How Self-Care Became So Much Work

Charlotte Lieberman

AUGUST 10, 2018

The United States is no stranger to self-improvement, from the meditation and essential oils of the 60s to the Jane Fonda aerobics tapes of the 1980s and the fat-free-everything 1990s. “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1841, sounding a bit like a modern SoulCycle instructor. From these deep roots, the $11 billion self-improvement industry has grown.

Today, like so much around us, that industry is heavily influenced by tech. Our focus is shifting away from the actual self — our bodies, minds, and spirits — and toward data about the self. With iEverythings around us at all times, we expect our steps to be enumerated, our REM cycles to be recorded, and our breathing patterns to be measured. It’s not enough to just feel better — we need our devices to affirm that we are doing the work.

This dogged self-improvement quest is not the antidote. We are approaching the pursuit of work-life balance with the same obsessive (and oppressive) energy as we do our careers. Although the American Psychiatric Association reports that 39% of U.S. adults feel more anxious than they did a year ago, we continue to glamorize being overworked, busy, and stressed. Numerous studies support this — for example, the Journal of Consumer Research has published research showing that Americans associate busyness and stress with prestige and status. This might explain why counting our steps and recording our exhales are satisfying ways to measure the success of our self-care routine once we leave the office. But in this context, our high anxiety becomes just another thing to “work on.”

This raises the question: Are we genuinely interested in feeling healthier and happier? It seems likely that the values driving us to be workaholics in the first place are also encouraging us to “optimize” ourselves by using metric-driven “hacks.”

For type-A overachievers in particular, self-improvement bears a closer resemblance to work than to leisure. As a freelance journalist, I have also subsidized my life in New York City as a copywriter, editor, and consultant for a range of clients in the wellness space. I have led focus group discussions about meditation apps and created websites and content campaigns for prominent skin care lines, juice cleanse companies, and mental health apps. One of my clients recently told me her goal to start a meditation practice had short-circuited due to her tendency to turn everything — including self-care — into a chore. After trying out a 20-minute daily routine, she found that meditation ultimately caused more stress than it alleviated, which, in turn, made her feel guilty and bad about herself. Despite the fact that mindfulness meditation is now popular enough to be a billion-dollar business, the science behind it remains a work in progress. In a 2017 review of meditation studies from the past two decades, author and psychologist David Creswell, who directs the Health and Human Performance Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University, examined the methodological limitations of recent mindfulness studies. He dispels the misconception that mindfulness is a proven panacea for anxiety, depression, chronic pain, stress, and more. Still, he points out some impressive findings: Mindfulness can reduce activity in the amygdala, the brain region responsible for the fight-or-flight response. Mindfulness meditation has also been shown to reduce levels of interleukin-6, a biomarker in the blood that is elevated in high-stress groups.

Regardless of whether future scientific findings confirm the benefits of mindfulness, it’s important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all approach for stress relief. If meditation feels like “work,” it can become a restrictive, rather than expansive, practice. Treating meditation as a step needed to achieve the elusive goal of work-life balance keeps us dialed into the linear mindset of “checking things off our list.” If we rigidly commit to a meditation practice without considering how we might react on days when we don’t have time or aren’t in the mood for it, we might end up mired in guilt or self-criticism. This is not to say that if meditation feels difficult, you should just give up. But it’s important to see how this ancient tradition is being commodified by our culture as a tool for improvement. If your to-do-list mentality is a major source of stress in the first place, why add to it? The goal is to create space for yourself, to experience curiosity and explore without pressure. Take a few conscious breaths during your commute, or set an intention for your day before you leave the house. Remember: There is nothing inherently virtuous about torturing yourself (which, for the record, is an intention I frequently set for myself).

In more extreme cases, self-improvement can become an obsession. The rise of wearable devices like Fitbit that track our steps and sleep cycles can feed perfectionistic tendencies. UK-based marketing professors Rikke Duus and Mike Cooray conducted a study analyzing the effects of wearing a Fitbit on a group of 200 women. The women said the devices made them feel guilty whenever they fell short of their goals: 79% felt pressured to reach their daily targets, 59% went so far as to say they felt “controlled” by their devices, and nearly 30% referred to their Fitbits as “an enemy.” Although knowing our daily step count may provide the illusion of control in our lives, quantifying the “work” we are doing on ourselves (and ostensibly for ourselves) not only reinforces the idea that self-care should be work but also presents excessive opportunities for self-criticism. With a progress report available to us at all times — whether related to steps, sleep, breathing, gait, or calorie consumption — quantified self-improvement encourages us to fixate on the moments we fall short of our most granular expectations. And while beating ourselves up often seems like the most effective way to crack the whip, self-criticism has been shown to preoccupy us with failure and contributes to symptoms of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and negative self-image.

Given how readily self-care can turn into self-criticism in this landscape, social media is a vicious trigger. Instagram in particular pressures us to share our personal victories and turn them into opportunities for self-marketing. The intoxication of getting likes on that photo of your colorful salad or post-workout selfie is a powerful source of motivation. A 2016 study out of UCLA found that getting likes on Instagram posts activates a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, which is also activated when eating chocolate or winning money. Yet, at the same time, this culture of compulsory sharing is what prompts us all to compare ourselves with everyone else. As I write this, I find myself comparing my daily routine with over 5 million Instagram posts invoking the hashtag #selfcare. These posts exhibit a range of photographed activities, from candlelit bubble baths to meal prep to inspirational quotes against monochrome backgrounds (“Say yes to you”). For all the buzz about #selfcare on Instagram, it isn’t actually increasing our well-being. In fact, a recent study calls Instagram “the worst” social media platform for mental health, showing that it heightens users’ feelings of inadequacy and anxiety by creating unrealistic expectations and instilling what the researchers call an attitude of “compare and despair.” Or, as a friend said to me, “Vacation pictures make me feel poor. Gym pics make me feel out of shape. Food pics make me hungry, and anything well-curated makes me nervous that I don’t pay enough attention to detail.”

