The Ignaz Semmelweis reflex

From the 1600’s through the mid 1800’s, knowledge of antiseptics and germs were virtually unknown. That’s why it was common practice to deliver babies without washing your hands in between procedures. In fact, many doctors didn’t even change their clothes.

As you can guess, this caused a plethora of problems. One problem being Childbed Fever. Now Childbed Fever was a rampant epidemic throughout Europe and America during this time. Causing death rates for women giving birth as high as 25% (and even a handful times 100%) in certain hospital wards.

Ignaz Semmelweis, later known as the “savior of mothers”, started to notice something. That women who birthed at home were far less likely to contract Childbed Fever. It turns out Semmelweis was able to discover that the simple act of washing your hands after delivering a baby could reduce the rate of infection to less than 1%.

This remarkable discovery has no doubt saved millions of lives.

The problem though is that the medical community rejected Semmelweis’s findings. It took doctors 20 years to adopt the practice of washing their hands. Costing the lives of millions of people in the process. All because the medical community was unwilling to change.

The story that Ignaz Semmelweis told the medical community didn’t resonate with them. It didn’t align with the other doctor’s world view. They were looking at the same data but completely interpreted it differently. Because they couldn’t believe that invisible cadaverous particles could cause death to another human being. They didn’t want to believe that they were the ones transmitting this infection.

The Semmelweis story is a reminder about the dangers of ignoring the science and the data to fit our world view. We all do it. As human beings, we interpret data to fit our world view. And we reject any notion that doesn’t fit. In these moments we need to ask ourselves: what is the worst that can happen?

No doubt the Semmelweis reflex began with a few outspoken proponents of washing their hands and the rest simply followed. But millions of lives could have been spared if only the medical community could stop and listen. If someone wasn’t afraid to stand up and join Semmelweis.

The doctors were wrong. Sometimes there is a cost for being wrong. And the cost of being wrong was only amplified when they couldn’t accept the fact they were wrong. Which is why it’s essential to learn how to tell a better story. If Semmelweis could have told a better story maybe the medical community would have listened.

Share your story in a way that resonates with others and you will begin to see the change you are looking to seek in the world.

Dear Resistance

Thanks to Steve Pressfield’s essential book, The War of Art, anyone can now identify the voice in our heads that keeps us from being the person God intended us to be. While at first, the goal is to see if we can rid ourselves from this fear. By trying to reach inbox zero. And when we finally pay all the bills. And when we finally have checked our Twitter feed for the up-teenth time just to make sure the world hasn’t ended (that the sky hasn’t fallen). We can tell ourselves that everything is okay.

But everything is not always okay.

We have learned that these are things we do to trick ourselves. It is a form of hiding. Because we can’t control the uncontrollable. Even though we try. We know that Resistance will never go away. Resistance is part of our biology. Resistance is the Adversary. Resistance is the point of being human. No Resistance. No progression. We can’t get rid of this fear. Instead we have to learn to dance with the fear.

How to dance with the fear:

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should

Richard Nixon didn’t have to send people to break into the DNC Office. Lance Armstrong didn’t have to dope. Enron didn’t have to misrepresent their earnings. Jonah Lehrer didn’t have to plagiarize his writing.

The path of least resistance offers no reward. It’s not about the destination but the journey. It’s not the fact that you’ve won, but how you win. Through the obstacles not around them that bring us meaning.

Just because you think you can away with something, doesn’t mean you should. There is no short cut to get ahead. And yet too many of us let our egos get in the way. We are suckered into believing this is how to get an edge.

Joshua Bell and the magnificent seven theory

Joshua Bell is famous. You may have never heard of him. Bell is one of the best concert violinist in the world.

In 2012, Bell in collaboration with the Washington Post set up a social experiment to see what would happen if he were to play a free concert in L’Enfant Plaza subway station in Washington, DC on a 3.5 million dollar Stradivarius.

During his 45 minute concert, Bell only had seven people stop and listen to him play while over a thousand people walked by him.

These seven are part of what I like to call the magnificent seven theory. The magnificent seven theory goes like this: out of every thousand people you can find seven people who will care enough to stop and listen to what you have to say. That is your target audience. That is the seven people you want to share your ideas with for that start-up. Or that blog you want to launch.

The other interesting take away from this is: your settings matter. In one setting at a concert hall you may be worth $200 a ticket. However, in the subway station you are worth pennies to the dollar. Bell made a total of $32 that day. $20 came from a woman who recognized him.

The thing is Joshua Bell wasn’t playing in the subway for money. (Twenty-seven people dropped money in Bell’s hat.) Money isn’t what artists are after. They are trying to get us to slow down for a moment.

The clock compromises our values. Too many of us are a slave to the clock. We worship the clock. We ever feel the clock and his presence. Ellen Langer calls it mindfulness or the simple act of noticing new things. The old anecdote of stopping to smell the roses is needed more today than ever before.

True believers

What did Dean Potter, Philippe Petit, Jack Kerouac, and Sheppard Fairy have in common?

Sure, they were all famous. Potter for his controversial climb on Delicate Arch, Petit for his high-wire line across the World Trade Centers, Kerouac for writing the scroll (On the Road), and Fairy for his President Obama Hope poster.

But that isn’t what makes them unique. Because even Richard Nixon is famous.

No. They were map makers and explorers. They trusted their compass and explored all the edges to see how much tension they could create.

(None of them alleviated tension. They sought after it.)

Although masters at their craft, they weren’t saying something through their art. They were saying something about art. That is why they have one time or another have been labeled anarchists or revolutionaries. Being willing to say something about art triggers revolutions. Pushing the limits, pushing the boundaries to enable the impossible.

The Wizard of Oz complex

In 1805, there were only fifteen corporations in America. In the last two centuries, we have seen the explosion of factories and mass production. Leading many of us to enjoy very rich and comfortable lives.

In 1918, the Spanish Flu swept through the world infecting 500 million people. Killing 50 to 100 million people (roughly 5% of the world’s population). Now, we enjoy the availability and accessibility of vaccinations.

In the 1950’s, photography was shot in black and white. And too many of us suffered from what I like to call the Wizard of Oz Complex. Where we believed that the world was actually black and white back in the day.

We live in the safest world in human history. There is a genuine disconnect from our past. And we forget that it wasn’t always this way.

We are now to a point where we take advantage of things like mass production, vaccinations, and technology. Taking advantages of these luxuries doesn’t make us evil. It just the story we have told ourselves has become polluted. We need to have a culture that is going to teach us and remind us of how good it is. That it won’t always be this way.

Artists steal

There are no more completely original ideas. There are only partially original ideas.

It’s important to recognize what part you are taking and what part you are inventing.

A new book is not original. The book part. The cover and pages is a stolen idea. But inside the book, it could be a new author or new content. That part is original.

So put aside the fact your idea has to be completely original in order to work. Because the market doesn’t need completely original ideas. In fact, chances are if it’s never been done before you probably won’t find a market for it. What we need is your twist, your innovation, your invention on what has already been done.

There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Just make it better.