In the summer of 2015, four strangers from across the globe met in Montreal, Canada.
Ammar from Egypt, Thomas from France, Matt from the USA, and Derin from Turkey connected over the idea that they wanted more out of life than just a 9 to 5 job and a mundane weekly routine to follow. So, with only $500, and a spirit of adventure to their names, Yes Theory was born.
Since that summer four years ago, Yes Theory has expanded beyond its roots as a YouTube channel into a global lifestyle brand, with a clothing range, travel app and popular Instagram account, though the team continue to make videos where they “seek discomfort”, with 4.3 million subscribers and over 450m views to their name. Together, they produce daring and adventurous content including skydiving with strangers, walking across an entire country without a map, and allowing their Instagram followers to control their lives for 24 hours, when they ended up on a spontaneous adventure over 600 miles away from their home.
I was interested to know how they got started from these humble and unassuming beginnings and grew their brand so exponentially in the four years they have been creating content. Their videos, since the beginning, have always made strong statements about peoples generosity, even when they don’t speak the same language or live in the same country, and the human condition, which all started with Project 30.
Matt, speaking during filming of their latest project, says that they “wanted to adventure, to grow, and to evolve as people. We wanted to live a fulfilling and thrilling life.
“Discomfort was the answer. We decided that for just 30 days we would do one thing every day that we’d never done before. Something that scared us and really got us out of our comfort zones. We called it Project 30. We did everything from getting our ears pierced to doing stand up comedy to attempting to meet the Mayor of Montreal in one day and introduce him to our secret handshake (we did it). By the end of the 30 days we’d never felt more fulfilled and happy. So we decided to dedicate our lives to showing the world the value of discomfort and leading by example. It’s now been four years and we have evolved and grown just as we’d hoped and we are excited to continue seeking discomfort and growing ourselves and our community.”
In a changing world, planning travel has become exponentially easier with the invention of tools such as TripAdvisor, and the increasing popularity of “authentic” travelling, where the traveller tries to live like a local and connect with people wherever they go. More and more, travellers are seeking spontaneous adventures and trying to connect with people on their travels rather than stay in sterile resorts disconnected from local life. The separation between rich travellers and the local population is particularly stark in island nations such as in the Caribbean. The average GDP per capita in St Vincent and the Grenadines is only $6380, despite the islands being packed with five star resorts. In a time when it’s now impossible to get lost anywhere with the invention of satellite navigation, I ask why spontaneity is so important. Matt replies that “spontaneity gets rid of expectations. When there is no clear set goal and you just go with the flow, there are no expectations and you’re able to be far more present and embrace every step along the way. We embrace spontaneity for that very reason.”
Yes Theory’s mantra is “Seek Discomfort”, which has expanded beyond their wildly successful YouTube channel into a clothing range and their “Book an Adventure” travel tool so that inspired fans can follow in their footsteps and book a trip which takes them to new and undiscovered places. I ask what the philosophy is behind Yes Theory, and how they overcome the viewer/creator divide, as is so prevalent now in YouTuber culture.
“We believe that everything you want in life, from love, to happiness, to success, and to peace of mind, all comes from seeking discomfort.
“We live in a society that advertises comfort to us 24/7, from resorting to our phones to living vicariously through TV characters. We are more and more isolated from what originally got us here as humans: social connection and discomfort. At Yes Theory, we want to go back to our roots – to bring people together and to experience what it’s like to challenge ourselves at the highest levels. That’s where true joy lives: in the growth that follows discomfort.
“Community is everything to us. We never call our audience ‘fans’, we call them family. Yes, it might sound corny but it’s genuinely how we see it. We are no different from the people in our audience. We are consistently bringing our subscribers along with us on videos, whether it’s doing a road trip with them across Europe, or organizing events around the world that they can take part in together. We want to encourage those deep connections within our community, too, because once you feel like you have a group that supports you, you’re able to tackle life’s bigger challenges and that’s when it all becomes very exciting.”
Yes Theory content is particularly appealing to the adrenaline junkie; their crazy stunts and ambitious plans frequently go viral and grow an audience interested in watching a team conquer their fears in wild adventures.