Of course, engaging in rituals of self-discipline for the purposes of “improvement” is an ancient pastime. Self-denial through fasting or extreme dietary restrictions exists at the core of most major religions, often as a means to achieve spiritual purity, atonement, or enlightenment. Even now, our attempts to exert control on our bodies and minds remain underpinned by a moral charge. Yet what’s different in today’s world of solutionism and tech is that prioritizing self-care — specifically with the aid of consumer goods like wellness apps and health food — is not just a testament to one’s self-discipline or moral virtue. It is an emblem of success and cultural know-how. Last year, journalist Amy Larocca wrote an article titled “The Wellness Epidemic,” in which she argued that, in the world of luxury meditation studios, ayurvedic cleanses, and sober morning raves, the mythical goal of wellness is only available to the rich, who have the time and resources to spend diagnosing their “maybe-kind-of-celiac disease” and purchasing $1,000 skin care protocols. “Spend a little time in the wellness world, and it seems like everyone has an official diagnosis,” Larocca writes. Part of the irony of wellness culture is that it requires us to focus constantly on the specter of illness, as it’s fueled by the (im)possibility of perfection. With green juice at $9 a pop, and luxury spin classes at $35+, the more aspirational self-improvement activities of our day are out of reach for most people. This further circumscribes self-care with values of conformity and achievement, as well as their shadow sides — feelings of inadequacy and self-criticism.

There are infinite opportunities for personal growth, self-care, and genuine stress relief that don’t require money or clenched fists, but instead enable us to take a genuine break from goal-oriented and metric-driven thinking. What about cutting ourselves some slack on the days we don’t get as much done as we had planned? Or reminding ourselves that laughter is healing? We may idealize the actions we are able to document and share, or the data we can collect and track, but there are plenty of times when what we need to do to feel better — and actually get better — is less. For better or for worse, there is no app or amount of money that can help with that.

Charlotte Lieberman is a New York-based writer, editor, and content consultant. You can find her work in The New York Times, The Harvard Business Review, Marie Claire, and Guernica, among other publications. Follow her on Twitter @clieberwoman.

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The Search for Ethics

OCT. 12, 2018

By Emily Cavalcanti

Updated Oct. 17, 2018 10:18 a.m.

Digital technology is reshaping media and culture. Our scholars explore how to build and use these new tools responsibly.

Safiya Umoja Noble had just begun researching the inner workings of search engines in 2009 when a colleague quipped, “You should see what happens when you Google ‘black girls.’”

Assistant Professor of Communication Safiya Noble.

“I am a black girl,” Noble recalled. “I have a daughter. I have lots of nieces. I immediately did the search.”

She got back a page full of pornography.

“That started me on a deeper line of inquiry about the way in which misrepresentation happens for women of color on the internet, and the broader social consequences of that,” said Noble, assistant professor of communication. “This was happening on the internet, a forum where people think of the information that they come across is objective, neutral and credible.”

Noble had previously spent 15 years in marketing and advertising, working for some of the largest Fortune 100 brands in the United States. As she was leaving corporate America and beginning graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the late 2000s, she started scrutinizing the rise of digital technologies — Google in particular. She noticed that many of her peers were touting the “liberatory” effect that Google was having on the information space.

“I got a lot of pushback from people in academe and people in industry who said, ‘Google is the peoples’ company,’ and to critique them was unfair because they were doing so much more than any other company had done to make information accessible,” Noble said.

“But as this total diversion of public goods and knowledge into privately held organizations unfolded, there were questions to be asked — like, ‘Who will truly lose?’”

Noble is among several USC Annenberg faculty asking these kinds of probing questions about our evolving landscape of digital media and information systems. Their research explores the importance of establishing a strong ethical framework to bear on new modes of information-sharing — both on the part of the profit-seeking firms creating these new tools, and on the part of individuals as responsible and sophisticated users of the tools. While scholars differ on how these new-media ethics might be implemented, they agree that academia must have a role in developing workable solutions.

For Noble, her research led to her latest book, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. One of her major findings: The results of Google searches are not value-neutral.

“In the book, I interrogate the fundamental building blocks of technology,” she said. “Computer language is a language, and as we know in the humanities, language is subjective and can be interpreted in myriad ways.

“It is the responsibility of companies, users and regulators to ask: What’s ethical, what’s moral, what’s right, what’s oppressive, what’s fair, what’s socially just, what fosters civil rights, and what erodes human rights? All of those conversations live in the domain of ethics.”

But most who work in the information and tech industries, she argues, don’t possess the ethical training, knowledge, expertise or, in many cases, the inclination to think about what they are stewarding and how they are influencing public opinion. If people are willing to shift their attention away from journalists and academic scholars and instead rely heavily upon these media platforms to provide trusted information, Noble wonders who is guiding them.

“One of the most important frameworks for computer scientists is the concept of universal design, yet the philosophical underpinnings of this universality often preclude women and people of color,” she said. “And these challenges, of course, are deeply tied to ethical structures.”

Noble recognizes that over the years some engineers have tried to apply a traditional sense of ethics as they design. Nevertheless, the specific ways that vulnerable people — women and people of color — are often in the crosshairs of some of the worst abuses of technology remain to be addressed, she said.

There is no golden age 

Professor of Communication and Director of Doctoral Studies Tom Hollihan.

Tech companies are far from the first to face scrutiny for how the choices they make in disseminating information can sway thoughts and opinions. Ethics in communication, or the lack of them, can mean the difference between news and propaganda.

According to Thomas Hollihan, we can trace 21st- century concerns about ethics in mass communication back to the Sophists of ancient Greece, who not only insisted they could teach persuasion, but virtue as well.

An authority on political rhetoric and a former USC debate coach, Hollihan notes that, as they sought to attract and win over their pupils, Sophists increasingly relied upon a deliberate use of fallacious reasoning and exaggerated claims. This drew harsh criticism, especially from Plato.

“Plato was hostile to rhetoric,” Hollihan explained. “He thought that the orators had inflamed the passions of the people and didn’t think the public was really suited to evaluate arguments.”

Then along came Aristotle.

“He provided a much more pragmatic and systematic view of persuasion,” said Hollihan, professor of communication and director of doctoral studies. “He talked about the psychological characteristics of audiences and the topics that most influence them.”

Aristotle proclaimed rhetoric to be an instrument that can be either harmful or profoundly helpful, depending upon the virtue and value of the rhetor who uses it.

In other words, intent is key. Just as Aristotle underscored the need to assess the “virtue and value of the rhetor,” Hollihan believes that, when it comes to media platforms, a fundamental evaluation of their intrinsic goals should be the starting point.

Is the platform acting to fulfill narrow self-interests or promoting shared communal interests? Does it fundamentally operate with goodwill toward the people it is trying to influence? Is the platform honest and faithful in presenting the information people need to make a good decision, or has important information been withheld?

“The bottom line is, you need ethics, character and good purpose,” Hollihan said. “There are lots of examples in history of people who have been effective in winning over audiences. But, if you do it based on fear, anxiety of the other or willful ignorance, then I don’t think you can celebrate it as good rhetoric, even if it’s successful rhetoric.”

Turning to his expertise in political communication, Hollihan points to the emergence of propaganda studies during World War I.

When President Woodrow Wilson issued an executive order establishing the Committee on Public Information in 1917, he gave the new federal agency authority to use every medium available at the time to persuade Americans it was in their best interest to support the war.

“That was the first concentrated attempt to manipulate political opinion in the United States in a very systematic way,” Hollihan said. “We created this public effort to actually persuade people, in this case, to support the war: to buy Liberty Bonds, to enlist and to get behind the war effort with enthusiasm.”

At every step, society has seen technological advances leveraged to influence the masses. But the convenience or the entertainment value of these technologies has always been sufficient to overcome the initial anxiety innovation produces.

“We move on and adapt,” Hollihan said. “People adapt, society adapts. Technology adapts. And social science adapts. New developments will continue to occur, and eventually the entire situation we’re in now will turn out to have been a blip in history. I don’t think we want to be too nostalgic about a perfect golden era that never really existed.”

It’s all about your audience

Henry Jenkins agrees that as technologies emerge, we always find a way to push beyond them; that constant back-and-forth struggle is the nature of the world.

In considering the nuances of tech’s modern-day powers to persuade, however, he differs from some of his colleagues. Jenkins objects to ascribing too much power to one side — the creators of these digital tools — and treating the other — the users — as if they had no power to change the situation.

Jenkins, Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism and Cinematic Arts, flat-out rejects the premise that people are “hypnotized” or “captured” by their devices. Human beings, he argues, never engage in any activity that’s meaningless to them. The pursuit of meaning is a core human urge, Jenkins insists, and it’s the social scientist’s job to understand how and why an activity is meaningful.

His research documents how young people, far from being hapless victims hijacked by their devices, are bending digital media — and every other kind of media — to their will. Jenkins’ 2016 book, By Any Media Necessary, is based on interviews with 200 youth activists who are breaking new ground in political discourse through a media-saturated vocabulary rooted in pop culture.

Jenkins’ current project, funded by a MacArthur Foundation grant, looks at youth activism through the lens of civic imagination. His 16-person research team at USC Annenberg monitors more than 30 youth-run social movements around the world, documenting how they use popular culture and new media to further their political goals. A collaborative book, Pop Culture and Civic Imagination, will be released next year.

The media skills of youth activists were on full display last spring after the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, as outraged students took America’s gun debate into their own hands. “They went seamlessly from social media to a CNN town hall meeting to a face-to-face meeting with the president to a march on Washington and speeches on the Mall,” Jenkins said. “They even communicated through the patches on Emma Gonzalez’s jacket.”

From his perspective, the present moment is not about corporations manipulating young people. Rather, young people are taking advantage of available resources, including digital technology, and using them effectively to bring about new kinds of networked change.

Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts and Education Henry Jenkins.

“That meaning may be translated into cash and exploited by corporations, but the starting point is something that kids really deeply desire to do,” Jenkins said. “My own ethical commitment is to start to figure out what it means.”

Social media, for example, fills a hole in the social fabric frayed by hypermobility. Today, Americans relocate on average 12 times across their lifespan. This had been increasing generation by generation across the 20th century. To Jenkins, people using Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook are not so much slaves to these platforms as social beings using technology to build up communal cohesion and maintain social ties across long distances.

“I think of it as bringing your social network with you wherever you go — like the turtle brings the shell on its back,” Jenkins said.

One practice that has media critics worried is unethical promotion of videos. The 15-second countdown that queues up the next YouTube video is not long enough, psychologists say, for the human mind to make a reasoned decision about stopping or continuing.

Again, where critics see manipulation, Jenkins is on the lookout for meaning. And here he speaks from personal experience, as an avowed Netflix binge-watcher.

“Yes, I sit and watch one show after another,” he admits, “but I’m not randomly watching. I’m exploring a list of 30 shows I want to watch, because there’s that much good TV being produced. I’ve chosen them from a broader range of media content than I have ever had available. And those shows are tied to all kinds of conversations I’m having as a fan within the web-based fan communities I participate in. Some other fans are rewriting the shows, remaking them as fan fiction art, and re-creating them as cosplay.”

