8 Books That Will Make You Want to Put Your F****** Phone Down For Once

The average American spends 10 hours per day in front of a screen. This amounts to over 3,800 hours per year, and ultimately means that an American can expect to die having spent a total of 34 years in front of a screen. We watch what we want, when we want, and we usually watch alone. A screen does not demand engagement or deliberation. It exists primarily to amuse us with easily-digestible sound bites and images. It either captures your attention or it doesn’t, which raises the uncomfortable question: Can a culture have any meaningful discussion, pursue truth, or elect a president when our standard of value is whether or not something can entertain us?

Our increasingly bizarre political landscape has led to frequent reference of George Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty-Four, a dystopian novel about government suppression and public manipulation. But the late social critic Neil Postman would argue that it’s actually Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World – a novel about technological sedation – that we should concern ourselves with. Postman wrote:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.

This isn’t an enjoyable topic to discuss, but an important one nonetheless. Anyway, here are eight books that can help us understand the media-saturated chaos we’re living in.

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman

I was forced to read several excerpts from this book for a class a while back, but it wasn’t until I re-read the whole thing on my own time that I realized why this book is an Amazon bestseller even though Amazon didn’t even exist when it was published. Written in 1985, Neil Postman expresses his concern for a culture saturated with television. But the parallels between his predictions for television and today’s Internet culture are eerily similar. Postman noticed the seeds of a revolution taking place: that all experience, from politics to religion to news, was taking the form of entertainment and impairing our ability to think critically. He notes that we now expect everything we consume to be pre-packaged, simplified, and dramatized. This trend, according to Postman, leaves no room for rational discussion, debate, or complexity. The result? The only things that reach us are those deemed “amusing.” Never mind if they are helpful or true. This book is just as relevant now as it was over 30 years ago, and well worth the quick read (163 pages) if you want to take a step back from a tech-filled life.

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle

The argument that technology, particularly social media, has brought us closer together is a seductive one. But Turkle’s research here suggests that technology has isolated us more than anything. How often do we confuse Instagram likes with companionship or texting with intimate conversation? Based on 15 years of research and hundreds of interviews, Alone Together explores the human consequences of allowing technology into the aspects of our lives where it doesn’t belong, namely interpersonal relationships. “Relentless connection leads to a new solitude,” says Turkle. “We turn to new technology to fill the void, but as technology ramps up, our emotional lives ramp down.” The book is alarmingly critical, but ultimately encouraging as it asserts that we, as distinct human beings, deserve better than tweets, artificial intelligence, and text messages.

The Image: A Guide to Pseudo Events in America by Daniel Boorstin

Arguably the most influential book on media culture ever written, Daniel Boorstin holds up a metaphorical mirror to American society and raises concerns regarding our ability to distinguish illusion from reality. Boorstin theorizes that pseudo events, the manufactured junk we watch on our screens 24/7 which exist solely for the purpose of being talked about, have seduced and corrupted us to the point that we no longer want to experience real life. When The Image was published in the 1960s, Boorstin was mostly concerned about TV pundits and manufactured gossip. And while these are still prevalent today, the basic theme of the pseudo event is in direct line with today’s social media and pop culture: we concern ourselves with appearance and non-reality so much that we foster unrealistic expectations for ourselves. Boorstin’s insights shine a bright light on the question of why we’re so dissatisfied with life. A thoughtful yet hard-hitting book, The Image should be read by anyone wishing to get back in touch with reality.

And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture by Bill Wasik

Every day a new trend or hashtag seems to beg for our attention online: a political scandal, a celebrity breakup, if you want a story you can find it. But how many of them actually last longer than a day or two? The problem is that there’s so many of these “nano-stories” that our brain’s attention span literally can’t process all of it. We become impotent when we try to have an in-depth conversation about a complex topic because we’ve been acclimated to the tweet, the soundbite, the Vine, the Snapchat, and other types of fragmented information. Bill Wasik offers a well-researched but humorous tour of our hollowed-out media environment, citing the dramatic rise and fall of pop bands and political blogs to illustrate how and why anybody with Internet access can snatch our attention and essentially create something out of nothing. Wasik isn’t calling for us to become completely tech-free or go back to snail mail. But by dissecting this new form of information dissemination, he is calling us to reflect on our habits and to seek more sustainable methods of information consumption.

Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality by Neal Gabler

We have a tendency to consider entertainment as a separate entity from “serious” things, but Gabler observes that the ever-widening reach of TV and other media have turned such serious things like politics, literature, religion, and even our own lives, into one vast fantasyland. We can see the evidence for this claim everywhere we look; the determining factor for whether something is important is not its truthfulness, value, or quality, but its ability to entertain or amuse us. I guarantee this book will make you do a double-take and contemplate on what Gabler says is our “bottomless appetite for novelty, gossip, and melodrama.” Like many of the books on this list, Life: The Movie is prophetic in that Gabler’s observations have proved to be equally if not more relevant today as they were when he wrote the book in 2000.

Within the Context of No Context by George W.S. Trow

Originally published in a 1981 issue of The New Yorker, George W.S. Trow repurposed his classic work in 1997 with a new foreword in book form. Here, Trow offers a scathing critique of what he saw as the failings of an American culture that placed television as its center of attention. Trow’s work has been described as “half brilliant, half insane.” Nevertheless, I found his insights to be shockingly reflective of what happens when an entire generation grows up on game shows, trivia, and sitcoms, all of which provide no real basis or structure for learning – hence, no context.  It’s sometimes difficult to read books that paint such a bleak picture, but I think it’s impossible to navigate our 21st century media nightmare without understanding how we got here in the first place.

Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology by Neil Postman

I was captured enough by Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death that I picked up this book by him as well. Although everything he writes tends to have a sobering effect on the reader, it’s still somehow pleasurable to read. In this case it’s his call to reevaluate an American culture that fetishizes technology and values such technologies over our own human progress. “We tell ourselves that [technology] will lead to a better life…we proceed under the the assumption that information is our friend” writes Postman. “But it is only now beginning to be understood that cultures may also suffer grievously from information glut, information without meaning, information without control mechanisms.” Many of us, myself included, are blind to how our daily lives are colored by the technologies we passively allow into our lives. Postman possessed a rare ability to identify these trends before their effects set in. I don’t think his intention was to scare us away from TV (or the Internet today), but rather to make us aware of how we are shaped by such things and what we can do about that.

Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle by Chris Hedges

An unapologetic cultural critic, Hedges fearlessly exposes the dark consequences of allowing fantasy to overshadow reality in America. He argues that the celebrity gossip, trash-talk news, and mindless trivia that fill our lives are the product of a culture that is a-literate; that is, we are able to read, but choose not to. “We have traded the printed word for the gleaming image,” Hedges writes. “The culture of illusion reduces us to the level and dependency of children. It impoverishes language.” Written in 2009, Hedges predictions, namely predicting the rise of a Trump-like figure, are shockingly accurate. Although graphic at times, it’s a book that should be read often to bring us back down to Earth.

Dominic Vaiana studies writing and media strategy at Xavier University.  You can get the PDF “11 Immutable Writing Lessons from Legendary Authors” along with his personal articles, essays, interviews, and book recommendations by joining his monthly newsletter.


Please, for the Love of God, Stop Sharing Odyssey Articles

If you’re a college student not living under a rock, you probably see a link to an Odyssey article at least once per month. But here is a bit of context for those who’ve been blessed to not come across one of these literary train wrecks before: The Odyssey Online is a user-generated, blog-style website which prides itself on “democratizing content creation while personalizing discovery.” The main selling for the Odyssey is that it opens its doors to over 15,000 college-aged contributors with minimal restrictions or qualifications.

Which sounds like a cool idea until you realize that’s exactly where the problem lies.

I’d never visited The Odyssey’s website until I started research for this article, so when their homepage encouraged me to “Open up to new perspectives and ideas,” and “enrich my life,” I was optimistic. But after a few minutes of browsing, it quickly became apparent that articles like “15 Reasons Why Breakfast is the Best,” and “10 Qualities That Make Lip Gallagher Absolutely Irresistible” couldn’t remotely enrich anyone’s life, and as a matter of fact, do more harm than good for those who read them.

Aside from the trite nature of much of The Odyssey’s content, it’s riddled with grammatical errors despite (apparently) going through an editorial process which I can’t imagine is any more thorough than the average person’s skimming of Apple’s terms and conditions. But all joking aside, if The Odyssey is any indication of my generation’s potential, we should be seriously concerned. The problem is not that The Odyssey has a multitude of writers. The problem is that these writers perpetuate an online environment in which any serious discussion, serious work, serious anything really, is marginalized to make room for self-indulgent trash – and the “editors” are complicit in the process.

When questioned about The Odyssey’s frequent publishing of list articles (also known as “listicles”) in efforts to appeal to an illiterate generation, then-managing editor, Kate Waxler, defended the platform claiming that only “some” of the highest-trafficked articles are listicles.

“From the extreme depth of content we get every day,” said Waxler, “I can see that this generation is hungry and eager to be informed and engaged.”

This statement, coming from the managing editor of the publication which allowed the article that turned the dad-bod into an Internet sensation is, to say the least, rich.

The Odyssey’s purpose is not to inform, educate, or enlighten. Its purpose is to coddle its readers and confirm their biases while collecting pay-per-click ad revenue. It is the publication for readers whose only other sources of information are Snapchat’s Discover stories and Instagram’s Popular page. It’s like the gray sweatpants of online publications: something heinously unattractive, but comfortable and easy to use.

To be fair, it should be noted that The Odyssey is only a symptom of our intellectual decline, not the disease itself. It’s not the only culprit of spewing baby talk under the guise of journalism. Indeed, it is one of many. But one would think that an organization with the capability to democratize content supplemented by such a massive following would hold itself to higher standards that benefit the public. Sadly, it’s leaders are too easily seduced by money and page views.

“Your voice matters,” reads one banner on the website. “Be heard.”

Alright, I’ll be the one to blow the whistle: Should you really be heard when the extent of your research is aimless scrolling through trivia and celebrity gossip? Should you really be heard when the basis for your writing is your feelings about a Netflix show that you binge watch while eating ice cream? On one hand, I admire the courage it takes to expose one’s work to the public’s eye. But when a toddler draws a hideous picture, you don’t show it off to the whole neighborhood – you hang it on the fridge for a few days until the kid’s drawing skills improve.

The Odyssey states that its contributors write “long-form articles,” which have apparently been conflated with 400-word listicles such as the “6 Struggles Every Girl Faces When Trying to Purchase Kylie Jenner Lip Kits” and “Definite Proof That Minnesota Is Better Than Wisconsin.”

These are “the voices of the millennial generation…today’s leaders, visionaries, innovators and thought-provokers,” says The Odyssey. “What you see represents nothing other than authentic ideas that the community deems important.”

But even if there are some gems amidst this landfill of content – which I’m sure there are – the stigma of The Odyssey inevitably taints them. It’s like broadcasting the State of the Union address on Spike TV. The medium overrides the message. The result is that nothing of significance ever arises out of these articles besides a quick hit of instant gratification. No lasting discussion, no reflection, no critical thought. Just a flash in the pan only to be replaced by next week’s trend.

The Odyssey’s 15,000-plus contributors may delude themselves into thinking they’re enriching the lives of readers. But once we see through their thin veil of pseudo-journalism and set aside the empty encouragement of their peers which fuels them, all that remains is a curation of glorified Facebook rants.

The Odyssey exists to make money, not to help us “connect and learn with ideas from around the world.” Spokespeople for The Odyssey boast of expanding their contributor network and growing their revenue, though they decline to provide specific revenue figures.

Sites such as Bleacher Report and The Huffington Post, both of which started as user-generated content platforms similar to The Odyssey, soon lost credibility due to shoddy writing by amateurs and were forced to employ legitimate reporters to sustain their businesses. The Odyssey will also fail soon enough if it maintains its current model. Its editors will lose control of the barrage of content needed to generate sufficient ad revenue to pay its employees. The quantity-over-quality model will cannibalize itself.

It’s also possible that readers will grow sick and tired of meaningless content. In this case, The Odyssey would cease to generate sufficient per-click ad revenue and be forced to downsize. In other words, if you don’t want to see Odyssey links of your timeline, the responsibility lies in your hands: No clicking means no money.

Just something to think about next time you want to dive into “The 14 Phases of Registering for Classes, As Told by ‘High School Musical.’”

Dominic Vaiana studies writing and media strategy at Xavier University.  You can get the PDF “11 Immutable Writing Lessons from Legendary Authors” along with his personal articles, essays, interviews, and book recommendations by joining his monthly newsletter.


Most People Don’t Care That Much About You, and That’s Fine

Your life is center stage. You are being watched. Despite the other 7 billion people in the world, the spotlight is on you, putting your every failure, imperfection, and blemish on display for all of us to analyze. This is a tough belief to hold in your head every day.

But it’s completely bogus.

This belief that everyone is watching us or that our lives are the focal point of others was first observed by the psychologist David Elkind in 1967. He called it the ‘imaginary audience,’ and noticed that this tendency was common, even normal among adolescents. We all experience the phase of fearing the disapproval of our family, peers, or strangers, and Elkind believed it was necessary to outgrow this phase in order to become more grounded in reality. But today it seems that it’s not only awkward tweens, but adults who struggle to shed this unwarranted performance anxiety that’s supposed to reside as we mature.

The case can be made that social media has exaggerated the effects of our own imaginary audiences. Our Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter feeds certainly blur the line between our perception of what others think about us and what people actually think. But that’s beside the point. For thousands of years, we’ve been trying to figure out how we can care less about what others think of us, or for that matter remind ourselves that people rarely even think of us at all.

In the first century AD, the Greek slave-turned-philosopher Epictetus discussed the hypothetical case of a musician who feels no anxiety while he practices by himself; but when he goes on stage he succumbs to pressure and can’t perform, even though he has the most talent. “For what he wishes is not only to sing well,” says Epictetus, “but likewise to gain applause. But this is not in his own power.”

How often do act the same way? With every completed task we flail and grasp for approval and admiration. We place less value on the merits of our work than the applause that follows it. And if that applause doesn’t come, we pout, make an excuse, or blame someone else.

Schopenhauer proposed a question nearly 1,700 years after Epictetus died which I refer to often: “Would a musician feel flattered by the applause of his audience if it were known to him that it consisted entirely of deaf people?”

Your metaphorical “audience” today might as well be entirely deaf because 99.9 percent of people don’t care what you’re doing. Behind the likes and retweets is a desert of apathy and carelessness. They don’t care about your Snapchat story. They don’t care how your hair looks. They don’t care that you graduated or won a trophy. But we insist that the spotlight is shining brightly upon us in both good and bad times. We insist that the tribe really does care.

Steven Pressfield sums this up well in his book Turning Pro:

“The amateur dreads becoming who she really is because she fears that this new person will be judged by others as ‘different.’ The tribe will declare us ‘weird’ or ‘queer’ or ‘crazy.’ The tribe will reject us. Here’s the truth: the tribe doesn’t give a shit. There is no tribe. That gang or posse is, in fact, a conglomeration of individuals who are just as fucked up as we are and just as terrified.

Each individual is so caught up in his own bullshit that he doesn’t have two seconds to worry about yours or mine, or to reject or diminish us because of it. When we truly understand that the tribe doesn’t give a damn, we’re free. There is no tribe, and there never was. Our lives are entirely up to us.”

Dominic Vaiana studies writing and media strategy at Xavier University.  You can get the PDF “11 Immutable Writing Lessons from Legendary Authors” along with his personal articles, essays, interviews, and book recommendations by joining his monthly newsletter.


‘Inspiration is for Amateurs,’ Says One Mesmerizing Artist. I Agree.

Chuck Close, a 76-year-old master of photorealist painting, suffers from dyslexia, temporary paralysis, and a condition known as prosopagnosia which disables his capacity to recognize faces. One would imagine that he needs a great deal of inspiration to continually produce great work. But the opposite is true – Chuck Close despises inspiration.

“Inspiration is for amateurs,” he says. “The rest of us just show up and get to work.”

In spite of his grim health condition, Chuck Close has produced some of the most mesmerizing and sought-after art of this century, all seemingly without any sort of extrinsic motivation. This begs the question: Do we have it all wrong when we assume inspiration is a requisite for great achievements?

Tacking a motivational quote on our wall or setting it as our phone wallpaper seems like a great idea at first. It might get us excited for a day or two. But that feeling always seems to fade as quickly as it appears. All of the inspirational speeches, songs, movies, and so on spike our dopamine levels; as Close recognized though, the inspiration that arises out of that thrill has nothing to do with action. It has everything to do with getting us in the mood for action, even if we don’t end up taking it. Many would use this theory as evidence as to why self-help authors and speakers never run out of business: if inspiration worked, the demand for it would no longer exist.

There is something hardwired into people like Chuck Close that allows them to get things done without having to feel thrilled about it. Instead of having an on/off switch that creates spurts of motivation and slumps of procrastination, they maintain a steady flame of productivity. Oliver Burkeman explains this more clearly than I can:

“The daily rituals and working routines of prolific authors and artists – people who really do get a lot done – very rarely include techniques for ‘getting motivated’ or ‘feeling inspired.’ Quite the opposite: they tend to emphasize the mechanics of the working process, focusing not on generating the right mood, but on but accomplishing certain actions, regardless of mood.”

Michael Jordan didn’t have to feel inspired to score 55 points in a playoff game. Steve Jobs didn’t have to listen to Ted Talks to convince himself to develop a the iPhone. They just did it. Their drive came from repetition and discipline, not validation. They understood that feeling like acting and taking action are two separate entities.

The problem with seeking out inspiration is that it adds another barrier between ourselves and the goal: in order to achieve X, I’ll motivate myself, then get to work. Why not just do the work instead? I’ll take 500 sloppy words, a less-than-perfect workout, or a troubling study session over ‘feeling inspired’ any day.

I hope this didn’t inspire you to be uninspired.

Dominic Vaiana studies writing and media strategy at Xavier University.  You can get the PDF “11 Immutable Writing Lessons from Legendary Authors” along with his personal articles, essays, interviews, and book recommendations by joining his monthly newsletter.


8 Books Under 150 Pages Every College Student Should Read

No need for a long introduction here. These eight books are quick reads filled with wisdom attributed to all sorts of people ranging from ancient Greek slaves to 21st century business masterminds.

On The Shortness of Life by Seneca (105 pages)

I’ve never read a book so old that’s as applicable to 2017 as this one. A practitioner of Stoicism, Seneca’s insights on wealth, jealously, power, and happiness are as useful today as they were when he was advising his students (including Nero) in Ancient Greece during the first century AD: “Envy you’ll escape if you haven’t imposed yourself on other people’s notice, if you haven’t flaunted your possessions, if you’ve learned to keep your satisfaction to yourself.” Don’t expect a college textbook when you read this. Seneca differs from other “philosophers” in that he’s practical – he doesn’t ask esoteric questions that have no answers. He’s easy to understand and you’ll have a collection of great quotes by the time you finish.

Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield (146 pages)turningpro_book

I’m a big fan of Pressfield’s best-known book, The War of Art, and this follow-up is equally down-to-earth and provocative. He relentlessly confronts our ever-present fear of abandoning the “amateur” life and outlines what it takes to shed comfort in order to live as a professional in the craft we pursue. It’s pages are packed with the kind of old fashioned wisdom that gives you the kick in the ass you need every once in awhile.

The Dip by Seth Godin (96 pages)

Although The Dip is Seth Godin’s shortest book by far, the lesson it provides is his most valuable in my opinion. Every idea for a business, product, book, app, or whatever sounds like a blast at first. But what happens when we face the inevitable barriers and setbacks? Seth calls this “the dip,” and asserts that true winners know when to ride out the dip and when to call it quits. The Dip explains how to make that decision. Although he’s a pioneer of modern-day business and marketing, Seth’s insights on goals and strategic quitting are applicable to just about any aspect of life.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius (112 pages)

“The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury;” “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it, and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” These are just two reflections from the 2000+ year old journal-turned-book of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (yeah, the guy from Gladiator) which documents his quest for inner peace and virtue during times of war and turmoil. The people he governed literally worshipped him as a god; he could have anything he desired. But the insights in his book reflect his emotional sobriety and mental clarity. If the most powerful man in the world could tame his ego, so can you. If you spend one dollar on a book, make it this one.

The Way to Love by Anthony de Mello (196 mini pages)51mwbiYtl8L._SX350_BO1,204,203,200_

When I first got this tiny book, I thought I’d finish it in a couple of hours. But two years after I first read it, I’m nowhere close to absorbing all the insights and guidance that it offers. The late Anthony de Mello was a Jesuit priest, but his writing cuts across cultures: it’s is clear, practical, and calming, and packed with timeless lessons about all facets of life. I could read the book a thousand times and feel like I was reading something new each time. De Mello insists that he nor any other anyone else has the power to “change your life” – only we can do that for ourselves. But he concedes that we do need clues and hints to get on the right path, and I think this book is a great first step for anyone, no matter where we are in life.

 The Prince by Machiavelli (80 pages)

This is one of the most controversial books of all time, which is why many history classes reference it, but also why so many people misunderstand it. It’s easy to play off Machiavelli as a cold hearted politician obsessed with gaining power, but this ignores the fact that the residue of his writings is still visible in today’s politics. The Prince is a stark reflection of what works in the realm of power and what doesn’t. Nobody said you had to agree with him, but the price of ignoring history is remaining clueless about the present.

 The Moral Sayings of Publilius Syrus: A Roman Slave (92 pages)

The best philosophy often comes from people who never labeled themselves “philosophers.” That is, they don’t study it in an academic light – they live it and practice its virtues. As a slave in ancient Rome, Syrus developed this handbook of practical wisdom that sharpened his mind and enabled him to live a full life in spite of his horrendous circumstances. The book is comprised entirely of independent quotes, (doesn’t matter where you pick up or leave off) and is just as practical today as it was over 2,000 years ago. Some of my favorite sayings include: “When the tree has fallen, anyone can cut wood” and “Better to be ignorant of a matter than half know it.”

