Spending time with death

On the topic of death, there are 2 things that I find fascinating. The first is that from what I’ve heard, the vast majority of us humans (myself included) are scared of death and dying.

The second thing is that I’ve learnt an important way to overcome our fear is to face and acknowledge it, in order to overcome it. And yet, the topic of death is a very rarely talked about one, as far as I know.

Having 1 and 2 happen at the same time, doesn’t feel like a combination. To avoid facing something that almost everyone is scared of doesn’t seem to solve a problem very well.

Instead I recently started to think that maybe I should spend more time with death, in order to get more comfortable with it. After all, that seems to be one of the most recommended ways of to get comfortable and less scared about something, which is to be intimate with it.

In researching on this and reflecting on what others had told me, here are some ideas on how I might approach spending more time with death:

Ricardo Semler: Practicing dying

A first interesting approach to spending more time with death comes from Ricardo Semler:

On Mondays and Thursdays, I learn how to die. I call them my terminal days. My wife Fernanda doesn’t like the term, but a lot of people in my family died of melanoma cancer and my parents and grandparents had it. And I kept thinking, one day I could be sitting in front of a doctor who looks at my exams and says, “Ricardo, things don’t look very good. You have six months or a year to live.”

And you start thinking about what you would do with this time. And you say, “I’m going to spend more time with the kids. I’m going to visit these places, I’m going to go up and down mountains and placesand I’m going to do all the things I didn’t do when I had the time.” But of course, we all know these are very bittersweet memories we’re going to have. It’s very difficult to do. You spend a good part of the time crying, probably. So I said, I’m going to do something else.

Every Monday and Thursday, I’m going use my terminal days. And I will do, during those days, whatever it is I was going to do if I had received that piece of news.

I love this from the perspective of not feeling like you’ve missed certain things you wanted to do. I think it still doesn’t quite bring us closer to the actual experience of death, which is the thing I’m personally most scared about.

The Samurai: meditating on death

The Samurai have been known to have practiced spending time with death through lengthy meditations on it, multiple times a day. This seems to have helped them stay calm in almost any circumstance and deal with anything that’s thrown at them. Here is an excerpt from the “Code of the Samurai”:

One who is supposed to be a warrior considers it his foremost concern to keep death in mind at all times, every day and every night, from the morning of New Year’s Day through the night of New Year’s Eve.

This is also something I’ve read about multiple times in various books on meditation, reflecting on our own fleeting and ever changing nature. Imagining how we will get older and eventually die and integrate with other parts of the world as our bodies burned or in a grave. Going through a thought pattern like this is surprisingly calming I’ve found and it helps me be less concerned about small things that made me angry or occupy my hide. It makes everything a bit less serious and that alone makes it a great practice.

Talking About Death Over Dinner

Another thing I recently discovered is an amazing project called “Death over Dinner“. I read it described like this:

“Let’s try to have a really thoughtful structured conversation about the ultimate opponent, he says. “To confront death on its own’s terms and see if we can score a few points it against it.”

Another quote from “The book of the Samurai” states:

Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily.

And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead.

Another quote from Miyamoto Musashi:

Generally speaking, the Way of the warrior is resolute acceptance of death.

While thinking about this topic I’ve mentioned this to a few friends and while I’ve talked with them about the idea of spending more time with death, I haven’t actually spent time exploring my own thoughts about death with them itself. I think that would be a wonderful opportunity to sit with something I’m uncomfortable with and open up my thoughts completely, letting them wander on the topic and observe what might emerge.

This feels like a very actionable thing to do and I’m looking forward to experimenting with this.

Experiencing 1,400 people die

Every Tuesday, I’m attending a weekly Zen session here in San Francisco called “Young Urban Zen” (“YUZ”). A few weeks ago, one of the topics was about spending time with things that are challenging for us. And the speaker told a fascinating story about a woman that knew her husband was in the late stages of cancer and going to pass away soon. This woman, as part of working in a hospice had also seen over 1,400 people die. He explained that, even though it was a painful experience for her to see her husband die, he was amazed by the way that she was present with him and the experience of death. He described the grace and comfort with the process of dying as something that the woman was so skilled at, that it astounded him.

