The smell of coffee
“I hate coffee”.
There are two main reasons why this statement would evoke a reaction of surprise when I say it out loud. Firstly, I come from a region where drinking coffee is almost ingrained in the culture. A shrewd pilgrim who once managed to sneak in a few coffee beans to India from Arabia while it was still illegal to do so, a peninsular geography with mountainous Ghats that provided a conducive climate for its cultivation and a long colonial rule that capitalized on the economic viability of its commercialization, lead to coffee becoming ubiquitous in the region a very long time ago. Secondly, I’m a software developer and as the cliché goes, when you cut a software developer they bleed coffee. So when I tell people I don’t like coffee they usually go, “Whooaaat?!”.
Hold on, this article is not about coffee or about why I don’t like coffee. It is about how my dislike for the smell of coffee taught me some important life lessons.
I had my first encounter with the software world as a summer intern at a start-up in 2011. On my first day, I entered the office for the very first time and was promptly welcomed by a strong smell of...coffee! There was a pantry with a coffee maker right next to the door so I hoped the smell would go away as I moved further into the office space to my cubicle, but it did not. The smell lingered in the air-conditioned office space wherever I went. But by the end of the day as I was leaving the office, I realized I could not smell it in the air anymore. The pantry did not go away anywhere, nor did people stop drinking coffee all of a sudden, but I still just couldn’t smell it anywhere. I realized my sense of smell had adjusted over time that it was no longer as sensitive to the smell of coffee as it was before.
If this rings a bell with you, you are most definitely not alone. Due to evolutionary reasons our nervous system considers persistent external stimuli to be safe and therefore reduces our sensitivity to them in order to give preference to detection of new stimuli, to give us a better chance to react to them and survive. While this would have made perfect sense in a prehistoric hunter-gatherer world where our survival depended on quickly reacting to new stimuli, this is not the best thing to happen to us in twenty-first century when the world is moving at a fast pace and change is the only constant. If you become comfortable with something that made you uncomfortable at first just because you get exposed to it for a long time or if you are uncomfortable with something just because it is new, that might not always work in your best interest.
Identify your satisfiers and dissatisfiers
For this reason, I believe that the initial period at any new environment such as a new job, a new place or with new people is quite crucial. I like to call this the acclimatization period — this is when you are trying to adapt to the new environment. This is also when your sensitivity to things you like and don’t like there is at its peak. It could therefore act as a good opportunity for you to identify and internalize your satisfiers and dissatisfiers.
The more something motivates or demotivates us, the easier it is to detect its presence or absence. But quite often our experience is a sum of multitude of small satisfiers and dissatisfiers which snowball into something much bigger. By not paying attention and being aware of these, you run the risk of missing opportunities to improve your experiences. Interestingly, the acclimatization period is also a good time to identify your own personal strengths and weaknesses. People are more likely to notice your perks and quirks when they are new to you than after they get used to you. Soliciting their feedback and understanding their perception of you before they learn to adapt to you can help you become a better version of yourself.
Watch your Overton window
Imagine you move to a new neighborhood and the checkout line at the grocery store there is always long. Let’s say it takes you ten additional minutes to finish your shopping there than it used to before at your previous store. It will frustrate you the first couple of times, but you will soon get used to it. It will eventually become the new normal and you will start allotting ten additional minutes for your grocery trips. By not keeping a watch on what is not acceptable to you and subconsciously getting used to it, you effectively let the Overton window of your expectations slide left. Everyone has a certain range for what they think is a reasonable expectation that would define this window. The key to improving things is to take control over this window and to ensure that it slides in the correct direction.
Today as I write this article with my morning cup of tea, I look back to my first day of work and feel grateful for those coffee molecules that hit my olfactory system, because that taught me — If you do not smell anything, that does not necessarily mean that there is no smell lingering around; try harder and you will smell it.