Rolling Your Own Culture and (Not) Finding Community

This is a guest post by Timothy Roy.

In economically advanced democracies, whose universities teach some sort of Enlightenment tradition and technocratic specialty, societies often do not share in common (and do not teach) certain important cultural cores.

These cores, which I think of as modules, include personal conflict resolution (how do we disagree? how do we apologize?), personal finances (how do we spend our money? how luxuriously should we live? how much should we save?), personal fitness (how do I maintain my body? what athletic skills should be practiced to promote health and strength?), and emotional or spiritual growth (more on this later).


These cultural modules are important because they address large parts of day-to-day life and overall lifestyle. They are also important because each module or chunk of teachings/practices can be fairly extensive, and hard to derive from scratch. Individuals, and entire societies, may take a long time to rediscover some of these helpful practices.

Fortunately for those of us bred in educational systems which run light on these cultural modules, there are lots of gurus around which are not too hard to discover. By taking a guru here and a guru there, you can form a complete personal culture, a complete lifestyle.

For instance, here is one list of gurus whose work I know. This list is modular, so for any category you can replace the given gurus with your own.

For fitness and health, you could look to Kelly Starrett, Mark Sisson, Pavel Tsatsouline, Christopher Sommers. For minimal living, there’s Mari Kondo. For finances and frugality, we have Mr. Money Mustache. For lifehacking, Tim Ferriss. For startup advice, Paul Graham. For romance, Esther Perel. For relationships, John Gottman. For thinking about medical evidence and by extension statistics, Ben Goldacre. For general worldview, Yuval Harari, Pinker, Taleb, and so on.

My point is not that any of these teachers represents the last word on the topic, though sometimes their acolytes seem to think so, and though it might seem so when you’re reading the firehose of information for the first time. My point is just that each teacher has assembled a rich set of advice and tips. Combining them generates many ideas and crossover habits, and putting them into practice will keep you busy for a long time.

Rolling your own culture in this way is in general a good idea, I think. Even if you come from a background that includes teaching or traditions which address each of these areas, contrasting advice may suit you better or at least provoke greater reflection. And if you do not come from such a background – the secular elementary and university system with which I opened, for instance – you likely will be able to find a more thoughtful approach than whatever your default is, saving you years of flailing.

Although rolling your own culture is a good idea in general, doing so leads to a few follow-on problems.

First, rolling your own requires a lot of work. Take the short list I provided above. Discovering them, understanding them, comparing them, trying them out, carries significant costs in time and energy. This can take years.

Many people lack the time and energy (or intellectual bandwidth if we’re being honest) to accomplish this task. By God you had better have figured out something that works for you before your business hits a rough patch or you lose a family member or your partner gets cancer, because you won’t be able to figure it out after that.

Some (often religious) communities with a “complete worldview” contain these teachings as a package deal — both a feature and a bug of such communities. As a feature, a comprehensive and integrated set of teachings saves most ordinary people years (or generations) of search and testing. As a bug, some of the teachings may be pathological or simply not individually suited.

Second, the individual modules may not fit together very well. One could imagine a university-level course on lifestyle design.

In Gardens Need Walls: On Boundaries, Ritual, and Beauty, Sarah Perry uses Christopher Alexander’s work on patterns to contemplate how our lives and cultures are designed. They are, by and large, slipshod, ramshackle constructions, bits of this and that tacked together.

We select from the available chunks and try to fit them together into a coherent whole – an education here, a job there, a box to live in, entertainment to pass the time. These available “life parts” tend to be black boxes in whose design we have little say. They may not fit together into a satisfying whole at all – the boat they make may not float … I do not think this kind of problem is one that individual imagination is powerful enough to solve. Even the most imaginative among us will tend to build a “monstrosity” instead of a life.

The third problem resulting from rolling your own culture is more serious and more interesting.

Bowling Alone

One definition of a community is the place you can bring all of your self to, the kind of space held up as an ideal in Robert Putnam’s classic, Bowling Alone

With a close friend, or at a traditional church, you can talk about your bad leg, your struggles or success at work, how your love life or lack thereof is going, and your newest hobby. There is no compartmentalization. That’s a community.

