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Essential Shifts Interview: Brian Johnson

Essential Shifts Interview: Brian Johnson

Visionary: Brian Johnson

From discussions of Greek arete and the necessity for "both/and" thinking to practical advice on creating organizations that unleash our full potential, Brian ranges freely across myriad domains in his reflections on the keys to creating an outstanding life that makes a difference. In this interview, you’ll get a feeling for the future that can be unleashed by a new generation of collaborative Internet tools, such as Brian’s conscious social networking company, paired with an integral approach to personal growth and a desire to create templates that really work. How many companies encourage employees to put their personal spiritual practice first? Zaadz is pioneering new ground and Brian’s deeply reflective nature and boddhisattvic commitments serve as inspiring examples for how we can put collective shifts into high gear – and have a great time doing it.

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Institute of Noetic Sciences: Welcome everyone. I am very excited today to have on the Shift in Action program Brian Johnson who's the CEO of Zaadz which is the up and coming hot social networking site for people who are looking to change the world. Brian is a very interesting mixture of philosopher and CEO. In fact, he lists that first on his business card, which is quite an unusual thing. And he really walks his talk. He is the founder of e-ching which was a successful internet start-up and he built that and then took two years to devote himself to the philosophical path and out of that there's sort of integration merging with Zaadz. So, Brian, I thought you would be a really great person to interview for this Essential Shifts series that we're doing since we're really looking at what are the big picture shifts that are required for us to move to a more healthy, sustainable and whole culture on this planet and you've devoted your life to harnessing capitalism, really to help empower the folks who are on that mission as well, so welcome.

BJ: Thank you so much. I have such a deep respect for your work and I'm honored to be on this call.

IONS: Great. So, first, we like to start with the big picture, and as a philosopher you can resonate with that. So we start with the biggest picture lens which is how do you see our current global situation right now?

BJ: Great question. All these questions are such powerful, as you said, big picture questions. Obviously we've got an incredible amount of challenge in front of us. We won't go into the details of all that, but with the war on terrorism and global warming and all the challenges operating around the world I tend to focus – it's very sobering to look at that, but I tend to focus on the power of our individual development. I see so much energy going toward being a change. Seeing what we can do to create a positive impact on the world. That's obviously what I'm committing my life to and passion to do everything we can to really empower individuals to discover and look at their highest truth. And seeing so many people passionately engaging in that process, is inspiring for me.

IONS: Hmm. From all your philosophical readings is there any particular frame that you see us passing through a particular stage of development? Or critical developmental juncture, as it were, as a race?

BJ: It's interesting. I think that fundamentally my passion for philosophy is very practical. I've always been, you know, passionate about the idea of philosophia – the love of wisdom – wisdom being knowledge of life and for me it's a very very practical pursuit. And, you know, I think everyone is saying the same thing, which is the meaning of life is to truly discover our own happiness and from classic philosophers to modern day psychologists are pointing more and more and more to that leading to us living at our highest potential, moment to moment to moment in the classic Greek ideals of arte which we've talked a little bit about before and maybe can talk some more about here, but to Martin Seligman in the positive psychology movement and looking at the fact that to the extent we know our greatest strengths and we use them often we can live with more happiness. What I'm seeing is that shift toward, what I'm excited to help catalyze, is that shift toward more and more self awareness and more and more self directed action toward that pursuit. And I'm also really a big fan of Ken Wilbur‘s integral theory and spiral dynamics the general concept of personal and culture evolution through different stages of development and its exciting for me to see that to give myself the perspective to see how we each go through these different stages. And one of your ideas was, what one thing is most important and I think the idea of us getting a more and more complex worldview where we can stop saying either/or to different things and we can start saying yes/and and see the partial truth in everything and really try to come to a higher and higher perspective where we can see those truths from a more comprehensive vantage point. I've said a bunch of different things there, but …..

IONS: Um Huh. I think in that move towards the both/and perspective we're really situating all these different perspectives in a context that can honor them in a larger wholeness. It is so important because it feels like we waste so much of our energy now on the divisiveness and the turfiness and whose paradigm dominates whose.

BJ: Yup.

IONS: You know I really celebrate that. And I think you've managed to create a very interesting example of that also in what you're calling field of conscious capitalism and I think that that's one of the specific shifts where there has been a real separatist sense of like what do the spiritual consciousness folks tend to think, money equals bad equals corrupt and if you're more pristine and holy you should be sort of a beggar monk on a mountain top. Rather than wait, you know, capitalism is an engine here. This could be harnessed for very conscious purposes. Maybe if you could talk more about that specific shift and how you yourself have grown into a deeper understanding of what's happening there.

BJ: Yes, I'd love to. You said it so well. You gave me goose bumbs as you talked about that challenge that we have a spiritual individuals. I personally went through a very profound experience in my own challenges of: Am I going to be this spiritual individual who dedicates himself to a life of renunciation and passion in pursuit of my own divinity or am I going to be an ambitious capitalist creating things and making money and striving to achieve? And I struggled for quite awhile with the either/or scenario and I couldn't figure out how I could really transcend and include both of them. And it was always an either/or thing for me. And then I got to a place where I was literally going to check out completely and go to Tibet and Nepal on my own version of a spiritual trek and was sitting in an empty place and realized that just wasn't my path. In the course of the months that followed that, I really saw that it isn't about either/or and in fact for me it really allowed me to redefine what spirituality means and very quickly and loosely, I look at spirituality as being connected to Source. I bring that to life through love. And I show that love through service. And in the twenty-first century, I need to pay my rent. And that means I need to figure out a way to get paid to serve, and for me it's been this process of discovering that and then as I take it a couple of steps further, you know, honoring my own bodhisattva commitment to try to discover what I am here to do and my own highest potential and strive to live at that point in service to all sentient beings, I actually have a moral obligation to get paid and to get paid well to serve. And that's really something that's been an important part of my journey and something that I'm dedicating, you know, my life to and what we're doing with Zaadz. To really help shape the ideas that making money is not only non-spiritual, it's an essential part of spirituality. And how can we support individuals who are dedicating themselves to serving others from the massage therapists, or life coaches, or acupuncturists, and others who are directly committing their lives to improving other people's lives to have a really positive relationship with both their spirituality and their service and how they're getting paid to do that, marketing their businesses and everything that goes with that.

IONS: I've loved in our conversations talking about this emergence of sort of a transformation economy where instead of people feeling that they have to compromise their values to work in a system that doesn't really reflect their values that we're actually creating a whole new ecosystem of activities that is profitable and that adds a lot of value by virtue of coming from a different consciousness.

BJ: And that's the key, right? Having the courage to make that momentous leap into that second tier of consciousness where we can see that it's no longer either/or and it's not a matter of being greedy if we have a certain amount of ambition. I think that is as much God whispering to us as our desire to be still and to meditate and to give ourselves some kindness and love and again saying yes/and to both of those things is something that has been incredibly liberating for me, something that I just feel that shift in the dialogues going on on our site and conversations that I have day in and day out.

IONS: And it's also--maybe you can tell folks who aren't familiar with it more about Zaadz, particularly like the niche that you're moving forward with in terms of applying conscious capitalism to harnessing these social forces for the good.

BJ: Yeah. The easiest way to describe what we're doing for those who haven't heard of Zaadz yet, is to describe it from a vantage point of myspace. Almost everyone has heard of at this stage. There are something like a hundred million people who have signed up for it and it is a social networking web site which allows people to connect and blog and share photos and connect with friends. What we're doing, is essentially, what people call us is myspace for spiritual people. Myspace for people who want to make a difference, myspace for smart people. A number of different things that you know, harness the effect. What we're trying to do is create an oasis and a place on line where we can go and commune with other people who are interested in this conversation. Who are interested in improving our lives and making a difference in the world and taking world class technology and social networking tools and really facilitating that dialogue and communication among different individuals but doing so with a very specific intention which is: Let's improve ourselves; let's improve the world; let's be the change we want to see. And it's been amazing and I like to say that there are few places in the world where we can go and truly feel that we're in a sacred place whether it’s a yoga studio or a meditation hall or a retreat and there's a certain energy that's brought to that experience. We really strive to create that on our web site where, you know, let's bring our highest selves to this forum and relate to other people in the community.

IONS: I particularly like the way that it's a combination not just of the kind of higher self, in the old fashioned sense of like, very austere and but its also a very fun and playful too, which I think is part of this integration moving beyond the sort of a serious enlightened Buddha to, like you know, this is full spectrum, playful, bring all yourself to the table.

BJ: Yeah, exactly. And come from a place of, yeah, that joy and laughter and I think it was Nietzsche who said, I wouldn't believe in a god who didn't dance. That idea of let’s bring a certain amount of fun and sexiness and playfulness to our own development. Yeah. I appreciate you appreciating that.

IONS: Great. So the second question we ask, and we sort of went into it in the conscious capitalist direction, which is: What do you see as the most essential shifts for us to go into the next level? Maybe you could talk about also how the technological piece of empowering this cultural shift, that we're in the midst of right now.

BJ: That's a great angle on it. I think to give it context and to repeat what we were talking about, I think there is obviously a lot of different things that are happening and will continue to happen as we shift. As we move forward. I would articulate that again as really getting to a place where we can hold a more complex world view and be able to say yes/and . What we're striving to do is to create the technology platform that holds the space for that dialogue. It's obviously a process of our own discovery and one of my big things is it's not my truth. It's not your truth. It's not Buddha's truth. It's each of our own individual truths that’s relevant. What we want to do is create the technology that inspires people to discover their own truth and hold again the space in the content in the community so you can find the Shambala meditation center, you can find a Science of Mind Temple, you can find a Shift in Action dialogue, you can find a vegetarian restaurant to eat or whatever it is that is going to facilitate you in your own path of growth. And discuss that with individuals from all these different domains. And then come to a place where we have a deeper clarity on what our truth is and most importantly go out and do something about it. Strive to liberalize the system with that. I touched on the technology. I don't know if you want to go into that more?

IONS: Yeah. Maybe you could say--I always like to paint the big picture like ten years from now, what would you see as having been launched and empowered as a result of maybe your efforts as well as a network of other activities in the technological space.

BJ: Wow. Great, great, great, great question. I think that one of the things we see today when people join our community, for example, and I’m sure you see when they join your community and others on-line is "Fnally I'm home!" "I can finally meet other people who share my values" and one of the things you and I have talked a lot about is anyone who is listening to all these wonderful interviews you are doing, shares a lot in common with the other people who are listening to these interviews. And how do we facilitate the on-going dialogue both on-line and off-line as we create that community? And, you know, as secular spiritualists I think we have a challenge finding really vibrant communities and I think that's one of the things that technology's really going to empower, is that ability for us to get together and discuss these ideas on-line and then take them off-line. Whether it's at the local vegetarian restaurant or it could be the place of worship, a progressive place of worship, or we're very excited to having in the next five to ten years off-line oases where people can go and refresh and meet and discuss different ideas and really kind of mirror the on-line version of what we’re doing. But I think that's a huge part of what technology is doing is bringing together typically disaggregated groups who don't have a way to really engage in deep communication. Bring them together and demonstrate the fact that there's a lot of people out there who are like us and who want to make a difference in the world. And we can empower one another in the process.

IONS: Great. So I'd love to get a personal angle. You're so articulate on all these matters and you're so successful on the professional front. It's an unusual combination and just maybe giving people a sense of like, what are the practices and the disciplines that have helped you get to where you are.

BJ: That's funny, because as you were describing that my Gemini self came out and , you know, there really were two selves for me for quite awhile, of the philosopher and the CEO and when I first learned the myth of Gemini it really resonated with me. The sense of two twins and one's doing one thing in the immortal realm and thinking of ideas and what not and the other is on the ground doing very practical things and for so long in my life it was an either/or thing. Either I was doing one or I was doing another. And over the last ten years, if there is anything that is giving me the opportunity to kind of integrate myself it's the willingness to try a bunch of different things. And I literally had a physical response, i.e. nausea when I started my career doing consulting work at Arthur Anderson and an audit and tax and all those things. I had this physical sense that this wasn't right for me. And I had the same thing when I went to law school and dropped out there. It was very, very, very, very challenging for me. You can add about twenty more “very” into there. And, you know, I made it through those really difficult dark times and with a certain amount of humility and a certain amount of courage with each iteration that I went through and now, for me, my practice has become much more about--there's much more of that integration process. Which I think is the function of the willingness to try a bunch of different things and a passion of the pursuit to figure it out. Immersing myself in both the intellectual studies and the practical application of different things, and I've always been passionate about giving everything to a given situation. And, you know, we've talked a little bit about the idea of arte and if I can describe that briefly, I think it's in context here--the philosophy that guides my life.

IONS: Sure.

BJ: The classic Greeks had a concept called arte a word called arte and a concept called arte and they said if you want to live with happiness, live with arte. The word directly translates as excellence or virtue but it has a deeper meaning, something closer to striving to live at your highest potential. And when I read that it just blew me away. The idea of that, of striving to live at our highest potential meant so much to me, and then I studied a bunch of different people. Maslow. Maslow is another of my favorites. Maslow says that any given situation we have two choices. We can step forward into growth or we can step back into safety and when I map that up against the concept of arte I saw that in any given moment we have what we're capable of doing, and I kind of draw a line--a horizontal line--and say this is what we are capable of doing. And then we have what we're actually doing. So we can step forward into that growth of what we're capable of doing or backward into the safety. And if there's a gap between what we're capable of doing and what we’re actually doing, then that's where regret and anxiety and disillusionment exist. And for me, I constantly strive to close that gap live with a certain amount of impeccability and arte moment to moment to moment. And that's, hands down, one of my strongest guiding principles and I have two questions that I'm looking at right now on the white board in my office: "What would you do if you weren't afraid?" and "How can I serve?" Those are the two questions.

IONS: Are those permanent questions up there or do you rotate them?

BJ: These ones haven't been rotated in quite awhile. They've been up there. I have a lot of different things on the white board but they're up there on the top kind of left corner. I have two separate white boards on two different walls. Those really guide me. I used to be consumed by fear quite a bit and you know, realized “How do I let God flow through me?” and that for me has come through fearlessness and authenticity and transparency and striving to “just be” and express myself powerfully. And with that, each time I do that there's a certain amount of power that gets integrated. That's more of a meandering discussion of me and less about the philosopher and entrepreneur.

IONS: Just kind of related to that, kind of the next circle out--I haven't actually visited your company yet but I can tell from the buzz and from talking to you and your various folks who are working there that you've been very good at creating a culture in which people really bring out their fullest potential and energy. So maybe you can speak a little about that, because I think that's part of the key to unlocking the door to this next world view, to this next shift, is like “How do we create cultures--organizational cultures- that are really empowering peoples' art?”

BJ: Yes, you’re really giving me goosebumps again. One of favorite teachers my far is Martin Seligman. He wrote the book on basic happiness and his colleague Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote a book called “Good Business.” They both lead the movement in positive psychology. Csikszentmihalyi wrote “Flow” which was the seminal book on optimal living and getting into the state of flow. And he wrote this book called “Good Business” and in it he articulated a lot of different principles that I strive to embody in our business. And fundamentally our business ethos is to inspire and empower people to discover their greatest strengths and give them in service to the world. That's our reason for being. There's a lot of details around that, but that's the simplest way to describe our business. And then with each of the people we bring on to the team, that's our commitment. That's my commitment. That's our team's commitment. How do we help you, as a team member with our company, discover your greatest strengths and how you can give them to the world through your role with our company? Not just as a programmer or as a member actualization guy or any role that you have in the business, but as a human being. So we're really focused on all lines of development professionally and personally, in health and intellectually and all this and truly making that a commitment and we work really hard, but striving to focus on each of these lines and then really constantly figuring out who are you and what are you here to do and how do we shape your role with us around your gifts and obviously we are trying to do that with everyone we are serving and we have to do that in our business. You know, we're putting a lot of systems in place to do that. We're still a pretty small organization, with about fifteen people. And that's part of it. And then we're blessed to have the people we have on our team and we put out, when we hired engineers, for example our ad reads: "Seeking enlightened developers to change the world and an understanding of Buddhism, or veganism or integral theory a plus." And the replies we get from that--actually our head technologist now, he replied to that job posting with an email that said: "You know I don't usually start a job application this way but I am a practicing Buddhist, Shojen school, my wife/my girlfriend's a yoga teacher. I eat some fish otherwise vegetarian. You know some amazing human beings we're bringing on from the beginning and then really striving to create this ideal experience and it’s been incredible. You've gotten to speak to a couple of people on our team. They are just amazing human beings all around.

IONS: And you're able to somehow balance… I would think the needs of the start up tend to be so all consuming, to keep that balance where people are able to continue to grow and explore intellectually, into their spiritual practice and physical workouts.

BJ: We're focused on what’s called, from a business perspective, lifestyle and health sustainability and we take that very seriously. And we're not building this business to be purchased by Google or Yahoo or anything like that. I'm intending to build a company that endures into the twenty-second century and that requires us to think long term and sustainability is a big, big aspect of the business we're creating so …. Yeah, when I talk to our team, one of the things we always talk about is: "Are you doing your practice?" Everyone has something different. For me it's hiking everyday and getting out there for my 50 minute hike. And there’re a lot of people with their yoga practice or whatever it is. Mountain biking. It's very, very, very, very important. I tell them that's the first thing you have to do. That's the most important meeting you have in any given day. You have to do that, if we’re going to be able to sustain ourselves. In my pursuit I also studied personal training and did all that kind of stuff and realized that if I'm going to give myself to the world I absolutely have to have optimal energy. That's the starting point. That's not what you do at the end of the day when you have time. That's what I did this morning. And that's non-negotiable. That line of development energy is the foundation of what we do. We also send them to the spa and get a massage and we have certain things that we do on a quarterly basis to make sure they're checking out. That's another very important practice of mine. And…

IONS: So, sort of mandatory spiritual retreat time, kind of thing?

BJ: Mandatory…you define what your spiritual path is, and we’re gonna acknowledge you doing it. I haven't set the system in place yet, but I’ve joked with the guys for quite awhile that I'm gonna have our profit sharing based on, not just how you're doing in the business, but if you tell me you're going to do yoga five times a week this quarter, you're going to run a triathlon or whatever it is you're going to do--go on a spiritual retreat - we're going to measure your performance based not only on your professional but your personal, spiritual and intellectual development. That's something we do. Another thing we do...

IONS: Wow. That's very innovative.

BJ: Yeah, and this has gotten really excited as we've matured and been able to put those systems in place. I think again, what should be the tangent of the business, and truly integrate what we're saying are our ideals into our practice. We have on our website the books tool, where you can enter a quote, a favorite passage from your favorite book. A couple of weeks ago I wasn't reading. I had gone a couple of weeks and was traveling, working pretty hard and I hadn't done a lot of reading. And I realized that I needed a practice to force myself, even if it was only five or ten minutes a day, to open a book, to read something. And we now have a mandatory "you need to send a quote." You need to enter a quote from one of your favorite books into our system and send it to the rest of the team, every day, five days a week. That's been a really exciting thing to see. So we strive to really create that sustainable line of development in our business. There is a lot of challenges to it, but we're having fun.

IONS: Oh. That's great. Very inspiring what you're templating there. That’s so much of the call of our times is, when we're faced with these seemingly overwhelming challenges on a global level, it’s templating structures in a smaller way that really work.

BJ: That's it and when I contemplated our discussion today, that was what the theme was that I came back to again and again and again. It all comes back to the individual. We can talk about "meta"--meta concepts and meta challenges and we can go down to the smaller levels, and smaller levels, and smaller levels. But it always comes back to you and I. And that's the theme of my life. That's the theme of our business and that's the theme of how we're going to effect change at a global level. From my perspective it's each of us, inspiring and empowering each other to be the change.

IONS: Beautiful. So, we'd like to kind of close up with some more personal tips for folks, you know. You've woven that in throughout, but about the most important things that we can each do to personally create positive change, and some other tips that just occur to you on a practical level for folks listening.

BJ: Well, we did talk about a lot of wonderful things. I love the flow of this dialogue and for me it comes down to what we just talked about. Which is each of us discovering: “What are our truths?” They are different. All of us have a different sense of what we need to do to go out there and effect change in the world. At the end of the day we each need to not just think about them, but do them. And Gandhi said it best. We need to go out and be the change. And that would be my most simplistic… “Let's do that!” If we all do that it would live in a very, very, very, different world.

IONS: Beautiful. Well that's about our half hour. Any other things that you just want to get across to folks before we wrap it up?

BJ: I just wanted to thank you again. I really have deep respect for your personal work and the work that's going on with Noetic Science. So a deep bow to you and gratitude.

IONS: Great. Well I look forward to---It's going to be very interesting to see how things continue to evolve over these coming years as more folks start to put into practice and become the change that we're working to create.

BJ: Yeah. Together we're going to make some huge changes.

IONS: In some really nice ways … Beautiful. Well let's wrap it up and look forward to the next time we interact.

BJ: Perfect. Talk to you soon.

IONS: Thanks, Brian.

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"The Essential Shifts" Interview Series

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