Scott Snibbe is the executive director of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment, and the host of its podcast. He has worked as an artist, an entrepreneur, and a Buddhist, in equal measure. He gave this talk, “Dharma and Product” during San Francisco’s Compassion and Product conference in October, 2023.
A lot of you are probably aware that the Buddha didn’t call his teachings Buddhism. That would have been a bit self-centered for someone who had totally dissolved his ego. He simply called his teachings “dharma.” I just finished writing a book called How to Train a Happy Mind, that adapts Tibetan Buddhist meditation to a secular audience. For it, I tried to come up with a simple definition of dharma for people unfamiliar with the term. What I ended up with was this: “Dharma refers to those teachings that help us develop our good qualities and understand reality.”
Dharma refers to those teachings that help us develop our good qualities and understand reality.
But this can be simplified even further, because understanding reality really boils down to the first part of the definition as well: we try to understand reality to determine what actions result in happiness and which result in suffering—both for ourselves and for others.
When we live a life aligned with actions that create happiness and diminish suffering, Buddhism calls that an ethical life. In the book, I also tried to distill Buddhist ethics down to its simplest terms, and I ended up with the following definition, adapted from a talk by Allan Wallace: Buddhist ethics is living a life committed to nonviolence, kindness, and understanding the mind. And when we talk about understanding the mind, we mean understanding the mental causes of happiness and suffering that result in healthy minds.
Buddhist ethics is living a life committed to nonviolence, kindness, and understanding the mind.
What are ethical products?
When we start with these three principles of Buddhist ethics—nonviolence, kindness, and understanding the mind, we can ask ourselves what an ethical product looks like. If you’re a cabinet maker, like my father, creating your product ethically means embodying nonviolence by not harming the planet by doing things like using sustainable wood; and not harming people through paying your employees a fair, living wage.
From the perspective of kindness, it means conducting your business with benevolence. Being patient, forgiving, laughing off problems, skillfully resolving conflicts. My father embodies this principle of kindness too. Even when he faces huge problems at work, my dad is able to stay gentle and patient and, above all, to treat the people around him with kindness. To him, healthy relationships are always more important than money. That may be why I’m now supporting him in his retirement!
In your own life, you’ve probably noticed how there are some people you just love to be around. Carson Kelly, who organized this conference, is that kind of person! Another person I’ve worked with who has these qualities was my first manager at Adobe, David Herbstman, a college friend who was so kind and so funny that whenever he had a meeting laughter continuously poured from his office.
To train an ethical mind at work, it’s ideally a matter of being kind and attentive in your everyday encounters. Which, as we all know, is a lot easier said than done under the pressure of deadlines, money, and metrics.
But even when you manage to conduct your own work life ethically, the people around you may not. I once had a manager who berated our team in weekly meetings. I decided to make an appointment with him to talk it over and see if I could change his behavior through nonviolent communication.
I started out by saying, “You’d agree we’re trying to make a fun product?” He nodded, a little suspiciously, but I continued. “Then wouldn’t you agree that we need to have fun while making it?”
He smirked a bit, but he did nod in agreement to that too. I went on to explain how hurt the team members felt when he yelled at them in our weekly meetings, and how this abuse was affecting their performance and their willingness to experiment and take risks. “We’re all on the same team,” I told him. “We all want to make a great product, and my request to you is to try giving us constructive feedback, and to speak more gently. I think you’ll see that it works better with the kind of hard-working, bright, sensitive people we have on our team.”
How do you think that turned out?
Well, my manager didn’t say whether he would agree to my request. But later that day, I started to notice meetings disappear from my calendar, and I soon found out from HR that he wanted me to immediately transfer to another team. Luckily I wasn’t fired. But over the time I continued to work there, it turned out that every single other person who reported to him in the same way I did transferred out of the team too—a 100% exit rate, often after less than a year.
In fact, the toxic environment seemed to affect him as well, because even my manager eventually quit. And guess what he decided to do with his life—he became a cabinet maker like my dad! I discovered it on social media where we are still “friends.” And, honestly, it was a relief to see him doing solitary, quiet, nonviolent work in his garage, where he no longer caused harm to anyone, instead creating benefit to himself and his family by making their life more beautiful, and his own mind more peaceful.
So a basic form of ethics is to treat your co-workers with kindness and nonviolence, particularly nonviolent speech. Violent speech hurts everyone, perhaps the speaker most of all, because everything we do that harms others piles up in our minds, until even we want to quit the toxic environment that we ourselves created! In Buddhism we call this “karma” and in neuroscience it’s called neuroplasticity.
How can products promote healthy minds?
Of course ethics manifests not just in how the people making products treat each other, but in how the products affect their customers.
For a digital product that operates more on the mind than physical realty, the ethical dimension also shifts more to the mind than the body: not harming the mind, being kind to the mind, and training the mind toward its better nature.
How can products promote healthy minds? And when do they sometimes harm them?
The Buddhist understanding of the mind is that focused attention is one of our healthiest states of mind. Mindful attention is a healthy state of mind to have at work and with your colleagues, and it’s a good one to promote in your products.
With the advent of text messages and mobile notifications, the benefits of mindful attention have gained stronger scientific support because scientists have been able to study the causes of happiness and the causes of suffering more intimately than ever before.
A famous study done at Harvard called “Track You Happiness” texted people randomly during the day and asked them three questions: What are you doing? What are you thinking about? And how happy are you?
At lot of people when they hear the results of this study, are at first confused. Because in general, no particular activity made people happier than another. Not even a delicious meal, making love, or a walk in the forest. Instead, the strongest correlation with happiness is that people feel happiest simply when they are thinking about what they are doing, regardless of what that is.
The strongest correlation with happiness is that people feel happiest simply when they are thinking about what they are doing, regardless of what that is.
If they’re eating a delicious meal and thinking about work, they’re not so happy. Having sex but thinking about the number of likes on their last Instagram post: not happy. But while having a difficult conversation, yet being fully present for it, people actually reported being happy. Being present, or, as we know the term better, being mindful, is one of the greatest causes of happiness.
When products disrupt mindful attention
This brings me to other applications of notifications in our lives that aren’t as beneficial. You yourself may be feeling anxious right now due to a buzz in your pocket that arrived during the first part of my talk.
So based on this principle of mindful attention leading to happiness, for a product to be a cause of happiness, it should probably promote the kind of mindful attention that we know brings people happiness, allowing them to focus on whatever or whoever is at hand.
When a product pulls you away from attentive focus, we might consider it a tiny act of violence. So I want to dive deeper into this principle of nonviolence for a moment, and how we can make products that embody it.
When a product pulls you away from attentive focus, we might consider it a tiny act of violence.
For a product to be nonviolent, I’d like to suggest that it refrain from harm through our body, speech, and mind. Avoiding physical harm is kind of obvious, for example, refraining from selling foods that are bad for your health, or vehicles that harm the environment. What leads to verbal and mental harm, though, is less obvious, because not everyone is aware (or agrees with) the causes of happiness and suffering that the dharma teaches.
Let’s go back to the principle of attention for a moment. Thich Nhat Hahn once said “the greatest gift you can give someone is your attention.” So perhaps the greatest gift a product can give you too is its attention, or, flipping it around, the gift of your own attention.
Notifications can feel like a form of auditory violence when they interrupt us from sincere engagement with ourselves or with others. I guess a notification can be a tiny form of physical violence too, when you feel its vibration in your pocket. So for a product to be nonviolent, I would argue that it should respect the attention of the person using it, avoiding unnecessary interruptions or distractions, and certainly avoid feeding addiction.
That may feel hard if not impossible when you are making digital products that compete with others that do use notifications to steal your attention. But I want to give you a couple examples of products that managed to beat out their competition by honoring this attention principle.
