EP 83: Remote Ritual and Agency Life, with Ezra Bookman

Oct 28, 2020

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EP 83: Remote Ritual and Agency Life, with Ezra Bookman

On this episode of THRIVE—sponsored by Workamajig—Kelly and Ezra Bookman, founder of Ritualist, discuss how the art of ritual plays an important role in agencies where our team members need to both collaborate and process emotion but cannot be in the same physical space.

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Episode 83 Links

NY Times Article: Doing God’s Work in Corporate America
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EP 83: Remote Ritual and Agency Life

Duration: 31:24


Kelly: So this week’s episode of Thrive is all about the practices we create within our agencies. I’m joined by Ezra Bookman, founder of Ritualist. It’s a boutique consultancy transforming companies and communities through the art of ritual. Ezra actually came onto my radar recently, because Karl Sakas, my agency growth consultant friend, actually clipped out the article from the New York Times and mailed it to me. And he basically knew that this would really resonate with me, and the work that I do with agency leaders. So I was really appreciative. Thank you Karl. If you’re watching this, I reached out to Ezra immediately. And here we are. So thank you for being so generous with your time and having this conversation with me today.

Ezra: Thank you. It’s an honor and a pleasure to be here. And I love the old school clipping the actual article out. That’s awesome.

Kelly: Do you know how excited I was to get that in the mail? I was like, this is great. When is the last time I held a New York Times?

Ezra: I only have the digital. So I didn’t even get the paper. And so I put out a call for like, if anyone actually has a physical paper, could you do exactly that? And then I was like, oh, we were on the front page. I had no idea.

Kelly: Amazing. So for those who are tuning in to watch or listening to this conversation, I would imagine that they’re probably coming to the table with a lot of different preconceived notions about what ritual is and what it is not. So I’m curious how you define it or describe it when you’re talking about what you actually do.

Ezra: Yeah, thank you for that question. Ritual is one of those things that have like an infinite amount of definitions. It’s like my hobby to collect definitions of rituals.

Kelly: I saw that in Instagram. That’s a great collection.

Ezra: That’s like just scratching the surface. They’re kind of all true. There is a great ritual theorist, Catherine Bell, who famously wrote a book on ritual. And she famously would never define it, because she said, like how you define it says a lot more about you than it is about the people, or the practices that you’re observing. From my perspective, there’s two big misconceptions about ritual. One is that it has to be spiritual or grounded in some sort of religious tradition, which was not true, right? We are immersed our whole lives in all kinds of rituals, outside of religious tradition, both in our personal lives, and obviously, in our professional lives as well. And I think a second misconception is that you need to do it 1000 times for it to become a ritual, or you can continue to repeat it. But there’s all kinds of rituals that we’ve only done once in one specific moment. My definition of ritual is that it’s an intentional, symbolic action, that heightens impact, importance, or meaning. And so I think what it does, is really super important to helping frame what a ritual is.

Kelly: Really interesting. I was thinking about this this morning, because I’m like, oh, I’ve never actually asked myself the question, how would I define ritual? And after a couple of attempts, I came up with a ritual seems to be something that creates space in which emotion is welcome. Any emotion. So I thought, oh, that’s interesting. It was just something I was playing with. And as a follow up to that, so you have that definition, right? Which is a great definition. I love it. But if you take that a notch deeper, what does ritual mean to you on a personal level? Like, what does it mean to you, not to how you’re describing what you do for a living.

Ezra: For me, personally, rituals are the tools that I use to make meaning out of my life and to have a deeper, richer experience of life. And I think that goes in a lot of directions, right? They have rituals that helped me connect to something larger than myself, something bigger than myself, expand outside, and reduce the kind of hyper individualism that I think in a lot of us seem to be habitually on the pathway of, connect across time to reflect on, to ground myself in what is, and set intentions for what I want to be. That’s often how I use rituals in my life.

Kelly: Yeah, beautiful. So as we’re thinking about this in the context of people, leading agencies and having employees at those agencies who are now needing to collaborate on different work for brands, but not able to be in the same physical space, how can ritual play an important role in in those situations?

Ezra: Yeah, I always knew that this work was important and COVID, and all of us switching to remote work overnight, I think the whole world realize just how necessary it is. Because all of the things that we used to rely on is just like automatic, just being in the same space, culture would happen, and connection would just sort of happen. Now, we really need to be intentional about designing and being purposeful about it and asking for it, and showing up for it with full presence. So when you focused internally on your own company’s culture, what are the ways in which you’re providing spaces, containers for your employees to connect with each other, to slow down, and recognize each other’s work, to have the interpersonal moments like a web connection that an agency really is. Because it’s made up of people. The agency is really just a collection of people. And who are they? Are they able to show up? I love the phrase, like, show up with your full self, as if that’s a choice. We we’re full humans, right? We will show up with our full selves. We might not express it. We might tamp it down. And we try to leave it in the car and pretend like it’s not happening, but it’s there. So if you’re the director of an agency, recognize the full humanity of the people that you’re working with.

