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Spark Joy with DHH

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Basecamp co-founders David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried are fans of Marie Kondo’s 2014 bestseller “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” which is back in the cultural zeitgeist thanks to her new Netflix show. In this bonus episode, DHH talks about how he’s applied the KonMari framework to code, business decisions at Basecamp, and his own belongings.

The Full Transcript:

Shaun: [00:00:00] Welcome to a special bonus episode of Rework, the podcast about taking all of your stuff, looking at it and asking yourself whether it sparks joy in your life. I’m Shaun Hildner and I’ll confess, I’ve never read the Marie Kondo book or seen the TV show.

Wailin: [00:00:13] I’m Wailin Wong. I have not read the book, but I have watched the TV show. I love the TV show. I love Marie Kondo. I love her hair. I love her lip color. I love her outfits. I love her demeanor.

Shaun: [00:00:26] You love her translator.

Wailin: [00:00:27] I love, love, love her interpreter who is also named Marie by the way.

Shaun: [00:00:31] Clever.

Wailin: [00:00:32] And you know what I don’t love is all of these garbage think pieces trying to take down Marie Kondo and the TV show. In fact, I will fight anyone who says that Marie Kondo is saying, you should get rid of your books and only have 30 books. I will fight you. And I have learned from the best in terms of fighting with people because we work for David Heinemeier Hansson who’s great in a Twitter fight.

Shaun: [00:01:01] He is great in a Twitter fight and I remember him when the book came out talking at a meetup about how much he loved that Marie Kondo book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

Wailin: [00:01:10] That’s right. It came out in 2014 and the Netflix show came out just around the start of the year. In the TV show, Marie Kondo recently came up in a campfire conversation here at work and I asked David if he would come on and talk about what he likes about her philosophy. How he’s used it in both his life personally and in the business right here at Basecamp.

David: [00:01:32] So most of the book you could say could properly be boiled down to a blog post, which is all about her method of how to clean up and to give you motivation to clean up. I think that that was really one of the missing pieces or one of the key ingredients to her method, the idea of sparking joy, right? Like now it’s a meme and now it’s almost kind of a parody.

Wailin: [00:01:54] Yep.

David: [00:01:54] Which I think is actually a little bit of a shame because I think that is key to the “magic” of the method. That you get into the mindset that you own a lot of stuff and a bunch of those things are not making your life any better, they’re not making you any happier. In fact, oftentimes they’re making you kind of miserable. The sheer mass of it. Thinking about that as a problem in and of itself I think is a pretty novel idea to most Westerners.

[00:02:27] Well, clearly it’s a pretty novel idea. I mean that’s part of the success of both the books and now the TV show is that people walk around sort of blind to this idea. Or they have this vague fussy idea that having fewer things that they care more about is good, but they haven’t connected to that on sort of a deep emotional level and they haven’t seen any of the benefits from it. Then she has this very specific method which I thought was really interesting too because on its face it’s almost common sense, but as most common sense it’s not at all common and people don’t do it like this at all very frequently. One of the key ideas is that you have to do it all at once. That the impact of seeing just truly how much crap you have is a key ingredient of making the whole thing work.

[00:03:21] So this idea of starting with just one drawer and trying to organize that one drawer, she totally knocks that down as just bullshit. That doesn’t work. That’s not a way to make fundamental change in your relationship with stuff. That the only way to make that fundamental change is to take all of this stuff, put it in a big pile or somewhere else where you can visualize just how much of it there is, because that gives you just such a knock where you go, oh man, I really have a lot of crap. She also contextualizes it with a bunch of take downs. So the book has a bunch of take downs on organizing systems, for example, which she basically labels as bullshit that that’s not what she does, right? She’s not trying to help you put all this stuff that you have into more clever places.

[00:04:10] She’s trying to basically get you to have fewer things and if you have fewer things, you don’t need a sophisticated organizing tool for it. And then also the animation she does with stuff I thought was good. She really makes a very succinct, good case for an animating your objects. And one of the powerful ways of doing that is this idea of thanking your things for having served you well. That you might have a gift that you feel guilty about not using because you got it from someone and they gave it to you and like aren’t you supposed to use it? And she tries to basically set you free from that guilt by saying the gift already served its purpose. The giver got joy out of giving you a gift. You were happy to receive a gift as an example of someone caring about you.It has served its role. If it is not something that you use, you’re actually doing that thing at the service by holding onto it. And letting it go and passing it on could potentially to give it a new life with someone who could actually use it. And I also found that incredibly powerful.

