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Monday, July 30, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Frames of mind: the cubicle culture wars

The Washington Post

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You walk into a job interview and sit down across from your potential boss. Then you spot it on a wall: a poster of a canoe on a still lake, with a slogan:

"SUCCESS: Success is a journey, not a destination."

You think:

(A) I am so with the program! or

(B) I might as well walk out of here now.

Answer "A" and it's clear you are a Successories sort of person. (And good for you!)

Answer "B" and you may want to do your Christmas shopping at Despair Inc.

They're just two poster companies, Successories and Despair, but they form a fine cultural litmus test for an era of mixed messages: when polar opposites "Seinfeld" and "Touched by an Angel" got big television ratings, when the digital gold rush of the late 20th century pancaked into the first downturn of the 21st.

Successories describes itself as the "No. 1 source for employee motivation and recognition."

Despair says it is "the perfect tool for combating mindless optimism in the workplace."

At the millennium's threshold, are we pessimists or optimists? Skeptical or sanguine?

Wall candy

Turns out there really are just two kinds of people in the world.

There are enterprising optimists, who've had their share of setbacks but are industrious enough to craft Life's Little Speed Bumps into motivational anecdotes to tell at regional sales meetings.

Then there are those who understand the scientific inevitabilities of living in an entropic universe that ruthlessly proceeds toward soul-crushing disorder but who nevertheless maintain a grim-but-amused half-smile while piloting intrepidly but nervously forward.

Successories people and Despair people.

You know what Successories are, if not by brand name. You've seen them in the little kiosk at the mall — the colorful motivational posters that look too real to be real, and became the wall candy of cubicle culture.

"ATTITUDE: Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference."

"GROWTH: Small opportunities are often the beginning of great achievements."

You probably haven't seen Despair's posters unless you surf the Web. The company exists entirely at www.despair.com. But they look exactly like Successories posters, and that's the joke.

A ring of sky divers: "IDIOCY: Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups."

A tree bent over by wind: "ADVERSITY: That which does not kill me postpones the inevitable."

A sinking ship: "MISTAKES: It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others."

'That's exactly how I feel!'

Back in the '70s, when Mac Anderson was a college student going through a rough patch, a friend told him: "Mac, inch by inch, life is a cinch. Yard by yard, life is hard."

He remembered the quote, and started collecting others.

"If you get the right quote to the right person, they may say, `Wow! That's exactly how I feel!' A month from now, when you're down in the dumps, you can look up on the wall to reinforce that positive thought," says Anderson, 56, from the Aurora, Ill., headquarters of Successories and its 500-some employees.

His favorite poster? A photo of a sailboat navigating among glaciers. "RISK: A ship in the harbor is safe ... but that's not what ships were made for."

This is a perfect quote, he believes, for a guy who's launched three successful businesses. Before Successories, Anderson helped start a company that makes prepackaged salads and, after that, a commercial travel company.

He started Successories in 1985, marketing first to human-resources managers and sales managers. Business really picked up when Successories opened the first of its 71 stores. Anderson says the company was flooded with sales to teachers, coaches, parents and others who were looking for any way to motivate their teenagers, who probably, being teens, were desperately crying out for something like Despair Inc.

Anderson is a genial man. It is admirable that his company grossed $50 million last year by doing something well-intentioned.

One of Anderson's four heroes (along with Mother Teresa, Helen Keller and a little boy he once knew who had polio) is Abe Lincoln, who "lost six elections and failed in two businesses and hung on to be our greatest president."

Most important, Anderson continues, Lincoln once said, "People are about as happy as they make up their minds to be."

You see, Anderson believes in "managing your attitude."

'They need a Failure poster'

One day in 1996, a Successories catalog thunked down on the desk of one Justin Sewell, an increasingly embittered 25-year-old working for a Dallas Internet service provider that was howling downward like a flaming World War II bomber. Sewell showed the Successories catalog to two co-workers: his twin, Jef, and their friend Larry Kersten.

They were three bitter buddies.

"They need a Failure poster, a Mediocrity poster," Justin Sewell told the guys. "If they had one of those, I'd have purchased it immediately."

This is how satire works. And how a business was born.

They grabbed a stock photography catalog. They found a picture of a dejected track runner sitting on a bench, head in hands. They printed it out as a 5-by-7 and attached a quote:

"FAILURE: When your best just isn't good enough."

"If there's a picture on the wall that says `Teamwork' and everyone in the office is treated fairly, then it fades into the background and becomes just a pretty photo," Sewell says. "But when the culture of the company involves nepotism or all sorts of politics and you have a poster that talks about teamwork, that poster becomes an advertisement for management's hypocrisy and it's truly insulting.

"And that is where our market opportunity is," he says, laughing.

The Sewells, now 29, and Kersten, 41, figured they weren't the only ones embittered by modern times. They launched Despair with a few thousand bucks of buyout money when a bigger ISP bought their company in 1998.

Last year, the company grossed $1 million.

Life's not that simple

"Ha, ha, ha, ha!"

That's Anderson laughing at Despair's quotes.

"I think some of (Sewell's) stuff is very funny," he says.

Really? You're not being ... sarcastic? Heck no. Know what else? The favorite sitcom in his household is still "Seinfeld."

As for Despair, Anderson observes that the simple fact of starting a business — even one built on affirming cowardice, blame-placing and general misery — is by its nature an optimistic act.

Fair enough. Even Sewell says: "We don't say that life has no meaning or purpose. We don't say `Go out and commit suicide.' We prefer to say that life is harder and much less orderly than our antithesis (Successories) would like you to believe. That you'll be a lot happier if you reject the idea that life is this simple."

Agrees Anderson, "To suggest that posters are going to change someone's life, that's ridiculous."

Anderson's reasonableness is nearly enough to crack a skeptic's hardened shell. Until he offers one more quote: "There's never a day when I go into work and get tired of being surrounded by positive quotes."

He almost had us.

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