By contrast, industrialized or post-industrialized economies are systematic. You can talk about your strength training at your gym, your bad leg at your physical therapist’s, your emotional life at your psychologist’s, and your career with your mentor – assuming you are lucky enough to have some or all of these. Your self becomes splintered among these locations and communities.

One common solution is to choose one of these categories in which to invest your identity. Ardent Crossfitters often like to date other Crossfitters and even have their own dubious sartorial aesthetic. Mustachians (devotees of the frugality blogger Mr. Money Mustache) spend much of their time thinking about luxuriously frugal financial strategies. By emphasizing one lifestyle category over others, you can find a lot of fulfillment among like-minded people.

However, finding a group that shares even a few of your cultural modules becomes a significant challenge. Sometimes lifestyle teachings select against each other. Sometimes some modules cluster together, such as libertarianism and the Paleo diet, and those clusters do aid in finding friends and community.

Modules that cluster together or that select against each other can be set to one side for the moment. In general, as a simple matter of probability, because we now roll our own cultures, the increasing diversity of the modules of these cultures decreases overlap between the sub-communities of the modules, and decreases the chances of finding many people who share several modules with you.

A “true community,” where you bring all of your self, forms in the overlapping portion of the Venn diagram of many cultural modules. Traditional communities propagate themselves and preserve themselves precisely by maintaining that overlapping region. As that Venn center shrinks, so does the number of “true communities.”

“People have always had selves, but selves have not always had to carry the burden of supplying meaning to life in such a far-reaching fashion.”  — Roy Baumeister

As society has become simultaneously secular and atomized, community has become harder to come by. Community forms largely around shared culture of one sort or another, and with less cultural overlap, communities shrink.

As cultures become atomized or nonexistent, our languages for communicating meaning to one another, for crafting meaning together, have a shrinking shared vocabulary. And as crafting meaning together becomes harder, the result is also poorer than received meanings from history.

The more carefully you’ve planned your life, the fewer people you’ll find to plan it with.

Eating the Shadow

The most powerful description of personal maturity I’ve found so far is Robert Kegan’s, as explained by David Chapman. Kegan provides a five-stage model of personal maturity.

The first stage contains mostly infants: in a blooming, buzzing confusion, the baby feels hunger, pain, sleepiness. In the second stage, if the child could speak it would say “I am hungry” or “I am sleepy.”

In the third stage, usually older children, “personal interests are relativized. They move from subject to object: you no longer are your collection of interests, you have interests. They are subordinated to, and are organized by, relationships. You are in relationships; and, tacitly, you find yourself defined by them.”

The fourth stage characterizes modern society. We have priorities and procedures based on reasons, and that applies to our personal lives as well. Adolescent dramas diminish as systematic priorities take over: I’m sorry, but we planned this party weeks ago, and I can’t switch to go to yours. Middle-class career professionals sometimes feel cold and calculating to family members due to conflicts between the fourth and third stages.

This fourth stage is also where all those cultural modules live. They are systematic approaches to specific pieces of the human puzzle. If you really buy into them, other approaches are incorrect or even morally wrong.

In the fifth stage, you become adept at using systems in situation-appropriate ways. You’re not troubled by each system’s shortcomings or by conflicts between systems, whether we’re talking about political and justice systems, financial and fitness systems, or philosophical systems. In Kegan’s stage 5, we move beyond a devotion to this or that project, and we define ourselves by the ongoing process of meaning making. As a result, individuals in the fifth stage are able to navigate fluidly multiple systems of culture and meaning. To the extent you “are” anything, you could become a Marxist libertarian, or a religious atheist.

Getting to Stage 5 often entails an uncanny valley, “Stage 4.5,” a nihilistic stage where you’ve lost faith in your old systems but haven’t yet adapted to their loss.

I propose that people who live in Kegan’s stage five have “eaten their shadow” to a significant extent, as a part of their journey into that mature state.

“Another way to put it is that people under thirty-five cannot teach themselves or others to eat the shadow.” —  Robert Bly, A Little Book on the Human Shadow

“Eating the shadow” or “emotional work” is a quasi-Jungian idea that you have to not only face but also embrace the darker sides of your personality before you realize your potential.

“Yet there is a mystery here and it is not one that I understand: Without this sting of otherness, of even – the vicious, without the terrible energies of the underside of health, sanity, sense, then nothing works or can work. I tell you that goodness – what we in our ordinary daylight selves call goodness: the ordinary, the decent – these are nothing without the hidden powers that pour forth continually from their shadow sides.”  — Doris Lessing

The petty, jealous, angry, manipulative, cowardly, cold, apathetic, etc., sides of yourself actually prove key to becoming whomever you want to be: dynamic, powerful, wise, caring, clever, etc. (I’m not assuming we all want to be the same person, fill in your own virtuous adjectives).

Stage transitions usually cannot be accomplished solo. Intellectual understanding is not enough. A bridge needs a culture and community…

And there’s this sense that this initiation into a more emotionally mature stage has to be done (often physically) with other people, and it is something that you cannot do yourself. You cannot bootstrap your way to the next level of maturity. It is something that must be shown you.


At the moment, right-wing nationalist and populist movements are sweeping Western democracies. When the politics of Britain, the US, Guatemala, France, Italy, start looking eerily similar, it’s time to look for global commonalities.

One explanation is neoliberal policies allowing capital to move out of industrialized economies, causing wage stagnation and a gradual hollowing out of the middle class, causing popular frustration which manifests in nationalist and populist movements. A more dire hypothesis comes from Joseph Tainter.

Rome and other civilizations expanded as long as they absorbed more energy, usually via conquest. All that energy (crops, money, and so on) can only be handled efficiently at a higher level of societal complexity. But that level of complexity can only be sustained by continued growth. When the civilization stops expanding, it collapses. Tainter wrote his book before the Soviet Union collapsed, but his thesis fits the abandoned factories and decaying concrete infrastructure of the former Soviet bloc perfectly.

Applying this hypothesis to the modern world, if we have hit peak resources or peak capitalism, then the institutions that define liberal democracy are destined to collapse, and it is unclear whether they will do so rapidly or slowly. So perhaps the global economy is starting to slow down as a result, which may be one driver behind popular frustration, which is manifesting in nationalist and populist movements.

It’s even possible that the basic toolkit of most of our institutions is worn out, past due for an overhaul: representative democracy may not process information quickly enough. Today, cities and companies seem to be innovating more effectively than nations do. Perhaps globalization and the information economy throws up challenges more quickly than representative democracy can solve them, and we should push power downward or move to a liquid democratic system.

I’m not trying to advocate for any single hypothesis here, just to give a sampling of the range of complexity of the set of global-scale problems. Anyone attacking even a piece of the problem is going to have to be tough and agile and a high-level operator, able to coordinate many people, able to navigate many different ways to make meaning.

Invisible Communities

As cultures become atomized or nonexistent, our languages for communicating meaning to one another, for crafting meaning together, have a shrinking shared vocabulary. And as crafting meaning together becomes harder, the result is also poorer than received meanings from history.

And as subcultures overlap less, the number of “comprehensive communities” dwindles. This attrition poses challenges not only to lifestyle design and to social experiences, but may also severely handicap advanced emotional development.

Reaching a fluid state of emotional and cognitive maturity, accomplished through emotional work which is best performed in community, matters not only to us individually, but also to society.

“So the person who has eaten his shadow spreads calmness, and shows more grief than anger. If the ancients were right that darkness contains intelligence and nourishment and even information, then the person who has eaten some of his or her shadow is more energetic as well as more intelligent.” — Robert Bly

Chapman worries that too few people think precisely enough and at a high enough level to craft new meanings which communicate across the many atomized subcultures. And those sort of people can inspire and coordinate to solve global problems. More people in Kegan’s fifth stage are needed – but those people are best grown in community.