Zoom is the first example. With every other video conferencing product I used up until Zoom, it was possible for someone to call you any time of the day or night—in many cases, even strangers. When I mentioned this to Jay Vidyarthi here at the conference, he shuddered, and confessed that Skype’s distinctive bubbly ring had so deeply penetrated his psyche that it haunted his dreams.
Tiny product decisions make a huge impact on a product. By not allowing incoming calls, Zoom lets you control your attention and have focused, meaningful conversations for as long as you like (or at least for 40 minutes if you’re using the free version!).
Another product decision I think about a lot is Facebook’s decision to allow outbound links on its platform vs. Instagram’s decision to ban them. Because of this small decision, discourse in these two social networks diverged drastically over time. Instagram, for many of its users, became a place for personal creativity and expression. While Facebook, by allowing external links to be reformatted in its well-designed newsfeed, rebranded all kinds of questionable content as uniformly reputable. In the process, it promoted disinformation, interpersonal conflict, and even the decline of democracy.
Ethical products promote nonviolence, kindness, and healthy minds
I could go on for hours about what compassionate products look like today and might look like in the future, but we are all contributing to that conversation over these two days.
I do, though, have one very specific suggestion for how any kind of product can promote happiness and a better world, which I’m going to share in a moment.
But before I do, I want to briefly sum up this simple framing of how the dharma can inform product—and what an ethical product looks like—by applying dharma ethics to product management.
- Dharma refers to those teachings that help us to develop our good qualities.
- Developing our good qualities means behaving ethically.
- And from a dharma perspective, ethics boils down to nonviolence, kindness, and understanding the causes of happiness and suffering in our mind.
A product that adheres to dharma ethics should be nonviolent, kind, and train our mind toward its better nature.
- It can do this physically by not harming our bodies or the environment.
- An ethical product should also avoid harming us through speech by using and encouraging speech that are connecting rather than disconnecting. It should promote speech that is true rather than untrue, meaningful rather than frivolous, and gentle and understanding rather than harsh and dismissive.
- An ethical product should also avoid harming our minds: it should promote attention and presence, rather than distraction and dislocation. It should promote contentment rather than longing.
It might seem difficult to adhere to these principles, particularly if we are driven by markets or managers that demand a single-pointed objective like revenue or time spent in an app. And, as Jay mentioned, there is no silver bullet list to make sure your product is ethical: it depends on the context of your product, customers, and company. Even weapons, from a Buddhist perspective, can be ethical, when used in self-defense.
But I want to leave with one final concrete idea on how we can each make products more ethical. In Mahayana Buddhism, the first part of a meditation session is your motivation: usually an expansive one that your meditation might be a cause for expanding the happiness of yourself and others, and diminishing our suffering.
I’ve spent a couple of decades volunteering for Buddhist centers, including serving on two boards. One of the things that immediately struck me about how these Buddhist organizations were run is that before any meeting, we would explicitly motivate. Sometimes this was just a single sentence, like: “May this meeting benefit others.” At other times our motivation got longer and more creative.
I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve always been too afraid to implement this policy in my companies or teams, because I was scared that people would find it too religious or sappy. Inside, though, I’d often whisper to myself a brief aspiration like this before a meeting: May our work benefit others.
Having such an aspiration has helped me make more delightful and beneficial products. And I’ll tell you that habitually thinking like this has also caused me to quit at least one job, when I saw that my work couldn’t be of benefit while serving a harmful boss, working on a harmful product, or remaining in a harmful working environment.
So, if you’re courageous enough, and can find a way to do it that doesn’t feel religious or sappy, I think starting meetings with this kind of benevolent motivation we use in Buddhism could actually be of huge benefit in creating compassionate products.
When I look back to some of the meetings I had in prior jobs, I’m quite sure that we could have avoided a lot of problems and benefitted a lot more people if we had simply spoken these words out loud before every meeting: “May our work benefit others.”
I’m not going to force you to say it out loud right now, don’t worry. But if you feel like it, as I end my talk, you can think it to yourself right now, just for a moment: May my work benefit others.