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.

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

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.

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

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:

Living with one bag

About 2-3 years ago, I decided I wanted to start to declutter my life gradually. I went from one backpack and a carry-on bag to just one backpack. I count the following things as my belongings at this point:

  • 6 t-shirts
  • 2 sweaters, 2 hoodies
  • 1 coat
  • 2 pairs of dress-pant sweat-pants
  • 6 pairs of socks and boxershorts
  • 1 backpack
  • An iPhone, a Kindle, 1 Notepad and a MacBook Air (+ keyboard and mouse)
  • Gym shoes and gym shorts
  • Various toiletries like toothbrush, contact lenses, etc.

When I say “things that I count”, it does actually mean that I’m somewhat cheating. I did only live with the above things until I moved into an apartment earlier in 2014. Since then I bought some kitchen utensils as well as a mattress, bed, a couch, some lamps and a desk. I do plan on getting rid of these things in early may again, so I’m putting them on a “temporary” list in the meantime, separately.

Declutter your life, declutter your mind

If you have ever cleared your desk one morning before working, you’ll know the feeling of tranquility and peace this can give you. I found that that is exactly what happens when I got rid of most things I owned, apart from the crucial essentials.

Here is a list of the amazing benefits I observed from getting rid of stuff:

  • No decision making about what to wear in the morning, more decision making about stuff that actually matters
  • I can pack for trips in 5 minutes
  • I go clothes shopping about 1 a year (more on that below) and don’t waste any more time on it
  • There are less things to think about and there is more simplicity in my life
  • I don’t spend a lot of money on stuff
  • I indulge the “Is this all you have?” questions at borders after a long-haul flight

In order to see things clearly in life, and observe reality as it truly happens, owning less stuff is a super valuable step towards that direction. Of course, I’d never claim to be at a place where I can truly do that – see things as they are, without attachment or judgement – but I have an intuition that owning less things sets me on the right track towards that.

Replacement shopping

There are of course moments when you have to go shopping and buy new things. I managed to do this, while keeping to a minimalist lifestyle with one simple rule:

Anytime I buy something new, I need to throw out the equivalent of what I’m already owning. 

So if I buy new shoes, I throw out my old pair of shoes. If I buy a new coat, sweater or t-shirt, the old sweater, coat or t-shirt are thrown out or given away. Between my co-founder Joel and myself this lead us to call it “replacement shopping” or “clothes replacement day”.

Over the last few years, I also went up in quality gradually every time a new clothes replacement day came around. Recently, I invested in a MissionWorkshop backpack ($380), Ordered a pair of custom tailored jeans from Gebrueder Stitch ($535) and bought a coat from Burberry ($2200).

The prices for these things may sound expensive at first, but I plan on owning and using them for several years to come, which makes this well worth the cost broken down over that period of time. I’ve also made an effort to prioritize function over form, although at a very high level of quality, luckily often both are included. Dustin Curtis had some great thoughts on this with his post “The Best“.

Getting started with one bag living

The thought for many to get started with one bag living is a scary one. Luckily Greg McKeown wrote a terrific book titled “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less“, where he outlines a very handy technique:

Set aside some time where you go through your stuff and decide what you want to keep and what you want to throw away. You’ll end up with a few things that you can throw right out. Then you’ll end up with a few things that you’ll want to keep. Then you’ll end up with a few things you’re unsure of.

Put anything that you want to keep, but haven’t used in a while and anything you are unsure of in a box. Now, see, if after 3 or 6 months, you’ve actually taken out any of the things from that box and used them. If you haven’t, you can calmly through them out without having to worry whether you’ll need them in the future.

Jessica Dang also wrote a great getting started guide on one bag living that you can check out.

One bag living has simplified my life in a way that very few other things have and I can highly recommend giving it a try. I’d love to chat with you about this on Twitter:

Personal Transparency

My co-founder Joel and I recently received $1m in cash each, through Buffer’s latest funding round. It triggered a fascinating discussion between us about why and if we should share this with the world and be transparent about it. $1m is pocket change in Silicon Valley terms, but for me, this is more money than I’ve ever seen in my life, much less to think about having it in my bank account. So the first thought was to keep this quiet and between ourselves. We made up a number of reasons why this is right, all which were more or less empty assumption about what other people may or may not think about us.

Then Joel sent me a HipChat message after having discussed this, which I thought was much more eloquent than I could have ever put it in terms of why being transparent about this is important:

“I just wanted to say that I reflected more on being transparent about our $. I feel like we should definitely do it and set an example and surprise people there, it’s almost our duty to! I also think it will help us be more responsible with our money, and we might even get some great advice from people!”

Transparency makes you a better person

Sometimes, there is a fantasy that I have about strapping a camera to my head and live-streaming every second of my life to a public Youtube page. Imagine what might happen if you know that everything you do could possibly be seen by someone else. Sticking to doing the right thing seems so much easier to do.

In fact, those are exactly some of the things that happened when we started to make everything about Buffer as a company transparent. With people knowing your revenues, the salaries you pay and so much more, doing what is right becomes almost effortless. You don’t even have to try to do it.

The difference of making your very personal things public compared to your company’s data, certainly took this one step further. I’m not Buffer, so it’s easier to have a certain distance to it. So sticking to the same transparency is both scarier, but possibly even more rewarding since it’s even closer to myself.

It seems obvious now, but it’s much easier to conclude this now: Personal transparency makes you a better person in the same way that company transparency makes you a better company.

Personal Transparency vs Personal Privacy

What’s interesting to observe with this in the wake of recent NSA revelations is that it goes almost completely against what most people’s response was to these events: More privacy. What if we were to flip things on it’s head and respond instead with more personal transparency.

Of course, our intuitive and understandable reaction as humans when we feel like being attacked, in this case from someone we wanted to value highly – our own government – is to be defensive about it and close ourselves off. And yet, possibly the best way to solve this problem is not to attack back and lock ourselves in with more privacy, but to transcend it with complete openness. It would wipe out the discussion completely and it wouldn’t even be on the agenda anymore.

I found it a fascinating experience to push through my own personal transparency barriers recently and it’s already been so much more freeing to do so. And I’m excited to experiment with it further and see how far I can go.

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

Growth

For the last 2 to 3 years, about every day, I would wake up, open my laptop and type the letter “g” into the Google Chrome bar and hit enter. Chrome would auto-complete it to “growth.bufferapp.com”. It was like a daily ritual to check on Buffer’s growth numbers from a number of different angles. Revenue, new users, daily actives, monthly actives.

Growing, increasing our monthly revenue, our traffic, our user base, that was the number one priority in my mind. It only hit me very recently, about 4 months ago now, to pose a very simple question “Why grow?”.

Learning about Growth in Silicon Valley, aka “Traction”

When my co-founder Joel and I first arrived in San Francisco, in the summer of 2011, we were absolutely clueless about how startups work in Silicon Valley. It was a fascinating time filled with a huge amount of learning. One of the most intriguing concepts that I picked up very early on, was the idea of “traction”.

It meant that you couldn’t say a number to an investor, a partner, or anyone you were talking with about your early stage startup, without mentioning a second number: it’s growth rate. We have 100 users, and it’s growing 50% every month. Our revenue is $1m per year, growing 20% every month. Not mentioning the growth rate almost makes the first number meaningless.

When we entered the incubator AngelPad with Buffer, we internalized the concept of traction even further. We were prepping for talks with investors and the single thing they’d care most about was whether we had a graph, that was steeply growing up and to the right. If we didn’t have that graph, then we should create one. If we had too few users, we should try and find another metric, maybe time on site or something to show our traction. Traction was the one measure that would show investors that what we were building was working and not just an empty idea.

Growth with and without limits

My understanding of growth has moved from an obsession in the last few months, to seeing it more as one part of the many things that we observe and create.

When we look around ourselves, we see that almost all living things grow and enlarge over time. Trees, for some reason, are one of the best examples I can think of. They start as a tiny seedling and can grow into something like these gigantic redwoods.

One thing that’s so fascinating with everything that grows is this: It has a limit. Organically, nothing grows forever. A tree eventually stops growing, our body does. There is one natural exception that occurs, where things keep growing without limits in nature: cancer. From my limited understanding of this works in detail, it’s when cells keep splitting and multiplying, somehow “forgetting” to stop growing.

An amazing quote on the topic, that started to make a lot more sense to me, now that I read it again, comes form Seneca:

Natural desires are limited; but those which spring from false opinion can have no stopping-point. The false has no limits. When you are travelling on a road, there must be an end; but when astray, your wanderings are limitless. Recall your steps, therefore, from idle things, and when you would know whether that which you seek is based upon a natural or upon a misleading desire, consider whether it can stop at any definite point. If you find, after having travelled far, that there is a more distant goal always in view, you may be sure that this condition is contrary to nature. Farewell.

Especially the line “If you find, after having travelled far, that there is a more distant goal always in view, you may be sure that this condition is contrary to nature.” is what I found so incredibly telling. With your startup or any type of company, it seems that no matter how big you’ve grown, you’ll always want to grow bigger. It seems completely unthinkable today, to say that for example Apple or Google would announce “we’ve grown enough, we’ll stop here”.

Inducing growth

What’s fascinating on top of all of this is that in most cases, we try to manufacture growth. Governments want to “kickstart GDP growth again”, startups want to “move the needle on monthly growth”, I personally wanted to do everything possible to have Buffer grow faster each month.

What’s become clear to me now is that whenever I’m trying to create growth, I’m not focusing on the “stuff”. I’m not doing the things that actually matter. Everything becomes a means to an end. A new feature, a new product, another A/B test, more marketing, more hiring. Everything is destined to help the one and only purpose that is “more growth”. Building a feature to induce growth is one of the most subtle forms of self-sabotage in today’s startup world. Only when we talk about products having become “monsters”, (which is surprisingly similar to the idea of “tumor” or “cancer”), is when we realize this.

Slowly turning away from the endless road of ever continuing growth has been a fascinating challenge. I feel like I’m slowly releasing a grip on something, that was never something I wanted to hold onto in the first place.

I still believe that growth is important and that it will always occur naturally. Making it the central focus and for it to not be able to “stop at any definite point”, is where I’ve gone wrong largely in the past.

PS: There are two incredible resources that have helped me shape my changed thinking on growth. One being the book “Reinventing Organizations“, the other being a documentary called “The Economics of Happiness“.

The more I meditate, the more I enjoy my life

The more I meditate, the more I enjoy eating my lunch.

The more I meditate, the more I enjoy my hours of work.

The more I meditate, the more I enjoy brushing my teeth.

The more I meditate, the more I enjoy a conversation with a friend.

The more I meditate, the more I enjoy a walk.

The more I mediate, the more I enjoy a phone call.

The more I mediate, the more I enjoy drinking a cup of tea.

I recently realized what an all-encompassing power meditation has for me. Meditation creates this energy of mindfulness for me, that lets me pay attention longer to anything I do.  Of course, I still drift off, but it feels that over the last year or so, my attention span has gradually become longer and longer.

It is fascinating for me how any aspect of life is improved with this greater sense of being in the now. It just makes all the difference. For the first time in a long time I mediated twice a day, while I’m traveling in Nepal right now.

As a closing note: I realize that being in an environment where mediation is “easy”, i.e. with a lot of other people doing it and general welcoming of it, makes a huge difference also.