Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
A Future We Want
Featuring Yancey Strickler
We all want a more generous world, but how do we design the future we want? In our Season 1 finale, Yancey Strickler, cofounder of Kickstarter and founder of The Bento Society, talks with us about rethinking our self-interests and imagining and creating a better tomorrow.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network. And I am here as usual with Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. I’m sitting in New York, Emma is in Greece, thereby making this yet another cross-cultural internet-enabled global discussion. And the person we’re about to speak with is in Vancouver. I have yet to get over just the extreme wonder and oddity of the ability to have these conversations simultaneously across multiple times zones throughout the world, a situation that’s clearly going to continue and increase, not just enabled by the weirdness of COVID, but by the extraordinary power of all these technologies. And today we’re going to speak with someone who has a unique background as a creative type who created a company that has led to a… I don’t know, Emma, would you say a process of how to think about oneself and one’s organizations productively and collectively going into the future?
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): Yeah, I think that does a good job.
ZK: So we’re going to speak today with Yancey Strickler, and Emma will give us the introduction in a moment, but what’s fascinating about Yancey is not just the company he created, Kickstarter, which many of you are probably familiar with, but kind of the lessons gleaned and the work that he’s now doing, which is very much in sync with The Progress Network, What Could Go Right? Ideas. The point of these discussions and the point of this series is to have engaging discussions with serious people about serious things, but hopefully in not too serious a fashion. We shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously even when we’re talking about deep thoughts. Yancey I think has the awareness, the eyes wide open humility about how do we create change, and it’s not going to be this instant, and it’s not going to be tonight, and it won’t be tomorrow morning, and that it’s a process, and that you kind of want it to be a process, as I think you’ll hear. So tell us about Yancey.
EV: So Yancey Strickler is an author and an entrepreneur. And as you mentioned, Zachary, you guys might know him as the cofounder of Kickstarter. He’s also the cofounder of the artist resource The Creative Independent and the founder of The Bento Society, which we’re going to be hearing about very soon. And he’s also the author of “This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for a More Generous World.”
ZK: We all want a more generous world. And, hey, a manifesto for one, that is even better. So let’s speak with Yancey. So Yancey Strickler, it’s great to have you today to be a part of these conversations about who are we and what are we and why are we and where are we going and where do we head from here? And you’ve been nicely at the epicenter of creativity to try to turn the sentiments of how do we create a more constructive culture from idle thoughts or conversations over a dinner table to something more actionable and more practicable. So for those who do not know about the wonderful world of Bento and Bentoism, not to be confused with Shinto and Shintoism, maybe you can tell us a little bit about this thing you created, having created Kickstarter, having been an entrepreneur, having created, you know, more specific organizations—where did this come from?
Yancey Strickler (YS): Yeah, well thanks for having me, and feel free to confuse Bentoism and Shintoism. That increases our membership considerably. But Bento is a framework, it’s a mental model, it’s a tool, that really did come out of my experience as an entrepreneur and as a CEO. Being a cofounder and former CEO of Kickstarter, you know, I was always striving to create some kind of a compass to where everyone in the organization could be empowered and emboldened to act on the mission, and to limit the need for permission and to just sort of create like a, just like a post-permission organization. And I tried a lot of different ways to express that. And, you know, how is it that you can sort of allow people to make decisions according to the same logic?
And I never quite got there. And I spent about a year after I stepped down as the CEO of Kickstarter, like reading and thinking about a lot of questions related to my experience. And one of them was thinking about this notion of self-interest, how it is that we believe what is right for us to do, and what’s wrong for us to do, and what is the history of that idea. And one day, while thinking about this, I sketched in my notebook how I thought we saw self-interest today, which is a form very familiar to me from Kickstarter, which was a hockey stick graph, you know, a chart, or whatever it is you want, the line is sloping up and to the right. And this is like our ultimate emblem of making it, of success, of like fulfilling yourself in the world today.
And when I drew that simple chart, I just had this insight that, you know, that the x-axis measuring time, it actually keeps going far beyond where this line is going up, and the y-axis measuring our self-interest, I actually think that keeps going too, especially because as our self-interest grows, so do our responsibilities. You know, the difference between being single and having a family is huge, or being an employee versus being a manager. And so I extended the lines on this graph, and suddenly, this hockey stick graph now is this big open space where I drew these four boxes, the simple two-by-two that became the Bento. And those four boxes are, in the bottom left, “Now Me”: what I as an individual want and need right now; this is how the world sees self-interest today. In the bottom right, there’s “Future Me”: what my future self, the wise person I hope I become, what that person wants me to do; you know, that person becomes real or not based on any decision I make in a given moment. In the top left box, there’s the space of “Now Us”: the people in my life who are important to me and know I’m important to them; my choices affect them just as they affect me. And the top, right, is “Future Us”: thinking about the next generation. And as I like expanded as hockey stick graph into these four dimensions, I felt like I was suddenly seeing like my true self-interests. You know, it wasn’t just about what’s happening right now, although that’s a part of it, but there’s all these other dimensions and considerations. And I like sketch this in my notebook and just wrote next to it a very simple description: beyond near-term orientation.
