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Seven Reasons You Need This Book
1. SEVEN is a tool to improve the quality of your life. It is a way to define time, synthesize ideas, and keep your mind performing at top speed in an era of distractions.
2. SEVEN is culturally significant. It pops up everywhere, structuring our world in ways so fundamental, we notice them only when we pause to look. Across the ages and across cultures, the number has acquired a huge scientific, psychological, and religious significance.
3. SEVEN is intriguing. Why, out of hundreds of recipes in a cookbook, do people return to the same seven, over and over? Why, when asked to choose a number between one and ten, does such a large majority of people choose seven? Why does it take seven rounds of shuffling to obtain a fully mixed deck of cards?
4. SEVEN is influential. You’ll learn how the number seven shapes our thinking, our choices, and even our relationships.
5. SEVEN is practical. Throughout this book are Top Seven lists covering the best ways to get someone’s attention, to build your personal brand, and to put yourself in the path of prosperity and good luck.
6. SEVEN is fun. You’ll encounter surprising facts, intriguing puzzles, and hilarious anecdotes.
7. SEVEN is wise. You’ll hear stories about the meaning of seven from Mehmet Oz, Sally Quinn, Liz Smith, Christina Ricci, and many others.
Artfully designed and full of enough insights to keep you engaged in conversation at the water cooler for years, SEVEN will provoke, enlighten, and amuse.
Copyright © 2009 by Jacqueline Leo
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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First eBook Edition: December 2009
Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little.
Why do we group so many things in sevens? Seven is more than a lucky number or a famous baseball player's uniform. It's the brain's natural shepherd, herding vast amounts of information into manageable chunks. It's also a special tool that can help you make smart decisions and sift through all the choices of modern life. Even more important, seven can filter the digital static that comes from being connected to our cell phones, iPods, e-mail, TV, and the Internet. This useful digit can help disentangle a complicated life, leaving time for real work, family, and friends. Seven keeps it simple.
When life got easier, it got harder. We used to wait in line at the bank to deposit or withdraw cash. We had to walk down streets to search for an empty telephone booth. We had to wrench ourselves out of an easy chair to change the dial on a console TV from one of the three broadcast networks to another. There was a dearth of catalogs, and no Internet, so shopping meant going to a store. We had to rely on one or two guidance counselors to give sage advice to hundreds of anxious high school seniors who hoped to get into college.
Technology made these tasks easier, but not without serious costs. Automated teller machines (ATMs) brought great convenience, but also more muggings, the first of many confusing PIN numbers, and identity theft. The walk-to public telephone booth was replaced by the cell phone; the remote control gave birth to the couch potato; and mall walking, the calisthenics of the credit card set, had to compete with desktop shopping. The less we walk, the more weight we gain. The more weight we gain, the greater the incidence of type 2 diabetes. And, at many high schools, guidance counselors have been replaced by virtual campus tours and online applications.
We are living in an on-demand world, where information, acquisition, and personal contact are instant and ubiquitous. And that means that most of us, along with our social networks—family, friends, colleagues, merchants, and others—have overloaded our brains with daily stimuli.
Do, Re, Mi…
There are seven whole notes in an octave.
I would not want to eliminate or change any of the advances that have been made in the past fifty years (especially the E-Z Pass). But all this change is messing with our bodies and especially our minds. We have so many choices, so many interruptions, and so many distractions on any given day that our natural brain filters are forced into overdrive. These filters eliminate irrelevant information and allow us to focus on what's important. More often than not, that filter is the number seven. Aside from mythology, religion, and numerology, seven has been a practical tool for making things work and getting things done. We can hold on to seven: that's why the average workday is seven hours; why we can retain a seven-digit local telephone number; and why there are more than 835,000 books with the number seven in their titles, one of the most successful of which is Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
Before the tech revolution, people would daydream while waiting on line at the bank. They'd let their brains idle and recharge. They'd hum, whistle, or think while walking instead of talking on their cell phones or listening to their iPods. The word stress was barely part of the vocabulary. Life wasn't necessarily slower, but it was saner.
The next big leap of technology is about to change our lives yet again. It's the mobile Web, and it can invade your life in ways that will make you want to dive under the covers and stay there. The mobile Web uses technology that's been available outside of the U.S. for years called 3G, for "third generation." It turns a basic cell phone into a sophisticated high-speed Internet computer that enables messaging and social networking, Internet searches, downloads, electronic shopping, music, movies, and video games. The 3G iPhone from Apple has these features, and millions bought it as soon as it went on sale. Try sleeping on an airplane when they allow passengers to make phone calls. Try enjoying your favorite movie on your digital TV while advertisements crawl along the bottom of the flat screen like poisonous asps. Try getting into a taxi and telling the driver where you want to go over the voices of two local newscasters, on a split screen, telling you what you should have known before you left your house: that it's going to rain. For most of us, being "always on" means being always distracted, interrupted, and annoyed. Activating your brain's natural filter—consciously using seven to prioritize, organize, and limit the amount of stimuli you receive—can help you reclaim your focus, your balance, and even your life.
Ask people to pick a number from 1 to 10. The most popular choice will be 7. Some feel that seven is a safe number and choose it because it's above the mean but not at the top of the heap like ten. Others believe it's lucky or magical. I've learned that seven is useful and practical, a number that can help people effectively and efficiently cut through the clutter of life and hone in on the essentials. Consciously employing the number seven as a tool to accomplish goals and manage your life is not a new concept. After all, both God and Shakespeare thought enough of seven to use it in dramatic ways: God to create the Universe (we're including the day of rest, which no doubt was the inspiration for modern trade unions), and Shakespeare to identify the Seven Ages of Man: infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, pantaloon, and second childhood. (If Shakespeare had had the time or the inclination to identify the seven ages of woman, he might have suggested schoolgirl, scholar, lover, mother, careerist, divorcée, and silver fox.)
We are a nation of hoarders. Not the obsessive-compulsive variety that results in piles of detritus and condemned houses. And not the over-the-top "I see it; I want it; I'll buy it" types. We just like to hold on to things. Of course, some of us can hoard more than others. After running one of the most corrupt governments of the twentieth century, Ferdinand Marcos, president of the Philippines, had pilfered enough money to let his wife, Imelda, buy anything she wanted. She didn't hold back. By the time she and her husband went into voluntary exile, she had amassed over 1,060 pairs of shoes.
Imelda Marcos broke at least two of the seven deadly sins: greed and gluttony. Why gluttony? Because hoarding is similar to overeating. When your body and brain are in sync, you know when to stop because a hormone called leptin is secreted by your fat cells and functions as an appetite suppressant. Leptin is to eating what the brain filter "seven" is to hoarding. Seven sets a limit and lets you know when you've had enough. There are only seven types of common women's shoes: boots, dress shoes, casual shoes, sandals, slides, flats, and athletic shoes. Of course within each category, there are many varieties. But even if one had enough closet space to store, say, seven varieties of each, the total would be 49 pairs of shoes, not 1,060. The average person doesn't fly that high when it comes to hoarding. It's simply "I'll lose the weight and fit into those clothes again." Or "I'll need those papers someday."
Two sports are played with teams of seven players: team handball and water polo.
Many of us have assigned a real value to our possessions and documents. We muse about making a killing on eBay, or magically extracting key data from those old floppy disks that will impress our bosses. But the real reason we keep too much stuff is because we have the space to do it—whether real or virtual. Since 1973 the average size of a single-family American home has increased almost 50 percent, from 1,660 square feet to 2,469 square feet in 2006. And that doesn't include the three-car garage or the basement.
Big homes, big cars, tiny office cubicles. But small work spaces mask our true virtual capacity. We have unlimited free space for our e-mails, photos, social networking sites, videos, blogs, music, games, and movies, with space left over for our files, bills, strategic reports, financial transactions, holiday lists, and miscellaneous documents. Moore's law, which states that the number of transistors on computer chips doubles every two years, has not only expanded our computing capacity; it's exploded it. Demand creates supply, which, in turn, creates new demand. So storage has become its own industry, from tiny thumb drives that can hold sixty-four gigabytes of data to the myriad outdoor and indoor physical facilities that are booming across the country. There's also a retail enterprise devoted solely to storage solutions called The Container Store where you can find hundreds of products to stylishly house your shoes, files, or even your garbage.
As a result, there's no need to throw things out, and so we keep it all: filing and archiving with the thought that every e-mail is as important as one of Lincoln's letters. Our egos tell us that everything we write is so brilliant that it must be saved for posterity. So we hoard and in the process, we overwhelm ourselves with "stuff." But here's the kicker: If and when we do want to dig something out, we can't find it. No matter how many color codes, file folders, customized icons, or other devices we use to get organized, it's almost impossible to keep up with the volume of e-mails and attachments that bombard us every day, as well as the news, professional updates, entertainment, phone calls, catalogs, magazines, text messages, and advertisements. We hoard because we can.
It's gotten so bad that an updated ascetic social movement has emerged during the past three decades called voluntary simplicity, in which disciples swear off consumerism in favor of more human contact and interaction. Real Simple magazine, with the tagline, "life made easier every day," poses the question: "Unless you've spent your adult life pursuing some sort of monastic ideal, chances are you've had days when you felt buried by your possessions. You know—the clothes spilling from the drawers, the toys busting out of the baskets, the dishes overwhelming the cabinets. Where does it all come from?" Aside from Amazon, it probably comes from Costco, Wal-Mart, and Target, where the simple living movement is as terrifying to their executives as it is to the captains of Wall Street who know that it's the consumer that drives the U.S. economy.
In the opening scene of this thriller, all the building numbers start with 7. Brad Pitt, who played one of the detectives investigating a series of murders inspired by the seven deadly sins, earned millions for his role in the film. But Pitt didn't always have a big payday. In 1988 he was filming The Dark Side of the Sun in what was then Yugoslavia. His salary: $1,523 for seven weeks. The movie was almost complete when war broke out and the footage was lost. It took seven more years before the film was found. The movie was finally released in 1997.
Family structure also plays a role in how much stuff we acquire. When children of divorce celebrate Christmas, birthdays, Bar Mitzvahs, or graduations, they rake it in because of multiple sets of grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, etc. But the joy of toys can be lost when the bounty is greater than a child's ability to value it. How many stuffed animals does it take to become a "collection" rather than characters with names and personalities? When does the next action figure become a simple commodity instead of a genuine superhero? Even intact families can suffer from consumer overload. When my daughter Alexandra was three years old, she opened a present of six Nerf balls in a plastic tube. She emptied them out, sighed, and said, "Too many balls."
Simple living is a reaction to the unbridled acquisition of more and more stuff in both the real and virtual worlds. In the real world, your threads are the clothes stuffed into your closet. In the virtual world, threads are the endless e-mails that friends or colleagues send on a given subject, the longest of which is probably longer than the text in this book. E-mail is like atomic power: it can be both a blessing and a curse, depending on how it's used. At one company, the boss sent a message to her seven direct reports, saying that the company picnic would be held on June 21, and that before the event is announced to the entire staff, a meeting would take place to assign key planning tasks to managers. The categories: location options, food, games, music, entertainment, transportation, and budgeting. Seemed simple enough. But before one could say "Hold the mustard," the e-mails started flying. Instead of waiting for the meeting, the managers felt compelled to respond to their boss, and then to one another. It was a classic case of sycophantism laced with a healthy dose of in-house rivalry. The result was an e-mail thread, "re: picnic," that went on for fifty pages. So the boss pulled rank and instituted a new policy: "Any e-mail thread longer than 3 will be assigned to the dead pool. If there is anything left to say, get personal—talk to your co-workers directly, or, if necessary, schedule a meeting."
World War 0
The Seven Years' War—the French and Indian War—(1756–63) never rose in the ranks of history compared to World Wars I and II, but because the major world powers at that time were involved, Sir Winston Churchill declared it the first true world war.
Professor John Maeda, who recently left MIT to head the Rhode Island School of Design, describes the first time his daughters got e-mail accounts in the first chapter of his book The Laws of Simplicity. "It began as a tiny drop… grew to a slow drip. Today it's a waterfall of messages, e-cards, and hyperlinks that showers upon them daily." He confesses, "I find myself barely keeping afloat. I know that I'm not alone in this feeling of constantly drowning."
None Too Many
Snow White probably could have found more, but she wisely limited her social network to seven dwarfs.
The psychological fallout of this overwhelming assault of information and acquisition is, among other things, stress. Stress caused by conflict. "Should I answer those last twenty e-mails or go home and play with my kids?" Stress can play diabolical tricks on your body and your mind. When you're stressed, a hormone called cortisol is released by the adrenal gland, disrupting the normal functioning of the hippocampus, the region of the brain responsible for working memory and learning. Forgot your keys? Can't remember the name of the book on your night table? It's not early Alzheimer's. Most likely you've been interrupted by one or more of the myriad stimuli that assault you every day. The phone rings, an SMS message chimes on your cell, or the FedEx guy is knocking at your door. Memory loss has become so common it's no longer an affliction of old age.
New York Times columnist David Brooks called this phenomenon the Great Forgetting. He said, "They say the 21st century is going to be the Asian Century, but, of course, it's going to be the Bad Memory Century. Already, you go to dinner parties and the middle-aged high achievers talk more about how bad their memories are than about real estate. Already, the information acceleration syndrome means that more data is coursing through everybody's brains, but less of it actually sticks. It's become like a badge of a frenetic, stressful life—to have forgotten what you did last Saturday night, and through all of junior high. In the era of an aging population, memory is the new sex."
Richard Saul Wurman, author of over eighty books, knows how to turn "data" into valuable information. When he wrote Information Anxiety in 1989, he inspired a new discipline called information architecture. He used simple examples to explain the difference between facts and information. Between memorizing and learning. For example, suppose you're interested in buying some land in order to build a house. The real estate broker tells you that the property is 115,200 square feet. You have the facts, but they have no meaning. Imagine instead that you're told that the property is equal to two football fields. Now you have information that you can understand and remember. Wurman says that "learning is remembering what you're interested in." He has proved this, anecdotally, time and again. And so have you. Ask a teenager what his mother served for dinner last night and you'll get a blank stare. Ask him who Stephen Colbert had on his show that week and he'll tell you the entire roster.
The nineteenth-century philosopher and psychologist William James would agree with Wurman. In 1890, nearly 100 years before Information Anxiety was published, James addressed the issue of attention in The Principles of Psychology. He wrote, "Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind—without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos. Interest alone gives accent and emphasis, light and shade, background and foreground—intelligible perspective, in a word."
It appears that the amount of information that goes zipping around the world also conforms to Moore's law. According to MIT's Technology Review, the world's data traffic is doubling every two years. Who's responsible for this traffic jam? All of us. Glut, a fascinating book on information systems by Alex Wright, takes us on a whirlwind tour of history and tells us that "human beings now produce annually… more than 50,000 times the number of words stored in the Library of Congress, or more than the total number of words ever spoken by human beings." Some of the more than five exabytes come from social networking sites and user-generated content posted on sites like youtube.com and facebook.com. The self-publishing craze has done more than create a new industry for music, movies, and publishing. It's reinforced the notion that everything we write, sing, record, videotape, or draw is worthy of other people's attention. This conceit spills over into other aspects of our digital lives, especially among echo boomers. Join a site like twitter.com and you can be among the hundreds getting breaking news bulletins such as "I just washed my hair." Or "Finally finished my term paper." Of course, there are benefits. When an American graduate student at U.C. Berkeley's journalism program was about to be arrested in Egypt for taking photos at a protest rally, he "twittered" one word, "arrested," which prompted the forty-eight friends in his network to take action. James Karl Buck was released, but his Egyptian friend remained in jail for covering the event.
Simple 7 Puzzle
Will Shortz has been the crossword puzzle editor for The New York Times since 1993. He is also the founder and director of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. But words are not his only passion. Numbers tickle his brain power, too, and he's the master of Sudoku puzzles. And a good thing, too. He once told me that editing crosswords had become more challenging because common knowledge was disappearing. Our society was developing information and cultural gaps that couldn't be bridged. Take music, for instance. Some of the biggest names of this century are rap artists that most puzzle doers couldn't identify. And if you did know the name of, say, Ghostface Killa, you may not know the first name of the lead singer of the Jefferson Airplane. Numbers, on the other hand, are agnostic. They are a universal language.
Will is the one and only academically accredited "enigmatologist" in the world. He has a degree from Indiana University and studied law at the University of Virginia. But the law didn't do it for him. Puzzles did. And he was generous enough to create this one using just seven numbers for this book.
Place the digits 1 to 7 in the grid so the four digits in each circle add up to the same total. Not counting its reflection, the answer is unique.
(Answer is on page 35)
A company called Big Research (which will probably have to become Gigantic Research before the end of this decade) found that the only way for people to keep up with the deluge of media options is to multitask. They claim that simultaneous media consumption of information from the Internet, newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, and direct mail is up as much as 35 percent, depending on the medium. But multitasking is stressful and inefficient. It can even be dangerous, as noted by the increase in traffic accidents resulting from people using their cell phones while driving.
In the late 1980s, when I was editor in chief of Family Circle magazine, one of the largest consumer magazines in the country at that time, I started a column called "Beat the Clock." The idea was to help women learn how to multitask in order to save time for themselves and their families. The editors and I thought this was a cutting-edge idea that would serve our readers well. Like other top consumer publications, the magazine invested in expensive reader research, surveying subscribers about the features and columns in every issue. When the results came back, "Beat the Clock" was at the bottom of the list. It was a dud. So we redesigned the column, changed the name, and tried again. But it still didn't work. We tried for six months before finally killing the column. What the readers knew instinctively and what we, as editors, ultimately discovered was that people don't want to have to do two (or more) things at once because they don't think they can do both things well.
They were right. New studies show that multitasking yields subpar results. Our minds are capable of great things, but not all at once. You might be able to play the piano and the accordion, but you can't do both simultaneously (and this is a good thing). Edward M. Hallowell, M.D., author of Crazy Busy, says that people can handle only two low-level tasks at once, and John Medina, Ph.D., author of Brain Rules, who was featured in an ABC News segment called "Life in the Slow Lane," said, "You can show that people on projects that are trying to multitask make twice as many errors and it takes them twice as long to get something done." In fact, researchers have shown that multitasking is simply a series of interruptions that keep us distracted and unable to focus. William James knew what it meant to be focused: "Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction and Zerstreutheit in German." James was a true scholar, but he was also a prophet of sorts. He even predicted the phenomenon of multitasking by posing the question "To how many things can we attend at once?"
- On Sale
- Dec 7, 2009
- Page Count
- 272 pages