The important point, Jenkins said, is that, persuasive technology notwithstanding, digital content consumers are constantly making self-interested choices and curating their playlists.

“Social media drives an awful lot of YouTube circulation,” he said. To Jenkins, far more interesting than the tricks platforms use to hold captive audiences is the logic by which viewers decide what video content to recommend through their social media network.

Focusing on the platforms gives a distorted view of their power to control our brains, he believes. Studying the audience side reveals a cascade of conscious and creative responses being made by consumers, and all of the choices are meaningful to the people making them.

“So, can I be distracted?” Jenkins asked. “Yes.

“Can I be fed misinformation? Yes, though online communities actively debunk false information that circulates through social media.

“Can I be confused, distracted, pulled in different directions? Yes. And companies can definitely make money off choices I’m making.

“Still, I see many, many potent examples of conscious choice-making throughout the media landscape. The kind of disempowering rhetoric that seems to be dominant at the current time is not helpful for understanding and explaining the behavior we’re actually seeing.”

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Europe’s History Explains Why It Will Never Produce a Google

ON SUNNY evenings in Brussels, young Eurocrats mingle on the bar terraces of the Place du Luxembourg outside the European Parliament. The continent’s future leaders pay little heed to the bronze-green statue of John Cockerill at its center. The Englishman commemorated at the heart of today’s EU moved to Belgium from near Manchester in 1802, importing the latest steam technologies. He founded a machine factory in a chateau near Liège which grew into an industrial empire and helped make Belgium second only to Britain in industrial sophistication.

Is Europe living up to Cockerill’s legacy? The continent has world-class companies in fields like biotechnology, luxury cars and nuclear energy, manufacturing sectors incorporating sophisticated software (a BMW these days is as much a computer on wheels as a car). London, a global tech hub, is home to DeepMind, a leading artificial intelligence (AI) outfit; Stockholm is home to Spotify, a dominant music-sharing service; Cambridge-based Arm makes processor chips for almost all the world’s smartphones.

Yet still, Europe lacks large firms in areas like social media, e-commerce and cloud computing comparable in scale to America’s Google and Microsoft, or China’s Alibaba and Baidu. Of the world’s 15 largest digital firms, all are American or Chinese. Of the top 200, eight are European. Such firms matter. They operate dominant online platforms and are writing the rules of the new economy in the way Cockerill’s innovations did in his day.

Mariya Gabriel, the EU’s digital economy commissioner, worries that Silicon Valley and China now make the big decisions about the internet and that this affects European domestic policy. She is right. Even BMW, for example, does much of its cutting-edge research in California and Shanghai. In Brussels officials talk of a “Sputnik moment”, a sudden realization of its technological disadvantage, akin to America’s when the Soviet Union put the first satellite into space in 1957. Asked whether the continent will ever produce its own Google, one burst out laughing.

Europe’s history explains the lag. In the 18th century, its lack of standardization made it the cradle of the industrial revolution. Rules and markets varied. Entrepreneurs who did not find support or luck in one country, like Cockerill, could find it in another. All this created competition and variety. Today, however, Europe’s patchwork is a disadvantage. New technologies require vast lakes of data, skilled labor and capital. Despite the EU’s single market, in Europe, these often remain in national ponds. Language divides get in the way. Vast, speculative long-term capital investments that make firms like Uber possible are too rarely available on European national markets. True, there is progress. European universities are working more closely together, and in 2015 the EU adopted a new digital strategy that has simplified tax rules, ended roaming charges and removed barriers to cross-border online content sales. But about half of its measures—like smoother flows of data—remain mere proposals.

In the 19th century, Europe was the first continent to industrialize, and institutions based on that experience have deeper roots there than elsewhere. Most European countries are still run by marmoreal Christian or social democrats descended from the struggle between bourgeoisie and workers. Their propensity for bold thinking is limited. European investors expect to be able to claim physical assets against their losses if a firm goes bust—bedevilling software startups that tend to lack them. Research is too often incremental, not radical. The burden of early industrialization is also something of a geographic tale. Europe’s traditional industrial heartlands are struggling to adapt to the new digital era, but those once on the periphery—Bavaria and Swabia in Germany, and cities like Helsinki, Tallinn, Cambridge, and Montpellier—are leading the way, without the institutional fetters of old factory towns like Liège.

The 20th century also restrains Europe’s technological competitiveness today. The collective experience of Nazi and Soviet surveillance and dictatorship makes many Europeans protective of their data (Germans, for example, are still reluctant to use electronic payments). Moreover, since 1945 the continent has mostly been at peace and protected by outsiders. So it has no institutions comparable to DARPA, the American military-research institution where technologies like microchips, GPS and the internet were born. Nor has it anything comparable to China’s military investments in technology today.

Published at:

In Cockerill’s shadow

The equivalent historical forces in the 21st century could prove to be differing attitudes to migration. America’s technological superiority is built on its ability to attract talented, success-hungry people, one reason businesses resist Republican plans to limit legal immigration. Of the 98 high-tech firms in the Fortune 500, 45 (including Apple and Google) were founded by immigrants or their children. China lacks immigration but sends many of its young abroad to study, and then repatriates their skills. Europe does neither and treats migration as a threat, as its debates about how best to seal off the Mediterranean show.

If it wanted to, Europe could improve. Its governments and the EU could create a genuine digital single market, do more to promote enterprise and institutional innovation and make the most of its strengths in, for example, biomedicine and transport. Better integration of capital markets would help as well. Europe could harness the growing uncertainty about America’s trans-Atlantic security guarantees to invest serious cash in its own DARPA-equivalents. Europeans may even eventually come to view immigration as an opportunity. But all of this perhaps demands a greater awareness of history itself, of the diverging technological pasts and possible futures hovering over the continent like the bronze John Cockerill over the Place du Luxembourg.

