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.

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.

Timeless Advice: Letters to a Young Poet

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Even if you believe that poetry is irrelevant, value can be found in reflecting on the thoughts that legendary German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) shared with a struggling young officer cadet named Franz Xaver Kappus over one hundred years ago.

By relying on letters exchanged periodically, the two maintained a relationship as mentor and pupil that stretched from 1903 to 1908. Nine of Rilke’s earliest letters to the younger man — who was studying at the Theresian Military Academy in Wiener Neustadt (in north-east Austria) — are collected here in a slender volume by translator M.D. Herter Norton. The book is a beautiful one, whose elegant yet straightforward typeface and high-quality paper reflect the elder poet’s sensibilities.

The contemplative lyric poet, Rainer Maria Rilke:

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Franz Kappus initiated the dialogue, having studied Rilke’s poetry as a teenager. Looking back on their exchange of letters, Kappus wrote in 1929: “Not yet twenty, and close on the threshold of a profession which I felt to be entirely contrary to my inclination, I hoped to find understanding” (p. 12). The first letter that Kappus received in response to his solicitations was penned by a 28-year old Rilke, who was himself struggling with forces that tested his faith and resolve. And it is in this fact — that the mentor, too, was facing his own difficult road — that perhaps the most valuable insights into Rilke’s letters can be found.

For Rilke was aware that he was extending advice to a man less than ten years his junior, and he [Rilke] was not immune to the very fears, uncertainties, and obstacles that young Franz Kappus was grappling with. What follows are some of my favorite passages, excerpted in chronological order from several of the book’s nine letters. May you, too, find a gentle reassurance in Rilke’s selfless offerings.

From April 23, 1903

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From July 16, 1903 (perhaps the most-quoted letter) —

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Also from the July 16th letter

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From December 23, 1903

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From August 12, 1904

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A second excerpt from August 12, and another of Rilke’s most quoted prose passages —

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Your path? It’s not what you expect.

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“If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.”

Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), American mythologist and Professor of Literature; author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949)

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Note — These images were obtained from the Joseph Campbell Foundation website.

Habits — with author James Clear

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This afternoon I finished listening to Rich Roll’s interview with entrepreneur and author James Clear, and I was impressed. Actually, I was surprised and impressed. So much so that I am recommending the podcast — which is available in video form on YouTube here — because I believe it will be worth your time if you are trying to either establish good habits or break bad ones.

A regular follower of Rich Roll’s weekly podcast, I listened to a preview of his interview with James Clear last week. It was there that I learned that Clear was being featured as an expert on the topic of habits. Never having heard of the man, I searched the web for details about his education but could find nothing — no evidence of a Ph.D., university affiliation, or history of peer-reviewed scholarly publications. Having read enough books about psychology to know that it is not a field where one can make casual claims, I was suspicious of Clear’s authority on the subject of behavior change. My suspicions deepened when I learned that his new (and only) book is entitled Atomic Habits (2018).

As an English teacher, I can’t imagine any relationship between the words atomic and habits that seems reasonable. After all, atomic most frequently precedes either bombs or energy. And habits seem to have nothing to do with cataclysmic warheads or slamming tiny particles together to produce usable energy. Why didn’t James Clear choose a more authoritative — or at least serious — adjective for his first book? Like strategic or formidable or purpose-driven. Even Life-changing Habits would suggest content that is substantive rather than sensational.

For me, Atomic Habits sounds like a title that a motivational speaker would sell — not an educated investigator who had spent years delving into the science behind motivation, decision making, and cognitive processing. And in order to take Rich Roll’s interview seriously, I was really hoping for the latter. That’s what I thought before I started listening several days ago. Thankfully, I learned that my doubts were largely (though not entirely*) unfounded.

Yes, the title of James Clear’s book still feels like an odd choice. But the man who wrote it seems legitimate even though he has not earned a Ph.D. in psychology. Clear has a passion for understanding the human condition, and he appears to have done his homework. In fact, only several minutes into the interview he references author Charles Duhigg, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Before Duhigg transitioned into long-form non-fiction, he was a respected reporter for the New York Times. In 2012 he wrote The Power of Habit, a brilliant behavioral analysis that features over 60 pages of source notes. As an investigator and a writer, Duhigg is The Real Deal. I highly recommend his book, which I own and have read thoroughly. That’s my stack of hand-written notes next to it.

