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Problem Creep and Camembert

A couple of months ago, our sweet 87-year-old grandmother was en route to a family gathering.  Being a gracious guest, she brought along a ceramic cheese dish and a nice round of Camembert for the host.  Unfortunately, when going through airport security, the Camembert was confiscated because it was deemed to be a “liquid.”  Needless to say, Grandma was pretty perplexed.  Any reasonable person could see a) it was cheese (she even offered to eat it!) and b) the cheese posed no threat to national security. 

Observing this type of Monty Python-esque airport security situation is exactly what led Harvard psychologist David Levari to conduct formal research on the topic; specifically, to find out if the human brain searches for problems even when problems become infrequent or don’t exist.  Michael Easter’s book, The Comfort Crisis: Embrace Discomfort To Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self provides some more context: 

“Obviously the phrase better safe than sorry applies here. ‘But we wondered’, said Levari, ‘if all of a sudden people stopped bringing stuff that wasn’t allowed into the airport and the luggage screens never went off, would the TSA just relax and do nothing?’ They didn’t think so. ‘Our intuition was that the TSA would do what most of us would do,’ he said. ‘When they ran out of stuff to find they would start looking for a wider range of stuff, even if this was not conscious or intentional, because their job is to look for threats.'” 

In one of Levari’s studies, subjects were asked to categorize hundreds of pictures of people into “threatening” and “non-threatening” categories; in another, they were asked to label scientific research studies as either “unethical” or “ethical”. Unbeknownst to the participants, the number of “threatening” and “unethical” items purposefully dwindled as the study progressed.  Unfortunately, as the actual number of threatening faces and unethical research proposals became significantly less frequent, the participants’ categorizations did not—they just began to perceive neutral faces as threatening and ambiguous research proposals as unethical.  Easter again: 

“He [Levari] called this ‘prevalence-induced concept change.’ Essentially ‘problem creep.’ It explains that as we experience fewer problems, we don’t become more satisfied.  We just lower our threshold for what we consider a problem. We end up with the same number of troubles. Except our new problems are progressively more hollow. So Levari got to the heart of why many people can find an issue in nearly any situation, no matter how good we can have it relative to the grand sweep of humanity. We are always moving the goalpost. There is quite literally, a scientific basis for first world problems.” 

In the world of SMB, there are always problems: a missed deadline, a dirty uniform, a scathing online review, a no-call no-show, a lost contract, a late payment, a data entry problem, mechanical issues, soft demand, overbearing regulations, an unreasonable landlord, bad weather, miscounted inventory, cost-overruns, the list goes on (and on).  And that was just this week! 

In our experience, a big part of effective leadership in SMB is knowing what battles to fight, and when.  If we run around trying to fix every single problem we will make ourselves (and our team) crazy.  It’s easy to lose common sense and end up confiscating cheese. 

Levari’s research is a good reminder that we don’t need to make life harder on ourselves by worrying about both actual problems as well as perceived ones.  As long as it’s not mission-critical, sometimes, we just need to let things go and live to fight another day.  So, how do we avoid lowering our problem threshold?  It starts with self-awareness and ends with having others hold us accountable to not becoming prima-donnas who complain about everything.  On a personal level, we have found some type of mindfulness practice helps (i.e., saying grace, acknowledging the beauty of nature, daily stoicism readings, etc.).  It’s not perfect, but we hope this helps us avoid freaking out about the proverbial Camembert.

Have a great week,

Your Chenmark Team

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