Kelly: Right. Yeah, I always like to say, without its people, there is no agency. You’re not selling widgets. You’re essentially selling the ideation and strategic thinking and the doing of those people. So I think so much more focus needs to be placed on culture and supporting those employees in all of these ways. With what you just mentioned, are there a couple of specific examples you can give about how that shows up? Like when you go into an organization, maybe even a particular creative agency or technology agency, how does ritual play a part? And, what are some of the examples as to how you might help that culture deepen, or work through certain things that they might be experiencing?

Ezra: Yeah, it’s an expansive question. And I think each agency and each client that I’m working with is coming with really specific problems. Some people are dealing with, like, the fact that creativity and brainstorming is really difficult in Zoom and remote work. Like that sort of flow that can happen when you’re in person is really difficult. Some people are just starting out, and they want to be intentional about crafting their culture from the very beginning. And the rituals that mark time and the transitions and movement through the company. I think what’s most important is to recognize that no matter what, like the culture will exist, whether you create it or not, there is a company culture already. It’s just whether or not you’re going to be intentional about crafting it. And be specific about what it is and how it will manifest. Where I always start is, what are the core fundamental values of this agency? What is your vision of the world? Not just what is the next client that you’re trying to chase after, but what is the bigger vision. And get people to step back and zoom out. And when you do that, you can think about what are these tangible manifestations of how I can connect my employees to that larger vision to their day to day work, right? We’re in this like, just like deluge of emails and the micro and all this sort of stuff. When I’m in that, I can zoom out. I can take a step back and I can remind myself what the bigger vision is that I’m working towards. I think that’s really core.

Kelly: Yeah, I think its core also. And in my work with agencies, I think that that’s probably the biggest disconnect that I see, is that an agency leader or leadership team may have a vision, you may have a mission statement. You may have core values written on the pre-COVID office walls. But there is a disconnect between the employees really embodying, feeling, understanding, and living that every single day because there is just not that connection and it’s a lot harder to be not in person.

Ezra: Yeah, I think that a lot of vision statements and value documents exist as documents.

Kelly: Yeah.

Ezra: But we don’t have these embodied practices that bring them to life and put them into actual practice. So that their lived experiences, rituals are our lived experience of our values in the world. And they embody those values and create communal experiences around them, so that we can also hold each other accountable to them. I can say from my own personal work like knowing that value exists, but having no mechanism on which to hold either my fellow employees or even my employer accountable to like, is that what’s happening in this moment? And rituals are those touch points that we can say like, oh, this is important, we’re taking time, we’re slowing down, and we’re marking this as important, we’re putting a big circle around it. So then it becomes more fluid, it becomes part of the life of the organization.

Kelly: Yeah, one of the things that was mentioned in that Times article, and I believe it was you that mentioned it, as an example of ritual, was holding a grief ritual for the loss of a client or the loss of a client account, or even holding like a funeral for that, instead of just a simple or traditional retrospective. I thought that was really, really interesting. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Ezra: Sure. I think it’s important to recognize that we are full emotional beings, and that it’s okay to have an emotional experience around our work. Because if we care about our work, we care about what we’re doing, if what we’re doing is an extension of who we want to be in the world. And, a lot of studies are showing that that is where the trend is going. Then, those moments of failure, as well as success will have a big impact on our emotional lives. And if we expect to just sort of cruise right through it, and ignore it and pretend like it didn’t exist, then that un-incorporated and unintegrated emotion is going to have an effect on our future work. And so something like I mean, the form of what that grief ritual could take is really infinite. And again, this should always be a reflection of who the team are, what their values are and traditions that they find to be important in their lives. But at the very least, like you said earlier, creating a container for people to have that emotional experience. And to let it go to ultimately let it go, which is what all rituals really enable us to do, is to eventually name it, feel it, and move on.

Kelly: Yeah. So this article that I keep mentioning, it was actually called Doing God’s Work in Corporate America. I’m not sure how you feel about the title itself. But one of the other people that was mentioned or featured in that article was the co-founder of Sacred Design Lab. And I found it really interesting. He said something like the next white space in advertising and brands is spirituality. And I thought that was a really, really interesting comment. I guess the question that I have around that is, how do you feel about that site? I could imagine there might be some thoughts you might have there. And my real question is like, why do you believe that spirituality or divinity or even ritual has been kept so distance from business? Why have we or even talk about it from the standpoint of emotions? Why do you believe we have kept these things so distant? Like an emotional being state and like doing work. I’m just curious what your thoughts are on that.

I know, I know. Well, you can come back for another one. But let’s at least touch it. And then we’ll do a part two, maybe.

