The Goldilocks Rule of Sales

The idea of a life in sales can have a greasy connotation, summoning the mental image of a slick insurance or car salesman pitching you some policy or vehicle that is a catastrophe away from leaving you both figuratively and literally stranded on the highway.

For that reason, many salespeople liken their job more to that of their favorite junior high teacher, the one who had a great command of the English language and an unending font of knowledge, despite wearing the same sweater every day.

In other words, modern salespeople see their main role as suppliers of valuable information. Spreading the data correctly will yield a well-informed customer, ready and willing to make the right purchasing choice.

I understand how this feels preferable. Honest information delivered appropriately is at the very core of how we see our ministers and favorite teachers. It’s what those of us that grew up on TV from the 60’s through the 90’s came to expect from the Shell Oil Company’s sultan of wisdom and guidance, the Shell Answer Man.

The only problem is, what is the Goldilocks rule? How much information is “just right”?

The answer is at once both obvious and, judging from common practice, hard to understand. When was the last time you encountered a salesperson who prattled on about the latest gizmo while you stood there, bored out of your mind and only pretending to care from sheer politeness?

Information on demand is the key to good selling. As a salesperson, you always want to cut to the chase, deliver three key aspects about any product, and then wait for the customer’s followup questions. If none come, that’s your cue to cease your pitch.

It’s analogous to catching your best friend staring off into space after you’ve shared your 400th vacation photo of the world’s largest Cheeto at Emerald’s Restaurant in Algona, Iowa. Even if you’ve got another dozen Cheeto selfies to show off, your friend’s forlorn look tells you it’s time to pack it in.

Thankfully, modern selling has moved past the days of plaid jackets and gold-toothed pitchmen. Now it’s all about customer experience. Which is to say, it’s not just a matter of talking, it’s a matter of listening. The Shell Answer Man is gone, but some things remain timeless, like a good cigar, a fine wine, or a Cheeto the size of your head.

Your Brain as a Supercomputer

Have you ever wondered how your brain and your smartphone’s operating systems compare? After all, people commonly draw analogies between computers and the brain. Given how a smartphone really is just a very small computer, these days, you’re likely lugging around one of each.

Of course, a smartphone differs from your brain in many ways. For one thing, your brain’s carrying case is generally more durable.

For another thing, a smartphone processes in a series format, a couple of bits of information at a time. Imagine a light switch connected to a lamp in your bedroom. The switch only controls that single light circuit. It has no effect on, say, the lights in your kitchen.

In much the same way, your phone’s silicone processing chips are essentially a collection of tiny switches, each creating a single and separate cause and effect. Combined in sufficient numbers, you get the cool little apps we rely on. They’re perfectly configured for computing the square root of a number, or helping to triangulate the location of the nearest gas station. But those programs are deterministic: they can only work in a certain preprogrammed fashion. Every time you turn on your GPS, it operates the same way.

Your brain runs differently.

The machinery in your skull processes information in parallel. This means that rather than operating with a binary on/off switch on a single circuit, each neural connection has about 7000 switching options. That’s impressive on its own, but keep in mind that the adult human brain has roughly 86 billion neurons. Stretched end to end, they would cover the circumference of the earth more than four times.

The result? Each person carries 600 trillion possible configurations in their head, or more than 3000 times all the stars in the galaxy, according to Daniel Bor in his new book, The Ravenous Brain.

This incredible flexibility allows your brain to rearrange and create new neural switches, altering and effectively boosting the power of your more frequently traveled pathways. Your brain cells follow what’s called Hebb’s rule: the neurons that fire together, wire together. In the same way that “you are what you eat”, you are what you think. We program and re-program ourselves every day.

Imagine if each time you used your GPS, it worked faster, and with improved accuracy. From this angle, even the most cutting edge technology lags far behind the ancient electrical-chemical signaling system we all carry in our heads.

At least, until 2074, when Apple unveils the iBrain.

The Secret Life of Rust

When we think of rust, we think of old cars and decaying highway bridges. Perhaps the Tin Man from Oz pops into your head. One thing you probably don’t think about is the inside of your own body. Nevertheless, that talk you hear about eating antioxidant-rich vegetables is really a matter of rust reduction.

Part of the reason old age kills is because you are, at this very moment, in a lifelong process of rusting out. And reaching for the WD-40 isn’t going to help.

Your body is a complex soup of chemical reactions. At an atomic level, your cells try to maintain stability. Unfortunately, they are forever being damaged from pollution, stress, junk food, the sun, ozone, electrical appliances, x-rays, smoking, alcohol, and just about anything else you encounter on a day to day basis.