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Anyway, Rich Roll’s interview with James Clear is very engaging; I learned a number of strategies and perspectives (ways of thinking differently, you might say) that I can immediately implement to encourage the formation of better habits and begin the disassembly of poor ones. For instance, Clear advocates rehearsing the first two minutes of any behavior that you’d like to become a routine. How can two minutes possibly make a meaningful difference? Consider the following example:

Let’s say you’d like to improve your health by taking several 30-minute walks each week. In order to engage in this low-impact exercise, you must first put on the proper socks and shoes, grab your keys, put on your jacket, and walk out the door. Clear asserts that if you move methodically through that two-minute routine several times each week — from opening your sock drawer to locking the front door behind you — that you will ingrain the habit of setting off with intention. Remember: if you won’t step out onto the porch, you can’t take a long walk. Therefore, the most important part of this fledgling habit is arguably its first two minutes.

Obviously, you can’t return to the warm comforts of your family room after this two-minute scenario and expect to see any health gains. So on several of those evenings you continue beyond the two minutes and complete your 30-minute walk. As a consequence of this sustained effort, positive health results will slowly begin manifesting. Meanwhile, the two-minute rehearsals that occur on the evenings that do not extend to the half-hour walk will add value because they perpetuate the habit of getting you out the door. And Clear believes that what prevents most people from establishing positive habits is that they don’t have the discipline to simply begin the process.

Having not read (or even seen firsthand) Clear’s book, I remain cautious in my endorsement of his scholarship. That is why the asterisk* appears in the fourth paragraph. But I am confident in recommending Rich Roll’s interview with this first-time author. Their conversation is very engaging, and I found myself nodding in agreement with many of the insights that Clear offers as well as most of the well-reasoned answers that he provides to Roll’s questions. Consider giving it a listen, or watching it on YouTube.  Links are featured above. And if you choose to read Atomic Habits, please let me know your thoughts!

Note — The image at the beginning of this post was obtained from Rich Roll’s website.

Brene Brown’s “Dare to Lead” is here!

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The latest book by renowned social worker Brené Brown is now available. Dare to Lead, which is the sixth title published by the respected University of Houston researcher and ground-breaking TED speaker, is likely to receive both scholarly and popular praise.

Brené-Brown-approved2-photo-by-Maile-WilsonDr. Brown, who is the author of four #1 New York Times bestsellers, has pioneered a new understanding of the roles of vulnerability and shame in the human condition. Her writing — which draws on decades of research largely conducted via personal interviews — has positively impacted thousands of readers from all walks of life.

Please see Brene Brown’s website for more details about Dare to Lead. It is sure to be an informative and inspiring read, especially for those interested in the culture of leadership that exists at their workplace, church, non-profit, or community organization. Amazon reviews of the book can be found here.

Note — The images featured in this post were obtained from Brené Brown’s website.

TRIBE, by Sebastian Junger

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“What people miss [about combat] presumably isn’t danger or loss but the unity that these things often engender. There are obvious stresses on a person in a group, but there may be even greater stresses on a person in isolation” (p. 92-93).


It’s been over a week since I finished Sebastian Junger’s TRIBE (2016), a slender work of non-fiction by the bestselling author of The Perfect Storm, War, and Fire. Since completing this quick read, I have found myself repeatedly glancing at its matte black cover and feeling drawn uncomfortably to its title — the word TRIBE. For nearly ten days something has bothered me about it. Not until this afternoon, while copying passages from the book onto a yellow legal pad, did I finally determine why the title provokes me. Its typeface features a camouflage pattern. On the surface, this is fitting. But symbolically, the camouflage is indicative of a troubling fact about our society.

For a book that often refers to military service in order to explore the differences between tribal societies and modern Western culture, the use of camouflage is ideal. After all, the external face of the U.S. military – especially the Army and Marines – mixes olive drab, dark brown, chocolate, and greenish-yellow. Thus the camouflage typeface is not only appropriate in its connection to soldiers’ fatigues, but it appeals to shoppers whose passing gaze may fancy the green-brown-yellow pattern that adorns everything from women’s yoga pants to pre-teens’ school backpacks. Camouflage is cool.

But this afternoon I realized why the pattern has been nagging me. I value Junger’s use of military references to help readers understand the distinctions between tribal societies (both historical and contemporary) and modern Western culture. But it dawned on me today that it is the purpose of camouflage that has been provoking my discomfort; camouflage helps its host disappear. Drawing on influences from the natural world, humans have disguised their appearance for well over a hundred years through the use of specially-crafted garb. The goal of such clothing is to blend in to one’s surroundings, to become invisible against the background.

