I think it was Groucho Marx who used to tell the joke about a guy standing on a street corner and repeatedly hitting himself over the head with a hammer. A fellow comes along and asks him why he’s inflicting such pain on himself, to which he replies, “Because it feels so good when I stop.”
I often think about this bit of goofiness when I’m on the treadmill. When I start out, I set the machine at about two miles an hour and gradually move it up to three-and-a-half mph over the first five minutes.
Then, I keep it at three-and-a-half mph for another twenty-five minutes. After a total of thirty minutes, I take another couple of minutes to gradually slow the treadmill down to three mph … then two-and-a-half mph … and so on, until it’s at zero.
What I find interesting about this is that when I first move the speed up to two-and-a-half mph, I’m conscious of having to move my feet faster to keep pace with the treadmill. Then, after walking at a three-and-a-half mph pace for twenty-five minutes, it feels almost as though I’m standing still when I slow the machine down to two-and-a-half mph.
Of course, two-and-a-half mph is still two-and-a-half mph. That hasn’t changed. What has changed is my perception of it. Relative to standing still, two-and-a-half mph seems fast; relative to three-and-a-half mph, two-and-a-half mph seems slow. Relativity, then, has altered my perception of how fast I have to walk in order to keep pace with the treadmill.
All this got me thinking about how many of our perceptions are based on relativity. For example:
- If you’re dead broke, $20 might seem like a million dollars to you. But if you have a million dollars in the bank, $20 is pocket change.
- If a team is a twenty-point underdog in a game it loses by five points, its fans are likely to feel good about its performance. But if that same team is a twenty-point favorite, its fans would almost certainly be disappointed if it won by only five points.
- Because I often eat at high-end restaurants, I’ve given the thumbs down to many gourmet meals that didn’t quite measure up to my expectations. Yet, I can vividly recall thinking that a Thanksgiving dinner I had when I was in the Army decades ago seemed, at the time, to be the best meal I had ever eaten. Relative to the slop we were served day in and day out in the mess hall, the Thanksgiving meal was a genuine feast.
There are many good reasons to take note of the relationship between relativity and perception, but two are especially important.
First, it’s healthy to always view your problems in a relative light. If, for example, you have a child with a serious learning disability, it’s a problem that looks a whole lot worse in a vacuum than it does when juxtaposed against the reality of a child with, say, muscular dystrophy.
Second, in your dealings with others, remember that people are going to base their perceptions on their belief systems. That being the case, when you offer a product, proposal, or idea to someone, you can help swing the odds in your favor by adding a pinch of relativity to help guide his perception of it.
One of the best examples of this time-tested phenomenon was given by the legendary Elmer Wheeler, thought by many to be the world’s greatest salesman back in the prehistoric days of the 1940s. Wheeler said that when someone orders a malted milk at a soda fountain, the clerk should not ask, “Would you like an egg in your malt today, sir?” Rather, he should matter-of-factly ask, “Would you like one egg or two today, sir?”
Wheeler’s point was that if the clerk simply asked the customer if he would like an egg in his malt, it would be easy for him to say no. But by eliminating the no-egg option and giving the customer the choice of one egg or two, it becomes relatively easy for him to make a knee-jerk decision in favor of that same single egg that he might have said no to. What becomes relatively difficult in this scenario is to say, “I don’t want any egg in my malted milk today.”
Using relativity to help shape another person’s perceptions is a powerful tool which, when consciously applied, will almost always give you better results in all areas of your life. While products and cultural references may be different today than they were in Elmer Wheeler’s day, philosophy, psychology, universal principles, and, above all, human nature have not changed one whit.