Death Is Real, Your App Better Have Meaning

Death is an easy metaphor, because it's so huge, and it commands attention. And tech reporting uses it. A lot. But what if you, like, really die? What perspective does that bring you? 

This post is written by Douglas Crets, the Community Manager for Microsoft BizSpark

Chip Conley, former CEO of Joie de Vivre Hospitality, gave what was probably the most important keynote address of any conference I have been to, while opening up FailCon in San Francisco on Monday. It was a story about how he had to stop managing the successful hotel chain he managed, and find the things in life that he is passionate about, and really get out of the skin he was in and find a new self for himself. 

Here's what he said, and here is why I think it's relevant to tech startup founders and developers to understand what he said. 

Some background: Conley has gone through two recessions (and this one, globally speaking, is actually more like a depression). His son landed in federal prison for eight months. He lost a relationship. One of his best friends committed suicide. He was not happy as Executive Chairman and Chief Creative Officer  of Joie de Vivre, of one of the coolest hotel chains in the world, after it had been bought by Geolo Capital. And then one day in 2008, an infection that started after a broken leg got infected became so severe that Chip Conley died. Business, quite simply, got serious. 

"I had a death wish; I didn't want to be the identity I was anymore," Conley told the crowd of tech founders, startuppers, and developers, all who paid their entry fee to listen to stories about how really, really successful people, have failed in life.

At some point in 2008, Conley, who was dealing with several life pressures that would have made anyone want to give up on more than one occasion, gave a talk at a hotels conference and collapsed on stage, and died. His heart stopped beating. 

What the man could not do for himself, some other something did for him. He learned a valuable lesson -- that there was something entirely important about finding the things in your life that bring you pleasure and happiness, and to do them, to take them up as your personal activities of choice, to really live through them. Or, quite simply, you are not living.

He explained that it was important to have good "psychic hygiene," or to take a "big psychic bath together," so that we understand the reality of life. "We need a catharsis," he said. Crisis, as the late psychotherapist Carl Jung has said, brings us to a moment of transition, and we should be listening to that crisis. In the seeds of that crisis is our humanity.

The reason that this is important to developers is simple, I think. I think it points to exactly why we live -- the world, for all that it could be, is also a kind of series of problems that need to be solved. And the solutions to those problems are often meaningful in themselves. But they are empty solutions if they really do not provide meaning for other people who might also use those solutions to solve their problems.

Refinements on standard operation procedures, or simple features to smartphone apps, are not really going to create meaning. And they really are not that necessary in the long term.

There is also an even greater lesson in Conley's speech to people wishing to take in the insights from those who have failed. The lesson is that perhaps you really need to go through some crisis or a problem before you really can have the kind of understanding that would, in turn, help people believe in the solution you are building them. A solution is a kind of stamp of the soul of its creator. If you really  have seen the muck. If you really  have been at the door of your own demise, or been through some really  hard times, that will come out in your ethos, and in your passionate work and attention to detail. 

You know that there is always someone else on the other end of the line, or the connection, and they value their life as much as you value yours. Make something that speaks to that life. 

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