I arrived in Phoenix early, with plenty of time before my keynote tomorrow for the National Association of Professional Employer Organizations (NAPEO), which gave me the precious time to work out then eat and write. As I stepped into my hotel lobby, however, I was hit by a strange form of … was it déjà vu or recognition?
The world choice – déjà vu or recognition – may seem arbitrary, but if you research what each word means, you will appreciate that the choice you make here is profound.
You see, recognition – literally “re” + “cognition” – comes from the French word “reconoistre” and means to see something again. Déjà vu derives from the French words “already” and “seen.” Given they are both French in origin, given their translations into English are identical, these two words should mean the same thing. But they do not.
To recognize is to know, with some level confidence, that what you are seeing is something you have seen before. To experience déjà vu is to not be quite as confident.
The difference between déjà vu and recognition
Researchers in the UK performed an experiment in which they engineered moments of déjà vu. They would give subjects a list of words, like pillow, bed, and tired, but not the central word that categorized them all: sleep. They then asked participants if they had heard the word “sleep.” They did this while subjects were connected to an FMRI scanner that could identify which parts of the brain were activated as the subjects answered.
They found that when subjects were experiencing déjà vu, the parts of the brain associated with memory were not activated. Instead the areas associated with logical reasoning – the prefrontal cortex – were activated. In other words, when you experience déjà vu, you are not actually remembering; rather, you are using logic to assess whether what you are remembering is real. You are looking for consistency, or inconsistency, between what you are experiencing and other memories you have.
Initially I thought my memory was lying to me. Many JW Marriotts follow the same layout. Surely, I’ve stayed at another hotel of similar design. The concierge table was the same, then the gym was the same, and finally the restaurant I ate at as I finalized my presentation for tomorrow was … the same. I realized there was consistency between my memories and what I was seeing.
In that moment, I moved from déjà vu (testing and questioning my memories) to recognition (knowing I had been here before).
The power of choosing déjà vu
The difference between recognition and déjà vu matters, I think, because it’s the key to what enables individuals in an organization to react intelligently to new circumstances.
Think about the old stories of how Blockbuster got disrupted by Netflix, and Kodak got disrupted by digital cameras. Blockbuster and Kodak thought they recognized what was happening. They had experienced this situation before: a young attacker trying to challenge them, but they win out thanks to their scale and strength. They thought they’d seen this movie before, and they knew how it was going to end.
When you recognize, you stop thinking.
But if you shift your thinking slightly to view those stories as déjà vu, then something remarkable happens. You see that the clues around you may be similar to what you have experienced before, but you know that this situation may be different. So, you question, you think, you ask, “How is this similar and how is it different?” As such, you do not fall into the recognition trap. Had Blockbuster or Kodak stayed in a state of déjà vu, rather than landing too quickly in the apparent security of recognition, might they still be around today?
This is, I think, why great investors are so careful in assessing their environment and not jumping to the “obvious” conclusion. They see what is going on around them – stocks at an all-time high, real estate prices strong, interest rates rising – and see these signals as déjà vu rather than evidence that the past will repeat itself. Today may seem similar to the past, but the exact combination of circumstances never completely repeats itself.
So the next time you find yourself recognizing something, shift instead to déjà vu, and ask yourself, “Is this really happening again?” It could change your future.