There’s a nearly universal fallacy among human beings—what Freud called the "illusion of central position." We assume that our own individual set of stories, preconceptions, experiences, loves, hates, and all our other human characteristics fall right in the middle of the human experience. We are the perfect center of the bell curve.
For example, many (most?) American women perceive women bigger than they are as fat (or "big," or whatever euphemism you might like), and women smaller than they are as anorexic, scrawny, or just plain hateful. Women the same size are "medium." I’ve seen this hundreds of time, and it never seems to matter how much the woman in question weighs, or how that might correlate to national or international averages.
Whatever the trait in question, we all think we’re medium. We define ourselves as the norm. This creates a lot of problems for us as human beings (racism, war, genocide, etc.). On a very mundane level, it creates a giant problem when we’re trying to create a genuine sense of connection with customers.
This delusion is so ingrained that it’s almost impossible to see how wrong it is. It seems to be deeply embedded in our DNA. I have no doubt that the earliest humans saw the world in terms of "normal people paint our chins blue and eat bak berries. Those evil crazy people paint their foreheads red and eat zor shoots."
All suffering is the suffering of mothers
When I had a child, I suddenly saw everything in the world in terms of mothers and children. Bad news began to hit me with terrible strength, especially bad news that affected children. A 10-month old baby in Lebanon was killed in a bomb attack, and I had to pull the car over because I couldn’t stop crying.
I mentally translated all of this to the suffering not of children and babies (although I still find that reality completely intolerable), but the suffering of their mothers. When I think of that 10-month-old baby, the image that won’t leave me is that of her parents left behind to grieve. I can so vividly picture them putting all the thought and worry and work that goes into feeding and nurturing a baby, only to have her taken away in a few seconds by a bomb.
This idea remains so ingrained in me that if I hear a news story about, say, a car crash that kills both a mother and her child, I don’t feel as bad. "Well, at least the mother wasn’t left behind," I think.
Some people (probably mostly parents) might read that and nod, thinking, "Uh huh, I can see that." Others will read it and think, "this woman is a narcissistic whack job." The latter are the ones who are right.
We’re all narcissistic whack jobs. You’re as crazy as I am, just about different stuff. It’s a wonder we’ve managed to get this far, given that we’re walking through the world with dangerous blinders that block 98% of what’s actually around us.
Uh, does this have anything to do with my business?
It does, it does, be patient.
First, this is exactly why you have to test your marketing communication. We all think that we’re our customer. We think that our customers like the same kinds of sandwiches we do ("turkey? ewwww!"), have the same favorite color, and share our passionate hatred of the word "verbiage."
Remember the benefits, not features definition lens I put up last week? Same idea. You have to pry yourself out of your own head and try to wedge yourself into someone else’s. The reason so many companies get it wrong is that it’s incredibly hard. But testing helps by creating a more objective frame of reference, a frame that lives outside the dimensions of your own individual biases.
It’s perfectly fine to try campaigns based on a customer just like you. They may well work. Sometimes entrepreneurs get lucky and find solid markets that share their traits and preferences.
But it might not work, so get some other things ready. Test a few ideas that seem slightly wrong or crazy or uncomfortable, even if your way seems to be working perfectly. If you test ideas against each other, you nudge yourself a few millimeters out of your own central position and start letting a few glints of other ideas in. That will always make you stronger.
Words much smarter than mine
This is my favorite quote from my favorite famous person, an unassuming, funny Buddhist nun named Pema Chodron. One thing I love about her is that she completely gets the craziness of the illusion of central position. Not in a "you poor unenlightened being, to suffer under this delusion" way. but in a "this one kicks my ass daily and I try to have a sense of humor about it" way.
I try to read this quote a few times a week, and I do what I can to live by it. You might try it, too. It will show you some surprising and worthwhile things.
You could also begin to notice whenever you find yourself blaming others or justifying yourself. If you spent the rest of your life just noticing that and letting it be a way to uncover the silliness of the human condition—the tragic yet comic drama that we all continually buy into—you could develop a lot of wisdom and a lot of kindness as well as a great sense of humor.
(Disclosure: As is often the case on blogs, if you click on that link and buy the book, I make a couple of cents. But I don’t care at all about the couple of cents—check the book out of the library or find it at your local bookstore. I think you’ll get a lot out of it, whether you’re interested in Buddhism or not.)