About this talk
With a simple four-square grid, the author and former CEO of Kickstarter Yancey Strickler shifted his entire perspective on decision-making, his sense of self, and his relationship to the world. His concept of “Bentoism”, inspired by the Japanese bento box, is a way of framing your choices with an eye to the future, beyond your own self-interest, and with consideration for your community and the next generation.
This talk was recorded remotely on May 18, 2020.
Yancey Strickler, Writer & Entrepreneur
Yancey Strickler is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the cofounder and former CEO of Kickstarter, author of This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for a More Generous World, and the creator of Bentoism. Yancey has been recognized as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum and one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People. He’s spoken at the Museum of Modern Art, Sundance and Tribeca Film Festivals, Web Summit, and events around the globe.
Brian Eno’s always been one of my favorite artists. His music is subtle but you still never know where it’s going and this is true of his entire career. He started off in the band Roxy Music and made several amazing solo albums. He invented ambient music. He was the first person to use code and AI to generate music on its own. He produced every important U2 and Talking Heads record. He made a card game called Oblique Strategies and he even invented the startup sound for Windows 95. This is an incredibly diverse resume and yet there’s this invisible thread that holds all those different projects together.
There’s no one better at this than Madonna. In the ’80s and ’90s the only thing we knew to expect from Madonna was the unexpected. With every album, single and video she reinvented herself and somehow with each reinvention Madonna became more her. How did Eno and Madonna do this? How is it that they can be so consistently different and yet consistent at the same time? I have an idea about how that is and in this talk I’m gonna give you a tool, a kind of a user interface that will let you do the same.
But first I wanna tell you how I got here. Three years ago I stepped down as the CEO of Kickstarter, a company I co-founded, and I was lost. After 10 years working on the same project I was tired and it was hard for me to know who I was outside of my identity with the company, much less what it is I should do next. I was stuck and I wasn’t sure what to do. So I got a notebook and decided I would write down everything that I did know. I started by listing every project I’ve ever been a part of, even my high school zine. I listed everything I’m good at and everything I’m bad at. I gave myself strange assignments like draw a website of my life including with all the sections that might be a part of it and what the tagline should be. And out of that process there were five plausible paths that emerged. Possible next steps that made sense based on where I’d already been.
Now when I saw this list of five things I didn’t wanna just jump on one and I also didn’t wanna wait for something to happen. So I created another experiment. I would pretend each of these things was my job. I would wake up one day and devote myself fully to living that role. I imagined if I used something like a method acting technique my body would tell me if it was right or not. And so I actually did this. The first day I pretended I was a journalist which was my job before Kickstarter. I researched possible story ideas and wrote pitches to editors. Another day I imagined turning what was a side project into a full blown company.
And on one day I pretended that I was writing a book that would communicate a very specific feeling and point of view. And it was the day I spent pretending to write a book that my body told me this was the thing I actually needed to do. It was about a year into that process that I had my realization. I’d been doing a lot of research about self interest. How is it that we define what is in our self interest and what’s not? And while thinking about this I decided to draw self interest. How do I visualize this idea? And when I did I sketched this image in my notebook a hockey stick graph, a chart of a line sloping up and to the right. Now this is how we think of self interest today, whatever it is that we want. Money, power, popularity is growing so fast it just shoots up to the moon. In Silicon Valley board decks this is the ultimate vision of success.
But as I looked at this picture I realized it was just a tiny slice of a much larger picture because the X axis measuring time it kept going from now all the way into the future. And the Y axis measuring our self interest it also kept going ’cause as our self interest grows so do our responsibilities. It goes from me to us. As I looked at this graph I was suddenly confused. What is this whole space I’d never really thought about before?
So I drew some lines and tried to carve it out more and discovered there were four distinct spaces of self interest to think about. There was Now Me, what I want and need right now. This is how the world tends to think of things already. But there was also Future Me. The older, wiser version of me that either becomes real or not real based on my actions every day. There’s Now Us. My family, my friends, my coworkers, the people that are important to me. And then Future Us. My kids or everybody else’s kids.
I realized that every decision that I make leaves a footprint in every one of these spaces. All of these spaces are in my self interest and yet today we believe that now me is the only space worth thinking about. As I looked at this picture I thought, “What is this a picture of?” And next to it I wrote just a very simple description; beyond near term orientation. That’s what this graph was meant to do, help me see beyond now. And as I looked at these words I realized they were an acronym. They spelled BNTO. And I suddenly thought about the bento box, the Japanese packed lunch that has four compartments and a lid. It ensures that you always have a balanced meal and not too much of any one thing. And that bento also honors 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. “That’s it,” I thought, “Bentoism.”
It’s this same idea but for our values and our self interests. A way to not just maximize for right this second but to leave space for other people and our future selves as well. Now the bento is not just a thing on the page it’s an actual tool that you can use. Let’s imagine a smoker asking their bento, “Should I quit smoking?” To do this is very simple you just ask each voice on its own, isolated, and see what it has to say because each voice will have a different, rational point of view.
So for a smoker asking their bento whether they should quit something. Their Now Us which thinks about their family says, “Yes, you should quit, we hate it, it’s bad for your family.” The smoker’s Future Us, thinking about their children, says, “Yes, you should quit. “What if my kids smoked because of me?” The smoker’s Future Me says, “We want there to be a Future Me, quit right now.” But the smoker’s Now Me says, “No, keep smoking. “Quitting’s gonna suck, we’re addicted to nicotine. “This is gonna be brutal on Now Me.” And Now Me has a point based on their very limited perspective. The challenge we face today is that most of us see the world only with this Now Me lens. We have a passive awareness that let’s us see maybe a day in advance but we have a harder time seeing beyond that and this can cause us all sorts of problems like making addiction seem rational. Hey, it’s satisfying our Now Me urges so we should keep doing it.
Passive awareness can also make something like sacrifice unthinkable. Giving up something now to get something more later just seems irrational from this perspective. What we really need then is an active awareness. To expand the perimeter of our self interest beyond Now Me to include the people we care about and the future. With an active awareness you seek solutions that honor all four spaces of the bento. This is your idea of what a good decision is. Now this is a lot easier to do when you know what’s going on inside each of those boxes for yourself. And to do this you answer just a very simple question in each one. What does Now Me want and need? What does my Future Me want and need? And so on.
The first time I did this I brainstormed a ton of answers. I need security. I need challenge. I need love. All sorts of things. And then I drilled that down to a simple phrase that I could keep in mind. My Now Me, it wants to show people the matrix. I’m at my best when I’m connecting ideas, making people see things that are hard to see. My Future Me wants me to create harmony, bring people together and to never sell out. Don’t sell out. This has been a strong theme in my life. My Now Us is about a small group of friends and family and being hyper present with them. And my Future Us imagines a world where there’s still a matrix but the matrix is working to our benefit rather than against us.
Now having these ideas in mind is incredibly helpful because it helps me make decisions and shape my life. Not long after creating the bento I got asked a question that immediately challenged my assumptions. I was invited to do a talk for a company that I didn’t particularly like, they felt off values to me. In the past when I’ve been invited to do things like this I’ve always said no and also felt kind of angry for even being asked. When I asked my bento whether I should do this talk for a company I didn’t like, I couldn’t believe what I learned.
My Now Me which wants to show people the matrix said, “Yeah, this is absolutely what you’re about.” My Now Us which wants deep time said, “An hour and a half to share ideas is cool with me.” My Future Us which wants to build a better matrix says, “Absolutely, you don’t just wanna preach to the choir.” But my Future Me which says, “Don’t sell out,” it accused me of selling out. It said I was only doing this for the money. It said no. And I suddenly realized that this voice that had made me angry in the past was my Future Me and my Future Me was acting like a bouncer. This big dude standing outside looking out for my values, making sure things didn’t come in that I didn’t want. But by seeing the whole bento, by being able to see the bigger picture, I had the right to tap that bouncer on the shoulder and say, “Nah, it’s cool, I got this.”
And so I ended up making an entirely different choice than I would have otherwise and yet being certain that it was something that was in my self interest and fulfilled who I am. Because I had this active awareness I could see that even though one part of my bento wasn’t so sure it was still the right thing to do. Now this bento structure can work for people but it also works for organizations. A company’s bento is quite similar. It’s Now Me is whatever its current priorities are. The annual goal or the quarterly goals. Its Future Me is this idealized self, this brand promise, the ultimate version of the company it’s always trying to live up to. A company’s Now Us are its stakeholders, its investors, its customers, its employees, the community, the suppliers that rely on it and what that core promise is to each of them. And the company’s Future Us is its vision statement, where it wants to be in ten years.
So for a company to use their bento it means making choices that honor each of these spaces that successfully hold these tensions between what the public expects and what you expect out of yourself. So if we imagine a company like Apple we can map their bento. Their Now Me are tools to develop human kind, this is Apple’s mission statement, as well as whatever its quarterly goals might be. Apple’s Future Me brand ideal? It’s think different, right? It’s something we’ve seen in many ad campaigns. Apple’s Now Us, their customer promises are super interesting. From the beginning Apple has always been the technology that just works. If you compare it to DOS back in the ’80s it was always the easier to use one. And Apple always promises privacy and a walled garden for their services. And that Future Us for Apple is still developing tools that advance humankind as well as growing Apple.
So when Apple launches a new product they should think of it from the perspective of the bento. What will fulfill all of these expectations? And this shows us why something like the AirPods are such a successful product. They think different, no wires, but they also honor this idea of just works. You put them in and they play, you take them out and they stop. It fulfills what people expect from Apple. If you contrast that with something like the Touch Bar which is a failure on many of their computers. Yes, it thinks different but it doesn’t just work, it doesn’t do anything and that’s why it didn’t ultimately work out. So this shift from this passive awareness, only trying to look out for what you want right now, to this active awareness, seeing the full perimeter of your self interest, is what allows you to ultimately fulfill your potential, to be the best version of yourself and to create choices that are coherent with who you are.
In physics, coherence is a word just meaning multiple waves sort of working together in synchronicity. Just this perfect balance. And making decisions that fulfill every aspect of your bento are a kind of self coherence. Now doing this on the regular basis is something that takes practice just like any kind of muscle. But there’s a simple practice that I’ve begun doing once a week that’s really transformed how I think about my time. I draw a blank bento like this one and ask how should I use my energy? And I ask these different parts of myself what I should do just in the next seven days. I use this to make my to-do list for the week ahead.
Now if you’re willing to go with me for just a second I’d love to take you through the kind of meditative process I do to place myself in this world. So to do this I need you to close your eyes with me and just follow along and we’ll see what we discover. So to start just close your eyes and I want you to look straight ahead. Looking straight ahead like you’re looking into a mirror. And you are looking at now me. You’re looking at yourself right at this moment. I want you to start just by taking stock of what’s going on in your mind. Are you feeling calm and relaxed? Are you focused or are you anxious? Does your body feel okay? Do you need to stretch? Do you need to exercise today? How does your now me feel? Now keeping your eyes closed and still looking straight I want you to tilt your head up and now we’re looking up into the Now Us space of your bento. The Now Us for you is everyone that you love and care about. It’s not every person in the world, just the people that you feel emotionally connected to.
What I’d love for you to do is I’d love you to take all those people, your friends, your coworkers, even your pets, and cram them all onto a sofa. Now that you’ve got them all on there just take a Polaroid and now look at each of their faces one by one. Those are the people who are counting on you. Now keeping our head tilted upwards, turned slightly to the right and now we’re looking at Future Us. Future Us is that same Polaroid of your couch with all the people you love except now 20 years into the future. Everyone’s older, you can’t believe how big your kids are. You realize some of the people in the last picture aren’t there any more and there are new faces you don’t recognize but you know that they matter because they’re here in this frame.
Take a second to look across these faces too and know these people, decades from now, are counting on you right at this moment also. Now keeping your head turned to the right look straight ahead and now you’re looking at Future Me. You’re looking at the older, wiser version of you. Your hair is white or salt and pepper. Your skin is wrinkly. Your Future Me loves you more than anybody. They look at you with compassion. You can feel it as they smile at you. You can feel their warmth as you touch their face. This beautiful person, this person that lives up to all the things you wanted out of yourself, this is you. This who you are becoming right now.
Now let’s turn and just face straight ahead again looking back at the mirror of Now Me and you can open your eyes. Those are the dimensions of your life. Every time you make a choice those are the parts of yourself that are speaking to you whether you listen or not. Those are the things that we’re shaping and effecting. Now I’m pretty sure Madonna and Brian Eno weren’t using the bento exactly but I think this mentality and this notion of coherence explains what makes them so successful.
So here I’ve made a version of Madonna’s bento, just my guess. Madonna’s Now Me is to take back and redefine female sexuality, that was so core to her identity as an artist. Her Future Me is to never repeat herself. Madonna’s Now Us was New York City cool, East Village, Soho, her music always reflected what was coolest in the coolest part of the world. And Madonna’s Future Us, that larger picture, was her as an icon. She always saw herself as larger than who she was. So if we look at Madonna’s career we can imagine every decision she made was from this perspective. She was trying to honor each of these ideals simultaneously and this allowed her to always be new while being the same.
For Brian Eno it’s very similar. Early in his career he did an interview where he described himself as a non-musician musician. And this kind of self awareness is very present in all of Eno’s work. For his Future Me I think Eno was always leaning on his curiosity and openness to technology and the fact that he’s not egotistical in his work at all. For Eno’s Now Us when he’s making art I think he’s thinking about other artists. And he’s even thinking about himself as an artist and being critical in that kind of way.
This is where his self awareness comes through and projects like Oblique Strategies make sense. And finally Eno’s Future Us is fascinating because if I think of his work making generative art where he’s building code and making programs that are making Brian Eno music for eternity. Maybe Eno will be the first non-living, living artist. And that kind of strange, upside down-ness of his career will continue even after he’s dead.
Now I can’t promise that using the bento will turn you into Madonna or Brian Eno as much as we might wish that, but I can promise that it will show you what it means to be coherent. What it means to make choices that are integrity with who you are. And once you know that, you free yourself from not just following what you did the day before but carving a path that makes sense for where you ultimately want to be. By embracing the bento this is the way to become your best possible self. Thank you.