Interview with David Passiak

Who are you, and what do you do?
My name is David Passiak. I write, speak, and help people to co-create movements around brands, organizations, and startups. I’m most passionate about bringing people and teams together to do meaningful work that has a positive impact on the world. This is kind of an evolution of around 20 years of research and professional experience.

I started off doing Ph.D. studies in religion and culture at Princeton, where my research focused on how grassroots movements grow and spread. I looked at how small groups of really passionate people come up with ideas, beliefs, and practices about how the world could be different and better. They share their ideas with friends and family, and they hope that the ideas will perpetuate by word of mouth.

I researched patterns that historians refer to as great awakenings; the ’60s counterculture, the civil rights movement, the great awakenings of the 1700s and 1800s that led to the American Revolutionary War and the abolition of slavery, etc.

I started my Ph.D. program at Princeton, and in the first week, the tragic events of 9/11 happened. Princeton is a 45 minutes drive outside of New York City. I remember feeling alienated and disconnected being in an ivory tower setting and witnessing these events in the real world. I became actively involved in the protests leading up to the invasion of Iraq. I started to see all of these different stories online that differed from the stories I saw on the news. In the early 2000s, blogging, and social media was starting to become popular. I saw that this was the future of everything. This was the future of communications. This was the future of building movements. The movements were going to be online and on social media. I took a break from school and moved to New York City. I finally dropped out of my Ph.D. program to work in social media. I was doing strategy for a few social media software companies, I ran the New York office of M80, which was a W.P.P. agency. I led social media for Volkswagen, which included launching their Facebook page, Twitter, their first blog – basically starting the whole brand online and helping them to build tens of millions of fans.

I became an expert in social media professionally, but I felt like there was a disconnect between building communities around brands and what I studied about building communities at Princeton.

After the economic crash of 2008, 2009, I quit my job and bought a one-way ticket to Thailand. I traveled around Southeast Asia and India for about six months. I eventually wrote about that experience in my first book, Red Bull to Buddha. I was looking at globalization and the balance between disruptive innovation and traditional conceptions of community and wisdom. In my next book, Disruption Revolution, I looked at the patterns and trends of innovation. By writing these two books, I started formulating my theory around building a movement, innovation, and bringing that together with what I studied at Princeton.

After that Disruption Revolution came out, I was recruited as Head of Innovation and Research for a company called Dubizzle, based in Dubai. It was the sixth most visited website in the U.A.E.; around 40% of the country’s population visited the site at least once a month. Since I left my job in 2010, I’ve traveled to about 40 countries. The international experiences and writing led me to eventually creating my most recent book, Empower: How to Co-create the Future. I’m now working on workshops and online courses, to teach people how to co-create movements around brands.

The work I’m doing now is the culmination of 20 years of research and work experience. In addition to all of that, I’m very passionate about meditation. I’ve practiced meditation for around 20 years, and it has become an important part of my life. I’d say there’s a spiritual component to all of my work. I’m very much interested in the interrelationship between innovation and awakening. I think that social media, virtual reality (V.R.), and augmented reality (A.R.), are really going to be a catalyst for profound shifts in consciousness over the next ten to twenty years. There are going to be many incredible breakthroughs and innovation that will also help to awaken and change our global consciousness. I have this idea that technology acts like training wheels for more substantial shifts in behavior. When children get on a bike for the first time, they have to slowly learn how to ride with training wheels. In the beginning, they’re kind of clumsy, but they keep going. Eventually, with lots of practice, falling and getting up over and over, they get the balance, and the training wheels come off. There are all these new ways of communication and sharing ideas, that enable us to build communities, which lead to shifts in our behavior. Social media and smartphones have reached mass adoption at this point, everyone uses them. People all over the world are thinking about how they can build movements, and be connected to something meaningful. I think the work that you’re doing is excellent, this is the future. This is the way how companies, governments, and nonprofits need to be run. That’s what I’m most passionate about, and it is who I am.

How do you define success and fulfillment?

I personally feel that success is a function of the impact that you have on the world. Success is a function of your overall feeling of happiness and well-being. I think that success and well-being are interrelated. A lot of people talk about success in terms of the accumulation of money and material possessions. I believe that when you focus on accumulating material possessions as your goal, you are choosing a certain level of comfort. Some people talk about this idea of access versus ownership. For me, I think it’s really access versus convenience or security.

For example, people tend to think that they need enough money to buy a particular house or to put their children through college. They are running on a treadmill where they keep feeling that they need more and more things to have a sense of security and comfort. They associate success with this feeling of safety and comfort. But in my experience, the feeling of security and comfort actually prevents you from having access to meaningful experiences and to positively impacting the world, because you are so concerned about not losing what you have.

My life philosophy is about optimizing life for access and for meaningful experiences. Now, these experiences can be anything from traveling, doing unique activities, building meaningful relationships, and doing work that matters for your community. I think success is really a function of the impact that you have on the world. If you focus on sharing these different experiences, you are creating an environment that is open and inclusive. You’re helping to create a world where everyone benefits, and you have an impact that benefits humanity. This is how I define success, which is very different than most people think of it. This goes back to the title of my book, Empower: How To Co-Create The Future, which is about sharing. I’ve lived in Dubai and New York, and I’ve known a lot of people that had considerable amounts of wealth. Once they have it, their biggest concern is not to lose it all. They get attached to all of their things and a lot of times they don’t even enjoy it. It becomes a trap.

Thinking about success, what person comes to mind?
I call it the end of the line test which is looking at someone at the end of their career and you ask yourself, “Do I want to follow this particular path, and would I feel fulfilled becoming like this person in the best-case-scenario? “I remember as a graduate student at Princeton, we were the top-ranked program in the world. A world-renowned professor was retiring during that time. A conference was being held in his honor, and professors from all over the world came to give presentations about his academic achievements. The presentations were put into a book.

Following his path, I would retire from Princeton and have a conference in my name, “This is the best I can do?” I remember going to this conference with 150 to 200 colleagues in other departments, and no one cared. I had this kind of feeling that I don’t want to spend the next thirty to forty years of my life to get to the end of this path and be this kind of person.

Years later, I worked for an incredible entrepreneur, who became an important mentor to me, who co-founded different companies, made lots of money and was very successful. I was based in New York City, leading strategy. He was working out of Seattle, and he had all these people reporting to him, and his office was always busy. It got to a point where he said, “Okay, David, we need to talk every week. Why don’t you call me at 10:00 a.m. New York time every Tuesday, which will 7:00 in the morning on the West Coast, I will be driving to the office, and I know that no one will be calling me then.”

I had this aha moment, “this is not the life that I want If the end of the line for being an entrepreneur is to just keep getting overworked and have all this wealth. This is not the life that I want to have.” The people that I look up to and admire are the spiritual teachers and meditation teachers that I’ve graced my life. These are people that have done everything that they can to cultivate habits of compassion and wisdom. Through their teachings, they have a meaningful impact on the world.

The pure path of intellectual wisdom was not the thing for me, and the path of trying to make lots of money by building companies as a serial entrepreneur and investor was not for me either. My journey is to teach and make a positive impact on people. That’s why these are the people that I admire most.

I define success as having a fulfilling and meaningful life that’s optimized for access to experiences, collaboration, sharing, and having a positive impact on the world. I think that pursuing a life along those lines is the thing that will ultimately leave you the most fulfilled.

What is your vision or your dream for the next five to ten years?
I want to continue the type of teaching and writing around co-creation, advocating the philosophy of building movements around brands, organizations, and startups. I want to keep promoting co-creation and encouraging people to think about the world in this way in which we are all interconnected. When I think of the next five to ten years, I will be continuing to write more books, continuing to do workshops, coaching, and consulting. I have been thinking about building an online platform and network that helps to facilitate and empower people with the resources, knowledge, and skill sets that they need to succeed.

