A New Year and “The Doorway Effect”

Jan 22, 2016




“’Everyone has two birthdays’, according to the English essayist Charles Lamb, ‘the day you were born and New Year’s day—‘”
-Billy Collins, Poet, NEW YEAR’S DAY


We are each born into the world a screaming bundle of possibility. We gather skills and successes, fight through injuries and failures, only to wake up on January 1st of each New Year with a figurative “clean slate.” Some years we know what to do with a clean slate; other years, we flounder and sleepwalk through the first few weeks of newness. Some people completely give up and we mourn when we see that happen in others. Why is it that the end of a calendar year so strongly signals a new start? Is it simply that we acknowledge, even celebrate, this ending /beginning? Crossing a threshold can have an immediate, lasting effect in every area of our lives.

In the study of sociology, there is great emphasis on ceremony as a marker of transition. Ceremonies help individuals and societies to move on, successfully navigate a world threaded with difficulty. Graduations, marriage ceremonies, baptisms, events marking successful product launches, retirement parties are all examples of thresholds crossed, of “doorways” passed through.

There was a study done at Notre Dame, since recreated by others, aptly called “the doorway effect”.  In summary, when people go through a door, they seem to forget things.  The study had the participants carry an object in a backpack or otherwise hidden from view once it went into the backpack.  The findings were consistent; it didn’t matter whether it was an actual doorway or a virtual doorway on a screen in front of the test subjects.  Going through the doorway made them unable to remember what object they were carrying.  Their conclusion was “Walking through doorways causes forgetting.”

I had an interesting conversation about this “doorway effect” with a colleague and fellow ProNexus Consultant, Nancy Peterson, MBA, and she said she had experienced this: “My mother would always tell me in those situations to go back to the spot where you were thinking about things and it will come back to you.  She was often right.  Successful people deal with setbacks by learning from them – in effect they walk through the doorway and forget that the event was not a success.  How can we turn that into a tactic?”

How can we harness this effect into multigenerational workplace practices that energize the team, that satisfy our need for individual and group “closure”… a proverbial “clean slate”?

Nancy shared some of her experiences in the workplace:

  • “At [an equipment finance company], they have these screens all over the place…you are 4-5 feet from computer screens on the wall. When someone signs a new deal, they put it on the screen. And include the whole team who supported. Everyone stands up and claps… There is visibility on failures–losses of deals, as an offset for work that led up to that failure. They publish statistics on how many deals in the hopper.”
  • “[Two big corporations] were big on doing things as part of a team. Team concepts and team solutions. We each did our part. We had our own expertise. We all took credit for the failure, so it wasn’t an individual thing. Or we learned how to incorporate our failure into the project.”

We are all screaming bundles of possibility. Opportunities meet us every day. The self-help industry continues to grow; there are so many different approaches, it is mind-boggling. Sometimes capable people resign themselves to inaction. Others surprise us with their resilience, turning an event of misstep into something constructive or successful. Obstacles can be subjective. We witness failures and floundering in our offices and families.  Each generation struggles in its own way; some college grads continue to live at home, while the Mark Zuckerbergs take the world by its collar. There are self-help books and books about the Self-Help Industry, positing that some tactics actually make people who are struggling more helpless. What if success in business or career is more about awareness, action, and beginnings/endings than all of the mumbo-jumbo we are taught by the media?

“Success doesn’t equal happiness. That’s the message coming in loud and clear in this dawning era of transparency…  Enter: a brand new era of self-help books in which happiness not only takes precedence over success, but poise and popularity sometimes seem to take precedence over skill or originality or productivity.” – Amy Cuddy’s ‘Presence’ and Shonda Rhymes’ ‘Year of Yes’  by Heather Havrilesky [New York Times Sunday Book Review, December 28, 2015]

Whole Foods marketing executive Jeff Jenkins has an interesting perspective, in his article “Generation Failure is Here”, he proposes that the youth are no longer afraid to fail, but in fact the younger generation celebrates failure. Jenkins says, “It used to be that failure was a dirty word.”  He raises questions about whether larger corporations can adapt in order to retain young talent who tout, “my passion exceeds my fear”.

Jenkins’ takeaways: “Fail fast, fail often, learn from your mistakes. There is no such thing as a final product.  Iteration is the new black.”

In the words of my colleague Nancy Peterson, “Celebrate what you’ve done, take in the successes but go through the doorway to forget any negatives and move on, ready to face what life and the next opportunities present to you.” In the multi-generational workplaces of today, if we widely broadcast this “doorway effect”, we can season the year 2016 with both success and happiness.


Mementos for the New Year 2016:

  1. Fall seven times and stand up eight.
    – Japanese Proverb
  2. It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.
    -Albert Einstein (1879-1955), physicist and developer of the theory of relativity
  3. Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.
    -Thomas Edison (1874-1931), inventor of the light bulb
  4. Failure is only the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.
    -Henry Ford (1863-1947), founder of Ford Motor Company
  5. A failure is not always a mistake. It may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying.
    -B.F. Skinner (1904-1990), American psychologist


For more information on this topic, please contact Tanya Rice at trice@pronexusllc.com, or Nancy Peterson at npeterson@pronexusllc.com

Post by Kaitlin Alfvin

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