Live Life as an Experiment

It was an experiment. I was returning an item to the store from which I had bought it. The item was well within the return period, but there would be a 20% restocking fee. Could I evade that fee? What would I have to do or say to persuade them not to charge it to me?

Last week I suggested that the best way to handle a situation in which you have no power is to give up the illusion of power and appeal to the generosity of the person in power. That’s a hard thing to do and worth practicing.

I thought about telling the store that my item didn’t work properly or it didn’t perform as expected or it didn’t do what I needed — in other words, subtle ways of getting the upper-hand, of being in the right, of gaining power. But the product was fine, and lying always backfires and feels even worse than yelling. Also, trying to assert power would miss the point and violate the rules of the experiment: I was trying to see if I could get what I wanted by appealing to a powerful person’s generosity. I was trying to practice. So I ruled those out.

What I had left, I realized, was nothing. Which was the exact strategy I was practicing.

“I’d like to return this,” I said to the sales person behind the cash register, “and I know you charge a restocking fee — which you have every right to do — but I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t.”

“Sorry sir, but we have to charge the fee. We always charge the fee. It’s company policy.”

“I understand but is there someone in the store who could make the decision to waive the fee?”

I waited for the manager, who came out and repeated the policy.

“I completely understand, and truth is, there’s nothing wrong with the device, it just didn’t work for me. I know you have every right to charge me the fee. And that there’s no reason not to in this situation. It’s just that I was really hoping you might make an exception in this case.”

Now, pause for a moment and notice that I am making no attempt to exert any power in the situation — it would be absurd to try because I have no power — but I am acknowledging my powerlessness and appealing to his generosity, asking him to use his power with compassion.

“I’m sorry, but, you know, we can’t sell this product as new anymore. That’s why we have the restocking fee policy.”

He was right, of course. And he made complete sense. At this point I was actually embarrassed to continue. Not only didn’t I have the power, but he was using his power appropriately. Still, it was an experiment, and I was practicing and learning, which made it OK to persist. I knew I might fail but I committed to continuing.

“Yeah, that makes sense actually. I mean, you can’t sell this again as new. So I would of course understand if you said no. But maybe in this situation you could make an exception? I would be really appreciative if you didn’t charge me the fee.”

He paused for a second before responding: “We don’t normally waive the fee.”

Did you catch that? Normally. Which means it is something they occasionally do.

My next move was not to make a move. I just looked at him and waited in the silence. Which of course is actually a move, one that feels very awkward. But it was an experiment so I continued.

He finally spoke: “Well, I’ll make an exception this one time — but only this once.”

I was effusive in thanking him — and I wasn’t faking it. I was really so thankful that he was willing to make this exception. In fact, by our banter afterward, I think we both left the transaction feeling good about the other, a much better result than would have been accomplished by trying to force power.

The experience reinforced, for me, that people, quite predictably, will be generous if you respectfully appeal to their generosity. It feels better to them — and to you — than trying to exert power. And if the answer still turns out to be no, I’d bet using threats wouldn’t fare any better in the situation.

What I learned went well beyond the confirmation of an idea. What I learned is the power of framing, of thinking about life as an experiment.

Because when we live life as an experiment, we are far more willing to take risks, to acknowledge failure, to learn and develop. That’s what experiments are all about: discovery and growth. There is no real failure in an experiment because it’s all data. If something doesn’t work, that’s simply data that leads to changing behavior to see if something else does work.

When we’re experimenting, we’re willing to do all sorts of things we might be embarrassed to do otherwise. Like ask for something when we don’t particularly “deserve” it. Or say something in a conversation that might create a breakthrough (or might appear dumb). If it’s an experiment, then taking a risk is the win — whether it pans out or not.

And in those situations when it does pan out, we might just walk away with more than a good education. We might walk away with an extra 20% in our pockets.