In Spring 2019 they released Frozen Alive, their first feature-length documentary about endurance athlete Wim Hof, who is noted for his ability to withstand extreme and freezing conditions. The filming took place following a visit to Poland and the Czech Republic with the team spending four days with Hof learning the ‘Wim Hof Method’, a psychological and physiological method of endurance training involving frequent cold exposure, breathing techniques and meditation. In the documentary the team ascended a mountain with Hof in temperatures as low as -20C, bare chested and bare legged in an insane feat of endurance.
I ask Matt if he believes himself fearless after these stunts, also including cage-less shark diving and being stranded at sea for 24 hours, and if it’s important to “do things scared”.
He replies that he thinks it’s a common misconception that fear ever goes away in their line of work.
“We’re still afraid all the time. We tend to believe if you’re not afraid, you’re not doing it right. We have a saying that our manager Kate says: ‘Do it scared.’ To us, it means if you’re not nervous, if you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re not pushing yourself. You’re shying away from your fears. So, I’d say we’ve just gotten more comfortable with the feeling of fear and we’ve been able to deal with it better. But it won’t go away. We’ll make sure of that.”
It has become more and more common for millennials and Gen Zers to want portfolio careers, and a 2017 study by the Department of Work and Pensions reveals that 92% of millennials identify flexibility as a top priority when selecting a workplace. I wonder what the team would have been doing if not this, and what YouTube and media mean for a changing workforce.
Matt says he would have been doing “anything entrepreneurial. There’s so much opportunity nowadays to make any idea come true that it would feel nearly impossible for any of us to not pursue something “out there.” We’re an age of accessibility and the people at the top no longer choose who makes it and who doesn’t. It’s all democratic. The audience and customers pick who makes it through, which leaves room for anyone with a great work ethic, a big idea, and a lot of patience to make their dream happen.”
Matt, Ammar, Thomas and Derin all moved to Los Angeles together to start this project into their friend’s one bedroom apartment, in a giant leap into the unknown.
A big move, for some of the team, right across the world, meant new challenges and changes to their way of life. Matt muses that “our biggest lifestyle changes stem from our decision to start taking care of ourselves. Our life’s mission is to seek discomfort, but we didn’t realize until recently that you can’t reap the best benefits of discomfort without rest and reflection. You have to let it sink in. So, we’ve taken big steps to care for our mental health, to connect with our families and friends on a more regular basis, and to spend time away from the cameras and the computers when we need it. Creating that kind of balance has allowed us to maintain the energy necessary to continue growing our channel, business and lives.”
Yes Theory first rose to prominence with their message of inclusivity in the wake of the terror attacks in 2015. The team made a statement video against hate-crime and fear after the attacks in Beirut and Paris, where Ammar, Matt and Thomas held hands and wore T-shirts declaring where they’re originally from: Matt from New York City, Ammar from Egypt and Thomas from Paris. Ammar’s shirt also declared him a Muslim, and the trio took to the Montreal subway in a public statement of unity and harmony, where they got coverage from CBC Montreal. Since then, message of Yes Theory has always been one of global collaboration and encouraging their audience to learn about and appreciate other cultures. However, in 2017, Derin had to leave Yes Theory, as his visa was suspended and he had to move back to Canada to acquire permanent residence. In 2018, Ammar was asked to leave Yes Theory by his father, but made the difficult decision to stay due to his dedication to the project. I ask Matt what their plans are going forward.
“We’ve spent four years seeking discomfort and making videos about it but now we gradually want to bring our audience in and give them the tools to do the same. Whether that’s an app, live events, a board game, you name it. There are so many ways to help people live the way we’ve been able to and we can’t wait to bring that to the people who have supported us throughout this journey.”
At this, the start of a new term and academic career and the promise of a new start, I find myself facing a lot of trepidation and anxiety about what is to come. I ask Matt if there is anything he would have done differently as a young person, and if he has any advice to us just embarking on the rest of our lives.
“Accept and embrace confusion. That’s the secret. You won’t have it figured out. You won’t know what you want to do, who you want to be, what kind of person you really are. Once you’ve accepted that you will be confused, there’s a courage that comes with that. It allows you to experience more, to test more, to go into the discomfort of trying new things, which will all ultimately lead to you figuring out yourself more and more.”