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline”Waiting for Goodot” in Europe Oct 13th, 2018.

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The Lookout Post: Learning Organizations in the Age of Technology

The Lookout Post: Learning Organizations in the Age of Technology

The tallest animal in the world epitomizes environmental scanning, relying on its height, vision, and alertness to manage and see beyond its surroundings—serving as a reliable lookout post for the herd.

The giraffe triggered a memory from the early 1990s when I was sitting in a packed crowd as MIT’s futurist, Peter Senge, spoke about the need for learning environments—a cutting-edge theory he presented at conferences throughout the world. Senge stood out like the giraffe. His message was powerful, his ideas stimulating. He spoke about how to run companies in the second part of the information age, a highlight that stuck with me for years and led to my focus on the giraffes of technology.

More than any other time in US history, leaders now need to serve as sturdy lookout posts for herds. Senge urged businesses to embrace the value of—and the need for—learning organizations. His ideas parallel certain characteristics I find in today’s social media, where there are no strict boundaries, where information is freely shared, and where there is less fear of failure or being condemned for what you say or share. In its purity the web is a learning environment.

In 1999 the Journal of Business Strategy named Senge “Strategist of the Century.” He’s the definition of a lookout post that continually scans the horizon. In 1990 he wrote The Fifth Discipline, a book that predicted that business was entering a time of quickening pace where there no longer would be a stable environment. Society would be bombarded with ongoing change and need to be more alert through intensive, ongoing learning. Senge suggested that when encountering rapid change, only companies that were “flexible, adaptive, and productive” would excel.

He argued that companies must begin to see their employees as people, as assets to develop and feed through learning. The industrial-age terms “human resources” and “personnel” would shift to “human capital.” To keep up with change, companies would need to become sincere learning organizations and decentralize the power of the old industrial-age hierarchy, bringing human characteristics such as the ability to adapt to a changing environment. Senge viewed companies as organic entities that needed to adopt behavior that emulates learning. In The Fifth Discipline, he writes about “organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.”

Senge tapped into values from my Elmira upbringing, ones I hadn’t fully connected to a business setting. Like the child who learns, adults also become energized. The educational act inspires passion, moving individuals beyond the industrial-age cliché of “Come to work early, work hard, and achieve.”

More than ever, leaders and employees need an inviting setting in which people come early and stay late because the setting is one where they can be loyal to themselves and the company. CEOs must create inspiring environments of learning where everyone feels the freedom to take risks and fail, learn and succeed. A company sincerely designed to nurture and expand the number of lookout posts within its culture will have a vital mechanism to spot hidden opportunities as well as looming threats.


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Journal of Accountancy What CPAs Should Know About Machine Learning vs. Deep Learning

What do these terms associated with artificial intelligence really mean? Here’s a primer.

By Amy Vetter, CPA/CITP, CGMA October 15, 2018

Artificial intelligence (AI) is already changing the nature of our lives. When you ask Siri for a restaurant recommendation or when you tell Alexa to play your favorite song, you’re interacting with AI.

AI has also been making its way ( reshaping-the-accounting-industry/#3ee4799237f3) into the accounting world. Finance departments, for example, have found ways to automate what was once laborious data entry using the technology. Among the activities automated are vendor bill data entry, general ledger coding, and expense reporting, to name just a few.

While these changes are helping to increase efficiency, they’re just the beginning of the innovations headed our way. To help you prepare for those, this article looks at two subsets of AI, machine learning (ML) and deep learning, that could have a huge impact on the way accounting professionals do their jobs. Keep in mind that to take full advantage of AI, you must move to cloud technology, as discussed in my Sept. 17 article “The Required Step Before AI and Blockchain (”

As machine learning and deep learning have become buzzwords throughout the tech and business worlds, commentators have rushed to make sweeping generalizations ( soon-taxes-bye-bye-accounting-jobs/) about robots replacing human jobs within accounting. In this race to make the grandest statement possible, a lot of nuance gets lost and the narrative of accountants losing their jobs gains an audience. The truth is that while these technologies will certainly alter our careers, nobody yet knows exactly what the transformation will look like. In fact, many people don’t even fully understand the terms that are being used so that they can make their own determination of how this will affect them and their careers.

Defining AI, ML, and deep learning

You may remember the old adage from your high school geometry class that “every square is a rectangle, but every rectangle is not a square.” AI, machine learning, and deep learning have a similar relationship. All deep learning is machine learning, and all machine learning is artificial intelligence, but not vice versa. AI is the largest umbrella, followed by machine learning and finally deep learning.

Let’s start at the top. AI refers to the ability of machines to mimic human intelligence. Software developers facilitate this by taking knowledge of how a human performs a set of tasks and then writing code that empowers a machine to perform that set of tasks on its own. AI includes things such as workforce planning, understanding and translating language, recognizing images and sounds, and even applying knowledge and problem-solving skills to complete tasks. For example, a software program could mimic an accountant who uses knowledge of the tax code to run your tax information through a set of static rules and gives the amount of taxes you owe as a result.

Machine learning takes AI to the next level. Beyond the coding to mimic human behavior with AI, the software begins to learn the result of the set of tasks and how a human may respond, in order to speed up the task for the next time. For instance, after you watch a movie or a TV show on Netflix, you get recommendation for other movies and shows to watch based on what you’ve already watched. This is an example of machine learning creating a better experience by automatically providing you with relevant content options, potentially saving you the time of having to do a manual search.

Taking things one step further, deep learning ( is based on the structure and function of our brains, the interconnection of the many neurons. Within deep learning, artificial neural networks (ANNs) are algorithms that mimic the biological structure of the brain. In ANNs there are different neurons that have discrete layers and connections to other neurons. Each layer picks out a specific feature to learn. It is that layering that gives DL its name; depth is created by using multiple layers as opposed to a single layer. An example of deep learning is Google Translate, which can automatically translate images with text in real time to a language of your choice. You hold your camera phone over an image or text and your phone runs a deep learning network to read the image and translate into the language you speak.

An example of using all of this together is a driverless car. With AI, you put a destination into your GPS, and the car executes your orders. Machine learning could prompt the car to ask whether you want to go a certain place based on the date and time you turn on the engine. A deep learning car could automatically stop for coffee at your favorite cafe on the way to work, just by knowing that you often stop there.

What this means for accounting

While AI adoption for data entry may be a viable option very soon, machine learning and deep learning applications are still a ways off.… 2/4

10/19/2018 What CPAs should know about machine learning vs. deep learning

Because machine learning relies on huge amounts of data to provide accurate results — e.g., the more content you choose on Netflix, the better its predictions on what else you would like — the biggest accounting firms are leading the way when it comes to developing machine learning applications. That’s because the biggest firms not only have the most resources to invest in research and development, their huge client bases also give them tons of data with which they can test what works in the accounting space.

For example, KPMG uses ( applying-ibm-ai-to-help-businesses-meet-ifrs-16.html) IBM’s machine learning platform, Watson, to help leasing companies comply with the IFRS 16 lease accounting standard. Argus, a tool developed by Deloitte, uses machine learning to review documents for key accounting information. The tool works with many types of documents, including but not limited to sales, leasing and derivatives contracts, employment agreements, invoices, client meeting minutes, legal letters, and financial statements. Deloitte also has introduced a service that monitors risk ( risk-management.html) associated with algorithms and machine learning, which can help early adopters use these innovative technologies with reduced fear of adverse effects.

How to embrace the tech

While the Big Four have the most financial resources to invest in AI-related technologies, Jeanne Boillet, the global assurance innovation leader for EY, believes that smaller practices have a chance to experiment more effectively because they can be more agile to respond to market changes. She recommends ( 201818949.html)that “accountants … start small but think big: Starting out by doing simple proofs of concept that are highly relevant for your business will ensure that your use of AI in the future will be suitable and effective for you specifically.”

As a smaller firm practitioner, you have the opportunity to take advantage of software packages that are pre- built by the developers that are investing in AI and ML innovation. You can research online ecosystem marketplaces that integrate with your software-as-a-service (SaaS) general ledger systems to automate tasks such as bill payment, expense reporting, audit sampling, and more. It is always good to test one application at a time to see if it will help your practice increase efficiency and minimize errors and allow you more time to work on value-added tasks for your clients. It is important when researching applications that you ask about their AI and machine learning road map to ensure they are going to continue making investment in this area.

Ultimately, machine learning and deep learning will allow accounting professionals to spend more of their time helping their clients run their business, rather than focusing on the data entry and computational aspects of their jobs. Our advice has always differentiated us from technology. It’s our time to not only focus on the technology, but also to invest in the learning around soft skills areas such as communicating the analysis of financial ratios and collaborative opportunities with clients and your team. Learning the technology and focusing on the human component are equally essential. You will need to be strong in both areas to thrive in the coming years.

10/19/2018 What CPAs should know about machine learning vs. deep: learning://… 1/4

Amy Vetter (, CPA/CITP, CGMA, is CEO of The B3 Method Institute, a keynote speaker and adviser, Technology Innovations Taskforce leader for the AICPA’s Information Management Technology Assurance (IMTA) Executive Committee, and author of the book Integrative Advisory Services: Expanding Your Accounting Services Beyond the Cloud, published by Wiley.

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How Peer Coaching Can Make Work Less Lonely

By Norian Caporale-Berkowitz and Stewart D. Friedman

A near-constant stream of business and scientific news reminds us that 50% of Americans are lonely. Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s powerful HBR article notes that half of CEOs suffer from loneliness. In addition to its personal toll, there is also an economic cost: workplace loneliness causes burnout, affects job satisfaction, and lowers both performance and retention. It also increases health care costs.

The Causes of Loneliness at Work

Loneliness is a subjective feeling of isolation. Number of coworker interactions and whether or not you work remotely are not causal factors. What matters is the quality and meaningfulness of relationships. It’s common for employees to feel lonely while surrounded by colleagues with whom they don’t genuinely connect. Indeed, do your colleagues see the real you or just a carefully managed, work-safe persona — a brilliant disguise? If the latter, then you’re likely to suffering some degree of loneliness.

Loneliness isn’t usually a failure of the employee but is, rather, a systemic cultural issue. Humans have a need to feel valued by the people around them at work, at home, and in the community. Yet many people keep work relationships at a distance because that’s what they believe is expected. Unless employers demonstrate they value basic human connections at work, it is difficult to change the common gospel that who you are is not who you should be in the office. Psychological safety — the sense that we can be free to be ourselves without fear of retribution — doesn’t exist when our managers don’t model vulnerability, a generator of high-quality connections, because they worry it might undermine their authority. Cultural norms that discourage genuine relationships lead to loneliness.

How Peer Coaching Can Help

Peer coaching is about cultivating a network of allies that can provide mutual support in creating positive change to improve performance. In addition to its many benefits for learning, these relationships address the roots of loneliness at work. On the surface, peer coaching might look like low-budget professional coaching. Employees gain new perspectives on their issues and opportunities, as well as accountability partners to improve follow-through on creating change, but without paying professional coaching fees. But it’s much more than that. When organizations invest in peer coaching systems they signal a cultural shift that normalizes talking candidly about life with colleagues. Employees gain feelings of connection, trust increases, and individuals develop insights into their own problems through helping others. Peer coaching provides opportunities for one-on-one connection and demonstrates that our inner lives are welcome in the workplace. Let’s explain a bit further three of the ways it helps:

  • Creates a culture that values connection. People develop symptoms of loneliness when they feel isolated regardless of how much actual social support is available to them. Psychological problems increase when people have little hope for more connection in the future. An employer’s commitment to increasing connections among employees can reduce loneliness even before any coaching begins simply through the signals such initiatives convey. This is especially relevant for younger employees; 71% of millennials want their coworkers to be like a second family. When employers help employees build peer-to-peer coaching networks, it creates a culture of connection. Employees experience being vulnerable with coworkers and begin to view lowering their walls as an asset, not a liability. They see the workplace as a source of personal nourishment. Loneliness dissipates when we feel we are among people engaged in helping each other. As one of our clients said after a peer coaching exchange, Just having someone who was truly interested in helping me was an incredibly powerful experience.”
  • Replaces social snacking with meaningful dialogue. Communicating mostly over email or chat and then turning to social media on breaks — that’s social snacking, which gives the illusion of connection without actual nourishment. What matters is not how often we interact, but whether our interactions are meaningful. Peer coaching replaces snacking with satisfying meals of real talk. Those at the table are revealing themselves and accepting others as they are. The reciprocal nature of peer coaching relationships, in which employees take turns talking about work in the context of their whole lives, is a catalyst for deep mutual understanding. By providing opportunities for individuals to talk — without pressure to deliver or impress — peer coaching can reduce loneliness more effectively than staged social events in which people might be laughing and drinking but still hiding behind a mask they’d rather remove.
  • Increases psychological safety.  When researchers recently asked Americans “How many confidants do you have?” the most common response was “zero,” compared to a modal response of “three” just two decades earlier. Research shows that people who are lonely, compared to those who are not, are less able to make new connections. Because peer coaching involves repeated conversations with consistent partners, it is an effective method of creating confidants that persist over time.  One of our clients said, “I feel like I gained three new family members, people who are supportive and non-judgmental.” Coaching focuses on listening and asking questions. Because participants in peer-to-peer coaching exchanges see their coaches as focused first and foremost on gaining understanding of what’s on the inside, these relationships produce feelings of psychological safety.

Once you are comfortable with the idea of doing something to deepen relationships at work, set up a simple method for two people to try out a peer-to-peer coaching exchange following these basic guidelines. Each pair can take turns coaching each other for 20 minutes each. In essence: Listen and don’t try to fix problems. Start with coaching sessions over lunch; eating together increases trust and is a natural way to schedule a one-on-one that isn’t focused on specific work tasks. Be sure to check in on what people learn about how to be effective as coaches and as clients in their dialogues and use that knowledge to make needed adjustments.

Peer coaching can be effective in fighting loneliness through opt-in one-on-one dialogues where the work of creating stronger human connections can happen.

Norian Caporale-Berkowitz is pursuing a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology at the University of Texas–Austin, where his research on scalable and preventive mental health programs is supported by the university’s top fellowship. Norian leads workshops for teams at Authentic Revolution, and you can find him on LinkedIn.

Stewart D. Friedman is the Practice Professor of Management at the Wharton School. The former head of Ford Motor’s Leadership Development Center, he is the author of Leading the Life You Want: Skills for Integrating Work and LifeBaby Bust: New Choices for Men and Women in Work and Family, and Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life. For more, visit, find him on Twitter @StewFriedman, or on LinkedIn.

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A New Ikea Report Is An Insettling Look At Life In The 21st Century

“Almost half of Americans (45%) go to their car to have a private moment to themselves,” the company reports in a new survey of 22,000 people in 22 countries.


Every year, Ikea Group and INGKA Holding (the holding company that controls the majority of Ikea’s retail stores) publishes a research report on how people live in and relate to a specific aspect of their homes. Since 2014 it’s dealt with morning routines, food and kitchens, and disagreements at home. This year, it takes on a more existential tone–dealing with loneliness, belonging, and the effects of living in cities.

Two years ago, the company asked thousands of people about where they felt “most at home.” At the time, 20% of subjects said it wasn’t the space in which they lived. Two years later, they asked again, and found the number has risen by 15% among people who live in cities. In other words, 35% of people who live in cities don’t feel at home in their house or apartment.

[Image: courtesy Ikea]Other statistics from the report–which surveyed 22,000 people in 22 countries–paint a picture of two competing versions of “home.”

On the one hand, people find a sense of belonging outside of conventional living spaces, whether in the park or at school. In fact, almost a quarter of people who live with others feel more comfortable outside of their homes altogether. At the same time, living spaces are increasingly tied to peoples’ livelihoods, often directly generating income: One in four people surveyed works more from home, and another 25% who live with strangers also rent their space out on Airbnb.

On the other hand, people report a creeping unease with their living spaces: 53% of young families don’t get a sense of belonging from their residential home. Only 57% of people who live with family or alone feel a sense of belonging and the number drops to 34% if you live with friends or strangers.

One person in Rome reported going out to sit in their car on the street to find a fleeting moment of “mental privacy.” They weren’t alone: “Almost half of Americans (45%) go to their car, outside of the home, to have a private moment to themselves, surpassed only by the bedroom (72%) and bathroom (55%), much more traditional and expected spaces to go to have a moment alone,” the authors write. Only 45% feel a sense of privacy or security. “Life at home is changing, profoundly, all over the world,” the report concludes.

[Image: courtesy Ikea]This dovetails with a huge amount of research and theory going back to the early 1900s on changing definitions of home. But what’s fascinating about Ikea’s report is that Ikea, simply by being the largest furniture retailer on earth, has a role to play here. The corporation has more than 400 stores in 25 countries. It reported 936 million visits to its stores last year. One favorite faux-factoid, which, obviously, can’t be verified, claims that 1 in 10 Europeans is conceived on an Ikea bed. We are increasingly renters rather than owners, which makes inexpensive and disposable furniture a necessity. As the writer, Sarah Amandolare pointed out a few years ago, “home” has become less permanent and more transient than ever, and, as a result, we’ve stopped thinking of our homes as “self-expression.”

Ikea, of course, has a stake in helping people feel like they can create a sense of belonging, regardless of where home is–and a real shot at doing so, given its scale and ubiquity in cities. Rather than suggesting a new sofa, the report ends with an interactive quiz that asks about how you feel at home, mapping your answers on a pictograph and offering you a personalized “manifesto” of affirmations about finding alone time and building community. “The important thing is that everyone deserves to experience that feeling of home,” the report adds.

None of it has very much to do with furniture, which is perhaps a reflection of a moment when buying things as self-expression has taken a back seat to self-care for consumers.


Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design’s deputy editor.



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How the Zagat Guides Shaped Today’s Food Culture


Zagat altered the culinary landscape forever. Here’s how it felt from the inside.


By giving voice to diners and showcasing a wider culinary landscape, Zagat transformed the food world. The nearly 40-year-old brand, which was started by lawyer couple Tim and Nina Zagat, pioneered the concept of user-generated content by surveying eaters and averaging their scores into different ratings for food, décor, and service.

As Fast Company shares in a new, exclusive oral history, the resulting burgundy guidebooks radically shifted both how people decided where to eat and their overall power at the table. (And do lots of other stuff; there were category spin-offs galore.) In 2011, Google acquired the company to try to take that magic online. Now a new chapter begins for the Zagat brand, having been acquired earlier this year by review site and social media darling The Infatuation.

Here, food-world insiders share what it was like to experience the dawn of crowdsourcing.

Tim Zagat: There was a kosher restaurant, and we didn’t mention it as being kosher. They sent us a nasty note and said it was creating havoc. All these people were coming in, and when they found out that it was kosher they got up and left. I got it straightened out in a subsequent printing. Then [the owner] got upset because he’d decided he [didn’t want to be] kosher anymore, he was getting so much business.

Allan Ripp, former Zagat PR director: At one point, we compared foot traffic and food ratings among some of the high-end and lower-end places. The restaurant run by the [chef who inspired] the Seinfeld Soup Nazi, its food ratings were higher than Le Cirque . . . [Zagat wasn’t merely] riding a wave of a culinary change in the country but also helping advance it.

Alice Waters, owner, Chez Panisse: I think [Zagat] did open up people’s minds about the world of food,
especially in big cities.

Kevin Suto, CEO, Zachary’s Chicago Pizza: In 2003, we were in the top 10 or something for most popular in the Bay Area, and that ruffled some feathers.

Danny Meyer, restaurateur; CEO, Union Square Hospitality Group: I was a junkie with all the statistics. I [created] what I called the value equation: It was basically adding up—for the top 50 restaurants—their food, decor, and service scores and dividing that number by the cost of buying a meal there: quality per dollar. I would then do a plus-and-minus chart, an arrow up, down, or sideways for every single one . . . [The guide] was an annual report card . . . I started to pay bonuses to our senior people at Union Square Cafe based on how we had done in those scores . . . I’ll never forget the year that Shake Shack [which Meyer founded] made the top 50. Who would have ever thought a hamburger place would do that?

A version of this article appeared in the October 2018 issue of Fast Company magazine.


Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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Why We Love Emotionally Intelligent Leaders

Hosted by Samantha White October 3, 2018

People tend to gravitate to leaders who exhibit emotional intelligence, even if it’s difficult to explain why exactly. Clare Haynes, a speaker, coach, and the founder of the UK firm Wildfire, explains the skills that emotionally intelligent leaders possess and how those skills can inspire employees.

What you’ll learn from this episode:

  • An explanation of what it means to be emotionally intelligent.
  • Some of the traits exhibited by emotionally intelligent leaders.
  • How genuine listening can bring out the best in your employees.
  • Why professionalism is sometimes linked to being rigid or “starchy”.

Play the episode below at FM Financial Management Magazine:

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Foreword by Jeff Thomson, President and CEO at Institute of Management Accountants (IMA)

Why did they title it Giraffes of Technology?  In 21st-Century business, especially in the United States, organizations and their leaders often embrace a top-down, autocratic style in the quest to achieve short-term gains (e.q., quarterly profits for shareholders). Yet many studies in the area of servant leadership show that a nurturing, empathetic, and values-oriented approach creates greater business value in the long run. According to the authors, the giraffe is the least offensive beast in the wild. It bears no ill will toward any other animal. They view the giraffe as a metaphor for a leader with a unique lookout post–one who incents followership rather than intimidating others in the herd to behave in a certain manner.

Giraffes of Technology using six herbivore-inspired leadership traits that CEOs and managers must embrace over the next decade to create and enable sustainable organizations that enrich society.  Today’s technology triggers a business environment that requires adapting to untidy change–change that isn’t easy but is necessary. The six chapters in the book are rooted in unique themes, or metaphors, centered on the behaviors of the giraffe in the wild: acting as a lookout post to focus on the long run vs. the short run; communicating with others as gentle giants; dealing with a violent birth; moving forward to inspire a never-stop-learning mind-set; dealing with the predator lions who seek to disrupt change; and blending into new herds to enable diversity of people and thought.

The book is an inviting, engaging read. It combines a touch of Back to the Future with a sense of Animal Kingdom to provide an inspiring look at the kind of leaders businesses need to succeed in the 21st Century.

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