52 - Deciding on normal



When moving between projects, teams, jobs, careers, have you ever thought about how what is acceptable often changes with the environment.

In the 18th century, it was considered normal to be a body snatcher. Your job was to collect dead bodies and sell them to anatomists in medical schools to help them learn about the human body. A typical work day had you digging up bodies from graves or raiding funerals for the freshly dead.

But this isn’t the highlight of what I want to say.

It was easier to steal the bodies of the poor–they couldn’t afford coffins, they were more likely to be cast away. So the poor began to be disproportionately cut open. By the mid-19th century, 99% of autopsied bodies belonged to the poor. Two threads emerge from here and join in an unholy end.

Thread 1: Poverty brings stress. And stress leaves telltale signs on the body. It causes parts of the body to atrophy, one of which was the thymus gland, located in the throat. The gland regulates immunity. Smaller thymus gland, poorer immunity. What the anatomists saw consistently was a shrunken thymus gland.

Thread 2: By 1900, a new disease was emerging. Perfectly healthy babies from well-off families were inexplicably dying in their sleep. It was called ‘crib death’.

Upon autopsying the rich dead babies, anatomists concluded the thymus glands were abnormally large because they were comparing them with the ‘normal’ ones of poor babies.

A theory developed: an enlarged thymus gland presses on the windpipe and chokes the sleeping baby to death. A solution emerged: Let’s irradiate babies’ throats to shrink the enlarged gland. A problem no one connected to: The thymus gland was located next to the thyroid gland, and radiation increased the chances of thyroid cancer.

It was a couple of decades, and tens of thousands of deaths, before doctors realized what was happening.

The lesson transcends medicine. It applies to how we make decisions. Be careful when deciding what is normal because once you’ve decided, you have forever doctored your ability to see something for what it really is.

A product manager in a _product-led _organization will have a sphere of influence much bigger to one in a product-serviced org and may take that to be a given. A marketer in a data-led org will see understanding user psychology differently to one in a data-serviced one. A founder will look at the decision impact horizon differently to a CEO with a 3-5 year shelf life.

The filter with which you see the world has a far bigger impact on what you see than the correctness of your vision. Your choice of normal decides your filter.

What are you looking at everyday that you believe to be normal?

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