Category Archives: Trends

What We're Reading.

Here’s what’s under our reading lamps in 2021.

Allison Artnak

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

Conversations about biases, racism and how they infect nearly every aspect of life.

Presence by Amy Cuddy

How to bring your boldest, most authentic self to challenging situations.

Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs

A memoir about growing up as the daughter of Steve Jobs.

Norine Cannon

A Promised Land by Barack Obama

He’s a great storyteller and his reflections on his presidency and his life confirm what I’ve always thought—he’s a good man.

Is This Anything? by Jerry Seinfeld

A compilation of his favorite material over his long career. I also admire his dedication to his craft, choosing to return to stand up vs. retiring on a beach (on his own island, probably).

Mary Cohen

The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity by Norman Doidge

Such a hopeful book. It’s only recently that neuroscientists have confirmed the plasticity of the brain. Reminiscent of the late Oliver Sacks, Doidge presents the latest research and case studies to bolster research findings. As he says, “the true marvel is … the way … the brain has evolved, with sophisticated and neuroplastic abilities and a mind that can direct its own unique restorative process of growth.

The Sediments of Time: My Lifelong Search for the Past by Meave Leakey

Yes. Meave is part of “that” Leakey family. The daughter-in-law of Louis and Mary Leakey and part of three generations of paleoanthropological royalty, she tells her story along with her youngest daughter, Samira. Her discoveries have changed how we think about our origins. Instead of straight-line, ape-to-human progression, her work suggests human species living simultaneously.

What It’s Like to be a Bird: From Flying to Nesting, Eating to Singing —What Birds Are Doing, and Why by David Allen Sibley

During the early days of the pandemic, so many commentators marveled at their ability to hear the birds singing. It was finally quiet enough to hear birdsong. Birdsong. Is there anything more beautiful or hopeful? This encyclopedia of bird behavior contains a whopping 330 illustrations, many of them life size. Browsing through this volume, it is exciting to learn as much as possible about the creatures that we share this planet with—creatures we can finally hear. 

Rick Cole

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor

Modern man has forgotten how to breath properly, says James Nestor. I had no idea that breathing with the proper tempo, depth and even orifice has a such powerful impact on health, emotional wellbeing and even disease vectors. Who knew breathing would be such a big deal in 2020?

Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America by Chris Arnade

No matter how many Lululemons and Whole Foods are in your neighborhood, you are only a short drive away from a much harsher America. A successful Wall Street banker, Arnade took long walks to clear his mind. On one walk he stumbled into a surprising community⏤poor, drug addicted, hopeless, dispossessed and forgotten New Yorkers living where Manhattan meets the Bronx. Over time he befriended and then photographed the residents of Hunts Point in a remarkably respectful manner. After discovering “back row America” is everywhere, Arnade left his job on Wall Street to introduce them to us. This book touched me deeply.   

Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief by Jordan B. Petersen

Imagine Moses, Fredrich Nietzsche, Charles Darwin, Joseph Campbell, Malcolm Gladwell and Dr. Laura coming together to help us understand how our universe, biology, psychology, history and more create a framework for the ways we see and believe “reality.” Fascinating!

Amy Crowell

Empathy: Why It Matters, And How to Get It by Roman Krznaric

This book inspired the A Mile in My Shoes traveling museum, a collection of curated  personal stories in the form of short podcasts where the listener also walks around in the author’s shoes. 

Standoff: Race, Policing and a Deadly Assault that Gripped a Nation by Jamie Thompson 

Jamie was my college roommate. Its timeliness is apparent. Included on a short list of books recommended to read about this issue. Plus, I always love giving her a plug.

Also, The Fortunate Ones by Ed Tarkington (see below). The latest by another contemporary of mine at Furman University. I enjoyed his first novel, Only Love Can Break Your Heart

Homeland Elegies: A Novel by Ayad Akhtar

Death in Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight against the Drug Companies that Delivered the Opioid Epidemic by Eric Eyre.

Eric Eyre and Ayad Akhtar were on a list of 2020 books recommended by the New York Times Book Review and given to me at Christmas. Hope to make it through before next Christmas.

Michael Garcia

The Fortunate Ones by Ed Tarkington

This is the second novel from an old college buddy who everyone knew would always write amazing novels. As predicted, it’s really good.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Inspiring and disturbing, this alt-history page-turner will keep you thinking.

The Expats by Chris Pavone

When you just want to read something fun.

Glen Gonzalez

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Because I’m craving a classic.

How to Read the Constitution and Why by Kim Wehle

Because it feels necessary.

A Village Life by Louise Gluck

Because this is a score for American poets. She was the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 27 years.

Pity the Reader by Kurt Vonnegut and Suzanne McConnell 

Because Vonnegut has a distinct and quirky literary voice and I’m curious to hear his perspective on the craft.

Don Sanford

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

His second novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. It is a fascinating glimpse into a dark time in American history seen through the eyes of a young black man in a segregated reform school in the South just one generation removed.

The Stand by Stephen King

I have always been a fan of King and, so far, I think this might be his finest work. Also, while the book was written decades ago, it is so relevant to what we are seeing in the world as the subject of the novel is a global pandemic. Wonderful character development and a real pager tuner. I can’t put it down.

Julia Wolf

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell.

The book is about how choices made without thinking aren’t actually as simple as they may seem. 

America Was Hard to Find: A Novel by Kathleen Alcott. 

The story, beginning in the late fifties, of a brief love affair and the child who resulted.   

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee. 

The book traces the known history of our “most feared ailment” from its earliest appearances over five thousand years ago to the present, and the war that is still being waged.

Trey Wood

A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the 20th Century by William F. Buckley, Jr.

Among Buckley’s many talents was an ability to see promise in most people regardless of their politics. This collection of that most challenging of the written arts – the eulogy – demonstrates both Buckley’s talent and his gift for seeing the best in people. Here, he shares final thoughts concerning 52 souls, including figures some readers might be surprised to see this famous political conservative comment upon in such fashion, such as John Lennon, Jerry Garcia and John Kenneth Galbraith. 

Let’s Connect

If you’ve read one of these or have a great suggestion of your own, we’d love to hear from you. 

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Living at Work

The new working from home.

Missing the old normal

Home is where the heart is. These days it’s also where the job, the school, the gym and everything else is. COVID-19 and our emergency response forced many of us to “work from home” whether we wanted to or not. Unfortunately, “fifteen days to flatten the curve” has transmuted into seemingly endless shutdowns, school closures and social distancing from everyone except our kids.  

We wake, work, eat, play and sleep in an overly familiar environment, with overly familiar people. How many of us will never complain about a 45-minute commute again? All alone for 45 blessed minutes, cosseted in a personally adjusted, lumbar supported faux leather chair with climate control, listening to your favorite podcast or playlist. Did I mention all alone? Both ways? 

The good old days.

In our minds today, our offices, places we often dreaded, feel like a sanctuary spa. Ergonomically situated workstations, bubbly spring water machines, lunch breaks with menus, the gentle hum of adult (ones we aren’t married to) conversation—Nirvana. 

All of that goodness—commuting, cubicles and chit-chat—is gone and we don’t know when, or if, it’s ever coming back. Working from home has become living at work. 

The Farmer’s Life 

People in agricultural America, before the car, seldom travelled more than eight miles from home in their entire lifetimes. Sound familiar?

We’re all farmers now. Up with the sun to milk cows, do chores, sow crops, move livestock and mend fences. All day, then down with the sun we fall in a heap. Tomorrow, it starts all over again. Do farmers even have Fridays? They definitely don’t have TGIF.

Farmers are renowned for their amazing work ethic. It’s not that they want to be heroes. It’s because their work never stops and neither do they. But their work isn’t really like our work. It’s integrated into their lives in ways ours is not, and cannot be. They can live at work and work can be their lives, because it doesn’t place demands on them that they can’t control. 

Our work comes at us from many directions and countless agendas. Each day we get emails and calls from coworkers and clients presenting new and pressing problems. A farmer doesn’t get emails from the cornfield telling her to drop everything and come running. The farmer knows the corn’s timetable well in advance and integrates it into her workflow. 

Corn answers to her.

Sure, some of the animals can create a little chaos. But that’s why farmers build fences around pastures and sheep pens. Chaos is our work world. Hair-on-fire, Friday afternoon client calls don’t usually happen inside a sheep pen. Unfortunately, we can’t fence in our clients. The way we work is pressurized and demanding. It’s been designed for us to give a total commitment for a limited duration of time. We call it a grind, a rat race, a salt mine. We never call it a dairy farm or a field of kale.  

But now we are living at work. We have brought a rat race into our family room. We might need to make some adjustments. Like farmers, we probably need to build some fences to keep the good in and the bad out.

When Work Never Stops

Did you know that people tend to work more when they live at work (oops, I meant work from home)? It turns out, quite a bit more.  

We work more because there is often no natural stopping point. There simply is no end to work. It’s like the cows that need milking every day. On the day you retire, or fall dead on a Zoom call, you are gently slid away from your desk, a few kind words are solemnly spoken, and then your role and responsibilities are shifted to someone else. The work must go on.

Likewise, when you are at home, there is no natural end to the workday. To me this is the key understanding necessary to healthily and successfully working in this space. Seeing coworkers head for the door is no longer the signal that we’ve reached the end of the workday. I must create my own signals for starting, doing and ending work. I have to recreate boundaries that the workplace used to provide.

Attention, Time, Space and Thought

I need to build fences around what I pay attention to and when. There is a time to talk to my children and a time to take a call. I have to work to make certain neither one tramples on the other.   

I need fences around my time. Work engagement demands a good deal of my time. But so does my family. And so does my personal mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health. These time demands need accounting, budgeting and management from me.  

One of the best ways to create healthy work boundaries is to create a separate workspace within your home. This has been a real challenge for many people because they were sent home without prior planning. Adding children to the space has only made it more difficult. Smith has had a remote workforce since our founding (check out the article below).

Maybe the most important fence is one for our minds. It’s the reason I wrote this article. We need to think about the “live at work” situation we find ourselves in. We need to own it and be intentional about making it work for our families and our jobs. This probably won’t happen naturally. 

We’ll have to find ways to push back against endless work, setting boundaries for when we think about work and when we don’t. Just as important, we’ll need to create mental space to give our work the undivided attention it needs. 

Living at work is not the best alternative for most people. But working from home can be very freeing, rewarding and productive. My wife and I both enjoy working from home. My hope is that this temporary situation will help us sort out long-term work arrangements for ourselves, and our organizations. That we’ll end up with a more flexible and accommodating work environment for everyone when this is over. 

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What We're Reading

New Year 2020

Do You Suffer from Tsundoku?

Maybe you’re like me and you have a penchant for acquiring books faster than you can read them. One of our creative directors Scott Walters also suffers from this affliction, which he recently diagnosed as “tsundoku.” 

Tsundoku is a centuries-old Japanese portmanteau word that literally means “to pile up” (“tsumu”) “reading” (“doku”). Who knew?

With the dawn of a new year and a new decade, this seems like a good time to dust off those forgotten tomes and pull together a new reading list. To help spur things along, I’ve shared the titles I’m digging into and I’ve asked my colleagues here at Smith to do the same. 

Check out our list for a wide-ranging set of recommendations. If you want to chat about one of these titles, or if you have a great read you’d recommend, please let us know!

