Here are SIX things I learned, thought were interesting, or found useful.
A Mysterious Turkish Ad Campaign
In the 1960s, a mysterious ad campaign ran in the student newspapers of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. For weeks, one of the five following Turkish words appeared in a column-inch box on the front page of The Michigan Daily and The Michigan State News: Kadirga, Saricik, Biwojni, Nansoma, and Iktitaf. The frequency with which each word appeared varied—once, twice, five times, ten times, and twenty-five times. There was no editorial mention of the strange advertising and to questions from readers, editorial replied, “the purchaser of the display wished for anonymity.” The anonymous man behind the display was the famed psychologist Robert Zajonc. After running the mysterious series of ads for a few weeks, Zajonc sent out questionnaires to thousands of Michigan and Michigan State students. The questionnaire included a list 12 words—the five test words and seven filler words—and asked students to select whether each word “means something ‘good’ or something ‘bad.’” The results were amazing: the words that appeared in the newspapers most frequently were rated most favorably. Over the course of his career, Zajonc would demonstrate this psychological phenomenon again and again in many different experiments. Whether he used Chinese ideographs, paintings, pictures of faces, geometric figures, or sounds, Zajonc found again and again that there is a link between repetition and affection. Zajonc called it the “mere-exposure effect.” Danny Kahneman, a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and a great admirer of Zajonc, includes this figure in Thinking, Fast and Slow to help tell the story of the relationship between inputs like repetition and outputs like affection:
Unlike Zajonc, I haven’t conducted experiments. But sort of like Zajonc, when I went through my boxes of notecards, I couldn’t stop seeing the mere-exposure effect. And I’d like to share some examples from my collection…
Night After Night, You Get Better
On October 10, 2001, B.J. Novak tried stand up comedy for the first time. It was at the Hollywood Youth Hostel, and the crowd didn’t speak English. The guy before him killed with an act you don’t really need to speak English to understand: impressions of Robert De Niro taking a dump. After Novak’s attempt, the MC kept the show going by reminding the crowd, “takes a lot of courage to get up on this stage.” And for the next three months, Novak couldn’t work up the courage to get up on another stage. Then he had an idea. If he booked stage time at various comedy clubs for two weeks straight, “I couldn’t make each night a referendum on whether or not I should do it.” Regardless of whether he did well or not, the next night, he had to get back up on a stage. And as he did, he realized, “you just have to do it a bunch.” Through mere exposure, Novak continues, he got better and better which made it easier and easier to get up on stage. It’s a virtuous cycle— “If you do 20 jokes and 3 of them get laughs—well, those are the 3 you keep. And then after a while, one of them always does well—well, that’s your opener. And then a second always does well—well, now you have a closer…And it evolves that way.” Novak said, “I was bad for a while. But night after night, you evolve the act and get better.”
Two Very Simple Rules
Like many prolific writers, the novelist and screenwriter Raymond Chandler said his output was a product of merely showing up at the typewriter every day. Chandler woke up early, worked until lunchtime, and then was done of the day. “The important thing,” he wrote, “is that there should be a space of time time, say four hours a day at least, when a writer doesn’t do anything else but write. He doesn’t have to write, and if doesn’t feel like it, he shouldn’t try. He can look out the window or stand on his head or writhe on the floor. But he is not to do any other positive thinking—not read, write letters, glance at magazines, or write checks. Either write or nothing.” When those are your only options, Chandler said, you will think or write “just to keep from being bored. I find it works. Two very simple rules: a. You don’t have to write. b. You can’t do anything else.” You merely expose yourself to your typewriter or your laptop or your pen and paper. “The rest comes of itself.”
How To Win A Grammy
The comedian Steve Martin had no talent for the banjo. To begin to try to learn, he got a book called How To Play The 5-string Banjo by Pete Seeger. One of the first lessons was how to make a C-chord. Martin put his fingers down on the strings and strummed a C-chord. “I couldn’t tell the difference,” he said. To him, strumming a C-chord sounded just like strumming with no fingers down on any of the strings. “I was not naturally talented,” he writes in Born Standing Up. But, he said, “I just stayed with it. And I kept saying to myself, ‘Well, if I just stay with it, one day, I will have played for forty years…Anybody who sticks with [the banjo] for forty years will be able to play it.” Martin kept merely exposing himself to the banjo and in 2001, he and his banjo won a Grammy for “Best Country Instrumental Music Performance.”
You Won’t Know Until You Go
Of course, mere exposure doesn’t always go well. From the time he started reading—before he went on to become the famous psychologist and philosopher we know him as today—William James wanted to be a naturalist. Like the adventurous naturalists he’d long read about, James wanted to “get a microscope and go out into the country, into the dear old woods and fields and ponds—there I would try to make as many discoveries as possible.” James idolized the internationally celebrated naturalist Louis Agassiz. When the Swiss-born Agassiz travelled to the U.S. to give lectures across the country, James went to as many as he could. Then, during his sophomore year of college, James got the opportunity of his lifetime. Agassiz was recruiting volunteers to join him on an expedition to Brazil. James was selected to go conduct research with the greatest living naturalist. “W.J.” he wrote to himself in his journal, “in this excursion you will learn to know yourself and your resources more intimately than you do now, and will come back with your character considerably evolved and established.” The Colorado departed for Brazil on April 1, 1864. Twelve days later, Agassiz’s team was out in the Brazilian wild. “My coming was a mistake,” James wrote to his family just a few days into his first naturalistic exposure. Fleas, mosquitoes, ringworm, violent itching, uncomfortable sleeping quarters, and tasks that seemed meaningless—“I am now certain that my forte is not to go on exploring expeditions,” he wrote. “When I get home I’m going to study philosophy all my days.”
James’ story is a good reminder that…
We Learn Who We Are In Practice, Not In Theory
After studying people who acted on a dissatisfaction in one career with a jump to another and became happier for doing so, Herminia Ibarra found that we discover who we are and what we are meant to do in doing and then reflecting. “First act and then think,” she said. “We discover the possibilities by doing, by trying new activities, building new networks, finding new role models.” As David Epstein puts it in Range, “We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.” We learn who we are merely through exposure.