Why did 3 million people buy a book that tells them to respect their socks?

About a month ago, my girlfriend and I were making our weekly rounds at our local bookstore when she grabbed a copy of Marie Kondo’s “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.” The book was located in a featured section themed around personal well-being and general happiness. The premise of the book, which purports to have sold over 3 million copies, is that cleaning and organizing your living space can be a life-changing, magical event.

A month later and not even halfway finished, the book now lies discarded on the floor beside the bedside table; its reader unable to finish it. As my girlfriend entertained me with her devastating critiques of the book, I began to wonder how a book full of such insane thoughts and unpractical, unsubstantiated claims could have sold 3 million copies in our day and age. This is an actual quote from the book:

“The socks and stockings stored in your drawer are essentially on holiday. They take a brutal beating in their daily work, trapped between your foot and your shoe, enduring pressure and friction to protect your precious feet. The time they spend in your drawer is their only chance to rest.” – from the section: Storing Socks – Treat your socks and stockings with respect.

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Socks that have been treated with respect. Not pictured: the smiling owner

Three. Million. Copies. Three million people have read that it’s important to treat their socks with respect, thank discarded items of clothing for giving them joy when they purchased them, or throwing away any books that do not cause their owners to “spark joy”. This book is The Secret for hoarders.

Kondo’s book  does provide an interesting case and while it hasn’t sparked any joy for me, it has sparked my curiosity. The book is actually a great example that can help illustrate the peculiar literary consumption patterns of many Westerners. If a book with such bizarre advice can become wildly popular, what does that say about the people buying the book and their motivation for doing so? Surely not everyone got duped by bloggers who were paid to cover the book or write fake reviews on Amazon, so if it wasn’t the more insidious reason, then what was it?

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The death of religion in the west has brought about the disruption of many centuries-old traditions, but strangely, our attachment to mysticism has remained. What was once widespread devotion to deities has been supplanted by spirituality and a fascination with Eastern philosophy. The title of Kondo’s book draws on just that; the use of the words “magic” and “Japanese” in the title evokes a response in line with the west’s fascination with Eastern mysticism.

We have a habit of treating many Eastern cultures with a level of respect so high that it often blinds us to the confines of our accepted reality. We associate the Japanese with their traditional cultural values like respect and honour, so when Kondo recommends that we treat our socks with respect, we openly accept this advice due to our preconceived notion of Japanese values despite the lack of factual evidence to support the claim.

The use of the word “art” in the title also reinforces the traditionalist facade of the book, despite the fact that Kondo conjured this “Japanese art” out of thin air. Because of our respectful ignorance of foreign culture, this “Japanese art” was sold to Westerners the same way that yoga, meditation, and fortune cookies have been in the past. None of the previous items in the list are rooted in tradition, but have been packaged as such in order to sell mysticism to respectfully ignorant westerners.

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The other reason why this book has sold three million copies is the “magic” in the title. That magic, however, is not related to foreign mysticism, but transformational magic related to mental health and wellness. One of the prevailing themes in Western culture is a focus on optimizing our happiness. Billions of dollars are spent on improving happiness every year as part of the “happiness economy“, and it seems that primarily among the middle to upper class, nothing is more important than being happy.

In the current developed world, happiness is traded as a currency, with countless products and technologies centred around the notion that we should constantly be striving to be as happy as possible. Our culture’s obsession with happiness is ultimately what has driven the sale of this book to the magnitude it has achieved.

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A great example of the lunacy that has been marketed thanks to the “happiness economy”. Don’t even get me started on a pseudoscience that is the alkaline diet.

When analyzing what motivates a consumer purchase, consumer psychologists and marketers examine consumers and their purchases in the context of their “jobs to be done”. Pioneered by Harvard professor Clayton Christensen, the jobs to be done mode of analysis treats a product like an employee that gets “hired” to do a “job” by the consumer.

When you buy a drill, you’re not actually buying a drill, you’re buying a hole. In a commonly described example, Christensen details how consumers “hired” a milkshake from a fast food restaurant to fulfill the “job” of feeding themselves in the morning while also lasting long enough to offset the boredom of their commute to work. Christensen was seeking to uncover why consumers purchased milkshakes instead of other menu items like a bagel or a donut. Their research revealed that milkshakes lasted longer than a bagel or a donut and kept consumers full longer, hence why milkshakes were “hired” by consumers. In response to this discovery, the restaurant chain designed a special morning milkshake to last even longer by including small bits of fruit and making the shake thicker. Sales improved thanks to the change.

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If we apply this concept to sales of Kondo’s book, we can see that consumers did not purchase Kondo’s book because they were interested in cleaning. They purchased it for an entirely different reason: they were unhappy – or least, they perceived themselves to be that way. Happiness is sold to us through marketing techniques that tell us we’re miserable. In the case of Kondo’s book, the title and premise of the book are designed to convince readers that they won’t be truly happy unless their homes are perfectly organized.

While there is no concrete evidence that a well-organized living space translates to a happier life, the act of organizing or cleaning your home can contribute to happiness. However, it’s not the fact that you’re cleaning; it’s the fact that you’re accomplishing a goal. So while readers of Kondo’s book may feel better after following her advice, the same result would have happened if they set out to organize their home according to any method. As long as they did something, the effect would remain the same.

Cleanliness ultimately comes down to a state of personal preference. You can be happy in a messy home provided you’re checking off the boxes in another area of your life. Creative people are often said to have messier homes and offices, and the reason for this could be that they are satisfying their innate desire for accomplishment through a variety of projects.

At the end of the day, drivers of happiness are repeatedly tied to the process of accomplishment. Essentially, as long as you’re keeping your mind or body occupied, you’ll enjoy a higher relative level of happiness than if you were just sitting around watching TV or wasting time on Facebook. Why Kondo’s book sold 3 million copies wasn’t because 3 million people started living better lives in more organized homes with socks that they constantly thanked. It was because 3 million people bought a book because they wanted to be happier. And if any of them followed Kondo’s advice on a Sunday morning to help reorganize their bookshelf, for that time spent tidying, they were happy.

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A clean home will not make you happy, but cleaning your home will.

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No, We Don’t Need a $15 Minimum Wage

The traditional restaurant owner operates on a very tight budget with slim margins: 36 percent goes to labour, 30 percent to food costs, and 30 percent to operational costs. That leaves 4 percent for profit. While this number can fluctuate – for example, if the restaurant happens to be a franchise, the case remains clear that owning a restaurant is not the most lucrative financial pursuit.

The one factor largely in control of the restauranteur is that of labour cost. Food cost is dictated by a variety of factors like weather, cost of fuel, and the cost of labour needed to actually produce it. Operational costs follow a similar pattern. Labour, as a function of production, is beneficial to the restauranteur if the benefit of labour outpaces the cost of it. For example, if a employee at a cafe can pour enough coffee and sell enough sandwiches to offset the hourly cost of their labour, operations, and food, they are beneficial to the restauranteur and their services will be in demand. If the inverse is true, labour will not be in demand, and the availability of jobs, and the hours assigned to employees who possess them, will diminish as the employer seeks the most efficient way to run their business.

In recent months we have seen a surge of protests, particularly from fast food workers, in North America that advocate for a raise in the minimum wage to $15 an hour. The province of Ontario has recently increased its minimum wage to $11.25/hour. Proponents of this movement insist that a higher minimum wage will result in a reduction of poverty and will increase economic prosperity. More dollars in employees’ pockets means more money that is funnelled back into the economy, right? They also draw on real-life examples in cities such as Seattle that have already mandated a raise in their federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. However, the results of this increase indicate the opposite: a raise in the federal minimum wage will actually harm the economy. How is this possible?

As mentioned before, if the cost of labour is too high, employers will seek out alternatives to try to and reduce that cost. One of the largest changes my parents made with their business after they evaluated their first year their numbers was that they drastically reduced their labour cost by cutting back the hours of their employees. Simply put, they didn’t need that many additional staff to keep up with demand, and the bulk of the hours could be worked by either of my parents. Other employers have sought out similar paths, either by cutting back employee hours or by replacing them entirely with automated processes. For example, some restaurants have enlisted the use of tablet-based ordering systems that eliminates the need for a server to take the patrons’ order; instead, only a few staff are needed to deliver customers’ orders, but the time consuming ordering component has been replaced with technology. A higher buy-in cost, but the long term gains are far greater with the investment in service-based technology.

What will occur, and what has already occurred in cities like Seattle that have adopted the $15 minimum wage hike, is a reduction in available jobs or the closure of businesses altogether. It is overly simplistic to think that employers will benefit from raising minimum to a jump as high as $15/hour, because that profit margin needs to be maintained, or the business providing the jobs will suffer. Raising prices will alienate customers and be even more harmful for business, and the cost of operations will remain about the same, so labour cost is the factor that will almost always be targeted. At this point, one has to ask the question: which option is best? 1) A steady supply of jobs with a lower minimum wage or 2) A diminished number of jobs with a higher hourly wage? Most would agree that low-paying jobs are better than no jobs at all.

Another issue with the proposed minimum wage hike is that it would undermine the value of education in society. The vast majority of individuals who pursue post secondary education do so in order to increase their earning potential. If an individual can earn the same wage at McDonald’s that they can in numerous entry-level jobs that require a university degree, it would stimulate a “dumbing-down” of our society as more and more people would just take the easy way out and seek out easy positions that pay $15/hour. A higher minimum wage would also undermine positions that require a higher level of education, and this would only exacerbate the current issue that new graduates are facing with low paying jobs upon their entry into the workforce. Competition for minimum wage jobs would increase, and those who are more high skilled or educated would win out, leaving us right back to where we began, if not worse off.

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Let me be clear: I do agree with the reason that the #fightfor15 crowd is trying to enact change: there is a massive wage gap in North America, but the solution is not a $15/hour minimum wage. Most of the protestors involved simply do not understand the costs involved in running a business and are unaware of the other side of argument. Even if a business owner sacrifices their own earnings in the interest of equality for workers, that strategy also backfires.Economics is a very complicated social science; we can pretend to understand it by reading the news, even the pieces from the best sources available, but the reality is, a very small percentage of the population actually has a fundamental grasp of the intricacies and mathematical models involved in economics research and analysis. Most of us have an understanding of the economy from those who write news articles about it, and most journalists do not hold a Ph.D. in economics.

Look at what happened when Dan Price, CEO of Gravity, a Seattle payment-processing company, decided to cut his $1 million USD salary to $70,000 a year and raise the minimum wage for his employees at Gravity to the same amount. It made international news, many heralded Price as a social innovation champion, and tons of feel-good news stories circulated the web. What these stories didn’t account for is the fact that talented workers demand higher pay based on their skills, and if they’re not earning a wage relative to their value, they will seek work elsewhere. Clients also fear increased costs of doing business with Gravity due to this wage hike, so they cancel their accounts. Now, Mr. Price has to rent out his home in order to cope with his now floundering business; his strategy backfired. Fear not; there is a solution to the problem of wage inequality that has been recommended by many prominent economists: a guaranteed annual income.

