Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers... and more!

(From Edition 20 of The Upleveler, our weekly smartletter)


Here are five tidbits from our reading in 2018 - anecdotes, unusual insights, and a few #TILs.

(All quotations are from the Blinkist summaries of the respective books.)

Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers

A book about chronic stress in humans. The ability to "control" our actions has a huge impact on stress, and even a minor increase in autonomy helps.

For example, studies in nursing homes have shown that giving the elderly responsibility for everyday decision making, like choosing meals or activities, had numerous positive effects on their lives. Specifically, it increased activity, happiness and health while cutting mortality over the course of the study in half.

Lessons for us: You may be causing your teams to stress out by not giving them 'control'. Learn to let go a little. 

Rare: The High-Stakes Race to Satisfy Our Need for the Scarcest Metals on Earth

A book about 'rare earth' metals, which have become critical components of some of the most widely used objects in the world. But the term is a misnomer - they are actually not that 'rare'.

It’s not that rare earth metals are hard to find; it’s that they’re only found in very tiny quantities and it is extremely difficult and costly to separate them from their surroundings. This is why these elements continue to be considered rare, despite the fact that they’re all around us.

Lessons for us: Nations are playing out interesting strategic, geo-political battles around rare earth metals. It may be worth your while to explore this a little more.

The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters

[trigger alert for grossness!]

Many of us talk sh#t but don't like to talk about sh#t. However...

Martin Luther, a leader of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, reportedly ate a spoonful of his own shit every day and wrote that he “couldn’t understand the generosity of a God who freely gave such important and useful remedies.” While this is not actionable advice, Luther was definitely onto something. 

Lessons for us: Modern life has helped banish the topic of human waste under the floorboards and tiles, but it has an incredible impact on our lives in areas of hygiene, recycling, design, etc. One life-hack from the book: flush with your toilet lid closed.

Weird Ideas That Work

Some people would say there's a lot in common between our previous topic and terms like 'corporate innovation'. Ahem. More seriously, one important point in this book by a Stanford professor is that we need to find different ways of judging 'innovative work' from 'routine work'. 

Think about it this way: how productive would Archimedes have looked while he was taking his bath just before his famous “eureka” moment? [...]  Companies should penalize inaction, not failures.

Lessons for us: We run into this problem each day in the work we do with companies on fostering innovation culture. One of our strategies? Give people enough interesting prompts related to innovation and make it easy for them to get started. Then see who responds over time.

The Genius of Birds

Let's step out from our human-centric selves for a bit. 

You might even say that some of these (bower) birds can create optical illusions: they place their smallest objects near the entrance to their bower (a shaded place under a tree used by males in their courtship rituals) and the largest ones near the end, creating an illusion that the bower is smaller than it appears, thereby making the male look larger by comparison. [...] A 1995 study on pigeons, conducted by Shigeru Watanabe, found that the birds could pick out a Monet and a Picasso from a group of similar paintings.

Lessons for us: There are lessons galore in nature, about evolution, survival, change, how status is signaled, and so on. Oh, and it's not just us who are artists. 

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