The Ritualization of Buying

Really great soundbite from Design Anthropologist, Dori Tunrstall taken from the book Brand Thinking.  The book is a sort of compilation of interviews with leading thinkers across a wide variety of fields about their thoughts on branding and design.  Dori’s comments on the ritualization of buying were of most interest to me:

We almost always used “things” as a way to identify ourselves and to identify others. Let’s start with the human body. In traditional cultures, the art of tattooing was about social coding. A certain number of tattoos meant you’ve been married. Another number of tattoos meant that you’ve had children. This many tattoos meant that you’ve killed a lion.

Nowadays, we have a tremendous emphasis on dress and makeup and in our rituals of buying. I use the word “rituals” very specifically. But our rituals of consumption are no longer as satisfactory to us … because they are empty of human relationships.

There was recently a wonderful study done on garage sales. When people go to a garage sale to buy something, they actually feel very satisfied about the interaction. Most of the time, it’s because the object they buy comes with a story—a very real, personal story about where the object fit into someone’s life.

Whether it’s real or not, you connect with that person through the object. So when you take the object, your purchase of it is more satisfactory. Whereas right now, when you go now to a store, there seems to be a lot of emphasis on branding that tells authentic stories in order to … sell more stuff.

Dori’s last part about the derivation of meaning through purchases is supported by Rob Walker’s Significant Objects experiment performed a few years back.  In it, he purchased a number of thrift store trinkets for an average of $1.25 each.

Those objects were then listed on eBay, but in place of the item description he included a short fictional story about the object written by one of numerous professional writers. Some of the stories described the objects role in a crime or historical event, others about their role in rituals or as good luck charms, etc.

In the end, the objects sold for a total of over $8,000, signifying the importance of story and, by extension, meaning, in the purchase experience.

[via Brainpickings]


Denver Egotist: We Are All Egotists


From the book ‘How to Assert Power Over People’ from the 1950s.

[via The Denver Egotist]

Weekend Wisdom


[via It’s Hard To Find A Friend Tumblr]

This Is Water: DFW’s 2005 Commencement Speech Re-visited


A short film adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s famous 2005 commencement speech to the graduates of Kenyon College.

Simply put, DFW’s speech is about the mere fact that we have the ability to decide how we experience each moment of our lives, especially the mundane and aggravating ones. Our education is not about arming us with vast amounts of knowledge, it’s about instilling the awareness necessary to choose between a conscious and unconscious existence, what moments have meaning, and when we’re able to experience the infinite connectedness of life.

It’s an incredibly important message for all of us, especially those moving bit by bit into adulthood and the more permanent cognitive frameworks that accompany it.

An interview with The Glossary, the creators of this film, can be found on AdWeek.

Understanding the Difference Between Happiness and Meaning

I read a great piece in the Atlantic this weekend explaining the difference between the pursuit of happiness and meaning and wanted to summarize it here.

The piece was called, There’s More to Life Than Being Happy, and a great deal of it focused on the work of Victor Frankl, Jewish psychiatrist, concentration camp survivor, and author of one of the most significant works of non-fiction in history, Man’s Search For Meaning. I love Frankl, have been highly influenced by his work and encourage you to check out the article itself for a good synopsis on his life.

Man’s Search For Meaning was written in 1946. The book sought to identify the central difference between those who survived in the concentration camps and those who didn’t; namely it was the ability to identify and connect with the meaning in one’s life that helped many to survive. Frankl then surmised that it was meaning, not happiness that was at the core of a life well lived. Over 50 years later the field of positive psychology is adding new research and insight into this idea.

To dissect these two concepts, researchers surveyed 400 Americans about their attitudes and beliefs pertaining to the concepts of happiness and meaning. Interestingly enough, there is overlap, but the concepts are very different. I’ll elaborate.

SImply put, happiness is associated with “taking” while meaning is associated with “giving”. Those who are happy find life to be relatively easy, have the means to acquire the things they want and need, and are generally free of worry and stress. But overall, happiness is associated with more selfish behaviors.

While happiness is about serving the needs and desires of the self, meaning is about moving beyond the self, an act that is far more uniquely human. Meaning often comes from giving some part of ones self to others, a cause or a worthwhile pursuit. Not surprisingly, meaningful lives are often less happy ones, characterized by greater levels of stress and anxiety.

The key finding in the study, I think, is that meaning is more enduring than happiness.  While happiness, is essentially just another emotion, the pursuit of meaning has the ability to take us beyond the sensory satisfaction of the present moment into something more lasting.

All of this, in my mind, brings us back to a very central human struggle about delaying gratification. The emotional mind is constantly making demands to the rational mind, some needs, some wants.  All are ultimately distractions from our larger pursuits.  It is our ability to see the futility and endless cycle of desire and fulfillment that frees us up to see and become something greater.

Hopefully understanding this distinction, illuminated by science, helps to ease this tension.

[via The Atlantic]

Human Communication, By: Wendy McNaughton

[via Explore, edited by Maria Popova]

NYT: Pinterest, Tumblr and the Trouble With ‘Curation’

A thought-provoking piece from New York Times Magazine columnist Carina Chocano seeking to explain our gravitation to the act of curating things via sites like Tumblr and Pinterest.

There’s a German word for it, of course: Sehnsucht, which translates as “addictive yearning.” This is, I think, what these sites evoke: the feeling of being addicted to longing for something; specifically being addicted to the feeling that something is missing or incomplete. The point is not the thing that is being longed for, but the feeling of longing for the thing. And that feeling is necessarily ambivalent, combining both positive and negative emotions.

