Ghandi Was a Culture Hacker

By Louisa Penny. Written for Curate Magazine Issue 5: Process

It all began with a little research for one of my regular writing gigs. I generate content for a monthly blog aimed at creatives, and if I’m stuck for an idea I often turn to the internet for interesting subjects and concepts to inspire or challenge creativity. Recently that search led me to two words; Culture Hacking. “Hacking” was the element that first caught my eye, dark and mysterious; initially I took hacking for a bad boy. Not so. To spark my interest further, culture and hacking seemed so juxtaposed that three websites later I had seriously fallen for the challenge and was in deep.

I’d heard of “life hacks.” They are all over social media with click worthy truth-bombs like; “You’ve been peeling this banana/using this hair-pin/going to the toilet wrong your whole life” — but culture hacking sounded dangerous. Did it involve burning books? Destroying works of art? Ripping up religious texts?

Turns out Culture Hacking is an art.

Culture Hacking, like falling in love or getting older, is a process. But where one is a series of naturally occurring events, the other is series of orchestrated actions undertaken to achieve a result. Although fundamentally Culture Hacking is a problem solving process, it is so much more than that. It is a creative process with an ethos. Culture Hacking requires of you to adapt, to create something new; but it must be always harmless, always positive.

In order to truly understand the new object of my intellectual affection I had to firstly understand its name. Culture Hacking is most commonly applied to business where the “culture” refers to the company, its embedded processes, attitudes and assumptions. And “hacking” is not referring to a bearded programming genius in a badly lit basement wearing a Guy Fawkes mask anonymously taking down banks and corporations.

Hacking, possibly one of the most creative processes there is, means uncovering or looking at a problem in a new way, usually with little resources and going beyond previous attempts to fix it. Even if it means destroying what was there before. It is revolutionary. It is genius. It is peaceful. It is intellectual. It knows no limits. It is not afraid of change, in fact it thrives on it, as long as all the changes — the hacks — enforce the “core values” or “protocols” at the heart of the culture.

Core values are a set of rules people within a particular culture agree to follow. Religious organisations, governments, schools, businesses, social groups, all conform (or not consequentially) to a set of written or unwritten rules. The success of each group can be measured on how well the individuals in that culture subscribe to the core values. Everyone has their place and everyone is involved. This is the key; culture is not something that can be dictated down, it’s something that needs to be “co-created” (as coined by Robert Richman) by everyone, every day.

Tech giants like Zappos, Google & Netflix, recognise that for a culture to work, to be effective happy and successful, everyone must willingly participate. As a result each individual within the culture will be happier and more successful. Everyone works together to co-create the core values and if something isn’t working they look to culture hacking to fix it. This can result in radical ideas, in some cases totally subverting the “traditional culture” of a work environment. Some of these hacks have been:

Unlimited holiday policy (to give a sense of empowerment to employees)
Termination bonus which offers new employees a bonus to quit (getting rid of the non-committed)
Everyone in the business, including the CEO, works on reception/shop floor one day a year (no egos).
Email bans between 7pm and 8am (to combat stresses of modern life)
Only having meetings between 10am and 4pm (more family/parent friendly)
Offering new recruits the option of working a four or five-day week (life work balance and flexibility)

These companies value their employees just as much as customers and shareholders, but most importantly everyone is involved in the process, no matter their place in the hierarchy. This made me realise there is more to Culture Hacking than just problem solving. Underneath its bad-boy hacking exterior is a heart, and embedded in this heart is the idea of co-creation, of community, of family.

Be the change you want to see in the world.

There are many problems in our world that need hacking; world poverty, disease, environmental issues, consumerism. If we apply the Culture Hack model, it would seem there has been a departure from humanity’s core values. Kindness, integrity, democracy and beauty are sacrificed in favour of greed, violence and the concentration of power. What we need are more culture hackers, not just the Bill Gates’ and Steve Jobs’ of the world but a few of Adam Feuer’s favourite hackers; Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Gandhi. These individuals were willing to look past what we would all just otherwise accept. We may not all be qualified to culture hack energy consumption, or capitalism, or politics, but if we started on a smaller scale — ourselves — could it have a ripple effect on the world? As Ghandi famously said, change must start with yourself.

Go Hack yourself.

“When you seek, in your everyday life, to deliberately find opportunities to be clever, ethical, to enjoy what you are doing, to seek excellence, then you’re hacking. Now the key here is that this behaviour is deliberate. Not a happy accident.” — Maya Zuckerman.

I began to look at my own culture. As a self-employed single parent I am CEO, shareholder and employee of my life. I began to question what my core values are, those of my family, of my business. Am I following those core values, and perhaps more importantly, am I teaching them to my daughters? Is my culture always in support of them, and if not, what hacks do I need?

The first step is listing your core values, turns out mine are:

To be the best mother, writer, friend, and family member I can be.
To live every day as a responsible, conscientious and participating member of the human race, causing as little environmental impact as I can.

Hacks take place where there are faults and barriers. As a freelance writer my biggest culture barriers are self-discipline and time. Deadlines help enormously with this, but what about the projects that have no deadline? My unfinished novels and short stories were being neglected. I looked at my culture, how I operated, and where I could hack. My routine often left me tired, unfulfilled and sitting in front of the TV by 8pm each evening with a glass of wine in hand feeling exhausted by the kids, housework, homework, work-work, going to bed late, feeling that another day had completely passed me by. So I dared to hack…

First Hack

Stop doing housework (as much). Sod it, the kids don’t care and neither do I really. This freed up time.

Second Hack

EAT. Make myself food alongside the children. I never used to do this, for some reason I thought motherhood meant waiting to feed myself last. This saved me more time. I also gave up meat for its environmental impact.

Third Hack

The Lounge is banned! I stay away from the cosiest room in the house; I don’t even think about the warmth of the log fire and do not switch on the TV. Instead I view the entire room as a treat. This allowed me to take my writing seriously and when I did take a break it felt more deserved.

Fourth Hack

Go to bed early. The knock on effect meant I wasn’t exhausted and didn’t feel groggy as I did before.

Fifth Hack

Find a gang. Not a street gang — hacking hasn’t affected me that much — but another problem with being a work from home freelance writer and single parent, is loneliness. There is no one to bounce ideas off. I now work one day a week from a friends’ home office. It benefits us both and has the added bonus of that “going to work” feeling I enjoy.

The results were impressive. After putting the kids to bed I went back to my desk and began writing. It was a struggle at first because I was “implementing one small change every day that would contribute to a change in culture”, and change is hard. However, within two weeks I had written 15,000 words of a novella that had hitherto spent weeks trapped inside my head. I spent most of my evenings writing without feeling tired, and when I did go to bed I felt I had utilised my day to its fullest. I prioritised my writing and my health. I got my first short story published.

My hacks may have slipped a little, I may be venturing in to the cosy lounge a bit too often, but I know how to make the changes I need and how effective they can be, because Culture hacking isn’t a one time thing; it’s a commitment, and a long term one. If you decide to try it, to hack your life, remember you’re in good company. Ghandi was a Culture Hacker.

By Louisa Penny. Written for Curate Magazine Issue 5: Process

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Louisa Penny’s story.