Order and Method

Order and Method

“After you cut my hair last week, I went home and measured each sideburn. As I suspected,
the left one was 3 millimeters longer than the right. Let us make the effort, Monsieur
Bennett not to make a similar travesty today,” That was Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s
famed detective who had a fetish for order and method, speaking to his hairdresser. On
another occasion, he refused to eat the eggs served to him because they were of ‘totally
different sizes’.
We often tend to dismiss such people as finicky and often difficult to be with or work with.
Let us, for a minute, reflect on why these people behave so. Do they simply like to complain
about everything and put people down? Is it to demonstrate their own superiority? Or is it
simply a perfectionist at work? Those in the company of such fastidious people would
surely attribute one or all of these reasons to such behavior but the reality may be quite
something else and I discovered this as I was reading a book “Smarter, Faster, Better” by
Charles Duhigg.
He narrates how a group of psychologists began exploring why some people seem to stay
calm and focused amid chaotic environments while others become overwhelmed. The
researchers interviewed professionals such as firefighters, emergency rescue personnel
and army commanders, who worked in extreme settings. Firefighters could look at a
burning staircase and sense if it would hold their weight; soldiers could tell you which
parts of a battlefield were more likely to be harboring enemies. But when they were asked
to explain their decisions, they struggled to explain how they did it and attributed it to
One of the researchers visited a neonatal intensive care unit where chaos prevailed. What
made it difficult for the nurses in the ICU was that it was not always clear which babies
were sick and which were healthy. So, they were continuously making choices on where to
focus their attention. The researcher wanted to understand how nurses made decisions
about which babies needed attention and why some of the nurses were better at focusing
on what mattered most. One of the first interviewees was a talented nurse named Darlene
who described an incident from a few years earlier. As she was walking past an incubator,
she glanced at the baby inside. Everything seemed to appear normal and there was even
another nurse keeping a watch on the baby. However Darlene sensed something terribly
wrong. The baby’s skin was mottled instead of uniformly pink. Its belly seemed a bit
distended. Blood drawn from a pinprick in her heel showed a blot instead of a small dot.
Darlene immediately alerted the attending physician and said they had to start the baby on
intravenous antibiotics. The doctor deferred to her judgement, ordered medication and a
series of tests. When the reports came, it showed that the baby was in the early stage of
sepsis caused by severe infection. Had they waited any longer, the baby would have died.
Instead, she recovered fully. When the researcher asked Darlene how she knew the baby
was sick, she said it was a hunch. But as the researcher asked more questions, another
explanation emerged. Darlene said that she carried a picture in her mind of what a healthy
baby should look like and the baby in the crib hadn’t matched that image. The other nurse
on duty did not similarly have a strong picture in her head of what she expected to see and
thus focused on what was obvious.

‘People like Darlene’, Duhigg continues, ‘who are particularly good at managing their
attention, create pictures in their minds of what they expect to see. They engage in constant
forecasting and tell themselves stories all the time. Such people build far more robust
mental models than others and as a result are better at choosing where to focus and what
to ignore.’
That explains why, for Hercule Poirot, a speck of dust would have caused more pain than a
bullet wound.
I looked at the letter handed to me for my signature and grimaced. There was no way I was
going to sign a letter that contained three different fonts as if different parts were cut from
other places and pasted on the letter. I am utterly bewildered why people fail to notice
differences in fonts in letters and e-mail they type out and what kind of an impression it
leaves on the recipient of such letters. I pointed out the three different fonts to my
colleague by circling them. He stared at it, trying to make out the differences and walked
away to retype the letter probably wondering why I was making such a big fuss of a minor
issue of typeface !


Image from Twitter.com

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