The School of Life and The surge for skill

As all forms of media make their journey into a digital, de-corporeal space, research shows that people are beginning to actually prefer this disconnected reality to owning a physical product”…

This quote is from a article by Josh Allan Dykstra on FastCompany, which tries to shed light on the “evolution of conciousness”, a shift in which we are starting to think differently about what it means to “own” something. The article (referencing another article “Why don’t Young Americans Buy cars”) concludes that the concept of shopping has shifted from owning stuff to buying into new ideas and states that there is a similar ambivalence towards ownership is emerging in all sorts of areas. With this in mind, I retail fan like myself can’t help but wonder…How can retailers and owners of retail space address this change? How & why does one use a old-world retail space to connect a new-world sense of disconnected reality?

Is the decline of the prestige normally associated with ownership is correlated to a rise of the value associated to the virtues of being skilled? I’m thinking this is the case. As I believe retail is about providing and packaging value, the subsequent question arises: How does one package the virtue of being skilled then? Can it be sold? Of course it can! Surely, the surge for skill, the rush of empowered D.I.Y, is fueling the maker movement, which has been largely a online phenomenon until the clever folks over at O’Reilly Media created the global experience franchise ‘Maker Faire’. However, Maker Faire is largely an ‘experience economy’ phenomenon, like a rock concert for geeks. So, I’m still wondering, how the heck to pair the disconnected reality to an everyday real retail world?

The biggest insight we can glean from the death of ownership is about connection. This is the thing which is now scarce, because when we can easily acquire anything, the question becomes, “What do we do with this?” The value now lies in the doing. / Josh Allan Dykstra

Alain de Botton is favorite inspiration of mine. His ability to lower barriers of philosophical thought, to provide access to ideas, to simplify and tell stories are qualities I admire. Being easily bored means I’m not much of a reader…never have been and guess I never will be. I keep buying interesting books, but then quickly realize reading’s not my thing, and go tuck the book into a free spot in my bookshelves. I’ve been trying to break free from the curse/blessing of not finding books very interesting. It’s been a challenge, and many authors have failed in grabbing my attention for a long enough time span not to bore me. But, where others had failed, de Botton succeeded. In going back to basics and shaking off fluffy nonsense, I found the writings of de Botton a place to rest my head.

In identifying de Botton as an inspiration, it’s perhaps not that strange that I’ve been a huge fan of the ‘The School of Life’, one of de Bottons projects, a real world retail spot which has a strong streak of spiritualism about it. Ever since hearing about the pioneering venture, which embarked on it’s journey back on 2008, I’ve had this eureka feeling that this is the SHIT, this is where disconnected reality and real world retail meet!

The School attempts to put learning and ideas back to where they should always have been – right in the middle of our lives”

So, visiting the London space for the first time the other week, its fair to say that I brought with me a set of high expectations. And, I must admit a first glance of the tucked-away gem a couple of blocks off Russell Square, did not meet them. When entering the shop however, I found the serene yet optimistic space to be just like the de Bottons prose, relaxed, intelligent, no-nonsense, accessible.

Instead of the stuffed traditional bookstore, The School of Life more has the feel of an art gallery, yet without even the slightest tad of high brow gallery snobbery. Instead, visitors are invited to various events, such as the popular Sunday sermons (and make no mistake, they have nothing to do with religion).

In the best of worlds, real world retail spaces should be a go-to gateway to a dream of a better self. As our attitudes and the contours of “a better self” are changing, so must retail. We are realizing that dreams have many facets, and that a new dress might be only one of them. As of now, retail hasn’t been keeping pace in the leap towards a disconnected reality of personal exploration and expression.

Keeping real world retail alive and kickin’ is crucial as the social dimension of shopping might just provide the connection that humans need in times of disconnectedness. I’m thinking we need change, cause right now, shoppers are getting bored… And looking at the long-run, the slow pace of real world retail evolution is threatening the survival of its very own species. Good then, that there are great examples to learn from in making shopping as experiential and meaningful it could and should be.

Visit The School of Life at 70, Marchmont Street (right next to Russell Square), in London:

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