The Power of Nuance

Posted on December 2, 2014 by Robert Ringer


I’ve long believed that, to one extent or another, every person on earth is an enigma. This doesn’t mean that everyone is a hypocrite, but in one of more areas of their lives, human beings are contradictions.

For example, I’ve known people (me, for instance) who are fanatically organized in most areas of their life but disorganized in one or more other areas. What causes this phenomenon? I have no idea. It’s just one of those great mysteries of life.

And it’s not just people. Life itself is full of contradictions, which can be confusing, especially to those with right-brain issues (a phenomenon with which I am all too familiar). The right hemisphere of the brain handles such things as nuance, subtlety, and innuendo.

Thus, when the right brain is impaired, a person tends to look at things in terms of black and white, which makes it painfully challenging to navigate the gray intrusions that tend to dominate life. In psychology, this condition is referred to as rigid, or primitive, thinking.

That life is fraught with contradictions can be seen in such age-old maxims, aphorisms, and adages as:

  • Does absence really make the heart grow fonder, or is “out of sight, out of mind” more accurate? Actually, both are true … at times. But how do you know which philosophy to employ with whomever the object of your affection is on any given day?
  • “He who hesitates is lost” sounds like great advice until you think about another maxim that warns, “Look before you leap.” It’s much like the increasingly popular philosophy of many entrepreneurs, “Ready, fire, aim,” colliding with the legendary Wyatt Earp’s advice to “take your time and aim.
  • We’ve heard since childhood not to put all your eggs in one basket, but Andrew Carnegie, perhaps the wealthiest man in American history, said he believed that the surest way to get rich is, indeed, to put all your eggs in one basket and invest your time and energy into growing that basket.

    Even so, time and again it has been proven that diversification also works very well. Perhaps Richard Branson is the best modern-day example of this philosophy in action, at last count owning more than four hundred companies.

So the question is, what’s the best way to handle life’s endless contradictions? My experience tells me that a big part of the answer lies in a little abstract jewel known as nuance. Whether it’s computers or love relationships, dealmaking or writing, successful outcomes depend to a great extent upon one’s ability to apply those little nuances that subtly move people away from failure and toward the achievement of their goals.

This is why you should never bite on those hype-filled success ads that claim to have a “secret” or “system” that automatically produces success. Success is not about discovering a secret (Wouldn’t everyone have heard about it by now?) or following a rigid system. In real life, success — in any area — revolves around subtleties.

My dad used to call it “man and method.” To be sure, there are fundamental principles that cannot be ignored, but so long as you play within the rules of reality, your ability to employ nuance is what carries the day. In this regard, I’ve long been fascinated by counter-intuitive concepts — the epitome of nuance — that have become huge successes.

So-called experts thought Howard Schultz was crazy when he put his life savings into a little coffee house named Starbucks. He did so in the face of coffee sales that had been declining in the U.S. for years. And who in the world would ever pay four or five dollars for a cup of coffee — served in a paper cup, to boot?

And how about Costco? What a crazy hodgepodge of merchandise. The only thing flattering you can say about cofounders James Sinegal’s and Jeffrey Brotman’s idea is that it worked. Expensive wine and $1.50 hot dogs? Giant-sized bottles of cashew nuts and electronic gadgets? Homemade chicken soup and jewelry?

I can come up with no reasonable explanation as to why Costco works, except that Sinegal and Brotman are masters of nuance. For example:

  • Unlike other retail chains that sell truly junky junk food, Costco’s hot dogs, while certainly not health food, are the best, the biggest, and the cheapest hot dogs on the planet.
  • The company has no signs next to its aisles, because it wants people to go up and down as many aisles as possible to find what they want. The result is a lot of impulse buying.
  • Most of Costco’s groceries are sold in large bundles or oversized containers. Early on, industry experts were leery of this kind of merchandising, because most people can’t use a dozen croissants or four oversized bottles of ketchup. But Costco took the trouble to conduct studies, and found that customers will, in fact, buy in large quantities even if they know they’re buying more than they can use.

    They then share the overage with family, friends, or neighbors — or even throw away what they don’t use. But what matters is that they buy. Again, one of those great mysteries of life.

  • Someone at Costco came up with the idea to change the packaging of their bottles of cashews from round to square, which now saves them — get this — $40 million a year in shipping costs. Not the cost of the product, mind you, but the shipping cost of the product!

The list of nuances that sets Costco apart from other warehouse retailers is endless. The takeaway is that in a black-and-white world, Costco shouldn’t work. But it does, because the world is not black and white. It’s gray.