That was just what this was a two-by-two graph of: how to see beyond a near-term orientation. And I realized that that description made an acronym that spelled bento. And I thought, oh, this is a bento box, you know, four compartments, a balanced meal, very convenient. And I know that bento also honors a Japanese dieting philosophy, hara hachi bu, which says the goal of a meal is to be 80% full, that way you’re still hungry for tomorrow. So this bento idea just sort of appeared one day. After thinking about this question for years, about how do you create a compass that allows you to make consistent decisions towards a direction. And what I realized in drawing this was that this was what I’d been looking for at Kickstarter. This is what I actually needed in my own life to compensate for a lot of areas where I fall short of who I want to be. And it just felt true to me. And so that, you know, has started a journey that, you know, this is almost three years ago to this day is when that happened. And now there’s thousands of people all around the world who use this tool on a daily basis. And, you know, they similarly have just found it to be useful.
EV: I’ve done one of the Bento workshops with you, Yancey, as a personal tool. And that was really, that was really interesting for me. I was surprised at the clarity that doing one of the Bentos gave to me, but, you know, it’s sort of, it’s a tool and a framework that accomplishes a lot of things at once. It gets you onto the long-term thinking page, you can use it as an individual, but there’s also this sense of like, like you’re saying a compass and moving us toward a certain direction on the collective level. So if we’re using the Bento on a collective level, what’s that page we’re all trying to get onto, like, where are we moving toward?
YS: Well, I mean, I feel like the answer to that is politics, in a way. That is like the meta-competition. But I think that this allows any group of people to create and to declare a shared future. So there is a… One way to talk about the Bento is as the Bento method, as just like a very basic tool in your toolkit. But there are guides and instructions for, say, like a product team or a creative team, or even people like doing something for a weekend, where they can create a Bento that reflects each of their individual desires, as well as reflecting what it is they’re there to do together. And so it’s this notion—and I think it’s very much at the heart of how organizations are evolving today—this notion of allowing us to cooperate where we are showing up as individuals, but also willingly you know, dedicating ourselves to some larger cause.
And that both of those things need to be honored simultaneously. And so the Bento is a way that it allows people to write their own stories about “this is what I’m motivated by, this is what I’m here to do,” but then to connect that to what the larger purpose is we’re here to do this sort of product or this sort of cause. And so, you know, there’s a lot of research, a lot of thinking that says that, you know, the intentions that we set really shape the outcomes of what we do. And I think in a lot of ways, the Bento is just, it’s helping people and teams create like a more fixed destination. It might be a year from now. You know, they’re just thinking about “what is the next year,” and you’re just having something written down that just tells you, “hey, in a moment of calm and reflection, this is what you said mattered.” And as an interface, it just lets you ask questions that really like check this against it. Almost like a checklist: Is this in line with this or not? It doesn’t solve everything, but it’s been… It’s just a tool.
ZK: So in your earlier, you know, before this, right, in your incarnation as a tech-startup CEO and creating Kickstarter as one of the first iterations of crowdfunding, you know, the idea that we’ve got these incredible tools, the internet that allow people to find partners, you know, whether that’s personal or professional, not intermediated by traditional forces that you had to go through to get funding or any number of things. I mean, Kickstarter is kind of like the Uber of crowdfunding, if I’ve got an idea and I need to find someone who’s enthusiastic. But were you, you know, if you could talk to yourself 10 years ago, or 15 years ago—you talked about your now-self and your future-self, so maybe we can add on the other part of the quadrant, the past-self questionthe pre-Bento, the pre-Bento Yancey—would this have seemed odd to you? I mean, were you animated by the same sort of belief in the positive power of crowdfunding, or were you also a much more just likeI’m ambitious, young, I want to make a mark. I want to make money. I want to do something”? Not that those are incompatible.
YS: I mean, neither. I’m a writer. You know, I was a music critic for my first 10 years of my professional career, and I ran a record label, and I’ve always just been creatively motivated. And so Kickstarter was a creative project for myself, Perry Chen, and Charles Adler, and it was Perry that had first had the idea. But we were doing it not—you know, this was in 2005 that this started—we were doing it not because we wanted to start a company. It was just like a really necessary idea that needed to be a company to exist. So there was no startup culture to speak of. And we, you know, I often felt a strong sense of like, I was betraying something by being a creative person starting a business. Like, that felt like it wasn’t what I was supposed to do.
