In this inspiring podcast interview, Nathan Chan sits down with Kickstarter co-founder and author Yancey Strickler to discuss his ‘Bento Box’ method for making better decisions, how his company Kickstarter found it’s feet, and our unhealthy obsession with “financial maximization”.
Strickler was working as a music journalist in New York when a chance encounter with future co-founder Perry Chen in a restaurant led to the creation of Kickstarter, and crowdfunding as a category-defining player in a new field.
A writer at heart, Stickler used his time post-Kickstarter to write the groundbreaking This Could Be Our Future. An in-depth look at our current obsession with financial gain, and how society has conditioned us to always choose whatever will make the most money.
Making the right choices in life is a mission close to Strickler’s heart. As such, he created the revolutionary “Bento Box” framework, an inspiring and humbling process for individuals and businesses alike to frame and structure their decisions.
This podcast is one of our most inspiring insights into human nature and the importance of caring for our future selves and our future business. Learn from Strickler as he gives you the secret Bento Box method to help you make the right decisions in life. This is a conversation you won’t want to miss!
Nathan: Yancey, thank you so much for taking the time.
Yancey: Yeah, thanks for having me on. I really appreciate it.
Nathan: So, the first question that we ask everyone that comes on is how did you get your job?
Yancey: Well, I mean, what is my job? It’s a great question. But I mean, the job of Kickstarter, say the job of building that came through actually just sort of a chance encounter meeting Perry Chen who’d first had the idea for Kickstarter a couple years before meeting him in Brooklyn at a restaurant. And we became friends. And he ended up sharing with me this idea he had a few years before where he’d wanted to put on a concert in New Orleans. And he was going to have to pay $20,000 up front. And he just couldn’t front that kind of money and had the notion instead of what if I proposed the idea for the concert online. And people put up their credit cards to buy tickets, but no one is charged unless the show sells out.
But at this moment when we met, this is 2005. And this is a dramatically different internet. This is still a period where if you had a website, you needed to have a closet full of servers and a smelly dude standing outside running cable all day. But yeah, Kickstarter for me began with us meeting and at the time I was a music journalist. And I had a record label that I’d started and ran on the side. And I was just living in New York, and loving culture, and just trying to hustle my way into doing cool things. And then just made a new friendship, and just started building something.
Nathan: Yeah, wow. And then, what did the first version of the product look like? Who was the… Yeah, how’d you get your first backers, was it that concert itself?
Yancey: No, that concert never ended up happening. But the very first project was won by Perry, which was to try to make 100 screen printed t-shirts, and that project actually failed. The second project was by he and I and a friend of ours to make a book. The idea was we would have 100 page book. And there would be 100 backers of the project. And if you backed the project, you got to fill one page of the book with whatever you wanted. So, it was a 100 pages, 100 authored book. That got funded. But I mean, the first version of the product… the first version… the first mock-up of the project, of the product was in 2005, 2006. There was a clear vision of what Kickstarter should be. But it took three plus years to build it because we were nontechnical co-founders, myself, Perry and Charles Adler, we were hiring external developers making a lot of dumb… a lot of just not great decisions. And so, it took quite a while, but the vision was always there. But it took almost four years for it to be executed despite trying hard all the way.
But one of the things that was always so critical was that we were focused on artistic and creative projects. When Perry had imagined the idea for crowdfunding, we saw that it could be used to buy Jenny a prom dress, or send someone to college. It could be used for anything. But to us fundraising meant charity, and meant guilt, and meant a very different culture than what we imagined. And what was more exciting to us was people coming together around new ideas. And we felt like a place that would support new ideas would need to have a certain kind of culture, a certain kind of energy. You wouldn’t want it to be guilt based. You’d want it to be enthusiasm, and passion based, fan community based.
And so, we were very conscious of what the culture of the site would be in terms of who it was intended for. And so, from the very beginning, it was invite-only to get in. We had firm rules about you couldn’t do charitable things. And we were trying to build a very specific kind of community. And that led to excluding a lot of things. And there is a path where Kickstarter could have pursued becoming like the Walmart of crowdfunding or something. But we were always very clear that our goal was to serve this audience, to build a product solving this challenge of how creative ideas get put into the world. And that was always that North Star.
Nathan: Now, I know you also recently wrote a book called This Could Be Our Future and I’d love to talk about that, and the whole premise of the book. But before we do, I’d love to still just talk a little bit more about the origin story because a lot of people can find this kind of stuff really intimidating, right? When you want to start a business, especially software, especially a two sided marketplace. It’s certainly not easy. So I’m curious when you said you guys weren’t technical co-founders, did you have to raise VC in the early days? Or what was the cost of the MVP? Did you just use a landing page? Or like,………………., even that back then would have been difficult, yeah.