While there is much truth to Peter Drucker’s statement that “It’s more important to do the right thing than to do things right,” my experience has convinced me that you can succeed at almost anything if you apply creative nuance to make your way through the gray areas of a venture or business, as well as in your personal life.

Bottom line: Almost everything works if you do it well. Which means paying attention to detail and making a conscious effort to employ nuance every step of the way. As I have repeatedly stated, there is a remarkably small difference between success and failure, and nuance is a major factor in closing the gap between the two.

That being the case, it’s wise to keep it front and center in your mind until it becomes a habit. Nothing will separate you from the pack more quickly than nuance — and the payoff is huge.

Robert Ringer

+Robert Ringer is an American icon whose unique insights into life have helped millions of readers worldwide. He is also the author of two New York Times #1 bestselling books, both of which have been listed by The New York Times among the 15 best-selling motivational books of all time.

16 responses to “The Power of Nuance”

  1. larajf says:

    FOCUS == follow one course until successful So many people stop at the first hitch, or when something bright and shiny comes along. I'm so guilty of this! And it can be boring to persist … it's more fun to find something new and exciting to try…but the payoff is wonderful, like a long term relationship where you've worn down all the rough spots…a single word or look speaks volumes.

  2. Charles says:

    I wish I could add something to this article but I can't. It is just excellent education.

  3. Good mind feed. Thanks for the post Robert.

  4. Avery Horton says:

    Mr. Ringer, I would love to know how you found and where you found the Costco information about changing containers from round to square saving $40 million. It seems like there could be more "buried treasure" there. Thanking You In Advance.

    • Robert Ringer RJR says:

      Co-founder James Sinegal told about it during a CNBC special on Costco. Maybe you can see it – or part of it – online.

  5. RogerK says:

    I agree with the idea that there is little difference between success and failure. What sets apart is the nuance (of attitude or way of doing) that somewhat mysteriously creates the difference!

  6. Phil says:

    Always wonderful stuff from Mr. Ringer.

  7. I generalize and call being able to deal with nuance one's relative ability
    TO THINK! Close thinking, not close-minded. TV News shows the difference all the time! Mr. Ringer's best essays are going to make an excellent collection/book. If agents/publishers believe there are enough buyer-readers who can "think" and appreciate Mr.Ringer's thoughts and ideas. Like in the 70s, it took awhile for his thinking to get appreciated.

  8. But then the tortoise was or is his symbol!

  9. Serge says:

    When one looks at all the successful people in life, they all seem to have a commonality and that is no book, dvd nor cd helped them get there. They were independent and just did it. To all the success and self improvement courses out there, just remember there is a flip side of the coin to all of it. For instance the food pyramid has now turned upside down for better nutrition.

  10. Robby Bonfire says:

    That which is in the public domain: A. is not a secret; and, B. Has zero financial value or potential – given that it has already been milked dry.

    Best example I can think of is author – Washington Post columnist Andrew Beyer going pubic with his brilliant and powerful speed rating methodology, in his book "Picking Winners," published in 1975. That was the first crusher, where it came to demolishing the financial edge the methodology represented, and when Beyer sold his speed ratings formula to the Daily Racing Form for daily publication on all horses, it was over for horse players ever having a chance to beat the races, again. Reason being, you are damned with low, prohibitive odds if you bet the top speed horse in a race; and you are damned with a low percentage of winners in those cases wherein you bet against the top speed rating horse.

    To reiterate, information which is in the public domain is not secret and has zero investment value. What we all need to do is to come up with a profit-taking investment method, in whatever arena, quietly take out our profits, and keep it to ourselves. To buy "winning investment systems" from the cons, hustlers, and snake oil salesmen who are out there in profusion is to deserve what you get – bankroll / investment portfolio ruination.

  11. retlob1 says:

    Like it Robert – great read!

  12. vitalplant09 says:

    I agree with the idea that there is little difference between success and failure. You're post it's so great:)

  13. peter says:

    "I’ve long believed that, to one extent or another, every person on earth is an enigma. This doesn’t mean that everyone is a hypocrite, but in one of more areas of their lives, human beings are contradictions."- these are loaded statements.

  14. yomi says:

    "Unlike other retail chains that sell truly junky junk food, Costco’s hot dogs, while certainly not health food, are the best, the biggest, and the cheapest hot dogs on the planet." – incredible. The dog that is hot on my list at the moment is not for eating, its the real dog and its a mini golden retriever.

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