“Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. THAT’S relativity.” – Albert Einstein
I think it was Groucho Marx who used to tell the joke about a guy standing on a street corner and repeatedly hitting himself over the head with a hammer. A fellow comes along and asks him why he’s doing such a terrible thing to himself, to which he replies, “Because it feels so good when I stop.”
I often think about this bit of goofiness when I’m on the treadmill. When I start out, I set the machine at about 2.0 miles per hour and gradually move it up to 3.5 mph over the first five minutes. Then I keep it at 3.5 mph for another 25 minutes. After a total of 30 minutes, I take another couple of minutes to gradually slow the treadmill down to 3.0 mph… then 2.5… 2.0… and so on, until it’s at zero.
What I find interesting about this is that when I first move the speed up to 2.5 mph, I’m conscious of having to move my feet faster to keep pace with the treadmill. Then, after walking at a 3.5 mph pace for 25 minutes, it feels almost as though I’m standing still when I slow the machine down to 2.5 mph. Of course, 2.5 mph is still 2.5 mph. That hasn’t changed. What has changed is my perception of it. Relative to standing still, 2.5 mph seems fast; relative to 3.5 mph, 2.5 mph seems slow. Relativity, then, has altered my perception of how fast I have to walk in order to keep pace with the treadmill.
All this got me to thinking about how many of our perceptions are based on relativity. For example:
- If you’re broke, $20 might seem like a fortune. But if you have a million dollars in the bank, $20 is pocket change.
- If a team is a 20-point underdog in a game that it loses by five points, its fans are likely to feel good about its performance. But if that same team is a 20-point favorite, its fans would almost certainly be disappointed if it won by only five points.
- Because I often eat at fine restaurants, I’ve given the thumbs down to many gourmet meals that didn’t quite measure up to my expectations. Yet, I can vividly recall thinking that a Thanksgiving dinner I had in the Army decades ago was just about the best meal I ever ate. Relative to the slop we were served every day in the mess hall, that meal was a genuine feast.
There are many good reasons to take note of the relationship between relativity and perception, and I believe two are especially important. First, it’s healthy to always view your problems in a relative light. If, for example, you have a child with a serious learning disability, it’s a problem that looks a whole lot worse in a vacuum than it does when juxtaposed against the thought of a child with, say, muscular dystrophy. Second, in your dealings with others, remember that people are going to base their perceptions on their belief systems. So, when you offer a product, a proposal, or an idea to someone, you can help swing the odds in your favor by adding a pinch of relativity to help guide his perception of it.
One of the best examples of this time-tested phenomenon was given by the legendary Elmer Wheeler, thought by many to be the world’s greatest salesman clear back in the 1940s. Wheeler said that when someone orders a malted milk at a soda fountain (both items a bit outdated today), the clerk should not ask, “Would you like an egg in your malt today, sir?” Rather, he should matter-of-factly say, “One egg or two today?” If the clerk simply asks the customer if he would like an egg in his malt (which, of course, would increase the cost of the malt), it’s easy for the customer to say no. But by eliminating the no-egg option and giving the customer the choice of one egg or two, it becomes relatively easy for him to make a knee-jerk decision in favor of that same single egg he might have said no to. What becomes relatively difficult in this scenario is to say, “I don’t want any egg in my malted today.” Trust me on this.
Using relativity to help shape another person’s perceptions works. It’s a powerful tool which, when consciously applied, will almost certainly give you better results in all areas of your life. [Ed. Note: Take a gigantic step toward achieving all your personal and professional goals – faster than you ever imagined – with Robert Ringer’s best-selling personal-development program.]