Yancey: Sure. Yeah, totally. I’m travelling back in time in my mind right now because some of these are things I haven’t thought about in so long. I do think that we started working on in 2005. We were perpetually a year away from launch, and just because of just issues. But it finally launched in ’09, and it was definitely an easier time to create… It was a harder technical challenge to create a product then. I mean, we did get to use AWS and EC2, and we used Amazon payments to start. So we were able to chain together a lot of the libraries that are out there and just patchwork together a lot of the product, but there were still some barrier to entry. I feel like now it’s much tougher. And also at that point, the existing players were not as powerful and as entrenched. 2009 is a very different time. The first landing page… Well, first off, our name was first Kickstarter with no E, because we couldn’t afford the domain with er, so it was TR.com.
Nathan: There you go. That a good.
Yancey: That’s some real talk, real talk. And we initially the landing page, I think it just listed websites that we loved, and that was it. It was just like a list of 15 websites. It was like …., I remember was one of them. [inaudible 00:12:20] old project, maybe Etsy. I forget what all was on there. But it was just like, what we thought of as cool. I think Craigslist was one. Just what we thought of as what was cool, and that was it. And it’s like, get in touch if you want to talk. That was the first splash page was it. Just showing love, and just trying to send signals to the people that we thought were most influential. The people whose approval we wanted.
But yeah, I mean, in terms of fundraising, we had friends and family money early on. And most of that came from artists, creative people that we knew who several of whom we were just trying to pitch on the idea of ever using the product. And then those conversations ended up leading to them becoming an investor, asking to become an investor. And so, the earliest money came from there. And then there were other people that we were connected with, but all not really professional. Not like an institutional investor by any stretch. And then that got us basically to a launch product. And no one… Developers getting paid, no one else getting paid. At this point, there were three co-founders.
Where things turned for us, technically, it was about maybe eight months before launch we got connected with a guy named Andy Baio. A great guy who runs Waxy.org, and started Upcoming.org. He’s like a king of a certain part of the internet. And he ended up, we really connected, and he helped us connect us with a couple good engineers. One of whom Lance Ivy became our principal architect for the next decade. And then things started to pick up. But the first… We met with a lot of VCs during that pre-launch phase, and everyone in New York. We never went to California. And really, there was very little interest. We were pitching the idea of crowdfunding. And we were explaining to people the idea of crowdfunding. And again, there just was not much interest. People just were like, “This isn’t…” They just didn’t see it.
The only people that that gave us any kind of positive signal were Union Square Ventures, which had been our dream fund to work with Fred Wilson because we loved reading his blog. And we learned about entrepreneurship so much from reading Fred, and reading Brad and Albert. They’re all great, very insightful. And we met with them, and we pitched them on the idea of crowdfunding, and their immediate response was, yeah, we buy that. Why are you all the ones to do it? And I remember being so surprised by anyone responding by saying that they buy it that I almost didn’t know what to say. But after we launched, after we were live for about three months, we ended up raising a series A from Union Square, and from Fred Wilson, and it was as USV. And then 15 to 20 other angels that Fred connected us to that once you get a green light from someone like that, there’s some red phone that lights up and everyone hops on a deal, right?
We found people there that we thought were really aligned with our vision. But one thing we said to them from the beginning was that we were not looking to exit. That the goal of the company was to be a kind of a public institution. That it would do its thing. That we thought it should be doing profit sharing, or dividends, that kind of thing. And that this should be just a company that’s just run well, and as it does well, everyone does well. And so, we told that to everyone from the beginning, and I’ve always held to that as part of what is important about the company. That it’s not trying to financially maximise itself, and in that way betraying the community that it’s meant to serve.
That series A, that was less than a million dollars. And that got us to profitability. We were profitable 14 months after launching, and the company has stayed that way. And we stayed that way by staying small. We never hired big marketing teams to try to drive growth. It was always like you build the right product. [crosstalk 00:16:55]. Yeah, you build the right product, you get the right word of mouth, you focus on certain things. And it just built out that way, but we always really focused on operating in the black because it’s hard enough to make good decisions consistently. But to do that with the added emotional challenge of this existential doubt or this needs to deliver in X way or else. Definitely like competition, those things can drive good behaviours. But I think being behind the eight ball, maybe it makes you creative, but I don’t think that creates great decision making. And so, I always thought of our independence, and our profitability, it’s just the way that we had the breathing space to make good decisions. And it was just a way of trying to protect that.
Nathan: Yeah. Wow, that’s really smart. And I’m curious how come… because usually VCs want a return in form of a big exit. How come they were okay with that vision?
Yancey: I think a few things. One is that we were a category defining player in a totally new field. When USV put in, Kickstarter was not a… We were not a runaway immediate success. It was an organic build of maybe a year, a year and a half to get to a certain level. But I think they bought into the space. We fit their thesis. Their thesis then was all about decentralised peer to peer marketplaces. And the amount they invested was small. I think they liked us as founders. And Fred wrote a blog post years later where he said, everyone says what we said. So in a way, he doesn’t totally believe it when people say it. But when he wrote this post five years later, he’s like, but I do believe it now that they mean this vision for the company.
And the same for you for Union Square Ventures the same… We’re in the same fund as Twitter, Tumblr, Etsy, Foursquare. That was one of the all time great Union Venture funds was their ’07 to ’09 fund, which we were a part of, but they’re great partners. When Kickstarter became a public benefit corporation, it was Albert Wenger, one of the USV partners that really put that in front of us. And Fred had been a great mentor to me. And yeah, just great people that care about the right things. That’s the kind of thing where whether it’s a coincidence or not, they care about the right things, and they also do really well for themselves. And also, they are everyone’s first pick. When you go out, it’s like you go to… You have your Harvard, and you go on down USVs and that kind of tier. And yet, they are not nearly as greedy or aggressive as probably everyone else on that list. And so, yeah, I think very highly of them.
Nathan: Yeah. Wow, well, look, thank you for sharing. I’d love to switch gears and talk about your book, This Could Be Our Future. So, what compelled you to write it?
Yancey: Well, before Kickstarter I had been a music critic. So, I’m a writer first, and that’s how I think. But after I left Kickstarter, I stepped down as CEO three years ago, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. And I ended up going through an interesting journey of trying to decide upon that. But while I was CEO, I had given this talk at Web Summit one year, the big conference that was in Dublin then, and in it I talked about what I saw happening in my neighbourhood in New York. I lived at the time in the Lower East Side, and there had been a place around the corner from where I lived called Mars Bar that had been a punk dive bar in the ’80s. So, it’s like part of CBGBs and New York scene. And in 2013, that Mars Bar got torn down and replaced by a TD Bank, a bank branch.
And what was crazy was that they were already for other of that exact same bank branch within a 15 minute walk of that same corner. There were two other ones in the same neighbourhood. Here’s the third of the same bank in our neighbourhood and pushing out a landmark. And as someone who lived in the neighbourhood, it was like, how come no one has a say, and how does this make any kind of sense? And so, I ended up researching this, and learnt that the number of bank branches in New York City had increased by 1000 between the mid 2000s and the mid 2000 teens. And I realised that if you look at a map of where all the bank branches are it’s nuts. I mean, they’re everywhere. And this was largely happening as a form of real estate speculation and branding. And these are liability write offs. There’s a lot of financial machinations that happen with this. But I also realised that in every one of these storefronts, there had once been something like Mars Bar. A place by a New Yorker for the fellow New Yorkers, and those places are being pushed out.
And so, I just gave a talk about how there were a lot of values at play here. There’s the value of the community, the goods and services they need, there’s tradition, there’s all kinds of things. But yet there is this value of financial value, which just overrules all of them, and actually overrules everything. And that truly, if you looked at the world through this lens you could see that we all operated according to this invisible assumption that the right choice in any decision is just whichever option makes the most money. And that in most areas of life, we tend to function on that. We just assume that’s the case. That’s how companies function. And really, that’s how a lot of people guide their lives too.
And so, I called this out, and I showed how this was why there’s so many more movie sequels, and this talk struck a chord. A transcript of it became number one on Hacker News for a couple days. And I kept talking about these ideas in public, and they just really connected, and it was just a way to make something visible that’s harder to feel. So when I left, I really was interested in digging more into that idea. And so, I spent a year and a half writing a book that really takes on this argument of how we came to believe in financial maximisation. This assumption that the right choice is whichever option makes the most money. And I show that this idea is actually fairly recent. That it really began to dominate culture in the 1970s. But it hasn’t always been here. We think that this is natural or how things have always been, but it’s not.
I show this study where UCLA since the 1960s does a massive survey of college students all across the United States and asking them about their goals in life, and they’re supposed to rank 12 goals according to how essential they are. And one of these goals is to be rich, is to be very well off financially. And in 1970, the percentage of American college freshmen who said being rich was an essential, a very important life goal was 28%. 28% of them said that was very important. That year the number one life goal was to “develop a meaningful philosophy on life.” 86% saying that is essential or very important. In 2016, the last year this study came out, the percentage of college freshmen who said being rich is essential or very important, 84%. The percentage who say having a meaningful goal in life is important is about 40%. The percentage of… And you can see year by year how this belief grew. The percentage of college students who want to start a family, the same. Percentage of college students who want to be an artist, the same. Percentage of college students who want to excel in their field, the same.
