We have loved numbered lists since the beginning of time.
If the Ten Commandments had been written today it would show up in your Facebook feed as “The 10 Things Every Good Person Does.”
While the Ten Commandments provide an excellent list for the basic dos and don’ts to live a moral life it unfortunately doesn’t get specific on “The 5 things every leader needs to know” or “The 6 ways to retain customer loyalty.” Granted, Thou Shalt Not Kill is as good a place as any to bolster employee engagement, but we want specifics. Time is precious. Tell us what to do and how to do it, and fast. We don’t want to make a mistake.
The recent upswing of numbered lists allegedly gives you a fail-safe guide for success, but I’d like to suggest that this is not possible, and I’d like to give you 3 reasons why:
1. Things Change.
Everything is in flux. You just aged since you read the former sentence and your entire cellular make-up changed as well. While some things remain more or less inconvertibly true, some do not, and most never get resolved. For instance:
Is soy bad for us or is it good for us? Should we eat margarine or butter? Does Sweet n Low cause cancer? Does anti-perspirant cause Alzheimer’s?
When it comes to your company, how do you know if what was best yesterday is right for you today? The #1 thing successful leaders do every day (from a list of 15 things) on Forbes.com, is “Make Others Feel Safe to Speak-Up.” In theory I would suggest that too, and yet I could also foresee a “too many cooks in the kitchen” scenario and possibly muddle what was once a clear-cut decision in your mind.
Maybe an open door policy once worked for you and your employees but now most of the original employees have moved on to other jobs and the new crew abuses the policy. Do you keep it in place even if a numbered list says it’s one of the 7 things you must do?
Though overused, it’s always good to remember Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous advice, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
2. What works for one doesn’t necessarily work for another.
If Bob jumps off the empire state building are you going to? I know that’s a childish point, but the sentiment rings true. How many successful leaders and entrepreneurs do you think became successful because they adhered to a list they read on the Internet?
Better yet, how many do you think achieved a certain degree of success after reading a list of 5 things they had to do to become successful, and then they became more successful when they read a list of 6 things, and then they really hit the top of their industry when they read the 7 things list?
3. Why 5? Or 6? Or 10? Or 9?
The truth is I don’t have a #3, I just thought 3 sounded better than 2, and that’s also the point of making this a list of three.
Who decided there were 8 things successful people do? And do all successful people do all 8 things all the time? If they’re doing 8 then what about the other successful person who is doing 15 and the other successful leader who is only doing 5?
What’s the right list? How many things does a successful leader do?
The number is arbitrary. Doesn’t “The TEN Commandments” sound better than “The 9 Commandments?” Or what if they were “The 8 and sometimes 9 commandments depending on the person?” Would that list be as convincing or eye-catching as THE TEN COMMANDMENTS?
Numbered lists – and lists in general – format information in a way that our brains like. It’s compartmentalized, it’s visual, it’s clean. It’s easier to remember the information. We know what we’re getting, which is a huge advantage when you scroll through an endless Facebook feed.
In 2011, Psychologists Claude Messner and Michaela Wänke discovered that we feel better when we have to work less to process information. A list reduces the amount of work we have to do.
We’re also more likely to complete the article and completing the article makes us feel good. We’re thus more likely to click on a numbered list again, recalling the time we felt so good when we completed the last numbered list.
We are all born with instinct yet some of us never know whether to trust it or not. Though your neurochemistry tells you it feels good to adhere to a numbered list, it’s important to cultivate your intuition through trial and error.
Don’t let a numbered list replace your ability to make decisions (And don’t call me a hypocrite me when I write a numbered list blog post in the future, because I will.)
Of course don’t ignore facts, and do learn from others, but craft your own leadership style. Try things out, see what works for you and what doesn’t. Once you figure out what’s imperative for success, please tell us how many things there are and publish the list!
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