Glen Gonzalez

Poetics by Aristotle

Story by Robert McKee

Leading Change by John Kotter

Hidden Persuasion: 33 Psychological Influences Techniques in Advertising by Marc Andrews

Trey Wood

Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall

The Essential Elias Hicks by Paul Buckley

Last Stories by William Trevor

Rick Cole

Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear

Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch

Eloquent Images: Word and Image in the Age of New Media by Mary E. Hocks and Michelle R. Kendrick

Sara Levinson

The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America’s Greatest Female Spy by Judith L Pearson

White Mouse: The Autobiography of Australia’s Wartime Legend by Nancy Wake

A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII by Sarah Helm

Scott Walters

The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America by Marc Levinson

The Strategic Designer: Tools and Techniques for Managing the Design Process by David Holston

Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith

Trillions: Thriving in the Emerging Information Ecology by Peter Lucas, Joe Ballay, and Mickey McManus

Julia Wolf

Alchemy: The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business and Life by Rory Sutherland

Allison Artnak

Uncommon Type, Some Stories by Tom Hanks

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Gretchen Vaught

Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow 

The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy by William Julius Wilson

Things Fall Apart, Book 1 by Chinua Achebe

Michael Garcia

Seinfeldia by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

The Perfect Horse by Elizabeth Letts

Alone on the Wall  by Alex Honnold

Don Sanford

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro 

Mary Cohen

A Season on the Wind: Inside the World of Spring Migration by Kenn Kaufman

Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler; Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art by Mary Gabriel

Mind Fixers: Psychiatrys Troubled Search for the Biology of Mental Illness by Anne Harrington

The Hidden History of Burma by Thant Myint-U

Amy Crowell

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Copperhead by Alexi Zentner

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell

Catherine Sturges

The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults by Frances E. Jensen, Amy Ellis Nutt, et al.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens 

Horror Stories: A Memoir by Liz Phair

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Memes

Chicken soup for your silly bone.

Did Einstein really say that?  

A bit of “wisdom” is juxtaposed with a dead genius. A troubled Keanu Reeves sits on a bench with Forrest Gump. Outrage and irreverence repurpose a famous political poster. We’ve all seen graphic posts like these in our social media feeds and email. They’re called Internet memes.

Laurie Gries likens the spread and distortion of
Shepard Fairey’s iconic Hope poster to a “media virus”
replicating across the Internet.

Cultural Transmission

The word “meme” was coined by evolutionist Richard Dawkins in 1976. He combined the greek word mimeme (meaning to imitate/imitated thing) with the word gene as a means to extend Darwinian concepts to ideology and cultural evolution.

Dawkins’ theory was a bit of an overreach. He and other memetic scholars failed to convincingly link cultural artifacts to changes in culture in the same way scientists can link a specific gene with a physical trait. Culture is just too complex. Upon deeper inspection, it proved impossible to determine “who is the boss?” in regards to the potency of a meme versus human agency (Shifman p. 12). As a result, a memetic approach to cultural studies withered on the vine.

Yet, the idea of a meme being a discrete packet of cultural information that is transmitted visually is useful. We can see this work itself out over thousands of years of world culture in areas like religion, architecture and (more recently) mass media.

Memes everywhere you look

The Madonna and the Buddha found in
religious art, crafts and even tchotchkes.
Endurance, continuity and strength;
the memes of Western institutional architecture.

Uncle Sam, a personification of the U.S.,
is a recurring meme
in mass-media propaganda and
our greater national identity.

Devolution 

Devo-lution of memetic theory.

If Dawkins’ memes tried to trace cultural evolution, Internet memes represent cultural devolution. Forget high-browed, survival-of-the-fittest theories of cultural competition. Today’s memes are more likely to be nonsensical, disposable and misleading. They’re emblematic of our open-source, user-generated, socially-constructed digital environments.

Bottom up

One of the key challenges for memetic thinkers was linking original artifacts to historical developments. They just didn’t have a good “fossil record” of original memes. Kilroy was the exception.

The “Kilroy was here” graffiti left behind by U.S. soldiers was a traceable example of a viral meme from its emergence.

Kilroy is in this video.

Though Kilroy’s run as a cultural phenomena seems to be over, the meme is still an excellent example of bottom-up dissemination. It was the soldiers (not the leaders) who loved and spread Kilroy organically.

“Kilroy Was Here [is] an example of a pre-internet meme with the kind of cultural replication that happens on the internet.”

