How'd you come up with the name Optimistic Anthropology?

I’m horrible at naming things.  As a child, my favorite stuffed animal was named Lamby (he was a lamb) and my pet chameleon was named Camille. I adopted my dog from a shelter, and his name, much to my relief, suited him, so I never changed it. 

Every time I’ve written a report, or a blog post, I have spent a lot of time trying to come up with good titles. And I’ve worked with a number of smart communications and marketing folks who have offered techniques for doing it well. But what I’ve come up with has never been very good.

As a result, I was worried about what I was going to call this, my new venture.  And I was also aware that if I’m going to market myself as a person who organizations and collaborations should come to when they have a problem they don’t know how to solve, I should be able to solve my own problems.

Finding the right name for your business is difficult, let alone having to adapt to world events. A spa down the street from where I lived in Oakland, California, decided to change its name in 2015 for what the banner describes as "obvious reasons."

So, I started with a technique from emergent learning and developed a framing question: how might I find the “right” name for my new business?

I got clear on what I already knew:

  1. I wanted the name to reflect the company’s values and philosophy;
  2. I didn’t want it to include my last name (it is a blessing and a curse when your last name is Gold), and
  3. I wanted it to be unique.

I started with the wisdom of practitioners. I conducted a mini-literature review to identify advice from branding specialists.  And I also tapped into the gifts and knowledge of my own network, reaching out to three friends – one a fellow entrepreneur who had been through this process in the last year, the other two, strategic communications specialists – for advice and input.

With this anthropological research done and some parameters identified, I attempted to craft some names.  I tried the methodologies that my friends and the experts recommended to me – I made a list of all the words that I liked or thought reflected the firm’s philosophy, I brainstormed twenty-five possible ideas on my own, and then one of my friends facilitated a brainstorming discussion together. I had a list of six okay ideas.

But, I wanted to see how others would respond to the names. So, drawing from The Lean Startup, I shared the names with some friends and family members, folks of different demographics who work in different industries and sectors.  I asked them about their gut reactions, what the names evoked and what would make them better.  What I found was that no one liked “Pragmatic Optimism” (all intellect, no feeling) or “Wonderment Strategies” (too much about ideas, not about action). It was useful feedback - find something that strikes a balance between logic, feeling, and action.

But, after a bunch of days of solid work and experimentation, I still had not found a name I, or anyone else, liked.  And I was frustrated.

Earlier in my career, I would have put my head down and just kept at it until I’d burn out and settle on something that I could live with. But, in recent years, I’ve been learning that sometimes when you’ve asked the question, and put in the work, and gotten useful feedback, instead of stressing, it’s good to practice mindfulness and give the brain a bit of space to figure out the solutions.

I backed off a bit and a couple of days later, it emerged: Optimistic Anthropology. 

With a lot of caveats, I ran it by my brother, and he said, “I like it.” Then, I tested it out with other people that I know and trust, paying attention to what they said, but also their non-verbal reactions. Some laughed in delight, others told me they loved it, a brand specialist I met at a BBQ told me it was a great name, and one former colleague even replied “That’s you!” 

And for me, it instinctually felt right.  It reflects who I am, without using my last name, it’s unique, and most importantly it reflects my values and philosophy.  Optimism is hopefulness and confidence in the future.  Anthropology is the study of what makes us human. I know that by creating an intentional process to learn about cultures and how they developed, and by building the knowledge and know-how to experiment with solutions until we find the “right” ones, we can shape a more positive future. 

And so with that, I welcome you to Optimistic Anthropology, and the blog, The Optimistic Anthropologist.  This is the place where I’ll occasionally share what I’m learning, reading, listening to, and photographing as I work to build this consultancy and support organizations and collaborations to become better problem-solvers and culture-shapers in service of a positive world! 

I’d love to hear from you!  What do you think of this blog post?  Have a project that you think I might be a great help on? Leave a comment, or get in touch via email, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn.


Going forward, I’ll aim to include links to short descriptions of the methodologies that I (or my collaborators) applied, remixed, and adapted in the work.  For developing our brand name, I used: anthropological interviewing (and qualitative research), emergent learning, the lean startup, and mindfulness.