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Three Lessons from Creativity in a Food Desert

I have been thinking about this article for many days now.

Why A Philadelphia Grocery Chain Is Thriving In Food Deserts

It gave me so much hope, but I’ve had to step back a minute to figure out why. Today I want to analyze this with you and see what lessons we can apply to other “big problems” in our cities.

First, a short summary. The article highlights the creative work of Jeff Brown of Brown’s Super Stores in figuring out something that has eluded many grocery companies: How to sell wholesome food–and make a profit–in low income areas. The food desert problem is dire in many cities. I know from experience in Chicago that going into grocery stores in low income areas can be shocking; the dearth of fresh food is alarming. But access to fresh and healthy options is not the only problem. The cost of those options and not knowing what to do with them inhibits buyers in hard-pressed areas. Because of these challenges, Jeff Brown and his team relied heavily on market research to understand their local consumer and respond to meet their needs in stunningly varied ways. Brown’s Super Stores did everything from stacking tomatoes in pretty pyramids to altering bus routes to demarcating separate Halal meat sections to offering health exams. I am so impressed both with the quality of their research and with their willingness to experiment with solutions.

Lesson #1: You can never ask enough questions.
The market research in this project is what Design Thinking Coaches call the Empathy stage. It is going the extra mile to get in the shoes of the people in your target market and understand the complexity of their position. It differs from most research because it doesn’t ask pointed questions to validate decisions that have already been made. It is agenda-less learning; analysis can happen later. Without asking these painstaking questions, Brown’s team might never have realized how critical a close bus stop would be, or how bank access, like healthy food, is hard to come by in poorer areas. The best part is that asking these questions not only yields business solutions, but it honors the customers and establishes relationships.

Lesson #2: It’s about relationship, stupid. 
Everywhere you go you hear about “eating local.” One big reason I believe this is the case is that knowing where your food comes from gives you not only a sense of peace but also a sense of community. Farmers markets are fun because you get to talk to people, build relationships, ask questions about the food and what to do with it. I LOVE holding up an unknown vegetable to a seller and learning about how great it can taste in soup. Brown’s team has championed this relationship-building through thoughtful questions, staying accessible to the customer, and continuously figuring out how to build loyalty, even going so far as to host a jazz club on the second floor.

Lesson #3: Experiment, Experiment, Experiment
I once heard a pastor at a conference share about programs she helped start at her Washington DC church. The audience listened with rapturous attention as she told us about homeless ministries and art programs for inner-city kids. The secret of her church’s success, she said, was their attitude. Any time someone had an idea for a way to help people, she would say, “Go and experiment.” If it didn’t work, she would just say, “It was an experiment!” and that would be the end of it. This is taking the phrase, “There’s no harm in trying” to another level, because it confronts that overinflated sense of risk and pops it like a balloon. I love it. This article reminded me of that marvelous “experiment” mindset because Brown’s team could have easily neglected the research they gathered, as so many other companies do. They could have said, “It’s too difficult to stack the tomatoes” or “We aren’t in the banking business.” But, at least from this article, it doesn’t seem like they ever did say such things. They acted on the empathy research, and that inspires me.

I hope these lessons encourage you to go the extra mile with your endeavors. Just imagine what we can accomplish!


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Top 10 Paintings that Moved Me, Part 1

Josh and I were reminiscing about life in Chicago the other day. One of the things we miss most is the Art Institute. We thought about the famous Ferris Bueller scene in which the three friends explore the magnificent collection.

As I might have anticipated, Josh then asked me about my favorite paintings. As an artist, he asks such questions frequently. Normally, though, he asks about my favorite pieces specifically at the Art Institute, but this was a much broader, much more difficult question. In all of my travels I have visited dozens of museums, so I had to give this a great deal of thought. Do I consider style? Technique? Color Palette? Composition? Themes? How to define ‘Favorite’?

I decided to go with instinct over analysis. Below are the pieces that have most moved me. I am talking about a gut-level response, a reaction I can’t fully explain. For me, the most memorable pieces produce a visceral feeling, a sensation of gripping all of my attention, leaving me motionless and quiet. These works are not just beautiful; they show me something true as well as lovely.

10.  Self Portrait, Rembrandt
Rembrandt painted many self portraits, but this one housed at the Frick museum in New York is almost life-sized and, if I remember correctly, sits at eye level, inviting viewers into a staring contest with the Baroque master. I so admire the piercing gaze, the evidence of age etched into his face, and the deep, deep dark from which he emerges.

9. Venetian Glass Workers, Sargent
So many of Sargent’s paintings featured aristocrats surrounded by the sensuous textures of affluence. As much as I appreciate his masterful technique in painting satin and velvet, I admire even more this scene of laborers in the shadows.

8. Bordighera, Monet
This painting sits in the corner of a room full of Monet’s work at the Art Institute. There are so many pieces in there it is easy to walk right by it. But if you catch it, stand right in front of it, and try to tell me you don’t think the tree is moving. The illusion of branches rustling in a breeze makes me smile every time. I also love this painting because I once saw a real view just like in in the hills above Nice in France.

7. Crucifixion, Tintoretto
I realize it is futile even to mention this piece in this list as the photo does nothing to prove my interest. It is the SIZE of this scene that so impresses viewers. It made my sister cry. The scale (17.5 ft x 40 ft) and amount of activity in this painting of the world’s worst moment takes my breath away.

6. Woman at Window Reading a Letter, Vermeer
This painting actually represents a category of paintings I call “Dutch people standing by windows and candles.” This category is vast. I recommend studying this genre as few styles capture realistic light so well as the Dutch Baroque. In this painting, admire with me the softness of the light, the woman’s reflection in the window, the shadows across the curtains and carpets, and the feeling we are being pulled into a story. 

To see the remaining five paintings, stay tuned for Part 2!

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Creatively Combatting Gun Violence

Warning: These photos might make you cry. I cried.

I stumbled across this article this morning highlighting a new art exhibit in downtown Chicago. The exhibit seeks to bring awareness to the epidemic of gun violence plaguing the city:

Victims of Chicago gun violence memorialized in lifelike statues

This is one of the most creative and poignant awareness projects I have ever seen. It is both elegant in its simplicity and gut-wrenching in its depth. The poses and figures seem so lifelike, but as I continue to look I just keep asking, “Where is the face? WHERE IS THE FACE?” The answer, “Gone,” hangs in the air like the echo of a gun shot.

I hope that they make this exhibit permanent. I would like to see these statues placed strategically in areas of frequent gang activity to stand guard over the neighborhoods and to prick the consciences of the perpetrators. I think the statues should be encased in bullet-proof glass so that, like Snow White in her glass coffin, their beauty will be preserved and the imprint of life that remains will nevermore be harmed.

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A True Story of Traveling Pants

Here is a little treat to cap off your week…

Let’s go back in time to a little over a year ago. Our setting is one of the coldest Chicago winters on record. Josh and I set out to the YMCA on a bone-chilling day in February. We scuttled through the doors, buzzed our member cards, and began to disrobe and thaw. The coat rack looked a little unstable with all the winter layers weighing it down. I squished my coat and outer pants into the mass and went off to do my workout. Josh, however, folded his brand new jeans and placed them underneath the rack on the floor. He went to do his workout.

Finally warm and sweating slightly, we returned to the coatrack and began to bundle. But Josh paused and started to search the vicinity. “What’s the matter?” I asked. “I can’t find my pants!” he exclaimed. “Why would someone take pants?”

Seriously, who takes pants? Pants that fit well are painfully tricky to find, so it seemed highly unlikely that anyone could just slip on another’s pants and walk out without noticing. Plus, Josh is on the narrower side, whereas many other members of the YMCA were, well, not. Suspects seemed few on the ground.

We went up to the front desk to report the lost pants. The guy at the desk looked at us quizzically. “Pants?” Yes, pants. Who takes pants??

Poor Josh had to go home in 15 degree weather in his gym shorts.

