“If they were going to write your obituary tomorrow, would you be happy with what they said? That’s an important question.”
On the latest episode of Recode Decode with Kara Swisher, WeCroak co-founder Hansa Bergwall joined Kara in studio to talk about his app, which reminds you about death five times a day.
“One of the things that makes us most unhappy is we tend to get caught up in things that don’t matter,” Bergwall said. “We tend to get caught up in an angry voice or in minutiae or in stress or in tons of things that ultimately aren’t that important to us. And when we remember our mortality, we can take a deep breath and just go, ‘Oh, I don’t have to think about this. I don’t have to engage. I don’t have time for this.’ And move on.”
The app, which uses a picture of a poison dart frog as its logo, is based on a Bhutanese folk saying: “To be a truly happy person, one must contemplate death five times daily.” It pushes quotes about death, loss, and acceptance to users at five randomly selected times every day, between 7:00 am and 10:00 pm.
Bergwall said he and his cofounder, Ian Thomas, are proud that their 30,000 monthly users spend less than two minutes in the app daily. They designed WeCroak to have no advertising or hooks to social media, lest they cheapen the experience or compromise their own values.
“We know what social media is: It’s addictive,” he said. “It’s not really a safe place. If you feel safe there, great, take it there. But we’re not gonna make a button encouraging you to do that. Because we take the responsibility of reminding people of their mortality, which is a vulnerable thing, seriously.”
On the new podcast, he also talked about the “deluded” ways Silicon Valley is trying to hack death and why tech moguls who encourage employees to meditate may be tricking them into working longer hours.
You can listen to Recode Decode wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, and Overcast.
Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Kara’s conversation with Hansa.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, editor-at-large of Recode. You may know me as a mightily morbid media mogul, but in my spare time I talk tech and you’re listening to Recode Decode from the Vox Media Podcast Network.
Today in the red chair is Hansa Bergwall, the founder of WeCroak, which is my favorite app that I absolutely love and I talk about all the time and I post pictures of it. Every day the app sends you five invitations to stop and think about death.
Hansa, welcome to Recode Decode.
Hansa Bergwall: Yeah, thank you so much. And actually, co-founder of WeCroak.
Yeah. Ian Thomas is out on the West Coast.
Okay, cool. So give me your background. I want to know how you got to this. Because it is my favorite app. It is. I talk about it all the time and I posted, the quotes are fantastic. I want to sort of get a sense of the entire business, because there’s been a lot of interesting mortality stuff going around Silicon Valley these days. They’re in a much more grave, so to speak, point of view lately. Because there’s a lot of … Things have not turned out as well. Now, obviously getting older and things like that. So talk a little bit about your background and how you got to create this.
Yeah, well, it started really because I’m a meditator and have been for a little while and death recollection meditations are just part of what meditation has been supposed to be about.
Going way back thousands of years, this practice of different ways of recalling your mortality and death have been part of mindfulness and meditation techniques taught in many different ways for a long time. Everything from meditating in charnel grounds, which are places where bodies decompose, to get a sense of why you repeat mantras. You know, “my body will be like that decomposing body one day.”
And there’s also stories of, you know, the Buddha using his actual death as a teaching moment to say, “Hey, look at me, you know, this will happen to you too. This is absolutely important.”
And I even read, you know, some old texts that stated that, of the 40 different kinds of meditation, there are only two that are always beneficial: the cultivation of kindness and the recollection of death.
So this stuff is supposed to be central. Like, right central trunk current of absolutely how you’d do mindfulness.
You were an entrepreneur. Where are you from?
I’ve been an entrepreneur for about six years and I have a PR business that I still have that mostly does work in natural foods. It’s a small boutique agency.
Natural foods, like granola?
Yeah, like stuff you … Like granola.
Stuff you buy at like a Whole Foods.
The stuff downstairs at Vox Media that they give to the millennials. But go ahead.
So, I have a lot of independence.
I just want to say, I just got a thing from WeCroak. “Don’t forget you’re going to die. Open for a quote.” Anyway, go ahead. That’s my favorite thing, “Don’t forget you’re going to die” is my favorite thing every day. But go ahead.
Yeah, so I was running my own business, was interested in all of these meditation things and I was just like, “Hey, I’m not doing this. I probably should be.” And no one else I know who’s on this sort of bandwagon of mindfulness is talking about that. This seems like it’s a problem.
