One way to deal with life’s biggest regrets and mistakes

On the plane going from Austria, where I grew up, back to San Francisco, where I currently live, I was lucky to see a documentary about Ghandi, from 1982, that I completely immersed myself in. There was one scene that made a particular impact on me. A man, his name is Nahari, had killed a kid and couldn’t live with himself anymore. Here is how Ghandi helped him:

Nahari: I’m going to Hell! I killed a child! I smashed his head against a wall.

Gandhi: Why?

Nahari: Because they killed my son! The Muslims killed my son!

[indicates boy’s height]

Gandhi: I know a way out of Hell. Find a child, a child whose mother and father have been killed and raise him as your own.

[indicates same height]

Gandhi: Only be sure that he is a Muslim and that you raise him as one.

I thought to myself “wow, what an incredible way to make peace with oneself. I was immediately reminded of another story from Thich Nhat Hanh’s book “No Death, No Fear” (If you’d like to read this book, I’d love to send it to you for free, please email me leo@bufferapp.com), which offered a very similar perspective:

“There was an American Vietnam veteran I knew. The guerrillas had killed his comrades, and he was determined to take revenge on the people of the village where his comrades had died. He made sandwiches of bread with explosives in the filling and left them at the entrance of the village. Some children came and found the sandwiches and began to eat them. Soon they were writhing and howling in pain. Their parents ran to the scene, but it was too late. The area was remote, without ambulances and medical equipment, and the children could not be brought to the hospital quickly enough. All five of them died.

After he returned to the United States, the soldier could not overcome his guilt. His mother tried to comfort him. She said, “My son, those things happen in war. There is nothing to feel bad about .” But still, he suffered so much. Whenever he found himself in a room with children, he could not bear it. He had to run out.

During one of my tours in the United States, a retreat was organized for war veterans. I taught them how to walk and breathe in order to transform their fear, guilt and suffering. I said to this veteran, “You have killed five children; that is true. But you can save the lives of hundreds of children. Do you know that every day, tens of thousands of children die for want of food and medicine? You can bring food and medicine to some of them.” He practiced as I advised, and that person who, twenty years ago, had killed five children was immediately reborn in the past as someone who saved the lives of twenty children.”

Then, more recently again, I saw another movie, called “American Sniper”. It showcases the story of an American sniper, who, after 10 years of service, returns home. His biggest regret, is that he couldn’t help save more of his fellow soldiers in Iraq, so he was haunted every day by this feeling of regret.

One day, he met with a therapist who told him: “There are many soldiers, right here in the United States, that need your help.”. And from then on, he made it his mission to help war veterans suffering from PTSD and helping them reintegrate into society and through that he was able to reintegrate himself into society.

How I used this technique in the past

  • A relative of mine, who was already late in her 80s recently passed away. I always loved spending time with her, but in recent years, with the work on Buffer, I wasn’t able to make the time to go and see her, although I wanted to. When she passed away, I was quite sad, but i remembered the story from Thich. I remembered, that I had another great-aunt who I also hadn’t seen in a long time and who I equally greatly enjoyed spending time with. As she lived in the UK and her husband had already passed away, I arranged for her to come to Austria and spend time with myself and my family. It was one of the most joyous Christmas’ I’ve had in a long time and this helped me so much. I plan on inviting her again next year.
  • I was very glad that my parents taught me to take care of my teeth and I was always very happy with them. When I started to focus fully on Buffer, I neglected my teeth and I didn’t go to the dentist for I think about 2 or 3 years. At first, I was a bit angry with myself, but then, I thought that I could do my best to take care of my teeth going forward. So I arranged several appointments and managed to give my teeth the attention they deserved and they are in a much better state now. I’ve also made flossing a habit as well as regular cleanings. It has been much easier to adopt these new habits with my intention to simply take care of my teeth going forward.

We often find ourselves in a situation where we have made a mistake or have a huge regret about something we did or didn’t do in the past and sometimes we see no way out. If we learn from Ghandi and Thich Nhat Hanh’s example, we can use those past experiences as inspiration for where we want to do good in the future and we can transform ourselves to live a happier live again.