And I often felt like I was apologizing to my friends like, you know, “we’re trying to do something cool.” But it was just very different from where I came from. But I think, you know, thinking about like my past self, you know, at Kickstarter, you know, I was always, I’m like very hungry to learn always; it’s like, it’s just a very natural drive. And I was always looking for models, ways to improve my thinking. And I was really searching for something that clicked with how, you know, how I felt things and really, you know, didn’t find that. And what would happen instead was that in the organization where you haveyou know, charismatic, strong founders, and say there’s not much written down early on, is that everyone goes to the founders to ask, “Well, what should we do? What’s the right answer?” And sometimes you have a clear gut instinct and that creates a culture way you do things. And other times you’re like, “Oh man, what did I say the last time someone asked me this question? Like I’m not, wait, I’m not sure.” And there’s just a lot… There ends up being a lot hinging on these like one-on-one conversations that happen during such different moments, different contexts. And so much of that is how culture gets set. And, you know, at those moments I would have loved to be where we’re both looking at a piece of paper and we’re, maybe we’re debating about the meaning of the piece of paper, but to me it was an obvious, you know, restriction on, you know, on what the organization could be, that so much is waiting on, you know, a leader and the feelings of a leader versus trying to empower everyone with like, “this is how we see the world.” And so that’s, you know, to me that is still the ultimate, and that is hard for any organization to get to. I mean, that is not an easy thing by any stretch. But to me that that should be the goal.
EV: So, Yancey, something that you just said which was like, those moments are the moments when culture gets set, I wanted to ask you how you understand the process of like cultural or societal change, like how that works. Because I think, you know, with the benefit of hindsight, we look back on big cultural changes, which is something that you talked about in your book that came out in 2019. And it seems either inevitable that the change happened, or it seems like random. But obviously like you wouldn’t be… You wouldn’t have framed your life the way you frame it, or you wouldn’t be doing what you’re doing with The Bento Society if you didn’t believe that people on an individual level could be intentionally shifted and also collectively as a society we could be intentionally shifted. So yeah, how do you understand how that process works?
YS: Well, I didn’t understand it I would say for the first 32 years of my life. And then with Kickstarter, I felt how, you know, and saw firsthand how an idea that Perry had that we had made together and that really changed how people saw the world and how people went along with it, and I honestly was waiting for someone to come by with a clipboard to like grant us permission. And when that didn’t happen and the world has changed because of things that we did, I felt really unsettled. I felt really unsettled by that, because that just made me realize “oh man, everything is… This is everything. This is everything. I get it now. I get it.” You know, and maybe I’d intellectually understood it, but like I could feel it. But you know, how culture gets set is interesting.
I just moved the last couple of weeks. And when I was moving, I found this like super ratty box. It looked like it was going to the dump. And I looked at this box and realized, oh, this is the box of all my most important papers. And it’s like, you know, every love letter, like every news clipping, like all the most “mementoey” kind of things are all in this box. And it is this raggedy, broken, broken box. And I kept using it because it was simply the first thing I put stuff in. One day I tossed like a newspaper clipping in there, and then I kept doing it. And then when I would get something else, I would like open it up and close it again. And only after this move, when that box literally broke when we got to the new house, did I change it.
And I think for a lot of things in our culture, it’s similar, where it’s how we first do something is how we keep doing it. Because, you know, maybe people don’t want to be the one to make that call. You just sort of, you follow the path that was there. And we tend to follow those paths until a catastrophe happens, until we’re forced to change them. Because we’re just, we’re not thinking. So I think in many cases it’s like, maybe you weren’t paying attention to how broken-down a system was, and so it’s collapse does shock us. Or maybe, you know, maybe just someone happens to enter at the right time to say, “Hey, this thing we’ve been doing actually makes no sense.” And you know, you get these cultural divides as people become, you know, have to acclimate to that change. But that’s where the culture stuff is, you know, it’s… As a CEO, you know, I came to realize to what degree my actions set the culture and were emulated. And it creates a maddening level of self-awareness, you know? It’s like what people must be like who are on TV all the time. Like Wolf Blitzer something, where you know everything you do will be captured. But it creates that sense once you become aware of it. And the challenge is you only become aware of it after probably the culture is 90% set. But yeah, I think that these are unthinking things, and it tends to be either a catastrophe or someone having a better idea are the only things that will spark them to change.
ZK: So I’m a big fan of culture as a fundamental bedrock of change. But I also recognize the pushback that a lot of people have when one makes that statement or that assertion. And particularly in corporate land and corporate cultures, you know, the pushback is always, you know, someone like Larry Fink can write a brilliant letter about the need for companies large and small to attend to the environment or to attend to the larger community. You can have a movement toward B Corporations, right? Companies whose charter embraces not just shareholder returns, but are more multi-stakeholder, as the current lingo. Not that I’m a big fan of that lingo, but it is what it is. And then the pushback’s usually, yeah, but if you’re a public company, you have to meet your quarterly bottom line. If you’re a private company, a lot of the same demands exist, whether you’re being funded by a venture capital firm, whether you’re owned by a private family, you name it. Right? That nice words don’t change the systemic realities, and in fact can often be a bit of a, you know what would one call it, like a “Bento-washing.” We could create a new term.
ZK: I mean, what do you say to people who say that? And there are a lot of people who say that.
YS: Yeah, I think that’s fair. I think that, I mean, I think it’s fair to say that those things haven’t amounted to much and maybe have amounted to a negative impact. If you could say that, like you know, every Exxon ad that says whatever, like compared to the amount of pollution, you know, the amount of CO2 they’re emitting on any a given day, like, what is the net, what is the net outcome of that?
ZK: Yeah. And those Exxon ads are great, by the way. I see them, like, they feature a scientist who totally like cares and they do the interview and they have like a great immigrant story. And now they’re working, you know, to solve the world’s energy problems. And I’m like, “oh, I’m totally… Wow, that’s great. I’m totally on board.” And then you have to step back and realize, okay, there’s a lot more going on here than what’s being presented in that 30 seconds.
YS: Yeah. I mean, I think that… I feel we’re on a trajectory of increasing consciousness and that that is happening in a corporate level. I even think like, what Kickstarter did, becoming a PBC, a public benefit corporation in 2014 was or 2015 I think, felt like a radical step then—now, you know, there’s a lot of that. And the bar is being moved further. And when you get into the world of Dows and things like that, you know, you’re really looking at very different models. But I think that, you know, my feeling is that we are evolving value systems at the moment, where we have had a value system pegged to a financial store of value that has been our sole measurement of progress over the past, you know, 60 years, especially.
But I think that COVID gives us a sign of what the world looks like when our dashboard becomes more than one metric. You know, COVID, we’ve had like the economy and unemployment along with infections or deaths, and now we’re seeing the same thing happen with CO2. And so I think that what we’re gonna be looking at is probably only because of disastrous reasons, but I think we might soon be looking at economic growth within the context of say CO2 emissions. And so you’re gonna start to see decisions live within like bigger universes, where instead of just this belief that a financial growth will do everything, I think we’re going to see more limits to that and more pushback on that. I don’t think that’s going to happen because of businesses like getting “woke.” I think it will happen because they’re forced to, and some of it will happen because some companies will show a better way.
I mean, that is the beauty of competition is that competition, you know, companies trying to earn you know, earn the respect or attention of consumers are going to try to out greenwash each other, and maybe every now and then one of these things will be sincere, you know, and will do something. And ultimately we need that, I think, that kind of competitive spirit probably to generate the best ideas. And so, you know, I’m like, things are so alarming. I’m like, “if anyone’s picking up a bucket, like come on, come on board, let’s do it.” Like, there’s a lot of work to be done,
EV: So, Yancey, given what you said about, you know, sometimes we need like the box to break or like catastrophe to come hit us over the head to make some change, are you on team, like, “COVID is a huge wake-up call for us, and on the other side of this, we’re going to come out of it into a better world”? Because this is something that Zachary talks about a lot where, like, I think he’s like, “I don’t know, maybe we’re going to return back to business as usual.” So I’m wondering where you are with that.
YS: It is a huge wake-up call. I mean, what’s frustrating is that COVID is like, in terms of uniting the world and increasing collective consciousness and allowing like greater degrees of global cooperation, I mean, COVID is a layup. It’s like a gift. It is a gift. And a gift that, you know, humans have screwed up in a way, in the sense that like, there was an opportunity for great unity around finding, you know, a vaccine and all these things could have happened, but did not. But I think thatit is a massive wake-up call. It is obviously an appetizer for more disasters to come. But the world had already fundamentally changed, and it’s fundamentally changing for even bigger reasons than COVID. Like the world is changing because of the internet and because we are now networked organisms. That is what is driving change, you know, and the climate is going to force us to embrace that change even more.
COVID forced the maturation of that change. But I think that we’re fundamentally changing as a species, and I think that’s really what’s happening. And so I think that there is a great social shakeout that is happening over the next couple of decades that I think has a high likelihood of being violent, you know, I think has a high likelihood of being quite painful, but I think we’ll ultimately net out with a very different model of what society is and who people are. And I think that is like… The way the world feels more tribal just as it’s become more global is a reflection of these larger changes. So that is what I think is the real driver. I think COVID is just like, it’s just, you know, it’s just something else that got thrown into the pot along the way.
ZK: I’ve been, you know, on Emma’s line of what are the effects of COVID? You know, one, there’s the apocryphal Kissinger to Zhou Enlai at the first China–US summit when he asked what he thought about the French Revolution compared to the Chinese Revolution. Zhou Enlai apparently said, “It’s too soon to tell.” It turns out that story wasn’t necessarily well reported, but it’s a great anecdote, even if it’s inaccurate. And then there’s the George Macaulay, English historian in the 1930s, who once wrote about the Revolutions of 1848, that it was the turning point in history at which history failed to turn. And, you know, the question around COVID is, it is clearly an opportunity for massive systemic change, but it’s unclear whether or not that is an opportunity that will in any way be seized, right? And just stuff like the financial crisis, 2008, 2009 may have laid the seeds inadvertently for a whole series of things, from populism to Brexit to the rise of Trump, you know, you name it, you may be able to look back and identify those changes.
I like your point, Yancey, of, you know, it’s all yet another ingredient added to a stew that’s percolating on the stove as it is and likely to do so irrespective of the specific ingredients. I don’t know about the violence part. I mean, there’s violence endemic to sort of human change and experience. I’m not sure the violence ahead is going to be any different than the violence behind, except to say that it may actually be of a lesser intensity certainly than the 20th century.