This somehow was another amazing reminder for me as to what happens when we spend time with a certain process very intimately, even with something as seemingly scary as dying: we get comfortable and skilled with it. Volunteering at a hospice seems like a wonderful opportunity to provide both support to those in need and experience one of the scariest things we know – to die. I’d love to explore this.

These are just a few short reflections and still don’t have many answers on how to approach this, but I thought I’d open up this conversation for myself and others who might be reading it. That in itself, feels like it’s making the prospect of dying a little easier already.

What if I don’t need to be remembered for anything?

While we’re on the topic of letting go, there was another angle that I was recently inspired to think through, after listening to this amazing Ted talk by Ricardo Semler, where he said:

I taught MBAs at MIT for a time and I ended up, one day, at the Mount Auburn Cemetery. It is a beautiful cemetery in Cambridge. And I was walking around. It was my birthday and I was thinking. And the first time around, I saw these tombstones and these wonderful people who’d done great things and I thought, what do I want to be remembered for? And I did another stroll around, and the second time, another question came to me, which did me better, which was, why do I want to be remembered at all? And that, I think, took me different places.

I thought this was fascinating and it felt like another brick had hit me on the head, like it did just a few weeks ago. One of the deeply ingrained beliefs that I had was that we shouldn’t go after money and fame. But going after leaving a mark, that was an honorable and desirable thing to do.

There seem to be all these quotes from famous people, that I thought have probably given this a lot of thought that one should in fact try to be remembered for something:

The key to immortality is first living a life worth remembering. – Bruce Lee

All good men and women must take responsibility to create legacies that will take the next generation to a level we could only imagine. – Jim Rohn

If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do something worth writing. – Benjamin Franklin

Outlive your life! – Max Lucado

These were all incredibly smart people, and yet, trying to ponder really hard “why” one should create a legacy or something worth remembering, it leaves me baffled with how few good answers would come to mind.

In fact, listening to Ricardo Semler, I took it as inspiration to ponder it some more and I really couldn’t come up with any argument why trying to leave a mark would be something to go after either. Firstly and maybe most importantly, I thought that wanting to leave a mark or creating a legacy takes us away from living in the here and the now. It makes us want to stretch ourselves into the future at all times, without learning the skill to truly experiencing the presence.

Another quote I read at a similar time that also made me think that not focusing on leaving a mark could be a good thing comes from Will Smith:

“After Earth comes out, I get the box-office numbers on Monday and I was devastated for about twenty-four minutes, and then my phone rang and I found out my father had cancer. That put it in perspective—viciously. And I went right downstairs and got on the treadmill. And I was on the treadmill for about ninety minutes. And that Monday started the new phase of my life, a new concept: Only love is going to fill that hole. You can’t win enough, you can’t have enough money, you can’t succeed enough. There is not enough. The only thing that will ever satiate that existential thirst is love. And I just remember that day I made the shift from wanting to be a winner to wanting to have the most powerful, deep, and beautiful relationships I could possibly have.”

This is another very “now” focused way of thinking that shows how Will discovered a shift that brings him away from focusing on goals, no matter how desirable they may be.

The most interesting that I noticed about pondering not to need to leave a mark or pursue a big vision for myself is that it adds a level of lightheartedness to my life. Like removing a big burden of needing to achieve something big and instead being free to live the best life I can right now.

I’m intrigued to spend more time with this thought of possibly not needing to leave a mark on the world, I have this hunch like Ricardo Semler said that it’ll take me to different, interesting places.

What makes me chuckle at times after writing an article like this is that I relate to it very strongly conceptually. And when I look at my actions and how I live my life, it’s very much geared towards wanting to leave a mark behind, which is the opposite of what I’m saying. It’ll be interesting to see how I might bring thought and action in better alignment on this.

Become free of your ambition

A few days ago, I was in bed, getting ready to fall asleep. Often when I’m lying in bed, I listen to a talk by Thich Nhat Hanh on SoundCloud. I find his voice and insights very soothing and it helps me calm my thoughts down and go to sleep gently. That night again, I was listening to one of his talks called “The 4 Qualities of Happiness“. It started off with a great intro and ideas around how to live a happy life by grounding yourself and how to do it.

It talked about what true freedom means, getting rid of anger and other afflictions, then he said something I wasn’t prepared to hear at all:

“Freedom here is freedom from craving, from anger, from hate, from despair…[pause]…from ambition. All these afflictions make you not free. The happiness of a person very much relies on her freedom. If you have so much worries, anxieties in your heart, you are not free.”

Within a second I was wide awake. The face I made, must have been literally this one, from a movie called “Oblivion”, when Tom Cruise first discovers he’s just one of many clones of himself:

I rewinded and listened to this part of the talk about 2-3 more times, I couldn’t believe it at first. Being completely honest with myself, my whole life was and is built on ambition. I sometimes think of myself as living and loving what people call “the hustle”. I get up, I put a lot of hours in and I’m very happy with I’ve been getting back. I often get compliments for that too, which makes me feel very good and feeds my ego further to keep things up in that way, with that level of ambition. If anything, ambition seems to be one of the most esteemed things to thrive for in the western world that I know of. Or at least in the world that I’ve grown up in.

Even when I was in High School, people would attribute “ambitious” as my key trait. I often wasn’t as smart as the other kids, or as talented, but I knew how to “grind it out”. And it made me very happy, I felt proud of that. What’s funny is that I’m reflecting on the German word people would use for ambitious, which is “ehrgeizig”. It literally translates into “being stingy of honor”. It’s funny because thinking about that German version of “ambitious”, makes it much easier to see why it might not be a good thing.

So when I listened to Thich’s words, it really hit me like a brick. And yet, I couldn’t argue with it. In fact, the instant I listened to it, I knew it was the truth and I should spend a lot of time with these words to fully understand and then live by them. I realized that, of course, having ambition gets in the way of, well, almost everything. When you’re driven by ambition, it’s at its core no less helpful than being driven by fear or jealousy or anger or any other emotion we can easily identify as something we don’t want to be following. Most importantly, it gets in the way of doing the great work of our lives, of living out what we’re already naturally gravitating towards. It also blinds my awareness especially of accepting things how they truly are – instead of making them fit my ambitions. It’s like trying to straighten something out forcefully that isn’t meant to be straight, which instead wants to follow it’s natural course.

I don’t think I’ve fully processed what it means to get rid of my ambition. I do think it’s a good thing to spend time, I just don’t quite have an action plan of what to do instead. This will be a good thing to ponder more. In another lecture I’ve recently heard by a buddhist monk, he said “be intimate with the things that make you uncomfortable“. So I plan on doing that, being intimate with the fact that ambition gets in the way of things and yet most of my life is built on top of it. Writing that here already makes it less uncomfortable.

The small ripples we create

The other day I was the gym with Joel and since we had just arrived in Sydney we were looking at various different fitness centers to see which one would suit us the best. One gym, close to our hotel had a 7 day free membership. Pretty much from the get-go, it was clear to me, that I wouldn’t be sticking with this gym, although I thought that I could still enjoy the 7 day free membership and then just take off. I imagine this can’t have been a great experience for the manager I was working with there, who’s questions about whether I wanted to sign up throughout my week there, I always politely declined and when she asked me on the last day, I didn’t even have the guts to say I wasn’t going to sign up, and instead I said I’d come back tomorrow, which of course I didn’t. On top of all of this, I’m sure she knew all this time.

Looking at this incident from various angles, one could say that that’s no big deal. No one got hurt, I didn’t even break the law, and not even the gym’s rule of the 7 day free trial. And yet, I can only imagine how the  manager there must have felt. She might have gone home and chatted with her friends, telling them about the foreigner that just exploited the system. And possibly, the next time someone asked for the 7 day free trial, she’ll be a bit suspicious from the beginning, even though that person’s intention is much more pure than mine. That friend she told about the incidents now also has a bit of a bitter taste in her mouth about the world getting worse and everyone exploiting things.

Granted this is just an assumption, this small act on my behalf, has possibly created a small ripple of negativity, impacting that manager’s life and likely many others that I will never know of. It’s like bringing a small amount of negativity into the world, the may feed on itself and keeps spreading, much further than one could ever imagine.

