How to Find Attention, Mindfulness, and Creativity in the Ordinary: An Interview with Bill Keaggy at TEDxVienna On the Rise

Bill Keaggy during his talk at TEDxVienna "On the Rise" Photo: © Gabriel Bangura
Photo: © Gabriel Bangura

Have you ever found someone else’s grocery list and noticed a funny item or interesting thing included on that list? 

How would you feel if someone found your grocery list? Indifferent? Ashamed? Proud? 

What if we told you there is an actual book on lost and found grocery lists titled “Milk Eggs Vodka: Grocery Lists Lost and Found”? 

We had the honor of having the author of the book, Bill Keaggy, give his first TEDx Talk at TEDxVienna “On The Rise” event this October. 

Bill, co-founder, partner, and creative director at Tremendousness, has also been a list collector since 1997. His first book even got him an invitation to appear as a guest on the late-night talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live in 2010. His second book was titled 50 Sad Chairs and includes pictures of “sad” and abandoned chairs in downtown St. Louis. 

Bill Keaggy during his talk at TEDxVienna “On the Rise” Photo: © Gabriel Bangura

His projects have been featured in The New York Times and The New York Times Magazine, The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, and Metropolis Magazine, among others.

Bill’s TEDx Talk enlightened us on what he learned while collecting and reflecting on strangers’ shopping lists, the different ways we can interpret the 50 pictures of sad chairs, and how noticing random things in our daily lives can improve our well-being and bring us closer together. 

After his talk, I had the honor to meet and interview Bill for the TEDxVienna Magazine. Among other things, we talked about what inspired him to follow this particular path and how it overlaps with his professional life. We also talked about his new projects and some of the funniest and weirdest grocery lists he has ever found. 

Here is the full interview with Bill Keaggy: 

What inspired you to start these collection projects? 

When I was in high school, I did a ‘zine, like a homemade magazine, just black and white photocopies, put together with scissors and glue. But that ‘zine kickstarted a lot of ideas in a broader sense, like design and photography, and eventually you start realizing that all these things that get ignored can be interesting. 

I went down that path, and it was gratifying to realize that you could make something out of nothing. 

Does that mean that you also like to organize and categorize things? 

It’s funny. My mom is super organized, and my dad is pretty creative. He wasn’t an artist, he worked for a power company, but he made things on his own – so I feel like I’m a 50/50 blend of that organized side and that messy side. 

Photo: © Gabriel Bangura

So far, you have published two books, Milk Eggs Vodka: Grocery Lists Lost and Found and the 50 Sad Chairs. Is there another one in the works? 

I have several in the works, but I am not good at self-promotion. I just put stuff out there. 

I have lots of those “50” book ideas and two of them are kind of done, but I still should write a book proposal. With my previous books, the internet was just a little different, and it was easier to stand out and get attention. Now, there is just so much more, so many talented people. Even though many of my projects are unique, at this point it is somehow less special just because there is so much good stuff out there. 

Can you mention some of the funniest and weirdest, most obscure grocery lists that you have found so far? 

Let’s see. In the book I was able to categorize the lists. So, chapter one was about the funniest ones. One really funny list had only one item written on it. It’s a grocery list and it just says: groceries. 

And then there are sad ones. A memorable one had two things on it: Baby Formula and Cigarettes. So they kind of clash, and that one makes me kind of sad. 

Another one had just five medical products on it, like Fiberall for constipation and Sensodyne for sore gums. One was a hair detangler; another was Ibuprofen. And then the last thing was Prozac, so it’s like they have sore gums and headaches and tangled hair and constipation, and I totally get why you’re a little depressed (laughs).

Photo: © Gabriel Bangura

Did any of those lists make you concerned about someone? 

I have one. It didn’t make me concerned, it was just funny and written on a church envelope and the list was: 

  1. Knife 
  2. Hatchet 

Sometimes, people would write down something obnoxious on purpose, so if their significant other goes to the store, they will see it, and it’s usually something inappropriate. 

Are all of these grocery lists anonymous? 

Most of them, yes. Some people send their own and say, “Here’s mine,” and they just want them to be part of a public collection.

Did it ever feel like you were invading someone’s privacy by looking at these lists and then publishing some of them? 