But there’s been this growth in a belief in wealth. And so, I talk about how that… Why I think that happened. Ways that I think it is rational. Ways in which I think we have adopted a value system that also gets us into trouble. And then the second half of the book, I argue for a positive evolution in saying that we base a lot of these assumptions about the primacy of financial value on the idea of self interest. At the core of Adam Smith’s idea of Wealth of Nations is self interest that a man will act according to his or her self interest, which I think is true, and that we should trust people to act according to their self interest. However, I believe that we have settled on too narrow a definition of what self interest is. Because of a long line of philosophical ideas that culminated in Game Theory, we view self interest as this individualistic right now desire. Self interest is what I need right now.
In the book, I introduce a framework that expands how we define self interest. And that shows that our self interest is about what we want to need right now. But it is also about what our future self wants and needs. About what our now us, of our friends and our family, the people that depend on us, the people whose lives we shape with our actions, what they want to need, and also what future us, what our kids and everybody else’s kids what they want and need. And that every choice we make leaves a footprint in all of those spaces. And that we operate in a way that now that we are blind to most of the ways that our decisions impact our lives and the world.
But I created a very simple framework, a two by two framework that has these four boxes now me, future me, now us, future us, that I call the Bento. It’s an acronym for beyond near term orientation. But this simple framework is a way to see beyond right now. And like the Japanese bento box, which has four compartments, and a lid, which lets you carry a variety of dishes without them getting spoiled. And the bento box also honours a Japanese dieting philosophy called Hara Hachi Bu, which says the goal of a meal is to be 80% full, that way you’re still hungry for tomorrow.
And so, Bentoism is the same idea, but for our self interest, our values, our choices, and how we see the world. A way to help us to help us see the longer term, and to help us see the people in our lives more clearly. Because I think, this for me came out of a personal desire to be better. To not let myself down. To not let my friends down. To not let my family down. And knowing that it’s hard. It’s hard to act that way all the time. And that for hard things, we need tools. And so, this is simply a tool, I think, to help us find better decisions, and I truly think a better world.
Nathan: Yeah. Wow, this is really, really interesting because it’s so crazy when you started saying around usually the conscious decision we make is what makes the most money, and you’re like, anyone as soon as you hear that you just like, “Yeah, wow, that’s so true even from a business context.” Your first batch of hires, it’s like, well, what are the revenue attributable roles that you can bring on to build the company? And I think then if you look from a personal life standpoint, it all comes back to that. So, I’m curious from your findings what caused this?
Yancey: I think there are a few different things. I think there’s a philosophical line of thinking that starts, I think, because back to utilitarianism and Adam Smith and capitalism, but in the 20th century, Game Theory, which was the study of conflict that happened at the Defence Department in the United States. It was just a way to study how human beings interact with one another. And it produced this notion of this rational man, and the rational man is someone who optimises for their own self interest. And it models out human behaviour where it just assumes that any time two people meet, it is a conflict. And that one must be trying to get something from the other. And there began to be these assumptions baked in about who a person was.
There’s a whole chapter there. But these ideas ended up having a strong influence on a school of… On the theories of economics, and really how the notion of free market economics took over and especially began to shape how businesses operated. The crystallising moment was in 1970, when the US was mired in the Vietnam War. And there started to be a lot of noise and people protesting saying American soldiers are losing their lives. Vietnamese people are losing their lives. Everyone’s sacrificing. What are companies doing for the greater good? What are they doing for their country right now? And Milton Friedman, this Nobel Prize winning economist, brilliant man, wrote this editorial in the New York Times arguing that the only social responsibility a business has is to maximise its profits. Basically, the only client a business should be thinking about is its shareholders. Because as the owners of the company, they are the ones who are responsible for the risk, and also must receive all the reward, and all decisions must be made with their interests in mind.
This was a super compelling argument for a few reasons. Number one, it was like, at the time, businesses really were viewed and judged according to their civic virtue. They were members of the Kiwanis Club. The company used to brag about how many employees they had, and how long tenured they were. It was a very different calculus of what it was to be a company. But Friedman made this argument during a time of a new American recession, and one that got quite worse, so people went looking for a solution to where people were. The other big change that Friedman made was arguing that the company’s core constituency was its shareholder rather than its employee, or its customer, or its supplier, or its larger community, which had all been a part of the thinking before. The business culture before was a quite well rounded idea. But this was an argument that actually you should only be thinking about Wall Street when making choices. And that if every decision results, optimises for that share price, then that is you providing your public service.
