Every day of your life, you make cultures without even consciously trying to. That’s because your everyday thoughts, feelings, and actions feed into the cultures of which you are a part, just as your cultures shape your thoughts, feelings, and actions—your self. We call the process of selves and cultures making each other the culture cycle.
To help you remember how the culture cycle works, we’ve broken it down into four elements: I’s, interactions, institutions, and ideas. As the figure below shows, your I (self, mind, psyche, soul) anchors the left side of the culture cycle with its thoughts, feelings, and actions. The right-hand “culture” side of the cycle includes interactions, institutions, and ideas.
The part of the culture cycle we experience most often is our daily interactions with other people and with products. These interactions follow seldom-spoken norms about the right ways to behave at home, school, work, worship, play, etc. Guiding these practices are mundane cultural products—stories, songs, advertisements, tools, architecture, etc.—that make some ways to think, feel, and act easier than others.
The next layer of culture is made up of the institutions within which everyday interactions take place. Institutions spell out the rules for a society and include legal, government, economic, scientific, philosophical, and religious bodies. No single person knows all the laws, policies, origin stories, or theories at play in their cultures. Nevertheless, institutions exert a formidable force, silently allowing certain practices and products while forbidding others.
The last and most abstract layer of the culture cycle is made up of the central, usually invisible ideas that inform our institutions, interactions, and, ultimately, our I’s. Like the unseen forces that hold our planet together, these background ideas hold our cultures together. Because of them, cultures have an overarching pattern. To be sure, cultures harbor plenty of exceptions to their own rules. But they also contain general patterns than can be detected, studied, and even changed.
Because you actively construct your cultures, you are not a slave to them. When people are mindful of the cultural forces around them, they can amend, riff on, or even altogether reject their influences. This is why we have technology, revolutions, and progress, rather than just “same species, different century.”
Though you are not a slave to your cultures, you are not the lone master of them, either. Because your self and your cultures are so inextricably intertwined, changing your self and your world requires changing your culture cycles. In particular, you must alter the cycle’s interactions and institutions, in addition to your I. You cannot directly alter the big ideas that animate the entire culture cycle, because they are so deeply rooted. But over time, as I’s, interactions, and institutions shift, big ideas follow suit. And once a new big idea takes hold, a sustainable new culture cycle begins to roll.