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“I suppose it’s the human way to try this and that; we are a curious and resourceful species” – Our Interview with Jennifer Beggs, Registered Midwife …*

"I suppose it's the human way to try this and that; we are a curious and resourceful species" - Our Interview with Jennifer Beggs, Registered Midwife ...* | rethinked.org - Photo: Jennifer Beggs

Jennifer Beggs

I am super excited about today’s interview, which is a first of its kind on two fronts. Jennifer is our first woman interviewee (it was starting to feel a bit like a boy’s club in here), though far from the last—we’ve got plenty more splendidly inspiring women coming soon. The second first, is that Jennifer is a personal friend. We met in September on our very first day of the Camino and it was my pleasure and delight to share my walk with Jenny for several days as we walked together to Pamplona. Kind, caring, smart and insightful, Jennifer is a registered midwife from Sydney, Australia. I’ll let her introduce herself:

Being the eldest of four and blessed with a wonderful mother, the nurturing gene came through strongly in me. Becoming a mother and a midwife were written in the stars. My children are my greatest education and joy, and my work with women during pregnancy, childbirth and early motherhood has provided great satisfaction.

What really drives me though, is creating and making things. I have had this powerful urge since I was a child and have potted, painted, photographed, sculpted, crafted and designed intensely for short periods in my life. For much longer stretches I have had to attend to paying bills and raising children, but I have usually had some creative project going on the sidelines. It is however a calling that I have not yet succeeded in fully answering,….or is it perhaps just my ego reaching for something sexier?

What was the last experiment you ran?

I run micro experiments all the time, like brushing my teeth with my brush in my left hand instead of my right; saying “Hi” to people walking towards me on my daily walks (sadly many will instinctively avoid eye contact); varying my interactions with the world and seeing what happens. I suppose it’s the human way to try this and that; we are a curious and resourceful species. Having largely conquered basic survival (if we’re lucky), we search for meaning, connection and wholeness. In the West, and increasingly globally, we are all implored by self-help books, gurus and advertisers to do better and be better; the best of it sometimes leads to healthier and happier lives, the worst, to dissatisfaction and anxiety. Buddhist philosophy increasingly makes sense to me. In the last few years I’ve been enjoying practicing yoga and taking some long walks. Being a bit of a restless soul, I like change, discovery and adventure.

I’m fascinated by the science of nutrition, gut flora and bioscience and soak up any information that I can. I recently saw ‘That Sugar Film’ by Damon Gameau which documented Damon’s experiment changing his diet to include 30-40 tsp of sugar daily, which is equal to that of the average Western diet. These sugars were hidden in foods that many would consider to be a “healthy” diet. The results were alarming. Over the past 2 years, I’ve been trying to stick to the ‘5:2 diet’ developed by doctor, writer and journalist Michael  Mosley. I’ve had some success in dropping a few kgs. In addition to weight control, many studies have suggested that having a couple of lean days per week confers other health benefits. So far the best and simplest advice that I have heard is summed up elegantly by Michael Pollan who says, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE THINGS THAT YOU FEAR AND HOW DO YOU MANAGE YOUR FEAR?

In my life I have been privileged with safety, plenty and love. Of course, I have fears common to many of losing loved ones. The fear that will have me lying awake at night with catastrophic rumination, is of something happening to one of my children, now young men. I have dealt with this by being completely candid with them about the kind of life choices I hope they’ll make in general, and naming the fears I have for them in specific circumstances. In short, I put my fears on the table and have a good look at them with them. Those conversations, though sometimes tense, have usually been very beneficial as we came to understand each other. I didn’t pretend with them; if I felt afraid for them I said so and said why. They didn’t always agree with me but they understood and respected that my fears came from great love. I recognize that ultimately I have to let go and trust them. I stand in awe of the great human beings that they are and feel blessed every day at having the privilege of being their mum.

WHAT BREAKS AND DELIGHTS YOUR HEART? IN OTHER WORDS, WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE IN AND SURRENDER TO?

I believe in nature. We live in an incredible world that is complex and works beautifully. I surrender to this and remain fascinated by life. From witnessing women growing and birthing a child, to seeing my own babies through to adulthood, and my own life as it unfolds, I stand in awe of nature. For me there is no need to look for God, it is here in this wondrous life. When people are arrogant and think they are above and apart from the natural world is where disease and disaster starts. Again and again I’m taught the lesson that nature always wins, work with it, don’t fight it. We are a smart species and we have been incredibly inventive and resourceful to our great benefit. I remain hopeful that our innate good sense will help us to move towards harmony with the planet and all the life that inhabits it.

