Plenty of nothing: the Anti-Gift Certificate

As we emerge from our post-holiday hangovers, here’s a nice green gift idea to keep in mind: the Anti-Gift Certificate. For that special someone who could use a little more less.

I first saw this on BlogLESS. The artist who designed it is Christopher Gideon, and he’s happy to let you download a copy for free. It’s a nifty turnabout: a positive gift of a negative thing.

It’s always surprising to me how much it can shift your thinking when you flip around a mental model. Here’s an example of what I mean: we mentally assign an active power to vacuums. They suck things towards them. But that’s not what’s happening. Physically what vacuums are really doing is nothing. They’re not pushing back while something over there (say, atmospheric pressure) pushes harder. But it’s practically impossible to avoid the feeling that vacuums pull you in the way a magnet does.

There are all kinds of everyday concepts that seem intuitive but are actually strangely non-physical. Osmosis sucks water into a cell. Cities suck people from the countryside. These visualizations can be helpful as long as you keep in mind what’s really going on.

Once you get the hang of it, you can do these mental gymnastics on purpose. For instance, suppose I’m trying to keep myself from eating some greasy tasty treat (mmm… doughnuts). If I dwell on not being able to eat it, I’ll suffer and whine. But instead of not eating anything, I can think of myself as eating nothing. That is, I’m making a positive choice to eat the thing called nothing. It’s a small hack, but it helps.

One of my favorite mental flipflops comes from the noted conservationist Amory Lovins. In his talk Winning the Oil Endgame, he observes that whenever we save a barrel of oil, we’re actually creating what he calls a “nega-barrel”. By improving the efficiency of cars alone, we’d uncover a huge reservoir of nega-barrels – the Detroit Formation. In fact, we’re the freakin’ Saudi Arabia of nega-barrels! As he says, “we can use less oil faster than they can conveniently sell less oil.” That’s putting a good spin on it, eh?

It’s a small hack, but it really does help.