We’re turning Buffer into a forest

I remember a conversation with Joel, when we first heard about a company operating without managers. We were absolutely baffled. There was no way, we thought, that Buffer could ever work in that way. How can any work get done without managers? We concluded that this is one of the things we will just never understand. I remember us saying that possibly, in the same way that people are baffled when they hear Buffer is a distributed team, we are baffled that some companies work without managers. And that’s where we left things at and moved on.

Fast forward some years later, Buffer is in the middle of becoming fully self-managed. And whenever we throw the word “self-management” or “no managers” around, we get seemingly similar baffled looks to how we ourselves first reacted to the idea of being fully self-organized without bosses.

The best explanation I’ve found to date, is one that describes a simple analogy that everyone already knows well: A forest. From the book, reinventing organizations, this quote describes it very fittingly:

In a forest, there is no master tree that plans and dictates change when rain fails to fall or when the spring comes early. The whole ecosystem reacts creatively, in the moment.

Whenever I describe Buffer’s change to someone in that way, it seems to click for many and they can relate to many of the new ideas we’re implementing.

What I like particularly about the forest analogy, is that one can seemingly dive into any detail of the forest as an organism and relate it to how things are working at Buffer now. One element of that is that things from the outside look messy, if you walk into a forest, there’s leaves everywhere, and dead wood lying on the ground. There seem to be no paths to walk and everything looks chaotic. And yet, everything that needs to happen is able to happen, almost effortlessly. The only difference is that there’s no one that controls it.

One thing I believe is that the reason we organize many things in such a rigid way in most current organizations, is because people need to have control beyond themselves. If you need to control 10, 20, well as the CEO sometimes thousands of people, you need a structure that allows you to do that. If no one is in charge, then everyone can go and develop their own ways and what follows is an incredibly diverse set of workflows and initiatives.

Another question I like to ask myself, to find out whether we’re unconsciously falling back into the old methods of working at Buffer is “How would this work in a forest?”. It helps me to catch ideas that are putting constraints and processes onto others early and avoid working on them, and instead explore solely my own workflow and how I might want to change it.

And lastly, the aspiration to become the living and breathing ecosystem that a forest is, is purely a very happy imagination in my head, that makes me feel like we’re on the right track.

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The lost opportunities when picking sides

Two new friends were kind enough to grab lunch with me the other day and amongst many fascinating things, we talked about a recent article on Growth I’d written. What we reflected on was that in today’s startup world, many companies are oriented on the growth aspect, which means revenue growth, user growth, you name it. Focusing less on growth, interestingly still doesn’t mean to me to stop focusing on it completely. Growth, has it’s important place and Dick Costolo once put this incredibly well:

“We think of revenue like oxygen. Essential to life but not the first thing you think about in the morning.”

By his definition, everyone would agree, that oxygen is pretty important to our lives. What I realized when uncovering this, is that in most aspects of my life, I’ve been in a situation where I had to pick sides. Where it was either the one thing or the other. Here is are a few examples that I remembered to have been asked to choose between:

For profit or not-for profit

Democrats or Republicans

Revenue and growth oriented or Social Impact oriented

masculine or feminine

Muslim or Christian or Buddhist or another religion

Real Madrid or FC Barcelona

True, false, neither true nor false, both true and false

In Western thinking, thanks largely to Aristotle’s discoveries of logic, we have adopted a right or wrong approach to looking at things. If one thing is right, the opposing thing to that, has to be wrong. In many cases, I’ve found this approach helpful, and also, in many I’ve found it to be quite limiting.

In Zen tradition, I’ve discovered a view of looking at the world, that has completed reversed that. It finds that things can be true. Or they can be false, or they can be neither true nor false. Or they can be both, true and false. I reflected on this for a while and at first I felt like I was making a knot in my brain, it simply didn’t comply at all with how I was seeing the world at the time. How can something be both right and wrong at the same time?

Over time, as I let go of a fully dogmatic view of things, slowly this started to make sense to me.