 Why Don’ t We Learn from History? by B.H. Liddell Hart (126 pages)

“Fools learn from experience,” said Otto von Bismarck. “I prefer to learn from the experience of others.” B.H. Liddell Hart references this quote in the opening pages of this book after posing the question: What the purpose of studying history? He notes that while we we flail aimlessly trying to solve today’s complex issues, the truth often lies in the study of the past. But even if history can’t tell us precisely how to act in a given situation, it can serve tell us what to avoid, which is perhaps more important. Written by perhaps the most respected historian of the 20th century, this book is a call to drop our prejudices of what the past was so we can see the truth clearly when it matters the most: now.

All of these books were included in my previous monthly newsletters – If you’d like to sign up to receive more recommendations, you can sign up here.


Classical Music: The Secret Weapon for Being Ultra-Productive

You’ll have to dig past the “hot tracks” of Apple Music and the “Fresh Finds” of Spotify. Way past. Older than “Ice Cream Paint Job” and “Throw Some D’s” and into the depths of the robot-curated playlists. Beyond the allure of fan-favorite tunes lies the most useful, and probably the oldest, genre of music on these platforms: classical.

I don’t remember how or why I first got hooked on classical music. I probably thought it made me feel cultured or intelligent as an 18-year-old college freshman. Since then, though, it’s become clear that the music itself has nothing to do with making someone smart or boosting mental performance. But it has everything to do with keeping you focused, calm, and creative, of which getting shit done is usually a byproduct.

The Mozart Effect (the theory that listening to Mozart positively alters the brain) has been debunked. But Duke University’s Dr. Kevin Labar says that classical music can still improve intellectual performance without raising your IQ. He notes that classical music can produce a calming effect by releasing dopamine and stopping the release of stress hormones, generating a pleasant mood. “And inducing a pleasant mood,” says Labar, “seems to clarify thinking.”

Classical music, or any music for that matter, obviously can’t compensate for a lack of effort or chronic procrastination. That’s like spending $300 a month on nutrition supplements but refusing to go to the gym. Instead, it eliminates unconscious thoughts and lowers your heart rate, streamlining the creative process. We can agree that no meaningful work gets done, whether it’s writing, studying, etc., when the mind is racing or the body is tense. Classical music alleviates both of these issues.

In one of Spotify’s blog posts, classical music (unsurprisingly) didn’t crack its top 10 list of most-streamed genres, getting beat out by “indietronica,” “indie poptimism,” and the ever-popular “stomp and holler.” Forget these rankings, though. If you’re not listening to classical music, you’re doing yourself and your work a disservice.

It’s not for everyone, though.

I know classmates who listen to pop hits when they write papers. Their rationale for doing so? I love my music! I’m they do. That’s also why they produce 6th grade level work and can barely put together a coherent sentence. They use music to distract themselves from the task and pass the time, not to concentrate.

Frederic Chopin
Frederic Chopin

There’s something about the music not having words, its simplicity, that makes it so effective. Bach, Vivaldi, Tchaikovsky, Chopin – you can’t go wrong with any of them. Maybe it’s a placebo effect and this whole article is pointless. Or maybe these old dead guys really are the saving grace for a culture drowning in a sea of trivial distractions. Either way, it’s worth a listen.

Just make sure you don’t accidentally play a cello suite when when someone rides in your car. It’s embarrassing.

Dominic Vaiana studies writing and media strategy at Xavier University.  His personal articles, essays, interviews, and book recommendations are sent in his monthly newsletter.


From Trump to Joe Mixon: Why We Do More Scrolling Than Caring in 2017

While I was rushing through my Twitter feed last week, I came across a gruesome image of a 9-year-old Yemeni girl who had been struck with shrapnel from a missile following an airstrike near her home. Her face was gravely disfigured, riddled with cuts, open sores, and spots of discolored skin. She bore a look of hopelessness and dejection.

I continued scrolling.

But as I went on with my routine, a question kept coming to mind: Why didn’t I feel any real outrage or discomfort when I saw the mutilated face of an innocent child? It was saddening to see such a thing, but not enough to make me write a letter to my congressman to demand foreign aid. But should it have? Is there something wrong with me?

I’m sure if I were to ask a coworker or friend, he or she would assure me that I don’t have anything wrong with me, that I’m not a sociopath. There’s just nothing you can do about that kind of stuff, don’t worry about it, is what they’d say. That sort of shallow reassurance might be adequate for a toddler, but for an adult to settle for “I can’t do anything about that” is to miss the point entirely.

The question is not whether we can “do something” for that person on the other side of the world. The question is whether there’s anything that could happen today that would distress us enough to initiate some sort of action – even if it’s right in front of us. Or are we just destined for ceaseless passivity?

The idea of a culture without a metaphorical line that can be crossed is frightening. Regardless of your political or religious views, can we agree that it’s not possible to look around and honestly say that the line which once represented moral standards has not only been crossed, but annihilated? Our president was elected despite being caught on tape talking about grabbing women by the pussy and mocking a disabled reporter. That president’s wife plagiarized her convention speech. Forget the Trump saga if you like. What about Joe Mixon who was drafted by the Bengals and awarded a half-million-dollar salary plus a generous signing bonus even though he punched a girl and broke her facial bones in the process? It’s needless to say I could go on.

Letting either of these things slide prior to the 2000s is unthinkable. We didn’t just turn into a bunch of degenerates over the last decade, though. So why have we stopped caring?

Before the era of the Internet, only a few news networks and newspapers competed to arouse as much pity and outrage as possible. Today, however, anybody can operate their own personalized news networks by way of social media or a website. We’ve competed for shock value to the point where we’re desensitized because we subject ourselves to every imaginable injustice via our screens. Our brain literally can’t process it.

The problem isn’t apathy. It’s numbness.

A scarcity of information is indeed dangerous for a society. But at the same time, information glut is equally or more dangerous. America drinks from a firehose of information, but our incessant updates, video clips, and commentary all lead to meaninglessness. We make it impossible for ourselves to truly absorb the impact of anything – our attention spans can’t handle it. The 24/7/365 news cycle thrives by manufacturing as much content as possible while deliberately providing no context around any of it. We are drowning in a sea of information and we have no clue how to sort through, categorize, or construct meaning out of any of it.

And so we scroll.

It’s somehow adequate to just consume it, to be “in the loop” so we can appear halfway intelligent during small talk. Never mind taking the time to understand the ‘how’ or ‘why.’ But I suppose that’s just not feasible when Bruno Mars singing about strawberry champagne is one click away.

Dominic Vaiana studies writing and media strategy at Xavier University.  His personal articles, essays, interviews, and book recommendations are sent in his monthly newsletter.


This Sociologist Says We’re Not Materialistic Enough – She’s Not Crazy

When my grandparents were my age, shopping and fashion revolved around winter, spring, summer, and fall trends. Those on a tighter budget may have only shopped for two seasons: cold and warm. Fast forward to 2017 and the fashion industry has manufactured over 50 “micro-seasons,” the goal of which, according to Factory45 founder Shannon Whitehead-Lohr, is to get consumers to buy as much stuff as possible in the shortest time span.

We’ve heard the safe and easy explanation for this over and over: We’re a materialistic society; we’re obsessed with clothes and gadgets. The Atlantic even suggests that 80 percent of Americans think our culture is too materialistic. But there is a more complex question that lies behind this: Are we actually concerned with acquiring more things, or is it the stories we tell ourselves about those things that leads us into an endless cycle of buying?

Juliet Schor, a professor of sociology at Boston College and author of The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need, is a contemporary expert on radical consumer behavior. When it comes to materialism, she argues that we need to become true materialists in the sense that we genuinely care about the material quality of goods. “Instead,” says Schor, “we’re in a world in which material goods are so important for their symbolic meaning…what they do to position us in a status system.

In other words, we’re materialistic in the everyday sense of the word, but arguably the least materialistic generation of people in the true sense of the word.

I initially disagreed with Schor’s theory, but in the following days it began to make more sense. Do we buy a new iPhone or the latest Jordan shoe release because its quality is dramatically higher than whatever we already own? Or do we buy to mitigate our insecurities and tell ourselves a story?

What we’re concerned with is rarely about the product itself. Hypothetically, if it were proven that a pair of Sketchers was better for your feet and stayed intact longer than your Nikes, would you make the switch? As pathetic as it sounds, I probably wouldn’t. We care about the authority and esteem of the product, as if fabric and rubber can have either. An advertisement tells us little about the product being sold, but everything about the dreams and insecurities of the people who might buy it. We purchase an image, an ideal. This is as distant from material as we can get.

The late media theorist and cultural critic Neil Postman recognized this as early as 1992 in his book Technopoly:

“What the advertiser needs to know is not what is right about the product but what is wrong about the buyer…The business of business becomes pseudo-therapy; the consumer, a patient reassured by psychodramas.”

