In this episode, we sit down with Lee Benson, the author of “Value Creation Kid: The Healthy Struggles Your Children Need to Succeed.” Growing up in a low-income family, Benson went from pulling weeds for 25 cents an hour as a child to founding and selling multiple successful companies.
What is the downside to protecting children from adversity? How do we create opportunities for our children to grow and eventually prosper on their own? And what role should the government play in all this?
Jan Jekielek: Lee Benson, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Lee Benson: It’s great to be here with you, Jan. Thank you.
Mr. Jekielek: A mutual friend of ours made me aware of a book you’ve recently written, Value Creation Kid. When I first heard the title, I thought, “What is this about? Why are you recommending this book to me?” Then, I read the subtitle and I’ll read it right now, The Healthy Struggles Your Children Need to Succeed. Then, I thought, “Oh, okay.” In our society today, there’s a lot of focus on victimhood that’s being taught in many schools. I find it incredibly concerning.
People that are taught to think this way won’t be able to empower themselves, because they’ve been taught that way. You’ve come up with a whole methodology which you’ve applied to help deal with this. This is something I want to start covering more on American Thought Leaders—how do we deal with some of the madness of our time? Please tell me about this.
Mr. Benson: What you’re talking about is that it becomes an excuse for not achieving anything. “I’m a victim, and it’s not my fault that I’m here. I come from a low income family. I’ll never go to college, therefore I don’t have to really apply myself.” I meet people all the time that would say, “I’ve gone out of my way to take all the struggle away from my kids. I don’t want them to have to experience what I experienced.”
I ask, “How’s that going?” They reply, “I have two sons and they both live in the basement. One is 23, one is 27, and I don’t see any way they’re ever going to be able to move out.” This father took all the struggle away from the kids and with the best of intentions, and thought he was doing amazing things.
What we need to do is to embrace this concept of struggle as actually something really good and trust it. If I go all the way back, this isn’t something I just came up with. When I was seven-years-old, I was approached by a neighbor unsolicited and she asked, “Would you be willing to pull weeds in my garden for 25 cents an hour?” Back then with 25 cents I could buy two candy bars and have change. It was worth a lot back then.
So, I started doing that, and it was hard work. Every couple of weeks I’d go over and do this, and I was thinking, “There’s got to be a better way,” even though I really appreciated this. I grew up in Spokane, Washington, and we had a lot of snow back then during the winter time. I started asking folks, “Hey, can I shovel your driveway and sidewalk?”
I would get 50 cents to do that, and it would take me only about a half hour to do each one. I just four-folded my money. Next, I got a paper route. Then, I had a couple of paper routes and that just kept going. I started on what I’m calling this value creation cycle. I would struggle to get a capability which would build my confidence and I wouldn’t stop there. I’d use that to actually create value, eventually becoming a dishwasher, a busboy and a cook.
I came from a low income family. I was actually kicked out of the house at the beginning of my senior year in high school. It was a non-event because I was already financially competent, and financially independent. It was a non-event for me to get my own apartment two days later. I spent one night in my truck.
It was no big deal. Going through that was one of the best things that ever happened to me. But again, starting as a seven-years-old I embraced this value creation, struggle cycle. There was nothing I thought I couldn’t have accomplished, and I didn’t feel like a victim when that happened to me. It was kind of a toxic and dangerous environment, the family environment that I grew up in.
I had a younger brother in and out of prison four times before I intentionally lost touch with him. I had a lot of other family members that really weren’t good people. Even with all of that going on, this outside world of creating value and taking bigger and bigger steps each time saved me in the biggest possible way. Some of my siblings didn’t fare so well because they stayed in that environment. They didn’t have this external value creation way of looking at the world. It saved me, and it can save a lot of kids.
Mr. Jekielek: There are some ways I don’t like that word because I think of struggle sessions from communist China.
Mr. Benson: Sure.
Mr. Jekielek: But that’s very different. You make the distinction between healthy struggle and trauma, which you’ve experienced, and a lot of people have experienced and have had to deal with. Please explain that distinction, because it’s very important.
Mr. Benson: Healthy struggle would be “I want a capability. It’s going to be a lot of work to get it.” I’m on my seventh business that I’ve started from scratch. One of them was an FAA repair station, and I had never written an FAA repair manual before. I had never interfaced with a government, but I went through the struggle of figuring out how to get that capability. I built my confidence and I created even more value from that.
