Understanding Yancey Strickler’s new vision for America means first accepting a notion that is somehow both obvious and unsettling: the superstructures guiding the actions of your day-to-day life are completely made up.
“What a piano looks like, why we drink orange juice for breakfast, the shape of the letters you read right now,” writes the co-founder and former CEO of Kickstarter in the beginning of his book This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for a More Generous World. “We can’t imagine the world without these things. We think of them as ‘how it is.’ But those are all concepts that were totally made up by someone just like you or me.”
These “hidden defaults,” Strickler points out, are “the customs, traditions, and social codes that form our tribes and nations.The rituals around births, weddings, and death. Why we wear one color and not another. They’re the narratives that we live within. The currents that pull us through life that are easy to miss.”
Instead of questioning the myths we opt into, Strickler argues, we just go on believing that how it is, is how it ought to be. The problem? There’s one American current in particular that is especially pernicious: the idea of financial maximization, which dictates “that in any decision, the rational choice is the one that makes the most money… It’s a hammer that turns all of life into a nail. There’s just one goal: to make as much money as possible.”
But—maybe you’ve noticed—financial maximization ain’t exactly working. It has created extreme economic inequality, contributed to the degradation of our climate, and helped generate political instability and incivility. And yet “we struggle to see how any other way of operating is possible,” Stickler writes. “We watch this car crash thinking we’re outside it. Other People are the cause of it and Other People will fix it and Other People will suffer the consequences if they don’t. Every single one of us has it in our minds that we’re separate from it all.”
Strickler’s book, then, is a call to action, to work towards a paradigm shift that would upend society’s guiding principle—from the singular value (namely, money) back towards the plural values, those ideals that give us morality, meaning, and purpose. (Kickstarter, for its part, became a public benefit corporation in 2015, which means that it’s legally committed to balance its profit with “producing a positive benefit for society”—Patagonia is another notable PBC.)
His solution for getting ourselves back to more values-based living is rooted in a philosophy he calls “Bentoism.” It involves using a decision-making tool that is a box divided into four quadrants (like a Bento box). Each quarter represents a different perspective, and when you are faced with making a decision, you think through the options using each section of the Bento before acting: the “Now Me” quarter is concerned with what you, in this exact moment, most wants, it is myopic and self-interested; “Now Us” considers how your immediate behavior will affect the needs of the family, friends, and community around you; “Future Me” represents the “person you want to be,” making sure how you’re acting is in accordance with your principles and beliefs; and “Future Us” takes the view from “the world you want your children to have, how things ought to be.”
Strickler believes that operating with this tools allows us to deepen our self-awareness and to manifest a life that isn’t just self-interested (acting selfishly) but self-coherent (“living in integrity with yourself”). His ultimate belief—lofty as it may be—is that if people start practicing Bentoism (and they already have, in workshops Strickler leads) then one day so too may companies and corporations. He knows all of this might sound radical, but, he’d argue it’s no more radical than a kid from Virginia who liked indie rock growing up to launch Kickstarter. “Me, an ordinary person from a farm in rural Virginia, made a ripple in the world,” he writes. “It showed me that things were way more fragile than I was taught to believe.”
What is it about that success that unsettled the view you had of the world?
I just grew up believing in all the dominant stories about our world. I always had this view that the world was granite. It's been there forever. It can't go anywhere. As Kickstarter succeed, I was excited and felt validated by its initial success, but I also felt terrified by it. Over time, I felt excited and empowered. Like, “Oh wait, I have some sense that the way most people think the world works is not really the case.” Steve Jobs put this very well [when he said] the world was made by people no smarter than us. That emotion is very powerful because it informs your actions.
You realize you can make the rules.
Yeah, totally. In the book, I write about this 30 years theory of change. Change is incremental and gradual. So Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion are these figures that are arising in this certain moment in the evolution of climate. They won't solve these things on their own. But they’ll be part of the puzzle that forces us to act. They might end up feeling unsuccessful because it didn't happen from their direct actions, but you need precisely someone like Greta at this moment for us to be someplace else in 20 years. Maybe after I do my 10 years of pushing these ideas forward, then it's the next person that takes over. That gives me the space to not try to do everything right now.
Because if I let my desire for what I want the world to be take over right now, then I'm just going to tap into my inner Gary Vaynerchuk and do a million live streams, self-promote, let my “now me” take over, right? Being hyper self-promotional and also annoying the hell out of people. So, instead, you think, “okay, if in 10 years Bentoism needs to be in this place, then at the end of this year it needs to be in this place.” Suddenly you can breathe. I feel liberated by longer time horizons.
You have that great chapter on the homogenization of radio where you lay out how corporations realize they could hoard channels and then save money by just playing the same song on all their channels, and, over time, that led to all of our pop songs sounding similarly. Is that really a problem with the system—or a problem with those of us engaging with the system?
100% the system.
