Off the Shelf: Hunch

How often do you allow yourself to become bored anymore? The problem with having a computer in your pocket all the time is that your ego is always in charge – waiting for five minutes for a coffee? Check my email. In line at the DMV? Great time for a video game! (Guilty.) Waiting for the show to begin? Social Media!

The problem with all this walking entertainment, says Bernadette Jiwa, author of Hunch, is that our brains never have time to wander anymore, observe, and come up with new ideas. She recommends putting away your device – no, you’ll be alright, just put it back in your pocket for a minute – and look around. Observe the people around you, observe what they’re struggling with, and try to figure out what would make things easier for them. (My favorite part of the book is the exercises she gives you to do to train this part of your brain.)

When I worked in Retail, this was one of the things I loved to do: I loved to visit stores and listen to the booksellers talk about what was preventing them from getting tasks done faster so they could spend more time with customers, making money for the company. But you had to be careful not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

One store where I worked had reached the age where it was starting to sag a little around the middle – hey, it happens to all of us, and to stores, too. The entrance was on the main level, which was bright and clean but too small for anything other than bestsellers, biographies, and guide books. The lower-level was ginormous but low-ceilinged, shadowy, with tall, dark fixtures, hadn’t been updated since the era of orange and brown, and the customer services counter was tucked away in a corner – goodness knows what the architects were thinking when they built it.

Every year when budgeting time came, they’d ask what we needed to improve sales. We’d ask them to brighten up the lower level – just wash and re-lamp, we’d ask. (That’s where you open every one of those square fluorescent lights in the drop-ceiling, replace the bulbs whether they seemed to need it or not, and wash the cover. Compared to a full remodel, it was cheap – but it was still expensive enough that we couldn’t order it for ourselves, and it had to go through Capital Expenditures approvals.) Or, if we were feeling really cocky because we’d just had a great event with George Burns or Tony Randall, we’d ask them to paint the ceiling tiles white, too.

Hmm, they’d say, and out would come the grey suits for a store visit. They’d walk in, look around, say hmmm some more, then go down the grand staircase which, for some reason, left customers facing a back corner when they arrived downstairs, instead of releasing them into the center of the expansive floor. And of course, they would say, “You know, this store would be really great if we changed this staircase.”

“No, no,” we’d plead, trying to divert them from the squirrel. “Please, all the store needs is a wash and re-lamp.”

But it never worked. So, every year, they left, all inspired to update the staircase which was exponentially more expensive than cleaning the lights, because not only did they have to completely rebuild the staircase, code would require them to make it handicap accessible – or to add an elevator. Now we’re talking big money, money that we couldn’t possibly hope to earn back within the lifetime of our lease. And every year, the staircase re-build got shut down. And we didn’t get our wash and re-lamp.

This is a great example of perfect being the enemy of the good.

But I digress.

The nice thing about the exercises that Jiwa provides in the book, is that they are designed to help you start to look at things differently. Not only asking yourself, “What doesn’t work about this?” But “Why did they design it this way in the first place?” And, “Why wouldn’t they have designed it the way I think they should have designed it?”

The book itself is a quick read – but the exercises will keep your brain entertained for weeks, say, when you’re waiting in line at the DMV, or waiting for a bus, or waiting for coffee…

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