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10 Things in Life That Aren’t Fair — and What to Do About Them (Part 2 of 2)

10 Things in Life That Aren’t Fair — and What to Do About Them (Part 2 of 2)

10 Things in Life That Aren't Fair - and What to Do About Them

    “If life were fair, Elvis would be alive and all the impersonators would be dead.”– Johnny Carson

    In Part 1 of this series, I discussed some of the ways that life deals us a bum hand, and some of the ways we can deal with that. In this post, I continue the list, starting with some oddnesses about factors that seem to play as big a role, if not even bigger, as individual merit in determining or life success.

    1. Most CEOs are tall.

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    90% of Fortune 500 CEOs are of above average height. Some 30% – compared with only about 4% in the general population – are 6’2” or taller. Since it’s highly unlikely that a random sample of 500 people would show this great a deviation from the national average, the only explanation is that tallness conveys qualities that are seen as “executive material” even when the tall person might lack those qualities or be merely humdrum. By extension, shorter-than-average people with incredible leadership skills might be passed over in exchange for less-stunning but taller candidates.

    What to do about it: This is even tougher than appearance issues, since there’s no good way to increase your height (you can wear lifts, I suppose, but will always risk exposure). Again, confidence is key, and the handful of shorter-than-average CEOs out there (less that 3%) are distinguished by their confidence. Study the behavior of shorter CEOs like Jack Welch or Barry Diller. Think “tall” – be seen, make yourself heard. Shorter CEOs also tend to be those that work their way up in a company, so commit for the long haul; taller CEOs come from executive job searches, where they have less personal history and more “flash” in play. And, of course, you can become an entrepreneur – hopefully you wouldn’t replace yourself with someone taller!

    2. People buy brands.

    Brand loyalty is one of the major factors influencing people’s buying decisions. Part of this is “following the leader” – if I know the brand, it must be because people are talking about it, thus it must be good.” Part of it is packaging design. And part of it is comfort in previous knowledge – the brand you know and kind of like is a better bet than the one off-brand you don’t know and might love or hate.

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    What to do about it: Commit yourself to trying something new every so often – maybe every month, replace a favorite brand with a brand you don’t know and see how you like it. You pay a huge premium for branding, often at the expense of quality, so it’s worth it to shed a brand here and there. For durable purchases (as opposed to consumables like food), develop a systematic way of comparing your brand against the competitors – Apple (or Microsoft), Ford (or Chevy), Nike (or Adidas) might not always be the best way for you to go, even if you’ve had good experiences with them in the past.

    3. People do, in fact, judge books by their covers.

    It’s a publishing industry fact – book covers are what grab and hold attention long enough for a purchase to be made. If it were something about the content, you’d expect authors to have some say, but often they have no contractual right to even see the cover before it’s published, let alone approve or disapprove. (More often, authors can disapprove, but publishers reserve – and usually exercise – the right to ignore the author’s disapproval).

    What to do about it: If you’re in the authoring game, let book cover designers do what they do best – they know their domain far better than you do. For buyers, check reviews – lots of handheld software allows you to access Amazon and other sites with reviews while you’re standing in the store. Also, get used to using your library – most libraries have online reservation systems that are nearly as effective as Amazon at getting your chosen books to you in a couple of days. That way, you minimize the risk of blowing money on books that turn out to be less than the cover promises.

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    4. Most people would rather not choose at all than choose between two equally good options.

    This is decision paralysis of a sort – when presented with two equally good options, we freeze. Two options where one is clearly better we handle fine, but not where they are equally good, or for that matter, difficult to compare on the same criteria (the apples v. oranges dilemma).

    What to do about it: The standard response to difficult decisions is to list pros and cons, but where things are more or less equal, or where pros and cons aren’t comparable, this isn’t helpful. A better option is to re-frame the decision – the think out a way of looking at the choices in a way that is comparable. One way to do that is to look at goals and objectives – what is the goal you hope to meet by choosing one or the other, and which one is better suited to that goal? This moves you past the immediate characteristics of the objects under consideration – that is, one tastes delicious, the other offers two hours of solid motion picture excitement, so if your goal is to have fun for as long as possible, you might spend your $10 on the movie and not the super-sundae.

    5. The best ideas often get lost for lack of funding, competence, or experience.

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    The people who think up brilliant ideas aren’t always in a position to make them happen. They lack sales skills, people skills, marketing skills, or, quite often, just enough money to bring an innovation to market or the mainstream. Or a start-up gets bought out by a monopolistic corporation simply in order to quash their project.

    What to do about it: If you’re in a position to do so, seek out start-ups without the skills to succeed and support them however you can. If you’re an idea person yourself, seek out people with the skills you lack – do not could on your idea to succeed for its greatness.

    Well, that about covers it – as before, I’d love to hear what you think is unfair about life, and how you’ve dealt with unfairness in your own life. Let us know about it in the comments.

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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