The power of placebos

When I was growing up, we went to an expensive Homeopathic doctor when I had issues with longer term ailments. It started with a bout of bronchitis that I had as a baby. His pills helped cure it in 6 months.

We restricted visits due to a rather expensive price tag of 500 rupees per month per treatment (translated to $8-$10 in the 1990s which was unusually expensive in India). But, we ended up visiting him once a year or so for the most challenging, often chronic, problems. While the usual issue was wheezing/breathing difficulties, there were some special cases like an ulcer that refused to go away. In all of these cases, his sugary pills seemed to solve the problem.

At some point in the last decade, I dug deeper into the science behind homeopathy and was shocked to realize it was mostly just a placebo effect.

“Just” a placebo.

I thought about that today as I listened to a powerful chapter on placebos in Rory Sutherland’s excellent book, Alchemy. One of the interesting ideas he shares is that the most important role placebos play is tricking our immune system into getting to work. Since our immune system was built for much harsher conditions, most pills (think: Tylenos) and visits to the GP’s office may be most effective because of the placebo effect that enables us to hack our immune response.

Placebos are powerful.

PS: I’ve stopped linking to Alchemy on Amazon as I’ve already shared notes from the book twice. It is one of the books of the decade in my opinion. I’m making slow progress through the book and attempting to digest the insights. So, more notes to follow in the coming days.

The Friday effect

A recent observation I’ve had after a bit of experimentation is on the effect Fridays have on our memory of the working week.

As we head into the weekend, a busy Friday filled with many meetings and constant activity remind us of a work week that left more to be desired – regardless of how the other four days went (!).

On the flip side, a calm Friday with enough space to reflect, problem-find, and feel on top of what we want to get done triggers the memory of a productive week – again, regardless of how the other four days went.

If that triggers any vague memories of “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman, you’re likely remembering the insight he shared on our propensity to remember only the peaks and ends of experiences. That insight has many applications – the effect of Fridays on our memory of the working week is a powerful example.

Note to self: Plan that Friday schedule very intentionally.

Gold gab ich für Eisen

When Prussia was at war with France in the 19th century, the Princess appealed to all wealthy and aristocratic women to donate their gold ornaments to fund the war effort. In return, they were given iron replicas that were stamped with “Gold gab ich für Eisen” (“I gave gold for iron”).

At social events, thereafter, wearing these iron replicas became a bigger signal of status than gold jewelry. Not only did they signal that the wearer was rich, they were now also identified as patriotic and noble.

Gold and precious metals, more money, more new features in that product, are all valuable and, at least on the surface, logical things to try and pursue.

But, so is meaning – the addition of which tends to be far less expensive and, generally, far more memorable.

(H/T Alchemy by Rory Sutherland, Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Upon our hearts

I came across this Hasidic tale in Jerry Colonna’s book Reboot.


A disciple asks the rabbi: “Why does Torah tell us to place these words upon your hearts? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?”

The Rabbi answers: “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So, we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.”


As I reflected on this story, I thought about how it represented any effort to drive change in ourselves. Even when we know we ought to change, it is hard to break old habits.

So, all we can do is keep reminders of the change we seek to make all around us.. until one day the resistance breaks and the change falls in.

Strategy creation process – ideal vs. actual

Ideal strategy creation process: Start with desire to create good strategy -> think about big picture -> articulate strategy -> get alignment -> execute

Actual strategy creation process: Start with desire to create good strategy -> think about big picture -> dive into the weeds -> get too deep in the weeds -> try to articulate strategy anyway -> get called out for being too much in the weeds -> start with a blank sheet of paper -> get caught in the next set of weeds -> rinse and repeat until original objectives are met. :-)

In time, we learn to anticipate getting caught in the weeds before it happens.

Excuses to clean the slate

The start of a new year is a great excuse to clean the slate and start afresh. It is why millions of people around the world start the year with new year resolutions.

Another popular excuse to clean the slate is a birthday. A disproportionate number of first time marathon runners decide to commit to running that marathon after they celebrate the last birthday of a decade (29, 39, 49, etc.).

The beauty about being aware about such excuses is that we don’t need to wait for these dates to clean the slate. We can clean the slate after we get our next haircut, take a day off, start a blog, replace our current pair of glasses, go on a holiday, or buy new shoes.

Or, we can just shelve the excuse, clean the slate, and start afresh tomorrow.

The nature of the excuse, it turns out, matters less than the act of resetting, committing and recommitting.

Conflict to communication

We move conversations from conflict to communication when we stop worrying about articulating the logic behind our point-of-view and, instead, focus on demonstrating that we deeply understand the point-of-view of the person we’re attempting to communicate with.

Much of persuasion is learning to be persuadable ourselves.