YS: Yeah. I just, you know, I think that, I mean, I mentioned violence just to say, I mean, I don’t think I… I’m not a naive optimist, right? Like, absent the climate crisis? Sure. Like if you give our simulation long enough, you know, roles like, can we get… Can all sorts of amazing things happen? I believe that. I believe that also human nature and Moloch will also always show up as well. But I think that, yeah, just that change is painful, you know? I mean, ultimately I think of the world as like a party, and when you enter the party, you’re like, as a kid, you’re sort of, you’re meant to stay off in the corner. You know, like someone looks after you, gets you some snacks, things like that.
As you turn in your twenties, you can like dance on the periphery of the dance floor. And then it’s when in like forties and sixties, you get to be in the DJ booth, and you get to like run the show. But as human lifespans have gone on, as like wealth has changed, like access to the DJ booth has gotten, you know, it’s gotten a lot more contentious. And people don’t want to give up their spots. And there is a, you know, and there is this sort of conflict that’s happening over, what is this party like? Right? It’s like, America’s run by 80-year-olds. It’s run by 80-year-olds like Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, you know, all these people, like literally they are, you know, 70-plus. And that is, you know, that is going to break, that is going to change. And, you know, everything says that people raised by the internet have such a different relationship to the world than people raised by television. And that’s the changeover that’s happening.
EV: I like this party metaphor, like the world may be now stuck with DJs who are playing Whitney Houston. We want to listen to the Wu-Tang Clan or like something like that. Someone asked me just the other day here in Greece, the Greek person, they were like, “why did you guys elect Joe Biden? Like, he’s basically a mummy.” You know, it wasn’t a perspective about his politics or his stance or anything, but they were like, “isn’t the guy half dead?” But in any of event, Yancey, I wanted to ask you about, we sort of… We’ve been talking about moving into the future, creating something else, and I wanted to just go back a little bit and talk about one of the problems that you had definedwhich is financial maximization, that we haven’t hit on yet. So I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about that problem for us and how you see it.
YS: Yeah, it’s a very common critique these days, but you know, a lot of my… The book, “This Could Be Our Futureis about this challenge of what I call financial maximization, which is the assumption that the right choice in any decision is whichever outcome makes the most money. And we have allowed that sort of basic litmus test, often unthinking, to guide how we design our society, how we design our families, our organizations, everything. And it is not an irrational choice. And it is often the correct way of thinking about things. But what it’s done is it’s squeezed out a lot of other valid reasons for making decisions. And it’s ultimately, you know, put us in a world where we’re richer than ever but [there’s] increasing social distrust, we have runaway emissions, all these sorts of challenges, because those things have just not been on the dashboard.
So, you know, to me, this is like a very… I empathize, I sympathize with this challenge and sort of the path we’ve been on to this date, because anyone saying like, “well, it should be something different than money.” There’s always been the challenge of, “okay, well, what is it, how do you define it?” There’s like defining, you know, happiness in Bhutan. There’s people trying to define wellbeing. But ultimately these things are like awkward and inconvenient. And ultimately they’re trying to, they’re trying to capture morals. So it’s a challenging thing. But what I think is different now is that in the digital age, the cost of measurement is zero. You know, in the past, like counting something was quite painful. So counting things that are worth money made a lot of sense. But now, digitally, we can count almost anything, and almost anything can be turned into a value, and almost anything can be turned into a measurement.
And I think what we’re seeing, and what the business world is already doing, is you create more refined metrics that identify outcomes you’re looking for. And ultimately what’s happening is that our value set is expanding. It’s no longer just that money is the only value on the dashboard. Now it’s also loyalty. Maybe there’s a trust score. You know, there’s an NPS score. Maybe now they’re getting into like some CO2 ESG rankings. A lot of these things are debatable in how good a job they do at measuring what they’re doing and the effectiveness. But I ultimately think that where we’re going to break through this challenge of money being the only value is that there are just going to be new values added to the dashboard that it will compete with. And that financial gains will come in context of these other values.
And that this is something that will come to be a, you know, a kind of a social revolution, maybe within companies, that’s not going to come from like people getting woke. It’s just going to come from data science and math and it being able to be demonstrated that these are better outcomes. So I feel like we are at a point in history where, practically speaking, the kinds of evolutions that I think people have been arguing for for a long time, actually can happen and won’t be as onerous or as like pie in the sky as they would have been at any other point.
EV: It’s interesting that you bring up data science. Like I was thinking about financial maximization sort of leaking down from business to individuals. And I was thinking about when I was younger and living in New YorkI happened to start learning aerial dance. I got decently good at it. And I started teaching, and I started teaching like all the time. I had a job, the job didn’t pay me that much—separate discussion. So I wanted the money, you know, it made sense, but at the same time there is this… There was this unquestioned assumption in the back of my mind that something was worth doing only for money. Like that was the worth that was assigned to it. And it surprised me that you went to data because my mind went to like, the things that are important are unable to be measured. So the things that I was losing by like just going to money, money, money, and like losing the creative aspect of the dance and this, that, and the other thing, like, you can’t put a number on that. But maybe I’m like going towards the past and you’re going towards the future.