Why was that? Why? Because it’s not … Mindfulness is more, the calm meditations, the …
Yeah, I just think, you know, sometimes when things hop cultures and go from one place to another, we sort of take what we’re most comfortable with and leave out the rest. That’s pretty natural. But, you know, the risk of that is sometimes you’ll leave out one of the most important pieces.
Right, right. Absolutely. So anyways, so you were doing this PR firm …
And I was just really interested in this stuff. I came across the Bhutanese formulation, which seemed really simple and programmable, which is just, think about it five times a day.
Sounded like a lot, but it sounded achievable.
And explain that. Explain the Bhutanese things, people don’t … I just want to say, the quote I just got, which is one of my favorites, I’ve gotten it before. “Trying to remember you is like carrying water in my hands a long distance.” I feel like that about a lot of people. Stephen Dobyns. That’s not a death quote, per se. So I want to talk about this in a minute. It’s a relationship, kind of.
Yeah, that’s from a poem about grief.
Yeah. Oh it is. That’s right. It’s a longer poem. So talk a little bit about the Bhutan, the concept of Bhutan. Explain that to …
What I liked about it is, this was, like a folk saying for everybody, not just for monks or serious meditators. It’s just if you want to be a happy person, do this five times a day. And it seemed to me like, “Hey, they’re making a claim on truth here.”
And explain why you think that is.
Why I think … I mean, it’s the saying. If you want to be happy, think about this five times a day, you know? Why do I think that makes people happy?
Oh, because one of the things that makes us most unhappy is we tend to get caught up in things that don’t matter.
We tend to get caught up in an angry voice or in minutiae or in stress or in tons of things that ultimately aren’t that important to us. And when we remember our mortality, we can take a deep breath and just go, “Oh, I don’t have to think about this. I don’t have to engage. I don’t have time for this.” And move on.
It’s just a little way of making a micro adjustment so that your whole day, which remember is one of your limited days on earth, isn’t taking it up with BS.
Right, right. So you saw the saying and then how did you get it into an app form?
Well, Ian, my co-founder, rented my room on Airbnb.
And he’s an app developer. And I’d had this idea for an app since, you know, for a little while, but I’m not in the tech world, or at least I wasn’t until we made this together. And so one evening when we were sitting around the kitchen table …
So he was visiting from somewhere, just …
Right. Okay. So he was working here.
I told him the idea and asked if he wanted to do it with me. And he said yes. It was one of those weird, magical things that just happens in life.
It’s perfect. Okay. And so he said, “Yes, I’ll make this for you.” And how did you conceive of it?
How did I conceive of it?
How did you guys do it together then? So you decide to do it together?
Yeah, we decided to do it together. We talked about it around the kitchen table. And at first this is like a project, something we wanted on our phones to correct our own bias toward not remembering that death is real, that it can happen at any time. And we wanted a tool. You know, we were … I was personally angry at my phone for constantly distracting me with addictive technologies and wanted to … I knew I wasn’t going to give up my phone and wanted to fight back. And he was into that idea, too.
And so we just came up with the product that we thought would work for us, you know, like incessant, constant reminders that can happen at any time. Just like death. And a nice quote to remember that it’s also much bigger than just, you know, a folk saying from Bhutan. Like people have been confronting their mortality all over the world in different ways for thousands of years.
So we would include quotes from anyone we thought said something wise about death.
So, talk about how you find the quotes. It’s a very … just so people who haven’t used it, it’s called WeCroak. It just pops up a reminder that you’re going to die, first of all. At any time, by the way, it doesn’t have a time thing, does it?
It’s between 7:00 am and 10:00 pm.
So you’re not going to get them at four in the morning.
But within that, those parameters, anytime.
Anytime. It can come very quickly too, like one can come after the next, which I think is very funny. Because sometimes I get two in a row and I’m like, “What’s going on with that?” It just doesn’t have any rhyme or reason in that way.
No, it’s randomized.
Right. Because death can come at any time, right?
And so, it pops up first with a reminder. It says, “you’re going to die.” Which is always like … When people see it on my phone, they’re like, “Kara, what are you doing?” And I’m like, “I’m gonna die.” Which I think is really a fun idea to think about.
And then it pops up with a quote. So talk about the quotes, because they’re wonderful quotes. You recycle a bunch of them, but there’s always a new one, and so how do you manage that? And how do you think about it? Because they’re not all about death.
Yeah. Well, they’re all in some way, at least in my mind, about impermanence and, you know, how everything’s always changing.
Which is ultimately what death recollection is supposed to be about.
And I guess I read a lot. It’s just one of the things I do. So I’m constantly looking for good quotes.
And I used the Emily Dickinson sort of test, which is, if it hits me once, like it feels like it takes the top of my head off, then it can go on the app.
And if it doesn’t doesn’t do that, then I don’t put it in.
Wait, what’s the Emily Dickinson?
It’s just, “I know it’s poetry if it takes the top of my head clear off.”
Sure, clear off. Okay.
Just really has an emotional impact.
So you pick them yourself?
I do, yeah.
Okay, so you pick them yourselves and then you add them in.
We have a, on our website, a suggestion tab too. So if you know of any good ones.
And people send them.
Oh, I’ve got lots of good death quotes. Are you kidding? I like, I collect them.
I’ll send you all of them.
I’m always looking for more.
Okay, good. They pop up and you decided to make people pay 99 cents for it, right?
We did, yeah. That’s just because when we were launching this, we weren’t sure what kind of effect it would have on people. No one had ever done anything like this. So we just …
Did you do any research whatsoever? On death things?
There’s not that many.
I did a lot of research on death recollection practices, of which there are hundreds around the world.
And just chose one to go with. I didn’t do market research or anything like that.
Right, that’s what I’m … none of that.
None of that. Just, like there aren’t any, there really aren’t. I actually looked for them. It’s a really interesting thing. Years ago when … I forget, it was Meg Whitman? Someone had a new job. I’m like, “Really what you should do is funeral.com and help people … Make people memorialize people. Someday you’re going to want be memorialized online. And all of your things that you put up need to be part of like a grave area.” And she thought it was crazy. And she moved on and did eBay and that worked out well for her. But so you decided to put it in the App Store, you had not had any experience with the App Store, correct?
Ian, my co-founder, had launched apps before.
So he did all the coding and walked me through that process. I picked every quote and figured out how to do the storytelling because that’s what I do.
And then you launch it. When did you launch it? How long ago?
It was August of 2017 is when it was sort of on our phones and working.
Right. And why did you call it WeCroak?
It was funny.
It was, really? Just …
Yeah, it’s just a pun, you know.
And the frog?
Honestly we were just looking for something that wasn’t like a somber sort of cliche of death. Sort of a new death image or metaphor.
Right. What were some of the other names?
It was really always WeCroak.
YouDie? Oh is it? YouDie. GoodBye.
Yeah, we just didn’t want to have like a grim reaper on the top.
We want something like that felt different and fresh.
And the frog just because WeCroak.
Yeah. It’s a poison dart frog. It could kill you, so it’s nature’s own symbolism. We think it works.
Okay. All right, so you launched this thing and what happens?
Well at first it’s, you know, 80 of us — our friends and maybe some friends of friends using it.
Enjoying it, working with it. And then …
99 cents you decided to charge, right?
Yeah, we wanted the people on it to at least think once, “Do I really want this?”
Like, you know, just to be sure.
And that was that for, you know, a few months. And then I spoke to this journalist, Bianca Bosker over at the Atlantic, and she decided to give it a try for a couple months. And you know, I had no idea what she would do with it. I thought maybe it would be in a bigger roundup or something like that. But it ended up being a two-page review all about the experience and sort of what it was like to have tech that sort of puts you back on track rather than takes you off, that doesn’t try to distract you at all.
We don’t link to social media or have any sort of other things to do.
Right. I wanna talk about that next.
Which was very intentional on the design because we were looking for something to basically bring us back to ourselves. Like power of decision-making.
It doesn’t do anything.
We resisted every other bell or whistle we could possibly add and got emails, by the way, from people saying, “You’re doing it wrong. You could 10X your amount of downloads if you would just have a button to, you know, link it to Facebook and Twitter.”
And we were just like, “Okay, but we’re not going to do it.”
We’re here with Hansa Bergwall. He’s the co-founder of WeCroak, which is my No. 1 app, I have to say. It really is. I like, I love Twitter. You know how much I love the Twitter. I actually put WeCroak … I’m sorry, I do so much flacking for you, but I love it so much.
So the idea of not doing anything with it, there’s a big trend of this idea, of people getting off their phones, or not using your phones. Kevin Roose just wrote a great story about trying to get away from it and there’s all kinds of things to do to be more measured with the way we’re doing it. But you guys decided to use an app to do this because you use your phones, right? Can you talk a little bit about that thought? I want to talk about why you didn’t add more bells and whistles and where it goes, but you’re using a phone to take people away from phones, correct?
You know, I have struggled over the years with iPhone addiction or something like … I don’t know if that’s the right word for it. But just, you know, noticing that I’m spending way too much time on a stupid game or on one of the social media apps or, you know, who knows what can be really distracting. And sometimes it’s okay and sometimes it’s really not. It’s not how I plan to use my day. So I wanted something that would occasionally, at a time I couldn’t expect, to sort of ping me. And I didn’t want it to be like, “Okay, time for a long deep breath.” Like, I really hate people telling me what to do.
That’s on the iPhone. On the phone. I hate that watch.
I just, I can’t with that.
“Stand up.” No! I shall not.
So actually this was, you know, a better way, I thought, to do it. Just like, tell you something that’s always true and always relevant. “You are going to die.” And if you like what you’re doing in that moment, then great. Pat yourself on the back. It’s your choice. And if you don’t like where you are at that moment, you know, it’s time for a little adjustment. Like put the phone down or change it up, take a walk, you know, do whatever you want, it’s up to you.
But you don’t give suggestions?
One thing you don’t do at all is give suggestions.
Because you could have. That’s a very good point, where if you have someone’s attention for a second, why don’t you do this? A lot of them are very prescriptive. A lot of these apps.
Yeah, I hate that.
It’s just, it rankles me.
It rankles you.
I don’t want some app, I don’t want an algorithm telling me what to do.
Right, right. To get up or do anything. So you don’t give suggestions, it’s just the quotes. And then the linking. Talk a little bit more about that. Because again, people want to grow bigger. I’d love to get an idea of how big you … How people use it. I’m trying to make it bigger. I want people to use it.
Well, 75,000 people have downloaded it. We get about, like 12 to 15,000 on it every day. About 25, 30 [thousand] on it every month. A lot of people love it, and some people try it and don’t keep using it. Over the course of the last year, we’ve sent 25 million reminders that everyone is mortal and going to die, so that feels really, really cool. It is growing. We still spent no dollars on advertising or marketing whatsoever, just our time talking about it.
It keeps growing, because I think there is at least a core of people that love it and want to share it.
So, talk about this concept of the idea of mortality, because one of the things, obviously one of the most famous speeches about that is Steve Jobs, his speech about mortality, about dying.
Yeah, of course. I have that quote in the app.
Yes, you do. You do, and there’s lots of them. That whole speech has like 20 quotes, if you wanted to pick any of them. But his famous quote is remembering he’s going to die is the single most motivating thing in his life. Here’s a man who was at the time dying, and actually recovered that time, and then got sick again. But it was a really interesting speech, and surprising for people, from him.
Yeah. Well, I agree with him, first of all. I find it very clarifying for me as I go about and try to make decisions about what’s important to me. How I’m going to use my day and my time, how to have a little bit more courage, and let go of the fear of, “Hey, I’m going to reach out to this person!” I started a WeCroak podcast, so I reach out to people all the time who are more famous and have more books and are more interesting to me. It helps to cut away the things that don’t matter and just go after what I do care about.
When you think about that … you started a podcast, talk about that. You talk about death with people, or death experiences?
Yeah. There’s a lot of great books from people in hospice, palliative care. The theme of the podcast is actually all the things we don’t talk about enough, starting with death, but not ending there. Really just we’re … And on it, there’s a lot of people who’ve written books about palliative care or hospice or done meditation or in philosophy or history. It’s been really fun.
Why do you think people don’t think about it a lot, talk about it? There’s a lot of books about it and everyone does die, but why do you think that is?
Oh, there’s a deep-seated aversion to thinking about death in our brains. It seems to be recurring in every single generation. It’s probably built into our biology, and the problem with it is that it’s sort of a first delusion that a lot of other things are built on.
Explain that. What do you mean?
Well, when we try to manage our fear of death by saying, “Yeah, but I’m not going to die until I’m 90.” I would say that’s a pretty common negotiation where people forget like it could be tomorrow.
Or it could be later today. Then all of a sudden, life isn’t urgent.
You might not notice that you’ve gotten caught in a rut, in a job that you hate, or in a relationship that isn’t right for you, or doing something really unethical and keep doing it because you’re not really thinking about your time being precious or valuable or important. So all these other little negotiations that we make are built upon that first lie, that our time isn’t important, it doesn’t matter, and that it isn’t precious.
So if we can cut down to that one, we can start breaking away all the ones on top. We don’t really know all the ways you can start believing things about life that aren’t true, but we can be pretty sure that you’re going to start trying to manage your fear of death by making up little negotiations with it. If we can cut to that, we can cut a lot of the, frankly, deluded ideas just circulating widely in our society.
No, I would agree with it. I mean, it’s one of the themes I talk about a lot. It’s like, “Why do you do things?” It’s like, “I’m gonna die, that’s why.” You tend to understand, you don’t have time, you don’t have time.
It was odd. I took my son to see Hamilton last night and that was a theme in that. It’s a very strong theme and I hadn’t realized that until I saw it. I’d seen it before but the second time he writes like he has no time. Or he’s running out of time. And that is clear in his life. Maybe he didn’t know he was going to die as he did, at a younger age. Of a duel, of all things. But although, when you’re going to a duel, you kind of have to assume you could be dying, I guess. But the concept of running out of time is one that is not comfortable for people. They don’t like to talk about it. They don’t tend to dwell on it and lose themselves in other things.
No, but the thing is, when you avoid thinking about it the consequences are usually way worse than trying to remind yourself of what’s real. Just because, I’ve personally been stuck in job ruts or life ruts for years of my life. And they’re awful. I think back to whole years in my 20s and I’m like, “Wow, I wish I could have used that time a lot better.” I didn’t have this tool yet.
At least I have it now. I’m not gonna do that again.
So when you’re … let’s go back to the tool. So you had the podcast where you’re talking about that and discussing death. Is it hard to get advertising for that? I’m just curious.
There’s no advertising. We have a Patreon, so if you like the podcast, you can go on there.
“We like to talk about death, Casper Mattress. You’ll be not lying on this mattress someday. This mattress will outlive you.”
I’m gonna do that for my Casper ad. “This mattress will be around very long after you’re gone. Probably forever because it’s made of who knows what.” That kind of stuff.
So you’re doing the podcast. Where do you want to go with this business, with this concept? You want to just make it, that’s it? You just leave it on. You spend time on it, right?
Oh yeah. It’s a passion project. I love it. Ian, my co-founder, loves it. We still have our day jobs, mostly because we haven’t really thought too hard yet about, “how are we gonna monetize this?”
You haven’t had the monetization discussion.
We might do that one day in order to spend more time on it. But right now, it feels really good to have freedom. Like people don’t remember how wonderful that particular value can be sometimes. We don’t have investors, we don’t have any other pressure besides …
Yeah, it doesn’t cost anything
Besides making it something we love, so that gives us incredible freedom to not link to social media, to not have advertising. To do any of the compromises that, frankly, a lot of other companies have to make.
I couldn’t even think how you could do advertising on that. I guess it could flash in there. Like an ad for something.
Yeah, there were lots of people telling us we should. And we didn’t.
Right, you see the quote, then you see an ad. I don’t even know what I would want there. It would be so offensive. Like whatever it was, I would hate them.
It would be a terrible idea.
It would be a terrible idea. But I guess you could link to meditation apps, I guess.
It’s nice not having that pressure right now.
We know we are never gonna have ads on there. Just because as soon as you have an incentive to make people buy things through ads, you have an incentive to make them spend more time on it. Just sort of hook their attention in ways … I do marketing for a living, so I know the psychology of it.
But why not get it on social media? You don’t want people to share that they’re thinking about death?
Well, people do. They take screenshots and that’s fine.
Yeah, that’s what I do.
And we love it when they do. But it’s more a matter of, we know what social media is: It’s addictive. It’s not really a safe place. If you feel safe there, great, take it there. But we’re not gonna make a button encouraging you to do that. Because we take the responsibility …
Like share this quote?
Of reminding people of their mortality, which is a vulnerable thing, seriously. So we remind people. We give them a quote and then we don’t encourage them to do anything else. We encourage them to just have a moment in the app doing whatever they want, and then they close it. We’re proud that most of the people who even open it five times a day spend less than two minutes in the app total per day.
That’s about right.
Yeah, and that’s it. We’re trying to give you a little reminder to live … what’s important to you and then that’s it. We’re not gonna push you into some kind of …
Like Twitter hole, where you spend an hour responding to people, or searching hashtags. If you want to go there, fine. We’re not gonna push you in that direction.
Take you there. So the business just doesn’t have to go there. People just have to use it, right? That’s all. I love this. This is my favorite app now. You’re now my absolute favorite app. Because it is, it’s like that. There’s no other reason for it. It’s like looking at a rock garden, kind of thing.
You know, I’ll share something personal, in that my mother passed away of an aneurysm when I was 11.
Oh, my father died when I was 5.
I read that in your Times article, so I knew that we shared that. So sort of the “anytimeness” of death, which is one of its qualities, has always sort of haunted me in the sense that no matter how much I got caught up in life, part of me would always feel like it’s kind of phony. It could all come crashing down because I knew it could. There’s a part of me, a very traumatized little boy, that could feel that. So as I became an adult and got interested in that, it just became an important value to remember that. And to remind …
No, it’s a key value for people who’ve lost parents at a young age. There are all kinds of … there have been some interesting studies and books on that topic. A lot of people become highly functional, nothing bothers them kind of thing. And the other thing is that they do have a bigger sense that disaster is afoot. Not in a morbid way. It’s an interesting thing because a lot of people … I talk about it a lot. I think you should think about death all the time. Or it should be a daily reminder, at least, for you. And people always call me morbid or “why are you so death-oriented?” I’m like “I’m not. I don’t want to die.”
Yeah, so like you, it’s one of the more important things in my heart. If I can tell people one thing that has helped me it’s like, “your life is precious. Remember that, because it’s gonna end one day and it could be any day.” One of the magical things about technology that’s just not some sentimental wish I have in my heart, I actually get to do it. You know, 25 million reminders in the last year. It happens now. Sort of on command through the magic of technology and that’s really cool.
We’re here with Hansa Bergwall. He’s the founder of We Croak, my favorite app, which is an app that you pay 99 cents for and it sends you five very simple invitations to stop and think about death. There’s no social media attached to it, there’s no advertising, there’s no nothing. It’s just one quote that pops … a reminder that pops on your phone that says “you’re gonna die” and then you read the quote, which is usually pretty amazing. They’re pretty amazing quotes, and I want to go over a few of them in a minute.
But what’s going on in Silicon Valley now is really interesting. It’s this concept that you don’t have to die. Tell me what you think about that. You’re not an expert on this but certainly …
I thought about it, though. They are investing billions, or hundreds of millions, in this concept. I mean, it’s always going to be a dangerous illusion, I think. The minute you make an excuse that death can’t happen at any time, a lot of really harmful frames of mind start really quickly. You don’t remember the urgency of time. You might not hold yourself as accountable to yourself and to others. All of these kinds of suffering that come from the idea that you can control death. I believe that strongly.
Insofar as these technologies are marketed as ways that you don’t have to worry about death anymore, I think that’s harmful. The scientific method is such that, we’re definitely going to have more life extension, probably, at some point.
Yeah, it’s called healthcare. That you live longer and that you also live more healthily toward the end of your life, which is not a bad thing. That’s not the worst thing.
No, but it’s never going to be foolproof and it’s never gonna change the nature of the world, that you could die at any time. And so you know, to be frank, we’ve already had lots of life extension. The average lifespan used to be 40 and now it’s twice that. We don’t know how to use that time well.
Our mortality rate in the United States is starting to tick down, precisely because of things like addiction, depression, suicide are apparently the things driving it down. So we don’t even really know how to use the extra time we have now, per se. We have a crisis on our hands and I don’t really see how pushing that line out further is going to help us do that.
Without accompanying it with something, to deal with it. That’s absolutely right.
The other thing that bothers me about marketing “you don’t have to worry about death anymore” technology to people is it’s just … I don’t think they are really asking the right questions. When you look at … let’s say they can turn off a gene that makes us age or make it much slower like a tree, like a living organism …
Senesence. It’s a word I know now which I don’t believe I do.
… that can live 500 years. When you look at those living things that live much longer than we do, they live in a particular way. They take care of each. They’re highly networked. They’re world builders basically, where they change the atmosphere and the temperatures and the amount of winds that whip through that makes it a temperate, easier-to-live existence.
You know, you never hear about how we’re making the world much safer for everyone. Combating climate change, because we are kind of world builders too, and we’re making the world much less stable in terms of our environments, our climate, inequality problems, social kinds of things. So the world we’re building right now and that Silicon Valley is building and these investors that I hear are investing, are not making it a place where you can have a lot of assurance that you’re gonna live forever or for hundreds of years.
Why do you think that’s attractive to the tech people? They do talk about it a lot. They do discuss it, especially in terms of life extension things, but in terms of this idea that they are meditating, they’re part of this greater whole, and then they don’t live it. That’s part of my … they talk about it a lot but they don’t live it in any way.
Why do they talk a lot about …?
The concepts of meditation, of life extension, with hacking death, hacking the body, hacking everything.
Well, remember, every kind of meditation can be abused, except for kindness and death recollection. So they’ve created an extremely stressful work environment. I’ve heard from friends, people who are working 60, 80-plus hours a week. So meditation becomes how you cope in an environment like that. You basically can work longer at an insane job, rather than realizing this is an unsustainable situation for a human and quitting. So I think meditation is often being abused in that context to get people to stay in places that no human should really have to do.
Right, right, yeah. So talk about … you do meditation, are you thinking about doing other kinds of apps in that regard that are to pull people from things, or not at all? This is just a one-off.
We have a few ideas we’ve been talking about. It’s kind of one thing at a time. I’m working on a book right now and the podcast, so we do have some ideas, but want to make sure it’s really as like …
What would you like to see tech do more of? Given these things are in your pocket. They are reminders. There used to be worry beads or there used to be all kinds of ways people were reminded of things, of all kinds of ways to stop for a second.
One, I think we need to remember we’re going to die and think, “Is this spot I am today where I really should be? Am I living my best values?” And if we’re not, what changes can we make? It’s urgent. If they were going to write your obituary tomorrow, would you be happy with what they said? That’s an important question. And with what you built, I think that’s really important.
In a lot of ways, the message I have for Silicon Valley and … it is an app, so it is sort of a message to them because when I was working on it, when Ian was working on it, we were a little angry at them for creating so much addictive technology that was getting us off track and making us feel bad about ourselves and our friends and stuff. As far as what’s next, we’ll see. It’s definitely going to be in this sort of direction of a little bit more provocative than, let’s say, the Calm meditation app.
Yes, please do. I think you should have a death countdown. What about that?
People have them. They are popular.
I’ve seen them. I don’t … they’re not quite right.
The issue I have with them is, once again, it’s the anytime-ness of death they forget. They assume you’re going to have a natural human lifespan. And I think that is one of the more common delusions we carry about death.
So if you’re a certain age, you’re going to live until 80.4 whatever, 86.
They are useful in sort of mapping out what you could have and seeing, “Oh wow, this really is limited. The max span I could have is this many weeks,” and it doesn’t sound like that many. But we don’t have a countdown because we think it could … it’s a little dicey on that one important piece.
Right, that you’re not as safe as you think you are. I always tell them that and they don’t listen. They don’t listen, that’s okay. Do you think that they … I always thought that the death of Steve Jobs would have an impact on them in a more profound way, but it actually sped everything up, in a different context. It didn’t slow things down, and this is the person who sort of gave us the iPhone, or got us there.
I don’t know these people and I haven’t looked into their souls like you have, Kara.
I don’t look into their souls. I’d be looking a long time, Hansa.
I just think they have a lot of incentives that are pretty powerful on the brain. Like billions and billions and I guess trillions of dollars are what these companies are worth now?
Yes, they are.
And it creates a lot of incentive to keep that going, and that can compromise you. I don’t think I have to list here all the problematic things that Facebook and some of these other big tech companies have done. The thing is, it’s pretty predictable that huge pressures like that get you off track, and that’s why you need to remember that you’re going to die, to sort of cut away the bullshit so that you can take a stand and do something courageous. Maybe make a choice that’s right rather than profitable.
No, they’re not going to do that.
I mean, I’m not holding my breath, but … that is like the …
They can do basic designs on these phones. You’re not in your Uber app all the time. It could be in the front versus some others.
WeCroak is proof that you can design an app that you don’t stay in all day and people can still value it and like it and tell their friends.
Right, no, 100 percent.
We designed it to do the opposite and it works.
Have you thought of audio or video or anything else? Just the quotes.
We have thought about it. We don’t have the money to do it right now. It would be fun to …
What would you do? Oh, this speech, you could… pieces of a speech, people listen to things.
Oh, there’s a lot of different things we could do.
Yeah, you could do. I can think of …
We’ve thought about it. Everything from guided meditations to talks to looking at different impermanence reminders and cultural things. There’s cool content you could do. But right now, it’s just words.
I’m going to read some of your quotes, so tell me why you put this one in. “Once we’ve accepted the story, we cannot escape the story’s fate,” from P.L. Travers. What a great quote.
You know, P.L. Travers is a writer and it’s just, all stories end in death and that seemed like an important point to always keep in mind as you’re living your story. It comes to an end.