Similarly, I recently read a quote from Headspace co-founder Rich Pierson, where he said:

“Say you slam a door in someone’s face. Maybe you’re not even conscious of it. And that ruins their morning, and they go on into their office and shout at somebody. That’s a tiny moment, but it ripples out. People say, ‘How are you going to improve the health and happiness of the world?’ Well, if you’ve got millions of people being more mindful of tiny moments like that in their day, yeah: The world will look slightly different.”

Karma as a real, graspable element in our lives

To me, all of this, is what I understand under the word “karma”. Karma to me, isn’t some esoteric or mystic phenomenon, where you connect 2 random events with each other. Like telling a lie to someone and then getting ill. It’s much more real and factual. It’s the many small ripples we create. The more doors we slam, the more ripples of negativity we bring into the world and the more of that will affect us negatively.

Conversely, the more positive ripples we create, the more random acts of kindness, where we help strangers, take great are of our friends and loved ones, the more positivity we’re bringing into the world, which will equally affect us and make our lives better.

The more I’ve learnt about the concept of interdependence, meaning that everything is connected with each other, the more I realize that everything we do matters. Every small step we take changes the people around us and ourselves. I believe that if there’d be a way to track all of this, each of these tiny actions we do every day, we could see how someone who is very positive, successful and happy achieved this because of all the good and positive acts he committed in his life and vice versa.

At the end of the last gym session after our 7 day free trial, Joel and I walked back to the gym and he said to me “I don’t normally like to leave things like that.”, I immediately understood what he meant and agreed and felt I could have handled this all a lot better and with much more thought and care of everyone involved. A quote that we often share in situations like this, when we might fail to leave things in the positive or better state that we found them in, comes from Jim Rohn:

“Showing a profit means touching something and leaving it better than you found it.” — Jim Rohn

I feel that that is an incredible concept, how much good could we all create if we lived by it? So far, I found meditation to be a good start to noticing these tiny moments more and taking better care of things.

The biggest, random acts of generosity that have happened to me and changed my life

On occasion, I like to think of myself as a “doer”. Someone who can make things happen by himself, who neglects the role that help from others has played and over-estimates the things he’s achieved himself. Often, when I catch myself thinking like that, I’m a bit disappointed and I wish I was instead more connected to reality and the people around me.

When I pondered on that topic again the other day, I tried a short thought experiment, where I just went through my life and re-collected the many incredible offers of generosity I was able to receive, which completely transformed my life – all without me doing anything or being in control of them.

Here is a short list of some that stood out the most to me:

Being offered 35% of equity in a company that I joined 4 months after its inception

When I first joined Buffer in January 2011, I was 20 years old, had very few startup-like projects under my belt and ran into Joel through a Skype chat. He had already worked on Buffer for a few months, managed to get a handful of paying customers and was still open to having me on board.

After a few months of us working together, he offered me 30% of the company, which I felt was an incredible offer. What was even crazier and I often think about this today, was that a few months later, when we were already in SF and Buffer started to show some significant potential to be successful, Joel offered me another 5% to my existing 30%.

Out of all the things I can think of, this is one of the biggest acts of generosity I have experienced and one that changed my life completely.

Having someone vouch for us to get $120k in funding

Another experience I greatly enjoy recalling was when we arrived in SF, we barely knew anyone. In fact, we got close to crashing and burning and packing our bags and going home. None of the investors were interested in what we were building, much less so interested in giving us money.

And yet, one person changed it all. We had applied to AngelPad, an incubator that, if accepted, would provide us with $120,000 in seed funding. Our first call with Thomas Korte, the founder of AngelPad, didn’t go so well. We sensed the probing question and skepticism around our idea for Buffer. We had about 1 week left of cash and weren’t sure whether we’d make it after that. Only a few weeks earlier we had first met Hiten Shah, Hiten was and is one of the most well-known startup mentors, founders and investors in SF, that I know of and out of the many “no’s” we’ve heard from investors the first few weeks in Silicon Valley, he offered a “yes” in terms of advice, encouragement and mentorship to us.

In a last attempt to see if we could change Thomas Korte’s mind, we leaned on Hiten to help with vouching for us. This was the email we sent:

Screen Shot 2015-02-08 at 11.09.26 AM
We sent this email on a Tuesday and heard back from Thomas on Saturday to let us know we’ve made it into AngelPad – the day where we also realized we only had 1 week of cash left. Thomas mentioned a conversation with Hiten and it completely blew my mind what had happened.

Hiten, who was successful and well-known, had vouched for 2 kids he had met once for them to get investment and it worked.

I’m not sure what would have happened if Hiten wouldn’t have done that, and I’ll be forever grateful that he did!

Being able to learn English in the UK for multiple months, free of charge

I’m not sure why this story exactly, but it stuck in my mind too. When I was 17, many of my peers in Vienna started to think about going to University. None of my parents had done that, so I was particularly intrigued by the idea. Not only did my friends from school think about university, they thought about studying abroad, in the UK, in Switzerland and many other places with renowned university.

I had never dared to think that far and the more I pondered it, the more I was excited about doing the same. For whatever reason I concluded that I especially needed to have great English to be successful and my English at the time was poor to put it mildly. I realized that if I ever wanted to study at a UK university, I’d have to proof proficiency in English and I was far from being able to do that.

My great-aunt, who lives in the UK, then graciously reached out to ask if I wanted to come and visit her. She lived in Plymouth and offered to host me, pay for an English course and all other expenses and help me get my English in shape. I made that trip for a few weeks and then the year after again.

I often attribute her generosity to my success in speaking better English, which allowed me to study in the UK, which in turn allowed me to meet Joel and join Buffer.

Getting full freedom when picking subjects to study at school

The High School I got to attend in Vienna was very unique compared to most other schools in the country. It offered a course system, similar to a University, where one could pick and choose the subjects that they wanted. On top of that, we only needed to attend 70% of all classes. I was beyond excited about that.

There was one teacher in particular, our French teacher, who offered me more freedom than I had ever experienced before. He said that I didn’t have to come to French class at all if I didn’t wanted to, granted that I would do all the coursework still of course. The strange thing that happened was that because someone gave me the choice of just doing what I thought was right, without any pressure, made me go and work a lot more, now that I was free to explore my interest in learning French on my own. So instead of going to class 3 hours a week, I upped it to 12 hours, where I attended an extra course in French history and philosophy, as well as advanced French.

I often reflect on that time and the teacher and the effect it had on me then and even today. There was really no pressure from anywhere to offer me this level of freedom and yet the school and this teacher in particular thought it was the right thing to do, I’ll be forever grateful for that.

Getting help from someone to drive hundreds of thousands of visitors to buffer

A last story I wanted to share, was how a then complete stranger helped me and Buffer to share our article and attract hundreds of thousands of visitors for us. His name is Dave Larson and he operates a very popular Twitter handle called @TweetSmarter.

I first discovered Dave’s blog when we were trying to find ways to market Buffer, which we struggled with for a while until the idea of content marketing and guestblogging opened itself up as an opportunity. Through Dave’s prolific writing, I asked him many questions in the comments, some I would deem overly aggressive today about helping us and yet, he never showed me anything but generosity and kindness.

Eventually, I asked him if he could help us share articles from the Buffer blog to his hundreds of thousands of followers. Again something that I would probably deem to aggressive a thing to do from my side. And yet, he helped us and shared dozens of our posts, if not hundreds of them. Each of them garnered thousands of clicks of engaged marketers who would find Buffer helpful.

Whenever I feel like I’m not in a great mindset of wanting to help others more, I go and read Dave’s Twitter bio, even today. His only mission that he states on there is to help others be successful on Twitter and Social Media and he’s been doing that for 8 years. He’s never monetized his efforts and simply enjoys helping people.


The immediate next thought I had was about the many acts of generosity that I couldn’t mention in this post. The many people that have helped me along the way, starting with my parents, teachers and friends, all of which I haven’t talked about here. There is way to many of them to fit them all into one post and so if you’re reading this and have shown great generosity towards me and I haven’t mentioned it here, I want to say I’ll be forever grateful for it and try my best to pay it forward.

