Two weeks ago I shared the Values Stack as an illustration of how values operate.
Values are expressed through three layers. At the deepest layer are a culture’s Morals. Those Morals are expressed as Rules. Those Morals are also positively expressed as Incentives.
Today I’m going to share three examples of the Values Stack in action, and propose a new value that I think will become newly important in a post-COVID world.
Values Stack IRL, Pt I
One of the most celebrated and non-controversial values in business today was nowhere on the radar just two decades ago. That value? Transparency.
Back in the 1950s, companies were transparent by default. Here’s how GM visualized its balance sheet in its 1955 shareholder letter:
The framing shows how aligned GM was with all of America’s stakeholders. This was a totally normal, non-woke thing for companies to do back then.
Check out this chart by GM highlighting significant gains for workers:
GM was celebrating workers getting paid more and working less. This was seen as being in the common good (which of course it is).
It was normal for companies to think things like this back then. Companies took pride in being aligned with multiple stakeholders. Everyone was on the same team. This was the dominant values system.
A new game
In the 1970s and ’80s, the values of business changed. A push for profit maximization caused a shift in standards. Jobs got off-shored, worker pay stagnated, and how companies related to customers changed.
The ’80s and ’90s were the dawn of The Fine Print Era — an unfortunate period that we still find ourselves in today. Thanks to Maximizing Class-aligned legal departments, the fine print was always rigged against the regular person. No matter what, the small print made sure every little thing went the big company’s way.
This came to a head in the early 2000s as a string of blue chip companies — Enron, Arthur Anderson, and Worldcom — were found to have committed massive fraud. Even the watchdogs were complicit.
It was a crisis moment for American business. Polls showed big companies were some of the least trusted institutions in America. As legal troubles generated headlines, the intensity of the crisis increased and a new conversation opened up.
During normal times conversations around the Values Stack are about the Rules and Incentives layers. The deeper Moral level is irrelevant in non-crisis times. It’s not changeable.
But as we’re seeing with COVID-19, during a crisis the Rules and Incentives layers get pushed aside. The critical question in a crisis isn’t “What do the rules say?” It’s “What’s right?” Crises are about the Moral level.
This was where the business community was in the early 2000s. Did the moral values of business need changing? Out of the ensuing debate, a new value emerged.
It was called “transparency.”
Now that the public’s distrust of companies was so pronounced, every company had a trust deficit to earn back. Because of the nature of the offense (fraud and shadiness), transparency became the consensus solution.
When you think about it, transparency is a strange value. Transparency is the right for other people to know your business. There’s not a lot in it for you. From a classical rational perspective, there’s little self-interest in transparency. Yet it’s exactly this inconvenience that makes transparency meaningful to others.
As transparency emerged as the Moral solution to the crisis, rules were laid out to enforce it. A bill called the Sarbanes-Oxley Act was passed soon after the Enron scandal that raised the requirements for accountability and transparency in companies. The Rules layer of the Values Stack got in on the game.
The Incentives layer changed too. This started culturally, with the media celebrating businesses for their transparency — a value that wasn’t in the public consciousness a few years before. Eventually transparency became a competitive category to distinguish yourself in. The Wall Street Journal and the Drucker Institute publish a list of the Best Managed Companies in America. One of the most important factors in scoring the list is transparency
Today startups like Buffer and Stripe have adopted extremely transparent policies like salaries and emails being internally public. Each raising the bar for what it means to be transparent while also distinguishing these companies in the wider marketplace.
The rise of transparency as a value didn’t end corporate corruption. It did, however, create a way for businesses to positively contribute to a culture of anti-corruption. The Values Stack produced a positive value to respond where a negative value had taken hold.
Values Stack IRL Pt II
Our second example of a real life Values Stack shift is the story of exercise, which I wrote about in my book.
Strange as it sounds, exercise as we know it today was largely invented in the 1960s in response to a new problem. That problem? Television.
In the 1950s, America went from three million TVs (1950) to 50 million (1960). The first generation of couch potatoes came along with them.
This is the moment America’s obesity crisis began. It was immediately obvious.
In 1960, President-elect John F. Kennedy wrote a Sports Illustrated op-ed called “The Soft American” that called out his fellow citizens for packing on pounds. America was in a crisis of excess. Kennedy announced a new national value to combat it: exercise.
The new Moral value of exercise came with Presidential fitness standards (the Rules layer). New activities like weightlifting, running, and cycling began slowly growing in popularity. Television accelerated the growth with images of athletes as role models that inspired people to maximize their fitness (Incentives).
Exercise has been an extremely successful new value. But even as exercise has created a lot of individual success, it’s arguably still losing the larger battle. Exercise has grown considerably as a pastime, but obesity rates have grown more.
In “Race to the Top” I wrote about how healthy competition raises standards (the race to the top) while bad actors lower them (the race to the bottom). When the race to the top is faster than the race to the bottom, we call this progress. When it’s not, well, it’s not. But even if a new value loses the larger war, there are still individual victories to celebrate.
Values Stack IRL Pt III
The last example of a Values Stack shift is happening this very second. You’re probably part of it. Can you guess what it is?
That’s right. The emergence of mindfulness as a value.
Mindfulness wisdom has been around centuries. Why has it suddenly become prevalent recently? Because of the internet.
It’s not a coincidence that mindfulness emerged as a modern trend at the exact same moment social media did. One is a response to the other.
The problem of distraction existed before this moment. Television and video games were the previous culprits. But the shift in attention that the internet provoked a crisis. In recent years this has opened up a Moral debate about what a healthy inner life looks like.
The mindfulness Value Stack is still unfolding, but we can see its scaffolding. Screen time tracking, the mainstreaming of meditation, the Time Well Spent and Center for Humane Technology movements, and lots more to come. Mindfulness is losing the larger battle to distraction at this moment, but this values fight is just beginning.
Values Stack IRL in the future
If we play out this theory with the world today, what values might be emerging in the future? There’s one value that especially jumps out to me after COVID.
Chill is the degree to which you’re left alone.
Chill is the degree to which an experience makes you feel secure versus insecure.
Chill is the amount of hassle you have to go through.
TSA is anti-chill.
Car is chill.
Going to the office is anti-chill.
Working from home is chill.
TV is anti-chill.
Streaming without commercials is chill.
Eating out is anti-chill.
Cooking at home is chill.
Chill will become the new factor in everything. What’s the right option? Whatever the chillest option is.
This will make chill more expensive than non-chill. And there will be degrees of chill. The most expensive Airbnb in the world will be a cabin without internet access in the middle of nowhere. Max chill.
Implicit in chill as a value is that lots of life will be very un-chill. Otherwise chill wouldn’t be a value. The world around us will default to stress. What do we look for in response? More chill.
If chill becomes a key new value in how we make choices, what else might change?
The desire for fame might decrease. Fame is decidedly un-chill.
Comfort with authority might increase. People might be especially comfortable with authoritarianism if it promised to make their country chill again (fascism via complicit laziness can be very chill).
The colloquialism of chill may sound flippant, but it’s meant seriously. With what we’re all living through now — which may only be an appetizer for what climate change will bring — what sounds better in your life than more chill?
- The illustrator Maggie Appleton turned my Dark Forest Theory of the Internet essay and Venkatesh Rao’s digital gardens piece into an amazing sketch: