Emotional Equations

Chip Conley: The emotional equation that really sort of started my interest was at a time, at the start of 2008, when it was very clear to me that the economy was about to take a nosedive, and I started reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.  And I wanted to distill that quite compelling and poignant book on meaning into an equation, because I was looking for a mantra on a daily basis, and that equation was despair equals suffering minus meaning.  So, despair equals suffering minus meaning. 

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The way the equation works is, suffering is a constant.  It’s true for him--he was in a concentration camp--, true in a recession, true if you’re in a bad marriage, true if you’re not in a relationship.  There's always suffering.  It’s the first noble truth of Buddhism, in fact, that suffering is ever present.  Where there's a variable is the meaning.  So if suffering’s a constant and meaning is a variable, increase the meaning and the despair goes down. 

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That became my little mantra for how to get through a really difficult time, and then I shared it with the top 80 executives in our company at our annual management retreat, because all I saw was suffering in the room.  And everybody loved it because it helped them to understand that when you're going through emotional boot camp, maybe you’re going to exercise some emotional muscles that you can use later in life.  

And it’s been proven in a couple studies of women in the Depression.  Those women who actually grew up in the Depression were better able to handle their husbands dying first and being a widow later in life than were women who actually didn't go through the Depression. 

One of the ways you can apply an emotional equation to an experience is to understand the component parts.  So let’s use anxiety for a moment.  Anxiety is the most prevalent emotion in most organizations in the United States today.  So anxiety has two component parts: it’s what you don't know and what you can't control.  So anxiety equals uncertainty times--not plus, because it’s combustible--anxiety equals uncertainty times powerlessness.  So, anxiety equals uncertainty times powerlessness. 

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So the way you could work this equation is the following: think of something that makes you anxious and then create four columns.  The first column is what is it that I do know about this thing that's making me anxious.  The second column is what is it that I don't know.  The third column is what is it that I can influence.  And the fourth column is what is it that I can't influence. 

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Once you’ve spent 15-20 minutes making a list, you may be surprised to find that 75-80 percent of us when we make our lists find that we have more things under columns one and three, the assets on this anxiety balance sheet, than we do in two and four; those are the liabilities.  And once you realize that, that makes you feel like, oh, I’ve got some things I do know and that I can control. 

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But more importantly, you can look at column two and say, “What is that in column two, what I don't know, how could I actually learn that?”  You know, maybe you think you're going to lose your job, maybe you could ask your boss.  Maybe you think your spouse is cheating, maybe you could ask them.  The truth is we don't want to do that because it’s like, I don't want to learn that. 

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But there's a fascinating study done 20 years ago that showed that when people had the choice between getting an electric shock now that's twice as painful as one they might get in the next 24 hours but it will happen without them knowing, sort of randomly, most of us would choose twice as painful shock now.  So what . . . it’s a lesson to us, as leaders, is that quite often it’s best to actually deliver the bad news rather than to let people stew in their anxiety juices. 

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd

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