Lawrence Williams is an Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Colorado Boulder where he studies less-than-obvious influences on consumers’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. His friends describe him as the Obi-Wan Kenobi of designated driving.
Listen to Episode #42 here
A Less-Than-Obvious Conversation with Lawrence Williams
Our guest is Lawrence Williams. Lawrence is an Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he studies less than obvious influences on consumers’ thoughts, feelings and behaviors. His friends describe him as the Obi-Wan Kenobi of designated driving. Welcome, Lawrence.
Thanks, Pete. Thanks for having me.
If you weren’t working as a professor, as a research scientist, what would you be doing?
I would be trying to make it as a writer, a screenwriter and do something way more creative and living a little bit more, week to week, month to month, trying to get ideas out, trying to push ideas onto the page. Make characters come to life and that thing. I’ve been attracted to this fantasy of being a writer and a creator if it’s comic books when I was growing up or movies when I got a little bit older, novels when I got a little bit older. That idea is still lingering enough that it’s top of mind. Being a professor is a pretty sweet gig.
You’d be pretty much choosing to give up a hard job for a harder job.
In essence, it will be more challenging. I don’t like ambiguity as a rule. It would be going well outside my comfort zone to not know where my pay is coming from.
These fantasies are important. It’s nice to have them. My example of this is basketball players want to be rappers and rappers want to be basketball players.
There’s always that grass is greener on the other side vibe to it. It’s also thinking about what are the skills that I have and what are the interests that I have? How could those translate to other contexts? Some of it is probably preparation, not knowing is the world going to be the same a few years from now if you’re a basketball player and you don’t know if your skills are going to be there in a few years. If your body is going to be there in a few years, thinking about what other aspects of your life will allow you to make a living. I don’t have either basketball or rap skills. This is definitely trying to extrapolate from a limited base of knowledge.
I have played basketball with you. I’ve never tried to rap with you, although we went to karaoke. First of all, you are a fantastic writer. I envy your writing abilities. I know this because we’ve written papers together. I know what the writing looks like when it arrives in your inbox and I know what it looks like when you finish with it. It’s one of many reasons I enjoy doing research with you. Have you tried any creative writing?
Nothing that’s worth talking about. I’ve started many things and I haven’t gotten to a point where I feel like, “This is ready for the world or someone else needs to see this.” Usually, I find myself writing for myself. Sometimes that takes the form of journaling. Sometimes it’s like, “Maybe this will be a blog or this could be a blog post or this is the start of a story. I don’t know how it’s going to end.” Life gets in the way a little bit. Work gets in the way. Actual work is hard to devote an extensive amount of time to write for pleasure and then have piled up on my desk things that need to get written for this professor job.
Tell me about your writing practice. I know you do Thursdays a day for writing for you. Is that right?
Yes, I try to take the better part of the day. I usually leave the office. I like to be around people but not people that I care about a ton. I’ll go to a coffee shop.
Most of the world?
In essence. For me, what’s useful is to be able to focus on what I’m doing by tuning other things out. It’s not the most natural process, but in essence, I need some activity around me that motivates me to key in on what I’m trying to do. I like there to be a hum of activity. Writing in a coffee shop is great for that. Setting up in a spot for as long as I can, as long as I feel comfortable. I try to order something every hour or every 90 minutes, but there are only so many things on a coffee shop menu that can sustain you for the better part of a day. Some of that is intentional. Some of that is the way that life is organized. I have kids. I teach sometimes so a lot of my writing is trying to find a good moment. I carve out that time so that I can reserve it and whoever is sufficiently important like, “This is what I’m doing that day.”
I see you at my coffee shop sometimes. A lot of people struggle with that idea of going to a coffee shop when you have a perfectly good office. You probably have a home office. I feel that same way. First of all, writing in a coffee shop feels less like work. The more I can make my work feel like I’m not working feels good to me. The other one is I find that same thing stimulating enough. If you’re at home, it gets too quiet.