That’s an example of an adult going through a healthy struggle. For a child, a healthy struggle could be just learning how to make and manage money. “How do I earn it, how do I save it, how do I give it, and how do I share it?” This is a capability that they would want to go after. Those are simple examples of healthy struggles.
Trauma is something that is not good. As an example, a lot of kids are abused, and that’s not good. Adults can run into terrible situations. They could get mugged, and they struggle through the aftermath of all of that. That’s not a healthy struggle.
But I also believe that every single struggle, whether it’s healthy or unhealthy, can be used to create more value in the world. It can be leveraged to create more value. Healthy struggle is the ideal. On the unhealthy side, it allows you to understand when other people are going through the same thing, and then, help them through it, which is wildly valuable.
Mr. Jekielek: You keep talking about creating value, and I associate that with money, but that’s not what you’re talking about. It’s actually a much bigger concept. It’s creating something that will be good for others, good for your community, good for the world, and focusing your life around that. That’s what value creation means. Have I got that right?
Mr. Benson: Yes, that’s correct. When I think about value creation, there’s three main buckets, and we talk a lot about this in the book. There’s material value creation, there’s emotional energy value creation, and there’s spiritual value creation. You need to figure out which bucket or combination of buckets that you want to create value in. A lot of folks would say that time is the scarcest commodity. You never get it back.
For decades now, the scarcest commodity on the planet is positive emotional energy. When it’s running at nine or 10, all kinds of bad things can happen, obstacles come up, and it’s really no big deal. You say, “I’m going to blow through it and it’s going to be amazing.” When it’s running on one, if you get a flat tire, it ruins your week. That is probably the most powerful bucket of value creation. It supercharges everything, if you can maintain high positive emotional energy.
To take it a bit further, when you interact with groups, are you the person that takes the energy out of the room or do you give it? My co-author, Scott Donnell, he’s the kind of guy with this amazing positive energy. He wants everybody to win. I just watch everybody gravitate towards him, which is fantastic. He’s generating positive emotional energy.
Mr. Jekielek: I’ll share a moment that I’m remembering from a couple of years ago when I saw a coworker walking down the street with the weight of the world on his shoulders, obviously having a very difficult time. And I was feeling exactly like that. I saw him coming down the road.
I said, “Okay, there’s no way I can look like this when I pass this guy. I just gave everything I could to give him a positive moment, saying, “Hey, how are you doing?” But that actually elevated me. There’s something to what you’re saying here.
Mr. Benson: Yes, there really is. Look at the emotional energy piece of it. Material value could be money and things that you accumulate. Some people are really good at that. The spiritual side is going to be different for everyone. It could be very, very strongly based in the religion that you’re part of, or it could just be a connection to something greater. But that’s different for everyone.
Every single child out there has a value creation superpower that they’ve yet to fully discover, because most families don’t really talk about that. In the book, we outline something called the Gravy Stack Method. The reason we wanted to make it a method, and the biggest thing that I would love to do with this book is to operationalize value creation within the family.
There are four parts to it, and we want to make it super easy. I’ve got a number of friends that are in the low income family category, and a lot in the middle income family category. How can a low income family with both parents working two jobs, even have time to read the book, let alone do anything? This is the challenge. How do we make it really simple where anybody can do it themselves?
Of the four parts, the first is value creation. How do you talk about it with the kids? It’s what I went through. You should start talking about these things immediately, really at any age, even before kindergarten. The second part is house rules. What’s your job for the family? What are the expectations of you as a child? As you get older, they advance.
You’ve got how you would earn extra money in there. As you’re looking at this and the child is advancing, you’ve got the expectations. We also look at expenses. As they get older, they pick up more of their own expenses. This is the house rules piece of it. We have financial competency. It’s not just financial literacy. Learning about this stuff without applying it doesn’t really matter at all.
The last part is healthy struggle. How do we design healthy struggles for our children so they can build these skills over time? If the foundation to leading the lifestyle that you want is to be financially competent so you can support it, not everybody needs to be a millionaire or a billionaire or any of that, but you want to lead the lifestyle you want, it’s important to have it.
How do we build them into that? If we’re teaching them over time, you have a job for the family and these are the things we’re expecting you to do. You make your bed, you brush your teeth, and you do your homework. Then, you’ve got these expenses that you’re going to be picking up. You can’t pick up expenses if you haven’t learned how to earn money.
