[Full text of Adam Bohannon’s 2015 Sapiens Symposium Keynote Address]
Thank you all for having me. It’s great to be back in Manhattan and to be back at K-State. And it’s an honor to be able to talk at the Sapiens Symposium. I still remember the night we gave birth to this idea in Waters. So great job on keeping this tradition going.
Prepping for this talk was fun, reminiscing on my time here as an Anthro student and all the great memories. It’s been 7 years since I graduated but it feels like only yesterday that I was learning the intricacies of globalization and power by climbing over lecture seats in Umberger Hall to battle colonizers over fruit loop necklaces during the first World Sim. Or spending my summer at a field school in the Stranger Creek valley, sleeping on a cot, learning just how much patience (and beer) actually goes into an archaeological dig. Or there was the time when Dr. Prins, to demonstrate the effectiveness of different types of technology used by South American Indians, proceeded to chase me through the quad with boleadoras. If you’re unfamiliar, boleadoras are a devastating hunting weapon consisting of small weights on the ends of interconnected cords, used to bring down game by entangling, and sometimes breaking, their legs. Luckily enough, I was able to find a totally unedited photo of that fateful moment.
It’s probably safe to assume that for most of you, job security isn’t the reason you’re studying anthropology,
but because there’s something about the human experience that you’ve fallen in love with.
It’s a courageous thing to do – to eschew a popular narrative that wants to dictate which life pursuits are important and which areas of reality are worth studying and devoting one’s time to, in the quote unquote “real world”. Perhaps some of you always wanted to study anthropology. Or perhaps some of you weren’t aware such a discipline even existed – like me – but once you found out, knew immediately, deep down, that this is what you always wanted to study. But regardless of whatever circumstances ultimately put you in this room, we’ve all experienced the same concerned line of questioning from our friends and family. The first, involves something about digging up dinosaur bones, and the second – the dreaded, patronizing, “real world” question – “What are you going to do with that??”
I think the answer to that question is actually pretty simple.
Anthropology, unlike other disciplines, is a framework more than a specialization. It’s a holistic way of thinking and seeing, both the little things and the big things. And ultimately, this gives us a lot of freedom in choosing what we want to pursue. It trains you to ask good questions, which then lead to more questions, which lead to even more questions. And if you want to know what comes after that, well, as they say, it’s turtles all the way down.
As technology continues to cause the world to converge, the importance of people like you with multidisciplinary backgrounds and holistic minds becomes more apparent. I’ve seen this first hand with the companies I’ve worked with. They’re interested in people who can put the pieces together. People who see relationships and realize the human value of new tools and configurations. In his book, Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky says, “Tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.” For me, this quote is career-agnostic. To me, it means that when the initial shock of any phenomenon subsides, it’s then that the social relevance is realized. Many companies are also realizing this and your graduating with the skills they’re looking for.
I put together a small list that’s one part things I wish I would’ve known and one part lessons anthro has helped me learn after graduation. It’s not really intended to be advice, because I don’t think I’m really qualified to give advice to anyone, but if it can somewhat inspire you as you move through the rite of passage that is an undergrad anthro education, then awesome.
And observe. Embrace and internalize this tenet of anthropology. Participant observation isn’t just a fieldwork methodology, but a way of living. It’s surprisingly easy to float unconscious through life. We see examples of it everyday. And there are entire industries whose bottom lines rely on the hope that we remain in a state of consumer sedation. But please, make the effort to stay awake.
Participant observation turns life into a form of active meditation. Like the Sufi Whirling Dervishes who seek to abandon their egos and come closer to God by chanting and spinning their bodies in repetitive circles. This they say “brings our frequencies together leading to a completion of souls.” Or, in Buber’s terms, forms an I-Thou relationship.
I’m in no way implying that I am anywhere near any sort of enlightenment or a completed soul, but if I am ever to get there, I’m convinced it will be through conscious participation.
On a less spiritual level, it’s also very applicable to a career. I use participant observation and the rest of the anthro toolkit a lot in the work that I do. I work for a marketing company that creates campaigns that seek to reach youth and young adults in a way that changes their behavior around a particular risky activity, like smoking, binge drinking, or using drugs. We create brands around particular youth subcultures, because we think it makes more sense to segment people based on their interests and identities, not on their race, income, or education. We have brands that focus on hip hop youth, alternative youth (like kids who listen to metal and hardcore music), EDM youth, rural youth, LGBT youth, and more.
Everyday, my team has to come up with strategic, effective ways to reach these youth and it can be challenging, especially since I’m sometimes 15 years older than the target. However, it doesn’t matter what the campaign is or what problem we’re trying to solve, I ALWAYS start by reminding myself to be an anthropologist: suspend judgment, understand the youth on their own terms, and do no harm. I’ll go to metal shows, EDM festivals, monster truck rallies, local art shows, or just participate online where these kids hang out – all in an attempt to understand them on a deeper level so we can create an authentic campaign.
And this isn’t unique to just the company I work for now. Every post-graduate job I’ve had has involved trying to authentically understand a target group, whether it’s a consumer, a user, or a rural kid who’s into mudding and noodling in Mississippi. If you’re willing to put yourself in their shoes, you’ll have an advantage over those who prefer to stay in their own.
So participate. Stay conscious. Take on projects. If it interests you, do extra work. Explore ideas and activities you never thought you’d try. Just do more. When I hire people, I look equally or more so at their extracurricular and personal projects as I do their major or GPA.
2. Move around.
Don’t get stuck. Go somewhere you’ve never been. Take a job or go to grad school in another city or country. If you haven’t done any traveling yet, do it. If we are fish in water, moving around disturbs the surface, reminding us of our surroundings. It keeps us from being complacent.
Human life finds its meaningfulness in relationships. And on the most basic level, moving around exposes you to people different than yourself. And if you’re like me, you’re never looking to take anything, but you acquire wisdom along the way.
A story: I hate driving. If I didn’t have to do it, I would gladly opt out. I admittedly get angry sometimes when I drive because I think driving is the most dangerous thing we do every day, especially in Southern California, and a lot of people don’t seem to take the fact that they’re driving a 3,000 pound killing machine very seriously. So when I get cut off, or someone doesn’t use their blinker, it pisses me off. I know this type of stress isn’t very healthy. And, honestly, it turns me into a bit of an asshole. In situations like this when I’m raging behind the wheel, my girlfriend look over at me and says: “Just Be Bali” and let it go.
Every year I make a commitment to travel somewhere, so last November we went to Bali. We stayed a couple days in Singapore first, which, if you’ve never been is an incredibly diverse city. And if you’ve heard it’s like the cleanest place on earth, the rumors are true. It’s unbelievably clean, especially for such a populated place. But Bali is amazing. We were both so enchanted by Bali. It’s so beautiful in so many ways. I got to surf Uluwatu reef, a famous break at the base of the famous Uluwatu temple. We saw one of Indonesia’s most active volcanoes and hung out in a forest full of monkeys. But by far, the most amazing thing we saw while we were there was just minutes after getting off the plane.
This family of 6, on a moped.
And notice how the Dad is the only one wearing a helmet. Mopeds are everywhere in Bali. They definitely outnumber cars and the traffic is insane. Like, I seriously don’t understand how more people don’t die in Bali because of the traffic. But everyone in Bali is so chill. I never once saw anything close to road rage, despite the absolute insanity that is their roadways. And this easygoing attitude carries over into every interaction. The Balinese people are just so nice. I never once saw anyone get offended or take anything personally. There’s no ego. It’s not about them. There seems to be this understanding that on this tiny island, they’re all in this together.
So my girlfriend reminds me, when I’m letting my ego take over, or falling victim to what David Foster Wallace calls my “default mode”, to be more like this baby on the front of this moped. Just “Be Bali.”
So, move around, travel. You’ll meet awesome people, they will change you, and the experience will humble you. And I promise it will make your life better. And don’t forget to Be Bali.
Trying to “find” yourself assumes there is some sort of elusive, yet defined path. It implies that the world is “out there” and all we must do is navigate our way to fulfillment. In my opinion, this will always be an empty pursuit. It’s not so much about the finding, but the creating of meaning and significance.
One of my favorite quotes that I found through Clifford Geertz, but I think actually originates with Max Weber, is “Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.”
This quote has always stayed with me and I think of it almost daily. I ask myself: What am I going to choose to give significance to today? And how am I going to create meaning in my life? These questions are the foundation to a lot of what I do in my life.
I think the metaphors we choose to live by are important. Eric Fromm points this out in his book, The Art Of Loving. It’s a great, short read, and I highly recommend it. I picked up a copy in the Dusty Bookshelf randomly, having no idea who Eric Fromm was, and he exploded my ideas about love and living. His basic premise is that love is a skill that can be worked on and developed. It’s not some magical thing that can’t be explained. He’s skeptical of metaphors like “falling” in love, because it implies this sort of passive event that just “happens” to you that you have no control over. Instead, he says it makes more sense to say we “stand” in love because it implies love is an activity. It’s a giving – or creating – rather than receiving. A lot of things make better sense from this perspective, arranged marriages, for instance, but also just the experience of life as a whole.