There are too many distractions for me at least at home. It’s easy to start off the plan of like, “I’m writing from home now.” That will do fine for fifteen minutes and then an email comes in, a knock on the door, any weird sound is enough to be like, “I should figure out what’s going on. Let me check that out.”
When I got serious about writing, I did a lot of reading about writing. One of the things that I felt helped me feel better about the difficulty I had writing was all these great writers talked about how difficult it was to write. How emotionally painful it was and how there are many starts and stops and moments of agony. Everything feels too slow. The saying is, “If you want to be a writer, sit at a typewriter and open a vein,” that idea. Do you find your writing to have that element to it? Is the difficult part finding the time and space?
It depends on what I’m writing. If I’m writing for work, I find that it’s time and space. Some part of that is probably due to I’m not as involved in it. Personally, I’m not dealing with a ton of emotions. I’m not dealing with the nature of the feedback that we get and our job is sufficiently impersonal where I don’t feel that pressure that much.
Impersonal means shitty. It’s for the audience. If you get a bunch of shitty feedback, it feels bad. Half of it, you probably don’t agree with.
You can argue with it pretty easily.
[bctt tweet=”Actual work is hard to devote an extensive amount of time to write for pleasure.” via=”no”]
Half of it is good.
We do this work. We review other people’s work where we’re trying to do a good job of it. For me, it feels different than if I’m writing something for myself or if I have an idea and I want to get it out and I want it to be faithful to the initial idea and the set of feelings that I had when it first came to be. I do feel that agony. That’s why I don’t produce as much along those lines. I recognize the difficulty. Playing around with that difficulty is part of the process. It’s part of what keeps it interesting. It’s not necessarily motivating.
Why haven’t you written a book yet? You’re the perfect person to write a book.
Lack of motivation, maybe. The work that we do, there’s not a direct correspondence between how we are rewarded in writing books.
As an academic, at least here, there are universities that do reward it. One of your alma maters rewards it. You have to do it for yourself or it has to work some other game but it doesn’t in terms of your day-to-day full-time employment. If anything, it’s probably a slight negative.
It can make people argue for the idea that you’re spending your time writing this book and that’s the time that could have been more effectively spent producing papers.
Lawrence is my colleague if you haven’t figured this out. He’s three doors down from me. I’ve known you for several years. I was looking at your veto. You look exactly the same and I look several years older.
I thought that. I was like, “I should shave a little bit and trim up the beard.” I was looking at the lines on my face. I was like, “This feels familiar coming here several years ago.”
Perhaps it’s mildly racist saying.
Which one is that? Black don’t crack? That’s mildly racist on the tiniest.
It’s true though, it is slightly racist. Sorry about that. That relates to other things that we have to talk about. We live in a world where you get rewarded for teaching a good class and publishing great papers. It’s a pretty straightforward equation. Anything you do that either gets in the way of teaching a good class or writing great papers is seen by your peers as a distraction. It’s being not serious in some way. You have a family. You do research on meaning, which I couldn’t help but wonder has been informed or motivated in part by having a family. This is for the audience to understand how Lawrence thinks about his family. He has a quote that says, “Mainly, I aim to help my kids grow from amazing, unbridled, goal-pursuit machines into amazing, fully-functioning humans.”
That’s the goal. It takes a lot.
It’s written above your bed.
It’s a mantra, I recite it to myself.
We might be able to cut a few words from that and make it a little punchier, but I get the point.
That was going on the website if you want fun. I often find myself writing things and I have a weird view of an audience where it’s like, “If you have the patience for what I have to say, then I’m okay with you.” I don’t have this natural like, “Let’s punch it up or let’s give it a lot of appeal,” because generally, I don’t want to appeal to a ton of people. It can be edited.
Your research on meaning, turning these unbridled goal-pursuit machines into fully-functioning humans.
That work came from a different place.
What is the work?
We were marketing professors but we’re both trained as psychologists. One of the fun aspects of work, at least for me, has been thinking about things we either know in psychology or take for granted in psychology and how to make that information useful for marketing audience. It could be people on the outside who are doing the work of marketing when they look to academics. What do they find interesting? It can be for consumers as you’re exposed to marketing and you think about your own reactions, your feelings, your emotions. How can you use anything that we have to say to make your life better? We started thinking about meaning and consumption. The things that we buy, the things that we use, the places we go, the services we use. Where’s the intersection between those activities that can feel shallow in a materialistic world? How do we let those activities inform who we are as people and elevate us and provide that sense of meaning, belonging, and connection to the things that we care about in life? A lot of that is informed by various branches of psychology. A lot of it came from trying to get a better handle on why people enjoy negative things.
[bctt tweet=”Focus on what you’re doing by tuning other things out.” via=”no”]
Like raising children.
Making children probably is not the issue. It’s the keeping, retaining and the retention of children.
I don’t have children. Having children would be anxiety-producing for me.
Why is that?
It’s the way I’m wired. I’m naturally vigilant and I’m always on the lookout for problems. It’s part of the reason I’m successful is that I’m a good planner, I’m on top of things and so on. You add a couple of kids to the mix, you’ve got to keep them alive and healthy. It would turn the volume up on that a lot.
I understand that intimately. I’m similar. I have had any success in life it’s come from a bit of a defensive position. I’m trying to avoid bad outcomes. Some people say that’s not the best way to go, but that’s definitely the way I’m wired.
Spoken like a true academic. This field is filled with people with families.
Spoken like a person who grew up in New Jersey.
We’re even dancing around our backgrounds. We’ll get to them shortly.
To the point about meaning and consumption, we have all of these things that we experience them as aversive when we watch a horror movie, when we read a tragic play or when you exercise. We push ourselves to these limits once you indulge in negative feelings. When we started this project, the question is like, “Why do we do that? Why is there value in consuming negative feelings?” Along the way, we started to think about the value comes in this idea that without those negative experiences it’s difficult to get meaning from consumption. It’s difficult to find a meaningful aspect to exercise if it’s all pleasant and breezy and easy.
It’s difficult to see the meaning and interactions with other people or interactions with our community, interactions with values that we care about. Unless there’s some pain component or some complexity to the emotional experience is probably a better way of putting it. Childrearing falls into that category. It’s not consumption in the same way, but it’s definitely whether those aspects of my life at least where I get a ton of meaning. I think about, “What did my kids do today? What were their new experiences? What are the things that they said to me now that they weren’t able to say to me a couple of years ago because of their development? How can I do a better job at protecting and fostering that?” Those conversations with me are also probably the most meaningful parts of my day.
First of all, marketing as a field thinks about people’s needs largely wrong. The models that are being used in the field are incomplete at best.
In what way?
The most common models that you see used as either hedonic versus utilitarian model, very basic. You’re either doing something for pleasure or to accomplish something or even worse like a Maslow’s hierarchy of needs model, which is frankly wrong. There have been some glimpses of some evolutionary stuff, but they’re not widely adopted. In that way, the problem is if you start with a bad model, it leads to blind spots. Both marketing practitioners and marketing scholars when they have those blind spots, they’re either not good at answering these theoretical questions we puzzle over or the real practical solutions that regular everyday people care about. Frankly, these models don’t give people enough credit for being complex and being interesting.
On my first day of class, I teach Maslow and then I deconstruct it to point out the problems with it and point out the good things about it. I eventually move on and I talk about the PERMA Model, this is Martin Seligman’s model. I found it personally useful and professionally incredibly useful, which talks about these different paths to living a good life. What I like about it is the paths that lead to your good life are naturally going to be different paths that lead to mine. Those are revealed in our past decisions. As one of our students, Erin Percival Carter, looked at her dissertation, it depends on where are you in the developmental cycle.
There are natural things that happen and shocks that happened in your life and so on that can shift your priorities at any one time to these different elements. It has pleasure, the goodness or badness of your feelings, which is pretty much always on. It’s always happening. It’s primarily in the sense that we’re experiencing it, but whether we value it or not depends on these other things. Engagement, creative pursuits like working on a screenplay or personal journaling can be that. Relationships. Meaning, purpose in life. Achievement, getting your PhD, getting tenure, these things.
Whole areas of that stuff are completely overlooked, yet if you take into account that someone might be pursuing achievement in their life at a particular time. It gives rise to a whole different set of problems in terms of the things that they’re seeking as solutions. The activities, products, services and offerings, the way that they go about problem-solving in their life versus someone who’s engaged in relationship pursuits. I’m not claiming that the PERMA model is perfect but it’s a starting point, for sure.
The way that I think about it is you have to understand what people are trying to do if you want to serve them. We talk about needs. It’s more useful to think about goals because goals are going to be closer to where the person is and a more reliable route for satisfaction. We can pursue multiple goals that support the same underlying need, but knowing what the goals are gives you better access into knowing the person.
Give an example of that. We sound like two boring academics. The audience is used to funny, sweet-talking people.
This is definitely not where I thought the conversation was going.
[bctt tweet=”Have some activity around you that motivates you to key in on what you’re trying to do.” via=”no”]
I got us going to places.
For example, you mentioned achievement. We’re both achievement-oriented. In some ways, the goals by which we accomplish achievement or the goals by which we feel fulfilled on that dimension if we’re thinking about PERMA, they might differ between us. For you, you have a wide complement of activities that you’re doing that is tied to achievement. The blog is one of those but there are many other things. If I were trying to speak to you from a marketing perspective, knowing what your goals are with respect to achievement is going to be a more reliable way to market to you than just knowing that you’re achievement-oriented. Compared to me, the way I think about achievement might be partially influenced by this other PERMA dimension. They might have more of a relational focus or they might be narrower in their focus, for example. Someone who wanted to talk to me about like, “I can help you with your achievement needs.” They’re going to need a different angle than they will use for you.
When I look at my life, I feel I’ve come a long way since my days as a Jersey boy. Not only 1,500 miles away and living in the west is metaphorically apt. I feel pretty good about myself sometimes like, “I pulled this off.” My joke is that if you plugged all of my attributes into a linear model, it would spit out that I’m supposed to be managing an enterprise rent-a-car.
I was going to say Kinko’s.
It could be if you’re holding onto the last Kinko’s and everyone else had transitioned to FedEx office and you have the Kinko’s sign over your storefront.
Both of those jobs are going away so it’s bad. I’m mostly gratefully to be honest. My question is you plug all your attributes into a regression model. It doesn’t predict undergraduate Harvard, PhD Yale, a tenured professor at Colorado.
No, not necessarily.
What does this spit out?
It could be a middle manager at a phone bank, rental car place, that sounds reasonable.
Have you seen Sorry To Bother You?
I did see that.
Is that you, Cassius?
That movie resonated with me in a number of levels. I thought it was well-done. My brother works at a call center for a while. There was enough physical resemblance between him and Lakeith where it’s gone like a personal, weird and surreal quality watching it with my brother. The lifestyle my brother lives, the lifestyle my sister lives, the life that many of my relatives live like that. There’s no real great reason why that’s not my life. The one attribute that would go into that regression model that would throw it into disarray a little bit is when I was growing up, I didn’t care enough about what other people in my local environment thought of me. I often think that lack of concern, it’s a little bit of being on the spectrum or something like that. This is a little bit of a lack of natural empathy. Empathy may not be the right way to think about it, but I didn’t care enough about what other people said, about what I was up to, about how people reacted to what I was doing either in school or out of school.
I have a question about this. My mind is racing because it’s something I read. You were an outstanding student. You almost got tracked into higher classes.