I ask because you always hear that the internet traffics in outrage and fear, right? But if we're wired for outrage and fear, isn’t that something that's wrong with us, and not the platform we're using?
I take a more generous look at people. I just assume everyone's doing the best they can with what they know and that we live within systems and superstructures that teach us what's right and wrong. And that does it from such an early age. There’s racial bias in children that’s visible at the age of three if they haven't been exposed to enough diversity early on. That's not there— that's just learned.
I don't know how to interpret a multi-decade strategy of loosening regulations in an attempt to gain market power. I see how that happens inside organizations. There's this desire to grow. I think there are other strategies to pursue.
There's an image that flew around the web for a while, a few years ago. It was a picture of Craigslist and it was showing how all the categories of products that Craigslist offers—auto, apartments, short term rentals—all these services turned into autotrader.com, Airbnb, Uber. And in Silicon Valley, it’s treated as, “Look at how much Craigslist blew it. They could have owned all of these markets and instead they just did the same thing. This is the biggest fuck-up in tech history.”
But that is beautiful! That is Craigslist creating value in the world, not trying to protect it. Like if Craigslist tried to hold all those things for itself, they almost certainly wouldn't have succeeded. And I think the world would probably be worse off for one player trying to own all those things. Craigslist is just spitting out value in every direction. And it's not trying to keep it for itself. That’s graciousness. That's understanding what is important to you and what's not important to you. That's actually what we should all aspire to do.
What gives you hope maybe that we can strive towards a future where companies or corporations do orient themselves towards creating and spreading value, rather than hoarding it?
Other than the church, corporations are the the place where values are most agreed upon as being real and rational. Now, there is a question about how sincere these beliefs are when you have Enron having “integrity” as its value. But every company and every CEO would say with a straight face that actually yes, the values we say we care about have a material impact on the output of what we do. That's a hard thing to get people to really buy into. But people really do. That is a great starting point.
Out of the 10 richest nations in the world, I think five or six have have had a populist uprising of some kind in the past five years or so. Events are showing us that we are not on a good path whether we want to realize that or not. And the fact that the stock markets is at an all time high at the same moment that 43% of Americans can't afford their bills, that climate crisis is going to reengineer our entire geography and life, that our political system and institutions are completely breaking down, that suicides are up and life expectancy is going down again—those are the kinds of anomalies that you can only tolerate as a society for so long.
We’ve been kicking the can down the road for a while and I'm sure we can for a bit longer. But I think the Business Roundtable's announcement earlier this year of changing the focus of corporate governance from shareholder maximization to growth for all stakeholders is a sign that even the 200 biggest companies in the world recognize that responsibility. They can see that if they don't self-regulate, states will do it. This trajectory we've been on has kind of gotten out of hand. In the Trump Era, it's so blatant. There's no pretending that power is to be used for any kind of egalitarian purpose. It's all just to cement your own economic gain. For real change to happen, you need a crisis first. Hopefully it's as gentle a crisis as possible.
I think that crises are those kinds of moments that let people change their mind without feeling like they're changing their mind—they allow new possibilities to just suddenly be on the table that would've been unthinkable before. And the idea of Bentoism is, can we have a positive view of where to go instead? When the crisis comes, there'll be a lot of energy about burning it to the ground. But we need that energy to be “Let's build something better” or “Let's build on what we have.” And that's where I think we lack imagination. That's where there are these political solutions, like the Green New Deal, that make all kinds of sense in a vacuum, but our political system will not allow them to move forward without other kinds of changes. There's a superstructure or supersystem reset that needs to happen. And to me that's in how we define value and how we define self interest.
The notion that we can just maximize for financial gain and allow that to solve everything? That's just not working. But if not that, then what?
Bentoism is about a shift away from self-interest to self-coherence. How do you explain the difference between the two?
It starts with this idea that our footprint is bigger than just this “now me” box, right? It's also future me, now us, future us.
The Bento is a loving tool to balance our weakness. It's hard to think about the future. It's hard to always think about other people. We know those things are important. So we need help if we're going to do that. The Bento orders a lot of conflicting feelings we have. The consumer version of us buys and drives a car. But then there's this future version of us that's like, “No, save the environment.” We're often acting in conflict with ourselves. We live in a world of self-compromise. And I think a lot of that comes down to not really being aware of where we operate and of what matters to us.
So self-coherence is this notion of trying to act in such a way that really fulfills all of the spaces where you operate. That doesn't mean that you always get everything you want, but that you can make conscious choices rather than just feeling limited or like a prisoner to these other systems you live within, these roles that we inhabit in life. I think of self coherence as being the ultimate goal. It’s living in integrity with yourself. Living with self-coherence is like always being in a flow state. We experience those states: walking in the woods, going to a show, writing, doing drugs, whatever those things are for you. But what's your flow state on a Tuesday at two o'clock in the afternoon?
The Bento shows you how to direct your energy in a way that lights up all parts of you.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Originally Appeared on GQ