YS: Well, yeah, I mean, I answered that in a systemic way. Yeah, I mean, I think people are better at navigating this than organizations are. It’s not that it’s an easy decision, but like people, we feel torn by these things. I feel torn by these things to this day of like, you know, is it worth doing something if I’m getting paid? Or how do I feel about like, you know, there’s a lot of feelings that are culturally deep in us. And that’s where I think like the individual tool of the Bento is something that just like puts that in context. Yes, it is important that you have enough money to like pay for your basic cost of living. But that’s only important to the degree that, you know, you can also maintain the relationships that are important to you. It’s teaching you how to find that balance.
I think it’s like in the organizational context, there’s just like a total absence of creative thought about these things. There’s a lot of people kind of throwing up their hands and “well, what can you do? You know, we gotta, we just gotta make the number go up.” And just being in those rooms and knowing that if you’re going to make a decision that’s unpopular, you know, you’re gonna have to back it up with something. You’re gonna have to make the case. And if you’re making your case in a way that’s not emotional, that’s not romantic, that’s not moral, but it’s about, “look at this outcome that we’ve all agreed is important.” That’s when people change their minds, you know, that’s when people change their minds. And so I’m just thinking about like, as people, as individuals, we can’t solve climate change. We need bigger forces to do that. You know, how are we… How are those bigger forces getting a more complete look at the world?
ZK: There was an economist named Richard Easterlin who developed this thing called Easterlin’s paradox, that people get significantly happier and more secure when they start from a low income and financial base and reach a higher one, but that having reached the basic plateau—maybe it’s a middle-class plateau—increased income beyond a certain point doesn’t lead to any notable increase in happiness. It’s a debatable paradox. And economists have been trying to now say, “well, maybe not, and people actually… There is some correlation between ever-rising incomes and collective prosperity and more security and more happiness.” But it speaks to this debate of, partly because so many societies judge their success or failure in today’s world, not by the size of their army or by the amount of territory, but purely by GDP, right? Purely by how much stuff we’re producing and how much stuff divided by people does each individual have per capita. And there too, kind of, you know, that’s the national problem of like the quarterly earnings one, right? We’re only as good as how much we consume and how much we make. And we’ve known this for years, right? Robert Kennedy had this great speech in 1968 excoriating GDP as saying, you know, it leaves out basically everything that’s important: human relationships, Emma’s dance, passion, you know, like none of that shows up; it’s all invisible. But yet here we are, you know?
YS: Yeah, here we are. So like throwing shade at it, shaming it, hasn’t done anything. And I think you have to beat it. I think you have to beat it. I think you have to outperform it. You know, you can’t deny its utility, right? And so you need to create something that has an equally valid utility. And I feel like that… I just feel like we’re in a moment where that’s going to be necessary and will be possible. But you know, it’s like, I’ve done a whole long interview series around—the theme is called “data is fire”—but just exploring the potential and the dangers of data science and how necessary it is, but also how easy it is to trick ourselves into thinking more than what we know. And people who are really educated in this are like very conservative about the abilities that can be created.
But as I just think about how do we, how do we expand our value system beyond purely capital, to me is an obviously urgent question, and one that like, we need to have practical solutions for and not like rhetorical or… And ultimately that comes down to, I think decision-making tools that work in the boardroom. And then it will come down to laws that ultimately enforce this. But we… No one knows how to write laws yet because no one even knows how to… What is the outcome we’re trying to create? It’s like you put a hundred people in a room, you get a hundred answers. So I think that we’re in the, you know, we’re right in the thick of it at this moment. And I get excited about, you know, like what do I think one of the big takeaways will be from the COVID year will be the way that we have learned how to organize online.
You know, I look at like the Wall Street Bets/GameStop as an example of, I’ve called them in the past “dark forests of the internet,” but these like semi-private spaces where people can cooperate and organize and create collective action and manipulate culture and society and shape opinion. And this is like, the level of sophistication and energy that has gone into like developing these kinds of informal networked organizations over the past two years is extraordinary, to where now they’ve turned into Dows that are giving grants and millions of dollars to projects. And I think that this might end up being the dominant social structure of the 21st century, these informal fractional groups that are digitally based that without people even knowing who is in them are ultimately shaping a lot of our society and a lot of culture. And I think eventually turning the world more and more towards adopting like internet norms as to how our government works versus say, you knowThomas Jefferson norms. So I feel like that… Just this new kind of energy and this ability—and The Bento Society is a small example of this—and this ability for people to like reorganize around different identities, different values, and then to do things togetheris to me, is unprecedented. And I think we’ll be like where we’re going to start to spark off into very different timelines then maybe we would have thought three years ago.
