Everywhere is Awesome

21 Jun

What makes a place “worth” visiting? There are obvious reasons, of course: beautiful scenery, cultural treasures, historic heritage. But I’m a strong believer that anywhere can be interesting, if you just take a little time to explore. There’s always something to learn, something to discover, anywhere you go.

I could have sit back in my hotel room watching TV when I was alone in Alabama for work - but instead I discovered this beautiful pier.

I could have stayed back in my hotel room watching TV when I was in Alabama for work – but instead I discovered this beautiful pier.

I’ve thought about this a lot over time, largely because I travel so much for work. Some work trips have taken me to bustling cities like New York or Toronto, but often I end up in smaller towns and far-flung suburbs. Many of my favorite “on the road” memories come from these places: the pecan farm I stumbled upon in Alabama, the gas station/gourmet deli combo my colleagues and I used to love in Arkansas, the small town in Michigan where I spent my first month on my first job out of college. The benefit of going to places like these is you expand your sense of what’s “worth” exploring. You realize that just sitting in the local coffee shop people-watching helps you understand something profound about the way other people live. You start to wonder what it’d be like to live and grow in this other environment. You learn a lot about yourself by pushing beyond the tourist to-dos, and looking to learn from everything you see, even if it isn’t listed on anyone’s “best of” anything itinerary. It doesn’t curb my interest in exotic locales or tourist meccas like Paris. But I think it’s important to get a good balance of the tourist sights, and the rest the world. I think it’s critical to approach every new place with a sense of wonder and the expectation that this place is absolutely, 100% worth your time and effort.

The next time you’re on a road trip, I challenge you to stop somewhere “random.” Spend a couple hours just exploring this place, visiting its businesses, talking to its people. You’re guaranteed to find something that interests you, as long as you open your mind to it. I’m always excited when I go somewhere new no matter where it is – because I know I’ll leave with a broadened perspective, and a slightly better understanding of the great big world out there. “Non touristy” places matter just as much as their more famous counterparts, maybe even more. They’re what holds our world together.

Digging In

30 May

Recently a Facebook friend posted a query to his virtual pals, asking if anyone knew why truck drivers leave their lights on when they’re parked at truck stops overnight. None of his friends knew the answer – but I couldn’t resist Googling it. I learned that sometimes it has to do with the engine, sometimes it has to do with safety, and sometimes it’s simply that the driver isn’t asleep at that particular moment (duh!). As I kept clicking, the minutes kept ticking. And soon, I’d spent a lot of time reading through various threads on a truck drivers’ forum- just because.

I get sucked into this sort of thing easily, probably more easily than most people. I just can’t resist trying to crack the answer. That insatiable curiosity explains how I’ve ended up in so many research-based positions over time, from my college days to my current job. I’m consistently fascinated by learning about new types of people. There’s just so much to know! Every subset of the human population has specific beliefs, behaviors and perceptions of reality. And it never gets old to learn about the intricacies.

I used to think about this a lot when I competed in baton twirling competitions. To the outsider’s perspective, baton twirling may seem like just another sport. But if you spend some time at a baton contest, you’ll notice all the rules, the expected behaviors, the cultural dynamics. It’s the same for any other subculture. Every subset of humans has its own cultural foundation.

Most people, though, never read through truck driver forums or visit baton contests just to try to understand. We travel to learn about other places and peoples, but we never can make it to everywhere. And even for someone like me, who spends a lot of time investigating particular subsets of the population, it’s pretty much impossible to learn about everyone, everywhere.

But shouldn’t we at least try? Maybe there’s some merit to spending a lot of time digging through “random” forums trying to understand another group of people. Maybe we should spend more time just Googling various types of people and seeing what we find. Maybe it’s worth our time to just type something into Google and click away for a couple of hours, trying to learn about the way another person constructs their world. We’ll still never be able to learn everything about every type of person – but we’ll build our own point of view, at least, by digging into someone else’s world.

What’s New?

19 May

We’re lucky to live in a time where there’s constant innovation and creation. There’s always something new to discover: new music, new products, new ideas. But can that newness cross the threshold from exciting, to tiring? Is there such a thing as too much newness?

I thought of this the other day as I listened to a mash-up playlist on SoundCloud. I heard a track called “Top of the Pops 2014,” which is a mix of the top pop songs that came out in 2014. Then the playlist segued to another artist’s “top of 2014″ list. Then another “top of 2014″ track came on. And then a “top of 2013″ track, followed by 3 other artists’ versions. Etc, etc, etc.