In my work I encounter sometime tens of women daily, each of them going through pregnancy so ordinary, yet so extraordinary for each of them. I try to stay present and encounter each woman afresh; giving her my full attention and care in the time that I have with her. I delight in that moment of connection, which may be just a shared smile, or may become a wonderful conversation.

Just last evening a woman told me about the birth of her last baby in the bathroom of a department store. She felt no pain, just simply noticed a foot emerging as she peed. Yes, breech! Wow! I said expecting a tale of trauma. Instead she laughed and told me, “I was the only one who was fine, everyone else panicked. Another woman raised the alarm. We had the security guards, cleaners and shop assistants all there. The head cleaner delivered the baby just as the ambulance arrived.” That funny, relaxed woman brightened my day.

That same evening there were tears as another woman nearing the end of her pregnancy revealed her sadness around the ambivalence of her baby’s father. He had let her down once again after she had given him another chance in the hope that her baby would know his father. Her own mother sat beside her, distressed to see her daughter in tears, imploring her in their mother tongue to not cry. “It’s ok to cry mum, sometimes I feel sad,” this brave woman said. Through her tears she explained, “My mother loves us too much.”

WHAT IS THE MOST PROVOCATIVE IDEA YOU’VE COME ACROSS IN THE PAST DECADE?

Quantum physics though I can’t even begin to understand it, is pretty mind blowing. The idea that our gut microbes affect our overall mental and physical health is incredible to me also.

Provocative? That there are people in this world who will kill for a belief, that there are people who rationalize and glorify immense greed and arrogance,… It’s disappointing beyond words. I guess if I’d studied more history this should have been no surprise to me, however I think 9/11 took away some of our innocence, it did for me anyway. I do believe though, that there is way more good than evil in this world.

CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT A TRANSFORMATIONAL MOMENT IN YOUR LIFE?

I guess I’m still looking for a transformational moment, a blinding light; that would be kind of wonderful. Maybe I’m not the kind of person who has an epiphany, I tend towards pragmatism and skepticism where high emotion is involved. Perhaps transformation has been more glacial in my life and hence only recognizable with hindsight. Making big decisions such as having  a child, buying a house and even ending a marriage have always led me to a better place often from a low point in my life.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO YOU TO LIVE A GOOD LIFE?

Tread lightly. Take what you need and leave enough to go around. Be thankful for your good luck and don’t take it for granted. Practice compassion, gratitude and kindness.

COULD YOU SHARE ONE PIECE OF ADVICE ABOUT THRIVING AS A HUMAN BEING?

In each moment remember to breathe. Keep making courageous and responsible decisions. Make your life meaningful. Remain curious and open to life. Enjoy and love. Don’t waste time. Do it now.

 WHAT IS YOUR DRIVING QUESTION?

How do I bring my efforts into alignment with my passion ? Where best to direct my energy?

ANY BOOKS OR MOVIE YOU RECOMMEND?

So many. I’m still excited by the magic of the big screen and in awe of the many talented filmmakers. I like feature length documentaries and international dramas. Documentaries I’ve loved include: Bill Cunningham New York; Babies; It Might Get Loud; 20 Feet from StardomSearching for Sugar ManThe Green Prince. Dramas, too many to mention. Off the top of my head, Lost in Translation; My Life as a DogRumble Fish; AmelieThe Spanish Apartment; Talk to HerCrouching Tiger, Hidden DragonBabette’s Feast… Each has left my world and my heart a little larger.

Some great fiction by Australian writers that I could recommend include Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey; Eucalyptus by Murray Bail; The Book Thief by Markus Zusak; Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks; and Remembering Babylon by David Malouf.

. . . *

THANK YOU, JENNY!