Embracing both, seemingly opposing sides

One concept that helped me understand this much better was the concept of “wholeness”, which I was introduced to by Frederic Laloux in Reinventing Organizations. It describes what it sees as the most advanced level of human consciousness as one that embraces every element of something, without excluding other elements.

Since then, I realized that one can focus equally on revenue growth, in the same way that one focuses on social impact. One can learn as much from the viewpoint of Democrats as one can from the viewpoint of Republicans. I learnt that observing how non-profits run their organizations (like transparent spending for example) can offer terrific learnings of how one might want to run a for-profit organization.

By reading the Bible, the Koran, the teachings of Buddha, the Gita and many other religious scriptures, I found that I can agree with and find incredible value from each of them and combine them in a holistic view of seeing the world. When seeing a soccer game, I can enjoy the game of both teams, no matter who is scoring more goals.

Oftentimes, when we only choose one side, the incredible amount of learning and wisdom that happened on the seemingly opposing side is lost to us. We block ourselves from any learnings we might be able to take away from it. Avoiding that, and learning from each element is what I understand to be true open-mindedness. It has also opened me to so many new experiences that I would have otherwise, likely never encountered.

Do what you came here to do

Recently, I attended a lecture of a buddhist nun at the SF Zen Center and there was one line that stood out to me more than anything else when she recalled a discussion. She said that oftentimes, people complain about various situations in their lives or the Zen Center itself and how many things could be improved and aren’t working well right now. She said that she agreed with most everything that people brought up. And yet, she added, she always tells people that they should do what they came here to do.

I reflected on this and realized what great advice that was. When we set out to do something, we are often faced with lots of obstacles. We might not like how certain things are or we get agitated when things don’t go according to plan. We believe things should work better or that the environment should be more friendly, exciting, whatever it may be. And yet, we all set out to do something and these things can get in the way. They sidetrack us and make us lose focus on what it actually is we wanted to accomplish in the first place.

Whenever I uncover similar thoughts about myself now, when I am in a certain situation, where I find fault with something or experience a situation to be different than I had anticipated, I aim to remind myself with the simple thought “Do what you came here to do”. It’s very refreshing and quickly helps me frame things much more positively and sparks my creativity.

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Leaving the well-trodden path

The other Saturday I took a short trip to Montara State Beach, about 30 minutes south of San Francisco. It’s one of my favorite beaches, very quiet and you can only access it through a mini-hike on foot, there’re no cars down there. I like to go there to lie down on the sand and nap for some time and read on my Kindle.

On my way to the beach I usually take the well-trodden foot path that many visitors of the beach have paved over the years. Only this time, on my way back to the car, I remembered a story that Leo Babauta kindly shared with me, which will be on the cover of his new book:

The Parable of the Forest

The laborer walked through a small forest from his home to the fields where he worked, the same way each day out of routine. The forest was constantly changing, but he didn’t notice.

One day, a tree fell to block his path, and he became upset and kicked the tree. Limping in pain, looking around the forest, he realized he’d allowed his fixed routine to make him angry. And it had stopped him from seeing the changing forest.

His fixed path had killed the forest. He let go of this map, and explored the forest, really seeing it. Free of fixed ideas, he found new possibilities for what the forest could be.

Suddenly, the fields where he worked became fields of possibilities, and he found joy in work. And in his wife, his kids, his neighbors, and himself.

So upon remembering it, I tried to do the same thing. I realized that the hundreds of steps being taken on the very same path over and over again were probably not very caring for the ground. Although the vegetation was just small bushes and not really a big effort to find my way through, it did take me some getting used to.

What was most interesting to observe was how I felt – I felt like I was doing something wrong, something illegal. How could I think of taking a different route directly through the bushes and ignoring the well-trodden, the right path that so many others have taken? And then I remembered the ground again and how that must feel, getting a break from not being trampled on thousands of times from my own and other people’s heavy feet, but instead walking on areas that have never been walked on and would much more easily recover and possibly not take any damage at all.