Our cells are quietly under siege 24/7. Even your own metabolic processes like breathing and digestion add to the damage. Use or abuse of a cell weakens it. If the structure is too badly compromised, it can release what’s known as a free radical. Free radicals attempt to reestablish stability by stealing an electron from a neighboring molecule. (Remember high school chemistry?) This sets off a chain reaction of electron theft, spreading instability.

Free radicals that contain oxygen are known as reactive oxygen species, or ROS. They are some of the most common free radicals found in our bodies, and they’re responsible for oxygenation, also known as rust.

How can you stop yourself from rusting out like the Tin Man? Antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables serve as your own little chemical SWAT team by apprehending and soaking up these renegade oxygen molecules, escorting them away to be eliminated through your waste reduction system.

All of this works pretty well, provided the destruction doesn’t exceed what your SWAT team can handle. When the chaos outpaces your body’s ability to fix it, chances start to decrease that you will be able to remain above room temperature on this spinning watery rock called earth.

TV’s late night pitchmen hawk the superior cleaning power of antioxidants in a wide variety of products. The principle is the same: the sprays and cleansers fight tough stains by bonding up with everything from the dirt in your clothes to the rust on your barbecue grill.

Oxygen: it’s a classic double-edged sword. On one hand, we need it to breathe, but on the other hand, it’s what will inevitably take us all down. So the next time you’re deciding whether or not to reach for that spinach or those berries, remember what aging rocker Neil Young warned us so long ago: “Rust never sleeps.”

Talking to the Brain: How One Scientist Skipped the Middle Man—and Found Deep Philosophical Truths

Imagine waking up in a hospital room, unable to move.

You can hear the doctor telling someone that they’re not sure what level of brain function you have, since you appear to be totally unresponsive. You try to speak but your throat is frozen. Your fingers and toes won’t move. You can’t even control your eyes.

It’s the worst kind of nightmare: totally conscious but with no way to communicate, a prisoner in your own body. Although situations like this are rare, they have occurred. In most cases, if you found yourself in this kind of personal hell you were doomed to a life of mental torture.

That’s until one very intrepid neuroscientist, Martin Monti, found a way to communicate.

The debate about the nature of the mind is, of course, a long and storied one in the world of philosophy. If science tells us that we’re made of flesh and bone, what are thoughts made of? How separate is a person’s animating mental force from the muscle, blood, and tissue that keeps them physically chugging along? The mind-body debate, as it’s called, is a sticky one for many people. Monti wanted to prove that consciousness is what the brain does, not some ethereal aspect of a separate ‘mind’.

In his book The Ravenous Brain, neuroscientist Bor Daniel describes the details. The experiment was straightforward: using a new model of fMRI that allowed for an almost immediate response between experimental activity and the readout of blood and oxygen levels in specific brain areas, Monti reasoned he could hijack and convert conscious thought into a binary yes-or-no response system.

To lay the groundwork for that binary, he’d need two areas of the brain linked to different activities, as far from each other as possible. At the top of the brain is a region called a motor cortex. It lights up the screen on an fMRI when you move body parts like your hands or arms. Towards the bottom of the brain is a region known as the parahippocampal place area, which activates navigation and place location activity.

Monti demonstrated his system on Bor Daniel. They placed Daniel in an fMRI machine and asked him a series of questions, instructing him not to answer verbally but instead to indicate “yes” by thinking deeply about playing tennis, with special concentration to his imaginary serve, and to signal “no” by imagining carefully surveying his own living room. In theory, tennis thoughts would send blood up to the motor cortex, and location thoughts would send blood down to the parahippocampal place area.

Studying the fMRI results, Monti found he was right. While it certainly made for a clumsy way to communicate, he could retrieve Daniel’s answers directly from Daniel’s brain. The accuracy rate proved to be 100%.

Not only did the experiment suggest a way to reach a person with deep level paralysis, it also demonstrated conscious thought as a direct function of brain activity, something most neuroscientists had largely accepted but couldn’t prove.

The famous French philosopher Rene Descartes attempted to solve the mind-body problem with a slight of hand, referred to as the “ghost in the machine” solution. Monti did an even cooler trick: like Scooby Doo unmasking a phantom to discover it was actually a crooked amusement park owner, Monti showed that maybe the ghost was a part of the machine all along.

Facing Victory: Inside the Mind of a Chess Champion

Susan Polgar is considered a chess genius; at 21, she was the first woman in the world to become a Grandmaster. Her chess skills are so extraordinary that she can take on five competitors simultaneously—without looking at any of the chess boards. In other words, she is playing all five games in her mind.

On some level, this seems like it should be impossible. Playing chess relies on your working memory, that mental scratch pad that holds onto information momentarily as it passes by. And to put it bluntly, the working memory stinks. Most people’s can only hold four to seven pieces of information before something gets dropped. Incidentally, this is why phone numbers have only seven digits. Even the brightest among us can get confounded by an eight number sequence.

If you’ve ever forgotten where you put your keys because you were running through a quick grocery list, you understand how it feels when information gets crossed off that metaphorical scratch pad.

So how does Susan Polgar do it?

The answer is a handy bit of neural hijacking.

In the back of your skull sits a part of your brain called the fusiform gyrus. Until fairly recently, scientists believed that chunk of grey matter was meant almost exclusively for facial recognition. It’s where your brain stores specific faces—up to 10,000 of them—in your long-term memory.

The fusiform gyrus is incredible at what it does. When you sit across from your Uncle Donald at Thanksgiving, it’s the fusiform gyrus that takes a read on his face, compares the image to your massive internal database of faces, and retrieves the correct identity for him. Start to finish, the process takes less than a split second. You don’t even notice it’s happened.

People who experience an injury in this region, whether through an accident or a stroke, can wind up with what’s known as face blindness. Each time you see someone you know, it’s like you’re meeting them for the first time. You can see they have eyes and a nose and a mouth, but it means nothing to you. Until you hear their voice, they’re a stranger.

So what does this all have to do with chess genius Susan Polgar?

It turns out the fusiform gyrus doesn’t just register faces, it registers patterns. Faces are one kind of pattern. Pieces on a chess board are another. A chess master doesn’t need to separately memorize the position of each chess piece. Instead, whether or not they realize they’re doing it, they train themselves to recognize an arrangement of pieces as a single unit.

This is what Polgar did. Through extensive practice and repetition, she used her fusiform gyrus to build an incredible memory bank of chess configurations.

Most of us never take advantage of that capability. This is why scientists initially believed the fusiform gyrus to be concerned with only faces. Still, in your head right now, you carry the machinery you need to program Grandmaster chess skills of your own—assuming you’re willing to put in the work.

If not, well, it’s always nice to see Uncle Donald at Thanksgiving.

The Marx Brothers: Princes of Practice

When we think of legends of comedy, the Marx Brothers might come to mind. In the years leading up to World War II, they were the toast of Hollywood. Their zany antics, ribald double entendre, and disregard for authority proved to be a winning formula—not just for their day, but for generations of college students born long after the war.

Watching the Marx Brothers’ old black and white movies, it’s tempting to believe that Groucho, Harpo and Chico must have been endowed with the magical comic gene, winners in the cosmic humor lottery.

What about poor Zeppo, the fourth, and largely unheralded brother, sometimes shuffled to the side as the romantic lead? In most movies, this would be a plum role, but in a Marx Brothers film, it was akin to sitting on the bench.

Zeppo, bored with his lack of star billing and reportedly never really invested in the whole comedy enterprise, eventually dropped out. His lack of interest is a pretty good indicator of why, when we think of the Marx Brothers, we sometimes struggle to remember his name.

But according to Stefan Kanfer in his biography Groucho, the other three brothers showed a dedication to perfecting every nuance of their material, with Groucho perhaps being the most obsessive of all his siblings. Scenes which passed on screen for moments of absolute improvisational genius were in reality painstakingly rehearsed and memorized.

The brothers had spent years in Vaudeville honing their craft, accumulating their 10,000 hours, practicing relentlessly to hit the perfect comedy pitch in front of raucous and often unforgiving audiences.

 When they finally got a chance to bring their wacky style of comedy to the motion picture industry, they weren’t about to take any chances on whether or not they’d be funny. To that end, they broke movie scripts down into smaller sections and went on the road for several months before filming, performing before live audiences in an attempt to work out the unfunny kinks.

A Marx Brothers publicist, Teet Carle, tells a story about rehearsals for a scene in A Day at the Races when Chico is trying to sell Groucho a discounted book:

Chico: One dollar and you remember me all your life.

Groucho: That’s the most nauseating proposition I ever had.

 Carle reports that Groucho was fixated on finding the perfect punch line. He tried the bit out for weeks with a thesaurus’s worth of substitutions, including obnoxious, revolting, disgusting, offensive, repulsive, disagreeable, and distasteful. For some reason, in the end, none of these words proved to be as funny as “nauseating.”

When we think of the Marx Brothers, dedication to practice doesn’t usually come to mind, but the brothers’ quest to garner audience approval even drove them to employ former Vaudeville actors to perform their own material in front of them so they could get a more objective opinion on script quality.

The fact that we’re still watching their movies today suggests they were on to something.

They demonstrated what the great American writer, Mark Twain, wrote long before the Marx Brothers hit the stage and screen, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

Or as Vince Lombardi once said, “Practice doesn’t make perfect, only perfect practice makes perfect.”