“Let’s Make it Count” Journal

IMG_3593

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):

IMG_3597

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.

IMG_4170

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

IMG_3596

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.

nancy-gibbs-time

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.

blackbordercover

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

Succeed by defying conventions

wn16_wnycstudios_freakonomics-rev3

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.

Trader Joe's Opens Its First Store In New York City

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.

screen-shot-2018-12-02-at-10-15-36-am.png

– 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.”

SheenaTED

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

FredRogers

“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)

world-book

forbes-logo-black-transparent

“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.

“Always On” Work Culture

IMG_3475

On Friday, October 5, 2018 the Wall Street Journal published an online article entitled “How to Disconnect from ‘Always On’ Work Culture.” The following day the same piece appeared in the WSJ’s weekend print edition (Saturday/Sunday, October 6-7, 2018) with the title “Far From The Madding Co-Workers.” Its author, Matthew Kitchen, is the newspaper’s “Off-Duty Gear & Gadgets” editor.

Judging by the writer’s curious job title, I should have lowered my hopes for the article that graced section D’s front page beneath a captivating illustration by artist Steve Scott. Unfortunately, I didn’t. I dove into the first column like a social scientist expecting the latest research results from universities in Helsinki, Tokyo, or London mixed with insightful analysis about the status of blue-collar and white-collar workers. Unfortunately, though the article features some telling social commentary, that content feels overshadowed by the tech recommendations that Kitchen shares to better handle the onslaught of electronic requests from bosses and colleagues. Bummer.

In my eyes, a promising opportunity to explore a problematic element of  Western work-life — our inability to detach from the office — was not fully realized. Rather, the topic’s critical mass was mostly skirted in favor of a half-dozen suggestions for apps (the ubiquotous moniker which causes techies and non-techies alike to squeal with delight) that could be used to slow the rush of work-related e-mail and texts. Given Kitchen’s “Gear & Gadgets” job title, however, I understand that his approach to this article is entirely reasonable. He is, after all, the WSJ’s tech guy. But I can’t help but ask this question: When are we going to get serious about the fact that the intrusions of our “always on” career focus are created because the cultural mindset around work — and not so much the technology that the office embraces — is the issue that needs unpacking?

Sadly, the idea of getting serious is thrown half-way out the proverbial window when Kitchen opens his piece with this sentence: “I have a masochistic need to please bosses, so I’m never more than a few feet from my iPhone (notifications humming at all hours) and I never leave home without a MacBook in tow” (page D1). In terms of setting the tone, this sentence suggests that what is to follow is not going to be an evenly-balanced assessment of how the desire for career stability (and/or advancement) is complicating the need for work-life balance, familial intimacy, and long-term personal sanity. Rather, the author seems to be letting readers know that he isn’t going to tread very far from his charging cords and touch screens.

Kitchen tosses another wrench in the works when he remarks in the second paragraph that he is a millennial. While I understand his desire to be forthcoming about his age bracket (and thereby imply that he possesses an inherent affinity for digital technology) I find it troubling that he does not follow this statement with a caveat. And that caveat would be that even though millennials have been accused of being self-centered, entitled, and virtually addicted to technology because of their status as “digital natives,” they have also been shown to be remarkably astute social and cultural critics. Respected men and women from the Greatest Generation have given millennials their due credit, praising their cultural consciousness, awareness of civil rights conflicts around the globe, and desire to confront injustice in nearly all areas of commerce and social welfare.

Isn’t the infiltration of work-related communication into time that should be dedicated to child-rearing or bonding with one’s spouse a form of injustice? The middle of Kitchen’s article seems to indicate that it is, as he cites research from several studies and entertains thoughts of altering his own “masochistic need” to hover over his devices at all hours. But in the article’s conclusion he provides — in a non-humorous attempt at being humorous — that he is about to share “the ultimate key to work-life balance” except  “actually wait. Can you hold on a second? I gotta take this” (page D11). I find this conclusion to not only be a largely failed attempt a cleverness, but a sad comment about the importance of critically examining how educated adults are voluntarily letting work-related requests (and/or demands) run rampant over time that should be spent with friends and family — or even with just oneself.

This criticism aside, the article features some valuable research results as well as warnings about the negative impacts of our Pavlovian response to smartphone alerts. Consider these findings, which I am producing verbatim:

  • “According to a 2016 study by the Academy of Management, employees tally an average of 8 hours a week answering work-related emails after leaving the office.”
  • “[A] Harris Poll for the American Psychological Association found that 30% of men and 23% of women regularly bring work home.”

Offsetting these depressing (yet certainly not surprising) research results are the following developments that foster hope that we can curtail the invasion of work into our personal lives:

  • “In 2017, France instituted a new labor law that supports a new frontier in human rights, the ‘Right to Disconnect.'”
  • “Similar rights have been extended in Italy and the Philippines, are being explored in Germany and Luxembourg and were proposed in New York City.” (Note — Given NYC’s failed attempt at limiting the sizes of soft-drink containers in 2013-2014, I have doubts as to whether this new and certainly worthy initiative will find traction.)

I will not hide my disappointment with the fact that my hopes were unrealized, but I do credit Kitchen for acknowledging the subject. The Wall Street Journal should also be recognized for deeming this article relevant enough to place it on section D’s first page. Granted, section A would have been ideal. But I admit that it is very difficult to criticize digital technologies in 2018 — a time when they add tremendous value to our lives — without fear of being labeled a luddite. I simply wish a greater discourse was occurring around when, where, and how we employ these technologies. When left unchecked, use can turn quickly to abuse. We owe it to ourselves — and to our relationships with family, friends, and fellow community members — to talk (and write) more candidly about always on work culture.