Let’s give them jobs that can be action gigs and brain gigs. An action gig is paying you extra money to wash the car, but we’re not paying you any more than the carwash down the street . It’s got to be fair market value to teach those lessons. As the money comes in, they can pick up their expenses. Now, they’re learning this.
This isn’t something we can explain just once, but if you create this way in which the family operates, they’ll start discovering their superpower. They’ll learn how to make and manage money. By the time they’re launched into adulthood, they’re going to be financially competent, and financially independent like I was.
Mr. Jekielek: You’ve actually been doing this, and this isn’t just theoretical.
Mr. Benson: Correct.
Mr. Jekielek: This is an important part. How has this been operationalized among people?
Mr. Benson: From my background and starting young, I went through that when I was kicked out of the house in high school. I started playing in a rock and roll band. I don’t even count it as one of the seven, but my first real business was playing in a band. In the 1980s, there were a couple of years where we played over 300 nights a year, with covers and our own original stuff. That’s how I made most of my money back then.
When I think about struggling to get a capability to build confidence, and use that to create value, I took that from the band. Then, I started an aerospace business, and then two more aerospace-related businesses and then a few others along the way. I was just thinking about, “How can I create more and more and more value over time?”
I’m not sure whether I’ve created more material value or emotional energy value, but I do know I keep thinking about taking bigger steps going forward. That’s how the journey is supposed to work. Interestingly, when I talk to adults about the concepts in the book around healthy struggle, all that makes so much sense.
Every family should do this. Yet, I’ll watch these adults that are running businesses and something doesn’t go perfectly. It’s almost always because they didn’t have the capability to do this thing well. They act like a victim rather than embracing this healthy struggle. It’s a chance to get this capability to navigate this challenging time better next time it comes up in their business to build their confidence so they can use that to create even more value.
People get the concept, Jan, but they don’t understand how to really apply it. Talking about something is one thing. Like I say in my first book, you’ve developed a strategy or you know what you want to do, congratulations. You’re 3 percent of the way there, but 97 percent is actually doing it.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s like a muscle, and you have to try it. You have to remind yourself, “I’m feeling like I’m a victim, but actually this is a great opportunity. Let’s dive into this. Let’s see how we can solve this.” After a while, it just becomes the way you do it, as opposed to falling back. I was thinking about healthy struggle. Sports are the obvious way, becoming better at sports or music as an example of healthy struggle, correct?
Mr. Benson: Yes. Music is a great piece. You want to convey emotion through what you’re doing by writing or even playing other people’s songs. When you convey the emotion, you have to be in really good shape so you’re not thinking about what you’re doing. I’m a guitar player and I have 50-plus guitars around. I purchased all of them to play, I’m not really a collector.
I just like the way they sound and the better shape I’m in, the more emotion I can convey. Thinking about emotional energy, I was at an event last summer that Steve Vai put on called guitar camp. For five days, 150 guitar players were there. He invites Tommy Emanuel and I’m thinking, “Wow, this is literally one of the best, if not the best guitar player on the planet.”
He does a rendition of a Beatles song on the acoustic guitar, and this guy will talk about how intentionally he’s pushing the envelope of how to convey emotion through the instrument. He plays the song and I’m fighting back, trying not to tear up and cry. I’m looking around and everybody’s crying.
Our host, Steve, comes up on stage probably five minutes late and says, “Sorry, I was looking for boxes of Kleenex. I couldn’t stop crying while listening to that.” It’s amazing to think about the healthy struggle to get to that point where you can convey that emotion.
In talking to Tommy Emanuel afterwards, he said, “I’m not even close to where I know I can be.” You get on this track to create value, whether it’s material, emotional or spiritual, and you want to create more and more value each time. I theorize and fully believe that once you get on that road, you will never get off.
Mr. Jekielek: What is the role of humility, since we’re talking about that now in all of this?
Mr. Benson: What is the role of humility around this?
Mr. Jekielek: Yes.
Mr. Benson: That’s sort of interesting. I’ve never been asked that question before. Wildly important, I would think. The more value you create, the more humility we need to exhibit going forward. I am never being put on a pedestal at all, and I diffuse that pretty quickly because you’ll always let somebody down going through. But if you’re trying to connect and help other people create value, I think humility is a giant part of being able to fully connect and be there for them so they can do it.
Mr. Jekielek: I bet some of the reason that he was so effective is that he also realized that he wasn’t near his pinnacle, that he was just on this part of the journey. That’s just my hypothesis.
Mr. Benson: That’s right. What I observed is that he came into the room, treated everybody the same, walked into the crowd, and shook everybody’s hand that was around him. He was just incredible. I’ve seen a lot of folks that are very accomplished that don’t treat other people very nicely.
Mr. Jekielek: What are the practical obligations? You’ve actually shared this methodology with any number of families who have actually been applying it. How has that gone? You have a whole methodology that you’re applying in the whole system.
Mr. Benson: Yes. This is fairly new in the last year, rolling out and testing this and doing research for the book and what will work in the real world with real people, especially low and middle income families. Actually my favorite example is when I texted a friend of mine from a low income family with three kids. I asked, “How’s it going? Are you trying this stuff?” She texted me back a picture of a stack of books that she had bought online to give to all of her friends. It was working really well.
Just having these conversations with the kids and these families, it’s changing everything. I’ll have friends come over and I’ll spend time with their children and I’ll start talking about, “Hey, what’s your job? Here’s what my job is in the family here and this household. What kind of value do you want to create in the world? I bet you have a value creation superpower. What is that?”
The feedback I’ll get from the parents is, “Our kids never talk to us that way. How did you get them to do that?” I just changed the language a little bit and you can absolutely do it too. So far, so good. One of the things that Scott Donnell and I have done here is we’ve created an app called the Gravy Stack App. It’s just to make it easy to manage all this stuff. Although you don’t need it, you can totally DIY this within families.
This whole concept for me and why it’s so important, started back working with so many different businesses, my own companies. How do we create an environment where adults discover their value creation superpower, where you know you got it right when every single team member is acting like the CEO in their own role?
It’s amazing. I used to get comments back in the day before I went out working with a lot of additional businesses where people would say, “What are you guys doing here?” Because I walked around every employee in one of my businesses, over 500 employees. They all know the numbers. They look you dead in the eye. They talk about the value that they’re creating. It’s like you never see this anywhere.
When you walk through, you’re the CEO, you know all their names, all their numbers, you know what they’re doing. They approach you. They’re excited to be talking about what they’re doing. Isn’t this how it’s supposed to be everywhere? Learning about that, now how do we start all the way at the front end with the kids K-12?
Wouldn’t it be really nice if right out of the gate the purpose of an education was creating value in the world—not getting a good grade, getting a diploma, getting a degree, or getting a job. People would not be doing what they think they’re supposed to do. Instead, they would be doing what they really want to do, because they discovered their value creation superpowers.
If we could start that early on, and they’re playing with value creation in two or three of the buckets, why they are learning becomes really obvious— what to learn, over time, and they can start to guide that even more. Now, how to learn makes a lot more sense because they want to go faster in that direction. That’s my dream working backwards from what would a graduating high school senior look like as they’re being launched into adulthood? What would be ideal?
They can think critically. They understand the power and value of a healthy community, and they want to build those things. They’re financially competent, and as financially independent as they want to be. I can go down a short list there, but that would be incredible. That would make a giant difference in the world if we could launch more kids that way.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s particularly relevant in our current socio-political cultural moment. What do you make of our times right now? You were talking about some amazing hopeful things, getting families to empower themselves, and focusing on value creation in these different buckets. There’s a lot of families and a lot of kids that are in a completely different world right now.
Mr. Benson: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: What do you make of this?
Mr. Benson: For me, it’s about perspective. I’ve spoken to thousands of high school seniors about the virtues of entrepreneurship. I believe anybody that creates a job is a hero, because that’s one more person that can contribute to supporting their families, which is fantastic. Speaking about perspective, I went to meet a small group of seniors at one of the charter schools in Arizona. A lot of the kids were talking about at the beginning of the 90-minute discussion that I have with them, that they’ll probably never be able to start a business and never go to college.
They’re being the victim and there’s all this stuff going on. I notice this one young woman shaking her head. I asked, “What’s going on with you?” She looks around at the rest of the classmates and says, “I’m from Tanzania and you have 99 times more opportunity here than I had in my home country. I feel like I can do anything here.”
By the end of these discussions, the kids are typically saying they’ve gone from, “I’m a victim and I’ll probably never amount to much” to “I can start anywhere and go everywhere.” Because in these sessions, the context is starting and running a business and building it over time. I share with them how I think about it. If you’re going to run a business, the environment within which you’re running this business is largely going to be created by the policies of our elected officials.
You want tailwinds to give you help. You don’t want headwinds to constantly hold you back. I tell them, “I think voting is really important. I have a process for voting, and I encourage you to have a process for voting as well.” They ask me, “What’s your process?”
I will go through it. I say, “Anything or person that I vote for, I want them to move these pillars in the right direction. and there’s six of them. It’s free people, free markets, personal responsibility, protection from uninitiated force, and only voluntary relationships. The last one is elevating self-esteem.” The ones the kids ask me about the most is, “What do you mean by only voluntary relationships?” I say, “Would you like to be forced to do anything against your will?”
Of course, they reply, “No way.” I said, “One example of an involuntary relationship would be income taxes. When I go through this at tax time for the past 20 years, I’ve probably paid a million dollars or more in federal income tax alone every year. If I don’t pay it, somebody will eventually get me and throw me in jail. That’s not a voluntary relationship.”
They ask, “What would be better?” I said, “A consumption tax would be a lot better, and our government should be doing things to continually improve citizen experience and return on taxpayer investment. The experience gets better and the relative cost goes down, just like in the real world. More value and best value wins, all of it.”
We go through all of that. A lot of the teachers would say, “Nobody’s ever explained it this way, and this really makes a lot of sense.” I said, “This is my process and I encourage you to have your own process.” I said, “Typically, my only option is voting for people or things that will move it in the wrong direction, the slowest. But ideally, I want it to go in the right direction.”
Quite a number of kids would say, “Our process is our teachers tell us to vote Democrat no matter what.” I say, “Congratulations. You have a process. Most people don’t actually have one. But I would encourage you to develop a voting process that creates better conditions to work, live, learn, and play for your family and the communities you engage with and groups that you’re part of.”
I’m always clear, and this is completely right, I’m not affiliated with any party. I’m for better conditions to work, live, learn, and play. Both of our main parties today could do a much better job of making those things happen.
Mr. Jekielek: Over the last few years, many small businesses were lost and power was centralized and involuntary behavior was coerced. Let me go back to the question, what do you make of this?
Mr. Benson: The biggest challenge is the incentive structures that we have in our local, state, and federal government. Somehow, we need to take those things away. What’s really the goal? When I watch the news coverage, mainstream media during these election years, it’s all about who’s going to win, instead of who’s going to create better conditions to work, live, learn, and play for all the people that live in this country.
Mr. Jekielek: And how are they going to do it?
Mr. Benson: Yes. But all the media seem to care about is “They need to do this if they want to win, they need to do that if they want to win.” I think, “Oh my gosh, you’re completely missing the whole point here.” I look at it, and I’m super thankful for the founding documents that made this country so amazing. Because when you have the separation of powers, the rule of law, the Constitution, and the rules of engagement that are operating, and as long as they’re solid, it doesn’t allow it to go too far.
What really concerns me the most today is that if those things get blown up, then we’ve completely lost this country. I think about larger companies where they’re just knocking it out of the park, creating all kinds of shareholder value. It’s absolutely amazing. Change the leader and everything just dives, because the leader changed the rules of engagement. My biggest fear for this country is that somehow our rules of engagement and the founding documents and all of that get completely blown up.
Mr. Jekielek: The very large corporations get a lot of advantage versus this wellspring of innovation, which is really the small businesses of America. I don’t know if you agree, I’m just guessing from everything you said up until now.
Mr. Benson: I do agree. To a large degree, these larger corporations are in collusion with the government, and this is crony capitalism. A worse form of capitalism is woke capitalism. I wish we called it value creationism, where the best value wins. It’s an equitable playing field, and that’s not what we have.
We should write legislation that would go in and scour every agency at the federal, state, county, and local level for any unhealthy incentives and wipe them out, and make it illegal to create them again. That’s the most important thing we could do. But it’s kind of hard to get the folks that are playing the game to actually do that.
Mr. Jekielek: Break this down for me—unhealthy incentives. What exactly would they be?
Mr. Benson: Any conflict of interest. If there’s a public union, they shouldn’t be able to give a bunch of money to folks that are creating the conditions for the members of the union. That’s a perfect example. It’s everywhere, look at our health agencies, like the NIH [National Institutes for Health]. But I haven’t thought and looked into this nearly as deeply as you have. They should not be able to invest in organizations like big pharma or anything else that’s going to give them any kind of a kickback directly or through their investments.