Stories of Meaning

Meaning can often be difficult to describe so we've developed some stories that help illuminate how it effects people's lives and why it's so powerful. None of these products, services, or experiences were developed explicitly with a meaning strategy but all have connected with at least some of their customers on this deep level. These stories didn't make it into the book, unfortunately, but we've made them available here...


Build a Bear

It’s my daughter’s birthday.

Gina is seven and has always had a thing for stuffed animals. She, and her best friend Meg, love to stage melodramas with their toys, giving them names, detailed characteristics and roles to play in an imaginary world of their creation. She and Meg love to dress their animals in different costumes and accessories. Sometimes that seems like the most fun of all for them.

So, for her birthday, I take Gina and Meg to a new “Build a Bear Workshop” that’s opened a few blocks away. My sister said it would be perfect for her. Sort of a store, sort of an arts ‘n’ crafts factory it seemed the ideal place for an energetic, sensitive and creative girl like Gina to express herself.

I walk in and am instantly enchanted by the colors, and the inviting, soft quality of the “store.” I can’t exactly describe it, but I feel like I’m in a fantasy land or, at least, some place different than reality. After moving a few feet into the space, I see that there is a simple structure organizing everyone’s activities. There are stations clearly visible that will guide us in the creation of a custom-made teddy bear.

Step by step, Gina and Meg walk through the “Choose Me” station, where they find the exact bear type they want…

… To the “Hear Me” station, where they choose the sound they want their bear to make when squeezed…

… To the “Stuff Me” area where they control how soft their bear will be by choosing its stuffing…

… To the “Fluff Me” station where the girls blow dry the bear to freshen it…

… To the “Dress Me” arena where they swoon over hundreds of different outfits and finally decide on a few that are “right” for their particular bear…

… and finally to the “Name Me” stations, where Gina writes the story of her bear’s life, with a little help from me.

As I pay for the bears, I notice above the counter the “Bear Promise.” It gets right to the point when it says, “My Bear is Special- I brought it to life.” That’s when it hits me—this may be a store that sells bears, but it’s also an environment that creates experiences. At a superficial level, of course, she’s making something new, in a joyous environment, and it’s fun. But, it also provides three things that are deeper, more meaningful. It seems to recognize that, even at a young age, some girls have a rudimentary understanding and deep appreciation of their potential to give life. It provides the raw materials and gentle guidance to create beauty. And it reinforces my daughter’s desire for personal expression.

I walk away from the store with the two happy, bouncing girls, and I appreciate the ambition of the place. Everything in the store shaped and built on the girl’s experience, leaving us all with an impression of achievement and delight that goes well beyond the actual bears. This is truly something special. The business person in me can’t help but wonder if they’re profitable. I wonder how Morningstar rates them.


Patrimonia Hoy

It finally feels like home.

Two years ago, I got on the bus in Michoacan, to head to the Mexico City barrio where my uncle Miguel, his family, and half the people I grew up with have established themselves. My friends Jose and Rodrigo introduced me to Carolina a week after I got there, and helped me get a job at trucking company, too. I would never have considered coming to the city without knowing people on whom I could totally depend.

Having gotten married to Carolina a year ago, I knew I’d need to, eventually, make a place of our own. My in-laws wanted to help, though they didn’t have much themselves. Neither did Uncle Miguel or my friends. Fortunately, I was able to stake a claim on some land adjacent to my uncle’s place.

I’d done pretty well at the hotel, and had some money in my pocket. I wanted to do something worthwhile with it, but wasn’t sure what exactly. Of course, I wanted to build a house on my land, but concrete was expensive. Still, with Carolina expecting I knew I needed to do something- we were already enough of a burden on my in-laws.

I’d seen the name “CEMEX” on cement bags, but didn’t know much about them. Then one day, six months ago, Uncle Miguel told me about a friend of his who was part of a kind of cement buying club, sponsored by CEMEX, called “Patrimonio Hoy.” The friend said it was a great way to build better places for everyone.

So a bunch of us, including half of Carolina’s family, went to a meeting to hear more. What they told us sounded fantastic. We would form a few groups that would collectively purchase enough concrete to build a one-room house, say, or add a room to an existing place. Each group would pay for the concrete week by week, and, as a group, we’d receive the concrete and help each other build.

By buying together, the price was much more affordable. And, just as important, everyone got to improve their houses. Patrimonio Hoy helped all of us think through how to organize ourselves so that we could efficiently build one place after the next. Soon, the whole community was looking better. And Carolina and I now have the first floor of our house completed.

The whole world has changed for us. We’re all closer than ever, and I know in my gut that we made the right move coming to the city.



As I sped through security in my own line and walk into the Concorde lounge, the air was noticeably charged with excitement—and there were only four others there, so far. By the time the lounge began to fill with people and I was snacking on hors d’oeuvres and champagne, the air was electric—the kind small children feel waiting for Christmas morning or for their turn on an amusement park ride. In fact, I felt a giddiness that I can’t really explain and that I haven’t really felt in a long time.

That’s what it was like waiting to board the Concorde.

My attention was interrupted by an audible gasp from an elderly woman sitting near me. I looked to her and then followed her eyes out the window as the plane was towed to the gate. Her reaction was honest and reflexive. I knew by looking into her eyes (her hand was over her mouth) that she had looked forward to this for years—that she didn’t think it would ever actually happen. She had spoken for more than half the people in the lounge who were all peering silently out the floor-to-ceiling windows as this graceful plane was towed into place.

It was just a matter of time, now.

Boarding the Concorde, I was in a bit of a haze. I tried to take in every sensation, inevery sense, and imprint it in my memory. This was the one and only chance I’d have to ride this legend and I felt pretty lucky. The Concorde stopped flying forever just a few weeks later.

Inside, the plane was cramped and small, the leather seats nice but no bigger than standard economy seating. To be honest, I didn’t really notice. Nor did I care that the 30 year old entertainment system carried exactly 7 channels of music—hardly advanced by 2003 standards. None of it seemed to matter. As old as these planes were, as unimpressive the interior styling and accessories, once we taook-off and the afterburners kicked-in, I felt that I was a part of the future—even if it was a retro vision of a future past.

The flight itself? Ordinary.

There was no real sensation of Mach 2. The red LED display ticked past two times the speed of sound but the flight itself didn’t feel any different than any other. The service, of course, was wonderful, as was the food and drinks, but by the time we were finishing-up, it was already time to land in New York. The view out the tiny windows was hazy so I couldn’t even make out the curvature of the Earth.

However, none of that mattered. Nor did it matter that this was an expensive ticket and that it wasn’t even enough to make the flight profitable despite the full airplane. That the sensations of the flight were rather ordinary was surprising but not a disappointment. I think, perhaps, this is the way supersonic travel should be: ordinary, regular, routine. Every flight should be supersonic; should steal time from the Earth’s rotation; should inspire lifetimes of anticipation. Every flight should be this special and this ordinary.

The landing was the only truly spectacular part of the flight. When the plane crossed over land in the USA, barely three hours after leaving London, it made two steep banks and is on the ground in minutes. I know how long the approach takes in a 767, 777, 747, and 757. It’s fairly slow and meandering. Not the Concorde, however. Bank once and when the plane levels you are noticeably lower to the ground. Bank again, and you’re right at landing altitude. A minute later and you’re landing. The entire process was fast and deliberate. You can imagine what the plane looked like as it cuts through the air. People on the ground would still look up and marvel at this beautiful form—unlike most every other plane in the sky.

The first thought that came to my mind as I walk off the gantry: Let’s do it again!


Star Trek

You probably think I’m crazy.

I don’t dress in the costumes (well, except once for Halloween) but I do identify a lot with the Star Trek world and spend a significant amount of my free time in it. I’ve seen every film and episode at least three times (and probably many more) and I’ve read many of the books, been to a conference once, and now spend time writing my own stories and posting them to “fanfic” sites on the Internet. I’m not a fanatic or anything—really—and you’d never know it to look at me or work with me, but the Star TrekUniverse means a lot to me, I guess, on a deep level.

Before you laugh and point, though, realize that over 50% of US citizens admire Star Trek and say that they’re fans. They don’t have to be “Trekkers” or huge fans but they appreciate something about it. It’s really not so different, when you think about it, than all the fans of NASCAR or professional sports. The next time you see a 49ers fan walking down the street wearing a Steve Young jersey, realize, that’s no different than a Star Trek fan walking down the street with a Starfleet uniform on—not that I would be caught dead doing either. : )

I got into Star Trek as a kid. It was all about the adventure and the weird aliens and situations. It was fast fun and very entertaining. By the time Star Trek: The Next Generation was running for a year or two, however, I realized that it was more than just fun. The show made a quantum leap in quality and the stories were increasingly about important issues to society (ours and theirs) and relationships between people. For me, it became something more inspiring than merely fun, at least for me. Well, and a lot others, obviously.

By the time the next series opened, I saw in the characters, stories, and ideas, something that touched me on many different levels. Whoopi Goldberg once explained how important the original series was to her while growing up. Seeing Uhura (the Enterprise’s communications officer) portrayed as a smart, brave black woman with more to contribute than being a maid gave her hope about the future and her place in it. My own reaction was that, maybe, things can improve in the world and that we will solve the problems that face us as a civilization. This reaction was confirmed for me when I read The Ethics of Star Trek, which outlines the underlying ethical themes in the shows and films. Not only was it a vision of the best that humans could achieve, but almost a blueprint for getting there.

OK, I know that sounds like a pretty high expectations, but that’s what I truly get out of the whole Star Trek thing. Day-to-day, it reminds me to treat others and the future in a better way. I started writing my own Star Trek stories in order to explore my own ideas within this fictional world. They probably aren’t good enough to be published but that doesn’t matter to me.

Paramount, the company that owns the Star Trek brand, didn’t see it that way, at first. They saw fan fiction (my stories and the hundreds written by others every year and posted on the Web) as a threat to their “property.” They tried to sue us amateur writers and shut down our sites. But, they recanted some. It’s an uneasy truce, at times, but one that benefits all sides. I’ve written my own characters into the stories, literally making a place for myself in this world, because it means so much to me to make this vision of the world happen. We may never have the cool technologies or meet aliens, but the values built-into the show are the best we have to offer. Why wouldn’t someone want to be a part of that?



When I first got on the Web, it was 1997 and I think I was 14. My whole life revolved around futbol then. My favorite company was Nike and my favorite team was Brazil’s national team, even though it was sometimes difficult to catch games in Korea since not all of them are televised. Still, I would hunt-out television stores with satellite dishes and walk the aisles four hours trying to piece together an entire game.

When I got on the Web those first few times, of course my first stop was It didn’t find what I expected. Everyone back then were doing those Flash movies (you know, the kind everyone immediately skips). That was fine since most of those things sucked then anyway (or crashed whichever browser you were using). There was a little of that on the Nike site but not much.

Instead, it was more like a magazine. They had revolving stories about their special shoes—the ones made for a specific athlete. I had already bought the Air Jumpman Pros (I’m a big Michael Jordan fan even though my sport of choice is futbol). There was a story on the development of the shoe, it’s features, and the designer who made them—and why they fit Michael’s needs. There was also a story on Ronaldinho and Romario, the two stars of the Brazilian national team. It was great.

The coolest thing on the site was this thing where you could answer a question and it might be posted to the site for everyone to see. I remember one on “why do you play?” and there were all of these answers by other kids just like me, along side answers from famous athletes. That was cool. I answered a lot of these “pulse” questions but mine never made it onto the site. That’s cool, I’m sure there were a lot of people doing the same thing.

It was just great that Nike cared about what its customers thought, instead of being totally wrapped-up in the athletes they sponsor. That’s kind of the message you get from the TV ads and the ads in magazines and billboards. It’s all about the celebrity thing sometimes. On the website, though, it was more than that, It was still exciting and cool, but it was mostly about the fans and what we thought.

They had this thing for Spring Training that year where they interviewed a bunch of kids who went down to watch and made baseball cards with their photos and info and put them on the site. For the US Open that year, they did a whole thing on the site where kids could send messages to Tiger Woods (I’m not a big golf fan, but hey, IT’S TIGER WOODS!).

The site’s still cool and MUCH bigger, but it’s also more corporate. They still have stories about the shoes but all of the cool stuff where they wanted to hear from people like me is gone. It’s more like television: there’s a lot to watch but no place to contribute.



It was one of those awful days at Oakland International (yes, I’m flying again). You know, where you stand in line for an hour or so while everyone struggles to get their shoes off and their laptops into the plastic containers. I caused a real commotion, and a stern warning from one of the security guys, when I went around to the back of that assembly line your stuff gets placed onto, to get a piece of my luggage that fell off. I really hate that "under pressure" thing when you've got all those people behind you, just trying to get through.

Fortunately, I was taking JetBlue to JFK. We boarded the plane, and I settled into my leather seat and waited for take-off. I’ve always liked JetBlue, ‘cause it’s so consistently easy to deal with. You feel like a human being instead of a sheep. From the moment you get on the plane, there’s a certain calm, and clarity to the whole thing. Maybe it's the colors, which put me at ease. The seats are roomy and comfortable. And, I can’t explain how they do it, but there just isn’t the sort of luggage-stowing torture I’ve had on other airlines.

Also, booking the flight was a breeze. Their website is crystal-clear and talks to me in a relaxed, offhand yet businesslike way, just like the plane itself. Again, like a human being, instead of a statistical “consumer.” I don't talk about my "dignity" very often, but these people seem to respect it.

Anyway, I’m sitting there, enjoying ESPN, when this guy gets on the public address system and announces that he’s the CEO of JetBlue. He welcomes all of us, and tells us that he’ll be one of our flight attendants. Then, he starts passing out drinks!
As he’s walking down the aisle, he asks people how they’re doing, not bugging them to tell him what they like and don’t like about the airline, just doing the normal things a flight attendant would do. Some people congratulate him on how much they like JetBlue, others had complaints, but most just enjoy the fact that the guy in charge seems to get that he's dealing with people. You get the sense that this is one airline that actually focuses on me, instead of filling the seats.



How can I really feel at home in Ft. Wayne?

