You’re Baader-Meinhofing Me.

You’ve experienced Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. It’s that odd occurrence when you hear some obscure factoid — say, for instance, that the bark of the redwood tree is fireproof — and then, bizarrely, find yourself encountering this information again and again.

Everywhere you turn, for no discernable reason, people are talking about redwood trees! Your neighbor casually mentions taking a trip to California to see the forests. Your dentist follows up his reminder to floss with a non-sequitur about tree bark. Your latest copy of National Geographic arrives and it’s all about how the  bark of the majestic redwood tree helps it resist wildfires!

Here are some redwood trees, resisting fire. Cool, huh? Want to know why they’re fire resistant? Google that sh*t, kids.

You start to think, what the heck am I supposed to do with this information? Why, all of a sudden, is my entire life centered on redwood trees and their fire-resistant bark? I’m just trying to live my life here in inner-city Detroit, and there are no redwood trees here, fireproof or otherwise!

Scientists, as you’d expect, have an answer for us about why this happens.  

The key to Baader-Meinhof, they say, is that our brains seek out patterns in the world. In doing so, they de-emphasize things that don’t uphold those patterns, and overemphasize the occurrences that do. 

Fun fact: According to scientists, an unromantic bunch if there ever was one, this also explains why people in love repeatedly encounter the name of their beloved, or something they associate exclusively with him or her.  (Pffffttttt, science! We all know that happens because our beloved puts those reminders in our path!)


Scientists. Smugly sucking the fun out of phenomena since always.

You won’t be surprised to learn that many scientists prefer the term “frequency illusion” to “Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon.” I think we can all agree that this is an example of a time when we should ignore scientists, because Baader-Meinhof sounds much, much cooler.  

Another neat fact is that the term “Baader Meinhof” comes from the surnames of two founding members of a West German domestic terrorism group. As the story goes, one of the scientists originally researching this phenomenon heard someone mention the Baader-Meinhof Group twice in a short period of time, and applied the name of the group to the syndrome. Tuck that little nugget away until you can use it in Trivial Pursuit.


What’s got me thinking about Baader-Meinhof, though, isn’t redwood trees, or fireproof bark, or even scientists and how they keep injecting facts into everything and ruining our cockamamie theories that are much more fun. 

It’s this:


Why? Because I’ve had numerous conversations lately, with people older and wiser than I am, that all riff on this theme. Even the Wall Street Journal got into the act: the front page of the Off-Duty section this past weekend was “101 Things to Do Before You Die.”

As different as all these conversations were, they had some important themes in common. Like what, you ask? Well, that… 

Life is short.

The unexpected happens.

You shouldn’t put off …

making the change,

making the effort,

making the connection,

making the choice

….that you’ve slated for another day, because


simply isn’t guaranteed.

And, furthermore, even if you’re lucky enough to get the tomorrow you’re counting on, it may not look at all like you’ve imagined.

Buddha. Thinking deep thoughts since the 6th century BCE.

If you’ve had the experience of losing a beloved friend or relative far too early, you already know that nothing — NOTHING — in life is guaranteed.

But what are you going to do with this knowledge? If you know that tomorrow isn’t a given, and your time here is short, and there are no do-overs…what are you going to do about it?

You might seek a new pasture, even if getting there is tough.
You might decide to be the driver of your life, not the passenger.
You might attempt to reach new heights, even though doing so is risky.

This isn’t about advocating change just for change’s sake, or disrupting your life simply to disrupt it, or chasing money or fame or any other meaningless marker of “success.” It’s not about being perpetually discontented.

What it is about is being happy with where you are and what you’ve got, and counting your blessings on a daily basis, but also realizing that sometimes life brings it to your attention that you’ve gotten comfortable with something that isn’t quite right. 

Sometimes, the universe pushes you to the edge of a cliff, or shows you a different way, and says, “Okay, now what are you going to do? Will you retreat in fear, or leap and soar?”

Look at you, soaring! It’s what you were created to do.

Weighing the opportunity cost of making a life change should begin with the potential upside, not the possible downsides.  

And when the potential upsides are great, the downsides diminish, and so does the fear that too often keeps us in a rut.

Fear at the wheel: “I took a wrong turn somewhere, but I guess I’ll stay here. I’m used to it….”

The truth is, if you keep putting off going for the things that matter to you, chances are really good that you’re going to miss out.

James: full of truth, but a bit of a downer as a dinner guest.

We all have areas of our life that need our attention, things we need to change. We all need to the occasional reminder that the “safety” of the known isn’t really safety at all, but rather the deceptively comfortable place where we slowly fade away. 

In the historical perspective of the universe, we’re only given a very short window of time to make our mark, to live well, to love one another, to be what we were meant to be.

That’s my Baader-Meinhof phenomenon of late.

A brain seeking patterns? Maybe.

Or maybe something more. 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s