“Let’s Make it Count” Journal

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This is the second installment of a four-part series about The Fantastic Four, a set of custom journals that were created by two of my sophomores several years ago. (The first part can be found here.) The composition book pictured above features a cover with the ransom-note-style title “Let’s Make It Count.” This was the phrase that I spoke aloud to my Honors English students seconds before we embarked on our daily five-minute free-writes at the start of class.

My reason for using this slogan is that I wanted to remind my students that they had a choice during each of our quiet writing sessions: they could exert minimal effort and scribble nonsense on the page, or they could focus their minds and attention and compose meaningful content until the timer beeped. I have no idea if my daily assertion actually worked, but I kept repeating let’s make it count like a mantra just in case.

Here is my first entry (followed by a transcription, below):

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2-13-15     Beginning a new notebook today.

“Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.” – William Shakespeare*

So I am entertaining the idea of a library science degree, and a possible future career as a library employee. Does it feel right? I’ll have to consider it. I don’t want to jump at it, but I believe that exploring the option is part of building the bridge.* Add [sic.] blocks to that bridge is very important, even though I don’t know exactly where it is going. The end-point is yet-to-be determined. I’ll have to maintain the faith that simply stepping out and moving forward is the right thing to do. I know I can explore and find something more suitable. I’ll keep placing blocks together to lengthen the bridge. Wise #### philosophy.


* – This quotation is from Measure for Measure (Act 1, Scene IV), which was written between 1603 and 1604. These lines are spoken by the character Lucio, a fussy young nobleman, during his conversation with Isabella, who is the sister of the play’s protagonist, Claudio.

* – “Building the bridge” is a concept/motto that I adopted in late-2014 or early-2015. It represents the fact that I was (and am) trying to envision a new professional path — one different than my role as a classroom teacher. To help me focus on the possibility of a career shift, I created the following sign using a piece of copyrighted artwork and a bold, blocky typeface. For three years the sign hung first on a bulletin board in my apartment and then on the corner of my bathroom mirror. It provided a daily reminder of what I was attempting to do. I am the kind of person who benefits from visual reinforcement.

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The composition book’s back cover is pictured below. The bottom-right corner features several images that deserve explanation.

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Owls are one of my favorite animals, which Meagan and Kathryn — my two students and the notebook’s designers — knew. Although my classroom features no images of the nocturnal hunters, students’ questions had somehow led to an awareness that I was fond of the silent, mysterious, head-swiveling predators.

At least four days a week I wore a tie at school, so that explains the partially rolled neckwear. I love ties. (Coincidentally, I also love short sentences.) The frequency and variety of my ties prompted students to sometimes ask how many I owned, a question that I found odd but welcome. They were curious, and I was happy to satisfy their desire by speculating about how many dozen were hanging in my closet. On a few occasions I even brought several shoeboxes of my ties (carefully rolled) into my classroom to let my sophomores see that I was speaking the truth. I owned many.

Sandwiched between the owls is a small photo of a blonde-haired woman adjacent to her cursive signature. This is Nancy Gibbs (b. 1960), an American journalist who became the first female managing editor of TIME magazine in 2013. She occupied that role until 2017. Now she serves as the visiting Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice of Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University. (That is a wonderfully alliterative job title, by the way.) Gibbs remains TIME’s Editor at Large.

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For writers of any background and skill level, Gibbs’ work stands as an incomparable example of how to meld meaningful content, an approachable style, and a deeply-sensitive understanding of the power of narrative. For years I photocopied Gibbs’ one-page editorials that were featured at the conclusion of nearly every issue of TIME.

These short pieces served as models for my students as they studied the craft of rhetoric — and the ways that they too could influence audiences with their developing skills. We emulated Gibbs’ simple yet powerful techniques, because her articles made frequent and precise use of similes and metaphors, semicolons and dashes, alliteration and parallel structure, and sentences both long and short. She is a master of prose, and perhaps her greatest strength is making complex subjects understandable for general readership.

One of Gibbs’ most famous articles accompanied the sobering cover photo of TIME’s infamous Sept. 14, 2001 black-bordered issue. Even years after the horror of that event, her report on this history-changing moment represents one of the most profoundly-moving pieces of journalism that I have ever encountered.

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Note – The images of Ms. Gibbs and TIME’s Sept. 14, 2001 cover were obtained from TIME.com.

Succeed by defying conventions

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On November 28, Freakonomics Radio released its 359th episode, “Should America Be Run by…Trader Joe’s?” Hosted by astute journalist and author Stephen Dubner, the 47-minute radio show (and podcast) explores the unanticipated success of perhaps the most non-traditional grocer in the current marketplace: the quirky, island-themed Trader Joe’s.

Even if you do not have a location near you — or if you do, but are not a frequent customer — great insight can be gleaned from this podcast. Why? The episode dives into the reasons why defying conventions can yield unexpected success, especially at a time when it seems that the default narratives for advancement have been so carefully refined that challenging their veracity seems not only foolish, but heretical.

However, by veering from the status quo, Trader Joe’s has become America’s most successful grocery chain as measured by sales-per-square-foot. Its revenue in this regard is far greater than industry titans like Kroger, Albertsons, and Publix. Trader Joe’s generates even more revenue — again, based on sales-per-square-foot — than Whole Foods, whose stores tend to be found in the nation’s most wealthy communities.

