Knowledge vs. Awareness: My Near-Death Experience on Market Street

AS THE FIRE ENGINE CAREENED toward me, mere seconds from slamming my startled soul into the pavement of San Francisco’s Market Street, two thoughts competed for my attention:

1) I could die right now
2) I deserve it

Obviously I survived. The engine slowed just enough and I looked up just in time to stay out of its path. The truck drove on, lights and sirens blaring – and I sheepishly made my way out of the street, pretending not to notice the shouts and stares.

They wouldn’t understand anyway. No one does.

The short version: A tumor left me deaf in one ear and gave me constant static in my skull that is, at best, as loud as a conversation, and at worst like a Who concert during the Keith Moon years.

Over the years my hearing overall has grown worse as well – sometimes I can’t even hear myself talk, which makes it difficult to form words that others can understand (it often comes across as mumbling or gibberish.) And as in the case of the fire engine, I’m unable to discern the direction of sound. At home no one ever says “come here,” they have to say “come into the kitchen” since I never have any idea where “here” is.

I should have known better that day in San Francisco. When I first heard the (what I thought to be) faint sounds of a siren, I should have stopped and looked around until the engine or car or whatever was making the noise came into view.

I don’t know why, but I didn’t. “Knowledge” told me that the siren was far away – I “knew” I could cross the street, and “logic” suggested that the people screaming all around me were just, well, being San Franciscans.

But I lacked awareness. I didn’t assess the situation empirically, didn’t absorb the moment or ground myself in the reality of my surroundings and the warnings of my fellow pedestrians. And it nearly killed me.

And now for the marketing lesson (bet you were wondering if I would ever get to the point): Too often we settle for knowledge when we need awareness. We conduct research about “consumers” but never walk into a store and ask them why they are buying certain products.

Online behavioral research (technographics) is improving, but that’s still another form of knowledge. A person can “know” how parents raise their kids, but only a parent is “aware” of what parenting takes and what goes into countless decisions that can’t be translated into a pie chart.

Can you market discount clothing if you are the kind of person who wears $600 shirts? Yes, of course, but you need to go to the Wal-Mart or Marshalls and talk to the discount shoppers yourself. Only then will you have the market awareness you need for either your “knowledge” to make sense or to effectively challenge its assumptions.

Knowledge can betray you, as it betrayed me that day in San Francisco. From now on, I prefer to be aware – and next time, awareness, not luck, may be just the thing that keeps me alive.

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