EV: I have two thoughts. Literally my first thought was, I just want Zachary to respond to that thought. Like, I’m curious about your thoughts, Zachary, about, you know, these like fractional internet groups sort of…
ZK: I think it’s a fascinating way of understanding these as different forms of social organization that have like political, economic, cultural clout as both change agents and organizing principles that aren’t governments, that aren’t companies, that aren’t what we romanticize, particularly in the United States, as these like suburban volunteer societies. You know, they’re not the Rotary Club, they’re not the Bowling Leaguea la Robert Putnam Bowling Alone. You know, “we’re bowling alone, but we’re trading together” would be the GameStop meme. And I think there’s a lot to that. Like we, you know, most of the way we understand society is through structures that we look at. You know, news is set up to look at governments and look at companies and look at organizations or look at fame and people. These other things which, you know, exist in the wilds of the web, we’re not used to looking at them in the light that you’ve talked about. And I think that’s very important, you know, including something we’re trying to do with The Progress Network or you’re trying to do with Bento, which is, you know, when someone asks you specifically what these things are, it gets kind of fuzzy because the language for what they are, it doesn’t quite work given that they don’t… They aren’t quite what anything else was, you know? The Progress Network is, it’s a little bit publishing, it’s a little bit events, it’s a little bit trying to create a virtual community of people who may not even recognize that they’re in a virtual community.
You know, Bento is, it’s a book and it’s workshops and it’s people developing their own, I guess, Bento mantra of how they live their lives. It’s a teaching, you know, it’s a little bit corporate, it’s a little bit HR, it’s a little bit new age. It’s a little bit none of the above. And that sui generis reality I think is probably why people get so confused about the world, right? Because the traditional anchors of definition are becoming… Emma used the mummy analogy earlier, so, they’re becoming like the mummy disintegrating into the dusts of time. But I like the idea of these being new organizing principles that carry great weight.
YS: Yeah. I have a whole like information architecture theory of what these things are that I’m going to save, because I’m going to do something else with that later. But, you know, speaking of Robert Putnam, he had this… He had a book come out last year called “The Upside,” which is like a sort of sequel to “Bowling Alone” and attracts like from 1850 to 2000, I thinkthe collectivist versus individualistic attitudes in America and comes up with various metrics to track it and just basically shows it’s like an ebb and flow of going back and forth. But one of the things that really stuck out to me is the Gilded Age was like one of the ages when—this is like 1860s, 1880s—when Americans were like, especially individualistic. The robber barons began to happen. There is like increasing inequality. There’s this narrative of “the regular person’s being left behind.”
And in the wake of that came the civic spirit that peaked between 1880 and 1900, and like, you know, Teddy Roosevelt ended up becoming emblematic of. But during those 20 years was when the Red Cross, the Boy Scouts, like 20 of the most strongest to this day, biggest social organizations in America were all formed within like a 10-year period of one another. When there was this push towards, “there needs to be a new kind of public commons, there needs to be new ways of organizing.” And there was an energy that got fired up that created institutions that in a lot of ways shaped the next hundred years of social life. And so, I feel like we might be in the midst of a similar era now, where, you know, we kind of reach the depths of a certain way of thinking, a certain modality, a certain paradigm. And, you know, to me, what’s so clear about the new energy coming is that it’s more collectively oriented than we’ve been in the past. And I think just the basic function that we are living through the internet is a huge reason why,
EV: I kind of like this description of, it’s a re-imagining of GameStop as the new civic spirit of the internet. I wasn’t expecting that to happen on this podcast. And I’m going to be a fan of that.
ZK: We’re going to get you your own Reddit group, Emma.
EV: I’m ready. I’m ready.
ZK: So, Yancey, we can obviously continue this and I think probably should continue this. It’s like a good check-in to see where things go and head. But you know, the work you’re doingby being culture-changing, one of the frustrations people sometimes have with ideas and culture is the Galileo problem, right? He walks out of the Inquisition having renounced the idea that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and he then mutters under his breath, “Yes, but it does move.” But he was unable to prove it in a way that would be sufficient. We know culture changes, and we know that there are change agents in culture, but it lacks the immediacy of cause and effect that some people desire, you know, when they want to have power, or when they want to know that they are the change agent that led to this specific change. And I think there’s a humbleness, or hopefully a humbleness, in the work you’re doing of, you put it out there, you believe that it’s possible, but you also allow for the fact that it takes… It’s evolutionary. It takes time. It’s not an immediate, like I’m going to wake up and everybody’s going to be different.
YS: No, no, that would be a violent change, and we should not wish that. I love gradual change, you know, I don’t, I don’t like changing against my will. And any significant change I might want will be against someone else’s will. So these things changing slowly, democratically is ultimately what’s so important. That’s what like, lets people get on board. But yeah, I mean, I think that this is a, I mean, I don’t know how to not say cliches of like, you know, this is a very… I think this is a very specific time and a very specific set of experiences we’re having right now. And you know, I think about the long term—and the Bento really helps with this—as like my actions today, my practical actions today need to contribute to it. You know, the lot of future us can’t be something I’m getting to one day when there’s a moment for it. Then it doesn’t happen. And that’s why, like, so much of the work at Bento is based on helping individual people find themselves. You know, I host an event every Sunday where I guide people in making their Bento for the week ahead, because to me like this being useful to people’s daily lives is what allows this to happen. It can’t be just like a theory that I’m waiting for people to one day get, you know, it has to be something that just day to day is useful. And in my mind, if you could do that, and if you can connect that day-to-day utility to a larger outcome, like that is about as good as you can do.