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If you have never been to a Trader Joe’s, you may be wondering exactly how it defies the traditional narrative of business success. Well, here is a glimpse at its peculiarities, which Stephen Dubner — and guests like the remarkable Columbia Business School economist Sheena Iyengar* — explore in this episode:

  • TJ’s does not use social media.
  • TJ’s does not employ traditional advertising like billboards or weekly circulars.
  • TJ’s does not accept coupons.
  • TJ’s does not distribute loyalty cards that track customers’ purchases.
  • TJ’s does not have sales.
  • TJ’s does not feature self-check aisles.
  • TJ’s does not offer home delivery.
  • TJ’s does not contain 20,000+ products like most grocery stores.
  • TJ’s does not rely on name brands. In fact, it carries very few.

How can a company like Trader Joe’s succeed when it does not utilize the cutting-edge, data-driven strategies that most business experts would say are necessary? You’ll have to listen to the podcast to find out! Just click: “Should America Be Run…by Trader Joe’s?”

But here is the short answer: Trader Joe’s proudly does things its own way, without apology. It privileges people over profits, simplicity over complexity, and language and narrative over data and demographics. Consequently, its loyal shoppers love the experience that they have in its stores, and savor the unique products — from healthy to indulgent — that they find there. Thus they keep coming back.

Full disclosure: I visit Trader Joe’s semi-regularly, but I am not a purist. The narrow aisles of my local store are often crowded, and the checkout lanes seem oddly-designed and not (in my opinion) customer-friendly. Yet I still love this podcast episode because I admire companies like Trader Joe’s that defy conventions, follow their own guiding principles, and — as a result — achieve unexpected success. We need more risk-takers who are willing to challenge norms, whether those established practices dominate behavior in the business world, in our schools, or in our neighborhoods.

Shameless endorsement of all things Freakonomics: I am a committed follower of Freakonomics, both the podcast and the series of books penned by Dubner and his collaborator, University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt. For several years I have listened to their weekly audio productions, which help me — a former high-school English teacher — better understand topics ranging from entrepreneurs and marketing, to decision-making and leadership, to sports and public policy. But perhaps most importantly, Freakonomics’ media has taught me why asking questions is an essential yet often underrated practice, both in business and in a broader whole-life context.

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– Widely recognized as one of the nation’s foremost experts on decision making, Sheena Iyengar is amazing. She is a professor at the Columbia Business School, and her research has yielded incredible insights into how humans make choices. Moreover, her voice is captivating and articulate; and her outlooks on business and life are shrewd, witty, and wise. Oh — and Ms. Iyengar has spent her life defying conventions. How? She is blind. See for yourself, in her popular 2010 TED talk, “The Art of Choosing.”

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Note – The images featured above were obtained from WNYC Studios (which produces a host of award-winning programs including Freakonomics Radio), TED.com, and the Freakonomics website.

Dragons are descending!

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These stunning stamps, which feature digitally-produced artwork, are available at post offices and USPS.com. A sheet of sixteen stamps — four each of four different designs — will set you back $8.00. Ordering from USPS.com adds a modest $1.25 shipping charge.

These remarkable dragons were created by Don Clark who, along with his brother Ryan, established Invisible Creature studio in Maple Valley, Washington in 2006. Here is an image of the siblings at the entrance to their two-story barn/workspace. The photo was obtained from the duo’s extraordinary website. Ryan is on the left; Don is on the right.

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The Clarks, who are talented designers and accomplished musicians, benefit from a strong family influence of creativity. Their grandfather was an illustrator who worked at NASA for 28 years. Their father tinkered passionately in his home, where he produced furniture and toys made of wood. The upper level of the Clarks’ barn studio houses a workspace that their formative forebears would be proud of:

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The online store at the Invisible Creature website features a range of products created by the über-talented brothers. Books, t-shirts, toys, prints, posters, and super-cool wool felt pennants are all available. If you are searching for a special present for December’s celebrations, check out the 2018 Holiday Gift Guide. There you will find, among other dazzlingly-designed goods, a Little Golden Book version of the Disney PIXAR film The Incredibles. Its illustrations were created by Don Clark. Here is an example of its retro-styled artwork:

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Do you have holiday cards to mail? Stop at your local post office or visit USPS.com for a sheet of Dragon stamps, which feature the Forever USA guarantee. You will always be able to use them to send first-class letters.

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Note — Except for the photograph at the top of this post, all of the images of Don and Ryan Clark and their products and artwork were obtained from the Invisible Creature website.

Fred Rogers: Leading by Listening

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“In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.”

Fred Rogers (1928-2003), The World According to Mr. Rogers (2003)

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“But part of Fred Rogers’ genius was knowing that kids have an insatiable desire to make sense of the world. Unlike too many adults who prefer to deal with problems by pretending they don’t exist, children want answers. If answers aren’t available, they at least want their questions taken seriously.” 

–  Dr. Bruce Weinstein, CEO of the Institute for High-Character Leadership

Source text: “How Mister Rogers Can Make You a More Effective Leader” in Forbes.com

For more about Fred Rogers, please see Fred Rogers Productions.