“You need to sit still up there.”
I panicked. It was years ago, and for 30 straight minutes, I’d been listening to a veteran public speaker tear apart a video of my latest performance on stage. As a newer speaker on the circuit, I’d asked him what best practices he could share with me. His biggest and most poignant yet was the idea of “blocking,” or intentional movement.
“Try to establish one side of the stage as the place where bad stuff happens in your stories, and the other side where good stuff happens. Then walk there, stop, and make your point. You need to sit still more.”
Uh oh. Understand: I’m Italian-American. I’m also kinda, let’s just say, “enthusiastic.” (That’s how you’d describe a squirrel after six espressos, right?) “Standing still” ain’t exactly my thing. It may not even be physically possible. I speak so much with my hands that if they stopped moving, I think I’d just stop talking. But I thought, okay, that’s the best practice, and so that’s what I need to do to succeed. As a result, I started doing something awkward and terrible to try my hardest to sit still: I’d stick my hand in my pocket in an effort to stop the movement. It looked sloppy, as my true personality warred against my desire to fit myself into the tried-and-true convention.
Today, I kick myself just thinking back to those moments on stage. Why did I do that? This guy was a TED speaker, and a steady kind of personality. Instead of using my own energy to my advantage, I tried to fit someone else’s mold for what “success” looks like, even though I’m so clearly not him. Why?
I had Pike Syndrome.
Pike Syndrome is just one of three different psychological barriers I uncovered researching for my new book, Break the Wheel. These barriers prevent us from contextualizing a best practice or new idea to make sense given the specific details of each new situation we encounter. In other words, when we fall victim to any of the three, we prioritize conventional thinking instead of thinking for ourselves. Rather than act like investigators who look for evidence to make the right decisions for a given case, we act like, or seek out, experts, preferring absolutes in some theoretical sense. We want to be right rather than try to get it right. Even better if you can quickly search or tap your way to finding “the” answer from an expert.
What if we acted like investigators instead? What if we stopped obsessing over the “right” answers of everyone else and asked ourselves the right questions? We might overcome each of these psychological barriers.
Pike Syndrome is a feeling of powerlessness caused by repeated negative events. Maybe you’re a designer whose boss keeps shooting down ideas, or a marketer frustrated by surprise algorithm changes on a social network, or a podcaster whose dream guests just keep ignoring your outreach. Or maybe you’re a young public speaker continually told to “just sit still up there” by someone you admire. Whatever the case, when we suffer from Pike Syndrome, we feel powerless. There are so many “right” answers out there, and so much wisdom bottled up in the minds of experts, that we assume we can’t possibly make any better decisions when left to our own devices.
So why “pike” syndrome? Imagine a pike swimming around an aquarium. He’s a lithe, ruthless hunter. If you drop some minnows into that tank, the pike will immediately snap them up. However, if you lower those minnows into the water surrounded by some glass, the pike can’t see the glass, and so he just starts smashing up against it in a hopeless pursuit of his prey. He’ll do this for hours until he finally decides that minnows aren’t prey.
Then, a funny thing happens: You can remove the glass, set the minnows free, and they can swim all around the tank undisturbed by the pike. Tasty little morsels are swimming right in front of his nose, but this perpetually pissed off predator doesn’t move so much as an inch.
This explains a concept called “learned helplessness,” and I think we all suffer from a degree of learned helplessness in our careers. From the moment we’re taught in school that there’s a “right” and “wrong” answer, we treat every task in our work like we have to find the “right” answers, even the most complicated and creative things we do. Making matters worse, in the era of Advice Overload, everybody on the internet seems to have the “right” answer for us, no matter what we’re doing.
What could we possibly offer or do to find our own path or make our own decisions? And so, there we go again, removing our self-awareness and situational awareness to instead hunt for our answers “out there.” We look for whatever works in general or on average, or, as the business world likes to call them, “best practices.” However, tasty little morsels of detail swim right in front of us everyday, if only we’d use that information to inform our decisions.
As I learned as a speaker, just because something is common, doesn’t make it the best approach for you. (For what it’s worth, I do incorporate blocking techniques into my speeches today, but they’re fast-paced, organic, and not restricted to two points where I stop and sit still. As with anything, there is no “right way” to deliver a great speech.)
How do we combat this feeling of helplessness? We let the customer be the guide. In the face of endless advice of what we should or shouldn’t do, the only thing that matters is we do what works for us and for those we serve with our work. What if we found better, more fundamental insights about our customers? What if little tests that trigger big, emotional responses from them led us down a different path? Would it matter if that path had no precedent or best practice or case study to say it’s the “right” path, if it’s the right path for your customers?
Ask yourself: Are you spending more time talking to customers, or reading about best practices? What if the customer was the guide?
The foraging choice is the decision between exploiting your current position and exploring other possibilities. In a 2018 study from New York University, researchers stated, “Many decisions that humans make resemble foraging problems in which a currently available, known option must be weighed against an unknown, alternative option." As a result, they tested the effects of chronic and acute stress on our decision-making behaviors. Sure enough, when we’re stressed, we’re more likely to cling to our current position, i.e., exploit what we’re doing now. This explains why, when we find something we know or assume will work in the business world, we beat the everloving crap out of it.
Today’s “exploited” tactics that annoy many of us include people posting walk-and-talk career lesson videos, so often void of any actual lessons, and tag-spam, wherein a social media user @-mentions tons of people, whose passive likes mimic engagement, which then flags the algorithm to promote the post higher in the feed. Yes, there are many hucksters out there, but for those well-meaning people who still shrug and use spammy tactics, perhaps they’re experiencing chronic and acute stress and thus start exploiting. It may not be right, but it is, apparently, science.
So what happens when we want to do something better? What if we're sick of redundant, tired approaches or commodity junk? What might cause us and, more importantly, those around us to go exploring? According to the New York University study, it all starts by understanding your environment first.
"The average reward rate of the environment serves as the optimal leaving threshold because it effectively sets the opportunity cost of time spent exploiting the current option. When the instantaneous reward rate of the currently depleting option falls below this level, an animal's time would be better spent during something else."
You just got Scienced, I know, so let me translate a bit. Basically, we need to spend more time understanding our context as a precursor to the foraging choice. Because we can know our existing position so easily, it can be tempting in times of stress to continue to cling to it and explore it. However, if we knew what was happening in the real world around us, we could more accurately and confidently make the decision to try something else.
Here's an easy example: In a world where everyone obsesses over sending short round-ups as newsletters, you realize that something about your audience's work or sensibilities plus your own skills make it more logical to write long-form stories each week instead. Another example: If you're not sure whether to leave your job, and you can understand the opportunities available in the broader job market (as one example of your "context"), then that can help you leave your existing position with more confidence.
When we’re nervous because of that foraging choice, we don’t take the time to understand our environment. We revert back to the current position. But we can combat that by more clearly articulating our own aspirations. Aspirations combine two powerful things: an intent for the future and a hunger you have today. Saying, “Let’s show the world how fun our team really is” makes for a better anchor than, “Let’s grow our followers 50%.” If you create an aspirational anchor, you’ll look at the current position you’re exploiting and realize, “Uh oh. Gotta go! Let’s explore…”
Cultural fluency is your behavior when the world unfolds according to the expected norm. We hear all the time about mindfulness today, right? This is the opposite. It’s mindlessness. The psychologist Jim Mourey from Chicago explains this well: “When there’s a cultural fit, people don’t really think. But when there’s a disconnect, for automatic behaviors, we do them less. We hesitate a bit.”
Mourey studied this idea of cultural fluency, and that idea of the “disconnect” or cultural disfluency, by experimenting on his family at a Fourth of July picnic. (Yanno: Picnic stuff!) He broke the group into two and gave one half white plates and one half festive plates. Then he weighed how much food each group took at the buffet. The group with festive plates took significantly more, because it’s culturally fluent to gorge yourself on the Fourth!
Later that year, on Labor Day, he again ran the experiment at another family gathering because, yanno, picnic stuff! Half the group got white plates and the other half got Halloween plates. The group with the very out-of-place ghosts and pumpkins took less food.
“Taken together, we get at least initial support for this idea that, when there’s a cultural fit, when things are as they should be, people don’t really think,” Mourey told me. “They tend to go with the flow. But when there’s a disconnect, suddenly things are strange. They’re not so strange that consciously we think, ‘Oh, I should take less food.’ It’s just that, for automatic behaviors, we do them less. We hesitate a bit.”
If we can get out of our comfort zones at work, even in slight ways like redesigning the office or taking a new route into work tomorrow morning, we become more mindful. We can even do this on-demand: Simply ask “Why?” or other similarly open-ended questions more often. (When I interview executives for my podcast, I like to ask, “How did that make you feel?” It’s open-ended. It prompts reflection and investigation on their part. It disrupts mindless, PR-approved answers.)
In our work, we simply can’t afford to make decisions when we feel helpless, nervous, or mindless, at least not if we hope to push beyond conventional thinking to be more creative. These three psychological barriers explain our tendency to cling to the general wisdom and favor absolutes, rather than act as we should: like investigators. The change is simple to read but hard to execute: To make better decisions, we need to ask better questions. Because remember: Finding best practices isn’t the goal. Finding the best approach for you is.
Jay Acunzo is the author of the book Break the Wheel: Question Best Practices, Trust Your Intuition, Do Your Best Work. The former digital media strategist at Google and head of content at HubSpot is now a professional speaker and creates documentaries for makers and marketers. Learn more about Jay and explore the topics (and the music!) behind his book at jayacunzo.com/book.