And also that you should change. If you accept the story you’re in, that’s the fate you get. Here’s another one. This is another good one. David Sedaris, “If you’re looking for sympathy, you’ll find it between shit and syphilis in the dictionary.” That’s not death exactly, but just funny.
Well, no, because when people get morbid or something like that, they think “Oh, poor me, I have to die or so and so.” Death is normal. Everyone has to go through it. And you gotta remember that. This isn’t the world singling you out, it’s just part of the story.
And there’s a problem in our culture where people going through a big impermanence moment, let’s say someone in their family dying, like a spouse or a child, they get shunned. And I hear from these people because they write me and they say, “I’m using your app to help me grieve the death of my son and people aren’t talking to me anymore or people don’t know what to say.” We actually ostracize people.
Yes, Sheryl Sandberg actually wrote about that in her book, this idea of people not speaking to her about her husband dying.
Grief experience. So it’s important to remember that this is for everybody. You are not alone. If you go through this, so will everyone else, even if they’re being mean to you because they don’t know what to say. They’re going to go through this, too. This is everybody.
All right, Kurt Vonnegut: “I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around. Lucky me, lucky mud.” Why that one? That was a good one. That’s about life. That’s about living your life.
Yeah, I mean, we’re all made from the same things, you know? The mud of this earth and animated, and it seems like we’re here for a short time, we get to be us. That’s our fortune that we do get to have this day, alive.
Absolutely. Same with, “Tomorrow is tomorrow, future cares have future cures and we must mind today.” Sophocles.
Yep, always fun to go back to the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Ancient Greeks, you do a lot of those. Do you have any one that you … just go anywhere, you find quotes. You had Mary Oliver just recently.
We have drag queens, we have comedians, we have activists, we have anyone we thought that said something wise about impermanence or death and really trying to find something from every continent, find something from every culture.
I have one my grandmother used to say a lot, but I think it’s from someone, that “the graveyards are full of busy people.”
Oh that’s a good one.
I know, right? I’ve gotta find out where it’s from. I’m gonna send you that when I find out. I love that one. Whenever I wouldn’t go visit her, she’d say, “The graveyards are full of busy people.”
Yeah, in terms of the quote selection, we’ll take them from absolutely anywhere. The one thing is, we talk about death, we don’t talk about afterlife.
Right. You don’t! You’re right, I hadn’t thought about that.
There’s a reason for that.
Yeah, explain please.
I do believe it’s perfectly worthwhile to ask these deep questions in your own faith community. Once we start talking about afterlife, we start to tribalize again into different groups who agree to disagree, but the moment of death is something we absolutely all share and it can open up a lot of passion and common feeling of how we’re all the same. And I think we need more togetherness in this world, so that’s what I’m interested in putting in here.
That’s really smart. You had one from Wallace Stevens: “The way through the world is more difficult than the way beyond it.” And then, of course, Charles Bukowski, who’s just a piece of work. “We’re all gonna die, all of us. What a circus. That alone should make us love each other, but it doesn’t.”
But it does, actually.
But it doesn’t!
When we remember to think about it, it does help.
But we don’t, that’s why we’re all so hateful. Anyway, I really appreciate your app, I have to tell you. It’s the best 99 cents I’ve ever spent, I’d spend a lot more on it. I will buy any app you make.
Oh, thank you.
It’s a really wonderful experience. And we’ll see more, hopefully, from you all, correct? We’ll see more.
We’re gonna do more. There’s gonna be more quotes on the app, there’s gonna be …
I will take more from you, I will pay more for the things.
…more podcast episodes. There’s probably gonna be …
It’s so much better time than spent on Twitter, I can’t even tell you. Though, sometimes Twitter is very funny, they had a whole thing… I mean, Chrissy Teigen on the hamster is completely life-affirming in so many ways. Follow Chrissy Teigen, you’ll find some wise-ness there.
Well, okay. I’m not a total …
She discusses spaghetti and it’s hysterical. It’s just a wonderful app. And she’s wonderful at doing it. Sorry. Some people on Twitter are very useful.
I agree. I’m on Twitter, I really enjoy it too. I just like to have it be on my terms and be in control.
Yes, exactly. It’s hard because it is meant to be addictive. It’s designed that way.
Anyway, this is not addictive. This is a wonderful app. It’s called WeCroak. We’re here with one of the co-founders, Hansa Bergwall. Again, I recommend you download it. Every day the app sends you five invitations to stop and think about death, and let me tell you, it’s the most fun I’ve had with any app. Thank you so much for being here.
Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
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