Ezra: All right. Well, the easier part of that question is I don’t consider myself a divinity consultant.

Kelly: I know. That was a really strange term that they use.

Ezra: Yeah, I would never identify myself as that. Like I said at the beginning, our graduation ceremonies are not necessarily connected to any spiritual or religious tradition and yet they can create meaningful moments in our life. So rituals exist outside of divinity. It doesn’t need to be sacred; it just needs to be special. And so that’s my position. I think that we will of course, learn from, grow from, and be inspired by the people who have been investing thousands of years into the exploration of ritual. In my design practice, which is called the ritual lines, which identified the seven key components of impactful and transformative experiences is certainly influenced by, I spent six years as the artistic director of an experimental spiritual community as well as my art practice. I’m not trying to bring God into the workplace by any means. Why spirituality?

Kelly: Well, let’s talk about it from the standpoint of emotion because I feel like the whole spirituality component in the way that the New York Times article couched everything, really took it in a direction that the people who were featured may not actually believe in. So I would say the better question might be, why have we kept emotion so distant from business for so long?

Ezra: Yeah, we used to believe in work is what you do, and then all the meaning in your life is at home. And then we switch to this concept of like, work-life balance, which now seems almost like quaint, right?

Kelly: Also impossible.

Ezra: Exactly. And I think what we’re moving into right now is an understanding of a fluid experience of life. And that we are trying to live fully integrated lives in all of our entire life. And so those things are blending, we’re moving beyond that and thinking of just having them in balance, but having them fluid and connected. And worse, we spend the vast majority of our lives at work, more than home, more than anything; we spend it at work.

Kelly: Basically sleeping and working. Right?

Ezra: Right. And then like the occasional, I don’t know, nice meal. And so if we’re spending all of our time there, of course, people are starting to ask and demand that their work is a positive extension of their values and who they are in the world. And, for me, that’s a signifier that we can actually move beyond a purely exploitative kind of capitalism towards a more compassionate or a more human centered capitalism, that is still within the marketplace, of course, but has human flourishing and human growth and human value at its core. And in order to do that, we need our internal practices to reflect that as well as our external practices. And so that’s probably a little bit of emotion, that’s empathy. That’s sort of soft values that we thought we need to like, cut off of ourselves and show up in this aggressive, hyper masculine patriarchal kind of mode of doing and working. That is also thankfully, finally starting to fray and we’ve realized the negative impacts of that on our environment, on our client, on our climate, on our souls, on our happiness, and our ability to be engaged at work. I am not sure if I answered but, again, I think we need to hold.

Kelly: I was gonna say, the reason why I paused was I was having this moment of like, what you said in the last two minutes. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more alignment with words coming out of another human’s mouth. I mean, if you would like to host the rest of the show, I’m happy to have you do that.

Ezra: You’re doing a great job.

Kelly: No, it’s great. And this is all what I’ve been talking about and writing about and doing keynotes about. And I agree with you like thankfully, this is where we’re at. Right? Thankfully, we don’t have to over index on that masculinity or that masculine energy. The audience is very used to me saying being versus doing energy.

Ezra: I guess, maybe just one other point, one other thing that I sort of failed to note is that there’s also a loneliness epidemic that is very real right now.

Kelly: Thank you for bringing that up.

Ezra: It has a significant impact on our health. There’s a recent study that says loneliness has the effect of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, on your longevity, and so, and right now, especially with remote work, a recent study says that 58% of remote workers feel disconnected from their coworkers, and that 44% feel more isolated and lonely now. And so we’re at work with other humans with other people, some people that we even actually believe it or not like, and enjoy those professional interactions that we have. And building a community or building a strong culture that embraces that, can be one of the tools that we’ll use to ultimately tackle that loneliness epidemic. So at the very least, you can feel a sense of belonging at work.

Kelly: Yeah. And that’s what it’s all about. So for those whose curiosity has definitely been piqued here, how might they apply that ritual in their culture, their operations? If they’re interested in how, what that might look like? Where would you typically have someone like that start? How would they start to think about it? What might they ask or what would you typically advise them to do if they were interested in really being intentional about incorporating ritual into their agency?

Ezra: Yeah, great question. I think the first and easiest place to start is to identify transitions. Rituals have often been used to help hold and create a container around the inevitable anxiety and fear that comes with transitions.

Kelly: So when you say transitions, can you talk to some examples of that in the agency world?

Ezra: Sure. I mean, it’s any movement from one state to another. So if it’s onboarding a new employee, if it’s signing the actual deal with a new client, if it’s the completion of a project, if it’s a change in leadership, if it’s a shift in strategy, any shift, change, movement that is happening, that’s a good place to start to think about, how can I actually slow down and create an intentional experience that names what’s happening and gives people an opportunity to express, to use some sort of symbol that will ground them, and help them metabolize the fear and anxiety because in a transition, there’s always a loss, there’s always something that’s being lost and separated from. And it’s beautiful, because you can actually move into something new, but there’s that middle stage, the desert, so to speak, where you haven’t fully integrated into that new state. And that really can be a chaotic place; it can be an anxiety inducing place. And so that’s where I would recommend people start.

