Saturday, March 31, 2007

The things you can't live without: Poll results just in

At the back of the fridge this week we found some things that typically go from unappreciated to valued the instant they fail. We picked out salad dressing, paper towels and a bank check, all of whose perforations had not properly passed a QC inspection before leaving the factory.

The experience raised a similar question. There are things we may not actively think about - whose presence are seamlessly a part of our everyday life - yet whose absence would take away from our daily happiness.

The Onion goes one step further, and in asking the question "What five things could you not live without" finds a simple but effective way of getting to the heart of what matters to people, what makes them tick. The context here is the Personals section, so getting a quick but effective read on a person's priorities is key. The very varied way in which the question can be interpreted, literally and metaphorically, says volumes about the author, therein lies its value.

OFD commissioned some research reviewing the '5 things' postings among female participants (a follow up study will be among only men's postings and we'll compare the two) The sample was random but not nationally representative and gives an interesting picture of how people interpret the proposition and what the domains are of greatest perceived personal meaning in women's lives.

Six broad categories emerged, in descending order of frequency from this research:


...a claw-foot tub


...good friends

*Emotions and human characteristics


*Existence basics

...drinking water

*Experiences & sensations

...the feeling of skin on skin

*Places lie naked in the sun


In part two, we'll post the specific items in each category, itself a fascinating picture of artifacts and elements peole ascribe strong and highly personal value to.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Being comfortable with the uncomfortable

Many people experience discomfort when they encounter something that challenges an existing held belief or understanding about their world. It is often not something people are conscious of, and while the reaction may occur in the form of a feeling, most often it does not: it is merely an immediate visceral rejection to the stimulus which emerges as a sense that it is simply wrong.

Comfort represents a condition or state in which a belief has solidified and become firmly entrenched. The stimulus is challenging precisely because it threatens this established order, it is literally stirring up that which has settled in the mind.

We are not talking about stimuli that are blatantly offensive, such an an image of one person violently kicking another; discomfort and rejection at a subconscious level can be precipitated by something relatively innocuous.

A case in point: OFD was invited to talk with some folks in the advertising industry recently about the luxury car brand they were representing. The task at hand was to understand how to sell more of these expensive vehicles in what is a heavily contested market. OFD raised the need to understand the intersection of the core idea of luxury with current cultural trends. The former is what people have a fundamental relationship with, but due to the modulating, moderating effect of the latter, it needs to be re-contextualized to attain contemporary relevance.

In this regard the group was asked to consider how the quality of power could be play out in the current luxury climate. There was immediate resistance. The associations which they had with this term - dominance, an aggressive attitude or display, abuse - were firmly entrenched and got in the way of openly engaging with the idea. There was much discussion, but the echoes of the deeply held beliefs about power kept coming out. The idea that the character of power could be different, something intimate, privately experienced and enjoyed rather than being aggressively and publicly displayed created real discomfort, real friction.

As a society we have stopped appreciating the value in feeling uncomfortable and forgotten how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. These are unpredictable and uncertain times, which only heightens people's tendencies to want to cling to the familiar. This is above and beyond the cultural forces that work beneath the surface of our daily consciousness which push us towards inertia and stability rather than flux and change.

In the pursuit of progress, the idea itself is not enough. The context in which the idea is exposed, the 'mental environment' in which people encounter it has a critical impact on the ability to fully understand the idea itself as well as the ability to fully engage with it.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A force that divides and unites

ipod, the internet, blackberries. Technology is often maligned for its capacity to isolate because it separates people to retreat into their own world. This is surely only a generational perspective. Anyone younger than a Boomer who grew up from an early age with computers certainly won't feel this way. Xers and younger have a different relationship with technology and reality. They use technology as a tool in which they remain the master not the slave.

Case in point. Second Life. Here's an except of an interview with CEO of Linden Labs - the company behind Second Life, by David Pogue, from his recent article A Experiment in Virtual Living:

DP: "Is there any worry about the whole isolation thing? First iPod earbuds, and now people substituting virtual interactions for real ones?"

PR: "Well I'll tell ya, the history of technology has, in the past 50 years, been to increasingly isolate us. We've gone from watching movies in a movie theater, to watching them as a family at home, to watching them alone on our iPod.

But actually I think there's a next wave of technology, of which Second Life is certainly a great example, where we are bringing people back together again into the same place to have these experiences.

The thing about Second Life that is so fascinating and different is not just that it's 3-D. There are always people to share that experience with, or to ask for help. Or to laugh at something with. And that experience is an innately human one that technology has deprived us of. I think many people use Second Life to have more friends, and more human contact, than they do in the real world"

It is fascinating to hear that people who are regular Second Lifers spend 4 hours a day in this virtual world. Sounds like an excellent time for a social experiment: how about a longitudinal study in which groups of Second Lifers are tracked and segmented across how much time they spend in the real vs. virtual world. A wonderful opportunity to understand how on-line time affects off-line behavior and the inter-play between the two.

This is an exciting age, one that's fluid, evolving into ever-changing possibilities and will be marked as a time by its character of seemingly contradictory opposites, such as fragmentation and convergence.

The whole is dependent on the sum of the holes

Years have gone by without incidence. But as random distribution would have it* there are three occasions when perforations left their mark on a single day.

First it was a check which was rendered void because the account and routing number were separated when the check didn't separate from the receipt as planned.

Second, on leaving a restroom a towel dispenser would not release its contents

Last, a pouch of Paul Newman's Thousand Islands resisted opening because the perforation didn't live up to its purpose. It remains to be seen whether the result of the ensuing struggle will come out of the suit it subsequently dressed.

It's created new-found appreciation for this oft-overlooked design element when it functions well.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Coming soon to a living room near you

The latest illustration of how digital media is changing the face of the entertainment industry

On-line Yesterday, On Cable Today
(New York Times 3/25/07) chronicles just how quickly people created content is going from obscurity to the mainstream. As the article's title intones, Human Giant made the leap in very rapid fashion indeed, a time span unthinkable 5 or 10 years ago. Skit-orienting programming also seems to naturally lend itself to shorter, looser and more varied material from comedy and improv troupes that are an emerging breed of talent in the new entertainment economy.

What’s not surprising is how quickly and well entertainment companies – like Fuse, MTV and NBC – are evolving to chaperone this talent. They realize that content is king: whoever has that funniest, or at least most compelling whatever the genre – wins. They clearly see the choice in front of them and they aren’t about to take the road to extinction. The challenge is in spotting the next great blockbuster from the also ran. In the movie industry (and the music industry come to think of it) it’s often been the independents that have had more success in spotting and nurturing low budget big ideas than the Hollywood machine.

Beyond content alone there are exciting milestones ahead in entertainment culture too. I can see a day in the not too distance future in which some kind of new hit series, a participation-based format perhaps, takes place ENTIRELY on PDAs/cell phones and not on TV. (Perhaps one in which the general public provide input not to vote on elimination of characters but on outcomes for a scenario and the most popular suggestion is used to adapt the course of action the cast/participants must take in real time) Would it not be a defining moment in the evolution of mass entertainment to have a population transfixed not through a shared screen – as when people huddled around televisions in shop windows to witness the first steps of man walking on the moon – but instead connected through the intimate medium of their own, personal PDA or cell phone screen? One which allows each mobile viewer the opportunity to cast a vote and shape the outcome? Given the heightened anticipation of its $500 iPhone, it’s just the kind of ‘first’ that Apple could pull off.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Siberia cloaked in a Minneapolis veil

It is a time of dreams and fantasy. Unlike any other, it is the chair of the hair stylist that invites the occupant to be the star, a willing voyeur on the journey of self-transformation unfolding in the mirror ahead. But this OFDer happened to turn the tables on the usual convention to be the recipient of a endless string of question and decided to be the inquisitor instead.

She'd noticed the stylist had a Russian accent and was curious why she had come to Minneapolis. Her stylist heralded from Siberia, a word which - we now have on reliable authority - is correct in evoking images of freezing temperatures, unfathomable amounts of snow and an expansive artic tundra: 40% is in the northern circle. The idea of coming to Minneapolis had brought the anticipation of warmer, more temperate conditions. A cruel mistake indeed. The southern Minnesota town reminds this immigrant all to often and all to much of a harsh life back east.

While criticized by some people for taking the romance of discovery out of the world, the internet affords everyone the opportunity to get a peek at a place half way around the world where they're considering setting down roots. And avoid a long, long journey that turns out to be too close to home.

Minneapolis? Siberia? You choose.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

When a garage becomes the hole in a wall

They appear suddenly, emerging from a side-street that had been concealing them from view; customers of a wonderful hole in the wall that sports nothing outside to identify itself, like a garish hog on a motorcycle (see below). They hold cups similarly inconspicuous, which are completely plain white bearing neither logo nor name of the place from which they came.

On the side street are a throng of people waiting in line to make their purchase. Inside a make-shift space exposed by a raised garage door is Blue Bottle, what can only be described as a craft brewing coffee shop. The aroma alone is enough to draw even the vaguely curious towards the shop front.

The usual range of espresso drinks are available, but all this OFD staffer tried was the drip coffee, made in small-batches, about 2 cups at a time. It was heavenly. Robust and well balanced in flavor yet incredibly smooth. It is not cheap and entirely worth it. This coffee is among the best of its kind ever tasted by this coffee nut, which is some accolade, but entirely earned.

No tables or chairs to sit at, consumers are standing around and across the street, taking time and enjoying their drinks. This is definitely a gem of a place known to only a relatively few. No advertising or branding helps to raise the visibility of Blue Bottle. Word is passed on by those with an appreciation for what's in the cup not on it, and who don't need plush couches cds and coffee pots to buy.

A delight to be let into the secret. One of those places you feel you only find if you're supposed to. Here's to their success. 315 Linden between Gough and Octavia in Hayes Valley, SF

Thursday, March 22, 2007

It's a hole in the wall. Really

Several years ago, OFD staff gathered for the ritual monday morning chat about what everyone had been up to over the weekend. Eating always features prominently in such discussions, and there were always stories of trips to new restaurants, and restaurants tried for the first time. From time to time a gem would be discovered which produced the most fabulous food at oustandingly reasonable prices. It would be often be referred to as a 'hole in the wall', because the oustide appearance would be unassuming and non-descript, the kind of place easily walked by unless one was specifically seeking to find it. Part of the allure in finding such a place was the sense of irony from a memorable experience (either in taste, value or both) contained and concealed by such an unmemorable exterior.

It was often joked that the perfect name for a restaurant would be Hole in the Wall, because people would be referring to it by name, as well as capturing the essence of the experience.

So it was with much delight that an eagle-eyes OFD staffer pounding the pavement in San Francisco came upon a place with this name. Yet to venture inside, we can't confirm whether the place lives up to its idiomatic promise. If the exterior is anything to go by however, it's not quite hitting the mark.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Anthropomorphology and inanimate objects

Money moves but is does not breathe. It does not have emotions and certainly not motivations. So an ad in the bus this morning seemed a strange proposition indeed. "There's money looking for you". It suggests all three human qualities, or at least animal characteristics.

OFD has commented recently that anthropomorphizing is a viable tactic in certain situations, such as connecting people emotionally to the care of pigeons for whom their motivation to help expresses itself in the form of feeding behavior. But we draw the line at inanimate objects. Let's keep anthropomorphizing for living things lest its over use weakens its potency and relevance.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

See while you still have the eyes

What is it about changing the environment that stirs the senses to life, that disturbs their slumber and awakens a sharper, keener appreciation of our surroundings?

Particularly in a city there is stimulation at every turn to reward the senses, which mostly go unnoticed by the regulars who pass by the same sights and hear that same sounds each day but who are oblivious to them. Familiarity breeds blindness, not contempt.

OFD suspects the same is true of relationships too. The early stage so blossoming in promise and possibility brings with it a heightened awareness of details on multiple levels:

...the words that are spoken

...the intonation with which they're delivered

...the way the head is held while listening with rapt attention

...and tips backwards when laughing

...the nervous fidgeting standing in the elevator

...the trance like state that pouring rain evokes

...the excitement at the prospect of the morning's first cup of coffee

...the irrepressible eagerness to share an idea that comes out as interruption

How soon these give way to numbing familiarity: the riches of human nature and individual character that disappears from view, not because they are gone but because they are no longer looked for.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Darwinism 2.0

To introduce an improvement to an original idea the software industry started the practice of using versions differentiated with numbers, as in Lotus 4.0 or Apple OS 9.0. In the organic way language evolves with culture to assume new meaning (as with the term "ground zero" which connotes the return to new starting point) this numerical version convention has been more widely adopted, such as signifying the new internet era in which we now live, web 2.0.

OFD is proud to launch Darwinism 2.0, a new expanded understanding of the seminal thinking the scientifically established that the authentic explanation for man's development is evolution.
Darwinism 2.0 recognizes that evolution - the act of interacting with the environment to become better adapted - must be extended beyond the physical realm to incorporate cognitive and psychological activity.

While physical evolution takes place over many thousands of years, the pace and scope of technological and cultural change means that for people to remain in harmony with their environment and maintain a good fit, a more rapid evolution in the psychology of the species - the way of thinking - is needed.

Widespread evidence suggests this is not happening. The number of non-genetic based disorders that are emerging and the scale in which they exist are clear indications that homo sapiens sapiens is not adapting to the new world mankind has fashioned:

*Hyper-activity and attention disorders among children from a over-stimulated technology fueled media culture

*Sleep disorders from high stress work/life culture

*Depression linked to levels of stress, due to the role of technology in intensifying the pace and complexity of work, life and social demands

In today's culture of prescribed and self medication, it is no surprise that the consequences of the profound lack of adaptation to the new techno/socio/familial environment is a reliance on pharmacology. People are encouraged to accept that this is a viable remedy when all it does it treat the symptoms rather than the underlying cause: homo sapiens sapiens' limits in speed of cognititive and psychological evolution to an environment he has created for himself. A deep irony indeed.

This creates an interesting possibility for a mechanism for evolution that lies outside the scope of Darwin's original field. While evolution of a physical nature cannot be directed (it is the result of shifts that happen over a long period of time) it is fundamentally different paradigm for mental evolution. There is much progress to be made in actively equipping people with the tools to direct their mental evolution: in the form of coping strategies as well as educational psychology to expose formative minds to influences that will prepare them not just to adapt but thrive in today's world.

In the meantime, Darwinism 2.0 represents a milestone in the use of cognitive sciences and psychology to assist in evolutionary adaptation of thinking to the emerging technologically oriented society.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

An expo. Of tattoos. In a cow palace.

How could you not give a second glance to this wild posting?

But at the risk of violating the very mission of OFD - which is not only being open to encountering the unexpected but to actively seek it out - this premise seems rather bizarre. Not that OFD finds tattoos unpalatable - for every member of OFD has one - but there is something odd about the type of event for this type of artifact.

Vitamin, Contact lenses, Linux, Guns and rifles, Beef, Deer and turkeys, and RVs are all things that have been promoted at expos. What they have in common is that every one of them can be bought at the show in large numbers. It is a venue for sales, not just distributing information. The same is not true of tattoos however: Most of the vendors at the SF event are not offering to inscribe attendees.

Cow Palace also conjures up an interesting image for such a gathering.....

Checking out the site on line, it turns out that this is a body art expo and while the site boasts some 200 'artists' selling their services on site, it seems to be more for piercings than tattoo, available while you wait.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Psychology and anthropomorphizing to keep the pest problem down

Clearly someone at the SF Department of public works has taken some time to think about how to modify people's behavior in the interests of the public good - even when this is pursuit to keep the pigeon population down.

A notice on the window of an area restaurant delivered the following heartfelt plea from one of its kind: "Please don't feed us. You're killing us with kindness. When you feed us our population explodes. Our nests become overcrowded and our babies get sick. Help keep us healthy. Let us find our own food."

At the bottom of the page, noticeable but whose visibility is over-shadowed by the compelling picture and associated sentiment above it, is the warning "Feeding pigeons is illegal. Violators may be cited and fined."

Hats off to the author of this, a great example of well-thought out and sequenced communication to modify behavior:

1. People are unwilling to change behavior (or attitude) unless they have a reason and understand why. (The TSA posts the question "Why the plastic bag rule for carry-on liquids per passenger? at security screening points. It goes on to answer "To limit the amount of liquids each passenger can board a plane with"....which unsatisfactorily begs another question, but the approach was sound).

2. Delivering the over-population reason from the beak of the pigeon softens the likelihood of rejection and positions it as being in the best interest of the pigeon - which one presumes people feeding care enough about, at least in the (misguided) notion that it helps them).

3. An anthropomorphic tactic only makes readers more likely to be emotionally engaged. It cleverly recognizes the act of feeding as being of good intent while rebutting it (You're killing us with kindness")

4. It addresses the core motivation and diffuses concern over the consequences of discontinuing feeding behavior - that birds will starve instead, without referring to it directly: that merely the population will be kept down is the assuring alternative outcome (though without some kind of perishing somewhere it is hard to imagine how). The additional plea "Keep us healthy" provides further artillery to fully neutralize the motivation for the behavior

5. And as if that all was not enough, the poster ends with a threat, which if the reader has made it all the way through the notice to get to is probably unlikely to evoke a rebellious reaction having understood this is first and foremost in the interests of the birds themselves.