What is a guaranteed annual income? It is a social assistance program that ensures citizens whose annual income falls below the mandated target a guaranteed level of income, which is provisioned with negative income tax, child benefit programs, or other financial breaks for the less fortunate. For example, if Steve makes $22,000 a year working at a fast food establishment (this is roughly equivalent to what a full-time employee earning the $11 minimum wage in Ontario would earn), his income would be supplemented through a negative income tax break, perhaps a child benefit or two if they applied, or other programs that would be in place to ensure that Steve’s guaranteed annual income reached $30,000 per year, which is the equivalent of making $15/hour before taxes at a full-time job.

While the money for guaranteed annual income programs needs to come from somewhere, like an increased corporate tax, carbon tax, or higher taxes for high earners, the social benefits would be immense. The negative impacts of an increased hourly wage would not occur because the burden would be spread to taxpayers, not business owners. Rates of crime would also decrease, as a lack of money and employment stability is the a key motivator for entry into a life of crime. If more people were assured of their financial stability each year, they are less likely to risk being caught for a crime. Many people who commit crimes today are indifferent if they get caught, because jail is hardly a worse alternative; for some it may be even better considering prisoners are guaranteed to be fed and sheltered.

Canada currently has a child benefit plan, the Universal Child Care Benefit (UCCB), which Ivey business school professor and economist Mike Moffat calls unnecessary, as “Bay Street executives, NHL players and, yes, even business professors are given UCCB cheques each month to help cover the cost of groceries and childcare. There is absolutely no need for this, as those groups have more than enough resources to pay for the cost of raising their children, so the UCCB is a failure on both efficiency and equity grounds.” The proposed replacement, the Canada Child Benefit, would provide assistance to those who actually need it: the lower and middle class families who aren’t bringing in six or seven figure salaries. Under the CCB, families can receive a maximum of $6,400 for children under 6 years of age, and up to $5,400 for those aged 6-17. This is but one of many examples of social assistance programs that could contribute to a guaranteed annual income program in Canada.

While the income equality situation in Canada is far from perfect, the situation here is certainly far better than that south of the border. Regardless, the solution to either problem is a not a mandated minimum wage hike. Small business owners are people too, and their lives are far from perfect. The burden should not fall on the small business sector, which comprise over 98% of businesses in Canada; the burden should fall on tax payers to redistribute a little bit of wealth to ensure even that even a minimum wage employee will not have to struggle to make rent and raise a family.

Choices

Why do we work? The easy answer is money, but working has many purposes in our lives. It gives us a sense of accomplishment, gives us a place to meet new people, it allows us to be creative, it gives us the opportunity to travel, and it gives us the chance to benefit others. Above all factors (even money), the importance of a job with fulfilling work has become increasingly prominent amongst the desires of modern employee.

The notion of finding fulfilling work is relatively new. When Samuel Johnson published “A Dictionary of the English Language” in 1755, “fulfillment” was not among the 42,773 words found in it. Johnson did write the entire work by himself over a period of nine years, so perhaps he forgot to include it; nevertheless, happiness and fulfilling work was not a regular part of our vocabulary in the 18th century. Happiness was seen a luxury afforded to the few belonging to the wealthy aristocratic class, and the majority of the population viewed their existence in a much more functional way. Another word that was present in Johnson’s dictionary but not commonly associated with employment was concept of choice.

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Before the mid 19th century, the number of occupations was far smaller: a typical pre-Industrial era commoner could expect to pursue one of a few dozen different roles. Today, the number of possible careers is estimated at almost half a million. Confusion about what type of work to pursue in order to make ourselves feel fulfilled is one of the greatest problems facing new graduates. You would think that more choice is a good thing – variety is the spice of life, right? Well, it’s not that simple.

Before the 19th century, you weren’t concerned as much with happiness and fulfilling work as you were with simply surviving the winter and keeping your Lord or local magistrate off your case by doing your duty to whichever aristocracy you lived in. Today, citizens of developed countries have more choice and freedom than ever, but in a paradoxical twist, these excellent living conditions have caused widespread career choice paralysis and status anxiety.

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A sample of the types of jobs available pre-Industrial Revolution.

We have a seemingly unlimited number of career options and a large amount of confusion has arisen as a result of this situation. In the past your choice was simple: if your father were a blacksmith or a farmer, you were likely destined for the same career. If your father were the King of Denmark, you were destined to eventually succeed him except in the event of a Shakespearean-level tragedy. We do not have the same luxury in our present day. If your father is a physician, who’s to say you can’t be an artist, an accountant, or a heavy equipment mechanic? The abundance of choice is an intense anesthetic for our decision-making process.

A popular narrative spoken today is to abandon the traditional North American corporate world and live the life that you deserve as a young twenty-something. We are bombarded with personal accounts of how people gave up their boring 9-5 job, went traveling instead to find themselves, and now they couldn’t be happier. While the motivation behind this narrative is certainly a noble one, there are numerous flaws with following this path, not to mention the people who hold this view may have a sense of entitlement.

For example, a lucrative salary is an especially high motivator for a new graduate if they did not come from a wealthy family. If you desire to earn a high income upon graduation, do not feel as if you are making a poor decision despite what other people may tell you. They may have been raised in a wealthier family, so the motivation to earn a higher salary may not resonate on the same level with them as it does with you.

The same goes for the desire to own a large home, have a certain number of (or any) children, own an exotic sports car, be a prominent and influential member of your community, or travel and work in numerous foreign places. These certainly can contribute to happiness, but happiness is only universal in our shared desire to pursue it, not by the process in which we achieve it. Choice, therefore, becomes all the more confounding as we progress through life. We may think that we know what will make us happy, but what if we are basing our assumption on what makes others happy? What we may have been unaware of during our decision-making process is the fact that happiness is relative.

Once you begin to understand and recognize that happiness is relative, you can start to think about what things in life, specifically related to your career and lifestyle, will bring you the most happiness. Some people will genuinely enjoy making a lot of money more than others will; same goes for those who want to drive an exotic sports car, live a simple life in a rural area, live a nomadic life working abroad, or be a reclusive author in a log cabin in the middle of the woods. Choice functions as both an enabler and a disabler in our quest for happiness, so it is paramount that we learn to discern between what choices are correct for our own fulfillment and what path are best left to others.

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Choice has also affected another important part of our lives: relationships. As of 2014, 87% of North Americans aged 18-29 had a Facebook account and 56% had an Instagram account, which increased from 2013 totals of 84% and 37%, respectively. Most of us browse one or both of those accounts each day, and almost half of us browse them the moment we wake up. This means that the first images in our brain are of people we know or follow, whether they’re selfies, a picture of them at the beach, or a photo with other people we may also know.

Source: Pew Media (2014)

Source: Pew Media (2014)

Every day, our limits for commitment are being tested as we are constantly being reminded of how many available partners are out there; choice is really screwing with our heads. The rampancy of dating apps like Tinder is also indicative of our addiction to and dissatisfaction with the amount of choice we have when it comes to our options for a relationship partner. The question of “what if?” is an all too common one. If we commit to one person, then we could be sabotaging our chances of meeting our soulmate on our iPhone next week!

As mentioned before, choice is paradoxical in nature. While the number of romantic partners that we are aware of and can choose from has increased drastically from even a decade ago, our mental and emotional capacity to effectively handle them has not. We don’t evolve at the same rate that technology does. While the prospect of meeting a greatly increased number of people is enticing, we as humans are a monogamous species at our core. We live longer, have better overall health, and are generally happier if we are in a committed relationship. This is has been supported time and time again by psychological research.

Many of us are so worried about making a high salary and dating a model to impress our friends that we forget that those things are actually defensive in nature; they’re based on underlying competitive motives to seek external validation from people who already like us for who we are. If we aren’t living up to our potential or dating someone who is making us unhappy, then our friends might be unimpressed, but neither of those are directly related to your annual salary or how hot your girlfriend is.

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As a result of the amount of choice we have available, another problem known as performance bias has creeped into our culture. When you try really hard to impress people, whether that validation is sought from a high-paying job or an attractive partner, you are positioning yourself for a risky fallout. As a result of the increased visibility many of our lives now have, a situation where we have been put on stage to perform for our social media audience has been formed. Now we feel the need to omit all failures from our lives and only broadcast our best and brightest moments.

At surface level, that’s encouraging; failure doesn’t sell or spread, and even if it gives us a twinge of envy, we do enjoy seeing our friends share their successes with the world. The notion of performing for our respective audiences is partly responsible for what motivates us to be choosy; what we end up choosing has to be perfect so it can impress as many people as possible, even if deep down it is actually making us miserable. If we aren’t living a life worth broadcasting to our audience, we run the risk of fading into the background, and eventually, drifting offstage left to watch others star in tonight’s performance of life.

While it ultimately doesn’t matter whether or not we’re prominent in the performance, it can be a haunting notion for many of us to no longer be admired by the audience we created. What we need to remember is that this audience, like our performance we have crafted for them, is entirely illusory.

Our lives on social media are a performance for an audience; both are illusory in nature.

Our lives on social media are a performance for an audience; both are illusory in nature.

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In his 2005 book The Paradox of Choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz concludes that the amount of choice, freedom, and autonomy present for North Americans is encouraging, but interestingly, these liberties have actually been harmful from a psychological perspective. Picture yourself standing in a large dark room with many exits present. If you live in a world with little choice, your path is dimly lit in a single direction towards a door. You’re not sure if this is the right path for you, but it’s the only one that you have available. If you live in a world with an abundance of choice, the entire room is lit up and you’re not sure where you can go. Perhaps the doors are different colours or sizes, but even then you would still have a tough time deciding where to exit, and would likely encounter more anxiety throughout your decision process than the single outcome situation in the first scenario.

This is what it’s like to live in our world today. It’s so difficult today to choose between a career, a partner, or what side to order with your burger that we are often struck with a case of analysis paralysis. Schwartz notes that we often feel sad after making decisions because of missed opportunities. We have cases of FOMO and envy relating to what our peers are doing, but we need to understand that we can’t have it all.

No choice is perfect, so as long as you understand yourself fairly well and have a good idea about what career is right for you or what constitutes a healthy relationship, you shouldn’t be doubtful of your decision. Take note of expert consensus, not anecdotal evidence. According to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, our imaginations are actually poor predictors of what will make us happy. Relying on the informed opinion of experts or their reported experiences related to a decision you’re evaluating is far better than simply taking one person’s word for it. Being flexible as it relates to goals is also crucial for positive outcomes of decision making.