As the playlist took me back through years of “top” music, I started to feel a bit overwhelmed. So many forgotten songs came back to my consciousness, some loved and some hated. And I started thinking about the cycle that turns some new things into long-treasured favorites, and pushes other new things into the withered darkness of “forgotten-ness.”

This always makes me laugh. In Canada, they mark their new street signs. Actually quite logical, but still funny somehow.

I took this picture in Toronto years ago. It’s actually pretty smart to mark new street signs – but it still made me laugh!

We certainly have more new, more often than in any other generation. Partly due to human productivity, and partly because we have media to spread the news far and wide, in a matter of seconds. Sometimes I wonder if there is a limit to the amount of “newness” we can handle. You know how too many choices causes mental overload? Perhaps for newness, it’s a sort of fatigue that comes with having to process so many inputs on a regular basis.

We often use the phrase “quality over quantity.” Could this be true for human production, too? Is there a tipping point where continuous newness is a burden for society rather than a benefit? I wonder if we’d be happier with fewer things, longer, than a bigger quantity of things we like.

I’m not going to stop listening to those yearly compilations. But I think I’ll stop listening to so many in a row. There’s something about that continuous stream of little bits of songs that felt stressful, and turned a fun trip down memory lane into a mental trek.

Change is in the Air

11 May

Culture Cookies turns 4 this month. I started this blog as an outlet for long-form writing about topics I liked. It was that simple. And because of that original purpose, the blog became a sort of clearinghouse for whatever happened to pique my interest on a particular day. Over time it has morphed into a curious blend of topics, from business strategy to social commentary.

I work in brand strategy, and we talk a lot about brand positioning. Good brand strategy means knowing what your organization stands for, boiled down to its purest essence and its strongest points of differentiation. I’ve tried to apply that approach to Culture Cookies in the past to brainstorm ways to build my readership. Should it become a baking blog? A marketing blog? Any possible approach I came up with involved narrowing the blog’s scope. And over time, I’ve realized I simply don’t want to do that. I want this blog to stay my clearinghouse for whatever I find interesting, whether that’s an homage to World’s Fairs, a travel diary, or a critique of a new ad campaign.

Instead of making this blog more focused, I’m starting a new blog that’s more narrow. Baking has grown in importance for me over time and at this point it’s fair to call baking a defining hobby. I occasionally post about food on Culture Cookies, but I think it’s time to give my baking habit its own place on the Internet.

So readers: meet sugarsmithExpect a mix of recipe experiments, bakery reviews, ice cream taste-tests, and probably some longer musings from time to time. I hope you like it over there – and hope to still see you back here at Culture Cookies, too!

Here’s a peek at the sorts of things you can expect to see on sugarsmith: 

Best in Class

1 May

What would you expect to see on Yelp’s yearly “Top 100″ restaurant list? Would it be that haute cuisine restaurant in downtown San Francisco that costs $500 per person? Or maybe that trendy cafe in Brooklyn that’s so hip, you have to wait 3 hours just to get a table?

You’d probably be surprised if you saw the real list. There are indeed some cutting-edge entries, but there are also places like the corner store-meets-coffee shop tucked into a corner of San Francisco’s Inner Sunset neighborhood and a seafood truck in Maine. At the coveted #1 spot? A small BBQ restaurant in Big Pine, California. Copper Top BBQ’s Yelp page shows a 5-star average rating, which is laudable. But as a Slate article pointed out, there’s something else going on here. Being #1 on Yelp’s list does not mean that Copper Top is necessarily the top restaurant in the country. It means it is the top restaurant for satisfying a Yelp user’s needs.

Yelp reviews run on a star system, like so many other ratings systems we encounter. But ratings systems inherently bring issues: people interpret the options differently, some people consistently low-ball or high-ball, people choose ratings based on outlier experiences. The idea is that eventually those things will balance out. But as other research has shown, more than 40% of Yelp reviews are 5-star ratings. That suggests that people are using the 5-star option to mean something other than “extraordinary.” Slate’s Will Oremus broke this down, dissecting why certain restaurants thrive on Yelp and others don’t – even if they’re critically acclaimed.

Oremus’ analysis leads to a number of interesting hypotheses. For starters, restaurants do really well on Yelp when they provide good quality, for good value. Most people using Yelp are not frequenting fine dining establishments and simply want their needs met, for a good price. In fact, it seems like one of the biggest drivers for good ratings is a lack of disappointment. If you get what you want, without hassle, it’s a net good experience. In that case, a good rating on Yelp becomes a symbol of checking the right boxes, rather than a symbol of extraordinariness. Oremus also noticed that a lot of the “top-performing” restaurants are local establishments with focused menus. So there is less chance for error, in a way: people are more likely to order something they will like, and more likely to get what they expected. There are also more “top restaurants” from specific geographic areas, which Oremus attributes to the fact that quantity of reviews factors into how the list is built.