Not when it is completely anonymous. I have gotten a few emails saying “That’s my list,” “How did you get this?,” or “Take it down”. 

Nobody would know whose list it was, but if somebody does that, I respect it. If it has some personal info like their name, I black it out before posting, especially if there is a phone number or address. I try to make sure that it is not traceable. 

When it comes to collecting, is it just you or can other people contribute to the project as well?

The list is very collaborative. 95% of them have been donated by people. 

The book I did a while back was full of jokes and a little bit of making fun at the expense of people, but the jokes help add life to them. But at the same time, somebody sent me a list they found in their sister’s glove compartment and it was the last grocery list she had written before she was murdered, which was just the total opposite of this. 

But it was so special to her – she wanted her sister to live on for other people – that was one way. It wasn’t the most important way, but she knew about this grocery list collection, and she had a grocery list that was important to her. There’s a serious page in the sidebar in the book that tells that story.

Bill Keaggy during his talk at TEDxVienna “On the Rise” Photo: © Cherie Hansson

Can you tell us more about the short descriptions added to each photograph in 50 SAD CHAIRS? 

Usually, aside from just enough explanation to make people think, I don’t like to explain my projects very much, I’m not into telling people, this is what you should think”. I want it to be up to them what to think. I will hint at how it might be interesting, but it’s more fun for it to be left up to them. 

Some of these chairs are meant to make you think about sadness. Some of them are more celebratory – maybe it’s like a high chair or a stroller or baby chair and you get people thinking about children, or fun. 

What would you collect if you were to start a new list and collect items for that list here in Vienna? 

It always starts with me finding something first – something that stands out to me. I don’t think I have started any project by saying “I hope I can take pictures of X, Y, or Z”. Once I notice something and discover it – that prompts interest.

And it really can be anything. I have pictures of just interesting shadows, sometimes it’s just color, and sometimes you zoom in on something so much that it becomes so abstract that you can’t tell what it actually is. 

It has never been “I hope I can do a collection of ‘this.’” That only happens once I find something first. 

To connect with the “On the rise” theme, is there one issue that you think people should care more about? 

I think many people can take away environmental stuff from it – it’s garbage left on the ground, so it’s pollution and trash, and it’s like you’re pointing out how careless and messy people can be. It can be about economic inequality as well. 

In 50 Sad Chairs, for instance, the chairs are in alleys where dumpsters are overflowing, and there’s a chair next to it, and the house is not the nicest house. You can see it – people that live in super fancy houses don’t put sofa chairs in their backyards.

Bill Keaggy during his talk at TEDxVienna “On the Rise” Photo: © Cherie Hansson

In your LinkedIn description you mention that you do “a lot of side projects of questionable relevance”.   

(laughs) Which is everything I talked about today.

How do these side projects help you in your day-to-day professional life? 

I think the overlap is that in my work – we work with companies that have something complex to explain – there is a lot of detail that you need to extract and understand and turn into something understandable in pictures and words. 

So it still is paying attention to the stuff other people might have thought wasn’t important. You turn everything into a visual story, and you can only fit so much into an infographic, so you need to figure out which details are important. 

Bill Keaggy and Alina Nikolaou at TEDxVienna “On the Rise” Photo: © Cherie Hansson

How do you feel about the fact that there is a community out there that appreciates your work and so many people that also contribute to these projects you have created?

It’s always fun to see people get into something and enjoy it, especially if you had something to do with it. It’s not an ego thing, it’s just that they are getting more out of life than they did before. I think that a lot of what this is about is appreciation – and it might not be about the object itself but just the fact that there is a lot that we ignore. 

Life isn’t all vacations and trips to Vienna and birthday parties and great nights out. 99% of it is everyday boring stuff, so if you can appreciate that more, I think your life would be better. It just will. 

To keep up with future updates by Bill, make sure to check out his personal website

Watch Bill’s full talk at TEDxVienna On The Rise below:

Juxhina Malaj

Juxhina is a writer, editor, and Co-Team Lead for the TEDxVienna Online Magazine. She has a Master of Science degree in Communication Science from the University of Vienna. When not engaged in research and content marketing, she likes to oil paint, read, and loves to travel any chance she can get.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.