And so, you can track at this moment, just a couple years after this, the pay for American workers has been stagnant ever since. Layoffs and those things began in a major way. Stock buybacks, companies laying off people and then distributing that cash to investors began in a major way. And the operating manual for companies really shifted at this moment. There was a period at the end of the ’60s where the old order of capitalism, which we call the Golden Age of Capitalism of the 1940s to the late ’60s began to stumble. And this new financialized notion of what the purpose of a company was took over. And so, there’s just this mindset that has been taught in business schools, that is taught into what it is to be successful, that’s just part of the water we all swim in.
I didn’t understand this at all until Kickstarter. I mean, I didn’t even study business in college. I was an English major. But being inside the company, and even inside a company that was so mission oriented, you could feel what the assumptions were as a company, as a for-profit company, what the assumptions were of what you were supposed to do. You were supposed to maximise profits in these sorts of ways. You were supposed to try to raise as big of VC funding as possible. And we thought about all those things. But we also watched our friends do those things, and watched the pain of it. Watched how raising a tonne of money meant you were just basically signing a post dated check. And every decision from that point had to ladder back to meeting that post dated check. And how what a slippery slope it was to go from let’s send one newsletter a week of just stuff we think is cool to let’s send five a day, look at what the numbers are like. And just how easy it is to justify yourself into those positions.
And also, especially seeing in meetings, and me making a financial decision in these meetings where you have a tough decision, a 50/50 decision, and maybe choice A has a clear revenue outcome, but there’s some non-revenue negative things that you don’t quite know how to quantify. Choice number two has the revenues slightly less, the other things aren’t an issue. Nine times out of 10, everyone’s going to choose choice A, and they’re going to choose choice B when it’s a crisis, and they feel like they have to apologise. And what’s happening in that room is that even everyone can feel emotionally why this is it harder decision, but we lack the language to have a real rational conversation. It’s like the money thing is rational, and real, everything else is just feelings and emotion.
It is that now because we haven’t learned how to express that in a way that I think can be as operational as it should be. So I think a lot about just those tough moments that every organisation faces, where it’s like, there’s the thing our heart wants us to do. There’s the thing the calculator tells us to do. There’s the thing everyone else tells us what to do. And nine times out of 10, you go with the calculator, and you just hope that if we make enough, we can fix this later. And that’s not evil thinking, but it’s hard to back yourself out of that.
And so, how can we as individuals, how can we as leaders, how can we as organisations, how can it be not as hard to do the right thing? I don’t think we should promise to make it easy to do the right thing. But can we make it not as hard to do the right thing by creating a language, metrics, a framework, that tries to put into a user interface the stuff that today we know matters, but we struggle to talk about, and we struggle to make good decisions about.
Nathan: Yeah, one thing that comes to mind was, let’s talk about your decision making framework Bento because I think that will be really valuable to people. Because when you do think about business, especially in the early days, and anyone that’s watching or listening, cash, sales, cures all. And it’s the lifeblood of any business. So, yeah, can we talk about that more around how people can make better decisions because I think that will really serve people?
Yancey: Yeah, totally. Yeah. I think of it as there are these four dimensions. There is now me. And so, for a business now me is the need for profitability. That is your now me as a person is security, food, what you need to sustain yourself. So, that is absolutely critical. Of course, but if as a person you only focus on now me, you’re not really getting anywhere. As a company, if only you’re trying to do is to maximise for that profitability, yes, you are successful in one dimension, but I would argue that you will ultimately not meet your full potential by only seeing that one space. So, yeah, so there is the now me that we all need.
Future me is like, when I think of my future me, I’m imagining the ultimate version of me. The version of me I hope I get to be when I grew up. The one that made the right choices. As a company, your future me are your values. These are the red lines you can never cross. This is like the brand promise. If you buy our product, we are promising you these ideals. And so, for you to think about your future me, you’re saying these are the things that must always be true of me as a person or of me as a company for me to be in integrity with who I am, for me to be really who I am, for me to be authentic, and for me to create meaning.
Your now us as a company is thinking about all the stakeholders. It’s my now us, it’s my investors, it’s my employees, it’s my suppliers, it’s my most important customers. And for each of those people, there is a specific expectation that they have from you. And it’s like being very clear on what that is. If you’re an investor, you tell them you’re always going to be transparent with updates, you do that. As a company, you make a customer promise, and your products must always fulfil that. And this is a reminder, a framework to always keep that in mind. And the future us for a company is the vision, where you want the world to be in 10 years, and so what is that bigger ideal that you’re working towards?
