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Polis Selected As Spotlight Small Business of the Month

San Francisco Office of Small Business Selects Polis as March 2014 "Spotlight Business"

San Francisco Office of Small Business Selects Polis as March 2014 “Spotlight Business”

Polis Founder, Mary Finn

Polis Founder and Director, Mary Finn

San Francisco’s Office of Small Business Selects Polis as Spotlight Business of the Month

March 2014
OSB client Mary Finn recently visited the Office of Small Business for assistance with her business start-up. Mary sits down with us for our March “Client Spotlight”…


Q: What type of business do you own and what makes you unique?

A: Your life is busy, but is it full?  The idea for Polis started with this simple but provocative question.  We believe that a vibrant adult community and an active life of the mind are the ingredients of a life well lived. Yet, it can be difficult for the busy adult to find the time and space to cultivate community and dive deeply into learning something new.

Polis is in the business of intentionally building a thriving adult community in San Francisco through high-quality education experiences designed for the busy adult. We offer seminar style classes focused on a wide variety of works of literature, art, science, history, and philosophy. We seek to make engaging with the liberal arts and sciences fun, easy, and flexible.

Our instructors are experts in their fields but they are, first and foremost, expert teachers and facilitators. All Polis courses meet from 7:00-8:30 PM, our classes are centrally located in the Mission District close to BART and MUNI, and we offer one time classes as well as multi-session courses. Polis courses are inexpensive and accessible to adults from all walks of life and education backgrounds.  Best of all, at Polis there are no tests or papers due!

Q: How was the Office of Small Business involved in assisting you?

A:  I am so fortunate that I found the Office of Small Business just as I was starting Polis.  I have taken advantage of so many of the services that the Office suggested for me as a new small business owner.  Specifically, I have taken courses and sought one- on-one advice from the SF SCORE program, I have consulted the Legal Services for Entrepreneurs, and I was accepted as a client into the SBDC small business coaching program. Through the SBDC coaching program I have the ongoing opportunity to work with a business development coach who has helped me to make decisions about the direction of the business along the way. I have benefitted tremendously from the support I have received and I am so thankful to the Office of Small Business for the advice and recommendations for services.

Q: Top 3 reasons for being a small business owner in SF?

1) Unlimited opportunity for creativity

2) Polis is a community-focused business and as a resident of San Francisco it is important to me that the business be rooted where I live and work.

3) When I created Polis I set out to “scratch an itch”. I could not find a business in San Francisco that was able to fulfill my needs for both in-person community and meaningful, high-quality, accessible learning opportunities in the liberal arts and sciences. I created Polis to build the type of community that I want to be a part of in San Francisco.

Polis courses are held at BART accessible locations throughout San Francisco. The majority of classes are held at the Women’s Building located at 3543 18th St., San Francisco.

(202) 746-8807 |


How Long Have I Got Left?

What does it mean to contemplate death? Does thinking about death help us to live more fully? Can we ever really be prepared for the eventuality of death? What does it mean to live a good life knowing that our days are numbered?

Polis students asked these (and other) questions in our fall courses on Joyce’sThe Dead”, Montaigne’s essays, and Tolstoy’s, “The Death Of Ivan Ilych”.

Unintentionally, each of the  texts in our fall Polis courses has death as a theme.  Who would have thought that it could actually be enjoyable to sit at a seminar table with a group of strangers and dig deeply into questions about mortality? The craft beer selections certainly helped to make the atmosphere a little bit more festive in the midst of these otherwise weighty themes!

Discussing literature and philosophy can serve an important role in our lives. Dialogue about big ideas can be a catalyst for reflection about living  in the face of an acknowledgment of mortality.

Living a Full Life. How Should We Spend Our Time?

This Sunday’s New York Times included a thought-provoking Opinion piece about what it means to live with an acceptance of death. The author, a 36-year-old neurosurgeon at Stanford was recently diagnosed with lung cancer. He contemplates what it means to live his life with the certainty that he is going to die but the continuing uncertainty of when.

The author’s first and most persistent question upon learning his diagnosis is rooted in a deep desire to know, “How long do I have left?”. Somehow, he thought, knowing an answer to this question would give him a rudder about how to live well.

The author considers his choices for how to spend his time:

In a way, though, the certainty of death was easier than this uncertain life. Didn’t those in purgatory prefer to go to hell, and just be done with it? Was I supposed to be making funeral arrangements? Devoting myself to my wife, my parents, my brothers, my friends, my adorable niece? Writing the book I had always wanted to write? Or was I supposed to go back to negotiating my multiyear job offers?

He struggles with and works to elucidate his sense of “acuteness” in knowing that he is going to die.

I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.

The author’s courage to publicly grapple with his feelings about his own mortality is commendable. The piece brings readers into contact with so many of the themes about living and dying that arose in our Polis classes last semester.

How Can Literature and Philosophy Guide Us?

In Montaigne’s essay, “To Philosophize is to Learn How to Die”  the author challenges his reader:

Wherever your life ends, it is all there. The utility of living consists not in the length of days, but in the use of time; a man may have lived long, and yet lived but a little. Make use of time while it is present with you. It depends upon your will, and not upon the number of days, to have a sufficient length of life. Is it possible you can imagine never to arrive at the place towards which you are continually going? and yet there is no journey but hath its end. And, if company will make it more pleasant or more easy to you, does not all the world go the self-same way? Does not all the world dance the same brawl that you do? Is there anything that does not grow old, as well as you? A thousand men, a thousand animals, a thousand other creatures, die at the same moment that you die.

The group discussion in our Montaigne class was focused primarily on what Montaigne meant by “living long, and yet lived but a little”.

How can we live a full and meaningful life despite it’s length?

In the short story, “The Dead”, James Joyce’s characters present a variety of ways to live in the shadow of the knowledge that we are going to die.

Joyce describes the protagonist, Gabriel Conroy’s, inner battle to accept the realities of his past:

He watched the scene and thought of life; and (as always happened when he thought of life) he became sad. A gentle melancholy took possession of him. He felt how useless it was to struggle against fortune, this being the burden of wisdom which the ages had bequeathed him.

Polis students askedCan we have a meaningful life even if we are “struggling against fortune”?  How much of life is ours to control and how much is beyond our reach?

In the “Death of Ivan Ilych”, Ivan is forced to reckon with his imminent mortality with a recognition that he has not lived the type of life he could have because he was too focused on the “ought’s” and “should’s” of other people’s expectations. Tolstoy writes:

Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,’ it suddenly occurred to him. ‘But how could that be, when I did everything properly?’ he replied, and immediately dismissed from his mind this, the sole solution of all the riddles of life and death, as something quite impossible.”

During the discussion of  Tolstoy’s work, a Polis student asked,I get it–he lived a life according to other’s expectations–but what is it that he would have done differently? What could have made Ivan feel that he had lived a full and good life as he lay on his death bed?”

Diving deeply into literature and philosophy won’t help us to find THE answer to questions about the good life and  an acceptance of death but discussions like those at Polis can help us to stop, briefly, on the treadmill of our daily routine and ask, “Am I living as I want to? Am I living as fully as I could? Am I adding meaning to my life and the lives of others?”

The philosopher Anaïs Nin writes: “There is not one big cosmic meaning for all; there is only the meaning we each give to our life, an individual meaning, an individual plot, like an individual novel, a book for each person.” – The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 1: 1931-1934

Our life as an individual novel, a book for each person.

Join us for a Polis class in February. Meet interesting new people, read something you’ve always meant to, and chew on the big questions of life.


Interested in Reading More?

I Do Not Fear Death“, Roger EbertSalon,Sept. 15, 2011

Living Well, According to Some of  the Wisest People Who Ever Lived“,Carolyn Gregoire, Huffington Post,Aug. 28, 2013

Anais Nin on the Elusive Nature of Joy“,Maria Popova, Brainpickings, Nov. 12, 2013

New Year 2014: Metamorphosis and Preservation

New Year Resolutions: Community and Learning

The new year can be a time for us to reflect on our lives: what do we want to change and what would we like to preserve?

New year’s resolutions can be cliched and fleeting (just look at the spike in new gym memberships that tends to happen each January!) but they don’t have to be. We can take the opportunity that the new year affords us to start something fresh and commit to small and sustainable changes.

If you have been hoping to have a stronger sense of community in your life or if you would like to add a dose of learning for pure enjoyment and challenge, then check out our upcoming classes at Polis.

We thought it would be appropriate to kick of the new year with a classic work on change and renewal: Kafka’s, “Metamorphosis” paired with Czech beers curated by Healthy Spirits (all part of our Drinkers and Great Thinkers monthly series) on January 21st.  Sign up with the promo code “new year” and receive a 20% class discount.

Our 2014 Polis classes are as short as one session (some even include beer samplings!) and as long as four sessions with topics ranging from the question, “What Makes Us Human?” (Dawkins) to “What Is Our Responsibility to Others in This Sometimes Absurd World?” (Camus).  If you have always wanted to read (or you are dying to re-read) works by Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, and Herman Melville then why not dive into a Polis class in the new year? We will be adding even more classes in the months ahead so be sure to check back regularly.

New Year’s Lists, Lists, and More Lists…

With the new year comes the annual onslaught of “best of” lists from best travel spots around the world to best films of the year.

Of course it is important to take these “best of lists” with a grain of salt (after all, we don’t have to agree with the critics). That said, we thought we would close out the year at Polis with a few of the “best books of the year” lists. And with no further ado…

Best Books of 2013 (A List of Lists)

And, finally while it is not a year in review book list, here is the book list that became the basis for the NYT best seller, The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe.

We hope that these lists will serve as inspiration for future reading. We welcome you to make a resolution to try something new this year and join us in community and discussion at Polis.

Top Five Reasons Reading Books Still Matters

open a book this weekend.Happy Friday!

What are you going to do this weekend to feel fulfilled and recharged?

Do you have that book that you’ve been staring at for months and haven’t found the time to dive into it (*check out this new way of dealing with that problem  from Japan)?

When was the last time you browsed your local bookstore or library and serendipitously fell into a new topic or author? Book browsing is much more difficult online. Why not make some time this weekend for some browsing?

Why not, unplug for an hour if you can and dive into that book you’ve been meaning to get to.

We hope this top five list of reasons that books still can matter in our lives will be a motivation for you as you head into the weekend!

Top Five Reasons Reading Books Still Matters*

1. Reading books helps us to become more interesting people to be around. Tired of having the same conversation over and over again with your spouse or friends? Read a book and have something new to talk about.

2. Books are a gateway drug to increasing our curiosity. When we read we want to know more. We want to know how it ends. We want to know what else this author wrote. We start to ask “why” again.  Neil Gaiman writes: 


 Fiction has two uses. Firstly, it’s a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it’s hard, because someone’s in trouble and you have to know how it’s all going to end … that’s a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable.

3. Books can be beautiful. Check out some of these images of books on display.

4. Reading books provides us with “souvenir of ideas“. Author Seth Godin writes:

A book is a physical souvenir, a concrete instantiation of your ideas in a physical object, something that gives your ideas substance and allows them to travel.

5. Reading Can Make Your Dating Life Better. Single? Reading books may help to improve your dating life. A new dating website in London is focused just on book lovers. Speed dating for readers is becoming a hot new trend in Canada.

* Okay, so these aren’t THE top five reasons for reading. But, they are a start. We want to hear from you. What are your reasons for reading?

Let Polis Help You Get Your Reading Groove Back!

Join us for our brand new December Polis course. This class will help you to find your reading groove, make time for reading, and meet new friends. We’d love to see you in class. Sign up today.

Only 2 spots left in our Drinkers and Great Thinkers class for next Wednesday (Nov. 13th). We are reading two essays by Montaigne and pairing the experience with Farmhouse Ales. Sign up today.

Building An Intentional Community

Polis Classroom: Welcoming our First Polis Classes, Sept. 2013

Polis Classroom: Welcoming our First Polis Classes, Sept. 2013

Is it possible to create an authentic adult community in a time when we are pulled in so many different directions? Between work, family, and all of our other life obligations can we find the time for community?

At Polis we believe that not only can a busy adult find a time and place for community (if the conditions are right) but that we must.  

We know that a sense of togetherness and a feeling of being truly known are often missing from our online interactions. Despite the scope of online connection, we still need face to face conversation with our neighbors. There is evidence that having strong ties to neighbors and community members can increase our overall health and happiness.

We’ve set out to create the space and time for Bay Area adults to find and cultivate in-person community through discussion of the big ideas in the liberal arts.

Last week we ended our first ever round of courses and by all accounts the discussions proved be a strong first step in building a lasting community. One student wrote  about his experience in class, saying:

I feel encouraged knowing that I now have a community in which I can read great books and discuss great questions together, which are activities that I really care about and are important for my well-being. 

This week, members of the Polis advisory board finished writing our “What We Believe” statement. It’s worth a read because it helps to further define and solidify the ideas behind the community that we are trying to build.

Last Sunday night we had our first Polis open gathering for students, prospective students, and instructors. The get- together was low key and filled with conversation about books and ideas but also about the raw material of our lives: love and dating, children, work, and travel. The majority of Polis members who attended our first gathering did not know one another before becoming affiliated with Polis.

Building a community will take time and patience.  But, we are in it for the long haul.

Will you join us?

Ways to get involved:

  • Follow this blog. You will then be placed on our our newsletter list and be kept up to date about future social gatherings, events, and courses.

Upcoming Courses. Register Today and Join the Polis Community.

readCOURSE: The Drinkers and Great Thinkers Series

This course series offers a chance for students who cannot make the commitment to a multi-part class to experience a Polis seminar. Students will read one seminal essay or short story for a single session class and the conversation with be carefully paired with a variety of micro-brew beers. The Drinkers and Great Thinkers series provides a good balance of community and meaningful discussion.The Drinkers and Great Thinkers course series are currently planned for November (2013) and  January, March, May (2014).

November Drinkers and Great Thinkers Course: Is There Meaning in Everything? What Can We Learn From the Mundane and Routine Parts of Life? The Essays of Michel de Montaigne + Saison Farmhouse Ale

In this one session Polis course, students will discuss a set of short essays (some are just one paragraph!) written by the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne. Those who have never read Montaigne are in for a real treat. Montaigne is curious about nearly everything in his world: from the usefulness of thumbs to the purpose of love. Montaigne is a funny, pithy, and accessible writer. Our class conversation will focus on the essential question: Is there meaning in everything? We will engage in discussion about whether or not the mundane and routine parts of our lives can be instructive to us and if so, how? All classes in the Polis Drinkers and Great Thinkers series will pair the great thinker with an appropriate great beer selection that we will sample during class. In this case, we plan to pair Montaigne with a variety of Saison Farmhouse Style Ales (rooted in French and Belgian history and culture). The beer sampling is included in the course price.

Instructor: Mary Finn

When: November 13, 2013 (Wednesday) 7:00-8:30 PM

Where: The Women’s Building, 3543 18th St, SF

Eventbrite - Drinkers and Great Thinkers Series (class one: Montaigne's Essays + Saison Farmhouse Ales)

open book

Do We Have an Obligation to Help Others? What is the Basic Social Contract?

If a family member is going through a rough patch, of course we’ll do what we can to help them out, right? But what about a co-worker? Not so fast. And let’s say you’re on BART late at night and see a guy who looks like he’s had a few too many. Who among us is going to make sure he gets home safely? Of course, we can’t possibly offer help to everyone in the world who needs it. So where do we draw the line? Friends but not neighbors? Bay Area but not Central Valley? California but not Oklahoma? America but not Afghanistan?

In this course, we will be reading two classic short stories: Katherine Mansfield’s  ”The Garden Party” andHerman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener.” They are different in just about every way (for example, one is short, the other is long; one is creepy and dark, the other is sweet and bright, etc.), with one big exception: They both ask us to consider the ways we’re connected to the people around us, and the responsibilities of our shared humanity. We will discuss these weighty questions, and whatever other questions may come up.

Instructor: Daniel Herman

When:  December 3rd, 10th, 17th (Tuesdays)  7:00-8:30 PM

Where: The Women’s Building, 3543 18th St, SF

Eventbrite - Do we have an obligation to help others?


Doppelgängers: Is There Such a Thing as an Independent Individual? What Does it Mean to Claim Individuality?

The short story “The Nose” by Nikolai Gogol and the novella The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad play with the notion of alternatives. What if there were another person or being just like you, but not you, who lived a parallel life alongside of you? These magnificent works explore the tantalizing, horrifying and sometimes hilarious possibilities of having a doppelganger or ghostly double whose appearance makes both characters and readers ask, “What does it mean to claim individuality? Is there such a thing as an independent individual?” During this three-week Polis session, we will examine together the sometimes mutually-exclusive notions of individuality and the longing for connections with others.

Instructor: Elen Greenblatt

When:  January 7, 14, 21 (Tuesdays) 7:00-8:30 PM

Where: The Women’s Building, 3543 18th St, SF

Eventbrite - Is There Such a Thing as an Independent Individual?

Share Polis With Your Friends

Three Good Reasons

3 booksLife In The Polis: Needed Now More Important Than Ever

Last week we launched our first Polis courses and the response has been incredible.  Students are signing up for classes at a steady clip and we are all getting so excited for the first sessions to begin in just three weeks. There are still a few seats available in both classes- sign up today and spread the word  about Polis to friends and family in the Bay Area.

One of the major challenges that we face at Polis: How to convince adults who are busy and stretched thin that they need to take time out for a discussion class in the liberal arts?

In the midst of work deadlines, family obligations, errands, and of course our favorite TV series (with Breaking Bad ending and Homeland starting this Sunday- I am fully aware of the power that a good show can have on our time!):  Why should the busy adult consider a course in the liberal arts?

1) The Liberal Arts Can Make Us More Creative Thinkers:

Diving into a great book in the company of interesting people can have an impact on our lives well beyond the classroom. We become more expansive and creative thinkers in all of the other parts of our lives (by the way, Steve Jobs felt strongly about this fact). We build the mental muscle of creativity through the liberal arts. But, we don’t necessarily need to rely only a traditional university to be the gym for our minds.

Joseph R. Urgo, President of St Mary’s College of Maryland : We live in a data-driven era, where increasingly we do not want to make a move without a clear plan — a plan in advance that outlines goals, execution and results. True, almost all we do on a mundane, daily basis is done better by such systematic approaches. On the other hand, nothing stifles creativity and originality more effectively than such rational demands. The urge to control abstract, cognitive pursuits represents a cynicism about our existence, a loss of hope, an abandoning of the human spirit. The only antidote to despair is creation and intellectual revival, and this is the business of an unfettered liberal education.  Baltimore Sun, March 03, 2013

2)  Face to Face Conversation= True Connection

Many of us have hundreds of online connections (the average American has over 600 social connections!) but at the same time we feel that there is something missing. We sense that as we acquire more connections we are losing the quality of being known well. Sherry Turkle, MIT researcher and author of Alone Together, reminds us:

FACE-TO-FACE conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits. As we ramp up the volume and velocity of online connections, we start to expect faster answers. To get these, we ask one another simpler questions; we dumb down our communications, even on the most important matters. It is as though we have all put ourselves on cable news. Shakespeare might have said, “We are consum’d with that which we were nourish’d by.”

3) Reading Literature (and Discussing It With Others ) Can Make Us More Empathetic and Patient:

Research on the long lasting impact of reading literature shows:

“Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, and Keith Oatley, a professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, reported in studies published in 2006 and 2009 that individuals who often read fiction appear to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and view the world from their perspective. This link persisted even after the researchers factored in the possibility that more empathetic individuals might choose to read more novels. A 2010 study by Mar found a similar result in young children: the more stories they had read to them, the keener their “theory of mind,” or mental model of other people’s intentions.”

Of course these are not the only reasons we need the liberal arts integrated into our daily lives. More to come in future posts!

What are the reasons that YOU think continued engagement with the liberal arts can lead to a life well lived?

We want to hear from you! What would you tell a friend who asks, “What can reading  books and talking about ‘big ideas’ do for me?”

Creating Community: Polis Launches in San Francisco With Fall Courses

stack of booksThe Polis adventure begins: a letter from founder, Mary Finn

I have spent the past year planning for the opening and launch of Polis. I talked with over 80 people from all different walks of life in one-on-one conversations (a skill I was trained in as a staffer on the Obama campaign in ’08. Who knew it would come in handy again!). I met with each person as an attempt to test my assumptions about the need for the type of adult learning community that Polis could provide. I’ve read dozens of business books and gone to loads of small business workshops throughout the past year. No doubt, all of this preparation and data has been helpful.

But Polis is primarily built on the foundation of a gut instinct- now more than ever adults crave community in the “real” world.

Polis is not a new idea.

Salons have been around for hundreds of years. Yet, the traditional intellectual’s salon tended to be elite and undemocratic.

Liberal arts colleges have taught seminar classes in Socratic style since the inception of this education model.

Community-based adult education in the liberal arts is also nothing new to the Bay Area.

In fact, I was fortunate to be part of an incredibly vibrant community called Symposium (a combination book store and seminar program for Great Books that was in Hayes Valley for a number of years). There is an active off shoot of the Symposium brick-and-mortar experience can now be found through the Symposium Great Books Institute where rich conversation happens in seminars with students all over the world. Check them out. I am in awe of the community they’ve built and maintained.

So, why Polis and why now?

I have had this gnawing feeling for the past few years that something is missing from my busy life. With the rise of technology and social networks as the primary force for creating and sustaining community, I find myself yearning for an in-person adult community of learners. I find myself wanting to meet new and different types of people than I typically interact with. I want explore big ideas but I don’t have the time (or money) to commit to a semester-long university course.  Through my conversations last year in preparation for launching Polis, I know that this feeling resonates with many other busy, working adults.

Your life is busy, but is it full?

This is the essential question that Polis is designed to help to answer. Polis will be a community of busy adults who seek more meaning in their day-to-day lives. My goal in creating Polis is to hold on to the best parts of the liberal arts and sciences and community-building experiences that I have been a part of and let go of the elements that a working adult just cannot sustain. I have designed Polis with the busy, working adult in mind.

I invite you to try one of our classes in this experiment to build a new (and hopefully long-lasting) community.

All are welcome.

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