When I was in college, I never imagined I would someday be selling enterprise software, of all things. It sounds like a cliché now, but back then I wanted to be a novelist. I spent a whole summer at a café in Florence, writing in that decrepit journal, drinking way too much espresso, and getting to know a bunch of like-minded bohemians hoping that graduation could be put off another year or two.

Of course, I’m much more practical now. And, leaving the whole practicality thing aside, I actually like your work. Traveling around the country, meeting exotic people (and the people in small towns seem awfully exotic to me, since I’m from New York), I find that a lot of that youthful spirit of adventure still means something and still has room to operate.

On the other hand, Ft. Wayne, Indiana might be pushing the “exoticism” a little far. I check into the Comfort Inn, call my client, and get everything arranged for our meeting tomorrow morning. I’ve got some time to kill, so I work out, but feel restless. I get in the car and drive down this characterless, endless six-lane highway with the same old fast-food and “family style” restaurants I see on all the other highways I seem to stay on.

And then I see the Starbuck’s, and something just changes. I drive into the parking lot, and the moment I walk into the place I’m transported back to Florence. I can’t say why, exactly (Starbucks is a fairly far extrapolation from Florence), but I’m at home. Maybe it’s the smell of the freshly-brewed espresso. Maybe it’s the delightfully-disheveled look of the pile of newspapers over in the corner. Perhaps it’s the dreadlocked young woman behind the counter with the nose-ring and the right attitude.

I order your double espresso, sit down on the plump couch, pick up the crumpled newspaper (how many people have read it already? I wonder), and just imbibe the vibe. The guy next to me looks up and smiles. We get into a great political conversation, something I really needed but didn’t realize until it happened.

And, I feel “at home,” not in location but in “place,” nonetheless. Others, like my girlfriend, think that one Starbucks is identical to the next (and view that negatively), but to me, that’s what makes it comfortable. I know I can always find my place and meet people I’ll enjoy talking with.

No matter where I go, I depend on Starbuck’s to evoke a feeling of the place I really live.


Deccan Commons

My husband passed away suddenly a few years ago. Once we’d all gotten over the initial shock, my daughter, who lives in Bangalore, suggested that I consider selling the house and moving out their way.

I gave it a lot of thought. There was no question that the house, which was too much for Rakesh and I even when he was living, just didn’t make sense for me now. And they were right to be concerned about me living by myself. I’ve always been a gregarious person, and I didn’t like rattling around in the house by myself. The neighbors seemed to change every few years, and there was no one close by that I could call if there were some emergency.

On the other hand, Bombay is my native place. I value my independence, and I’m rooted here. I love to garden, and couldn’t see myself moving to some retirement place in Bangalore, filled with old people, where I couldn’t grow things or see a blue sky. I also just didn’t see myself as some old widow going to live near her children to wait until the end comes.

So, I looked for some other options, and discovered Deccan Commons, a “co-housing” community that had been built on the outskirts of town. I learned that, since the 21st century, they’d become a popular option for people like me, who like to be around other people without being a burden.

At Deccan, the idea is a modern version of a village, with a wide variety of ages and occupations. The individual houses are built in clusters, without walls between them. There’s a lively community center, which includes a large dining room, exercise facility, library and daycare center. I liked the concept so much that I sold the house and bought a charming little bungalow at Deccan.

It turned out even better than I’d expected. Now, not only do I get to garden, but I have a group of women in the community who work with me. We’ve been able to plant such an amazing variety of things! Also, and this has been a pleasant surprise, I’ve been “adopted” by two delightful younger families, who insist I eat dinner with them at the community center. Not that I need my arm twisted—I love being around young people—and here, I get to play auntie without having to change any diapers. It’s wonderful!

It didn’t occur to me back in my old house, but my priorities have changed. I never realized how much I longed for more people around. I thought I was happy with my neighborhood, mostly because it was familiar. I was really worried about leaving it. However, I’ve rediscovered community and everything in my life is brighter for it.

I didn’t realize how much I needed others or that my life was missing something. I still like my reading and time alone, but I seek out others more than I used to. I love being needed to help cook a community meal or when someone besides my daughter asks for advice. I’m involved in others’ lives more than I ever thought I could be—or wanted to be.
Interestingly I never thought much about it when we lived in our house, but the design of an area really does have a big impact on how neighbors interact. Here at Deccan, the design of the community just makes it so easy to interact with people who quickly become friends.

You don’t have to interact if you don’t want to (there’s no pressure at all). But for those of us who want to be connected with others but, also have our independence, this seems just about perfect. As a matter of fact, my daughter, who, at first, was disappointed and (I think) a little hurt when I chose Deccan over Bangalore, has totally changed her opinion. Now, she’s looking at a co-housing community for her family. I don’t think I can talk her into coming back to Bombay, but you never know.