A thorough and concrete understanding of one’s self and honest reflection throughout the process are the keys to determining what sort of career or partner is best for you. Additionally, remember that happiness is relative. Humans are adept at finding happiness no matter what their environment, so choose the one that’s best suited to your tastes. Trying hard to impress an artificial audience with an illusory portrayal of your life will only induce more anxiety, not curb it. Above all else, recognize the paradox of choice and remain organized and focused throughout your decision-making process; you’ll thank yourself for it years later knowing you made the correct choice for yourself.

 

Further reading

“The Paradox of Choice” by Dr. Barry Schwartz

“How to Find Fulfilling Work” by Dr. Roman Krznaric

“Stumbling on Happiness” by Dr. Daniel Gilbert

“The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlment” by Jean M. Twenge & W. Keith Campbell

The Staggering Bullshit of Self-Referential Journalism

I recently came across an article entitled “Why ‘C’ Students Usually End up Being the Most Successful in Life”. The author of the article argues that the most successful people in the world are those who got mediocre grades throughout their life and “didn’t allow their academic experiences to deter them from rising to the top.” I’m normally one to ignore Elite Daily articles, but this article struck a chord with me, because it is a perfect example of the type of self-referential bullshit peddled by most journalism targeted at Millennials today.

What do I mean by self-referential? I mean the types of articles that try to get every reader to pigeon hole themselves with the titular archetype described in the article. For example, in the aforementioned article, a reader who is currently pulling a C average may think that they too will be successful because they are going through similar hardships to the success stories described in the article. This is a dangerous connection to promote, though, because it completely ignores the myriad of factors responsible for success to the magnitude of becoming President or becoming a billionaire. The problem with self-referential articles of this style is that they provide poorly described correlation, but no established causation. If these articles don’t provide much empirical evidence for the points that they are making, why are they so popular? I’ll seek to answer that question later on, but first, let’s critique the article to see what’s so wrong about this particular piece.

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Let’s begin with the examples the author uses to illustrate his point. Former US Presidents George W. Bush, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, George H.W. Bush, and Vice President Joe Biden are all listed. Additionally, the late Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Elizabeth Holmes, and Sir Richard Branson are listed as entrepreneurial evidence that poor students make successful people. What about the qualities the author describes? According to the article, “Success requires passion, perseverance, emotional intelligence, and the ability to understand the value of failure.” All admirable attributes, but are these qualities only bred in individuals who achieve a sub-par academic standing?

George W. Bush

George W. Bush

Of all of the Presidents listed, George W. Bush is the most well-known for his academic struggles. What the author seems to ignore is the impact of nepotism. Bush, along with every other President he lists, came from a wealthy, well-connected family, including the former, whose father also happened to be President. It’s not like he had a tough upbringing. Kennedy came from a wealthy Massachusetts family that was heavily involved in politics. Johnson came from a similar background, except that his father lost the family’s wealth for a brief period, but not before he was well known in the Texas political scene. While Vice President Biden was hardly a model student, he still made it to law school, graduated, and was admitted to the Delaware Bar in 1969.

Let’s move to the entrepreneurs. Steve Jobs was brilliant, and only dropped out of school because the financial strain was too great on his parents. Bill Gates came from an upper class family, was programming when he was 12, scored a 1590 (out of 1600) on his SAT, was a National Merit Scholar, and only dropped out of Harvard because he was going to start Microsoft. Hardly a C student. Zuckerberg, the son of a dentist & psychiatrist parents, dropped out for similar reasons, and was also a brilliant and gifted student in high school like Gates was. Holmes was a star student at Stanford and received a scholarship from the university to pursue an independent research project, which eventually evolved into Theranos, the company that made her the youngest female billionaire in history. Branson already had his business well in motion when he finished preparatory school, not to mention his father was a lawyer and his grandfather a judge.

So despite the fact that the author is conflating dropping out of an Ivy league school because you have better prospects with being a ‘C’ student, let’s evaluate a larger sample size to further disprove his argument; say, the top 20 richest people in the world (from Forbes).

1. Bill Gates – see above

2. Carlos Slim – Civil Engineering degree

3. Warren Buffett – M.Sc. in Economics from Columbia

4. Amancio Ortega – No educational info

5. Larry Ellison – Drop out, no information on academic performance

6. Charles Koch – M.S. in mechanical and chemical engineering from MIT

7. David Koch – M.S. in chemical engineering from MIT

8. Christy Walton – Inheritance

9. Jim Walton – Inheritance

10. Liliane Bettencourt – Inheritance

11. Alice Walton – Inheritance

12. S. Robson Walton – Inheritance

13. Bernard Arnault – Engineering from Ecole Polytechnique

14. Michael Bloomberg – MBA Harvard Business School

15. Jeff Bezos – B.Sc Electrical Engineering/Computer Science, Princeton

16. Mark Zuckerberg – see above paragraph

17. Li Ka-Shing – forced to leave school at age 15 due to father’s death

18. Sheldon Adelson – dropped out of college, discharged from the army, began a career in sales

19. Larry Page – M.S. Computer Science, dropout of Stanford’s Computer Science Ph.D. program

20. Sergey Brin – B.Sc Mathematics, dropped out of Stanford’s Computer Science Ph.D. program

As you can see, the common trends seen among the above are that the extremely wealthy in the world were hardly average students, and only dropped out of university to pursue better options, which ended up being the businesses that made them the billionaires they are today. While there are some outliers, such as billionaires who inherited their fortunes or worked their way up through a sales career, the prevailing theme is that most of the world’s most successful people got to where they are because of intelligence or nepotism, and because they studied engineering, computers, business, or even a combination of the three.

While intelligence may be hard to measure with one specific method, the fact remains that almost all of these billionaires also attended prestigious schools. Even if their admittance was not indicative of their intelligence (George W. Bush did attend Yale after all) the fact that these individuals were surrounded by intelligent peers and offspring of the elite surely contributed to their success. Page and Brin formed Google after they met as Ph.D. students at Stanford. Zuckerberg didn’t create Facebook by himself. Holmes was able to create Theranos in part thanks to the mentorship provided by her brilliant mentors at Stanford. The author clearly does not understand how successful people are created, and it is quite unfortunate that they are voicing such a poorly misinformed opinion on a popular website read by millions each month.

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Fame and fortune to the magnitude of being a billionaire is incredibly hard to come by, and while it would be a terrible thing to give up on your dreams if you buy into the odds, it is equally as foolish to buy into the self-referential garbage being promoted by articles like the one discussed above. In North America, the youth of the past few decades have been raised to think that they are all special. For me to state the opposite would be met with a great deal of criticism because our culture celebrates individuality and shuns normalcy and the average. However, the notion that everyone is exceptionally special is in fact a dangerous myth; anyone who understands statistics will tell you that.

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With over 7 billion people on the planet, perhaps we should begin to accept that we might be more similar than we think? By rejecting the notion that we are all special, great things are destined for us, and bad things should never happen to us because, as special people, we don’t deserve such misfortune, perhaps we can begin to cope with the reality that not everyone is destined to become rich and famous. We should learn to accept the fact that it is perfectly acceptable to lead an average life, so long as one is happy with their existence and the hobbies and interests they pursue.

An article that paradoxically promotes poor academic performance and success is a symptom of our narcissistic and entitled culture. We are curiously led to believe that we will be successful, whether that be through fame, fortune, or both, simply due to the fact that we have gone through a few hardships in life due to a below average GPA. What may be difficult to acknowledge is the fact that hard work is often not enough; extraordinary financial gain takes more than that, otherwise every single mother who works three jobs would be a millionaire. Financial success is a consequence of hard work, yes, but also upbringing, personal education, parents’ education, peer group, mentors, nepotism, and more.

If this article sounds pessimistic, then the existence of that feeling in your head has proven my point about the entitled state of society today. However, this doesn’t mean that we should approach life with a negative outlook, only a more realistic one. For starters, you should work hard to get the best grades you can. Along the way, if you happen to come up with an idea that you think has the potential to grant you a life that good grades alone cannot, then at least you have the stability of a solid academic standing to fall back on should your idea fail. Aside from extreme cases of success, the best way to a stable, well-paying job is through high academic achievement. Medicine, law, academia, banking, consulting, and other high-paying careers typically treated as “successful” all take your grades into account along with other key character traits. To dismiss grades as meaningless is foolish, but to stake all of one’s worth in them is equally so. Social skills and your personal network are also vital to landing a fulfilling career, so don’t ignore the value of making friends along the way.

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Narcissism and sense of entitlement are on the rise today.

Even if you don’t end up becoming a billionaire, millionaire, or achieving the job you dreamed of getting during your time at school, what you should try to remember is that while income is important to a degree, happiness and fulfillment are achieved through many other avenues beyond financial compensation. When you get to a certain pay grade, everything you buy simply upgrades, but your overall happiness does not. Yes, you can afford a nicer car, a larger house, and more expensive clothing, but in all likelihood, so can your peers, and then you are right back to where you started.

Your high salary will draw you to a larger house, which are traditionally surrounded by other large houses owned by inhabitants with incomes similar to yours. Their cars are also of the same level of quality as yours, as are their other possessions. By attaining a career with a higher salary, you merely further the process of competitive consumption, but in no way do you ever experience some sort of ultimate victory; merely a brief one. That is why it is important to remember that happiness is achieved through other avenues: art, travel, philosophy, religion, politics, and volunteering are but some of the many. Income is subject to diminishing marginal utility: the less you have of something, the more you will sacrifice to get it. Focus on first gaining a life of stability, upon which you can pursue happiness through a variety of interests not influenced by income or status.

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Why is self-referential journalism both so popular and so damaging today? As mentioned earlier, we are an increasingly narcissistic population and we love finding positive support for our idealized version of ourselves, even if it’s incredibly far from the truth. For example, one common misconception many people hold is of their relative intelligence. This is explained by a psychological phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger effect.

dunning-kruger-effect

In a series of experiments, Dunning & Kruger discovered that those who scored low on the tests they administered (known as incompetents) grossly overestimated their own abilities and were unable to accurately position the extremity of their own inadequacy. Basically, people that aren’t that smart don’t know that they are, and this can prove harmful during interactions in general society, the workplace, or other team-based initiatives. So when an article comes out that says that people who drink more, stay up later, and do drugs are also more intelligent, this leads a large group of people to misattribute their social habits to a perceived a higher intelligence than their peers.

 Self-referential journalism also exploits the confirmation bias of its readers. The confirmation bias is “a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions, leading to statistical errors.” When applied to self-referential journalism, it becomes quite clear that these types of articles seek to exploit this cognitive bias and cause readers to create a false picture of themselves in the process.

For example, if an article comes out that says that funny guys are better in bed, sarcastic people are smarter, sexier, and more successful, or that people who have sex every day are healthier, happier, and more creative, confirmation bias will lead people to seek out articles like the ones above that describe things about themselves they think are true. Someone could read all of those and leave thinking that they’re now better in bed, smarter, sexier, more creative, and are destined to be successful, all because they think they’re funny, sarcastic, and perhaps have sex every day (even if that isn’t necessarily true). This can lead to some very inflated egos, and since we are constantly being exposed to journalism framed in a self-referential context, the problem will only get worse.

What can we do? Humility is perhaps the most lacking virtue of our generation. The narcissistic are rewarded in an era of self-promotion and a content-laden news feed. Those who stick to the background are often left behind those who command more attention. It is still possible to command attention without being a narcissist, and that is through earning attention instead of forcing it on people. A good example of this? Compare Bill Gates to Donald Trump. Gates stays out of the spotlight, contributes to the betterment of humanity, has remained faithful to the woman he married, and refuses to spoil his children despite his immense personal wealth. Donald Trump puts his name on everything, had a reality TV show, and has had failed marriage after failed marriage because he opted for the trophy wife instead of the trophy marriage. Look at which one of the two is richest -in both senses of the word – and there’s your answer.

Barely Makin’ It. How McDonald’s can Break Out of its McSlump.

mcdonalds-corporation-mcd-comparable-sales-slump-for-ninth-consecutive-montThe once iconic golden arches of McDonald’s restaurants are crumbling. The company’s sales have been steadily declining for the past 6 quarters, and cost a former CEO his job. What was once seen as a juggernaut in the fast-food industry has faltered in recent years due to a variety of factors.  Steve Easterbrook, current CEO of McDonald’s Restaurants, recently unveiled a plan to halt the international restaurant chain’s recent struggles and turn the company around.

These include refranchising more locations to cut costs at headquarters, restructuring the management of the territories McDonald’s serves to reduce cumbersome decision-making, and finally, improving food quality to better compete with fast casual chains like Chipotle or Shake Shack. Other improvements discussed by Mr. Easterbrook include increasing employee wages, as recent widespread protests against the low minimum wage paid to fast food industry workers seemed to almost exclusively target McDonald’s, who are often conflated with the entire fast-food industry.

Steve Easterbrook attends the annual Confederation of British Industries (CBI) conference in Islington in central London, in this file photo taken on November 26, 2007. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Steve Easterbrook attends the annual Confederation of British Industries (CBI) conference in Islington in central London, in this file photo taken on November 26, 2007. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Like any face of an industry, whether its Coca-Cola, WalMart, or McDonald’s, these corporations are often the first to be subject to intense criticism and ridicule. Unless dealt with appropriately, public outcry can negatively impact sales. Walmart decided to redesign their logo to invoke a more environmentally friendly response and increase their overall environmental stewardship. Because the Coca-Cola company’s presence is more product-based than storefront-based, the criticisms against Coca-Cola have been less scrutinous, so the company has yet to undergo any radical changes, especially considering that the company’s sales haven’t taken a serious hit in recent years.

McDonald’s Restaurants has experienced the most growth in emerging markets like China, Japan, Poland, and the Middle East, while growth in the United States have been relatively stagnant, which is alarming considering that 40% of the company’s revenue comes from its American restaurants. At present, McDonald’s is caught in awkward position. Not authentic or focused enough like Chipotle, no sense of luxury or class like Starbucks, not progressive enough with technology or key mergers & acquisitions like Burger King, and no perceived health benefit like Subway. The key to success for McDonald’s has always been a combination of convenience & price, with food quality taking a back seat. It’s the Wal-Mart principle: no one actually wants to go in there, but sometimes you do because it’s cheap and you know they’ll have what you’re looking for.

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If you examine the regular clientele of a typical McDonald’s location, you’ll see a familiar combination: teenagers who can eat whatever they want and not pay the price (yet), low-income individuals who are drawn by the low prices and convenience, families who get pulled to the store by their children’s desire for toys, and the occasional walk-in of a customer who knows that McDonald’s is awful for them, but they just need a quick bite to eat. We’ll call these groups teenagers, unfortunates, families, and occasionals hereafter.

What McDonald’s has lost is the market that competitors like Starbucks and Chipotle have captured. Coffee is big business anywhere you go, and by offering a product that gives the impression of high status, you attract individuals who are indeed high-status or who aspire to be. With their recent re-branding and introduction of the McCafe additions to stores across North America, McDonald’s tried to capture an atmosphere of vague sophistication, but what they forgot to alter was the actual product itself. Starbucks can get away with charging $5 for a latte because the whole atmosphere of a typical store is designed to elicit a high status response: warm furnishings, jazz music softly playing, free wifi to attract people to sit and enjoy the experience of the store. Effectively, Starbucks has created community hubs with many of their locations, not just a place to grab a coffee.

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Chipotle has chosen a different route, opting to promote the merits of their products instead cultivating a complete upscale atmosphere like Starbucks. The ingredients used in Chipotle’s products may be a little healthier, but the meats and legumes used in their products are still heavily processed and high in sodium. Their recent move to remove ingredients that are genetically modified was another step in that direction, despite the fact that their is no scientific evidence that demonstrates any health concerns related to GMOs. Be that as it may, health conscious consumers will still respond positively to this strategy and continue to choose Chipotle over McDonald’s when given the choice. This is the same strategy Subway used to rapidly expand during the 2000s, albeit with rather aggressive franchising options. Healthy eating sells, even if the health aspect stops at the public’s perception.

McDonald’s largest direct competitor is Burger King, who recently merged with Canadian coffee giant Tim Horton’s in 2014. In addition to making smart investments to benefit the global presence of both companies, Burger King has also succeeded in developing the hi-tech end of its operations with the successful launch of an app used to order food, which in fact has increased the average customer’s spend by 20% according to Bloomberg. Starbucks and Taco Bell have also gotten into the app game, and like Burger King, have the numbers to demonstrate the revenue-generating power of an app.

While Easterbrook’s strategies are outlined in his recent company address, there is still the issue of retaining alienated customers who are choosing options perceived as healthier or indicative of higher status. McDonald’s will have no problem retaining unfortunates due to price point, teenagers due to price point and lack of health concern, families because of Happy Meal toys and playgrounds offered at select stores, and occasionals because of price point and convenience. What McDonald’s needs to focus on is recouping the lost individuals: health conscious trend-seekers and luxury conscious status-seekers. Here’s how they can do it.

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Let’s start with the trend-seekers. The health conscious are drawn to places like Chipotle because of the ingredients and visibility of the food preparation. These consumers are generally more knowledgeable (or at least take pride in thinking they are) so a transparent food preparation system, otherwise known as a sneezeguard, is the key to reconnecting with these customers. Additionally, choice is also extremely important to these customers, as it couples with their knowledge of healthy food choices (or perception of it). While giving customers more control over their order does impact time, items from restaurants like Chipotle or Subway often have a higher average price to compensate. Healthier items often come with a higher price, so consumers do not mind paying a bit more for healthier food as long as they feel they are getting their money’s worth.

McDonald's Golden Arches are seen at the Union Square location in New York January 29, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

McDonald’s Golden Arches are seen at the Union Square location in New York January 29, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Another reason Chipotle has gained ground on McDonald’s is because of the perceived lower carbohydrate content of their products. Despite the fact that rice is just as high in carbs as a hamburger bun is, consumers are comparing a hamburger bun at McDonald’s to a tortilla at Chipotle or even wrap at Subway. Low carb diets are always popular despite no clear consensus if they are in fact healthier or aid in weight loss. Same goes for followers of the Paleo diet. At Chipotle, I can order a “naked” burrito, and forego all carbs from my order and simply get meat and vegetables; same goes for a salad at Subway, but at McDonald’s, my choice and control over my order is much more limited due to pre-packaged notion of their salads. Dieters like to feel in control, so the prospect of choice and transparency of their meal preparation provides reassurance.

What McDonald’s needs to do is incorporate transparency and more choice to their menu. While one of Easterbrook’s goals if improvement was to streamline the menu and eliminate poorly selling items, all that needs to be done is eliminate the variety of meats that need to be prepared, as they are the most time-consuming part of the meal prep. You don’t need to cook vegetables in a food warmer to serve them. Offer a greater amount of vegetables on sandwiches and wraps, and offer customers desirable healthy food choices like avocado or kale. Consider gluten-free options, or at least the promotion of items that already are.

*UPDATE May 7th, 2015* Apparently McDonald’s is set to introduce a new line of healthy salads with ingredients like kale, pumpkin seeds, and couscous. While salads are a step in the right direction, McDonald’s is in the burger business, so salads alone will not save them. The consumers McDonald’s needs to reclaim want staple items that are healthy: this means more vegetables offered on their sandwiches.

What most people are eating for breakfast has also drastically changed, and consumers desire more protein with their breakfast. McDonald’s breakfast is still a staple item for many consumers, but it has become outdated and needs a revamp to align with consumer tastes. Consider more items involving the two top-selling protein items for breakfast, yogurt and eggs. Offer more fruit at breakfast as well. McDonald’s still has the power of convenience; all they need to do is tweak their menu and streamline their protein offerings.

Now let’s consider the status-seekers, who can often be conflated with the trend-seekers; the tastes of the two often overlap. In Australia, McDonald’s has recently piloted a number of concept fast-casual locations know as “The Corner”. As this article in Business Insider describes, these locations offer a more upscale approach to the traditional burger & fries game, complete with a trendy layout, fresh ingredients, and the transparent meal preparation I spoke of earlier. The article is a little misleading, as it implies that all McDonald’s locations in Australia are like this, which is not true. However, if McDonald’s can investigate future renovations to some existing locations in areas where status-seekers are prevalent, the fast-casual approach may alleviate the stigma of McDonald’s being a dining location for the impoverished.

An Australian location of  McDonald's fast casual concept restaurant

An Australian location of McDonald’s fast casual concept restaurant “The Corner”.

The Corner does not have overt connections to the traditional McDonald’s brand, and locations would draw in clients willing to pay a bit more for a heightened experience and a higher quality product. Corner locations would also have the advantage of McDonald’s superior real estate holdings, vast supply chain, and purchasing power with suppliers. These locations could out compete other fast-casual locations that offer gourmet diner style food by virtue of price alone.

One other approach McDonald’s can employ is the strategy that Tim Horton’s has built its success on: national pride and nostalgia. Despite its international reach, McDonald’s generates 40% of its revenue in the United States. Americans are notoriously patriotic, yet McDonald’s seems to have lost touch with its roots, recently burgeoned by minimum wage protests by many of its domestic employees. One other strategy McDonald’s could employ is to try and reconnect with its American roots. The success of this approach is evident in the lasting success that Tim Horton’s enjoys across Canada.

Tim’s, as it is affectionately known in Canada, is one of the most prevalent chain restaurants in the country, but because Tim’s has tapped into Canadian national pride, it remains a cherished part of Canadian culture. Because Tim Horton’s has united its Canadian customer base on one thing they all have in common, their nationality, they have tapped into an almost universal appeal.  Customers who are of the status-seeker variety may choose Starbucks for a coffee, trend-seekers may avoid the baked goods-heavy menu, but overall, the perception of Tim Horton’s is quite positive. Perhaps to reclaim some of its lost success, McDonald’s needs to tap into the patriotism of its American customers. After all, the appeal of Americana is what made McDonald’s such a revered international powerhouse.

It will be an uphill battle for McDonald’s. Thanks to the internet, consumers are far more informed than ever before, and as a result, healthy eating is on the minds of more consumers today than ever. A challenge that comes for chains like McDonald’s is the digital spread of misinformation and rumours that can produce damaging effects on the bottom line of a company. These digital wildfires will continue to be a problem for companies into the future, so in addition to changing consumer tastes, McDonald’s will need to ensure a controversy-free future if they hope to bounce back from their recent sales slump.

Pirates of the Pavement: How Uber is Forcing the Taxi Industry to Change (Whether We Like it or Not)

GTY 495298219 I FIN HUM GBR EN When Alexandre Meterissian, a senior strategy consultant at Hatley, needed a ride across Montreal in the early afternoon, he simply took out his mobile phone and booked a car to pick him up. He didn’t call a taxi; he used the popular yet controversial Uber app, which connects Uber drivers with passengers. When his ride arrived, Mr. Meterissian and his driver experienced a great deal of difficulty leaving the corner of Sherbrooke Street and St-Laurent Boulevard. Two taxi drivers witnessed the Uber driver pick up Mr. Meterissian and actually blocked the driver from leaving. The cab drivers and the Uber driver got into a heated discussion, which resulted in Mr. Meterissian ordering a different Uber driver across the street. The new driver was also obstructed, and actually had to pull onto the sidewalk to escape the cab drivers obstructing his vehicle.

This scenario reads like a chase scene straight out of a Hollywood film, but the controversy surrounding Uber is very serious, and affected cab drivers are not welcoming the service deemed illegal by numerous city mayors, including Denis Coderre, the mayor of Montreal. For those unaware, Uber’s business serves either passengers or potential drivers. An Uber driver can be anyone with a vehicle that meets criteria set by Uber, and these drivers act as independent contractors for the Uber company. A passenger uses the Uber app to order a driver to their location, and the app takes care of the fare (including tip). The driver gets the bulk of the fare, with the rest going to Uber. Passengers can select from a variety of vehicle types, from the general service UberX, which alerts every driver in the area, to more selective services like SUV (for larger groups) or LUX, which sends a luxury vehicle. Essentially, anyone can make money with nothing more than their car and their cell phone, and passengers save on cab fares. Seems great, doesn’t it? Not quite. Uber The problem with Uber is that because these independent contractors also happen to be operators of unlicensed taxis, they run into numerous legal complications with regards to insurance. Uber drivers are not required to hold a taxi license or the particular insurance that comes with that. As a result, it is much cheaper for both driver and passenger to use the Uber service, and this is the core reason why Uber is able to undercut local taxi companies so fiercely.

Taxi drivers protest against an Uber vehicle.

Taxi drivers protest against the use of an Uber vehicle in Madrid, Spain.

The opposition met from local taxi companies is largely due to the fact that Uber drivers are essentially breaking the law and don’t have the financial burden of expensive taxi licensing or insurance, and have been labelled pirates as a result. Uber has also been criticized for surge pricing, which is when the price of service skyrockets in times of heightened demand. The anonymity of Uber drivers is also seen as a major issue; numerous reports of drivers sexually assaulting passengers have arisen in the past few years, and passengers have no way of protecting themselves against this due to the structure of Uber.

An Uber driver was arrested for allegedly kidnapping a drunk female passenger in Los Angeles.

An Uber driver was arrested for allegedly kidnapping a drunk female passenger in Los Angeles.

The street goes both ways, because drivers are also left unprotected against passengers if they turn violent. No standard for security cameras or other protective measures exists in the Uber driver code of conduct. Recall the allegation that Justin Bieber and his entourage violently assaulted a limousine driver in Toronto last year. That driver, Abdul Mohar, was in fact an Uber driver who answered a call on December 30th, 2013 outside Time Nightclub in Toronto. The driver alleges that Mr. Bieber punched him in the right side of the face repeatedly when he refused to turn the music up to maximum volume. If these alleged actions had have caused an accident, the driver could have in fact been sued by Mr. Bieber’s party because he was technically operating an unlicensed taxi at the time, even though Uber does offer insurance coverage of $5 million in general liability. The driver is currently suing Mr. Bieber for $850,000 in damages, but the case is muddled with the legality of being an Uber driver, and the driver could very well lose the case, especially considering Mr. Bieber can afford much better legal counsel. Mr. Mohar has since stopped using Uber as a result. Since Uber is such a new service, the law has not matured enough to properly accommodate cases involving the service.

Justin Bieber is being sued by an Uber driver for an alleged assault on Dec. 30th, 2013.

Justin Bieber is being sued by an Uber driver for an alleged assault on Dec. 30th, 2013.

Despite all of the opposition from local governments and taxi driver unions, Uber will continue to persist within the personal transportation economy because they offer a more enticing service to both drivers and passengers. What Uber is catalyzing in the transportation industry is not unique; this effect has been occurring for hundreds of years, and it all started with the efforts of the swashbuckling sailors we affectionately refer to as pirates.

Some of the Dutch East India Company's fleet.

Some of the Dutch East India Company’s fleet.

Pirates came to be as a result of a revolt against the trade monopoly possessed by the Dutch East India Company back in the 17th century. Often described as the first multinational corporation, the DEIC controlled crucial shipping routes from Europe to Asia, and maintained a workforce that was estimated to exceed one million people. The DEIC possessed thousands of ships, maintained forts and staffed them with soldiers, and was essentially an economic juggernaut. That is, until some sailors decided that the current economic code wasn’t to their liking, so they decided to rewrite it. Pirate ships started out small, but as popularity of the movement grew, so did their targets.

Piracy eventually helped to break up the monopoly of the DEIC by helping to spur the change of employment standards. By today’s standards, the DEIC was not a good employer. Mortality rates were high, salaries were low, and employee safety was not on the map. Despite what we think of pirates, they actually introduced some revolutionary standards in employment quality. For example, it was written in the pirate code that if a man became injured on the job, his salary for that time would increase and he would receive subsidized medical care. Essentially, pirates helped create the world’s first draft of employee benefits – they weren’t just about walking the plank. by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris Pirates have surfaced in various industries throughout history in order to enact lasting change. Past examples include pirate radio stations that broke up the monopoly that the state-run BBC had on radio broadcasts and the peer-to-peer music sharing service Napster, which forever changed the sale and distribution of music. Uber is the latest in a long line of pirate organizations to create change to the code of its industry. While taxi companies and municipal governments may be strongly opposed to the operation of Uber in the cities they serve, the company, or at least the change it is driving, is not going to disappear. Consumer support for lower fares, simplicity of operation, and a chance to earn money on the side as a driver has clearly won the favour of citizens despite backlash from taxi drivers and government officials.

Napster can be considered a pirate organization.

Napster can be considered a pirate organization.

Just as Napster forced the music industry to create better services when it came to distributing and selling music, Uber will force cab companies to alter their rate structure and drivers’ cab rental fees, and it will force cities to lower the price of a taxi cab license in order to compete with the services Uber will offer. For example, to purchase a taxi medallion in New York City, an owner-operator must come up with about $1 million. Corporate medallions can go for more, with prices reaching $2.5 million for a pair of medallions to own a mini-fleet of two cabs. In Toronto, the average taxi license fee has reached as high as $250,000, but that value has dipped to around $150,000 due to a recent legislative change that requires the owner of the taxi license to also be the operator of that vehicle. Toronto city officials estimate the average full-time cab driver makes $31,000 per year.

As problematic as Uber is, the lower fares and better income prospects are forcing positive change in a taxi industry that has seen the price of licenses balloon to unaffordable amounts. The ease of use of the Uber app will also force cab companies to develop their own cab hailing apps to compete with technologically superior services like Uber, Lyft, or car-sharing organizations. The good news for opponents of Uber is that while the overall ethos of the pirate organization will never cease to exist due to its role in the ongoing evolution of capitalism, individual pirate firms are often short-lived. This is due to the formation of new services or the alteration of existing ones.

For example, Napster is now defunct in favour of legally sound music services such as iTunes, Amazon, or Google Music, but that didn’t change the impact Napster had on the music industry. Uber may avoid complete dissolution by diversifying into a legitimate player in the big data scene, but like pirate firms of the past, legal opposition will eventually catch up to Uber and reduce its prevalence in the personal transportation sector. Like it or not, Uber will force the taxi industry to alter their pricing and digital strategy or risk being left behind. Like previous iterations of pirate firms before it, Uber will be remembered as a disruptive, albeit necessary, force of change within the transportation industry, and its influence will likely create lasting improvement, even if the service itself is far from perfect.

Despite protests from taxi drivers and government officials, Uber may invoke positive change within the taxi industry, despite all of the negativity associated with the service.

Despite protests from taxi drivers and government officials, Uber may invoke positive change within the taxi industry, despite all of the negativity associated with the service.

9 Tips For a New Grad Looking For a Job

As a new grad looking for a job, you’re probably faced with a lot of pressure to find a job. The current unemployment challenges facing new grads are a steady topic in the news today, and I wanted to share some lessons that I’ve learned that will help new grads looking for a job.

1) You’re not that special, so stop thinking that you are.

A new grad looking for a job needs to understand one thing above all else: you’re not special, and neither am I; most people aren’t that special. Unless you wake up in the morning and see Bill Gates when you look in the mirror, you’re not that special or important in the grand scheme of things. And that’s ok!

I’m not saying that you should go around hating yourself, but there is an overabundance of self-love and narcissism present in our world today, and a little humility can go a long way.

How can you apply this outlook to get a job easier? You’re going to have to start somewhere, so apply for any job that you can get. Don’t go around thinking that there are certain jobs that are “beneath” you.

My advice is get a position in a client-facing role in order to meet more people. Work in a coffee shop around a lot of businesses that your skills are suited for. Chat with customers. Get to know them and let them know a bit about you. Make it clear what type of work you want to do, but kick ass at the job you currently have to show that you take pride in your work no matter what the job is. Networking goes so much deeper than just attending networking events.

2) Know the strengths and weaknesses of your degree.

New grads looking for a job need to know the ins and outs of their education. Every degree in university has a set of hard and soft skills taught throughout the course of the program. Some degrees are more writing intensive, while others teach data analysis. Some encourage a good deal of collaborative group work, and others require a lot of presentations. Think critically about what your degree has taught you, and what you could improve upon. Volunteer or self-teach to fill those gaps (see later points for further explanations).

3) Recognize what skills are currently in demand. Learn one on the side. Turn it into a hobby.

I was recently speaking to a colleague who works for a large insurance company, and they informed me that there were currently 40 unfilled programming jobs at their office, and almost 1,000 in the city of London, Ontario. More and more businesses are adapting to the times and recruiting freelance digital creative employees, so new grads looking for a job need to consider learning a digital trade, like coding, web design, or graphic design. A sociology degree is all too common nowadays, but a sociology major who has a graphic design side-business can be quite valuable for a company. You can save the company a lot of time and effort while simultaneously enhancing your own value as an employee by bringing more skills in-house than the position requires.

A great way to get your foot in the door is to offer pro-bono work to build a professional portfolio and gain experience with the particular skill you’ve decided to learn. Learned some basic web design? Use your spare time on a few Sundays and offer to build a local church a whole new website. Decided to take up photography? Offer free engagement photo sessions on Kijiji or just by asking around on social media.

4) Volunteer strategically

As we progress through high school and university, we’re told that volunteering looks great on a resume, which is a partial truth. I’m a big fan of volunteering, and I’ve done a great deal of it throughout high school, university, and beyond. There are a great deal of skills you can learn from volunteering, but the mistake most people make when they are listing past volunteer experience on their resume is that they list EVERY recent position they’ve had. The problem with this approach for a new grad looking for a job is that it clutters your resume and fails to tell a clear story of who you are.

When you’re looking into volunteer opportunities, any new grad looking for a job should seek out positions that will help you develop skills that will complement your current value as a potential employee. For example, if you want to get hired as a writer, then instead of listing “excellent written communication skills” on your resume like every other university grad ever, seek out a volunteer opportunity that involves writing. Want to break into the sales & marketing game? Look into volunteering for charities or non-profits that would welcome some assistance in that department. If you can’t find a position, try cold-calling to establish your own. Use your volunteer opportunities to gain experience with the skills that will complement your degree.

5) Create and maintain a LinkedIn profile.

Unless you have insanely good connections or your parent(s) own a company, any new grad looking for a job should probably create a LinkedIn profile. LinkedIn is Facebook for grown-ups, and while most of the site is full of shitty career advice articles like this one (or this one) that won’t actually make a difference in your life and unnecessarily lengthy descriptions for entry-level positions, LinkedIn is still a valuable tool in your job search. A fantastically detailed LinkedIn profile will not guarantee that you’ll get a job, but not having one can only hurt you.

At a basic level, a new grad looking for a job should have a well-rounded LinkedIn profile, complete with a high quality photo of you dressed professionally (or whatever the appropriate context is for the job you seek). Your description should be brief and to the point. You shouldn’t have some pretentious autobiography as your description (see Point 1). Don’t worry about skills and who has endorsed you for them; recruiters don’t pay attention to that (one of my friends has endorsed for “katana”). If you want to up your LinkedIn game, you can look into keyword optimization, a premium account, posting articles on your page, and even try engaging with thought leaders in your industry in a discussion on other articles you see.

6) Don’t forget to edit your resume.

When you graduate from university, don’t forget to trim your resume. Employers sometimes receive hundreds of resumes for one position, and recruiters often take a mere 30 seconds to skim over your application. Resumes that are longer than two pages are usually immediately discarded for the sake of time. You’re a new grad looking for a job; there is no reason that your resume should be longer than 2 pages. Do not list every little thing you’ve done and avoid overly lengthy descriptions of past positions. In fact, I’d advise to leave out the entire description of what your past position entailed unless it was a more obscure one. There’s no point in dressing up mundane tasks in overly verbose clothes. Instead, highlight important accomplishments from past positions, make use of bolding certain key terms, and keep it neat & concise. Challenge yourself to reduce your resume to one page.

7) Fit in with the culture of where you apply

This one may be the most important, because it is often the final deciding factor. I do realize that the first bit of advice was “apply everywhere!”, but applying this advice to any most entry-level positions can only help your chances as a new grad looking for a job. For most entry-level positions, the top candidates will all match closely on paper, but the best candidate is the one that fits into the culture of the organization the best.

For example, let’s say that you’re applying to Lululemon for a entry-level marketing position. You have a business degree, a post-grad diploma in marketing, and you even have freelance graphic design experience. That’s great, and while you may be qualified for the position in terms of your education and experience, unless you fit in with the culture of Lululemon, you may get overlooked for someone else.

The reason for this way of hiring is that at the end of the day, qualifications mean far less than a proper culture fit. The company is going to train you their way, and all of your experience and education will make your transition to the new role easier, but after you’ve been trained is what companies are really concerned about. No one at Lululemon really cares if you graduated top of your class if you’re not passionate about fitness and overall wellness – two values closely aligned with the company’s mission.

A good way to see if you fit with the values of a company is to simply cold call a current employee and ask for a moment of their time to see if they can answer a few questions about the culture of the company. If you want to apply to a bank that’s full of very competitive and athletic people, your own life had better mirror those values, otherwise you probably won’t get hired; people prefer those similar to them, so if you don’t match the culture, your chances of getting hired are slim.

8) Play sports. Join a club. Get outside of your home.

This aligns closely with the previous tip about culture, but following this advice will connect with you with people from all different walks of life that are connected by a common interest or hobby. If you really want to think about this strategically, pursue activities that you enjoy that are associated with more affluent members of society like road cycling or photography. Both of these hobbies allow for constant upgrading as your income and skill level increases, so they attract all sorts of people, but seem to be populated with a good number of affluent members.

Say you buy an entry-level DSLR camera and join a local photography club. A good amount of the conversations that will occur when a younger person first joins a club will be personal ones (what did you take in school, what do you do now, what do you want to do later, etc…). If any member of the club works for a company that happens to be hiring, or they know a friend of a friend’s brother’s uncle that is hiring someone with qualifications similar to yours, a personal referral is worth its weight in gold. It is estimated that almost 80% of jobs are not publicly listed and are filled internally or by personal referral. Take advantage of this and get your face out there.

9) Complement your degree with a post-grad program that makes you more valuable.

Think back to point 2. On their own, most university degrees are not that useful at face value. If you’re not having any luck as a new grad looking for a job, consider augmenting your degree with a post-grad program, accelerated degree, or a new program altogether. Common examples include a post-grad degree in marketing if you took business or psychology, an accelerated nursing program if you took science in undergrad, or a project management diploma if you took engineering or business.

I hope these tips help any new grad looking for a job and that you’ve realized what the underlying theme is: get out and meet people! If you have any questions or want some advice, feel free to contact me via email (listed in the about page).

The Breakfast Snub: How Digital Wildfires Killed Kellogg’s

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The name Kellogg has been synonymous with breakfast for over a century, but the company’s cereal products have experienced a massive sales slump in the past half decade that has led to a loss of hundreds of jobs for factory workers as the company restructures and alters its strategy moving forward. As is customary in the tumultuous food industry, diet trends dictate the flow of sales, and companies must adapt or risk significant losses. The Kellogg story is a particularly unfortunate one because the dip in sales can be attributed in part to digital misinformation.

A report by the World Economic Forum lists massive digital misinformation as one of the largest threats in the modern world, forming a bridge between technological and geopolitical risk. Information available on the Internet is grossly unregulated, which is both equal parts a strength and weakness. The speed and virality with which information can travel is remarkable, and this can cause immediate financial consequences for firms.

W.K. Kellogg, the inventor of breakfast cereal.

W.K. Kellogg, the inventor of breakfast cereal.

Kellogg’s is a major player in the breakfast cereal industry, with annual revenues of almost 15 billion USD in 2013. In fact, the company’s founder, Will K. Kellogg, is credited with practically inventing the modern idea of breakfast. Before Kellogg, North Americans woke up and consumed leftovers, which caused widespread indigestion due to a lack of proper food storage technologies like refrigeration. Kellogg’s older brother John was a holistic physician who worked at a wellness centre that catered to the wealthy, where patrons would undergo expensive therapies that involved enemas and hydrotherapy.

Together, the brothers sought to solve the population’s breakfast dilemma, and due to their faith, they were both strict vegetarians, so the Kellogg brothers needed to develop a breakfast food that aligned with their diet. The result was what we know today as Corn Flakes, the world’s first breakfast cereal.

Kellogg acquired Pringles in 2012

Kellogg acquired Pringles in 2012

Today, the very product that made the company famous has been waning in popularity. In fact, the percentage of total revenue from cereal has been steadily declining in the past decade. In 2000, breakfast cereal accounted for 70 percent of Kellogg’s sales; in 2014 that number shrunk to 45 percent. A $2.7 billion acquisition of the Pringles brand from Proctor & Gamble in 2012 helped to alleviate the damage to Kellogg caused by shrinking cereal sales, but this still didn’t solve the dwindling sales of their breakfast products.

We know that Kellogg – and indeed all cereal companies – are struggling to sell breakfast cereal, but what is at the root of this shift in breakfast preferences? Breakfast hasn’t disappeared from our diet; in fact, 1 in 5 restaurant trips are for breakfast, and sales of other breakfast-related products like greek yogurt or eggs have surged in recent years. So if not a disappearance of breakfast, then what? Ironically, the very same class of wealthy individuals who practiced holistic medicine and other alternative approaches to their health are the cause of the massive sales decline for the very breakfast product invented to combat their ailing health.

Low carbohydrate diets have been a trend throughout history as long as people have been concerned about their body weight, but none of these diets have ever had more proof than what is found in the books coupled to these diets and anecdotal testimonials of those on the diet, particularly celebrities. For example, today’s Paleo Diet was the Stone Age Diet 40 years ago, and the Atkins Diet has been popular twice: once in the 1970s when Dr. Atkins published his first book, and again beginning in 2002 when he published a revised edition.

At their core, these diets are the same based on the fact that they both encourage the users to abstain from consuming carbohydrates. While limiting the intake of carbohydrates is a key component to any healthy diet, eliminating carbohydrates, specifically grains, altogether as part of a healthy diet has never been supported by scientific consensus. Breakfast cereal sales have survived periods of low-carb diet popularity, but it was not until the past decade that health gurus decided to turn their sights on new enemies more specific than just carbs: GMOs, wheat, gluten, and non-organic foods.

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In 2011, a preventative cardiologist from Wisconsin named William Davis published Wheat Belly, a book that proclaims that wheat is the underlying cause of numerous adverse health conditions in our society. Dr. Davis describes wheat as “toxic” and refers to modern wheat crops as “Frankenwheat”, stating that the wheat grown today is nothing like the wheat grown in the 1950s and 1960s. This book had profound effects on the public’s perception of wheat in their diets, despite the fact that none of Davis’ claims are supported by any evidence that can be considered conclusive.

Despite the rejection of Davis’ claims by the scientific community, the ideas promoted by Wheat Belly caught on and helped contribute to the decline in sales of products that contained wheat. A great deal of breakfast cereals contain wheat or wheat products, and the North American consumers’ new found aversion to wheat also helped contribute to the hysteria surrounding a particular protein contained in wheat (and other grains): gluten.

Dr. Peter Gibson is a professor of gastroenterology at Monash University and director of the G.I. unit at Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, Australia. Unlike most people who talk about the effects that gluten has on the body, Dr. Gibson actually boasts the qualifications to do so, and when he and his team published a study in 2011 that described a possible link between gluten and gastric distress, the world took notice. Despite a small sample size and an experimental design that left much room for improvement, the notion that gluten could be the culprit behind everything from gastric distress to autism soon caught widespread attention in developed countries, and the gluten-free industry exploded. By 2016, gluten-free products are predicted to have sales in excess of $15 billion, which is double the 2011 total. Entire aisles in grocery stores now house gluten-free products, which used to be incredibly hard to find for the 1% of the population who have celiac disease and cannot actually consume gluten.

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True to the nature of science, Dr. Gibson and his team revisited their study and sought to improve the design to confirm that gluten was indeed the cause for gastric distress. In 2013, Dr. Gibson reported that the startling results of his first study were not supported by the data of his second, more extensive study. In fact, he determined that the cause of the gastric distress exhibited by patients was not related to diet at all, but rather, the mind. The results of both the 2011 & 2013 studies were in fact influenced by the Placebo Effect. Additionally, the results of the 2013 study provided evidence that gastric distress is caused not by gluten, but by a group of products found in grain collectively known as FODMAPs, which include fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols. Many gluten-free products are also free of FODMAPs, so the effect that people report when on a gluten-free diet may be due to the lack of FODMAPs in their diet. Despite a lack of support from scientific evidence, gluten is still widely feared and omitted from the diets of many consumers in North America.

A classic example of a meme designed to ignite a digital wildfire.

A classic example of a meme designed to ignite a “digital wildfire”.

For the sake of brevity, I won’t go into the case with GMOs and the fiercely uneducated and biased opposition they face from North American consumers, but the examples of wheat, corn, and gluten avoidance sufficiently encompasses the belief system under which these groups operate. It is a system of impatience, logical fallacy -particularly ad proc ergo propter hoc (correlation does not imply causation) -and anti-corporate bias. This system of beliefs is incredibly influential today because of how quickly information can spread and how difficult it can be to fact-check fast enough to keep up with the production and spread of new misinformation. Essentially, before the word can get out that wheat isn’t actually toxic or that gluten is only harmful for 1% of the population or that GM corn isn’t harmful to your health, the world has already changed and accepted this as fact, and the affected industries must cope with these rapid changes.

Greek Yogurt has surged in popularity in recent years due to its high protein content and the fact that it's gluten-free.

Greek Yogurt has surged in popularity in recent years due to its high protein content and the fact that it’s gluten-free.

With regards to what we eat for breakfast, the influence of this school of thought has resulted in a drastic change. Cereal sales are significantly down, while yogurt and egg sales are surging. In fact, rival cereal giant General Mills made the strategic purchase of Yoplait, one of the largest yogurt companies in the world, for $2.2 billion to ensure stability. The reason behind these changes is the result of the misinformation spread by anti-wheat, anti-gluten, and anti-GMO (essentially, anti-corporate) consumer mindsets that have trickled down to the masses from the select few fringe groups who aggressively promote their agendas.

-1x-1Protein has become a popular selling point in recent years, as evidenced by the increase in yogurt and egg sales, and further evidenced by the increase in sales by cereals that advertise their high protein content. For example, in the graph pictured above, we can see that the award for top sales increase belongs to Special K Protein, while the largest drop belongs to numerous Kashi cereals. This is quite the perplexing result: one would think that a company that markets to the natural, organic-loving crowd like Kashi would experience a surge in sales during a time when the opinions of the very groups it is targeted at reign supreme. However, in Kashi’s case, being organic isn’t enough. For a cereal of that sort to experience a healthy sales growth, it would need to be marketed as gluten/wheat/GMO free or high in protein. Bonus points if it includes a “superfood” like quinoa.

Thanks to digital misinformation, the food industry has become incredibly volatile, and what the WEF terms “digital wildfires” – essentially rapid surges in popularity – constantly pose threats to products or entire companies. It could be as simple as a tweet, slightly more complex like a Facebook meme, and even an article or a book. Every day we are bombarded with messages of what new superfood can cure cancer, what atrocity a big food corporation has committed, or what diet we need to eat or face dire consequences. And most of it is exaggerated, dangerously untrue, or is simply “eat your vegetables” dressed up in fancy wrapping in order to sell books or nutrition seminars.

kelloggs_closure_20131210Sadly, as a result of these constant digital wildfires, a factory in London, Ontario now lies vacant, the 450 jobs it provided gone, and thousands more Kellogg factory workers are at risk. The article in the link quotes a former employee who blamed “corporate greed” for the result of the closure, but unfortunately, if sales are down, companies need to cut a few branches off to keep the tree alive. At the root of the cause is not corporate greed, because if sales and profits are up, there is no need to close a plant. What caused these 450 workers to lose their jobs is society’s lack of scientific literacy and hysteria surrounding the corporate food industry. Digital wildfires related to the food industry caused a shift in diet supported by no scientific evidence, and as a result, 450 people are now out of work and a century-old factory lies deserted.

The last box of Frosted Flakes made at the London, Ontario Kellogg plant.

The last box of Frosted Flakes made at the London, Ontario Kellogg plant.

Experiential Consumerism II: The Benefits of Delayed Gratification

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Anticipation.

People hate waiting for things. We want to get rich quick, lose weight in weeks, and get our food prepared in minutes. Happiness is often viewed as the ultimate goal for human existence, and products & services associated with the above scenarios are marketed in a way that they promise the consumer happiness. Unfortunately, we misattribute the core factors that influence our happiness. We associate happiness with a great deal of personal wealth, luxury possessions, and having a physically attractive partner; all of these traits combine to influence our perception of our status in society.  People exist on the planet who possess these traits who are indeed happy with themselves, but what is often ignored is the entire process by which they achieved their lives.

Much of what we do in our daily lives is influenced by our pursuit of status and the act of increasing it. We want the large house, the exotic sports car, or the incredibly attractive partner to gain happiness, but also to gain the acceptance and envy of our social circle. No matter what level of status you possess in life, the presence of competitive consumption will cause you grief as you try to keep up with what your neighbours are doing. If most of your friends or colleagues drive a Honda Civic, then so must you, lest you be seen as a loser. If one of your friends decides to up the ante and purchase a BMW 3 series, then eventually the rest of the group will follow in competitive fashion or risk losing, and as a result, being seen as a loser – which is incredibly depressing for most people.

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“Treasure hunting” for consumer goods adds to the experience and increases happiness and attachment to them.

Some people choose to simply give up on the game of consumption, accept their fate, and move on with their lives, however difficult that may be. Others decide to remove themselves from the game entirely and go their own way. What if instead of giving up and removing yourself from the game, you instead reinvented the game altogether and played a new one?

I have already described the benefits of Experiential Consumerism in an article which describes the why you shouldn’t buy your clothes at the mall and instead “treasure hunt” for your clothing and related accessories using thrift shops or online outlets such as eBay. There is a second piece to the concept of Experiential Consumerism that involves exploiting the benefit of delayed gratification with the purchase of goods and services.

Two decades ago, most people didn’t know what an email was, let alone how to send one. Today, emails are one of the most common forms of communication on the planet. Just over 42% of the world’s population has access to the internet, which equates to slightly more than 3 billion people. Take into account the 1.75 billion smartphones present on the planet, and you can see how commonplace email has become in our lives. Because of the shift away from paper mail to email, the former now has a nostalgic feel and a high level of affection from those of us who live in technologically dependent society. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that getting a letter or package in the mail gives me a great deal more excitement than getting an email. Part of this is due to the novelty of the experience, but a substantial portion of it comes from the delayed gratification and the anticipatory response generated by waiting.

Anticipation has actually been suggested as a significant driver of happiness, and this effect can be employed to help businesses achieve a greater commitment from consumers as a result of increased consumer happiness. Think back to how excited you got as a kid in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Despite how much we may have hated waiting anticipation of the day made it that much more special. Much research has also been done on the benefit of purchasing experiences rather than material possessions in terms of happiness, but the point of Experiential Consumerism is to integrate experiences to purchases of material goods to maximize the happiness return for the consumer.

Some material goods cannot be avoided, so by including an experiential component to their purchase, firms place themselves at an advantage over their competitors. This tactic is already employed by numerous alcoholic beverage companies, such as Bud Light, whose Bud Light Living campaign is meant to tie an unforgettable experience to the consumption of Bud Light Beer. However, while tying an experience to a product is an effective approach, very few companies have employed anticipation as the prime component of their experience.

As our culture of convenience took precedence in the 1950s with the advancement of technology and supply chain efficiencies, firms chose to cater to then need for immediate gratification as their primary selling motive. In the past decade, consumer tastes have shifted away from those associated with mass society, like big box stores or fast food, and towards a more “authentic” product approach, like gourmet diners or local markets.

A typical 1920s Sears catalog page

A typical 1920s Sears catalog page

Getting parcels in the mail is a more authentic practice, as it harkens back to a time when most individuals in Western society had to order most of their consumer goods through a catalog and wait for their order to arrive by post.

For example, the Sears catalog surged in popularity so much in the 1920s that it was soon referred to as the “consumer’s bible”. The catalog contained hundreds of products for sale, and with the addition of the first credit agency in 1919 by Henry Sloan of General Motors, purchasing consumer goods became incredibly attractive for most Americans.

As buying on credit became the wildly popular method for consumers to purchase their goods, big box stores expanded their business. Soon, basic necessities such as food, clothing, and utilities were being outsold by appliances, entertainment, and automobiles; frivolous purchases that helped declare a consumer’s status were viewed as more important.

The shift away from ordering by catalog and waiting on purchases in the mail towards quick, convenient methods at chain stores dominated the Western economic culture from the 1950s onward, but now the tastes of savvy consumers have shifted back towards receiving goods via post. The care package is a common sight across university campuses, but now companies exist that take care of the hassle of assembling and shipping for you. Numerous companies have popped up that cater to college students, but also to mothers, children, and even military spouses.

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Another service that caught my eye was Spice Post, which allows subscribers to receive a package with two foreign spices that are related to a new region of the world each month. I’m a big fan of cooking and trying new recipes, so this really resonated with me. What is especially telling about the Spice Post service is the fact that it hits on authenticity on two different levels: the first being the postage-based service, but the second is that it caters towards our society’s ever-expanding taste for globalization and foreign cooking. Similar to the care package services, Spice Post removes the hassle of choosing spices at the grocery store, and even provides the subscriber with a new culinary inspiration to out each month. In a year you could have a working knowledge of 12 different types of cuisine!

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Spice Post

All of these services and more use the benefit of anticipation combined with our culture’s growing taste for postage-based goods to create value for their consumer base. Based on how most trends in consumer go, the savvy consumers will be the first to indulge, and once the idea becomes mainstream enough, mass adoption of the business model will occur. Whether you’re looking for a new product or looking to start a business of your own, consider using anticipation and postage as a new angle to deliver a product to your customers.