Kelly: So interesting, as you were talking, I got this very strange visual, that just kind of came into my mind. It was like a clear plastic line filled with water. And, this was the line of how we typically operate in our day to day at an agency, exactly all of the things that you just said. We might onboard a new client or a new employee. We’re collaborating on some strategy for a brand, whatever these things are, we might change course, here and there, might be someone promoted. So something throughout the lifeline, and then I almost had this idea that ritual was like injecting an air bubble at those moments, creating that pause, where it’s not just rushing through, but creating that little container or that pause or that space where you can say, hey, how is everyone feeling about this? Or, as you said, whatever the ritual is, based on the values of that agency. I don’t know why as you were talking, I was like, oh, air bubbles.

Ezra: It’s a beautiful image. And one, interestingly, that I’ve used before, like creating a bubble in time. And rituals are often the sorts of places where magic can happen, where transformation can happen. And so, there are great experiences. There are people who work a lot in transformation and talks about the magic circle, that you like, cross into this space where anything can happen. And, creating a safe container for people to step into. And then also to step out of, go back to work. I always say that, especially with onboarding, like most people when they onboard, like there’s the bathrooms, here’s your computer password, right?

Kelly: Very transactional.

Ezra: Right, like you’re here. And if you have the desire for that person to feel connected to their other colleagues, or to feel connected to the larger vision of your organization, you didn’t do it. And ritual can help. But the ritual, you also still need to show them where the bathroom is, and tell them what their computer password is, those things go hand in hand, which was not this panacea that will just cure everything, that all the issues that you have, and make up for not having those actual business practices that are going to actually do the work and move the work forward. But if you do all that work, and don’t take an opportunity to celebrate it, to amplify it, to make sure that it lands and lives and breathes, and is embodied, then you put a lot of effort and a lot of time and a lot of money, and haven’t actually achieved everything that you can prove from that experience.

Kelly: Right. And for the people who are thinking about this, from exactly what you’re saying, taking that in, but also thinking about the bottom line, what we’re really talking about here is creating more trust among your team members, creating a culture in which people feel more supported in a culture in which people feel like they have the opportunity to ask questions, to voice their opinions, or concerns or give feedback. And ultimately, what that does is it makes the work better, which makes your work more effective, more valuable. Your agency then becomes potentially more irreplaceable in the minds of your existing clients and prospective new clients. So what we’re talking about here is like, money following value, right? And, this is good for business. So it’s not just good for your people. It’s also good for business. Those things, I think we need to stop looking at them as too siloed ideologies, right? Like this is all part of the same circle.

Ezra: It’s an important point for sure. It’s not necessarily what I lead with, because I am trying to lead people to value different things. But the research is really clear. There’s Emma Seppala, a PhD at Stanford University Center for Compassion and Altruism. And she’s done a lot of really fascinating research on engagement, which I know can be like a word, or a little buzzy. But first of all, there’s very real business impact to an unengaged employees, lower profitability, productivity, lower job growth, lower retention. And again, her research is showing that employees prefer workplace wellbeing to any kind of material benefits. Company companies are spending millions on the Ping-Pong table, and the food, which is great. But ultimately wellbeing is really what employees are after and what will ultimately result in higher engagement.

Kelly: And when you’re saying wellbeing, you actually really do mean emotional wellbeing.

Ezra: Yes, full bodied, holistic, whole human wellbeing. There’s also a really interesting research from this organization out there called meaningful brands. And they did this whole study, trying to determine how meaningful a brand is, and showing pretty consistently that meaningful brands had like 40% higher KPI on all sorts of metrics. And so I think that’s really what Casper was saying, when he was talking about spirituality being the new white space, is employees are demanding a more full, rich experience of their workplace, but also consumers are demanding that the places that they’re interacting with, that the clients or the products that they’re purchasing are also a reflection of their values and who they want to be in the world. So how are you as an agency going to respond to that? And how are you going to help your clients who are trying to reach those people respond to that?

Kelly: Well, I’m really happy that we’re at this time that we’re seeing all of this come to fruition. It’s really exciting. And I will put notes, show notes to the New York Times article and also to your website, which is as well. Thank you so much for being here. And I really, really appreciate it.

Ezra: And Kelly, thank you for these fantastic questions and for your curiosity and inquiry, and all the work that you’re doing, hosting these really important conversations and thank you to everyone that’s listening. I hope whatever you’re doing in the world grows and is strengthened. Thank you.

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