Dominic Vaiana studies writing and media strategy at Xavier University.  His personal articles, essays, interviews, and book recommendations are sent in his monthly newsletter.


From Janitor to U.S. President: A Timeless Lesson About Feeling Entitled

Sir Henry Royce, the co-founder of Rolls Royce, had this Latin phrase inscribed on his mantle: Quidvis recte factum quamvis humble praeclarum – “Whatever is rightly done, however humble, is noble.”

There is a tendency among my generation to feel perpetually dissatisfied. I’m not learning anything from this class. This job doesn’t pay enough. I deserve a better internship. But when we see life through the lens of our inflated expectations, we fail to recognize the truth that Sir Henry Royce embodied: how you do anything is how you do everything.

Maybe you’re making coffee despite having a college degree. Maybe you got beat out for a job by someone you feel is less qualified than you. Any number of situations can cause us to feel frustrated, stuck, defeated. But the idea that any of this is unfair is delusional. The reality is we don’t deserve anything, and circumstances often lie outside of our control.

What we do have control over, however, is our response to these circumstances. Do we throw a pity party for ourselves? Or do we embrace our position and see it as an opportunity to progress, learn, and grow?

James Garfield, the 20th President of the United States, paid his way through college in the 1850s by convincing his school, the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, to let him work as a janitor in exchange for tuition. He worked with pride each day, up-keeping the facilities hours before he would begin his school day. Within one year at the school he was teaching a full course as a professor in addition to his own studies. By age twenty-six he was named the Dean of Students. This isn’t to say working hard as a janitor is the best path to the presidency, but Garfield’s story perfectly illustrates how a shift of mentality is the difference between feeling sorry for yourself and reaching your potential. He understood the distinction between wanting something and feeling entitled to it.

A mentor of mine once told me, “If you’re to big to do the small things, you’re too small to do the big things.” This is why I put up with pulling weeds, scrubbing floors, and peeling potatoes when I was sixteen. Sure, I wanted more, but acting as if what we desire is no different than what we deserve is dangerous. Ironically, the people I’ve known who claimed they were “too good” for their positions tended to have the most trouble advancing.

As Andrew Carnegie famously said, our first jobs should introduce us to the broom.

Dominic Vaiana studies writing and media strategy at Xavier University.  His personal articles, essays, interviews, and book recommendations are sent in his monthly newsletter.


You’re Probably Not Getting a Free Red Swimsuit, But You Did Contribute to the Biggest Publicity Stunt of 2017. Congrats.


What did you expect from two Arizona frat stars?

Yes, indeed. The founders of Sunny Co. Clothing and the masterminds behind the red swimsuit saga are Alan Alchalel and Brady Silverwood, two University of Arizona undergrads who, according to their lovely bio, “have been friends since the 5th grade!” Screen Shot 2017-05-03 at 2.42.26 PMBut even more interesting than girls buying overpriced ($64) pieces of fabric to cover their private parts from two bros behind a laptop in Tucson is the bold gonzo-marketing stunt that these guys unleashed today.

“Sharing is caring,” the Instagram promotion reads. “EVERYONE that reposts and tags us in this picture within the next 24 HOURS will receive a FREE Pamela Sunny Suit.” As I write this, there are over 300,000 reposts for this promotion. Alan and Brady now have two options: shell out some serious cash to give away hundreds of thousands of swimsuits, or say “We didn’t expect such a huge response!” withdraw the offer, and enjoy the free publicity.

If I was a betting man, I’d place my money on the latter.

How do you get attention in an attention economy? Boring things (like swimsuits) are expensive to market traditionally. In order for a neutral product to go viral, it takes a shocking or controversial tactic, maybe even something that risks the reputation of the product itself.

Offering a free swimsuit to anyone who shares a picture is a pseudo-event: it’s planted for the solely for the purpose of being talked about. It’s engineered to be newsworthy, and the conversation shifts from the product itself to the controversy over whether Sunny Co. Clothing is legit or not. The result is social media chatter and millions of website visits, neither of which happen with a paid advertisement.

Chances are the people who shared the picture won’t get a free swimsuit. But even if they do, that’s not what this is all about. It’s about making Sunny Co. Clothing the first brand anybody talks about when they buy swimsuits this summer.

As one tweet read this afternoon, “If you say gullible really slow it kinda sounds like ‘repost for a free swimsuit from sunny co clothing.’”

Dominic Vaiana studies writing and media strategy at Xavier University.  His personal articles, essays, interviews, and book recommendations are sent in his monthly newsletter.