Competitive Consumption and the Difficulties of Being a Parent Today

 

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Being a camp counsellor was one of the most enjoyable jobs I’ve ever had; I’ve had the pleasure of working at two different summer sports camps for a total of 5 years. As a camp counsellor, you have the opportunity to work with children in an ideal environment designed to engage, entertain, and educate. Like any job dealing with children, it also exposes you to the difficulties of being a parent; specifically, dealing with the stresses faced by children each day with regards to fitting in. Today, one of the most important factors that affects a child’s ability to fit in is their consumption – or more realistically, their parents’ consumption – of various consumer goods available.

We spend more money on consumer goods today than ever before. Economists in the 1950s predicted that with the onset of the age of automation and the increased use of machines in factories, society would see an increase in productivity and a decrease in various cultural limitations on happiness, such as poverty and hours worked. Despite the fact that Canada’s GDP has doubled since the 70’s, we still have relatively similar levels of poverty present in our country, and we’re working more hours than ever before. Between the 1950s and now, something happened that took away all that excess wealth generated by the economy. The answer is quite simple: consumer goods.

There is a ton of overlap in what these devices can accomplish, yet most middle class households possess all three, usually in multiples.

There is a ton of overlap in what these devices can accomplish, yet most middle class households possess all three, usually in multiples.

Sixty years ago, we didn’t have the technology nor the need to possess a laptop, smartphone, and a tablet. Yet today, the occupants of most middle class homes possess two, if not all three of these devices. Some even have an iPod in cases where the music storage on their mobile phone isn’t sufficient. This need was manufactured – rather brilliantly – by companies to coerce consumers into purchasing products they fundamentally don’t “need”, but due to a concept known as competitive consumption, this manufactured need became almost universal. First described by 19th century economist Thorstein Veblen, it is this concept that also makes the premise of fitting in so difficult for children and their parents in today’s world.

The premise of competitive consumption is quite simple. Consumers are divided into two camps: offensive consumers and defensive consumers. If we treat consumerism like a game, those on offense are always first to make a move, and the defence has to react in order to protect their goal, or in this case, their status in society. Think back to when you were younger: picture that kid in your grade who was the “trendsetter” – they were always the first to get the latest toy, clothes, etc. This trendsetter would be on offense; their consumption tactics dictated how the rest of the field would play out. The rest of the class would then react in a defensive manner in order to protect and maintain their status in the group. For example, when I was in grade 10, iPods were the hottest thing going. Before Christmas, only a select few kids at my high school had an iPod, but after Christmas, everyone was walking around the halls with white earbuds. We all acted defensively in order to maintain our status at school and retain our sense of “cool”.

Thorstein Veblen.

Thorstein Veblen.

One afternoon at camp during pick-up time, I struck up a conversation with the father of a boy who was in my group. I had noticed that an alarming number of children had iPhones at our camp, and for the average 10 year old, the practical uses you can get out of a smartphone are limited to music, games, and the odd picture. Essentially, I couldn’t understand why so many parents had purchased an inherently useless (not to mention expensive) product for their child.

I asked the boy’s father how he felt being a parent with regards to the pressures faced with purchasing expensive electronics for his children. He replied that it was frustrating, because as soon as a few kids in the class go ahead and get the latest toy, that puts pressure on your child – and as a result, you as their parent – to keep pace. This conversation highlighted the dilemma of competitive consumption that parents face. Very few of them want to purchase so many products for their kids, but they must react in a defensive manner in the face of an offensive, consumerist outburst from those select few in the group.

Most purchases parents make for their kids are made in a defensive manner.

Most purchases parents make for their kids are made in a defensive manner.

Ironically, competitive consumption is not driven by those with the most money; in fact, competitive consumption is usually initiated by those with the least amount. As Veblen argues, “social status, like everything else, is subject to diminishing marginal utility – the less you have of it, the more you are willing to pay to get some.” Basically, those from a lower socioeconomic standing will spend a higher percentage of their disposable income on consumer goods in order to remain highly competitive against those from a higher class. This factor of diminishing marginal utility is also why massive sales events such as Black Friday and, to a lesser extent, Boxing Day, are so competitive, with the former being famous in recent years for rather violent outcomes amongst consumers.

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The premise of scoring a $29 tablet, or a $200 flat-screen TV, or a cheap video game system is much more important for those of low socioeconomic status. It is so important for some individuals that they will act in violent ways in order to ensure that their attempt at buying a higher status is secured. Unfortunately, the constantly evolving market essentially dooms those making big sacrifices to play offense in the game of competitive consumption. The level of absolute minimum required to live a decent life by society’s standards has steadily been tracking upwards along with economic growth, so those who are playing offense, most of whom are from a lower socioeconomic class, are constantly chasing a moving target.

Even those who choose to “abstain” from being overly competitive and simply play a weak form of defense are not immune to this effect. Eventually comes a time when a consumer product becomes so ubitiquous that even those far removed from competitive consumption, a consumer group known as late adopters, decides to indulge. The only way to effectively remove yourself from the competitive consumption game is refuse to let the judgements of others affect your consumption choices.

As a parent, what is difficult about adopting this strategy is that while adults may be more diverse in their interests, purchases, and consciousness involving the two, children are much more narrow-minded and far less disciplined in their desires. This can be illustrated by an example many parents can relate to: watching their young child play soccer. When children are young, they do not understand the fundamental tactics of soccer in terms of the purpose of each position on the field. A soccer game between young children is a chaotic mass of bodies constantly chasing a ball. Affectionately referred to as “beehive soccer”, the hive mentality of these youngsters is simply to chase the ball around in a swarming mob of little bodies, and somehow attempt to kick it into the other team’s goal.

Beehive soccer in action.

Beehive soccer in action.

Occasionally you’ll get the child who is much more individually skilled and dribbles through the other players with ease, but for the most part, watching young children play soccer is, from a tactical standpoint, incredibly frustrating. They simply can’t grasp the concept of individuality and the role of an individual as part of a team because a child’s mind has not developed enough yet for them to  get a sense of identity in the world.

The same can be related to how children view products targeted at them. If you try to tell your child that he or she doesn’t need the latest toy, video game, or clothing item, they will think that you are insane. Children are easily influenced, and all it takes is that one especially popular or eccentric individual in your kid’s class to influence the choices of the rest of the group. A sense of personal identity in children tends to start forming during their preteen years, and continues throughout high school. This is where cliques start to form, and where almost all humans will forge their tastes as consumers; essentially, what sort of culture or “crowd” they will associate themselves with.

Until this time, it can be very challenging as a parent to keep up with the rampant competitive consumption present in their children’s lives. Due to the transparency of parenting practices and constant engagement via various social media or other online sources, even the consumption choices of parents for the benefit of their kids are starting to play a role in competitive consumption.

A new behavioural tactic affectionately referred to as mom-shaming is now ever-present as a wide variety of information on the how-to’s of parenting can coerce the influencers in groups of parents into adopting new trends. A common example is a group of parents shunning other parents who do not feed their children organic food. Despite no scientific evidence that supports the notion that organic food is nutritionally superior or just plain better for their child, parents will guilt and shame other parents who are not keeping up with their patterns of consumption and what they view as the “cool” thing to do.

Competitive consumption is so rampant among parents because, frankly, being a parent is a highly competitive activity. As humans, we take pride in what our children accomplish; they are our ultimate creation and expression of our knowledge and hard work. But, as this article has hopefully illustrated, competitive consumption is not a good thing; yes, it does help propel the economy forward and further the evolution of capitalism, but from a psychological perspective, it really messes us up.

Picture yourself being born in a low-income household. You yearn for wealth, luxury goods, exotic sports, and a huge mansion filled with attractive people at parties you throw. You soon realize that dream is a little too far off, so you correct your idealist vision to something more attainable. Let’s say that instead of a ’95 Ford Taurus, you wish you could afford a 2010 Honda Civic. One day you get there; working hard has paid off, and you’ve saved enough money to buy your dream car and still remain financially stable; you’ve moved up to the middle class. The problem is, once you have achieved this goal, your 2010 Civic blends in with the hundreds of others you see driving around town. All of a sudden you don’t feel so special anymore. Now you start daydreaming of buying a BMW 3 series. If that dream is one day achieved, you would then set your sights on a Porsche 911 Turbo.

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This pattern will keep repeating itself because as you move up the ladder in terms of income and class standing, what was previously your dream becomes reality, and that reality soon becomes dull. Our dream status becomes the standard platform for our lives, and when we realize that there are many others on the same platform, competitive consumption takes over. An example would be if all accountants in a peer group drove Honda Civics, but then one day a few accountants in the group decided to up the ante and purchase a BMW 3 series. The rest of the accountants would follow suit sooner or later, and eventually the BMW 3 series becomes the new Honda Civic. All of the accountants are once again at the same relative level of status despite owning a more expensive car; you’re no better off than you were with a Honda Civic, despite spending more money. In essence, competitive consumption is a zero sum game.

This constant state of status leveraging is very stressful for all those involved, and unlike adults who can choose to simply pull out of the rat race and go their own way, children don’t possess the same resolve. Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, the book that sung the ballad of Christopher McCandless, can be seen as a reflection of modern society’s rejection of competitive consumption and capitalism as a whole. McCandless was fed up with the depressing state of society and his own life, so he sought meaning through a personal journey and discovery. He either buried or burnt his possessions, and set out on his now famous journey through the United States, ending in Alaska where he eventually passed away due to a combination of poisoning and starvation. Despite McCandless’ tragic passing and his overplayed martyrdom, his actions did send a message: the only way out of a life of competitive consumption is through a complete rejection and ignorance of the judgements that influence our consumption patterns. Such a choice is one of isolation and of great personal sacrifice.

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Obviously, very few of us are ready to simply drop everything and move out to a cabin in the woods, despite what we may affectionately post on social media, so the harsh reality is, the vast majority of us will have to learn to cope with the society we are in. What is important is to recognize that competitive consumption is ultimately a game with no winner, only losers. To avoid losing, you participate. Just because you can’t win, doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the game. In fact, the constant pursuit of the illusion of winning is what many of our primary motivations in life stem from. As part of our pursuit of various goods in the forging of our identity, we must take solace in our lifestyle, not in the products that define it.

What this means is that we need to let experiences associated with products we purchase give reason for our existence, but not the products themselves. Don’t think about what car you want; dream of all the adventures it will take you on. Don’t concern yourself with how big your house is; look forward to hosting an incredible party in it. Don’t be sweat it with regards to owning the latest pair of running shoes; look forward to training for and completing that half-marathon. Thanks to the ease with which we can share information and ideas today, competitive consumption is more rampant than ever. As a result, being a parent on the defensive is especially challenging, because receiving judgement from other parents can have profoundly negative effects on one’s well-being.