Margaret Hagan, Kursat Ozenc: Judaism Unbound Episode 180 - The Ritual Design Lab


Margaret Hagan and Kursat Ozenc, co-creators of the Ritual Design Lab, based at Stanford University’s Institute of Design (the “d.school”), and co-authors of the book Rituals for Work, join Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg to investigate what rituals are, why they matter, and how they work. [1] [2]

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(0:01 - 17:32): To begin the episode, Hagan and Ozenc provide a framework for what a ritual even is! Pushing beyond the largest and grandest rituals (weddings, funerals, etc), they talk about ways in which even the daily process of drinking a cup of coffee can become ritualized (and has been by some of their students). They reflect on the origins of their Ritual Design Lab, beginning with Ozenc’s research on transitions and eventually evolving into a class they teach together. [3] Continuing, they take a look at some of the reasons that rituals hold weight for people and add value to their lives, highlighting the sense of comfort, or guidance, that they can give, along with creating a sensation of control during moments that might otherwise feel uncertain or ambiguous. They also explore the benefits of compact (short!) rituals, those that take into account body in addition to mind, and those that balance the realms of familiar and novel. [4]

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(17:33 - 32:31): Hagan and Lex bond over their shared connection to sports, and the ways in which sports — like religion — can easily be a realm conducive to the implementation of rituals. She also distinguishes between rituals created and overseen by large central institutions (often religious institutions) and those pioneered by individuals or small groups for themselves. Ozenc explores the ways in which simply calling a particular task “a ritual” can make people connect on a deeper level to that task and add layers of meaning, [5] and both guests look at reasons why rituals designed by others can often land more effectively on us than rituals an individual might attempt to design for their own use. Dan asks whether there are particular kinds of people who naturally feel comfortable with the creation of new rituals in ways that might be challenging for those who struggle to suspend their own disbelief.

(32:32 - 51:19): Looking specifically at the realm of rituals created for a workplace environment, Hagan and Ozenc name some of the challenges that can arise when the purpose of ritual is to yield profit for a company. They also advocate for ways in which, despite the potential pitfalls, implementing workplace rituals — even in a large corporation — can have a meaningful and positive impact. [6] Each guest names a few rituals designed by their students, including those that involve (we kid you not!) desks, secret dance moves, and rocks. Ozenc looks back at his own life experience, highlighting ways in which his immigration from Turkey to the United States helped lead to his interest in transitions (and then in ritual). Hagan considers how her career in legal aid groups, and her immersion in the court system, led to an interest in culture-change and organizational structure. [7] To close the episode, each of the two guests shares a personal ritual that they utilize in their own everyday life.

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[1] Learn more about Margaret Hagan by clicking here, learn more about Kursat Ozenc by clicking here, and purchase their book Rituals for Work: 50 Ways to Create Engagement, Shared Purpose, and a Culture of Bottom-Up Innovation at this link.

[2] Check out this 2018 feature in The Atlantic about Ozenc and Hagan’s work, entitled “A Design Lab is Making Rituals for Secular People.”

[3] For an article looking simultaneously at the role of transitions in gender and in Judaism, see this Jewish Currents piece, entitled “Transitions in Jewish Time: A Trans Writer Visits the Mikveh.”

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[4] Ozenc and Hagan allude to the “Wundt Novelty Curve” (pioneered by Wilhelm Wundt, an early psychologist). To learn more about this topic, its relationship to the ideas of “familiarity” and “novelty,” and some of the ramifications for contemporary design, see the article “Novelty and Interestingness Measures for Design-space Exploration,” put together by a group of Dutch and Danish researchers.

[5] For more on the ways in which simply conceptualizing an action as a “ritual” can make us connect to that action on a deeper level, see this Harvard Business School study, alluded to by Ozenc and summed up in an article with the title “Rituals Make Us Value Things More.”

[6] Hagan mentions The Office (the award-winning sitcom) as a show that encapsulates many ways that ritual can be embedded into a workplace environment. For more on some of the hidden ways in which religious themes embed themselves into this show, see this article.

[7] For more of Hagan’s work on Legal Design, check out LawByDesign.co.