INTERVIEW by MATTHEW KITCHEN | BR!NK PHOTOGRAPHY by ZACK DeZON
Your first conversation with a member of the opposite sex is always tense. What do I say? What am I supposed to do with my body? My hands? Am I asking good questions? Am I boring? These are the questions LeeAnn Renninger, doctor of social psychology and founder of LifeLabs New York, is here to answer. After researching the movements of humpback whales as part of a government study LeeAnn turned her attention toward human behavior in hopes of understanding how we influence one another through movement and speech. Now she teaches classes on conversation, facial expressions, surprise, and even “coolness,” all in hopes of helping people discover more about themselves and the people they come in contact with everyday. Her skills at conversation didn’t disappoint. Of course, I was mostly just wondering what to do with my hands.
How did you come up with LifeLabs New York?
During my doctorate research at the University of Vienna, Austria, we began looking at how subtle changes to a professor’s teaching style and changes in the teaching order made big impacts in students’ attention and retention. We tested what would happen if instead of simply teaching something, all concepts were switched into experiments or learning adventures where students first experienced the concept themselves, then learned about the research behind it. To me, it became a fun weekly challenge to help professors turn a topic that might be super boring into something useful to everyday life. The most highly rated experiments were turned into a public forum that we called the WonderLab. When I moved to New York City, the WonderLab turned into LifeLabs New York, and our idea is that New York City herself can become a professor that gives us lessons on the art of living.
What drives people to come learn life lessons after work?
In some ways it’s edutainment — educational entertainment. People coming to LifeLabs are curious explorers looking for something fun to do on a weekday night. They want to meet other people and they want to learn something useful, so there’s always this playful element to the class. They come in with three or four friends because it sounds fun — just to do something new — and they leave with something useful that makes an impact on how they live. We always emphasize the actions after the class that they can do. We give out mini-challenges they can work on in their everyday lives.
And you see the same people over and over again?
Yeah, it’s like frequent flyer miles. The biggest problem is that we can’t create classes quickly enough. But it’s a good problem to have.
At the Yapper Lab, participants learn the art of conversation
One of your most popular classes is the Coolness Lab. Tell me about being cool.
Well, who do you think is cool?
For men it’s always James Dean or Steve McQueen, so that’s what I picture.
What is it about them that you’d say is cool?
It’s the aloof, devil-may-care attitude. The white T-shirt, slicked hair, aspirational look for all men.
Our writer takes a stab at defining coolness
Well, the idea behind the Coolness Lab is not to teach people how to be cool, because it’s obviously uncool to go to a class to learn about coolness. But the idea is to ask yourself what cool means to you. The interesting question is why we might care so much about our own definition of coolness, and what it says about what we value most. It reflects what’s important to you at that moment, and we use that as a basis to explore ourselves and explore the pulse point of society. Full disclosure: I’m not an expert on coolness. I’m an expert on asking engaging questions about coolness. I define coolness as having courage, being calm, being present. If you look at people who have been defined as cool, they have a little bit of that. By that criteria the most uncool-looking people can be defined as ultimately cool.
How often does dating etiquette come up as a topic?
Often. For me, the most useful things are how to make your conversations better, how to handle conflict, how to feel more confident, and noticing how we subtly influence one another with our movements, too. When I did my master’s at Bucknell, I was looking at how people in bars behave when new people come into the room. How do one person’s movement or behaviors impact the group? What do men do with their bodies to attract the attention of women? I always thought, “What if you can combine something that’s fun and useful with all the other stuff you’re learning?”
What about Surpriseology Lab? How do you surprise yourself?
If you understand the science of surprise, what actually happens in the brain when you invite surprise in or when you surprise someone else, you start to realize this incredible power. It can really shift everything. If we listed the best memories of your life I guarantee there’s an element of surprise in them. It’s just how your brain works. It remembers anything that didn’t match the schema. Surprise is one of the biggest engines of good and bad memories, so you learn to invite little surprises into your life.
How much of LifeLabs’ classes focus on the surface appearance versus the inner self?
None of our classes are about appearance. They all go much deeper. Even the Look Good Lab, where we have a fashion consultant pick styles to match you, is about something much deeper. It always ends with a bang. An example: we noticed that people can always quickly name things they don’t like about how they look. “My neck is too short” or “my fingers are stubby.” But when we ask you want you DO like, people are like “…Ugh.” You have to name the thing that looks best on you and they learn that good fashion is all about emphasizing the thing about yourself you think looks best. And a good lifestyle is understanding and finding the good parts, and emphasizing the good parts, not just trying to find the negative. She focuses on the philosophical level, about what it means and your attitude and your way of approaching things. So it always turns back to the inward side of it.
Awesome. And how can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to the success of Lifelabs?
We’re always looking for volunteers. Not just volunteers, but think tank members. People who are curious about life and enjoy experimenting. Our whole goal is to create stomping grounds for people who are excited about these things and who have a passion for living. To just simply contact us would be great. We have these spaghetti dinners where we get together and throw out ideas. A lot of our ideas come out of the think tanks. We also need help marketing. We have no marketing plan or business plan. We’re just doing it, which is working, but if anyone wants to help us figure out what our method is, that would be great.