Not the whole way. I did well in school from the third grade through the rest of school. In the beginning, I was not doing well so I almost failed kindergarten.
That’s hard to do.
I got hit by a car and I didn’t go enough days or something like that. I also have enough behavioral issues where there wasn’t anyone who was advocating like, “This kid deserves a chance.” I didn’t have that relationship with any teacher in probably high school. It wasn’t until the eighth grade that I got put on some track or a talented, gifted school. That didn’t happen until I was partway through the eighth grade and it was surreal because it was midway through the school year. I had gotten randomized into this new middle school that they formed. I grew up in the city, Elizabeth. They were transitioning from a four middle school system to a five middle school system. They took a random selection of kids from the four existing schools to make up the new school in that year. That place was a disaster. It was a throwback to the movie, Lean On Me. It had those vibes of no one in this building cares about anything that’s happening. It was surreal. Some kind person took pity on me there and was like, “This kid does not belong here,” and made some push to get me into the talented, gifted school.
Elizabeth is a tough town for all the non-Jersey audience. You’re saying that you had this, “I don’t care attitude.” Would there be push-back for you doing well in school? Where were the pressures coming from? How were you buffeted or buffered by that I don’t care philosophy?
It comes in a few ways. Growing up, if you’re a nerd, you’re singled out. When adults like you too much, your peers don’t like that. When your concerns don’t match up with what everyone else is up to, then you get goofed on for that. In the neighborhood like playing football with the kids in the building that I grew up with, sometimes I did that and sometimes I didn’t. If you’re out and you either express a lack of interest in playing football, then kids call you a pussy. If you say, “I want to play,” and then you don’t play well then kids call you a pussy. There’s a way of responding to that type of feedback which is like, “I’m going to get good at this. I’m going to get good at playing football. I’m going to get good at doing the things that the kids in the neighborhood are doing that are high-valued in this neighborhood.” I didn’t care enough about that feedback so you react in that way. I stuck to the things I was interested in, but it’s not like I was interested in anything super special. I wasn’t building rockets in my backyard or something like that. I was reading, trying to learn to speak a little bit. I was active in my church.
[bctt tweet=”You have to understand what people are trying to do if you want to serve them.” via=”no”]
I don’t know where I picked it up, but I picked up this phrase, “Writing is exercise and reading is nutrition.” The issue is the value of good nutrition, in the same way, that the value of exercise is you don’t feel it immediately. It takes a long time to benefit from it. A lifetime of eating well and a lifetime of exercise leads to a strong body, in the same way that many years of reading and many years of writing lead to ideas and a craft and so on. I finished this book called Hackers & Painters by Paul Graham. Paul created a company, sold it and then is one of the founders of Y Combinator. He’s a bright, thoughtful guy. I liked the book, it’s a little uneven. He starts the book out about nerds. He starts talking about nerds in a completely unscientific way. It’s interesting because what he says is similar to what you said, which is why do nerds get picked on? They get picked on because they’re different. They’re different in the ways that you described. They’re like teachers and parents like them and they care about these things that aren’t exactly mainstream. Although in hindsight we wish they were and so on. First of all, he makes the case pretty explicitly that nerds in the long run win, which I agree.
I remember having that moment of clarity as a high school student where my sister was making fun of me for being a nerd. I remember saying, “If that means that I’m going to go to college and I’m going to be able to get a job and earn a living, then you can call me a nerd.” If that’s the equation, then sign me up. What he made an argument is that nerds care about being smart more than they care about being cool. They still feel the tension and they feel the pain, getting back to your idea about negative emotion. Nerds have stories seventh, eighth grade especially, and then in some ways probably add meaning to their achievements. The fact that you were bullied and picked on, called these names, not a good athlete, etc. Makes this a little bit more meaningful is the argument you would make.
That’s definitely a way that we would think about it in our work. I don’t think about it that way personally for I don’t know exactly why. Some of it is trying to think more about situations and less about me. When I think about like, “What’s happened in my life that causes me to be where I am or lead to the delta between where I started and where I wound up?” I tend to focus on the circumstances. This person who pulled me out in the eighth grade, I don’t know who that person is but that person would deserve a lot of credit. I moved to New Jersey from New York in the third grade. I moved away from a school system that was overburdened and under-resourced into a school system that was a little less burdened and a little more resource. For me, that was a substantial difference. Being able to see that increased whatever intrinsic inner motivation that I would have had. The story is a little bit more tied to like, “Here are these circumstances that lead to these outcomes and being able to tell that story.” That feels meaningful and it’s a little bit less tied to, “Here are some direct experiences that I had and then this is how I overcame them.” It’s my way of thinking about my story’s not be oriented.
This is a thought that I have sometimes, which is, “I made it this far. Where else can I go?” I’m like, “Why not?” Privileged kids in the United States grow up with that thought all the time. I have a good friend. His dad was the president of a major R1 university. It’s interesting because when I was on my first attempt to go to graduate school, unsuccessful, I made a list of schools. I applied to them. We were driving one day and he said, “What schools are you applying to?” I listed them all, a bunch of state schools and one of them was Yale. In the end, he nonchalantly said, “You should go to Yale.” I was like, “Why would you say that? You’ve got to find this mentor, advisor, and all this stuff.” He goes, “If you’re going to become president of Rutgers,” which is the school I was at the time, “It helps to have an Ivy League PhD” I looked at this guy like, “Are you crazy?” For him, his dad did it and he knew me well-enough to be like, “You’re not showing me that you have anything holding you back in any way.” As a late bloomer, I sometimes wonder, “I still have a few more years left.” Do you ever have that thought? Is that part of your screenwriting fantasy?
Not so much. I have it two ways. One way goes back to thinking about my kids and thinking about where I am in life is I’m in a position where I can help raise these people to do good things. At least to have that mentality of, “What is it that I want to do in the world?”
I like that saying, “Why not me?”
More personally when I think about it for myself, I care about events in the world and I think about like, “Maybe I would be useful in politics or maybe I can be useful doing more in the community,” like trying to take or think about places like Elizabeth. Think about the full complement of people that I knew growing up who I’m not particularly special compared to the full range of people that I knew. Most of the people that I knew growing up don’t have access to the same resources that I have access to now. Thinking about what skills do I have? What tools do I have? What’s my bandwidth to try to solve a big problem like that? That tends to be where my thinking goes, so less on that creative. I’m sure you get it too like there’s this little bit of an element of like, “I made it out but I don’t want to completely forget where I came from and who I knew and how important everyone else was for contributing to what I have now.” Some of that is tied to my immediate family, but a lot of it is tied to the general state of income disparities and disparities in communities in America. As a professor, as a person who has experienced some success or at least has knowledge of that delta. How much further can I go to address those types of problems? I wouldn’t say they keep me up at night, but they’re definitely things that when I talk to my friends about issues I care about. That’s what I’m talking about more often than not.
For me, there is this notion of giving back. I find it for me manifested in three places. One is my immediate family, my sister and her kids. My sometimes not so gentle coaxing to try to pull them out of Jersey thinking, Jersey living, which is a little bit provincial. It’s a nice place. Lawrence and I make a lot of jokes about New Jersey, but I feel lucky that I grew up there because it’s a diverse place. It’s a place that will toughen you up, which the world demands at least a little bit of toughness. There’s no doubt about that. Culturally, there are some nice things about it in terms of being close to those big cities in the Northeast and so on. I wanted to go west. I was eager to do it. I was scared that I was going to live there forever.
When did you know that you would?