{ Play Is Our Adaptive Wild Card } In Order to Adapt Successfully to a Changing World, We Need to Play …*

Bonobos, like humans, love to play throughout their entire lives. Play is not just child’s games. For us and them, play is foundational for bonding relationships and fostering tolerance. It’s where we learn to trust and where we learn about the rules of the game. Play increases creativity and resilience and it’s all about the generation of diversity —diversity of interactions, diversity of behaviors and diversity of connections. And when you watch Bonobos play you’re seeing the very evolutionary roots of human laughter, dance and ritual. Play is the glue that binds us together.” – Isabel Behncke Izquierdo

In this short and delightful TED talk, primatologist Isabel Behncke Izquierdo highlights some of the ways in which the highly playful Bonobos can teach us about successfully naviating “a future where we need to adapt to an increasingly challenging world through greater creativity and greater cooperation. The secret is that play is the key to these capacities. In other words, play is our adaptive wild card. In order to adapt successfully to a changing world, we need to play.” As you kick off the weekend, remember , “Play is not frivolous. Play is essential.”

“Empathy is feeling into someone else” – Tiffany Shlain: What We Can Do Today To Rethink Our Potential …*

"Empathy is feeling into someone else" - Tiffany Shlain: What We Can Do Today To Rethink Our Potential ...* |rethinked.org

Screen Shot from Tiffany Shlain’s TED MED Talk, Summarizing our Unique Human Strengths …*

“Let’s do a little cross-disciplinary thinking right now. I want you to sit and I want you to think of your biggest challenge–everyone in this room, we’ve all got a challenge that we’re wrestling with–think of the three people that you’ve talked to about that challenge. Now I want you to try to think of three people in completely different areas that you could talk to about that problem. What would a car mechanic say? What would a biologist say? What about an artist? What about a child? How would they approach your problem? That’s cross-disciplinary thinking and the more you do it, and the more you think that way, the more it will just naturally come. And I think that we’re all talking about multi-tasking but we need to be talking about multi-perspectiving, which is not a word–so, multi-thinking. And how do we bring that more into our everyday challenges?” – Tiffany Shlain

In this inspiring and moving TED MED talk, filmmaker and rethinked …* favorite, Tiffany Shlain, examines some of the things we can each do today to rethink our human potential and evolve ourselves. Stressing the need for cross-displinary thinking and cultivating our unique human strengths, Shlain creates a compelling and hopeful portrait of the potential of humanity to connect as we transcend the challenges of the twenty-first century.

“We are connected to billions of people’s ideas and perspectives that we can cross-disciplinary think with. And when you get that kind of collision of different perspectives, that is when breakthroughs happen. It’s also when empathy happens. And empathy is another incredible thing that distinguishes us as humans, that even the most sophisticated machines can’t experience. I loved learning this when I was researching empathy–empathy is feeling into someone else. I love that: feeling into them. And I think that when you see someone struggling, you’re feeling into them and you want to help them, you want to change their experience. So it’s interesting to think about empathy leads to compassion, leads to action. We need more empathy and action in this world, right? We definitely need that. So how are we going to do that? And the good news is that it’s through stories, through listening to people, through sharing stories, that is the way that you feel empathy. And when you hear a story it activates all these different parts of your brain and also, what it does, is it adapts your thinking. When you hear a story it can change the way you think about something. It can also synchronize your mind with someone else when you tell a story. And we think of our brains as private, as the only truly private thing we have, but we forget that our brains are incredibly public. The brain is a communal organ, it is our window on the world and it’s what allows us to connect with the world and contribute to the world.”

{ Connect & Empathize …* } “Try to be kind because nastiness is always so tempting.”

{ Connect & Empathize ...* } "Try to be kind because nastiness is always so tempting." | rethinked.org - Photo: Elsa Fridman

“Our nervous systems are constructed to be captured by the nervous systems of others, so that we can experience others as if from within their own skin, as well as from within our own.”

–  Daniel Stern, MD & research psychiatrist at the University of Geneva

I’ve had the kind of week that forces one to stop, take a step back from the noise and [re]consider what’s really important: the others. All the beating hearts, pumping, thumping, warm, fearful, hopeful, awed, flawed, glorious and wondrous other beings that give meaning, depth and richness to our lives.

Try to be kind because nastiness is always so tempting.”

. . . * 

{ Yes, And…* } Applied Improvisation, Role-Playing Games & the Importance of Retaining A Childlike Capacity for Wonder …*

{ Yes, And...*  } Applied Improvisation, Role-Playing Games & the Importance of Retaining A Childlike Capacity for Wonder ...* | rethinked.org -Photo: Elsa Fridman

A new study on the beneficial effects of positive emotion on physical health has been popping up all over my newsfeed this week. On the Greater Good Science Center blog, Yasmin Anwar writes;

“Researchers have linked positive emotions—especially the awe we feel when touched by the beauty of nature, art, and spirituality—with lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are proteins that signal the immune system to work harder.

While cytokines are necessary to fighting off disease and infection, continuously elevated levels have been linked with chronic inflammation and a whole host of attending disorders such as heart disease, type-2 diabetes, clinical depression and Alzheimer’s disease to name few.

In two separate experiments, more than 200 young adults reported on a given day the extent to which they had experienced such positive emotions as amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, joy, love and pride. Samples of gum and cheek tissue, known as oral mucosal transudate, taken that same day showed that those who experienced more of these positive emotions, especially awe, wonder and amazement, had the lowest levels of the cytokine, Interleukin 6, a marker of inflammation.” (Can Awe Boost Health?)

While the exact relationship between levels of cytokines and the frequency at which individuals are able to experience awe remains unclear, on the Science of Us blog, Melissa Dahl quotes the study’s lead authorJennifer Stellar explaining why cytokine levels function as good predictors of one’s ability to experience positive emotion:

“One reason is that proinflammatory cytokines encourage social withdrawal and reduce exploration, which would serve the adaptive purpose of helping an individual recover from injury or sickness. … [A]we is associated with curiosity and a desire to explore, suggesting antithetical behavioral responses to those found during inflammation.”

One prompt for cultivating more awe in one’s life then, would be to be more intentional about fostering our desire to explore and connect with those around us and our environments. One of the best ways to do just that, which we are all naturally very good at, (or at least were at some point in our lives) is through play. Sadly, for many of us, play is something that gets pushed to the background as we age and we wake up one day worrying we’d look silly or be wasting our time should we engage in play activities. I was happy to come across two resources this week that each addressed this point and showed the importance and benefits of engaging in play as adults. So if better health isn’t motivation enough, check out the two resources below to learn about how play and more generally, being open to the moment, the environment and those around you, comes with a host of social, professional and cognitive benefits.

Patrick Allan details The Surprising Benefits of Role-Playing Games (and How to Get Started) over on Lifehacker. Meanwhile, in the TEDx talk below, Paul Jackson, founder of the Applied Improvisation Network looks at how improvisation skills are in fact life skills which are relevant to everyone– individuals and organizations alike:

“One of the areas that they’re taking [applied improvisation] into now is in business schools. Improvisation is on the agenda of more than half of the top twenty business schools around the world. Leaders are coming to learn skills for the future to build and create new types of organizations in which “yes…and” can be a core part. They learn for example the importance of collaborating with each other and with their colleagues and how to deal with uncertainty and being more confident in a world of complexity and constant change; and these are skills that are available and useful to us all.”


Applying Improvisation: The Power of ‘Yes…And’: Paul Z Jackson at TEDxLSE

“You have two choices in life: you can say no and be rewarded with safety; or you can say yes and be rewarded with adventure.”

{ On Connection & Decision-Making } Thinking About Motivation, Empathy & Storytelling …*

{ On Connection & Decision-Making } Thinking About Motivation, Empathy & Storytelling ...* |rethinked.org - photograph: Elsa Fridman

 When researchers study the brains of people trying to predict the thoughts and feelings of others, they can actually see a difference in the brain activity depending on whether that person is trying to understand a friend versus a stranger. Even at the level of blood flowing through your brain, you treat people you know well differently than people you don’t. – Teens These Days, Always Changing Their Gray Matter

This week had me thinking about the role of connection and feelings of connectedness in decision-making processes. Some of the findings coming out of decision research, which I’ve featured below, raise some very intriguing and urgent questions about the role of empathy and the need to think more carefully about the types of narratives we craft when trying to motivate people to take action or trigger generous behaviors.

“It turns out that our engagement with a cause– it’s not about numbers, it’s not about classes of victims, it’s really about two things: First of all, it’s emotional and it’s with individuals. We have evolved, we are hardwired to feel a certain amount of empathy and connection but with one other person, whom we see, whom we can relate to, not with a hundred thousand people half a world away. The other thing is that we want to feel like we’re having an impact so we want some kind of a positive arch, we want to see a difference being made. And so when aid organizations talk about 5 million people at risk and make it sound terribly depressing, they’re precisely hitting the buttons that turn people off.”

In this Big Think video Nicholas Kristof explores the kinds of connections that link us to social and humanitarian causes and motivate us to give, participate and take action.

“Some of the research about our preference for helping individuals over classes of people comes from experiments where people were asked to contribute in some cases to this child–when it was used, was Rokia, a girl from West Africa–versus a large group of people, millions of people suffering malnutrition in Africa again. And of course, everybody wanted to contribute to Rokia, to that girl, they wanted to help that girl, they didn’t really care about the millions of people being malnourished. But what was striking is that even though we intellectually know that, “one death is a tragedy and a million deaths is a statistic,” that the point at which we begin to be numbed, is when that number, is when N equals two. The moment you added not just Rokia but had a boy next to her and said, “you can help these two hungry kids,” then people were less likely to contribute than if it was just Rokia. Likewise, people are less likely to contribute to a fund to save kids from cancer if the same amount of money is going to save not one life but eight lives. There really is this bias to help an individual. So we have to figure out, obviously the needs are vast, so we have to figure out how to open these lines of communication to move people at an emotional level to help an individual; but then use that empathy then to broaden and to serve so many other people who need help.”

Kristof’s talk had me thinking about Brene Brown’s definition of empathy and how it compares in particular to sympathy: Empathy fuels connection, sympathy drives disconnection. Since our ability to empathize with another person is so dependent on our ability to imagine what it must be like to experience a situation from that person’s point of view, I wonder if thinking about multiple people’s pain or needs makes the illusion that we can share in another’s subjective experience, that we can imagine what it feels like from their perspective, more fragile and difficult to buy into. Could it be that stories and aid campaigns that focus on a single individual drive empathy and consequently the necessary feelings of connection that trigger action while campaigns using groups of people drive sympathy and thus disconnection?

“One of the things that really struck me was there had been experiments that asked people to do some math equations, solve some math problems first, and it turns out that if you do that, that if you exercise the more rational parts of your brain, then you’re less empathetic, you’re less likely to contribute. Those of us who care about these issues, we need to figure out how to do a better job of storytelling about individuals and showing that there is a possibility of hope.”

I think Kristoff raises a very worthy challenge about the need to craft better stories. You may remember a video I shared on here last month that looked precisely at How Stories Can Change Our Behavior By Changing Our Brain Chemistry …* The short video examines the link between empathy, the narrative arc, neurochemistry and behavior by focusing on some of the findings emerging from Paul Zak‘s, a founding pioneer in the nascent field of neuroeconomics, research:

Monitoring the brain activity of hundreds of study subjects watching a video with a simple narrative, Zak found increases in the levels of the neurochemicals oxytocin and cortisol, which are associated with empathic responses. Most remarkable, however, was the discovery that this response also resulted in study subjects taking action, in this case through donating money they had just earned to a charitable cause related to the story they watched and even to fellow subjects. Zak’s conclusion that there could be a universal story structure that functions to connect us to each other might not be surprising to storytellers, but seeing it supported by neuroscience is a tale worth repeating. 

. . . *

Now for a different aspect of decision-making, on New York Magazine’s Science of Us blog, in her article 4 Steps to Making an Overwhelming Decision Easy, Melissa Dahl highlights a recent study on the best decision-making strategy to adopt when faced with multiple options that “all seem kind of okay, like when you’re choosing a health-care plan or looking for a new apartment.”

Tibor Besedes at the Georgia Institute of Technology led a study — published recently in The Review of Economics and Statistics — that pitted three decision-making strategies against each other, and the best strategy was the one that treated the process like a tournament, 
  1. Divide the options into piles of four
  2. Choose the best option from each pile
  3. Put the winners from the first round into a new finalist pile
  4. Choose the best option from winners of the earlier four selections

{ Empathy & The Dramatic Arc } How Stories Can Change Our Behavior By Changing Our Brain Chemistry …*

“It seems like there may be a universal kind of story structure. So stories are powerful because they transport us into other people’s worlds but in doing that they change the way our brains work and potentially change our brain chemistry. And that’s what it means to be a social creature–is to connect to others, to care about others–even complete strangers. And it’s so interesting that dramatic stories cause us to do this.” – Paul Zak  

In this short animated video, Paul Zak, a founding pioneer in the nascent field of neuroeconomics, shares results from his lab where he and his colleagues found that stories that follow Gustav Freytag’s Dramatic Arc could “change behavior by changing our brain chemistry.”

Monitoring the brain activity of hundreds of study subjects watching a video with a simple narrative, Zak found increases in the levels of the neurochemicals oxytocin and cortisol, which are associated with empathic responses. Most remarkable, however, was the discovery that this response also resulted in study subjects taking action, in this case through donating money they had just earned to a charitable cause related to the story they watched and even to fellow subjects. Zak’s conclusion that there could be a universal story structure that functions to connect us to each other might not be surprising to storytellers, but seeing it supported by neuroscience is a tale worth repeating. 

Source: Empathy, Neurochemistry, and the Dramatic Arc via Aeon

{ You Don’t Need to Travel Far to Unhouse Yourself } Being Open To the Potential All Around Us Is A Choice …*

{ You Don’t Need to Travel Far to Unhouse Yourself } Being Open To the Potential All Around Us Is A Choice ...* | rethinked.org

A few weeks ago, I shared a list of the top five things that walking 500 miles helped me understand in a deeper or different way. Here is a bit more context around the third lesson- be open.

Earlier this week, Jenna remarked that we have both been writing a lot about travel these past few months. Perhaps even with puzzling frequency given that this is a learning innovations blog. Yet few activities compare to travel in terms of speed and efficiency at making the ordinary unknown–a critical condition for deep learning, cultivating empathy, curiosity and a host of other learning and flourishing-enabling capacities that fascinate (obsess) us, here at rethinked …*

When we travel, the scope and definitions of what we know become more malleable; we shed our routines and leave behind our habits. Our assumptions are questioned–whether by will or circumstance, or both.

This enlargement of the mundane through added awareness and presence is one of the most fantastic aspects of travel. But what I realized during my walk is that it is possible, easy even, to capture this sense of mystery and presence inherent to travel in one’s everyday. It is a question of choice, of choosing to be open to the present moment.

When I was walking, I met new people every single day–people of all backgrounds, ages and interests. In fact, some of the most meaningful friendships I made were with people I would likely not have been open to meeting at home in New York. I felt significantly more social on the Camino and more excited by the things around me–I peeked around corners; I entered decrepit buildings; I climbed bell towers; I looked up in churches. I felt so eager to interact with the life all around me and I found that many of the barriers I experience in New York, things like anxiety or tiredness, were absent. I wondered why that was and thought how nice it would be to live one’s life as if perpetually in foreign territory. And that’s when I realized how accessible it is to do just that. When I set out for my walk, as I almost always do when I prepare to travel, I set for myself the intention of being open and attentive to the new people I would meet and the new places I would visit. And then I did exactly that, and it was enough, it worked, I lost myself in the best way in the present moment all throughout my trip.

All one has to do is decide to be open to the potential that surrounds us. It seems obvious and it is. But so often we get caught up in the flow of things and we forget that our daily surroundings are teeming with potential for new discoveries, connections and experiences.

There’s a quote from one of Martin Amis’ brilliant novels, Time’s Arrow, which I love and which I’ve shared here before:

Mmm—people! It seems to me that you need a lot of courage, or a lot of something, to enter into others, into other people. We all think that everyone else lives in fortresses in fastnesses: behind moats, behind sheer walls studded with spikes and broken glass. But in fact we inhabit much punier structures. We are, it turns out, all jerry-built. Or not even. You can just stick your head under the flap of the tent and crawl right in. If you get the okay.

We have these ideas of the world being much more impermeable than it actually is. The places, people and experiences that surround us have infinite potential to surprise and delight us, if we just remember to be open. If we make the choice, daily, of asking for the okay.

{ Coffee Culture } and the value of Face-to-Face Communication

In celebration of International Coffee Day, I’d like to talk about how we can rethink one of America’s most coveted beverages. Many Americans love their daily morning cup of coffee. For me, it’s all about the coffeehouse. It is a place where a buck entitles you to stay for as long as you like, and it’s a cornerstone of communication and connection that holds something vital for our disconnected generation.

coffee

[ A History ]

The coffeehouse has been a social hub of public discourse since its introduction into British society in the 1650s. The concept of the coffeehouse immediately resonated with the British bourgeoisie; by 1700 there were two thousand coffeehouses in London, and they were considered “the site for the public life of the eighteenth century middle class”. Initially, these places took on many communal functions, characterized by civil discourse and intellectualism and home to the first modern newspapers and ballot box.  Some go as far as to suggest coffeehouses are the birthplace of modern democracy. Coffeehouse culture quickly caught on in colonial America and became a defining aspect of American culture dating back to 1689.

One aspect of coffee culture that has been retained over time is that of “bourgeois sociability.” Many coffeehouses in 18th century London began to represent community, harmony, and civility.  The coffeehouse was a crucial institution in the development of the public sphere of society because it embodied the “civilized self.”

The modern-day coffeehouse experience, mass-marketed by Starbucks, is one of relaxation, leisure, community, and enjoyment.  It is a respite from the stresses of political and economic life. This redefined purpose of the coffeehouse is, best described by Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place, a cure to the more “jangled and fragmented” American lifestyle.   Oldenburg’s research concerned the specialness of commercial places that served as a location to unwind, relax, and talk.  This social space was coined the “third place” because it was neither home nor work, but rather a place where people simply felt comfortable.  Oldenburg felt that this place would facilitate conversation, both between friends and strangers.  This place has become a necessary solution to America’s interactional ills.  The disconnection in a world of technology and constant work can be offset by the civil engagement produced in the coffeehouse. The public nature of a coffeehouse interaction enables the physical and psychology intimacy of face to face conversation.

[ The Ignition Initiative ]

For the most part, NYC is full of strangers. It’s one of those weird places where you can be surrounded by people but feel completely lonely. Coffeehouse culture here is mostly people conversing with their own friends or students and the self-employed staring intently at their Macbook screens.

However, my favorite coffee shop, Birch, has something called the Ignition Initiative. The initiative presents a new twist on American coffee culture, and it’s one that could really show promise for promoting human connections in a place where connection has traditionally thrived. As can be seen below, the shop has little placards with thought-provoking conversation starters. To participate, one simply places a placard on her table and waits for some one to approach.

Participants in the Ignition Initiative receive an extra free hour of WIFI (Birch provides 1 hour per customer), and it also resolves the issue of crowding, where one person has commandeered an entire table.

photo

I have to admit that I haven’t yet tried this out yet, since I’m usually there to do schoolwork, but I’d love to give it a shot. Would you?

{ Serendipity Playdates } Sharing Moments With Strangers & Opening Ourselves Up for Discovery …*

{ Serendipity Playdates } Sharing Moments With Strangers & Opening Ourselves Up for Discovery …* | rethinked.org

A couple weeks ago, I went on vacation with my cousin. We spent a few days in New Orleans before renting a car and slowly making our way to Memphis. Other than the joy of being reunited with one of my all time favorite people, the food (those shrimp Po’ boys and bread pudding!!!) and the thrill of discovering new places, I was delighted by all the serendipitous encounters we made along the road. Travel is a wonderful platform through which to achieve something I aspire to in all aspects of my life: to make the ordinary unknown, to experience each moment with a beginner’s mind. There is a very peculiar type of freedom that comes from travelling; a sort of exchange between the physical bags one packs and the metaphorical baggage one leaves behind. Routines are disrupted, assumptions questioned, awareness and empathy are reinvigorated as experience is made fresh. As travelers, we are more open to other people, more interested in their stories, and they, in turn, are more open to ours.

I’ve been back in New York for two weeks now and have noticed that what I had left behind is quickly settling back in. I long for those in-between moments of connection and story sharing that kept occurring throughout our trip, but my assumptions about what it means to talk to strangers are quickly taking back their turf. And the truth is that it can actually be quite difficult, in the course of our daily lives, to find strangers who are willing to exchange moments for the sake of exchange, with no “ulterior motives.” There is the occasional chance encounter in coffee shops and parties but often, as an adult, I find that most opportunities of meeting strangers are weighed down by expectations of romantic interest or professional networking.

While I’m always happy to talk about creativity, design, learning, play, empathy and cognition till the sun comes up, what I would really like is to share stories and moments with you, the ones that stand out in Technicolor tones in our memories. I want to know about the softness of your grandmother’s hands, the dent left in the pillow by your sleeping cat, the time you got lost in the woods.

Admittedly, this may be cheating a bit because if you’re reading rethinked * we’re not complete strangers. But here is what I propose: let’s do an experiment in engineering serendipity, let’s share our stories and a moment on a gorgeous summer afternoon. Let’s meet up and go on an adventure, let’s get lost in an unknown part of town or go for a stroll in the park. If you’d like to set up a serendipity playdate with me, please email me at elsa@rethinked.org.

I’m also going to go park myself this coming Wednesday (July 2nd) from 12:30  to 4:00 pm at Café Lalo on 201 West 83rd St (btw. Amsterdam and Broadway). If you’re in New York and have some free time, stop by, say hello, stay awhile.

Let’s share tea & stories

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