To Hell with Perception

February 21, 2008

My novel, Aberrations, will be re-launched this summer under a new imprint. The publisher, Greenleaf Book Group, accepts less than 3% of the books they consider. They love Aberrations but not its cover. According to Greenleaf, it does not adequately reflect the guts it covers nor does it meet current top market standards. Studies show that readers look at a book cover for about eight seconds. Those eight seconds determine whether they will pick up the book or keep walking. Packaging is critical to short term marketability. Long term sales rely on much more, including what’s inside. If the guts deserve a better package, let the designing begin!

But you can’t judge a book by its cover, right? Actually, you can but you may be dead wrong. I've heard that adage a thousand times, and I bet you have too. So why can’t we stop judging books by their covers in a culture jam-packed with diversity initiatives, politically correct obsession, and religiosity, all with a smattering of creative pop on top?

I love words but there is one I absolutely cannot stand. Perception. I’ve detested it since the day my first corporate boss said, “Well, that may be true, but the perception is …” It is the hidden root word of politics and the wood from which the corporate puppet emerges. The painstaking whittling begins even before we feel the knife. In my years of managing people, I struggled to avoid that dreaded word, determined to base my decisions on reality. But it was there, looming overhead as my employees and I stared at each other during evaluations, informal feedback sessions, meetings, and hallway conversations. All the while, I had to navigate through the perceptions afloat about Penelope. Isn’t life complicated enough without having to do this? It's akin to living your real life, struggling to be yourself and accept others while simultaneously operating within a SIM world where everyone is someone else.

Perception is the process of acquiring, interpreting, selecting, and organizing sensory information. It’s a highly complex process that occurs in less than eight seconds. According to Wikipedia, an object can give rise to multiple percepts, so an object may fail to give rise to any percept at all: if the percept has no grounding in a person’s experience, the person may literally not perceive it. If we cannot perceive what we do not understand, we define what we see based on what we do understand. This can lead to inaccuracies and confusion. If this is true, the focus on perception in the workplace seems counterproductive to all corporate theories of authentic leadership, individuality, and diversity. It’s like saying one perceptive view prevails based on a common experience. It is almighty and best that we understand it, model ourselves to it, and see others through its shining eyes. How can we win? How can we succeed on the strength of our own unique qualities? Perhaps this is why the traditional corporate environment is not perceived as creative.

Do these perception issues also lurk through our personal lives? If you’re unsure or suspect you’re immune (because you’re so highly perceptive, so skilled at reading people), watch this video about a guy named Paul Potts. And consider this case: an introverted bookworm lands in the top 10% of her senior high school class without too much effort, graduates early due to hard work, intelligence, and creative planning, and ultimately is voted the most dinghy girl by her classmates. (Note: Our use of dinghy may have been a 1980s southern phenomenon, short for dingbat, I suppose. Perhaps it was coined at my high school. It means silly, ditzy, dumb or frivolous … a small mind that floats about in a listless sea of ideas.)

I recently saw The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway for the first time. This guy with his makeshift mask and booming voice is a great example of someone who allowed the perceptions of others to rule his life. He hid in the shadows, stewing and yearning to be accepted. The story, particularly the movie version, questioned the root of his evil. He whacked a few folks so we can all agree that his behaviors warranted the ultimate rejection of his beloved Christine. His brand of love was just plain bad, right? Well, love is love is love. It’s not good or bad; what the world does to us is bad. It takes from us what is beautiful, and twists and turns it until it squeezes out however it can.

But that story occurred during the Victorian era; that wouldn’t happen today. Wrong. So many of us hide our gifts, squeezing what we have to offer into packages and puppets that meet the standard. Why are you doing this to each other? Can’t we tear off the masks, see each other for who we are, slay the corporate puppet, and burn to the ground all those preconceived notions that taint our behaviors?

So what happened to the most dinghy girl in the high school class? When she went to college, she began to realize that her sense of humor, although charming and useful for getting dates, didn’t support her intellectual goals. It was a damaging perception but she was damn brilliant at it. Too bad she didn’t get a gig writing dialogue for Paris Hilton, Kellie Pickler, or dear Miss South Carolina, the map expert. I hope you’ll like the cover of her new novel. You’ll only have eight seconds to decide.

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