[00:05:18] I had a bunch of cameras that I liked but I weren’t using and I thought these cameras could be taking pictures for people. They could be creating memories for someone. Why am I hiding these things away in my closet? I should just hold on to the few bits of camera equipment that I actually use and that actually is creating memories for me and then I should set the rest free and allow other people to use it. And I thought that was just a really powerful thing to connect to that you’re kind of holding your things back by not allowing them to fulfill their purpose and potential.

[00:05:54] They’re interlocking ideas and they’re interlocking concepts that help and support each other. And reveal… For me at least revealed a deeper truth than just the surface layer that you would get from reading each of them individually. And I thought that this, this was one of those things that then made me think about, programming and product development methodologies and so on where we often deal with interlocking and supporting principles and values and techniques where if you just took one of those things out of context it’s not really going to do a lot for you. But take all of these things together, then it’s more.

[00:06:34] There’s one key book in the programming world who really stands out for me. And that is the original edition of Extreme Programming, which was written by Kent Beck where he presents a complete worldview of how to develop software that relies on a variety of values, principles, and practices where they are all supporting and interlocking.

[00:06:57] That you can’t take any individual value or principle or practice out of context of the rest and assume you’re going to get anywhere near the results that Kent was getting. And he was seeing with other teams where the Kondo method is, it’s a little more, there’s a little fewer moving parts. But it felt similar in the sense that like I’m presenting you with a whole worldview, a whole set of mental tools and practices to think about this problem with. And if you use them together, you’re going to get, outside results. Results that you perhaps couldn’t even anticipate from just thinking about each of the individual parts?

Wailin: [00:07:38] Do you feel like when you approach, let’s say, the Basecamp code base and the code base for all these different products that we have, do you look at it with like a KonMari lens at all? Like, are there any parallels there?

David: [00:07:52] Totally. I think, the KonMari lens in that regard, tracks very well with sort of some of these ideas that came out of Extreme Programming. Like you’re not gonna need it. It’s an acronym. YAGNI. You’re not going to need it. Which is basically saying you might have all this code that you think, oh, maybe one day if we were to expand this feature, we’re going to need this stuff. And Extreme Programming would say probably not. Right. In the same way that KonMari would say, if you haven’t worn this sweater in… or if it’s not making any sort of sparking joy, and it probably isn’t sparking joy if it’s just been hanging in your closet for two years, then you’re probably not gonna need it. And you can let it go. And if worst came to worst, and you realized three months down the road that, oh man, I really do need this thing. You just bring it back.

[00:08:42] And it doesn’t just extend, I think, to code. It extends to the entire business. We like to think of Basecamp as a product that we work on. And when both Jason and I read the book, it sparked an immediate conversation about all the things that we have at Basecamp, all the products and services and so forth. And it immediately, led us to sell the We Work Remotely job board. We went like, hey, it doesn’t spark joy when we lift it up. It was great when we launched it, but here we are five years later and we don’t need to hang onto it. It has served its purpose for us and now it can go somewhere else and fulfill its potential. So, directly from that we went like we can sell it.

[00:09:27] And I’d say it even was a material factor into discussion about Highrise, which was obviously a much more material, important and expensive decision to make. But it was key to us going, does this spark joy? Do we really love working on Highrise as a product, as a code base, as whatever? And the conclusion was essentially no. And that made it easier to make the decision to cut off signups for Highrise and stop actively developing the product in terms of new features and so on. Because we just thought, well, we have limited time here and we have limited attention and we have limited love to give to products and we want to give it to other ideas.

Wailin: [00:10:10] Did you feel like you went through the exercise of thanking each of those products before you set them free?

David: [00:10:18] Absolutely. That was key to my mind too. Highrise for example, has served so many people so well and it’s lived for, what is it now, almost 12 years. I think that’s an incredible run for software product that’s made millions of dollars. It’s been instrumental in our success and in a lot of success that customers have had with it. So I’m very grateful for that whole experience. I’m even grateful for the, let’s say, twists and turns that we took trying to figure out what to do with it once we realized we couldn’t handle it internally. We tried to sell the product and we tried to spin it off. And both of those exercises taught us a lot about what we want and don’t want to try to do again in the future. And I’m really thankful for having gone through that. And then I’m also thankful to be able to say this is, this is good enough. It has served its purpose for us. We will continue to keep it in our portfolio of products that we support until the end of the internet, but we’re not going to spend a lot of day to day time thinking about it beyond just like is it secure, is it fast, is it working? We’re going to put our creative energies into other ideas.

Wailin: [00:11:36] Earlier David had mentioned that he used the KonMari method to get rid of all but a few pieces of camera equipment that meant a lot to him and I wanted to know if he had done the same for the rest of his belongings.

