Here let me read it to you. Best to listen straight off Spotify though, the browser version is buggy.
The rewards of nerdiness
At the time, there were few rewards for growing up a bespectacled library nerd in a macho surf town. One is that later in life your skin is less crocodilian than the schoolyard heroes.
Another is the smouldering resentment that helps drive your work ethic for decades.
But let’s stick to skin today. I never spent a minute working on my tan. While others around me put in the 10,000 hours of bronzing time Malcolm Gladwell would recommend for becoming a tan virtuoso.
So I was all the more pissed-off to learn a few months back that I had a melanoma in my right ear. And not in a convenient place. Just inside the outer ear, on that ridgey bit above the earlobe. Ears are a bastard object to remove things from. The skin doesn’t stretch. They have all sorts of strange crevices.
Melanomas aren’t to be taken lightly. You must get the whole thing out or it’ll come back and kill you. Which means erring on the side of caution. Five years ago, they would have taken the lower half of my ear off to save the rest of me.
Lucky me with my 2022 melanoma. They now have a 3D scanner to map out the size and shape of it under the skin. Then you go in for an operation, the full theatre experience. First op, they take out what they hope is enough, still a sizeable hole in your ear. Then they bandage you up with the wound still open and send you home, while they run the ear chunk through pathology to see if they got it all.
If they don’t get it all, they bring you back to take bigger bites until they do.
My nightmare Netflix omen
The night before the first operation, the Netflix algorithm knew exactly how to mess with my mind. I’m a huge Formula One fan, and Netflix suggested the Schumacher doco. I should have known: there were Niki Lauda scenes.
Among stiff competition, Niki was one of the hardest Austrians who ever lived. He suffered near-fatal burns in a racing accident, endured nightmarish lung suction therapy to stay alive, and was back racing six weeks later.
I saw the savaged remnants of Niki’s ear, and thought: fuck that could be me by Friday.
Two days after the first op the surgeon rang. “Good news, we got it all,” she said. Whew. If it had gone to the second op, it would have been goodbye to that earlobe and lots more ear around it.
I went back for a longer ear repair operation, rebuilding it with a decent-sized skin graft.
My finished ear is a little bit smaller, like 5% removed from a pie chart then sewn back up. You’d only notice if I look straight at you, and I told you to look for it. Top work by the surgeon.
I’m pleased to get that all behind me.
I’ve told lots of friends about it. It’s a hard topic to avoid when you’re wearing a clump of bandages the size of an industrial earmuff. Many have already gone out and had skin checks.
But it’s interesting what made them take action so quickly.
Small vivid threats beat large abstract ones
Vivid risks make people take action. A risk that’s easier to picture beats an abstract one every time. Even if the abstract one is a worse result.
Death from melanoma would absolutely suck, but it’s hard to picture. And every day you read media stories on all the things that will kill you. Alarmist new research from the public health Taliban warning more than three glasses of wine a week will put you in an early grave. Whatever.
It all becomes white noise. You put off taking action until you make it through this unprecedented burst of work and family commitments. Years roll by.
You know what’s a vivid risk? Only having one and a half ears. You have to sit in meetings knowing people are staring at your weird, munted head. Kids will point at you on the bus. At least if you’re dead you don’t have to face these things every day.
Plus there’s the convenience. It’s not until you give it some thought you realise what handy things ears are to stick an Airpod in, or hang glasses off.
(Another minor but vivid side-effect is you can’t get it the wound wet, so you can’t wash your hair for about six weeks, quite the grotty experience.)
It might not be your ear. You might have a permanent Frankenstein scar right across your forehead. Or a shark-bite sized piece munched out of your chest. You want something to jolt you into action? Google “melanoma scars”. Have a look at Ryan Glossop’s “sun spot”. Or the results of Deborah Hutton’s youthful beach years.
The difference is entirely down to annual checks. If they spot the evil moles when they’re small, the permanent scarring is mimimised.
Leave it another year and it’s freak-show scar time for you.
It’s not just health
You, like all my readers, are precious to me. So get yourself checked. But also, given this is a business blog, this point applies to the less-deadly world of work.
Let’s take an example from my own industry. We could tell an event-manager client:
“If you under-staff this event, there’s a strong risk of a large technical malfunction.”
Meh. Standard sales shtick they can safely ignore.
Contrast that with:
“You know that moment when the whole presentation stops working, in the middle of the CEO’s keynote? When they, and everyone else in the room, turns around and looks straight at you, with that expression that says: you’re the event manager, how are you going to fix this right now? We’d really like to avoid that situation.”
They’ve been there before. They recall the sheer animal panic. They do not want to feel it again.
“If we don’t do the upgrades, your e-commerce site could go down.”
“If we don’t do the upgrades, your e-commerce site could go down just as your annual sale starts, because it can’t handle all the customer demand. It might be out for eight hours.”
It’s so much easier to picture the lost revenue, the anger from their boss, the all-nighter to fix it.
It’s really hard to get people to take any kind of action. Get good at telling a story that brings their worst-case scenario to life in their own mental movie, and you can get them off the fence so much quicker.
Footnote: don’t get your GP to do the checks. It’s not their thing. Mine missed another melanoma ten years ago that only got picked up by accident elsewhere. Go to a proper mole-checking clinic.
Bonus Niki Lauda story
After his racing career, he started Lauda Airlines. In 1991 one of his planes crashed, with the loss of 223 people. He was personally involved in the investigation, determined to get to the bottom of why the plane crashed. He told all the relatives “you can call me any time.” He took 40-50 calls a day from relatives right through the investigation. Boeing eventually admitted responsibility. Name another airline CEO, or any CEO who would do that. Read the story here, he was an amazing man.
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