This question was posed by the curator Kimberly Drew in an interview with The Creative Independent in 2016. The internet was noisy, Drew said, and she didn’t want to add to it. So before posting online she asked herself the question: In what ways are you improving on silence?
Later that year The Creative Independent, a resource I cofounded, put Drew’s quote on a billboard in upstate New York. It was a question worth more consideration, we thought.
Millions of people are improving on silence about racial injustice right now by making their voices heard. The power of those voices on the streets — especially during COVID — is extraordinary. It’s rapidly changing how people see the world.
In what ways are you improving on silence?
I also ask myself this question in a bigger context. In what parts of life should you be listening more? In what parts of life should your voice be more heard? Where is your silence problematic?
When we talk to friends and loved ones we always improve on silence. Relationships need love and exchange and silence is neither. Talking to family and friends — in person or via technology — is always time invested not time spent.
In the dark forest of social media, are you improving on silence? Are you creating signal in the noise or adding to it? Must you speak or could your silence create space for someone else’s wisdom to be heard?
In what ways are you improving on silence?
In physics, coherence is when wave patterns move in a kind of harmonic sync. Outside physics, we think of something as coherent when it makes sense with itself. When it’s in integrity with the nature of what it most deeply is.
The goal of Bentoism is coherence. Not for wave patterns. For our decisions, our lives, and our societies.
In Bentoism, coherence describes when four dimensions of ourselves operate in harmony. When our actions fulfill the needs of Now Me, Future Me, Now Us, and Future Us, we are coherent. When we’re coherent we’re our most impactful. We’re in a flow state with ourselves and those around us.
We know what it is to be in a flow state through music, exercise, or nature. We can momentarily stumble on it like a perfect swing. But how do you create a flow state intentionally? Consistently? This is the goal of the bento.
Finding personal coherence is especially important in an incoherent world. The value system that dominates much of the world today is locked into a passive worldview blinded by short-term individualism. It sees no rational cause for action beyond Now Me.
This way of thinking is corrosive. Judging decisions solely by whether it’s good for Now Me causes us to misread the situation. From Now Me’s perspective, addiction is rational and sacrifice is irrational. We make worse decisions because we’ve defined the map too narrowly.
After decades of Now Me thinking, our institutions — many of which support other areas of the bento — are breaking down. Social trust is decaying. The future has dimmed. Even reality has become harder to share.
We can’t rely on institutions or leaders to make sense of the world for us in an age of incoherence. We must create coherence for ourselves and our communities on our own. The world’s unsteadiness will only increase. Anchoring to our values and ideals has never mattered more.
What do you see when you look at this painting?
(It’s a Carvaggio called “St Jerome Writing.”)
I’ll tell you what I see.
I see an old man transcribing a thick book. He looks tired but strong.
Across from him I see a skull. I imagine the skull belonging to the person who last sat in the chair. After they died, this man took his turn in the seat.
Out of frame to the right I imagine a long line of men and women waiting their turn to sit in the chair and add their pages to the book.
Do you see it too?
I also see an important truth. That our lives are adding to the pages of a book that started before we got here, and that will continue long after we’re dead. We want the perfect freeze-frame ending to a life where we’re the star. The truth is the book is bigger than any of us.
Here’s a way to visualize it.
Imagine this bento represents you and your life. Now Me is You. Future Me are your Values. Now Us are your Relationships. And Future Us — your children — are You2.
Let’s add your child’s bento to the image.
Your values are the foundation for your child’s life. Your relationships shape them. Just as your parents shaped you, and your children will shape their children. This process is what I call the Values Helix.
The Values Helix functions best when we’re aware of its existence. When we’re actively investing in Future Me, Future Us, and Now Us. This is what sets up the next generation for success and ensures continuity in values and beliefs.
When we see only Now Me, we don’t just limit ourselves in the moment. We limit our ability to shape the future. We limit the potential of our relationships. We make ourselves more vulnerable to the influence of the world around us. To stay true — to be coherent — we need tools like the bento to remind us where we’re going.
What book are you adding to? Where's it going? In what ways are you improving on silence?
Bentoism is part of a book that includes Michael Walzer (Spheres of Justice), Elizabeth Anderson (Value in Ethics and Economics), Mariana Mazzucato (The Entrepreneurial State, The Value of Everything), Carlota Perez (Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital), E.F. Schumacher (Small Is Beautiful), Rutger Bregman (Utopia for Realists, Human Kind), and many others. Hopefully this book will broaden how future generations define value and self-interest.
I’m now a Distinguished Fellow at The Drucker Institute at Claremont University, founded by the legendary business guru Peter Drucker. In the fellowship I’ll be further developing Bentoism and the values stack, and shadowing the Institute’s work advising and measuring organizations.
I coach a small number of CEOs and am open to coaching a couple more. If you’re interested send me a message here.
Peace and love my friends,
The Bento Society