I speculate that a community interested in solving global problems, and which uses different cultural modules as a means to aid each other in reaching Kegan’s stage 5, wouldn’t be troubled by its members’ non-overlapping cultural modules. This community’s raison d’être would be to support the ongoing process of meaning making which becomes the identity of the person living in Kegan’s fifth stage, rather than to promote any particular ethical or relationship or financial or fitness system. It would be a factory not for a specific culture, but for individuals who create cultures and communities.

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Ribbonfarm is a longform blog featuring a variety of themes and perspectives. One-off contributions are published under this Guest Contributor account. Contributors with 2 or more posts have their own bylines, and are listed here


  1. You seem to be implicitly assuming that different meaning makers will get along. I doubt it. Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush were both excellent at creating meaning in their respective audiences.

    • I don’t think that meaning makers need to get along any more than nation states need to. It would be ideal, but the point is that democracies need people who can speak to and solve problems cross-categorically. Idealologies will remain separate from this.

      Not only that, but as we continue to move into the information era it IS plausible that these individuals find they have more in common with one another than not.

      Solomon Rushdie speaks at some length of solving conflict by ‘imagining ourselves broadly.’ The idea is that we define ourselves not by what makes us different (you’re a Christian and I’m a Muslim, but instead by what we have in common (we are both brothers and fathers and husbands and community members).

      While the information era does specialize us, it also allows us to see the connectivity we have with others. I think it is very likely that these meanings makes will find they have a good deal in common…particularly when united against some of the mankind’s thorniest problems.

      • If they actually had met (and perhaps they did?), I would not be very surprised if bin Laden and Bush got along, for exactly these reasons. Although they were in opposition in the world, their philosophies and their narrative shaping – perhaps even something about their relationship to famous parents – their willingness to use force to achieve foreign policy objectives, their awareness of symbolism. All I’m saying is it’s not a foregone conclusion, just because two people lead opposite sides in some kind of war, that they would actually share a worldview. Indeed, in the nature of things becoming their opposite, we might not be surprised…

  2. Your article feels a lot like my own Tainter’s Composite, . While I have a particular smaller, institutional focus, I think you’ve capture a lot of what I dubbed Tainter’s Composite. I used the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition to describe a similar model to Robert Kegan’s model of personal maturity, albeit for a more technical and limited set of circumstances. While I know that comparison is not perfect, the models seem to have synergistic qualities.

    Your description of where the modern world is going makes me think of my description of a Gervais Principle sociopath using the clueless to shield from blame and injecting more rules. Without trying to put words in your mouth, it seems in your model, the clueless and losers were sacrificed in order to continue dealing with the complexity of the system until the point where it became clear that the system would sustain no more growth. That was the point where the existing sociopaths abandoned ship and left the clueless and the losers stuck dealing with the decomplexification. Is that an accurate description?

  3. Mr. Roy,

    I think you should build that factory. Perhaps it would take the shape of an Internet forum, or maybe something better. Craft your entrance exam carefully, so that you may artfully exclude those lacking the intellectual capacity to participate while still including “precise, high-level” 4.5ers (albeit in view-only mode). Scratch that, I don’t think you should build it, I BELIEVE you MUST build it. After all, “Intellectual understanding is not enough,” and even writing this blog post is not enough (although it is a brave, cogent start!).

    Build it and we will come.
    Build it.

    Or…… “We” could build it.

    P.S. I’m not kidding or being satirical. I really mean it.

    • Of find it? Maybe it exists. I would come too.
      In any case, a good first step would be to identify communities that have come close, and for each explain how the desired community would be different.

  4. Vlad Tudorie says

    Quickie Q: Why would a Level 5 individual give a damn about such a community?
    The whole point of operating at that level of maturity is that such a person is likely to have become culture-agnostic.
    If I understand correctly the kind of person depicted as having eaten their shadow, you would be more likely to associate them with a form of functional, benevolent sociopathy, rather than some kind of good-samaritan paradigm.

    • That’s what a 4.5 would say :p
      If being 5 feels good, then you have a society to thank for your achievement. How could one possibly deny that which nurtured oneself?

  5. A far right “sweeping” is a bit of a defeatist take about what is going on, I would say. Even in the US, the popular vote by itself already makes it more of a close call than a sweep, and the results of the French elections are to be seen.