Because Internet (240)

If the Internet, especially social media, seems chaotic and ridiculous it’s because it is. There is no controlling authority. No gatekeepers. No grammar books. The connections, ideas and content populating social media feeds (including memes) are products of the great connected masses doing whatever strikes our fancy. It’s a beautiful thing to behold.

Understanding Internet Memes

Today’s memes often defy explanation, but that doesn’t stop us from trying.

Making sense of crowd noise.

Focusing on what we do rather than searching for intent, Lemor Shifman looks at how memes are produced and identifies “Two main repackaging mechanism of memes on the web: mimicry and remix” (Memes in Digital Culture, p. 30). Google any famous meme and you’ll see this process at work — the same photos are repurposed over and over until the original meaning is often lost. This straightforward analysis links meme generation to other forms of communication. How we write, for example.

Meme-generators like IMG-Flip and LiveMeme present users with pre-loaded, popular images and the ability to add their own original copy. This process simplifies, automates and drives “mimicry and remix.” To understand memes, look at how the technology guides the output as a great starting point.

Unfortunately, some scholarly writers stretch credulity a bit as they attempt to apply their respective fields to “meme studies.” (lol) When Cognitive Linguisticians Zinner and Geeraerts’ attempt to decipher the constructive act of choosing a photograph and writing meme copy, they get stuck on trying to understand how humor works. The real humor is in their analysis:

“Anti-joke chicken.”

“As [anti-joke chicken] reveals, some of these image macros only truly make sense –- or at least receive an additional layer of interpretation –-when the recipient is aware of the name of the meme – or perhaps more accurately, the overall meaning of the meme that is captured by the name. ‘Sudden Clarity Clarence’, for instance, expresses the fact that any instance of the meme in question needs to be read in terms of an unexpected (though not necessarily deep or crucial) insight. In the theoretical framework of Construction Grammar, this links up with the non-compositionality of constructions: their conventional meaning is more than the simple sum of their parts.” 

Zinner and Geeraerts, p 177

Aneeq Ejaz asks if memes are new form of literature, seeing them as a means of “transcultural expression [in a] hyperconnected world.” Maybe, but Ejaz’ critical interrogation of memes that “project emotions onto animals, like the famous Grumpy Cat,” feels a bit forced.

I wonder what code-shifting strategies Hipster Kitty is using to regain her lost feline/feminine agency?

She’s so snatched.

Even amateurs want in on the action on sites like Know Your Meme. Know Your Meme is a crowd-sourced collaboration “that researches and documents Internet memes and viral phenomena.” Sounds a little too X-files to me.

The truth is out there.

Silly, Clever, Unpredictable

To me, the joy of memes is that they bubble up from the vox populi. Who cares if they make little sense? Or if they don’t have any lasting value? Or if they can be at times ignorant, crude or patently false? Memes are made by we the people, who often make little sense.

Internet memes are glorious because they are free expression and because (like Kilroy) they rise spontaneously from the crowd, unlike the dogma produced by thought leaders and gatekeepers.

The best way to “get” memes is to make memes. I’d love to see you use the meme generators above to make and post an original meme on the comment section of Smith’s LinkedIn page .

Next in this series, we’ll look at Emoji.

Sources:

Ejaz, A. Are Internet Memes a New Form of Literature?” Quillette. November 28, 2016: https://quillette.com/2016/11/28/are-internet-memes-a-new-form-of-literature/

Gries, L. (2015). Still life with rhetoric: A new materialist approach for visual rhetoric. Logan: Utah State University Press.

McCulloch, G. (2019). Because Internet; Understanding the New Rules of Language. New York: Riverhead Books

Shifman, L. (2013). Memes in Digital Culture. Boston, MA: MIT Press.

Shifman L (2014). The cultural logic of photo-based genres. Journal of Visual Culture 13(3): 340–358.

Zinner E. and D.Geeraerts (2018). One does not simply process memes: Image macros as multimodal constructions. De Gruyter 167-193.

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