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Situations Matter: How Context Shapes Our Lives

Debunking the myth of character, or what sitcoms have to do with the mysteries of personality.

“What matters most is how well you walk through the fire,” Charles Bukowski famously wrote. We walk through life and its fires along narrative paths that define who we are and what our personalities are like. We speak of the “architecture” of character as if it were as rigid and unmoving as a building. We often perceive others as sitcom characters — static and unchanging from episode to episode. Yet ordinary contexts, from where we are to what we see around us to who else is with us, influence and transform how we behave and what character traits we exhibit — who we appear to be. Coming to terms with this idea, argues Tufts University psychologist Sam Sommers in Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World, gives us a more profound understanding of not only ourselves but also the people in our lives and the complex interpersonal dynamics that underpin our world.

We’re easily seduced by the notion of stable character. So much of who we are, how we think, and what we do is driven by the situations we’re in, yet we remain blissfully unaware of it.” ~ Sam Sommers

For the ultimate cherry on top, especially for fellow lovers of book trailers, here is a wonderful pictogram- and typography-driven motion graphics teaser for the book:

From why “personality” is a myth (cue in Julian Baggini’s The Ego Trick) to how “character” fluctuates (cue in David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo’s Out of Character) to a multitude of other psychological biases and misconceptions that cloud our interpretation of reality (cue in David McRaney’s You Are Not So Smart), Sommers fuses cognitive science with sociology and witty observation to pull into question what personhood means (cue in Christian Smith’s What Is a Person?) and illuminate the puppeteering power of situations over our lives.

Though uncomfortable and dissonant with our self-perception as independent individuals acting, rather than reacting, under our own volition, the eye-opening insight into these influences offers a new way of relating to and navigating everything from workplace dynamics to romantic relationships to self-actualization — what Sommers calls “both the mundane and the sublime aspects of our social world.”


Advice to Sink in Slowly: Designers Share Wisdom with First-Year Students in Poster Series

Unpacking the secrets of happiness and creativity one poster at a time.

What better way to kick off the new year than with words of wisdom from those who have threaded before us? That’s precisely the premise of advice to sink in slowly, a wonderful project enlisting design graduates in passing on advice and inspiration to first-year students through an ongoing series of posters — part Live Now, part Everything Is Going To Be OK, part Wisdom, part something completely refreshing, based on the idea that we all have subjective wisdom we wish we’d known earlier, but often don’t get a chance to pass it on to those who can benefit from it in a way that makes them pay heed.

Advice is subjective. But, by passing on advice in a creative way, it is possible to create something that lasts, that people will want to live with and which can let the advice sink in slowly and help out later on.”

‘to create ideas is a gift, but to choose wisely is a skill’ by Ryan Morgan
‘Do what you love’ by Andy J. Miller

‘Take Time’ by Temujin Doran

‘Use your library…you’ll miss it when you leave’ by Rebecca Cobb
‘Finish what you start* *it may seem insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.’ by Irina Troitskaya
‘Ignore both of them’ by Eleni Kalorkoti
‘Go and look outside’ by Robert Evans
‘You have to leave your room to get there’ by Ben Javens

‘if in doubt, make tea’ by Owen Davey

‘trust your gut instincts’ by Carys Williams

‘Don’t be afraid, everything will be alright’ by Ben Javens
‘collaborate’ by Simon Vince
‘Believe in the marks that you will make’ by Stephie Ginger
‘how to make friends in your first term’ by Temujin Doran
‘eat breakfast’ by Always With Honor
‘Be free!’ by Anna-Kaisa
‘don’t keep your worries to yourself’ Rebecca Cobb
‘Find some place to stop & be quiet’ by Lizzy Stewart
‘everything is possible’ by Lee Basford

Free posters are available to first-year students across the U.K. upon request. Four of the posters are available for purchase in a fundraising effort, with 100% of the proceeds feeding back to support this wonderful project — so go ahead and grab one, then let its wisdom sink in slowly.


Mail-Order Mysteries: Real-World Stuff from Vintage Comic Book Ads

What hypno-specs and atomic pistols have to do with the duality of the human condition.

We’ve already learned that comic books can be a remarkable medium for nonfiction, but it turns out they can also be a vehicle for the most fantastically fraudulent fringes of fiction. Pop-culture historian Kirk Demarais set out to explore the artifice of childhood by ordering the curious, outlandish, improbable products marketed to kids in the ads on the back of comic books from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. He shares his findings — funny, bizarre, a little bit heartbreaking — in Mail-Order Mysteries: Real Stuff from Old Comic Book Ads!, a compendium of over 150 such peculiar collectibles, each dissected through the entertaining lens of what was promised and imagined versus what was actually received.

To [young] me the ads’ seductive nature was the result of a powerful combination of factors. Most obviously, the products were otherworldly: X-ray vision, karate courses, a money-counterfeiting device — they almost seemed too good to be true. For the first time, I wasn’t thinking in terms of playthings; these were life-enhancers that offered the means to satisfy a familiar range of wish-fulfillment, including power, glory, revenge, and romance.” ~ Kirk Demarais

While infinitely amusing, Mail-Order Mysteries also pokes at the architecture of our deepest-running wiring to fall for fads, to seek shortcuts, to suspend our disbelief in the hope of becoming a better version of ourselves with minimal effort. Equal parts optimistic and tragically flawed, these parallel capacities for wonder and for guile capture one of the most tender dualities of the human condition.


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