Every new visit to the gym Josh asked about his pants. The guy at the desk would look at us with a mixture of pity and laughter and shake his head. As the days passed, we decided that whoever took the pants was either too heinously apathetic to be bothered to return them, or too painfully embarrassed to admit their mistake.

About a month after the incident Josh and I returned to the gym. By this point we had resolved to consider the pants lost. Josh had also won the nickname “Pants Man” among the YMCA staff. We went off to do our workout. When we came back to the coat rack we did a double take looking at the floor. There, folded, are a pair of Levis. The right color. The right size. Could it be? Did the pants return?

Josh tentatively took the pants to the guy at the desk. “So, umm, I think my pants have returned.” The guy’s eyebrows lifted. “Seriously?!” “Well,” Josh continued, “They are the right size and the right color and I’m almost positive these are my pants. So if anyone comes looking for lost pants, let me know, but I’m gonna take these.”

We stumbled to the car, laughing and marveling at the pants. The pants, the wonderful pants, the pants that have seen things. What have they seen? Where did they go? Why did they return? While these questions won’t rank among the first asked in heaven, we do intend to ask them when we get there.

And so goes the story of how Josh and his pants were reunited. The pants cover his bum to this day. And yes, Josh washed the pants before he wore them again.

The End.

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Why I painted a tiny egg globe…

So I was thinking, ‘Wow, it has been a while since I did any zany art projects. I’ve let myself slack off. Shame.’ Fortunately, Easter gave me impetus to get back on that wacky horse.

You see, I grew up, well, not normal. My mom raised us to think outside the box whenever possible with our creative energies. Do you want to build a snowman?* Well, what if we build a life-size snow LION instead? You want to bake a birthday cake? What if we made a birthday PIRATE SHIP cake? You want to carve a jack-o-lantern? How ’bout a political caricature pumpkin instead?

More than likely my children will likewise be NOT normal. My friend Michelle has already jokingly told me her children are not allowed to play with my (as of yet unborn) children. She means it as a compliment (at least I hope she does). Most people don’t spend energy the way I do. She understands that my drive to zaniness is so deeply ingrained I won’t be able to help myself from dropping everything to paint Easter eggs into tiny globes.

She has a point. This is, in fact, what I did today. I ought to be packing for our move this Saturday, but instead I woke up and immediately got to work on a tiny egg globe. Not. Normal.

Here are photos of my globe as well as the last two years’ egg projects. I hope they encourage you to step beyond the boundaries of normal and dig deeper with your creativity!










Our growing collection, including some done by friends.

Our growing collection, including some done by friends.

*I won’t judge you if you just started singing Frozen music.

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Good Friday Edition: We are Dead

On Wednesday we went to our church’s Tenebrae service. Tenebrae, Latin for ‘shadows’ or ‘darkness’, focuses on the grim truths of our humanity, i.e. the reasons Christ had to die. Focusing on these truths sets the stage for Good Friday and makes the resurrection all the more miraculous. At our service with Church of the Redeemer, several artists contributed film clips, visual art, and musical performances to envelop our senses in this theme of darkness. Afterward, I immediately wanted to create something in this vein, but wasn’t sure what I should do.

Fortunately, I had a super awesome project in my back pocket. A few weeks ago at a coffee shop, this tall, chummy barista asked me about my UChicago sweatshirt. A Loyola grad himself, we bonded over missing life in Chicago. It turned out that he was a musician and was looking for someone to help him produce a video. Now, if you spend any amount of time in Nashville, you are bound to run into some musical hopefuls; you nod and say “That’s nice” and move on. But, as you will see and hear in the video below, Peter McKeown of Woodferd is the real deal.

The song we chose for the video fits perfectly for Good Friday. “We are Dead” bluntly identifies the harsh reality of our temporal existence and simultaneously smiles at how miraculous it is that we should exist at all. We shot the video in an abandoned church to emphasize the contrast between temporary and eternal things, and to pose questions of what in life really matters in the end.

Wow, I just went all UChicago in those last few sentences, like I actually knew what I was doing. In reality the whole thing was a serendipitous experiment. Let me know what you think of the outcome.

To find out more about Peter McKeown and Woodferd check out or like him on Facebook.


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Tidbits from the Wise, #4

As I’ve mentioned, I am in the midst of reading many books at once. Not the best habit, but little else feeds the mind or fuels the creativity so well as a variety of voices sharing their wisdom. Therefore I’m doing a series sharing tidbits from these works in the hope it gives you some mental fuel. This is Part 3. See Part 1 on Friendship. Part 2 on Philosophy. Part 3 on Poetry

Tidbit #4: On Experience Engineering

“Whatchya reading?” I asked Josh, who wasn’t paying attention to the TV show we were watching. He looked up from is phone and said, “Oh, just this article talking about how Disney cast members have to barf inside their costumes if they get sick. There is no excuse for breaking that experience.”

I laughed, but I was not surprised. Both Josh and I have read a good deal about the renowned Disney code of customer service. They excel at making sure no trash stays on the ground, that no backstage door is ever left open, and that no two cast members in the same costume ever appear in the same place at the same time. They guard that sense of magic to a frightening level, even to the point that they would rather clean up vomit in the inside of Jiminy Cricket’s mask than let a child see the human within.

As charming as I’m sure you find this idea, we have to admit there is something admirable about the scrutiny with which Disney works to create experiences for its customers. Why is it that Disney stands alone amongst theme parks for quality? Why is it that families dream and save for years just to walk through its gates? Why is it that my in-laws can visit the parks every single year and still have a magical time? The answer: Disney goes beyond the rides and the merchandise; they have analyzed every step their visitors take and asked themselves, ‘How can we make that step more pleasant?’ 

The good news is that Disney does not have a corner on the market on experience creation. Any of us can ask this question about our customers or clients. What’s more, it looks like we might not survive in this economy if we fail to ask these questions and respond creatively. More and more, businesses are realizing that customers don’t just want stuff or services; they want good experiences. One of the many books I’m reading now, Change by Design, by Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, discusses this shift. He describes how our consumer culture now expects businesses not only to meet basic needs but to create emotional resonance. “When we sit on an airplane, shop for groceries, or check into a hotel, we are not only carrying out a function but having an experience.” He goes on:

“The Walt Disney Company may be the clearest example of an experience business, and we should not assume that it is only about entertainment. Experiences are deeper and more meaningful. They imply active participation, not passive consumption, which can happen on many different levels. Sitting with your three-year-old daughter as she sings along with The Little Mermaid is an experience that goes well beyond entertainment. A family trip to Disney World may be quite stressful…but most visitors remember it as one of the great experiences of family life. 

“The real meaning of the ‘experience economy,’ then, is not primarily entertainment. The hierarchy of value–from commodities to services to experiences–corresponds to a fundamental shift in how we experience the world, from the primarily functional to the primarily emotional. Understanding this shift, many companies now invest in the delivery of experiences. Functional benefits alone, it seems, are no longer enough to capture customers or create the brand distinction to retain them.”

Brown goes on to show how Whole Foods, Virgin America Airlines, and the Mayo Clinic have benefited through engineering their customer’s experiences, proving that it is not just a feature of entertainment. Any of us who have patronized these companies can attest that they feel different, and they feel good, thoughtful, and respectful.  They make it easy for consumers to engage with their services. These companies have correctly identified, empathized with, and acted on these feelings, and therein lies their success.

I hope you find this discussion empowering. This paradigm shift might be a little tricky, as it is easy to say, “I have a great product, and people should want this product because it is great.” The problem is that this is not enough. People want to know why your product is great for them. They want to enjoy the process of learning about your product, purchasing your product, and experiencing it in action. This might be overwhelming, but this is actually good news. Products might not sell themselves, but great experiences will. You want repeat business? You want people getting excited about what you do? I’ve been to Disney World three times, and I expect to go many times more. Whole Foods might be painfully expensive, but I still tingle with culinary possibility just by walking through the door. Why? They’ve hit that emotional resonance. They’ve created a great experience. And so can we.

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Photo Friday: The world is a funny place

Throw off the week’s stresses and celebrate Friday by giggling at stuff with me:

1) So I was out running errands and waiting at a stoplight when I turned and saw this charming establishment.

bikini beach bar

Then I looked more closely at the sign.

bikini beach bar closeup

I really hope that church is real.


2) I saw this on the deck of a bar. It made me happy.



3) About a year ago I needed a new sponge and was digging around in the box of cleaning supplies when I found a soap-dispensing sponge and ripped open the package. Here is the back:

famous inventor big

Fortunately, I didn’t throw away the package before noticing this inventor’s self-proclaimed fame:

famous inventor

Happy Friday.

Love, Emily
Famous Blogger

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Photo Fridays, #1

I want to try an experiment and post a photo each week. Drawing on the idea that the stimuli we take in directly affects our creative output, I want to share some images in the hopes of providing you with inspirational stimuli that fuels your creativity and feeds your wanderlust. With some of the photos, I may include some quotes, excerpts, or short thoughts.

For the first one today, I share this picture from Israel in honor of the charming gentleman I just chat with in the coffee shop. His name is Dr. Ninos and he is the 5th generation of his Greek Orthodox family to live in Jerusalem. He was so excited to hear I had been to his home town. What must it be like to have a hometown with so much historical and religious significance?


See more of my photography at

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Getting Gritty, Part 2: Bearing Down vs. Downing Beer

A few months ago my dad sent me a lecture he heard that deals with process of creative insight. Ever since I first listened to it I’ve been excited to share this lecture with you, but today is the first opportunity I have had to really study it.

The process of creative insight. This is somewhat strange idea. Does insight even have a process? Don’t we normally think of it as a function of luck, or a gift from the muses, or a sign from God himself? Is there really anything we can do to map and capitalize on how creative inspiration is achieved? Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works, believes we can. In the lecture below, he argues that creative work requires knowing how to balance grit–the passion and persistence that keeps us from quitting–and the ability to relax. Both of these sides of creativity are necessary, and both characterize the works of history’s creative giants.

Lehrer begins with a story about the tumultuous genesis of Bob Dylan’s masterpiece, “Like a Rolling Stone.” He argues that this song would likely never have come about if Bob Dylan hadn’t given up music. Given that Dylan was completely exhausted and burnt out, it was only when he retreated from his grueling schedule that he was struck with inspiration. Why was this? Neuroscience is showing that these “moments of insight” correlate with increased activity of Alpha waves in the brain, which in turn become more active when we do what we do to relax. In other words, Lehrer posits that our creativity, in many cases, would be better served by taking a shower, going for a walk, or grabbing a beer. On the one hand, this seems completely obvious–we have all experienced times when a problem was solved by stepping away and doing something else…daydreaming on the toilet, for instance. On the other hand, this finding has implications in the professional world, in that people whose vocations depend on regular creative insights would benefit, not by adopting a stricter schedule or chaining themselves to their desk, but instead by taking more vacations. After all, he says, Einstein once said, “Creativity is the residue of wasted time.”

This sounds like excellent news, but Lehrer is quick to point out that insight is only part of the creative task. Incidentally, this lecture was given at a conference called the 99 Percent Conference which, as I understand it, focuses on the idea that creative work is 1% inspiration and 99% hard work. Lehrer brings in the concept of grit, and reminds people that grit is the defining feature that links together people like Beethoven, Bob Dylan, and Steve Jobs. History’s creative giants are linked through their respective grittiness, and we would do well to remember that a stubborn refusal to quit is what will set us apart. Beethoven, he shares, was known to document approximately 70 different versions of a musical phrase before choosing his favorite. .

So how are we to know when to bear down and when to down a beer? Lehrer says that our brain is actually already wired to discern the answer. If we reach a point in our work where we believe strongly that a solution exists…that it is just “on the tip of our tongue”…we might do better to stop working and go do something else. The majority of the time, however, the work we do provides the stimuli for further good work to be accomplished. Most of the time, grit is key.

See what you think. What insights do you draw from these ideas? What impact does it make on your work schedule?


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