After I was walking through the bushes for a while, I realized how freeing and exciting it was, compared to walking on the path. I had to watch my every step and try to be careful not to break off too many branches from that small tree or that bush. It was much easier to be fully present and explore directly where I was. I saw a small bunny jumping out in front of me, when I had never realized before that there were any animals in there. I have to admit, I also looked anxiously around a few times whether there’d be any snakes. At the end, although it being a pathetically short, 300m walk through small bushes, I felt like I had been on a mini adventure and I felt truly accomplished and in tune with everything around me.

Then I remembered having had this same feeling for our recent change at Buffer, where we started to work completely without managers, where we made everything we could think of transparent to the public, from salaries to fundraising, to pricing. And I recalled the few moments of the same anxiety of looking around and not seeing anyone else doing what we were doing. The same thought “How dare we leave the well-trodden path?” briefly flashing in front of my eyes, and vanishing faster with every new change that we made, that was different from most, all other companies.

Getting comfortable with leaving the well-trodden path seems to take some time, and applying it to all areas of my life is especially humbling as it feels like a new discovery every time it gets applied to something else. And luckily, whenever I get a moment to be quiet and listen deeply, I notice that nothing feels more “right” and in tune with things around me than doing exactly that – exploring, questioning and finding our own paths, no matter the circumstance.

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Crying

It hit me a few months ago that over the last 10 years or so, I couldn’t remember having cried once. For some reason, and I’m trying to trace back why, I trained myself to not ever cry. I explored whether that was my environment and concluded it wasn’t since I have seen all of my close family members cry without feeling shame about it. Then I thought whether there just weren’t any opportunities, because my life was too good and that’s largely true, but there were definitely moments where it’d have been more than appropriate to cry, like breakups, the passing of family members and friends.

I tried a few experiments to observe myself in and explore this further. I realized that one of the main reasons I wasn’t crying was because I had labelled this as “weakness” in my mind somewhere. Just imagining myself crying made me feel embarrassed like few other things would. Even in front of myself, with no one around, I felt that same embarrassment in case I was to cry.

When I intentionally tried to watch some sad movies, I couldn’t cry, it was like I was forcing myself not to. I didn’t actively try and do anything, it was like a trained mechanism to hold tears back with force. The more I pondered the fact that I hadn’t been crying the more I felt like I was missing a valuable release valve for my emotions. So for the last few weeks I tried to see if I could relearn crying.

Practicing crying

I watched several sad movies, starting with “The Pursuit of Happiness” and struggled quite a bit to cry, but I felt like something was loosening up. It felt like trying to move a huge stone door open, that just didn’t want to move at all. Slowly, over a number of weeks, I felt it was loosening up and opening.

What eventually helped me cry for the first time a week ago or so, was a really touching video that you might have seen make the rounds on Social Media, which is Taylor Swift sending gifts to her fans – awesome! Several friends recommended it with the caption “this made me cry”, which I found very encouraging. I teared up for a few seconds, but it was a truly amazing feeling.

What was particularly interesting was that throughout the whole day and the next one my eyes still felt a bit sore, like having done something they haven’t done in a while. I then watched another movie titled Le Havre and I managed to properly cry at the end scene, which is again exceptionally freeing.

All of this has been extremely humbling and I feel like it’s opened doors to insights I’d kept closed before. I’m excited to experiment with my emotions further and share my findings!

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The best kind of change: transcending instead of attacking

There’s something special about Ghandi’s quote “Be the change you want to see in the world.” and it makes me happy every time I read it on Social Media or elsewhere. What it implies for me, is that if you change yourself, and only yourself, you have the best chance of changing things around you too.

This is a very non-violent and conflict-free approach. And I believe this also extends to organizations as much as individuals and is something we try to apply at Buffer. One of Buffer’s core values, taken from Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends is to “Never condem, never complain, never criticize”. I’ve found that this is only possibly if the only thing you ever try to change is yourself.

Transcending instead of attacking

An awesome quote from Paul Graham reads:

“Startups don’t win by attacking. They win by transcending.”

What happens when startups succeed with something is that certain things are simply no longer relevant. Here are a few random examples that came to mind:

Salaries

I read this quote on Twitter the other day regarding salaries:

“Negotiate. Accepting the first offer they make puts you in a weak position from the beginning of any new opportunity and causes your boss to doubt your ability to negotiate on behalf of your team in higher-risk situations going forward.”