An eloquent and persuasive piece of communication.

It brings to mind a Tom Lehrer parody "Poisoning pigeons in the park". Once presumes it is an offense to either kill or try to kill pigeons already born, though adding clarification on either matter might have seemed to contradict the general spirit of the missive which is to see the reduction of their number.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Echoes of gathering long after it's dispersed

A gem of a apartment in Hayes valley has a roof deck at the back. 15' x 20' with a side corridor that runs the length of the apartment it is a rarety to have such a feeling of openess in the city, a sharp contrast to a balcony that is confining. There is room to roam, to pace absent-mindedly.

Around a rectangular wooden table in the middle are an assortment of chairs, each of simple design but of different color. Each shows the ravages of rain, sun and time. And their position suggests something more than a random arrangement. Though the last occupants have long since gone, it is as if an imprint of their presence still remains. The table seems to have been a focal point given the aspect of chairs towards it. One chair remains off to the side, separted from the rest. Its angle suggests isolation. Perhaps though it was merely positioned in the shade of the wall to afford the maid a break and some respite from the heat.

This is all in contrast to a scene in Bubion, a pueblo in the Almijara mountains - foothills of the Sierra Nevada of Southern Spain - in the summer of 2003. A group of men were sitting in row upon a stone bench passing the time in loud and animated conversation as they are want to do. Coming upon them, their din abated momentarily as they scrutinized the stranger approaching, but like cicadas in the bush it quickly resumed to its previous noisier level.

Not twenty minutes later upon returning to the same spot the men had dispersed and the space was transformed. Now an unremarkable, unmemorable spot, there was no evidence of their congregation, of the lively interlocutions, the spirit of their exchanges was gone.

Outside in silence 10 chairs stand in the rain.

The delight in finding what you've stopped looking for

It wasn't the first time this type of irony had been encountered. But experiencing it again gave cause to reflect what a valuable lesson it can be.

Setting out in the early hours of Sunday, with the aim of becoming better acquainted with the surrounding neighborhood, the additional intent was to come away with something unexpected, an unsual observation from the morning stroll.

While an hour passed pleasantly exploring the tree lined streets whose shops had not started stirring to life, nothing stood out that met the brief. As the time wound down it seemed inevitable that no such observation would be forthcoming. Resigned to return empty-handed it was in making the last stretch of the way home that, forced to wait before crossing the road by a passing car, I noticed my shadow stretched in the road ahead of me, created by an rising sun hanging low in the sky.

Often, it's when the mind is relaxed rather than actively engaged in thought or perception that an idea or observation emerges. And it's not surprising really: focusing the mind intensely can make its perceptual scope limited and rigid instead of allowing the subconscious room to engage in its more open fluid way. It why people often record that a break-through in thinking comes at seemingly the oddest times: in the shower, or in the middle of the night. "I'll sleep on it" is a good thought to have before retiring to bed, priming the sub-conscious to play with the problem while you slumber. Try it next time you have a tough one to crack.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Two Dalai Lamas walk into a bar....

Of course, it's an absurd premise. That more than one person could be alive as the reincarnation of Avalokitesvara.

You can be forgiven for thinking the same about Mecca, that there could be more than one. That is about to change however with plans underway for the massive Abraj al Bait Mall. In an interesting development the two will literally stare each other down, a duel of faiths if you like, or followings at the very least.

There is something absurd about hundreds of thousands of pilgrims making their way to Kaaba clad in simple cotton robes only to be confronted with a cathedral to consumerism containing culturally insensitive brands as Topshop, H&M, Starbucks, Cartier and Tiffany. The complex will also contain a lingerie shop and an amusement park.

“Mecca is becoming like Las Vegas, and that is a disaster,” said Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, a Saudi opposition research organization. “It will have a disastrous effect on Muslims because going to Mecca will have no feeling. There is no charm anymore. All you see is glass and cement.” It's not hard to understand why.

People want choice. People deserve the freedom to buy products from many categories, without excessive restriction from a government. But it is the culturally insensitivity of where such goods are being sold that is at issue here.

Starbucks is another example of a brand which egregious disregard for local culture. They have placed a store INSIDE the Forbidden City. This is not unthinkable because someone went beyond having the idea to execute it.

