Stop the Use of Disingenuous Labels

I am a long-time blood donor. Every eight weeks, the blood bank calls me to provide another pint. I’ve never kept count, but they tell me I am somewhere north of seven gallons. I am NOT, however, a hero. That’s what the people who set up the appointments have been trained call me. Me, and the thousands of others who do so regularly. I’m happy to contribute to the cause in my own small way. But being called a hero for something like this troubles me.

As a society, we have taken to using hyperbolic labels for everything. Every little act, performance, and gesture seems to be awesome, phenomenal, fantastic, or unbelievable. Maybe this is a throwback to the parents who gave their kids trophies just for showing up. But the whole thing demeans those whose achievements are the product of real vision, focus, hard work, perseverance and sacrifice. I’ll even go out on a limb and say that the front-line employees who show up for work in the middle of a pandemic are not heroes. Yet we see large signs to this effect all over. Yes, we DO appreciate the risk they are taking. But if we compare that to the firefighters who run into burning buildings or the police officers who risk their lives protecting others, I’d argue there’s a considerable difference.

The misguided belief that a person will think better of themselves or improve their performance when you tell them they’re a hero for doing something ordinary creates a disconnect between management and staff. They know they didn’t do something extraordinary. In some cases, they even look at management as being silly for suggesting such a thing. The supervisors I know don’t want to look silly. Yet someone in leadership has decided that this is the way to inspire people. So they go along, not wanting to take a stand on something so insignificant.

The same thing is true of customers and those who contribute to a cause. Yes, I want to be appreciated. But a simple “thank you” will do. A salesperson who tells me I’ve made a phenomenal decision when I’ve purchased a set tires amuses me. They’re just tires! If someone wants to tap me for a pint of blood every two months, I am happy to comply. Pat me on the back, give me a tchotchke, or just say “thanks.”

The Future is Unknowable – Risk is Measurable

“Congratulations! You’ve won a package of sky-diving lessons.” Just the thought of this sends shivers down the spines of some people. A little informal research tells me that skydiving is five times as safe as flying commercially, which is five times as safe as driving a car, which is five times as safe as crossing the street in a big city. But for many, even the infinitesimal possibility of hitting the ground at 120mph overwhelms any thought of the experience being safe and exhilarating.

Economist Frank Knight observed that, “The future is unknowable, but risk is measurable.” In other words, it is best to ask “What are the chances?” when contemplating any decision of significance. By taking time to logically consider the risk of possible outcomes, we are able to manage the emotional discomfort that can distort our thinking.

As we come of age and mature through life, we are constantly influenced by those around us along with our experiences with success and failure. When something goes wrong, those around us help to interpret these consequences. Many times, unfortunately, these comments begin with sentences like, “I had a feeling this would happen,” or “That should teach you not to try something like that again.”

Listening to these laments engenders a fear of the unknown. When considering future opportunities, purchases, and relationships, these words of caution can come flooding into our minds and overwhelm any thoughts of excitement, anticipation and positive outcomes. Sadly, this cycle becomes a reinforcing expectation for most people. This results in their assuming the worst when considering opportunities. If they surround themselves with others who think this way, they begin to settle for certainty, even if it means sacrificing better jobs, better incomes, better relationships and a host of other opportunities. Even when they want to consider these endeavors, they are counseled by these risk-adverse friends to be careful and the cycle is reinforced.

So, how can someone break out of this rhythm? Here’s a good way to begin. Make a practice of asking yourself, “What are the chances” when considering decisions and opportunities. Then go about quantifying and qualifying the probability of each possible outcome. Next, ask yourself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” and “If the worst was to happen, would I be able to manage it?” Finally, ask, “Does the value of the positive outcome outweigh the possible loss of the negative outcome? If it does, proceed. Logic is the great mitigator of fear. As the saying goes, feel the fear and do it anyway.