I’d say I was around 22. I was like, “I don’t want to do that.” One is coaxing them to try different things in the world, even if it’s new foods or go to new places or try to think differently. That’s the first one. The second one is with my students. I teach MBAs. Universities do a terrible job of practically preparing students for the world. How can I help my students succeed beyond learning the blocking and tackling of marketing? The third one is for other people more generally. This blog might be an element of that. How do you share ideas with people who are thirsting for ideas and outreach component? Should I write another book? It will be much more focused on advice. I like to give advice. I like to take advice. It would be more like, “Can I translate what I know now to help other people?” I get that idea. I don’t feel I’m as primarily motivated. It sounds like you are in terms of thinking about that. When I look at my actions, it reveals that desire.
That makes sense. I always have the feeling that I’m not doing enough.
There are only so many hours in the day, I get that idea. You’re the Obi-Wan Kenobi of designated driving. You don’t drink?
I don’t drink.
I’ve never asked you why you don’t drink.
I never have. Some people think that I’m a recovering alcoholic and that’s always a weird conversation to be like, “I’m okay. You don’t have to worry about me. It’s not painful at all.” It’s cross-generational recovering from alcoholism. When I was growing up in Elizabeth, there were a few people in my life. My mom’s boyfriend was an alcoholic. I had a couple of friends who lived in my building and her dad was the town drunk. I wouldn’t think of them as negative role models where I was like, “That’s what you’re into? That’s the thing that you cared about the most?” Not for me. I probably came to that point when I was nine or ten and it stuck. I don’t have any reason to change so there it is.
You would have passed the marshmallow test. It’s interesting you say this because I had some alcoholism in my family. I decided as a young man, I’d say more as a teen, that if I never drink I could never become an alcoholic. It was a similar cost-benefit ratio. I started drinking in my mid-twenties.
I experimented with it a little bit and my life didn’t go off the rails. Here’s the thing, drinking is fun. What’s interesting is now I’m doing little of it because the fun is being outweighed by the cost. It’s to me like, “That doesn’t make sense to do anymore.” I know I never needed it. As a senior in college, I went out five days a week with my friends and didn’t need it for a good time. I’m glad I didn’t. My life would’ve been different if I had drunk, certainly as a college student. I’m glad I didn’t. You describe yourself as a semi-retired gamer.
It’s funny I find myself being more attracted to video games as my kids get older because they are becoming attracted to video games. I had good taste when I played games.
What does that mean?
There were some games that are garbage and not at all mentally-stimulating.
I drink whiskey. I don’t drink vodka. I have good taste when it comes to alcohol.
If you had a kid and you wanted to sit them down and be like, “You’re going to drink, but here’s what you should know. Here are high-quality ways to have a good experience and then here are low-quality ways to have a poor experience.” In a similar way with video gaming, I feel I should steer them towards things that are interesting like Zelda or like, “Let’s sit together and let me work through how to play this game. It will be interesting to you,” whereas many things, especially with phone culture. You have these mindless games like Candy Crush. These sorts of sugary, empty, for the sake of mind-numbing but there’s not a corresponding, interesting, stimulating aspect to it.
Problem-solving, creative, I understand. This is how bad this phone thing is now. I was walking behind a slow-walking student. I walk fast and most students are walking slowly, but this was especially slow. I looked over his shoulder. He was walking and scrolling through Instagram. I’m like, “I’m that curmudgeon.” I’m not the curmudgeon. There are many amazing things about life and the opportunities here. I’m lamenting. We need to relax. It’s important to relax and it’s important to have low-energy, pleasurable activities. It’s part of how we’re built. Now’s not the time replace. It’s bad.
It’s hard to fully understand how far we’ve gone as a culture.
It’s been slow.
It’s been incremental bubbling. If you divided up a person’s day and looked at cognitive activity over the span of the day, how much of that for the average person is spent doing the inanest useless things? That’s technology-mediated. It’s not all bad, but I understand this reaction. I want my kids to be not in that stream, in a similar way that I was out of it when I was growing up. It’s easy to fall into the habit of, “I have to be on the Gram. I have to know what’s going on. I have to scroll through the entire Twitter feed before I do anything else. I have to have my phone in my hand during meals.” There’s a more thoughtful way to living that is not unavailable, it’s less accessible.
It’s difficult. I would say I’m high self-control and I struggle with these things. I want to change the subject because I know we sound a cliché right now. I do believe this is important. These students are paying a lot of money. These are ambitious people. They have a lot riding on these couple of years and beyond. I believe that the only solution is habits. It’s not about self-control. It has to be all about habits and it’s hard to change those habits. You’ve reformed the gaming thing. You talked about sugar or candy. It’s called Candy Crush.
I had this revelation. When I was about fifteen, I gave up candy. I stopped drinking soda and I stopped eating candy and I never looked back. It was one of those things that in the long-term I never like. Even the craving left. When I was eighteen, I stopped playing video games, the same thing. When I was in my 40s, I stopped watching football, the same thing. I’ve radically cut back on web surfing, media consumption, in general. To me, they all fit the same definition of sugar. They’re pleasurable in the moment. They have long-term costs. Once you move past the habit, you’re never tempted again because you realize you don’t miss it. They’re interesting puzzles and I’m looking forward to more of the backlash that is going to come.
The backlash from students?
We’re going to reach peak Instagram and then at some point it’s going to be cool to not do it.
Hopefully, we’re at that point now.
Last question, what are you reading, watching and listening to or playing that is good, that stands out?
I am going through a bit of a phase where I am rereading books from the past. I’m about to finish Invisible Man. I enjoy that. Someone asked me about it, I will say, “That’s one of my favorite books,” and I probably have read it three times total. Reading it now feels very alive and there’s a lot of components to it that have a little bit of these lessons for right now, like conversations about what does it mean to be a person? What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a black man? What does it mean to be a black man in this version of America? I think of everything that I’m doing like spanning all media. That’s probably the highest quality thing that I meant to. I also signed it in high school. I don’t know when people read it or if people have picked it up, but I would definitely make a plug for it.
I read that book in high school and I felt I was too young for it. I was a white kid in the black neighborhood and I still felt too young for it.
It’s a tough read.
We make kids read these books when they’re in high school because it’s the only time we can make kids read these books. Am I right about that?
I would imagine.
Catcher In The Rye translates nicely to high school, but others less so. I want to get to others you have. I read a lot. I’m sure I’m on pace for 100 books. I don’t read them all deeply. I skim and sometimes I read a chapter and throw it aside. There are always ten books on my coffee table. There’s an alternative version, which is instead of reading all these new books, most of which are middling is to reread great books on a regular basis. That’s why when you said Invisible Man, I feel like that’s in that vein of you might get more out of having 100 amazing books that you regularly reread and remind yourself.
A little bit more of the approach that I take. I’ll be happy if I get to twenty books.
I sound like such an asshole. I’m like, “I’m at 100 books.”
It’s fine. You’re five times better than me, I can live with that. When I do decide that I’m going to read something, there’s always this what do I like? What haven’t I seen in a while? As people, the books change. When I read Invisible Man in high school, I read it in college and I’m reading it now. I would say that I’m probably three different people at those three stages and the way that the words are resonating with my thoughts and they’re integration is new, novel. That aspect of reading is something that I appreciate a lot. I find myself rereading things either that I’ve picked up in high school or college that I remember like, “I remember that this was something that I couldn’t put down. Let me check it out again or this felt important to me when I was younger. I wonder how it would feel to me now?”
Anything else on your list?
I didn’t have a list.
Lawrence, thank you for doing this.
Thanks for having me.
You’re a good friend and a good colleague. I’m thrilled to get you on the show.
- Lawrence Williams
- Hackers & Painters
- Invisible Man
- Catcher In The Rye
About Lawrence Williams
Lawrence Williams is an Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he studies less-than-obvious influences on consumers’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. His friend’s describe him as the Obi-Wan Kenobi of designated driving.