I’d love to invite you on a similar reflection. If you’d like, take a few minutes out of your day to think about the people that have done things for you without expecting or receiving anything in return. The ones that have just helped you and in doing so, changed the course of your life significantly for the better. If you feel like it, write them down and let these people know about it. I hope this’ll give you a great deal of joy for your day! :)

Homogenous vs Diverse teams: What should you aim for?

Last night I watched a VICE documentary about North Korea from 2008. There was a line from Shane Smith about what North Korea is trying to do that really stuck with me. He said

“This country is trying to create the most homogenous people in the world.”

In communism, that seems to be the goal. And of course, the way I was brought up and think about the world, is that letting everyone live out their own beliefs and desires is a much more fulfilling way to live life.

Then, as I often do when reading or watching something, I related it to myself, and more specifically our approach to building Buffer. We have a set of values, that we largely aspire to live up to. I think they are very helpful to the team and me personally to live a fulfilled life. We try to hire and fire according to these values and I’m quite happy with the discipline we’ve applied to it over the last few years. There’s very little compromise we’ve made on our values.

A quote that I like to share with team members and others when it comes to hiring is Sahil Lavingia’s:

“Less time trying to convince people. More time trying to find people that are already convinced.”

So essentially, we could argue that we’re also trying to build a largely homogeneous team at Buffer, hopefully one that is self-selected and not forced upon anyone that doesn’t enjoy our set of values.

Homogenous vs diverse teams

The core belief I have and want to question a bit with this reflection, is the idea that the more homogeneous you are as a team, the more clearly you can all pull on the same side of the rope. If you constantly have nay-sayers, or people that criticize your approach, it’ll be hard to get anything done, especially when you’re a very small startup. That’s where I think a lot of our approach to a value and culture driven company is rooted in.

The other side of the coin seems to be that stark diversity sparks strong discussions, which to some extent then sparks innovation. Previously people have said to me “Isn’t it good to have some people who disagree strongly with your approach on your team?” or “I always like having people on my team who fiercely argue my points, they help me get to a better perspective.” Consciously or not, I often dismissed them and said “no, I don’t want that”. Now I’m not so sure anymore. I would say that this is not how things work at Buffer. We have great discussions and people are not afraid to speak up about ideas, yet we don’t have this full-on debates and heated arguments, where we really fight it out.

I’m not sure whether we should have that. Or whether we shouldn’t. I just thought it’d be interesting to reflect on how homogenous or diverse a team should be.

I’d love your thoughts on this on Twitter:

No waste

In a forest, there is absolutely no waste. Every single element is reused in a continuous cycle. A tree produces leaves. The leaves fall to the ground and become compost. And the forest uses every last ounce of the compost to put it back into its ecosystem.

We have the exact same idea for buffer’s organizational design as we’re moving towards a self-managing company. Without any processes, save 4 essential ones, there is little to no occurrence of waste.

As an example, we are at our 5th buffer retreat right now in Sydney, Australia and have changed the design of this week of work and play completely to fit the no manager paradigm.

People can suggest sessions, talks, work groups, yoga groups, whatever it may be and people can opt in to any of them – almost like a barcamp. This ensures that no sessions are imposed on anyone and therefore nothing is kept alive artificially. Even a session that might be extremely popular this retreat can easily “die” on the next one, if no one chooses to join in. In my mind, this creates a certain level of lightheartedness and fluidity that organizational structures often lack.

Swim or sink

With the territory of a forest comes the somewhat harsh reality of no tolerated inefficiencies. For an organization, I believe this goes to the point of getting rid of the idea of job security. If at any point your offered expertise isn’t requested anymore there’ll be no more work to do. You might either pick up a new expertise fast or you’re out.

When nothing is kept alive artificially things can organically grow and die based on demand from other team members and ultimately the customer. This is the best possible outcome for a company and the world in general I believe.

Working less

I also believe that through this, self-managed companies and buffer in this example can work less to get more done. My estimation is that a self-managed team only has to work 6 hours a day to get the work done that normal companies do in 8 or 10 hours a day. Since self-managed orgs have no “zombie meeting” or bloated processes they can operate and create the same results in much less time.

On the flip side this requires a lot of responsibility from the individual to plan their day effectively. It’ll be interesting to observe whether this holds true for us in the future.

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.