Companies and their brands have a obligation to perform to higher standards in the face of their consumerist imperialist ambition. They should respect indigenous cultures not disregard them in their relentless pursuit global brand development.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Stale before it's opened

It's proof that too many people are reading the same marketing books these days. CK shows little imagination is following a highly predictable approach to the launch of its new scent:

We'll use a rich insight to connect them to the brand!
Physically bold but emotionally guarded, Millenials have grown up using computers as a primary means of interaction.

We’ll speak to them in their own language!

CKin2u The name is written in the shorthand of an instant message, a casual invitation to sex so immediate as to imply there was no time to spell it out: “in to you.”

We'll make it fit their lifestyle!
Because millennials are used to fast-moving information and images, the fragrance is meant to be quick-acting and immediately recognizable on the skin. Their food and drinks, like Smartwater and coffee-flavored colas, and gum charged with flavor crystals, all come in high-definition, intensified varieties. So their fragrance should also seem busy.

We’ll create an on-line community for them to connect!

Consumers can be reached on their own turf by creating an online community,, patterned after sites like MySpace and Facebook.

We’ll make it viral!

Visitors can send it on to their friends

For a fashion brand to be cool, the marketing has to be inventive too. However fresh the new scents might be in the bottle, the marketing certainly feels like a tired approach.

When is a lie not a lie?

We are living in a time when the line between right and wrong has not only been blurred it is being entirely redrawn. No one has actively advocated that lying is right but as importantly no one is forcefully condemning this behavior as wrong. It has created a culture of permissiveness in which, alarmingly, lying is becoming acceptable.

This is a tendency that is bi-partisan and cuts across the public and private sector. The Clintons were reported in the New York Times last week, to lie not just regularly but with such nonchalance as to be deeply troubling.

Equally disturbing is the news that despite the conviction of Scooter Libby for perjury and obstruction of justice, supporters are already speaking of securing a Presidential pardon from Bush the Younger. There is no shame in lying as a wrong-doing. Being pardoned is deemed sufficient to absolve a moral transgression.

In an earlier age, a basic moral code was a respected independent (non-religious) authority and was non negotiable. It today’s more relaxed, fluid age absolutes have given way to relativity in assessment and the moral character and fiber of this country is weaker for it.

Remember Oliver North lying under oath about his involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal? Bush the Elder pardoned his lying along with five others in 1992. Remarkably, a three page justification was issued in support. Lying it seems, it permissible in the following situations:

*When the act is a motivated by a desire to be patriotic
*When there was no intent to seek profit either personally or professionally
*When an individual has an otherwise long and distinguished history in serving the country
*When the individual has already paid a price: in depleted savings, professional reputation or anguish caused to the family.

Beware: the sins of the father become those of the son. The times being what they are it wouldn’t be surprising if this President sends the same egregious signal to the youth of today. Lying is OK, it’s getting caught that’s wrong.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Stepping into a different world is an arms-length away

Throughout the city, portals to a different place and different time appear and disappear in constant flux. Limited time, money and status does not prevent anyone from access. It’s as close as stepping into a taxi.

Even the shortest ride is an opportunity to be immersed in an unfamiliar culture. The foreign nationals that drive cabs in many US cities these days offer an insider's view to a very different way of life. Whether it's a memory from childhood in Kenya where people walked non-stop for days on end to reach a far flung village, an account of witchcraft from Senegal which is believed to give the protected invincibility to mortal threats, or recollections of a time when Nigeria decided to change which side of the road to drive on and allowed its citizens an opportunity to practice the day before the switch took place, these stories connect passengers to the color and humanity of an experience thousands of miles away from their lives. How wonderful to have that possibility each day no further away than an outstretched arm.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Why is Religion?

Animism Buddhism, Christianity

Hinduism, Islam, Judaism

It’s time for OFD to tackle a thorny issue – religion. As experts in the analysis of human nature, behavior and meaning development, we think there are few themes as culturally universal as spirituality.

It’s bound to be a controversial topic given that even among those that do believe in God, there is pernicious disagreement about which is the right one (historically a major cause of war). Then there’s the 16% of the world population that don’t believe at all, yet questioned as to they've opted out. A disbeliever can be threatening to one that does.

The nature of this topic demands we resist being emotional in either content or expression in our discourse, for we believe that this tendency is all too present in discussion about religion, and serves only to cloud clarity of thinking and divide those otherwise engaged in productive debate. We will state our findings simply and, we hope, without bias.

According to Wikipedia there are 6 main religions in the world (Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hindu and Animism). In human nature – across each of these brands of religion – there are also six reasons why religion exists:

1. Hope
Many followers of a religion also seem to have a life that is lacking in creature comforts, who are struggling with the basic challenge of staying alive at a subsistence level. The role of religion is to given hope that an individual and their family’s circumstances will improve, either in this world or the next.

2. Existential angst

The fear of the great unknown that surrounds us – more specifically death – is a great concern and conscious preoccupation. The role of religion in providing an explanation of an after-life is to assuage the fear and comfort a troubled psyche.

3. Sense of community and connectedness

Humans are fundamentally social animals. It is more than merely sharing company that people need: it is a drive to feel connected. The experience of isolation and loneliness are severely damaging to mental health and wellbeing and a religion provides a sense of togetherness and belonging of a very particular kind. It is a connection about our basic collective existence. As such it is a bond that runs much more deeply and more meaningfully than, say, through following Nascar races or ‘Scrap booking’ however much these activities may provide a sense of community.

4. Awe and appreciation

The world is too beautiful and complex that it is impossible for it to have occurred by random. This is a central tenet of proponents of Intelligent Design, who deduce that they and their surroundings are the direct consequence of act of deliberate creation by a single authority. This in turn produces an awe for the maker. The role of religion is to be a belief system supporting the need for an external cause, or force for existence.

5. Ego
Though this was originally coined the ‘id’ by Freud (see blog post ‘Can there be passion without ego?’) ego is a drive operating at the subconscious level and represents the pursuit for inner desire and accomplishment. As consumed as it is with its own satiation, the ego cannot believe that it is merely an accident of history, that its existence has no meaning. The role of religion is to meet the need for each and every life to have purpose. It gives a feeling of being special, important and planned.

6. There is a God

This is indeed a plausible option. Even Richard Dawkins – in a welcomed act of humility – was graceful enough to acknowledge that he can’t be certain God doesn’t exist. Unfortunately for religious followers, the nature of religion as a belief system does not endear non-believers towards them, because it relies exclusively upon an absence of evidence (“faith is enough”) or circumstantial ‘evidence’ at best (the interpretation of something good being ‘planned’ - such as a miracle, or a direct result of a prayer). Neither pass the basic test of causality.

Readers are invited to provide additional explanations for the why religion exists throughout the world. In the meantime, OFD can merely observe that there are more explanations for the existence of God which are rooted in human nature and the way the psyche is wired (see 1 to 5 above) than the actual existence of a numinous being, though one does not preclude the other.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Can there be passion without ego?

Too often the people with whom we work exhibit a self centeredness and self interest that gets in the way of productivity, creativity and possibilities. The popular term for the engine of such behavior is ‘ego’ (lesser known is that it's a mislabeling of Freud’s original theory of the psyche, in which it's the ‘id’ that refer to this drive not the ego, which is mediating force that tempers the ‘id’.)

The counter-productive influence that people’s egos exert in situations is commonplace, but how much would we lose if was constrained not by forces within but by outside pressure, such as an workplace policy that reduces the incidence of such behavior, much like other policies have done for sexual harassment and racism?

The creators in this life, the challengers, those which push boundaries of scientific and artistic endeavor, the adventurers and discovers all have egos. This group of accomplished men and women are no wall flowers. The have a presence – an ego presence – that is unmistakable.

They won’t necessarily be charismatic (like the entrepreneur Richard Branson) but beyond effusive confidence and dogmatic belief in the unassailable truth of their opinions, the quality that Richard Dawkins, Martha Stewart, Jose Mourinho and the singer Madonna all share is passion. Passion is a focused intensity towards an outcome. It inspires people to achieve and excel at what they do. It makes people deeply vested in a better outcome (often at the expense of a more balanced life) and is strongly linked to creativity. One seldom encounters a person who is passionate that does not have an ego (or rather no overt ego that is easily detectible).

The reverse is not true however. There is a surfeit of people with big egos but no passion or little talent to make things great or make great things. As challenging as encountering egotistical behavior is – and as galling as it is to have to graciously accommodate on occasion – one cannot condemn the practice outright. If there is passion, commitment, results and a lack of harm that come along with the territory, so be it. It is those empty individuals who have only ego and no talent that should not be indulged. You know who they are, and they do too. It’s largely why they act up so much. Deep down they know they’re frauds and they’re terrified you’ll find out. You may still have to encounter them but doesn't that thought makes it somehow a little easier?