In a world, where salaries are kept secret, this seems to be really great advice. In a world, where salaries are completely transparent, the need to negotiate is transcended. One of the most relieving things about making salaries transparent at Buffer was that we haven’t had a single salary negotiation happen.

I like this especially in the light of discussion around women and equal pay. A lot of initiatives aim to attack, aim to teach women to be more forthcoming and negotiate harder. As someone watching from the sidelines, this discussion seems to have arisen, because men tend to often be more aggressive and negotiate harder and partially because of that, end up with higher salaries. And making salaries transparent could completely eradicate this problem.

Zenefits, Dropbox, almost every successful startup

The list of startups that have changed something by transcending is almost 100% of all successful startups.

  • Zenefits is in the middle of radically changing insurance software by making it free, without attacking any incumbent player directly.
  • Dropbox transcends the need for physical devices to hold files
  • Spotify did the same for downloading music

You can probably insert hundreds of others in this list.

Print media

Another prime example is print media. With hundreds of papers going out of business over the last decade, this is one of the most telling tales of how printed papers are changed by being transcended.

When something becomes less relevant, someone’s work becomes less relevant

Naturally, it’s much harder for us, if we’re the one being transcended. Because that means that the work we’re doing is no longer relevant or drastically less so. This happened to print newspapers. This is happening to taxi companies around the world right now. It doesn’t feel great when our work is no longer relevant and we need to rethink how we can provide value to the world. A natural reaction is to first fight against the looming irrelevance, which seems to only rarely work, or only for the short-term.

Once we accept that we have to change ourselves and go through the exact same process that the person having transcended us had to go through, then we’re often surprisingly liberated. We get a chance to start fresh and to rediscover what contribution we can offer to the world. Every time this has happened to me, however hard to bear it was at first, if I pushed through it, I’d feel like a new person at the end of it.

Here’s to being the change we want to see in the world!

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Sports, video games and their teaching of success

When I was 5 years old, I decided that what I wanted to do with my life is become a pro soccer player. For the next 10 years, until I turned 15, I’d try and do everything to work my way towards that. At age 10 I’d train 5 times a week and use the weekends to play more with my friends. At age 14 I’d train 8 times a week and there was basically nothing else in my life that mattered as much as playing soccer.

As unbiased as I can be, although my ambition was high, I’d say my skills were mediocre, which made me ultimately stop trying to become a pro, after struggling with an injury for a while. Much later I learnt that skill is only one part of doing what you love to do well, and there may have been ways to succeed with my dream at the time in my own unique way. I still believe that quitting trying to play soccer professionally was the right thing to do.

Out of all the time playing soccer, there was one lesson that I learnt from it, that had such a profound impact on my life, that I wanted to share.

The idea of training

In high school, and later on in the short time I lasted in College, I saw an interesting way that people studied for their exams. It seemed a lot more efficient than my method. Students would study almost nothing throughout a long period of time, and then, a given number of weeks or days before an exam, would memorize and cram as much knowledge into their brains as possible.

This was surprisingly effective, a lot of my friends using this technique would get incredibly high marks. The education system itself – one that tests knowledge at set intervals – also seemed to lend itself very well for this.

Somehow, I could never do this. From my experience of playing soccer, I had learnt, over exactly 1 decade, that there was only one way to do well at the “exam”, in this case, the “game”. And that way was to train. Training meant to do much of the same movements, techniques and exercises over and over again, until they would become effortless and intuitive. Then in a game situation, you could use all that built up energy and skill to your advantage. Oftentimes, the person that trained most intelligently and consistently for an extended period of time would perform the best.

Finding joy in doing the same thing over and over again

The one example that most people can relate to I’ve found is video games. In almost every video game, you are largely doing the same thing over and over again until you get better. Whether that’s a driving game, a shooting game or anything similar. In small increments you improve your movements until you are comfortably able to master each level. Whenever we do this, we are essentially training, and most of us that have ever played a video game know that it’s very enjoyable.

