A framework for consciously choosing how we see the world
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I didn’t realize until my early 30s how deeply startup culture had permeated my life.
After I turned 30, and after a decade in startups, I had begun exploring life paths beyond entrepreneurship. As I leaned more into coaching and nonprofit work, I realized I was scared to fully leave behind life as a founder.
While I’d worked on some nontraditional projects in my 20s, they had all in some way been about building skills or exploring ideas that I hoped might turn into a meaningful startup one day. When I considered leaving that behind, I was surprised by how existentially threatening it felt.
I’d originally gotten into startups as a way to eschew traditional ideas of success—in the early 2010s, startups felt like a punk rock alternative to building a career in finance or consulting. Yet here I was, a decade later, stuck in my own culturally reinforced narrative about what a meaningful life looked like.
I like to think of the above as “worldview drift”—it happens when we unintentionally and uncritically adopt another person or culture’s view on life as our own.
We are constantly being influenced by those around us—by our families, by the companies and industries we work in, and society more broadly. The more deeply immersed we are in a culture, the easier it is to take its worldview for granted as simply a fact of life.
In this piece, we’ll explore a framework for analyzing the worldviews we exist in, so we can understand how they influence us—and learn to more consciously choose them.
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As an example, let’s take a closer look at the worldview behind startup culture—and where better to explore this philosophy than at its source: the essays of Paul Graham (PG).
Many people have contributed to modern-day startup culture, but PG’s essays have held particular cultural weight. For all intents and purposes, his writing is considered canon for anyone who seriously wants to start a company.
Religious studies scholar Stephen Prothero offers a simple framework we can use to analyze the worldview behind PG’s writing.
His model proposes that worldviews can be broken down into four parts:
- Problem: the proposed core problem of life
- Solution: the proposed solution to that problem
- Path: a defined path people can follow to move from problem to solution
- Exemplars: archetypal figures who have modeled what it's like to walk the path
Prothero originally developed this framework as a way to analyze the major world religions*, but it can be used just as well to analyze secular worldviews, like nationalism, socialism, or organizational cultures.
While it might feel odd to analyze startup culture through a religious studies framework, modern scholars have argued for blurring the lines between “religion” and “non-religion,” classifying both as belonging to the super-category of “worldview.”
Here’s a look at how the framework applies to PG’s writing:
- Problem: working for a salary is a poor way to build wealth
- Solution: don’t work for someone else, take equity in the projects you work on
- Path: start a company, do things that don’t scale, focus on 7% weekly growth
- Exemplars: Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Drew Houston, etc.
In a sense, Paul Graham’s essays function as a quasi-sacred text for the startup world, laying out clear opinions around what a well-lived life looks like and how to achieve it.
Few people would explicitly identify as “Graham-ites,” but it’s clear that much of the tech world has internalized Graham’s philosophy, myself included.
After a decade spent reading Hacker News and hanging out with other founders, startup culture’s myths about success had become my own, and it was difficult to picture a career path for myself other than pursuing success in tech.
If you’re in startups, perhaps the worldview defined above is familiar. However, PG’s philosophy is definitely not the only game in town.
Here are a number of other worldviews I’ve seen in tech that you may be participating in, consciously or not:
- Problem: venture capital is a never-ending growth treadmill
- Solution: bootstrap instead of raising money
- Path: prioritize cash flow, focus on B2B, keep decision-making control
- Exemplars: Baremetrics, Basecamp
- Problem: both a full-time job and starting a company take time away from your own projects
- Solution: build one (or a bunch) of products that can generate passive income
- Path: create a micro-SaaS, build in public, get active on Twitter
- Exemplars: Pieter Levels, Patio11
FIRE (Financially Independent Retire Early):
- Problem: working for a living sucks
- Solution: save money and retire early
- Path: find a high salary, live cheaply, save as much money as possible
- Exemplars: Mr. Money Mustache
While it is not necessarily a bad thing to immerse yourself in a culture such as those listed above, trouble can arise when you unintentionally and uncritically take on the worldview and success narratives of a culture.
Any worldview is just a single perspective; none has all the answers. If we lose ourselves in a worldview and begin to mistake it for reality itself, our values and goals often drift toward the cultural standard.
So, how can you stay grounded amid influence from the worldview you’re embedded in?
Ironically, when viewed through the lens of Prothero’s framework, “be thyself” is just another interpretation of “the great problem” of life.
To flesh out the full “be thyself” worldview:
- Problem: external pressures shape our lives in ways we wouldn’t freely choose
- Solution: self-express, live authentically
- Path: mindfulness, therapy, journaling, reading this essay
- Exemplars: Henry David Thoreau, David Foster Wallace, Mary Oliver
To me, this points toward the fact that we always have a worldview. Even in attempting to gain distance from the influence of external worldviews, we end up simply creating a new one.
Thus, the goal is not to get rid of our cultural influences, but simply to become more aware of them, and to notice when they’re limiting our actions.
If you do find yourself caught in a worldview that’s got you stuck, often the first and most important step toward freedom is to find new exemplars (role models).
For me, this meant finding folks like David Whyte, who makes a living writing poetry, leading walking tours in Scotland and New Zealand, and consulting with Fortune 500 companies on “the poetics of leadership.”
When looking for role models, you don’t necessarily need to go as far afield as I did. Small things—like meeting a CEO who isn’t working himself to death or hearing about a founder whose startup failed and still went on to do interesting things—can do a lot to broaden one’s sense of what is possible.
When we find people who are living in ways that inspire us outside the norms of our current worldview, it gives us permission to pursue goals we wouldn’t previously have allowed ourselves to pursue. This in turn can give us the freedom to choose a life that is truly our own.
To begin this reflection in your own life, you can ask yourself these questions:
- What are my goals?
- Who are my role models?
- What path am I taking to achieving my goals?
- How (and from who) have I learned to walk this path?
Whatever your answers, you can begin to map them onto Prothero’s framework, shining a light on your current worldview and any underlying assumptions worth questioning.
Casey Rosengren is a founder and executive coach based in New York. If you’d like to learn more about ACT and values-oriented coaching, drop him a note.
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