The x factor

Did you know that there’s a simple way to peel an orange that only takes a few minutes, removes the peel cleanly from the fruit, and even separates out some of the juice? I had no idea until a friend recently showed me the trick, which quickly produces perfectly smooth, bite-sized pieces of fruit. I have always avoided oranges because I disliked the fuzz that clings to the outside of each slice after peeling the fruit in the ordinary fashion, yet this one simple change allowed me to get back in touch with a fruit I haven’t enjoyed for years.

You can say what you want about the oddity of that particular hang-up, but there’s no denying that the new method makes things better all around.

Another friend told me recently of how he dreaded coming to work every morning until he realized that he was put off not by his job, but by the commute. Being someone who ordinarily bikes to work, he only knew of three direct routes from his apartment to the office, and all of them involved substantial congestion and dangerous conditions for bikers during the rush hours of each business day. Then, one day, he discovered a new route that cut across traffic and made use of a pedestrian underpass to shave distance off the commute. Changing the path he biked to work changed his whole outlook on the day.

Closer to home, I (perhaps like many of you) have long fostered an unmitigated hatred for my alarm clock, which happens to be my phone. It’s not that I mind waking up in the morning—in fact, I’m thankful each day when I do—but the alarm always jolted me so severely out of sleep that I would actually be alarmed by its sound. Minutes after waking up, I would still be slightly shaky from the initial shock. It probably took me months to realize that I could simply change the tone. (I of course knew that this was theoretically possible, but I went for a long time thinking that any alarm would have the same effect.) I searched through my phone to find a new alarm that would wake me up as gently as possible, and my daily awakening is now a much more pleasant experience as a result.

I know that some or all of these stories may sound trivial, but that’s actually exactly the point. A new alarm tone, a different bike path, a handy trick for peeling an orange—each of these tiny little modifications have had the ability to make a big difference in someone’s approach to fruit, the job, or even the whole day.

Life is full of examples like this. Researchers in one study found that periodically turning the lights on and off in a factory increased employee productivity simply because the workers were responding to the change. People speak, almost with amazement, of how changing their mattress drastically improved their sleep cycle, or of how finding a special pair of warm socks changed their whole experience of winter. Sometimes something as simple as getting a haircut can change your whole outlook on life.

I call it the x factor—not to be confused with the British talent search show—and you can find one almost anywhere if you look hard enough. Some professionals have built whole careers upon isolating and modifying the x factor in relationships, business transactions, or architectural projects. In fact, in any industry, the professionals who are best at their jobs are those who have developed the skill of listening and/or watching carefully to identify x factors more quickly than others in their field.

But you don’t have to be (or retain the services of) a professional in order to find the x factor in your life. Do some digging yourself! No one knows you better than you. Take a look at something that isn’t working, that isn’t enjoyable, that you wish could be different. Rather than overhauling the whole system, can you find the x factor? Can you identify the quickest way to turn wrong into right?

Of course, it isn’t always that simple. Some of life’s most complicated problems seem to offer no easy way out; if they did, they wouldn’t be complicated in the first place. But start with the small stuff. For example, if you have a consistent reaction to something (i.e., I hate waking up in the mornings), try to identify the factors motivating that reaction:

Is it that you dread stepping onto the cold floor? Get a rug, or place a pair of slippers near the edge of your bed.

Is it that you feel so terrible when you stand up? Don’t drink so much the night before!

Is it that all of the day’s problems descend upon you as soon as you awake? Place something pleasant and sunny near your alarm clock so that it will be the first thing you see once you open your eyes. (Mine is a small Botero painting on canvas—a gift from a friend.)

Again, these examples may seem trivial, but I think they contain a general truth: a big part of solving problems is moving beyond how you feel about them and identifying the factors causing the problems in the first place.

Now, there’s also a wrong way to do this. It can be possible to misidentify an x factor and trick yourself into thinking that changing this or that little thing will improve things across the board. If I just buy one more handbag, if I just check out that new self-help book, if I just take one more drink, if I just stay in bed… everything will be alright “if I just.” This is not the way it’s meant to work. Indulging appetites or allowing oneself additional distractions doesn’t really focus on the problem. And in any given situation, the x factor is almost never a panacea. One change can never solve it all.

On the other hand (and not contradictorily), a well-identified, well-acted-upon x factor can make all the difference in the world.

This idea came from a reader and good friend. Thank you!



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3 responses to “The x factor

  1. Katie

    Wait, so what’s the new trick for peeling the orange?

  2. Paul

    I too harbor this dislike of oranges. You simply must share this wisdom with the masses.

  3. SO, the orange trick is difficult to describe in writing, which is why I didn’t attempt it originally, but basically it goes like this:

    1. Using a large knife, carefully slice off the very top and bottom of the fruit. The slice should be thin enough that you just cut along the borderline between the skin and the fruit.

    2. Resting the fruit on one of its ends (now cut off), gently slice down the sides of the fruit, following the curve so that the knife just removes the skin all the way around the fruit. When finished with this step, you should be left with the flesh of the fruit only—no rind.

    3. Hold the fruit over a bowl to catch any falling juice. Because you’ve already cut the back edge of each slice away with the rind, each slice is now flesh between two membranes. Using your fingers, pry open the fruit at any seam between the flesh and the membrane. Gently peel the membrane away from the flesh, pulling towards the “core,” then free the flesh from the opposite membrane by pulling the flesh back towards you.

    4. Drop the pure fruit into the bowl as you continue working your way around the orange. When finished, you should be left with a bowl full of fruit and a handful of empty membrane, which you can squeeze over the fruit to add a bit of extra juice.

    When done carefully, this trick works like a charm! Good luck…

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