A paper titled “What Is It We Are Longing For?” published in The Journal of Research in Personality, breaks down these “life longings” into essential characteristics. They target aspects of our lives that “are incomplete or imperfect”; involve “overly positive, idealized, utopian imaginations of these missing aspects”; focus on “incompleteness on the one hand and fantasies about ideal, alternative realities on the other hand”; result in a “temporarily complex experience” combining “memories of the past, reflections on the imperfect present and fantasies about an idealized future” (this is called “tritime focus”); and that “make individuals reflect on and evaluate their life, comparing the status quo with ideals or successful others.”

In other words, your average Pinterest board or inspiration Tumblr basically functions as a longing machine.

I think this explanation has a lot of merit, but I don’t think it explains the entire gamut of motivations behind this behavior.  People have always been collectors, be it baseball cards, stamps, or porcelain figurines from the Velveteen Rabbit.  And what else is a curation other than a more public facing collection of items with some artistic significance?  However, in an age when the accumulation of more physical stuff feels increasingly moronic and nonsensical, people are turning to mediums like Pinterest and Tumblr to curate items that have personal signficance or simply allow them to portray themselves in a certain way.

Given the acceleration and compression of technological, cultural and political forces, this behavior can even be understood as a sort of coping mechanism; a way to literally slow down time and remain in touch with what we love and who we are, or as the author points out, who we want to be.

Fast Company: Why Millennials Don’t Want To Buy Stuff

Awesome piece from Fast Company about the shifting attitudes towards “ownership” and how businesses can adapt.

Humanity is experiencing an evolution in consciousness. We are starting to think differently about what it means to “own” something. This is why a similar ambivalence towards ownership is emerging in all sorts of areas, from car-buying to music listening to entertainment consumption. Though technology facilitates this evolution and new generations champion it, the big push behind it all is that our thinking is changing.

The biggest insight we can glean from the death of ownership is about connection. This is the thing which is now scarce, because when we can easily acquire anything, the question becomes, “What do we do with this?” The value now lies in the doing.

In other words, the reason we acquire “stuff” is becoming more about what we get from the acquisition. Purchasing something isn’t really about the thing itself anymore. Today, a product or service is powerful because of how it connects people to something–or someone–else. It has impact because we can do something worthwhile with it, tell others about it, or have it say something about us. As leaders and entrepreneurs, we can intentionally use this knowledge to our advantage. We just have to think about the “stuff” we sell in a slightly new way.

Read the entire piece here.

Ken Burns: On Story

Sarah Klein and Tom Mason created this touching film about Ken Burns and his take on what makes a good story.  The Burns recipe is 1+1=3.  The things that matter most, in his opinion, are the immeasurables – love, reason, faith, irony, conflict, paradox, etc.  These are the things that help stories to connect with us on a deeper level, making the whole, greater than the sum of it’s parts.

[via Brain Pickings]

The Rise of the Personal Assistant

Entrepreneur, CEO and computer scientist Andy Hickl wrote a great piece for Tech Crunch yesterday about the rise of this notion of personal assistants as a means for helping us to make the most out of our lives.  I love the piece because Andy blows the doors off of our conventional understanding of what duties a digital personal assistant might perform.

One school of thought says that assistants should be all about delegation. I pass tasks downstream, and in doing so, I reclaim my time and energy. I think that several companies will achieve big things doing just that.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. What about an assistant that doesn’t take things off my plate — but rather, wants to put things on it? What about an assistant that guides me down paths less traveled? What about an assistant that aspires to help me be a better version of myself? What about having a colleague instead of a secretary? A mentor instead of a student?

What would it mean to have a rewarding, mutual relationship with a computer — not in a GTD sense, per se — but rather in my private life? A relationship that was based on mutual admiration, a high level of trust, and a secret handshake? We need a corollary to the notion of an assistant. I like having an assistant. But I want a companion too.

With a companion, you’ll have to give more to get more, too. It’s more of a partnership, and a true love. A companion is an emotionally evolved species. Better put, a companion actually aspires to help me be a better human, and lead a better human life. A companion is about more than just finding me an ATM, conducting a web search, or deleting a calendar entry. It’s about achieving goals, and revealing truths.

Andy says we’re seeing the convergence of three major trends that are making this technologically possible and socially desirable.

The Transparent Self

First, these apps will require a lot of data about us to become effective and useful in our lives.  We need to let them in and then be convinced that continuing to share personal information with them is providing us with tangible value.  Andy points out that location-based apps may have the best headstart in this area, as they ask for a type of data that we’re freely willing to give up, and that can be used to make a ton of accurate predictions about who we are, what we do, and (ultimately) what we’ll want/need.

The Aspirational Self

The next step is about creating enough value to garner continued use.  A lot of this begins with the idea of The Quantified Self, the act of being able to measure habits and behaviors as a means of self-improvement and discovery.  The Feltron Report, Jambone Up and Nike’s recently launched Fuel Band are all great examples.  But, Andy points out that they rely (to varying degrees) on game mechanics.  Whereas, when you receive a recommendation from a trusted source, you don’t have to be “gamed” because there’s a sense of established trust and mutual understanding.  It’s what we have with our significant others and close friends.  And this is where the opportunity lies: in creating trusted “companions” that make our limited time on earth richer.

The Clued-In Self

Staying with this idea of the companion, the difference they have from assistants is that companions (or think of them as good friends) say “Hey.  I saw this awesome new thing.  You gotta go try it with me now!”.  Whereas assistants (think: Siri) are reactive.  They do what you tell them to do, but operate exclusively within the purview of your own awareness and knowledge.  The second piece to this goes back to the always-on mentality.  The idea that our desires, interests and needs are always changing, requires a companion that is always listening, re-evaluating and adapting.

Overall, an awesome series of trends and an even better framework for thinking about the future of brands as utilities…and eventually companions. Rock on, Andy.


%d bloggers like this: