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Get Smart

12 Oct

This is how Merriam-Webster sees it.

I have a bumper sticker on one of my cars with a big American flag and one word: THINK.

This pretty much sums up my thoughts on what it means to be American. I respect anyone’s personal opinions about religion, politics and other controversial topics when they can back them up. Repeat rhetoric to me, from either side of the aisle, and I’ll lose patience. Anyone can parrot back empty words. Put your mind and your heart behind them, and then I’ll bother listening.

It’s so easy to fall into the trap of media consumption: watching television news and reality shows results in zero thought process. It’s easy to get sucked into…I’ve had my own binges with Project Runway, Dance Moms and Russian Dolls. The first is at least somewhat intellectually stimulating. The last two are complete wastes of time.

Thinking requires discipline. Here are some things that I try to do to keep my brain in shape.

  1. Read the news. My own personal scientific studies (okay, not scientific but bear with me) indicate that WATCHING the news results in very little recall and no critical thinking whatsoever. I don’t care if it’s CNN or Fox. Most of it is designed to lure me into more watching–not more thinking. By reading the news, I have a chance to learn something new, because most written news stories go into more depth than TV news. I also have a chance to reflect on what I’ve read, re-read it if needed and come away with some new thoughts of my own.
  2. Consume news that is not aligned with my opinions and/or perspective. I try to listen to talk radio occasionally, even though it makes me angry. (Extreme opinions on either side just don’t make sense to me. I just want to tell them: Calm down, people!) I also try to read foreign news. If you can read in a foreign language, this is a real benefit on this front. In particular, taking in our own political process through the lens of foreign media can really be an eye-opener. I was in France in 1989, during the Beirut hostage crisis when they were showing the American hostages on television, speaking. Chilling really, but also different when interpreted by foreign newscasters with another take on America.
  3. Have conversations with people who have opinions different from mine. How simple is this? And how difficult? Safe to say that I am a conflict-averse person. Also safe to say that my opinions may not always be aligned with the everybody’s. Add to that a mainstream that prefers to think of their opinions as facts and “right.” All of this makes having conversations difficult, which pushes people further into the extremes–or perceived extremes. I like having friends with different opinions on all of the hot-button items. It makes life more interesting–and I think it makes me more educated about the world around me. Seeing things through others’ eyes is not always easy, but I think it’s worth the hard work.

America at its core is a place built by and for people with different, and at times differing, opinions. I’m a believer in civil discourse that keeps us “true Americans.”

Flour Sacks, Ketchup and Thrift

12 Oct

Reflecting back on this post from a year ago….branding in a time of thrift, aka the “spend shift.”


I’ve heard stories about the Great Depression and WWII economy from my family. Losing the family farm just before President Hoover changed policies so that loans were more accessible, my grandmother later described feeling “very lucky” that she never had to dress her kids in flour sacks. It could always be worse, as they say.

Eating ketchup sandwiches sounds like a novel idea to my kids, but it was less than romantic for my mom in the early 1940s when nutritious food was rationed. Ketchup is not a vegetable, despite what Ronald Reagan and the USDA said in 1981.

But this post is not really about flour sacks or ketchup sandwiches. It is about a set of hard-core self-determinism and conservative (I am not talking politics here) values that got us through those tough years. And apparently the American consumer is returning to a model of saving rather than spending, focusing on time with family and friends rather than outward-oriented and ambitious ideas of success, and more consciousness for community benefit rather than self-aggrandizement.

What’s really important in life: continued acquisition or living more simply?  Is it better to encourage my son to save his money for the newest video game system or sock it away for something he may need in the future? Does it matter, in the end?

I heard an interesting talk by consumer expert John Gerzema at the Inc. 500 conference in D.C. over the weekend. Look at my twitter feed or search on #werthinc for my posts on his talk and others’. His discussion prompted me to buy two of his books, Spend Shift and The Brand Bubble. This is a man standing atop mountains of data gleaned from tens of thousands of consumers, all telling a story about buying behavior in the past and predictions for the future. It’s fascinating stuff.

This quote stood out for me: “As we stopped acquiring, we became more inquiring.” Apparently, 68 percent of Americans now have library cards — the highest number ever. I like this, although browsing in a library is different now. I like browsing books online and “buying” the free books from Amazon for Kindle. There are a lot of classics there gratis.

Here’s another: “The badge of awesomeness means being more nimble, adaptable and thrifty.” I’ve been on both sides of the coin here. I’ve had my moments of being shopaholic. Once I spent three hundred dollars in one trip at a Banana Republic for things I really didn’t need. My three hundred dollars didn’t take me far, but that was three years ago and I’m still wearing the stuff, except for one wool sweater that mistakenly was washed and put into the dryer. My daughter could wear it for a year, but soon it was too small for both of us. It’s been relegated to the doll-clothes container.

On the flip side, I decided that I wasn’t going to break the bank for the Inc. 500 conference formal. Not regularly attending such highbrow events, I needed to buy a gown and all the trappings. So here’s how I approached it:

  • From Clintonville consignment shop Rag-o-Rama, a black taffeta one-shoulder full-length clean line gown, not a designer label: $10
  • Dry cleaning the gown at Caskey Cleaners: $10
  • Patent leather shoes, beaded silk purse and black velvet/silk wrap from Grandview consignment shop One More Time: $30
  • Same earrings I wore for the rest of the conference
  • A seed beaded cuff I bought for $15 from the Columbus Museum of Art gift shop several months ago.

Grand total: $65. And I will totally wear that dress again. It fit great and made me happy because the price tag was my secret. Both my grandmothers would be proud.

So there you go, John Gerzema. I am looking forward to reading both books, but as you might guess I’ve started with Spend Shift. I’m hoping to unlock some new learnings to help communicate with this new brand of consumer. I can see applications here for work and home life.