I don’t think that the way people use Yelp should stop us from “trusting” its reviews. In fact, this all makes a lot of sense. I am someone who chases innovative foods and unique flavors, so when I use Yelp, I often do want to see the most “unique” options and not just the most “satisfying” options. But “unique” isn’t necessarily the best way to judge the overall value of a restaurant. Most of the time, there’s a lot to be said for stable, reliable places to eat, and I don’t think they get nearly enough credit for what they provide. For that alone, I think it’s great that this list gives us a different perspective than the types of rankings we usually see.

But First…

27 Apr

Earlier this year I attended a dance party on a boat. There were DJs, music, even some fog machines for special effects. While taking a break from dancing I started talking to the guy sitting next to me about San Francisco, the fun events we go to and the types of people we meet. We realized something unusual about this event: there weren’t that many people taking pictures. There was the occasional flash of the camera, of course, but for the most part, people were just talking, dancing and enjoying the music.

It’s funny to think about how much we like to focus on documenting our special moments. I too want pictures of parties and hikes and, admittedly, delicious meals. But just the other day, as I took (very bad) photos of a concert, I realized how weird it was to be focused on the picture on my camera screen, instead of the concert in front of me. The more I tried to get a good picture of the moment, the less I was in the actual moment. I was still hearing the music and having fun, but my attention was certainly diverted from what was happening, to figuring out the best way to share what happened.

I’m not suggesting you stop taking pictures or videos. I think they’re wonderful. I’m a sucker for nostalgia, and I even still get photos printed so I can put them into albums. Those albums make me happy and remind me of wonderful times with my family and friends. But as cliché as it sounds, sometimes we have to just be in the moment. I’ve gone to events where they actually take away your technology, which is a bit of an extreme approach. Instead, I propose that sometime soon, when you’re out and about, resist the “picture or it didn’t happen” mantra and try to just be comfortable with knowing it happened, inside your own head. That memory may fade someday, far before a photograph was. But it can also be fun to feel like you almost have this secret of some awesome thing you did – and no one else needs to know about it for you to feel satisfaction. Maybe we aren’t meant to have a perfect record of every little thing we did. Or maybe we are – I don’t know the real answer. But since my camera takes terrible photos anyway- I might as well try resisting the urge to snap them!

Something Extra Ordinary

18 Apr

Back in 2012 I was lucky enough to go to China with one of my good friends. We set off on our adventure excited to uncover the nuances of Chinese culture the best we could. We saw many impressive sights, from landscaped gardens to decorated palaces to the vast, Great Wall. Still, some of the most salient, thought-provoking moments on our trip came from our experiences navigating China’s everyday world – not the tourist attractions.

Our Beijing neighborhood

Our Beijing neighborhood

One particular experience stands out to me. I had bought my brother a souvenir stamp in the markets of Zhujiajiao, a beautiful water town close to Shanghai. But what is a stamp without ink? So when we were in Beijing later that week, my friend and I set off for a stationary store I’d noticed near our hostel. Our hostel was located in a very residential neighborhood, removed from the “tourist core” of Beijing. It was a great choice: accessible enough by public transit that we could get to tourist sites without a hassle, but also nestled in among everyday people, places and sights. I’d noticed the stationary store as we strolled one day, and we decided to make an errand of it to find some ink one afternoon. The minute we entered, we got puzzled looks from the shopkeeper. It’s likely they don’t see many tourists – and frankly, probably not much diversity either. Our “conversation” was pretty comedic, a mix of gestures and pointing as the language barrier kept us from truly conversing. Eventually I walked out, victorious, ink pad in hand. It was just a normal ink pad-  I most certainly could have bought a nearly identical product once I got home to California. Still, that experience of buying an ink pad in a neighborhood shop in Beijing is something that I treasure. Sometimes it’s not about efficiency or doing things the most logical way, and shopping at that stationary store in Beijing meant more than the $1.50 I spent on ink.

There’s so much chatter these days about spending money on experiences and favoring moments over “stuff.” But when you’re looking for”experiences,” don’t forget about the everyday. Don’t just look for bucket list destinations and cross off the “most important sites.” Don’t think that every dollar you spend on “memories” needs to be spent on grand festivals or fancy wine-tasting extravaganzas. Don’t depend on the extraordinary to fuel your memories – sometimes the ordinary is even more meaningful.

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