[00:11:48] Were you able to successfully apply her method to the rest of your stuff?

David: [00:11:52] We had moved around a fair bit. We have moved around a fair bit and every time we moved we realize that… Why are we packing the stuff again? Like I basically haven’t used it since we packed it last. Like, I remember the first time we moved out here to Malibu in 2009 and we sent our car out and the car was just loaded. Like everywhere, there was just stuff in it. Right. And then a couple of years later we moved back out to Malibu again. All we brought was I had a backpack and we had one suitcase. That was it.

[00:12:25] I liken it to a bit of a brain virus. The ones you’d let the Kondo method get into your mind. It’s really hard to open a closet and look at it the same way again. So now pretty much whenever I open a closet I go like, do we really need all this crap? And then I try to get rid of some of it.

Wailin: [00:12:42] What do you do about your kids’ toys?

David: [00:12:46] That is a great point. For us, we have these toy boxes and the idea is pretty much we can have three of those in… Well, right now I think we have four… four of those in the living room. That’s it. If you want new or different toys, something else has got to go.

Wailin: [00:13:03] Yeah.

David: [00:13:03] And the funny thing is that kids I find are actually quite attuned to that idea because they love getting new stuff.

Wailin: [00:13:10] Yeah.

David: [00:13:11] They’re not that attached to whatever doll they got or action figure or Lego set or whatever that’s two years old. Maybe in a couple of cases, but in the vast majority of cases they are very ready to give stuff away to get rid of it. So, it’s not so much about like, oh, you can’t have stuff, or you can’t get new stuff. It’s about what do we do with all this stuff you already have had and get rid of a bunch of that.

Wailin: [00:13:36] You had to evacuate when the fires came to Malibu late last year. And did you find that not having, so much stuff, or having pared back your physical belongings, did that help ease the stress of needing to evacuate?

David: [00:13:52] Hugely. Hugely. That was a great moment where I realized that everything I care about in terms of material stuff, I can pretty much fit it in a backpack. And I think that that level of levity in your relationship to stuff is incredibly powerful and it made it so much easier for us to get out and not worry, stress, and be all worked up about the fact that hey, maybe it burns to the ground. Maybe it will. And if it does, okay.

Wailin: [00:14:27] Yeah, it’s, it’s an interesting thing, I think, the mindset that she teaches because it’s not like this smug detachment from material things where you’re like, well, I just don’t care about anything. Like you actually just… you have fewer things but you care deeply about those things and you’re very mindful about what you choose to hold on to physically.

David: [00:14:46] I think that that’s, that’s key to it as well because I have… So, take the camera situation. I pared back and got rid of a bunch of camera gear that I wasn’t using and that made me realize just how much I cared about the few things that were left. That I have this one Leica camera that I’ve taken 90% of all the memories I have from the kids’ childhood up until this point with, and I really care about that camera. And I’m like, that is so much easier to care about like one damn camera with one damn lens. It totally fits in my backpack and I can take it with me. So it’s definitely not about this just total detachment from things. It’s the realization that we, actually, most people aren’t a truly attached to very many things at all. They just haven’t taken the mental effort to figure out which is what.

Wailin: [00:15:39] Wow, this has been great. Was there anything else you wanted to add that I might’ve forgotten to ask you about?

David: [00:15:45] No, I think this is good. Okay. Maybe it’s probably even too much. You should probably a swing at good editing slice and only keep the pieces you have sparking joy.

Wailin: [00:15:55] Okay. Yeah. That, I mean, that is really is what editing is, right? It’s like—

David: [00:15:58] Yes.

Wailin: [00:15:58] You know, because she has this thing where… at least on the show. She probably says this in her books too, where it’s like, I think people who struggle with the idea of sparking joy, like it sounds too woo woo for them or something. She also says, you can ask yourself, do I want to take this into the future with me?

David: [00:16:14] Yes.

Wailin: [00:16:14] And, um, you know, when it’s editing, it’s like, am I going to take these 30 seconds into the future? Or should I just leave them on the cutting room floor. So same process.

David: [00:16:22] Absolutely, yeah. And the same process that we’ve used both in code and when we write the books. I mean, the books are really a distillation of that idea. Most of the books that we’ve written, they start out twice as long as what they ended up getting published at. That we cut out about half of everything we’ve written because only about half of it sparks the true joy and is the stuff we want to push into the future.

Wailin: [00:16:45] Excellent. Well, thanks so much, David. I appreciate it.

David: [00:16:48] All right. Thank you.

Wailin: [00:16:49] Okay, talk to you later. Bye.

David: [00:16:49] Talk to you soon. Bye.