And so, if you as a company have these things defined in this Bento framework, you’re basically looking to make decisions and to choose courses of action that light up all of these boxes, that satisfy all of these desires. And so, a real case would be Apple. So, if we imagine Apple’s Bento. So, Apple’s now me. Apple’s mission statement is tools for the mind that advance humankind. So, Apple’s now me is tools for the mind, and to be profitable. All right, that is Apple’s now me goal. Apple’s future me goal, so this is their brand ideal, I’m going to sink this down to just say, think different. To take their ’90s ad campaign Apple’s future me think different. That’s sort of the essence of them. Apple’s now us, well, to think just specifically about their customer promise. Apple has always made a customer promise of being the technology that just works.
If you go back to the ’80s where it’s like Mac versus DOS. Mac had the mouse, DOS was C: Mac has always been the just works tech. More recently they also make a lot of privacy promises, and promises about being a walled garden. And then Apple’s future us is once again tools that advance the mind for humankind plus grow Apple, plus growth is the other thing they want. So if we think about two Apple products, two recent Apple products we will see how important the Bento is. So, first if you imagine the air pods. Are the air pods a good product from the Bento perspective? Well, the now me for Apple says tools that advance humankind. Yeah, sure, air pods cool. Future me, think different. Do the air pods think different? Yeah, there’s no wire. Totally a think different Apple kind of product. The now us, well, for a customer they want things that just works. Well, this is where the air pods are kind of magical. You put them in, they just play. You pull them out, they stop. The in and out thing is pretty magical. So, yes, definitely a now us. Future us, growing Apple, sure.
So, the air pods, most importantly the air pods satisfy this think different ideal, and this just works ideal. Now, if you compare that instead to the touch bar. The touch bar that went on Mac laptops two years ago. A new product came at the same time. Yes, it satisfies this think different idea. But the touch bar doesn’t just work, it doesn’t offer any real utility. It satisfies just one part of what makes Apple, Apple, but it doesn’t fulfil all of them. And so in that way, it’s a failure. It’s a failure as a product because it doesn’t adequately meet those expectations or exceed those expectations, and express the essence of who they are as a brand, as a company.
And so, I refer to that ideal as coherence and ability to create coherence. This is where multiple wavelengths come together and create something more powerful as a result. And so, when you make decisions with the awareness of all of these phases, just like the impact of what you do is so much greater because it’s just truly in line with who you are. And so, you can do this as an organisation. And then I do it as a person too. I’ve lived according to my Bento for two years down and it’s tremendous.
Nathan: Yeah. Wow, I’m really curious, on a personal level, what are the values that you draw against when you live against, to your Bento?
Yancey: So my now me is to show people the matrix. To know my now me I ask myself, “What do I want and need right now?” And I brainstorm a million things. And I said, I need financial security, good health, projects that I’m excited to work on. I try to sum this up in this simple idea of show people the matrix. So, I’m at my best when I’m connecting ideas, and just helping people, helping guide people. That’s when I’m most in line, when I’m in sync with who I am. My future me, so like my older, wiser version of me is always telling me to create harmony. My parents divorced when I was young. So, I have a lot of like, I need to bring people together is core to who I am.
My other one is don’t sell out. My whole career the idea of betraying my values for financial reasons has always been a big red line. So, that’s a voice that’s always there. My now us is about a very core group of family and friends and having deep time with them. By deep time I mean when I’m with my friends I never look at my phone. I’m all the way there. And my future us is about, so what is the world I want for my kid? I want a better matrix. It’s not that there isn’t a matrix guiding our choices, but there’s one that’s more fair, more sustainable, working to all of our benefit.
And so, I make choices and think about my life through the lens of my Bento, where I’m like, “Am I doing things that fulfil who I am?” I use it to ask real questions. And so, an example I had not long after coming up with this was I get asked to do talks for companies. And sometimes I get asked to do talks for like companies I don’t really like. Say a pharmaceuticals’ company or something like that. In the past I’ve always said no to these things, and I also feel pissed off for even being asked for some reason. But I got asked one of these not long after making the Bento, and so I thought, “Okay, I should ask the Bento what it says.” And so, I asked my now me, “Should I do this talk for a company I don’t like?” The now me which says show people the matrix says, “Yeah, this is what you’re all about. Let’s do it.”
My now us, which wants deep time says, “An hour and a half to share ideas, we’re down.” My future us which what’s a better matrix says, “You can’t just preach to the choir. This is where you got to be.” And my future me, which says don’t sell out says, “No, you’re just selling out. You’re a sellout.” It told me no. My future me told me no. And suddenly, I recognised this voice that had been getting so angry in the past. And it was my future me, and my future me I pictured as a bouncer, this big dude standing outside my values trying to protect me, and keeping stuff out it knew I didn’t one. But because I could see, because I had the act of awareness to see all of these phases, I had the right. I had the agency to tap that bouncer on the shoulder and say, “No, no, it’s cool. I got this. Let him in.” That was only possible because I could just see this larger picture. And I could really check in with all the ways that this decision was impacting me in my life.