Understandably, on the battlefield and behind enemy lines, soldiers want to achieve invisibility. If you can’t be seen, it’s much less likely that you will be shot or bombed. But when soldiers return from duty and re-enter civilian life, what occurs if they are still camouflaged? Not from face-paint or jungle fatigues, but from the fact that most civilians in modern Western culture are at least partially – and in many cases largely — invisible inside their communities. Junger’s thesis asserts that disconnection has become widespread in the United States and western Europe, and that servicemen and women are not the only ones feeling lost. Rather, the entirety of modern Western culture is showing signs of alienation from community-centered values.

Junger believes that this disconnection, this sense of feeling invisible, is due to several causes: (1) the lack of a crisis around which people must band together in order to survive, (2) the affluence of modern society and the fact that its luxuries are prized when they are amassed instead of shared, and (3) the belief that success has become a solo effort, not one measured by improvements in group health and welfare. He writes: “Whatever the technological advances of modern society – and they’re nearly miraculous – the individualized lifestyles that those technologies spawn seem to be deeply brutalizing to the human spirit” (p. 93). These are heavy words.

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Much of the work’s 136 pages features a fascinating historical analysis of why our human spirit has been eroding over the last several centuries. The first quarter of the book documents stories from the American frontier, a time during which a striking number of European settlers found more appealing living conditions with Native American cultures than they did with the colonies that they were, by nationality, a part of. As a result, both men and women migrated from colonies to tribal encampments. And even when rescue parties were sent out to bring these individuals home, they often resisted; in fact, more than a few hid from their rescuers. For those who left the colonies to join tribal life, the tight bonds of Native American cultures were more reassuring than what they were experiencing in “civilized” settlements on the east coast.

For the remaining chapters, the author turns toward World Wars I and II, conflicts during which the need to band together (as both civilian communities and military units) witnessed dramatic decreases in people’s self-reported depression, anxiety, and stress.  Because the members of those populations joined together for a common cause, they formed connections with strangers. They focused on others instead of themselves because their well-being (if not their survival) could be ensured only if the group remained viable. One of the most powerful examples that the book features is the well-documented phenomena that manifested in London during the Blitz. Despite weeks of brutal aerial bombardments by the German Luftwaffe, the citizens of London experienced a pronounced increase in spirit and emotional intimacy at the very time that their lives were most threatened. Imminent danger catalyzed relationship building.

The author writes: “What catastrophes seem to do – sometimes in the span of a few minutes – is turn back the clock on ten thousand years of social evolution. Self-interest gets subsumed into group interest because there is no survival outside group survival, and that creates a social bond that many people sorely miss” (p. 66). With the exception of natural disasters like floods, hurricanes, and wildfires, most Americans are largely insulated from anything resembling a true catastrophe. Although global warming, poverty, and discrimination are very pressing problems, they do not possess the commanding immediacy of an invasion by a foreign army, the outbreak of a communicable disease, or a power outage that puts half of the nation in the dark. Consequently, we rarely depend on others. This results in a situation where Junger writes: “A person living in a modern city or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day – or an entire life – mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone” (p. 18).

Supporting Junger’s argument are interviews with scholars and social scientists, who attest to the strengths of tribal cultures. These experts also provide sobering commentary about the ways in which modern society is falling far short of upholding the values that more primitive cultures maintain through their reliance on group dynamics. In response to Junger sharing some of his observations with anthropologist Sharon Abramowitz and asking her how suitable they are to disclose to readers, she responds this way: “You’ll have to be prepared to say that we are not a good society – that we are an antihuman society” (p. 93). She continues by saying that, “We are not good to each other. Our tribalism is to an extremely narrow group of people: our children, our spouse, maybe our parents. Our society is alienating, technical, cold, and mystifying. Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that” (p. 94).

My only regret about TRIBES is that it is not twice as long. In my estimation, Junger has just scratched the surface on this provocative subject. Whether you are interested in Colonial American history, the impact of PTSD on servicemen and women, the dynamics of fraud and greed in the financial sector, or the health of your suburban neighborhood, I recommend investing a few hours in Sebastian Junger’s book. It is a quick read, but its content will stick with you. And after considering the author’s observations, you may understand why camouflage is both a blessing and a curse. Invisibility is beneficial on the battlefield, but it harms everyone — soldiers and civilians alike — back home.


Interested in learning more?  

  • Sebastian Junger’s TED talks are worth your time. Here is a link to his most recent one, a presentation recorded in May 2016 entitled Our lonely society makes it hard to come home from war.
  • Sebastian Junger’s film Restrepo, which won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentaries at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, is riveting.

Note — The images contained in this post were obtained from Sebastian Junger’s website and Unsplash.com.