The way that I think about the future is that you are falling and falling and falling, and then you realize that there is no ground. And so there’s the idea that the world is continually changing. Everything is kind of influx and all material things that we try and hold on to, don’t last. The only things that last in an ever-changing world are your relationships, your partnerships, your reputation, and your impact.

When I think about the future, I think about continuing to put this work out there, speaking about co-creation, and meeting people like you. It’s great to hear that you could envision us working together. I’m thrilled that we are connected.

From a young age, we are taught and evaluated based on our individual test performances. And then we get into jobs, and we are assessed and paid based on our personal performances. We are socialized to think about who we are in the context of our role and our productivity as individuals. Hence, we don’t think about the relationships, partnerships, collaboration, and networks, which actually turn out to be the most important.

What are your core beliefs and your core values?
Well, my core beliefs are very much informed by my lifelong study of world religions. I think that we need to do everything that we can to alleviate suffering in the world and that a lot of the causes of suffering stem from desire. I think it’s important for people to have some type of mindfulness practice, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a meditation practice. Meditation practice is what works for me, but I found that for some people it could be exercise, painting a picture, or playing the Saxophone.

I think we don’t have as much control over our beliefs as we like to believe. I observe that people who have firm beliefs are often so motivated by the idea that they are right, that it can lead them to actually do terrible things. I think most of the suffering that we see in the world is by people who believe that everyone who doesn’t belong to their particular team, in terms of their nationality, their race, their gender or whatever it might be, is an outsider. This belief is based on the underlying assumption of inequality, that someone is better than others. For me, I think it’s essential to have a daily practice and to think about personal and communal rituals that help you to be grounded in the real world, and not overthink how everyone else should or could be. I’m going on a little bit of a tangent here.

What are your key challenges and your key decisions?
I think the first critical decision was when I was 19 or 20 years old and decided to study religion, philosophy, and pursue the life of the mind. I was studying engineering at that time. I was always very good at math. But I felt that I had to do something more meaningful with my life. And so that placed me on the path from an undergraduate at Arizona State, my master’s, and for my Ph.D. at Princeton.

The second crucial decision was realizing that on the one side academia was not right for me, and on the other side that I didn’t want to be an entrepreneur, building companies, and making money. This led me to start working in New York in social media and software startups. In 2010, I decided to buy a one-way ticket to Thailand and traveled 6 months around South East Asia and India.

I used to look at writing in the context of something that I had to do. As a student, you have to write these papers, and working in the marketing department, you have to write blog posts. There was always some external driver, that forced me to write. That sense of obligation made it not always very enjoyable. I’ve realized after writing three books now that writing is a journey of transformation.

What made you choose religion and philosophy at the age of 19?
I think, in all honesty, it was a combination of my ambivalent relationship with religion, growing up in an Evangelical Christian Church, and I felt kind of lost. I had an idealized view of what was being an academic would be in terms of teaching two or three courses per semester, having your summers off and being able to travel to conferences. For me, at the time, this was a very appealing alternative path to just finishing college and then getting a job.

Going to college in the 1990s, there really wasn’t a lot of popular understanding around being an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs at that time were people who came up with an idea and would have to beg for investors. There wasn’t this kind of elevated status of the entrepreneur that I think you see now.

I wonder if I were magically 20 years old again right now, I would probably try to build a startup, instead of studying religion and philosophy. But that option wasn’t really there for me. Studying grassroots communities and movements, and how they grow and spread, was along the lines of what people are doing today. I think for me, philosophy and religion was the closest thing, to taking the entrepreneurial model and applying it to myself. By studying theology and philosophy, I could create my own life direction, similar to how people think about being an entrepreneur today. I had no concept of that at that time. Now, everyone talks about being an entrepreneur and meditating.

What drives you?
Right now, I think what drives me is the excitement of keeping pushing my own boundaries. And being vulnerable. I want to follow my intuition, which forces me to do my most creative world. I find that the more vulnerable I am, the more people respond to what I’m doing. I’ve realized that while writing three books. I used to think that, “okay, there’s a certain process around writing a book. You have to be a professional.” A lot of times people will end up comparing them to someone they like, and think “okay, I really admire this person, so If I just act like them, then I will be a success.”

I have learned that the more I focus on what is unique and different about myself, the more I’m connecting with others, and impacting the world. James Altucher refers to this as choosing yourself. I interviewed him in my last book, Empower. I also Interviewed Brad Feld about this idea that you need to know yourself, and the more you are authentically who you are in a work environment, the more you can develop relationships with people who you are collaborating with. They’ll see you as being authentic. They won’t see you as being fake. And that actually ends up allowing you to do more meaningful work.

What really motivates me is to stay on the journey of self-development towards awakening and keep putting myself out there. I have this kind of faith that everything will work out. It’s exciting because I think it’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve really have embraced this. I think intellectually, I have always understood the importance of giving and collaborating. But now, it’s something that’s it’s profound, and it’s kind of ingrained in everything that I do.

Who inspired you on your journey?
I would say, the people who have inspired me are my teachers in school and my spiritual meditation teachers. For one, it’s John Corrigan, who had a massive impact on me during my master’s program.
When I was at Princeton, Leigh Schmidt, Cornel West, Kenneth Folk, were influential.

Ralph White, the co-founder of the New York Open Center, and various others, impacted me.
Actually, the people who have had the most impact on me were my meditation and spiritual teachers. It’s interesting to me that there are all these Tech and innovation people, who are now discovering meditation. They are excited about it and clumsy in terms of writing about it.
I feel grateful to my teachers and mentors, that have given me a very grounded perspective to write about these topics.

You still have mentors and teachers in your meditation practice, or you are your own teacher?
I do still have a kind of mentors and peers, but for the most part, I have become my own teacher. What I found is that a lot of dharma talks, retreats, and workshops tend to cater more for people who are new on the path. I find that I don’t get a lot out of them. I tend to be more self-directed with my practice. But then there are aspects of the practice that I do consult with peers, that have been practicing for 10, 20, or 30 years.

You pursue a certain kind of medication, or there are different meditations that you do?
I do mostly a noting practice, where you, for example, note the rise and fall of the breath, or you note the rise and fall of different sensations. It’s associated with what people call the Mahasi method. Mahasi was a teacher out of Burma that popularized this method in the 1950s and 1960s. There is also the meditation practice called Janos, which focuses on cultivating a different kind of heightened states of awareness. You focus specifically on the point where the breath enters the body right by the nose. I switch back and forth between these two different approaches.

Kenneth Folk, my meditation coach, has this idea that he calls contemplative fitness. He thinks that in the same ways that mixed martial artist trains in all the different disciplines so that when he goes fighting in the ring, he has all his tools at his disposal. A meditator should learn different approaches so that they have a more holistic contemplative practice.

Actually, I want to write about this someday. I apply aspects of my contemplative practice to my work, I’m doing different meditations around the pain points that my customers might feel, and then I meditate around how would they think if all those pain points would be removed? What I find is that when you meditate upon the pain and then you meditate upon the joy and the absence of pain, your mind kind of works in the background to tell a story to resolve the conflict. So actually, I use my contemplative practice in solving all different types of problems in life. But it’s kind of hard to explain how exactly I do that.

What is your superpower?
I don’t know. I think it just goes back to my passion for co-creation and my compassion. I think a lot of people talk about networks and community as a function of marketing. Through marketing, it becomes kind of artificial and shallow. They’re using all the right words, but they don’t really believe them, and they don’t really feel them deep down. And so I think my kind of superpower because I’ve been actively working through these things and with them for 20 years now that this is just — it’s just who I am.

A lot of the stuff, the work that I’m doing I think is kind of its sort of innovative and new, and it’s exciting that people find it fascinating and it’s like this new approach to management type of stuff, but this is just who I am. I just feel very grateful that there’s kind of an audience for it now. Because when I started studying this stuff and practicing meditation 20 years ago, no one cared about it. It was me and ten baby boomers going to a meditation class. I was usually the youngest person by 30 years.

Well, I think I’d like to have more money to be able to scale this work. I feel like I’ve been so focused on collaboration and sharing and meditation and these types of things and my ideas and now I need to think more about building a business and revenue model around this that will allow me to scale it. That’s kind of what I’m sort of focusing on now. You need money and partners and busters to scale the impact of anything.

What are the questions you ask yourself daily?
I keep thinking about how I can have a positive impact on the world? What helps me to shape my priorities on what’s most important to me on a day-to-day basis?

These questions have evolved over the last 20 years. I guess I have a lot more patience now for understanding and certain things take more time than others. I think about my short, medium, and long-term goals. And then I think about what’s the most important things that I need to achieve, and prioritize accordingly. Most people have a hard time being alone with only their thoughts. All the meditation is concentration on the breath and watching your thoughts rise and fall. Lots of people have a tough time with just the busyness of their own mind.

What are your daily rituals, practices, and tools?
I usually meditate for 45 minutes in the morning when I wake up. I use an app called the Insight Timer, which has bells that go off every 15 minutes to help you keep track of your practice. I think Your mind always wanders off, I think you have to train yourself to keep up with it.

Other than that, I don’t really have daily rituals.
I pretty much live off of Airbnb, so it’s not so much a ritual. I travel with a Bluetooth speaker, the Philips Hue Light System, with an Apple T.V., a meditation cushion, and a yoga mat. If you have good lighting, good music, you’re able to stream movies, I have my meditation practice, these are the things that I associate with home.

I’m traveling around ten months out of the year. I try and keep everything in one suitcase. This goes back to what I said before about optimizing for experiences, and not for material possessions. We don’t need to own a lot of stuff. I feel that anything that you can access you don’t need to own. Through sharing economy, I can live in an excellent place through Airbnb, I can ride a car whenever I need one through Uber, and I don’t need a lot of clothing. I just have my laptop, a cell phone, and the basics things that I associate with home. I stripped the experience of feeling home to the bare essentials that I take along with me.

The first few years, I would pick up all these travel shirts, I would buy jewelry, and I had an international travel lifestyle. It thought it to be cool to get stuff. In the last one or two years, I minimized it to three pairs of pants, a pair of jeans, a couple of dress shirts, some t-shirts and a jacket – that’s basically all that I need. I realized that working in tech and innovation, I don’t need a suit. I can go to conferences. I can go to business meetings wearing something that’s kind of dressy casual. There are so many things that I just don’t need that I decided to get rid off. It makes life a lot easier.

What is your emotional state that you’re in most of the time?
I don’t know. I try not to have my emotions fluctuate too much, so I just try and be calm. Well, the biggest challenge for me now is just getting my work out there.

I have a sort of reasonably sophisticated model around innovation, transformation, and organizational change. I have a lot of ideas and approaches that I think a lot of people can benefit from. But I also recognize that there are millions of people talking about similar concepts, using the same keyword phrases. There are all types of people that are doing content marketing on the same kinds of things, and it doesn’t necessarily matter who has the best ideas. A lot of times it’s who is the loudest, most aggressive or who has the most significant budgets that stand out.

The biggest challenge for me is that I’m one person trying to focus on finding partnerships that matter and utilizing my time in the best way possible. I’m focusing on doing work that I think is meaningful. I don’t have to do get drawn into the consulting profession.

I have varying levels of time commitment. It’s a matter of doing the best that I can to try to keep everything moving forward. In any collaboration, there’s always different levels of commitment. To get a book out, organize a conference or a workshop, you have to do everything you can to make sure that everyone else does their part. There’s only so much that you can do. You have to be very conscious of how you’re spending your time.

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