In fact, some of the best entrepreneurs and programmers often have a deep background in online gaming, before they embark on their first startup journey. I think it’s no surprise that often after we’ve learned that doing the same thing over and over again can we become truly successful. Ira Glass put this really well:

“The most important, possible thing you could do is to do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap.”

Falling in love with the way instead of the destination

As a lot of people set goals for the new year to come and I think there are a lot of good things that come with that. For myself, I’m more excited than ever to explore a way of life that ignores goals as much as possible.

At the core, I think that goals for me obscure the focus on the way. The block my view on the individual steps that we need to take to get somewhere. I’m instead trying to setup simple habits that help me to keep making steps. It seems very likely to me that that is going to get me somewhere and to a place that I greatly enjoy being at.

Interestingly, finding something that we truly enjoy doing over and over again isn’t hard. Almost every person I meet already has at least one activity where this holds true. What seems to be much harder is to decide to make that activity our life’s work, and to allow ourselves to focus on it that much, even though it doesn’t feel like “work”. That’s probably where we can make our best contribution to the world.

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What happens to us when we meditate?

Out of all the definitions I’ve read about meditation and its benefits, there is one story from Thich Nhat Hanh that I keep remembering and quoting whenever I’m in discussion with people about the topic.

Today three children, two girls and a little boy, came from the village to play with Thanh Thuy (pronounced ‘Tahn Tui’). The four of them ran off to play on the hillside behind our house and were gone for about an hour when they returned to ask for something to drink. I took the last bottle of homemade apple juice and gave them each a full glass, serving Thuy last. Since her juice was from the bottom of the bottle, it had some pulp in it. When she noticed the particles, she pouted and refused to drink it. So the four children went back to their games on the hillside, and Thuy had not drunk anything.

Half an hour later, while I was meditating in my room, I heard her calling. Thuy wanted to get herself a glass of cold water, but even on tiptoes she couldn’t reach the faucet. I reminded her of the glass of juice on the table and asked her to drink that first. Turning to look at it, she saw that the pulp had settled and the juice looked clear and delicious. She went to the table and took the glass with both hands. After drinking half of it, she put it down and asked, “Is this a different glass, Uncle Monk?” (a common term for Vietnamese children to use when addressing an older monk.)

“No,” I answered. “It’s the same one as before. It sat quietly for a bit, and now it’s clear and delicious.” Thuy looked at the glass again. “It really is good. Was it meditating like you, Uncle Monk?” I laughed and patted her head. “Let us say that I imitate the apple juice when I sit; that is closer to the truth.” (pp.3-4 The Sun My Heart by Thich Nhat Hanh, Berkley, California, Parallax Press, 1988.)

There is a Youtube video from Thich, that I unfortunately couldn’t find anymore, where he describes the same story as above, slightly differently. In the video, Thich said something along the lines of “Thuy had come up with a better explanation of what meditation was than I ever had.” 2 Things that were so fascinating about this story, was the wisdom a young child had to offer to one of the world’s most renowned Zen masters – and his willingness to learn that wisdom.

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Ego

The other day,  I was at the gym with my co-founder Joel and we started a short discussion about other products as part of Buffer’s product offering we might enjoy building one day. We went through various problems we’d enjoy solving, like online payments, social media monitoring and so forth. At one point, we got into some light brainstorming of one of the areas and the name of a related, prominent startup in the space came up. I said “I know the founder”. That line had nothing to do with the discussion and it didn’t add any value. It was rather pure display of ego, coming to light as what we commonly know as “namedropping”.

I paused for a second and added “I think that was just my ego, that didn’t really add anything.”

Since I can remember, the idea of ego was always only the display of the most blatant egoistic behaviour from us. Like, for example, strong arrogance and bragging, extreme defensiveness of our opinion in an argument. Since I started reading more texts about buddhism, mindfulness and most recently Eckhart Tolle’s “New Earth“, I learnt about some fascinating new perspectives regarding “ego”.

I learnt that ego in most people, myself included, is the dominant driver of all thoughts, actions and ways of going about life.

The monk with the sweaty palms

There’s a great story in Eckhart Tolle’s “New Earth” that explains how subtle and yet still prevalent ego often is, even in people that have worked decades to remove their ego:

“Kasan, a Zen teacher and monk, was to officiate at a funeral of a famous nobleman. As he stood there waiting for the governor of the province and other lords and ladies to arrive, he noticed that the palms of his hands were sweaty.

The next day he called his disciples together and confessed he was not yet ready to be a true teacher. He explained to them that he still lacked the sameness of bearing before all human beings, whether beggar or king.

He was still unable to look through social roles and conceptual identities and see the sameness of being in every human. He then left and become the pupil of another master. The returned to his former disciples eight years later, enlightened.”

What’s so mind blowing about this story for me is that I’d have never associated Kasan’s behaviour with ego. Instead I would have attributed it to humility or some other, very positive trait. That’s particularly interesting as it showed me that ego is much more versatile in that sense, that I’d originally thought.

Egoless work

What I quickly discovered is that when we do things we enjoy, we can easily be free from Ego. When we do the stuff, when we are focused on doing great work, ego is largely not present. This is really great, since it means that nearly all of us, have moments, even daily, where we operate without ego.

If you think about the last time you’ve written a blogpost, code, an email, designed something or anything else that most of us online workers do, there’s a chance that right at that moment, when you were fully involved in the task and you were just “doing”, you were completely free from ego. It’s what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “Flow“.

On the other hand, very often we sabotage our own work with ego. Eckhart Tolle puts it like this:

I have also met many others who may be technically good at what they do but whose ego constantly sabotages their work. Only part of their attention is on the work they perform; the other part is on themselves. Their ego demands personal recognition and wastes energy in resentment if it doesn’t get enough— and it’s never enough. “Is someone else getting more recognition than me?” Or their main focus of attention is profit or power, and their work is no more than a means to that end. When work is no more than a means to an end, it cannot be of high quality.

That last line hit home like few things why it is so helpful to think about less ego at work: “When work is no more than a means to an end, it cannot be of high quality.”

Working on less ego

At the core of our lives purpose I believe is the pursuit of living without ego. “Living without ego” is probably just a different definition of either

  • happiness
  • true love
  • spiritual fulfillment

Different world views, religions and upbringing would probably word it differently, and yet, essentially I think that every human is the same in that aspect. We all strive for that level of “being”.

Although I feel my own ego is still very strong, there’re a few hints that I’ve picked up on, that made me feel like being on the right track. (That sentence, likely presumptuous, is probably ego right there!)

  • Choosing an ego-free environment: We all know intuitively whether we are at a place with high or low amount of ego. At Buffer, even as part of our values, we partially focus on designing an organization that encourages the recognizing of ego and helps the ego dissolve. Picking such an environment can be one of the most helpful things to do. Seneca put this even better:

“Even Socrates, Cato, and Laelius might have been shaken in their moral strength by a crowd that was unlike them;”

  • Meditation and mindfulness: At it’s core, ego is a distortion of reality. What meditation and mindfulness helps us do, is to see things as they truly are, without judgement or attachment. I’ve found that practicing quiet moments of introspection is one of the best ways to see things clearly and to avoid the urges of giving in to the ego.
  • Compassion and gratitude: Putting yourself in other people’s shoes, seeing things from their perspective and practicing gratitude have been outlined by many famous minds as another method to dissolve ego. Practicing this can be as easy as taking 5 minutes in the evening to list 3 things that you are grateful for today. Surprisingly, I’ve also found that the best gift we can give others is to do and work on things that that we truly love. I had previously confused this with ego, when self-love and doing what we love, is the exact opposite – living without ego. A great quote on this from the Dalai Lama:

“Once you develop confidence in your own ability, you’ll be able to make a real contribution to creating a better world. Self-confidence is very important. Not in the sense of blind pride, but as a realistic awareness of what you can do.”

What I came to enjoy about thinking about ego and the removal of it, is that it can’t be a forceful process. Instead, it’s something that happens very gradual, over a long period of time. It’s something we can practice in almost every moment of our lives and every step towards recognizing and dissolving ego makes living life a bit more enjoyable.

I’d love to chat with you about this on Twitter: