David Heinemeier Hansson: An Interview With A Real-World SuperLearner
Today we are joined by a real-life superhuman – a man who has risen to prominence in not just one, but two extremely competitive arenas.
David Heinemeier Hansson, better known as “DHH,” is a software developer, entrepreneur, and race-car driver from Denmark.
He’s most known for his company, Basecamp, and for creating the popular Ruby on Rails web development framework that has taken the world of web development by storm. In 2005, he was recognized as “Hacker of the Year” by Google and O’Reilly. He’s written a slew of books on software development, and 3 very popular books on building and managing software companies: Getting Real, Rework, and Remote.
If that weren’t enough, David has also had a meteoric rise to prominence in the world of auto-racing, climbing through the ranks and coming in among the top spots in what many would call record time.
In this episode, I wanted to deconstruct David’s thinking process and figure out how he learns so much so effectively. I wanted to understand how he has managed to be so successful in two entirely different worlds, and see what tips he had to offer to anyone looking to live a life as diverse as his.
We talk about how he manages his time, but more than that, we take a deep dive and deconstruct his entire learning methodology in depth, flow, habits, happiness, goals, and how David has spent decades deconstructing and analyzing his own performance from every possible angle.
Quite honestly, I can say without exaggeration that this is one of the absolute BEST episodes we’ve ever done.
If you agree, make sure to leave us a review, drop us a tweet, or reply in the comments below!
In this episode, we discuss:
- A brief summary of David Heinemeier Hansson's life & work up until this point
- How has DHH managed to balance so much with such success?
- How did DHH start work on Ruby on Rails and 37Signals with just 10 hours per week?
- The secrets behind David Heinemeier Hansson's time management skills
- Group chat as a replacement for email: friend or foe?
- How the heck does David Heinemeier Hansson learn? How has he learned so much so quickly?
- The story of how and why DHH invented Ruby on Rails by learning from the best code & coders in the world
- The story of how David Heinemeier Hansson learned (and began dominating) auto racing
- Which surprising resources did David use for learning resources, which you can access right now?
- What “uncomfortable” and painful situations did DHH find in his pursuit of accelerated learning?
- In what ways does David Heinemeier Hansson leverage the beginner's mindset and learn from others?
- What are the many commonalities between the SuperLearner methodology & DHH's learning toolkit?
- What other areas of learning has David applied his learning toolkit or “template” to?
- Is there spillover between the areas David Heinemeier Hansson learns in?
- In what ways are programming, business management, and race car driving similar?
- What does “developing an eye” for something mean, and how can you do it?
- What does David mean by “operating at 2Ghz” in a race car, and how is it different from how others operate?
- A discussion of the “flow” state, neural networks, and what DHH calls the “residue” of flow
- Does David Heinemeier Hansson read a lot? If so, what does he read?
- What are the skills, routines, and habits that help DHH perform at such a high level?
- How has Stoicism impacted DHH and improved his life and his productivity?
- What, if any, are David's next milestones or goals? What is he hoping to accomplish next?
- Why is David Heinemeier Hansson patently against having “goals?”
- How much happier is David today than he was decades ago living in a tiny apartment with no AC?
- Are there any major challenges that DHH is facing right now?
- What book or books have most impacted David Heinemeier Hansson's Life?
- Where can you reach out to David or learn more about him?
- What one takeaway would DHH hope for you to keep with you for the rest of your life?
Resources Mentioned in This Episode:
- Basecamp, formerly 37Signals
- Ruby on Rails
- Books by David Heinemeier Hansson:
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
- Getting Things Done by David Allen
- (Our previous interview with David Allen)
- Jason Fried's article, “I've Never Had A Goal“
- David's favorite books:
- David Heinemeier Hansson on Twitter
Favorite Quotes from David Heinemeier Hansson:
Jonathan Levi: Sorry, the line. Isn't that great? Um, I have a 300-megabit thing here. That's sort of a hardware, so I think mine should be okay, but you're kind of just dropping out a little bit.
Introduction: Welcome to the Becoming SuperHuman podcast, where we interview extraordinary people to bring you the skills and strategies to overcome the impossible. And now here's your host, Jonathan Levi.
Jonathan Levi: Greetings, Superfriends and welcome to today's very special show. I got to start out by saying, wow. While you guys, because when we first started out doing the show, I had a list of 10 names. 10 people that I really, really admire 10 people that I was just dying, dying to ask a few questions too. And today we have one of them on the show we're joined by a real-life Superhuman, a man who rose to prominence in two extremely competitive and arenas.
And honestly, if you ask me. Who is one of the finest examples out there of a superlearner? I would have to give this person, his name is David Heinemeier Hansson better known as DHH. And if you haven't heard of him, he's a software developer, an entrepreneur, and a race car driver originally from Denmark.
Now he's most known for the company. He co-founded called Base Camp. And for developing the very popular Ruby On Rails, web development framework. That quite frankly has taken the world by storm get hub was developed on it. Twitter was developed on it. And so many other applications and programs that we use every day were built on this technology that he developed in his early twenties.
Now in 2005, he was recognized. As hacker of the year by both Google and O'Reilly, and he's written a slew of books on software development and three very popular books on building and managing software companies. Those are getting real rework and remote. Now, if all of that weren't enough. David also has had a meteoric rise to prominence in the world of auto racing, climbing to the top of the ranks and coming in among the top spots in what many would.
Call record time. And he's constantly posting incredible times and he's just had such an impressive career there as well. Now, in this episode, I really wanted to deconstruct David's thinking process and figure how the heck he learns so much so effectively. And I wanted to understand how he's been so successful in various.
Entirely different worlds from business to software to auto racing, and then figure out, of course, for you guys, what tips he had to offer to anyone, looking to live a life as diverse and rich as his. So we start out and we talk about how he manages his time and there's a ton of value there, but then we go really deep and we start to actually deconstruct his entire learning methodology in depth.
And as I expected, he has some really powerful tips, some really. Amazing things that line up directly with the research directly with the stuff that I would call a super learner habit set, we then go into flow. We go into habits, we go into happiness and goals and we start to understand just how David has spent decades deconstructing and analyzing his own performance in every possible angle and in every possible aspect of his life.
Quite honestly, you guys, I can say without exaggeration that this is one of the absolute best episodes we've ever done. I was sitting on the edge of my seat while I was standing at my standing desk, but I was standing at the edge of my mat and just riveted the entire time. Now, if you guys enjoy this interview, I want to let you guys know.
That we do offer a class, which puts many of these frameworks that David talks about today, and many, many more like mnemonic techniques, speed reading and everything like that into one comprehensive training. And that's called to become a super learner masterclass. If you guys want to take that, you can join us risk-free for 30 days and check it out and start to understand how you too can acquire these learning tips and strategies and skills and many, many more so to get a very Handsome discount on that program and get started today, please visit jle.vi/learn. And now without any further ado, I'm very proud to present to you guys, Mr. David Heinemeier Hansson.
Mr. David Heinemeier Hansson, welcome to the show, Sir. It's really such an honor to be speaking with you. I have to be completely honest. So thank you so much for making the time
David Heinemeier Hansson:. Yeah, absolutely. My pleasure to be here.
Jonathan Levi: Yeah. And I appreciate you being patient with our technical issues here. I know it's really ironic to kind of like tech geeks, tech-savvy folks, and we have all these Skype issues. So thank you so much for that.
David Heinemeier Hansson: Yeah. The internet is still mysterious for lace. Isn't it.
Jonathan Levi: David, I have to admit, I tried super hard to summarize a very impressive biography, but I'm really quite sure that I didn't do it justice in the intro. So I'd actually love to hear how you go about summarizing your journey up until this point.
I imagine it's quite a challenge to fit into a concise summary.
David Heinemeier Hansson: Sure. Well, yeah, isn't really that bad. I have a couple of things that I'm passionate about and that I've been working on for a long time. Obviously, a base camp has the company. That's a, I've been a part of for the past before we were called base camp before there was a base camp.
What now? 15 years I've worked with Jason freed at a first 37 Sickles now Base Camp. We're we make a piece of software that helps small businesses and teams and organizations keep track of all the work they need to do and keep top of things and in control. So that's my main sort of business. And as I said, I've been doing that for 12 years.
We've been running base camp, the app for 12 years. Now I'm a founder and CTO there. And as part of that work on base camp, I created something called Ruby on rails, which is a web framework, a toolkit for people to create web applications, just like base camp or Shopify or get hub or Twitter was even started on that.
