Harvey Mackay Academy's Blog

An eccentric philosophy professor gave a one-question final exam after a semester dealing with a broad array of topics.  The class was already seated and ready to go when the professor picked up his chair, plopped it on top of his desk and wrote on the board:  “Using everything we have learned this semester, prove that this chair does not exist.”

Fingers flew, erasers erased, notebooks were filled in furious fashion.  Some students wrote over 30 pages in one hour attempting to refute the existence of the chair.  One member of the class, however, was finished in less than a minute.

A week later when the grades were posted, the rest of the group wondered how he could have gotten an “A” when he had barely written anything at all.

His answer consisted of two words:  “What chair?”

I’ll let you be the judge:  Was this a smart-alecky, clueless student who was toying with his professor, or was he seeing through the futility of the exercise with a brilliant answer? 

My assessment is that he understood the purpose of the professor’s challenge:  What you see is what you get, or is it?  Can you judge a book by its cover?  Can you believe your lying eyes?      

“It is the obvious which is so difficult to see most of the time,” wrote Isaac Asimov in “I, Robot.”  “People say ‘It’s as plain as the nose on your face.’  But how much of the nose on your face can you see, unless someone holds a mirror up to you?”

I have no doubt that the chair existed.  And I have no doubt that people can see things from a variety of perspectives.  When you are in business, you need to remember that every day.

What you think is obvious, clear and easy to understand may be none of the above to a customer or co-worker.  So many misunderstandings result from failing to see things through another’s eyes.  The only way to fix that is to understand that perceptions, no matter how seemingly flawed, are reality to those who hold them.  Your job is to work with those thoughts.

Yes, that’s a tall order.  But ask any successful person how they have worked around a diversity of opinions, and you will likely discover that person has learned how to listen and apply what they hear.

Author and therapist Shannon L. Alder said:  “Most misunderstandings in the world could be avoided if people would simply take the time to ask, ‘What else could this mean?’”

Perspective dominates much of how we present ourselves and our products: Which attributes do we think will appeal to an audience?  How do we perceive our customers?  Will people see what we think they should see?  Are we thinking broadly enough?  Focus groups offer great perspectives on those questions and help shape the direction of ad campaigns and website design.  Asking for another opinion is almost always a good idea.  Pay attention, especially if you are trying to sell chairs, but your customers ask, “What chair?”     

One of my favorite explanations of perspective comes from English biologist and archaeologist Sir John Lubbock:  “What we do see depends mainly on what we look for …  In the same field the farmer will notice the crop, the geologists the fossils, botanists the flowers, artists the colouring, sportmen the cover for the game.  Though we may all look at the same things, it does not all follow that we should see them.”

How simple is that?  At our MackayMitchell Envelope Company, customers may see an advertising opportunity, an eye-popping color, a novel shape or an efficient way to send a bill.  They are all correct, of course, but we need to know what the customer is looking for and how best to convey their message.  We offer suggestions, present options, and listen to their specific needs so that we can satisfy their requests.  We still sell more #10 white window envelopes than any other, but only because that’s what our customers want.  

I have a “kitchen cabinet” of advisors whom I consult on every imaginable topic.  The only request I make of them is that they provide unfiltered honest advice.  I want to hear what I haven’t seen for myself.  Sometimes, I have to swallow my pride, but believe me, it’s kept me from losing my shirt.  And my chairs!

Mackay’s Moral:  Is the glass half-full or half-empty?  Or is it just the wrong size? 

About the Author

Seven-time, New York Times best-selling author of "Swim With The Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive," with two books among the top 15 inspirational business books of all time, according to the New York Times. He is one of America’s most popular and entertaining business speakers, and currently serves as Chairman at the MackayMitchell Envelope Company, one of the nation’s major envelope manufacturers, producing 25 million envelopes a day.