Taking Things Seriously

Posted inCreative Voices

I look around the room I am sitting in. Everywhere I look, I see something that means something to me. Ceramic plates and a tureen from Italy which we bought in the Sicilian town of Caltagirone. Sweet grass baskets made by Mary Jackson and other South Carolina artists…one that my wife Karen and I bought at a Penn State crafts show almost 40 years ago, another from Charleston decades later.

An oddly constructed two-foot tall robot figure… a gift from my son-in-law.

Every object is a part of a story; surrounded by the aura of a story. Some are minor pieces…part of the background scenery… others are lead characters, rich in sentiment and cherished.

How do these meanings come to pass? What happens to the objects when they have been infused — enveloped — with the energy of meaning?

How are whole groups of objects— those produced by and bearing the marks of brands— integrated into our lives? What do we borrow from them? What kind of “relationships” do we have with them? How do those relationships form, endure, fade?

These are not merely idle speculations. The meaning of objects is an important pillar in both personal and collective identity, with consequences on a micro (personal) and macro (economic) scale.

The processes that underlie the establishment of these relationships are hidden but not unknowable. Learning about those processes can help individuals appreciate the role that objects play in our lives, and become more mindful of the choices we make in the selecting the objects that fill those roles. It also can help their producers more deeply accept their responsibility for providing these important extensions to the lives of the people who have embraced them. This highlights important, often unrecognized facets of person-object relations: beyond the financial elements of the person-brand transaction to the brand-person meaning intertwining.

In writing about the things in his life, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote:

“…these objects are myself. The pen and the pipe, the clothing, the desk, the house – are myself. The totality of my possessions reflects the totality of my being. I am what I have.” Being and Nothingness, p. 591 in print or Page 647 of PDF in Kindle, emphasis added.

Most of the time, we treat the objects in our lives as simply there; as if they were simply mundane, incidental elements of our surroundings.

But Sartre’s assertion that “I am what I have” is a radically different perspective. Instead of just being things that are around me, things that I have, Sartre is saying that the things in my world are, in some strange sense, me.

And some of those things are my favorite things.

What could that mean? What could make a thing so important to me that I cherish it as a favorite?

And, in what sense does the “totality of my possessions reflect the totality of my being”?

Those are the questions that I set out to explore when I began teaching a course entitled, “The Meaning of Branded Objects” in the Masters in Branding Program at New York City’s School of Visual Arts in the fall of 2010. Even though I’d been an organizational psychologist working with some of the world’s biggest brands for almost 25 years at that time, and a clinical psychologist for two decades before that, I’d never yet deeply explored the ways in which the simplest objects… a sweater, a candle, a pair of shoes… became important parts of our lives.

Over the last dozen years, I’ve taught that class to hundreds of students and, with them, delved into the connections we make with the things we live amongst every day. I’ve also used those insights in my work helping brands create meaningful objects that play an important role in customers’ lives. Some of them become their favorites. Over time, I’ve refined and distilled my understanding of the mechanisms that underpin those connections. My Favorite Things is the product of that understanding. I hope you’ll find these reflections helpful in understanding your own sometimes mystifying relationships with things, including your favorite things.


Photo by Billy Abbott.

This essay was originally posted on Tom’s Substack, My Favorite Things.