Creating meaning and significance in your life could also mean creating your own business. I’m of the opinion that an entrepreneurial mind is important. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a lot of passionate people who would rather create meaning in the world than find it. When I lived in DC, I worked for LivingSocial at the time when they decided that they wanted to create new meaning in social commerce space. The CEO told me, at our Christmas party in the infamous Mayflower Hotel, that he wanted the company to become the connective tissue between consumers and local businesses. I thought that was a great metaphor. The company exploded. In a year, we went from 15 people in a small office above Hooters in Chinatown to over hundreds with locations all over the country.
The company I work for now started as a small startup marketing company with the crazy idea of using for-profit marketing techniques for good. Our President was able to convince a few state health agencies to take a chance on us and we recently surpassed 120 employees. We now have offices in 5 cities, we’ve worked with UNICEF to help design a campaign to help eradicate polio in Pakistan, and we’ve won a $150 million dollar federal contract to create a national anti-tobacco Hip Hop campaign that launches next month. So, be on the lookout for Fresh Empire. You heard it here first.
What the founders of LivingSocial and Rescue have in common is they both are focused on creating meaning. And every entrepreneur I know is this same way.
Anthropology helps us understand that we make the world. It let’s us see through the social constructions that prop up our hidden biases. It may sound cheesy, but the anthropological perspective gives me courage every day to take risks, in my life and in my career. If most of what we take for granted in this world is socially constructed, that means it can be changed. And ultimately, I think that’s empowering.
Seriously, use one of your electives on a finance class or something. Knowing how to manage your money will save you a lot of stress.
Capital is also the language the most powerful organizations on the planet use to communicate. If you learn how it flows, you’ll understand more about how the world works. I knew practically nothing about finance until I worked for a financial tech company in San Diego. I got a crash course in the capital markets and it really colored in my understanding of the world and how businesses operate.
So if not for your own benefit, do it to compliment your anthro education. I think you’ll appreciate it.
5. Read Joseph Campbell
Buy a copy of Power of Myth and read it. Then read everything else he’s ever written. Few scholars have the ability to communicate such powerful ideas as eloquently as he does. His stories, metaphors and analyses of myth are seriously mind-blowing and directly applicable to your life.
“Follow your bliss. If you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be. If you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.”
– Joseph Campbell
But don’t stop there. Read the work and ideas of as many people as you can. In addition to Joseph Campbell, if you’re looking for summer reading, some other people whose ideas have had a profound impact on me: Victor Turner, Emile Durkheim, Clifford Geertz, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Joshua Meyrowitz, Eric Wolf, Karl Marx, Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, Edmund Carpenter, and most recently, Bell Hooks.
It’s probably cliché to say, “never stop learning” but I’ll say it anyway. Soak up everything while you’re here, but even after you graduate, dedicate time to developing your intellect. Like I said before, it’s depressingly easy to slip into unconsciousness when you’re grinding away at a career. So keep introducing yourself to new ideas.
6. Hurry Slowly.
This is a sign I saw while I was on a walk in Bali. I thought it was interesting, so I took a photo of it and Googled it. Apparently it’s a classical greek saying, of which the Latin translation is Festina Lente, or “make haste slowly.” It’s a way of conveying the simultaneous need to act with urgency while also taking the time to be deliberate, thoughtful, and reflective. I suppose if I had to give a theme to the last 10 years of my life, it would be something like this. Trying to find balance between ambition and contentment. I can only speak for myself, but a lot of the things that have happened to me in my life are a result of 1) timing and 2) a willingness to take advantage of opportunity. And I think by studying anthropology and letting it change me, it sensitized me to this kind of thing. While I was here I truly saw anthropology as a rite of passage for me. I was separated from a profane, meaningless, and immature life of a kid from the Kansas City suburbs, to a liminal state here where I became a blank canvas – I tried on so many identities, explored so many things and learned as much as I possibly could – before being transformed and reincorporated back into “real world.”
Now this is the part of the talk where I start to feel pressure because I feel like in the nature of a good keynote, I need to give you some sort of inspiring takeaway that will energize you to go change the world or simply convince you that you can, indeed, do whatever the hell you want with your anthro degree. I apologize if I fall short on that. You have truly world-class faculty here that will inspire you more than I ever can.
But just remember – what you’re studying isn’t a narrow specialization that’s going to become obsolete in 10 years. There will always be a “human problem” that we can contribute to solving. By nature, anthro is adaptable. If you want examples, people I graduated with are spread across all industries. One is a nurse, another works in marketing like I do, another in business consulting. One is a really talented web developer. A couple are teachers. One is currently in the peace corp while another got out a couple years ago. One is even a full time, touring musician. A few went to grad school. Some live permanently abroad.
So I say, if you want to do something, do it. Take advantage of opportunity and don’t sleep on the things that are important to you. Do them. But slowly, and with purpose and awareness. Notice the tiny details. Be present and savor the moment. Create your own meaning. Be reflective and feel something. And take your time.
Or, in other words, Hurry Slowly.