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On “The Substance of Style”

On “The Substance of Style”

    • Review of Virginia Postrel, The Substance of Style (2004, Harper Perennial, Paperback)

    Virginia Postrel’s The Substance of Style is a book I’ve been meaning to read for a long time.  Postrel has a rare combination of talents: her writing is fluid, vivid, and memorable, her writing is informed by careful economic reasoning, and despite her expertise she doesn’t assume that her aesthetic and cultural choices are self-evidently better than anyone else’s.  In a quote from a review in The Guardian in the inside cover of the paperback edition, Steven Pinker writes: “In this delightful book, Virginia Postrel invents a new kind of social criticism, one that is economically literate, brimming with psychological insight, and deeply resepctful of ordinary people.”  Pinker’s assessment is accurate.  For people interested in design, aesthetics, and social change very broadly, The Substance of Style takes its place next to her earlier The Future and Its Enemies as a must-read.

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    The Substance of Style cover

      Postrel makes several contributions.  First, her discussion of what she calls “the aesthetic imperative” attacks aesthetic and cultural elitism on every margin.  She engages both those who think that style and fashion are superficial and unnecessary, and she engages those who think that the unwashed masses are making incorrect aesthetic decisions.  Second, she argues that even though they are increasing in importance, aesthetic values are not reflected in conventional measures of living standards.  Finally, she shows that there isn’t really a tradeoff between substance and style.  If you’re familiar with a cliche about selling “the sizzle, not the steak,” as aesthetics get progressively more important the sizzle becomes an integrally important part of the steak-eating experience.

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      Postrel hooks the reader almost immediately with a discussion of the sudden change that occurred in Afghanistan after the Taliban fell:

      Afghan men lined up at barbershops to have their beards shaved off.  Women painted their nails with once-forbidden polish.  Formerly clandestine beatuy salons opened in prominent locations.  Men traded postcards of beautiful Indian movie stars, and thronged to buy imported TVs, VCRs, and videotapes.  Even burka merchants diversified their wares, adding colors like brown, peach, and green to the blue and off-white dictated by the Taliban’s whip-wielding virtue police.  Freed to travel to city markets, village women demanded better fabric, finer embroidery, and more variety in their traditional garments. (p. ix)

      Throughout the book, Postrel revisits this theme and argues that, contrary to the claim that style is a ruse cooked up by manipulative advertisers, it actually touches a deep and fundamental human appreciation for beauty.  Simply put, people value pleasant aesthetic experiences as such.  If you need a cosmic justification, consider what it says about our ability to cooperate for the production of truly beautiful things.  The writer of Proverbs asked the sluggard to consider the ant.  I ask the elitist to consider the iPod, which combines incredible functionality with beauty that is difficult to articulate.  The iPod is the product of countless hours of effort among countless people.  They cooperated to produce something that is visually stunning and that allows you to carry the great artistic achievements of humankind in your pocket.

      There are important takeaway points for critics, entrepreneurs, and managers. For critics, Postrel’s book draws on classical liberal and libertarian respect for people with self-evident and inalienable rights rather than as members of a churning mass waiting to be managed by moral, intellectual, and aesthetic elites (see the quote from Steven Pinker, above).  She disputes the claim that fashion and style are only about status.  Through a number of examples, she argues that while people try to keep up with the Joneses on some margins, a more plausible explanation is that people actually value aesthetic pleasures.

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      The Viking Range, for example, which some critics denigrate as a wasteful status symbol, is considered by some to be an aesthetic addition to the kitchen.  Some buy them for the same reason they buy artwork (p. 76).  Is it to my taste?  Not really, but the fact that I’m an economist should tell you everything you need to know about my fashion sense.  My disagreement with and puzzlement about others’ aesthetic choices is an invitation for me to practice a little humility and maybe see if I can learn something.  My confusion isn’t a license to exercise veto power over others’ choices.

      Postrel emphasizes again and again that “People are different” (cf. pp. 150-152, emphasis in original).  In a recent episode of The Simpsons, Marge criticized the new “ultimate punching” MMA fad by saying “call me a killjoy, but I think that because this is not to my taste, no one else should be able to enjoy it.”  Unfortunately, this is exactly the sentiment a lot of critics express when the call for design restrictions that (for example) prevent people from building houses certain ways.

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      The takeaway point for entrepreneurs and managers is that they ignore the aesthetic imperative at their peril.  Style and beauty aren’t superficial.  They are yet another margin on which people create meaningful value. You can serve great food, but the quality of the food itself is only one aspect of what people want when they go to restaurants.  Businesspeople who forget that the aesthetic imperative matters can manage their businesses into bankruptcy (pp. 164-165).

      And so we return to Steven Pinker’s assessment.  The Substance of Style helps us think about individual decisions and social problems in new ways.  This is a book that is seven years old but that has aged well: if anything, it is more relevant now than it was then.

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      Last Updated on August 16, 2018

      The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

      The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

      No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

      Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

      Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system”.

      A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

      Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

      In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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      The power of habit

      A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

      For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

      This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

      The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

      That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being six hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

      Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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      The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

      Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

      But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

      The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

      The wonderful thing about triggers (reminders)

      A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

      For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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      But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

      If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

      For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

      These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

      For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

      How to make a reminder works for you

      Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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      Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

      Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

      My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

      Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

      I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

      Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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