For years, Cannon cameras told us image is everything. Even paid Andre Agassi millions to convince us it was true. But to me image isn’t everything, perception is. Our perceptions color everything we do.
There are lots of reasons why I believe this, but I’ll only give you the latest one. Recently I was in Berlin, Germany for an intensive, one-day-only series of focus groups. No time for idle sightseeing here which was too bad because the focus group interpreter listed all the local highlights. Right outside our window, she told us, stood architecturally-important buildings, a holiday market and, most important, the site where the Berlin Wall split the city.
Wait, the wall stood right outside our window?! This I wanted to see. But the focus groups were scheduled back-to-back with no breaks. Then came a gift from the god of tourism. A respondent cancelled. Suddenly I had 45 minutes to fill so I headed for the monument to the Berlin Wall.
I call it a monument but it was something much more subtle: just a grass-covered hill about 4 feet tall that trailed off into the distance. On top of the grass was a cobblestone pathway that mimicked the route of the wall. There wasn’t a plaque to mark it, no sign, nothing to draw attention to it. It wasn’t even well lit; a few feeble street lamps and the fickle light from surrounding buildings were the only illumination. So it’s no wonder I was alone as I stared at the monument.
I gazed at the buildings on both sides of me and imagined an entire city separated; families divided by spirals of razor wire and impenetrable concrete. I thought of how bleak and repressive life must have been in the East, how hopeless. I imagined the constant struggle for freedom, the sacrifices, the desperation of the people who risked their lives to cross over the wall, cross to freedom. I pictured Bono singing at the wall, Reagan railing against it. I felt the power of hope, of reconciliation. And now here I was at the epicenter of all that history.
As I took in that sobering notion I noticed I was no longer alone. Some guy appeared about 10 yards away from me. I couldn’t see his face but I guessed he was having his own historical epiphany. Then I noticed he didn’t stare at the monument like I did. In fact, he wasn’t looking at it at all. Nope, he did something much more disturbing. He was relieving himself on it. That’s right, the monument I saw as such an awe-inspiring, pivotal point in history he saw as one giant toilet.
Different perceptions in other words.
So sure I’m scarred for life by that image but frankly it’s not a unique event. Who hasn’t had an idea or experience you think is so transforming and brilliant you share it with someone (boss, partner, client) and they just piss all over it. It’s inherent in what we do, what any agency does. We share ideas and experiences we think are transforming enough to change how people think. Not everyone will agree with us.
We all see things differently and that’s good, until it’s not. There’s always a point where everyone sees things so differently there’s no common ground left. And when you start losing all your common ground well, after a while it’s hard to get anywhere worth going.
What’s key is to work with at least a few people who are headed the way you want to go. If you can’t find people who share your perceptions you have to keep looking until you do. Otherwise someday you’ll find yourself side by side with people who when you see a treasure, they see a toilet. And who wants to do that?
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