And the next step is just to have patience, to have energy, to not give up. And really, with Kickstarter, with another project I started I’m so proud of called The Creative Independent, I’ve really learned like things that are not appreciated on a single day become really meaningful when you do them every day for a long time. And sometimes it will take two years for people to, you know, maybe fully connect. But it is that… It’s just like holding on to that vision and continuing to act on it, I think that’s what creates change. That’s what creates outcomes. There isn’t another way. You can’t shortcut this. And the beauty is that most of the time, it’s fun, and only occasionally do you freak out and have no idea what you’re doing. And then, you know, then you go back to your Bento. And you’re like, “all right, now I remember what I’m doing. Let’s keep going.”
ZK: Well, I’m sold. How about you, Emma? Should we have a Progress Network Bento Sundays?
EV: I was going to ask you earlier in the podcast if we should do a TPN Bento, an organizational one.
ZK: That sounds good.
EV: Yancey’s speaking to my Buddhist heart here, though. It’s like, it’s singing, it’s having a blast.
YS: Yeah. Making it for your organization, it’s like, I recommend it. I have one for The Bento Society. Like I reflect on it often as I’m thinking about things, like, does this make sense for me to do or not? You know, and I’m really saying like, is it contributing, is it fulfilling what I’m saying here? And if it’s not, no matter how cool it is, it’s like, you know what, there’s only so much energy in the world. I gotta use it for what’s right.
ZK: All right. Well, definitely to be continued. And, Yancey, thank you for your time and your wisdom and your thoughts and your work. We will keep at it.
YS: Yeah, great hang. Great hang. I look forward to next time.
ZK: So here’s the point in the podcast where we ruminate about whether or not we like the conversation that we just had.
EV: That puts a real fine of a point on it, Zachary.
ZK: This is the point in the podcast like that moment when you’ve had a dinner party that you’ve cohosted with someone, and you’ve just seen the last guest out the door, and you sit down and you’re like, “okay, who do we like? What happened that was interesting. What didn’t we like? Are we going to invite them back?” Now, we’re not going to do that with Yancey. I’m just saying, this is the point in the podcast at which we do something similar.
EV: In which we gossip about the people that were just kind enough to be on our podcast. Let’s do it. So, since you brought up the dinner party metaphor, something that really struck me with was that disaster appetizer metaphor, or visual image, which was simultaneously frightening to me and like, kind of cute. Like, I was like, “oh, I can take it as an appetizer, like, okay. Yeah. It’s going to build my appetite for the main course of the painful change that’s coming up.”
ZK: Yeah. I wonder. It’s an interesting question about you know, how much pain we have ahead of us relative to how much pain we have behind us. And that may sound like a dissonant note in a podcast called What Could Go Right? But as people are gleaning, the point of asking the question what could go right is that we don’t ask it enough, right? It’s not that everything is going to go, right? It’s that we’re so focused on what could go wrong that we miss in that obsession what could actually go well. But what could actually go well can also entail struggle and difficulty. It’s not an immediate, here’s your ice cream enjoy your dessert. It’s an evolutionary process. Yancey was really interesting in that, right? I loved his idea of, you want gradual change, because non-gradual change is often violent change. It’s not usually, “wow, I won the lottery,” or the hand of something came down and magically changed your life for the better, instantaneously.
EV: Which is funny because, before we talked about this, like, I don’t know, I feel like people kind of do want that. Like, I am waiting still for the magic wand to be waved and like COVID to be over and everything to be peachy keen and the financial system to be great, and we’re all living in a climate-resilient, beautiful future. But I take both of your points. They’re well-taken.
ZK: Wouldn’t that be nice if that were the case? That’s like the three wishes with the genie. I’ll wish for three more wishes.
EV: Well, it’s, it’s funny because, you know, you bring up like winning the lottery, and actually a lot of people’s lives get destroyed after they win the lottery, right?
ZK: I was going to say that.
EV: Look at us.
ZK: The lottery’s not so good when that change happens, you know, and all those movies where someone is given what they think exactly they want and it doesn’t turn out so well. So the idea of, you have to earn your change, right? You have to earn your better future by doing the work to create it, rather than sitting around hoping that it will just either collectively, magically happen because we elect the right president, or we support the right dictator, or somebody, you know, kind of comes with the magic wand, ain’t going to happen. It’s going to be about this… Doing the work, you know, as you used to look at a lot in Buddhist terminology, right? You chop wood and carry water. And what happens when you’ve been enlightened? You chop wood and carry water.
EV: Doing the work is now like that weird sort of like modern, psychological thing of “do the work. You gotta do the work on yourself,” which is like starting to grate on me a little bit, but all right, we’re ready to do the work on a collective level and an individual level.
ZK: And thankfully, we have like a hundred people at The Progress Network, all of whom are doing their work. Maybe not all of them are doing their Bento work, but they’re all doing their work. And Yancey is absolutely a part of that mix. So until next time, I guess we’ll wrap up this conversation and get going on our quadrants and our Bentos and our data science and making the world a better place until the next podcast.
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