini-breaks allow you to get vital clues for what to do next to attain your ideal future. Plus, you won’t waste precious time and energy getting lost in other people’s agendas.

    9. Take Action on Your Inspired Ideas

    Once an inspired thought pops into your mind, take action.

    This is one of the most powerful success principles for turning your dreams into reality; the sooner the better. Whatever it is—from calling an old friend to taking a new route home—be sure to do it!

    Pay attention to your oddball hunches. You need to go after what you want, not just dream about it. As comedian Jim Carrey warns,

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    “You can’t just visualize and go eat a sandwich.”

    10. Count Your Rockstar Moments

    Still not sure you have what it takes to get your dream life? This final success principle is guaranteed to help.

    Make a list of everything you’ve ever accomplished. As you read back through it, put a star next to each item, and let it sink in.

    You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how good you’ll feel about yourself afterward. You’ll also see how effective you’ve been in the past at getting what you want. You’ve succeeded before, you can succeed again.

    You already rock. You just need to own it. Trust me, you’ve got this!

    Final Thoughts

    Eleanor Roosevelt said,

    “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

    Following these success principles will help you find the time and energy to do the things that really matter and live with clear intention.

    By spending just one hour a week doing something you love, focusing on your strengths and achievements, embracing what makes you different, and acting on inspired ideas, you can create a life that is a perfect fit for you, step-by-step.

    If you don’t have a clue about what your dream life could look like yet, don’t worry. Your heart knows. It has been “talking” to you for a long time. It’s just being muffled by KCRP, buried under a lot of “shoulds” and fear.

    This article can also help you figure out the life you truly want to live: How to Get Motivated and Be Happy Every Day When You Wake Up.

    Stand still, get quiet, and listen. It’s constantly telling you what you need to do to realize your own rockstar potential. It may be just a whisper now, but the more you pay attention to it, the louder it will get, and the easier it will be to follow.

    More About Success in Life

    Featured photo credit: Rahul Dey via unsplash.com

    Reference

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