And so, that led me to make a totally different decision, and led me to make that decision feeling good about it. And feeling like I was doing that in a way that was true to me, in a way that was selfish, in a way that I wasn’t compromising, but was absolutely in line with who I am. And so, I think of that as being like in a flow state of life. We know what it is to be in a flow state with music or exercise, being outdoors. But to get there on a day to day level is a lot harder, obviously. And it’s not that I’m always there. But I know the elements that create that for me. And this has become so powerful to where I even… I use this to create my to-do-list every week.
I use the Bento as a thing to generate ideas and hearing different parts of me what I should do. And yeah, and I even think about, a good day is a day where I do something for each of these parts of myself. I’m like, I create now us time every day. I literally call a friend every day since doing this. I think about future us with my kid. It makes me think about my time with my son differently because I’m investing in a way that is for him and for me. And it’s even more meaningful. So, it’s been very powerful. And so, for the last eight months or so I’ve been teaching… or longer, I’ve been teaching workshops, and guiding people. I’ve taught this to a few thousand people at this point.
Over the last nine weeks have been doing a weekly gathering meditation, I don’t know what you want to call it. It’s like 20 minutes called the Weekly Bento, and it’s about 40, 50 of us get together and we journal and I create exercises and experiments that we go through together to just better see ourselves, and to help each other make decisions. And it’s cool. It’s cool. It’s a real part of my life now. I didn’t know. I stumbled across this. I didn’t intend to create this. This was like scratching my own edge and just trying to express this in a way that made sense to me. But yeah, it’s I really recommend it. And if people want to join the Weekly Bento thing, just Bitly bit.ly/weeklybento, put in your email address, and I do it three times a week now. And people are coming and we’re having a lot of fun.
Nathan: Yeah. Wow, that’s incredible, and this all started with the idea of the choice that we make when it comes to what makes the most money.
Yancey: Yeah. It was just trying to unpack how do we… Why do we assume that that’s true? My question was, my belief was our assumption that financial value is essentially the only rational choice. I think that that is… Yeah, I challenged that assumption. I think that the world of rational value is much wider than just financial value. I want to give an interesting example of that in a second and also that our concept of self interest of what it means to act in one’s self interest is just based on a very limited idea of self interest. When you only see self interest according to now me, which is how we see the world, addiction is rational because it’s good for now me. Your now me never wants to quit smoking right. Now me never wants to stop smoking. The answer is to always keep smoking because it is addictive. It’s the other voices that say no.
When you only see now me, sacrifice, giving up something now to get something more later is unthinkable, irrational. We lock ourselves out of better choices through this limited way of seeing it. So, I was just trying to understand how we got here because, generally, I’m an optimist about human beings, and I think we’re all doing the best we can with what we know. There’s just infinity that we don’t know, infinity. And so, I look at all of us with such compassion. I’m just like, it’s amazing how far we’ve gotten. And it’s amazing how much farther there is to go. And the amount of new knowledge that’s out there is just like, we can’t even fathom it. And me just asking this question of, what new thing could we know that would most dramatically accelerate, or shift, or better, where we stand?
I really came to think it was in how we define self interest. That that was the deepest linchpin that if you break that open, and to say, actually your self interest is not just what you want right this second, but is thinking about that 20 year from now, and it is thinking about the people in your life, and is thinking about the life those people will live in 20 years, which makes all kinds of sense when you say it. But to say, and we can learn that as a very simple language and a framework, and we can all operate that way. And suddenly, say, creating a business whose goal is, say, sustaining itself through now me profitability, but say maximising for social value, maximising for some future me value, maximising for the next generation, instead of only maximising for its now me financial returns, that that becomes a rational choice, and that we can start to even think about what is a good and a bad choice inside an organisation quite differently.
The best example I have of this is Adele, the pop star Adele. In 2014, she went on tour and when Adele goes on tour, all of her shows sell out, and immediately go on secondary ticketing websites for hundreds or thousands of dollars more. Adele’s a very working class artist, and she was not cool with this. So she found a startup in the UK that had built an algorithm that would measure how loyal a fan was to an artist. And so, Adele used this algorithm to identify the top 30 percentile Adele fans in each market to specifically invite them to buy tickets, offering them the same low face value she always would. Not putting any restrictions on resale. But on the thesis that if we optimise for loyalty then we’ll create a different kind of show and people won’t have to pay out of the nose to come see our play.
And so, she did this, and so if you think about what she’s doing, these tickets still allow her to be in the black. She’s not losing money. So she’s satisfying her now me needs. She’s satisfying her now me needs. But then she’s optimising for the now us value of loyalty and a communal experience on top of that, and she’s doing so in a way that has a mathematical expression that is repeatable. And that is like a way of distributing goods and services based on a nonfinancial value. She’s saying you satisfy a financial minimum, and then there’s something else that’s being maximised on top of that. And so, to me, a Bentoist kind of transaction, a post capitalist kind of transaction is one where you are, yes, you are satisfying the financial requirement because duh, but everything interesting happens after that. Everything interesting is about, well, what do you build on top of that? The notion of the goal of business is just to grow the capital money supply, that’s old, that’s old shit. We have done that.
The most important work to be done now is building new values, and to build businesses that are solving problems. To build businesses that aren’t having to justify everything by its financial return. But instead say we will be a solvent well run organisation that can operate itself. However, we are going to use all of the smart brains of our ops team to optimise for something else instead. Because it’s important, because it’s what is most coherent to who we are as a business. Because it makes us hardest to compete with over the long term. Because this is what’s going to make us a dependable business. And it is in your self interest. This is the thing, it is in your self interest.
Like the Adele story. When I tell people the Adele story, people say, “Well, that’s kind of cheating, right?” Because if she’s giving, helping her most loyal fans that helps her out in the long run. So, it works out for her. And my answer is, “Exactly.” It always works out for us if we do this. It’s only when we think that now me is the only path to getting what we want we limit ourselves. And so, it’s foolish, but it’s the foolishness of blindness. It’s not… Yes, there’s greed, there’s those kinds of things in the world. But I think largely, it’s about, it’s hard to keep those things in mind. As a society, we don’t prioritise that kind of thinking.
But I think those are easily achievable things. This being a part of our language, easily doable. In the book I write about this being a 30 year change. This is a generational change, easily doable. And if you begin to accept these other spaces as being real, as being places worthy of investment, as like, “I’m going to go to school to become an expert in future us value,” whatever. The shit we can build, and do so without everybody having to get equally woke, or everybody having to adopt all the same whatever, but happening because it is demonstrably in our self interest to do so because it just works out better. It works out better, and it will be obvious.
And so, this is here. I think a lot of the changes that are happening now can be mapped and understood in this way. And also a lot of how we’ve gotten into trouble can be mapped using this. I’m working on a piece now showing how all the institutions of modern life, education, pension, Social Security laws, and police, unions, churches, all of those institutions existed to prop up the other parts of the Bento. They were what created now us. They’re what created future us. They’re what created our future me. They’re what supported those things or made those things possible. We have been decimating those things, especially in the United States for decades.
For decades, also, we can optimise for more now me value. We’ve been bleeding the future dry. We’ve been bleeding the collective space dry, just so we can squeeze out another 20% each year. It’s stupid, and the and the US is in real danger of epic historic downfall at this moment. And it’s this shit. It’s this shit. It’s this blindness to the truth of our lives, which is that we’re not isolated individuals each doing, going to get ours. Yes, in some ways we’re that. But a person who’s only that is an asshole. A person whose only that doesn’t have friends. A person whose only that is not who you want to be. And so, basing our society around that as our model citizen, you are going to create that person, and you’re going to shut ourselves off from the greater potential that we have as human beings.
Nathan: Yeah. Wow, I love this. Look, this was extremely helpful, Yancey, and I can’t thank you enough for just being so generous with your time. I’ve taken too much of it. We have to work towards wrapping up. But where’s the best place people can find out more about your work, and also your latest book, This Could Be Our Future. Because, yeah, look, I agree with you 110%. People quite often are not in conscious control of the decisions that they’re making, and it’s so easy to forget because you’re just operating off… Yeah, like you say just like this matrix of just self interest.
Yancey: Yeah. It’s easier to do the lazier thing, right? It is. And we’re not bad people because of that. We’re not… It’s just harder. And so, I look at that with compassion and say, “We got to help ourselves out. So, here’s the simplest thing imaginable, four boxes, a two by two.” It doesn’t get any simpler. It doesn’t get any simpler as a way to try to ground us in what’s really going on. And listen, people I’m teaching, it’s like, yes, it’s CEOs but it’s store clerks. It’s across the spectrum. People around the world are finding this meaningful. And so, if you’re into it, yeah, bentoism.org is the site where you can go through the process. And then you can find me at ystrickler.com, my first letter and last name .com.
Nathan: Awesome. And where can people get a copy of your latest book?
Yancey: Yeah, This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for a More Generous World is available Amazon, booksellers everywhere. Yeah, it dives into all these ideas and much more, and it’s a fun read.
Nathan: Amazing. Well, look, thank you so much for your time. Yeah, I’m sorry I went over. And yeah, this was a tonne of fun, and thank you for the work that you’re doing.
Yancey: Yeah. Thanks so much, Nathan. I really appreciate it.