And then. Those two experiences have given me a lot to think about. So I wrote a handful of books, three books, and getting real rework and most recently remote. And then finally in my spare time, I like to drive race cars. So I do that at the 24 hours of Lamont and the associated, uh, world endurance championship.
Jonathan Levi: Incredible. You're literally the definition of a superhuman. You've got this Clark Kent Superman thing going on. And I think probably the first question that most people are wondering is how I mean, what makes you tick gesture auto ascent? You know, you're a scent in auto racing alone is really mind-boggling when you look at it.
The short number of years, but also to do all of this while building and maintaining a successful company and developing a whole new software development framework, I've got to ask how do you do it? I mean, what makes you tick?
David Heinemeier Hansson: Sure. It's funny because I often get that question. And to me, it's a little strange because I don't think there's any superhuman ness about the way I go about work.
A lot of it is just not doing a whole lot of work then. Perhaps others, are I myself with a thought in a earlier time was necessary. There's a. A lot of things that we do in business and in hobbies and so forth just are necessary and things you can just cut out. So I, for example, if we take the business and the technical side of things, it's not because I'm cramming 80 or a hundred or 120 hours into things.
Not at all. Um, the way I got started with both base camp and Ruby on rails was on a extremely modest time horizon. I was working with Jason, freed as a contractor, actually to a 37 Sickles back in the early 2000s. And I was in Copenhagen, Denmark. I was still going to school and I had 10 hours per week to sell him basically.
So that formative experience really cemented just how much you can actually get done in 10 hours per week. If you make them count and. It just so happens that most people, most of the time don't make their hours count. They chop them up, they take the work day and they turn it into the work moments. And if you have 10 hours, then you get 45 minutes here and now and a half there and an hour here.
And that's really a great way to not get anything done at all. I've had days like that. Uh, especially now when the company is, um, a little bigger, we're almost 50 people. Now I've had days where they're eight hours on the clock, but there's not eight hours to show for it afterwards. And a lot of that is to do with interruptions and how you spent the time.
And, Especially when it comes to creative work, whether you're writing or designing or programming, you just can't jump into a good groove in five minutes. It doesn't work like that. So what usually happens is if I have an appointment or like this podcast interview, right? When I sit down at my desk, if there's 40 minutes until we have to talk, I'm not going to spend that 40 minutes in some deep thought on a piece of programming, because there's just not enough talk to get in and out and get something real done.
So. I'll I won't say I'll waste that time, but I'll spend that time on other things that aren't moving Ruby on rails or base cam the application for it. I'll be answering my emails. I'll be doing a bunch of other things like that. And I think most people mistake the amount of time they spend in front of a computer, their workstation general as work.
Like, Oh, I did eight hours of work today and I'm not too sure you did. I'm sure you were present for eight hours. I'm not so sure you did eight hours a fork. And I think that that is the fundamental misconception that a lot of people are sitting with. And of course they didn't think like, Oh, how are you able to get all this done?
Like I spend eight hours in front of a computer every day and I can't imagine getting all that done well. A lot of it is probably just how we spent those eight hours. Did we spend them in the same way? No, we probably don't. I very frequently, uh, certainly at any time where I make material progress, get long stretches of uninterrupted time as in hours.
And I think in some ways we're actually getting worse and worse of this at this. It's funny because one of the early applications we made at third SIM synchronous was a program called campfire chat tool for groups and chat for groups have recently become all the rage again. And a lot of people are justifiably excited about how that sort of cuts down on email and cuts down lung things.
But it also creates this continuous distraction through the whole day where you expect it to hang out in this one place and pay attention. So you have this partial attention. Deficit running your entire day through. And then people wonder like, Oh wow, we're working, we're collaborating, we're doing all these things, but we're not actually getting more things done.
How is this possible? Well, because it's possible to fricking over collaborate and it's possible to spread your attention too thin. If you really want to make a breakthrough on creative work, it pretty much has to be the focus. It can't be just one window out of four on your screen that you're paying attention to.
And you're seeing all your unread counters thinking, being you're seeing all your notifications coming in and you keep half an eye on the company chat. Well surprise, surprise. You're not getting anything done. So I've been conscious of that since I've started working perhaps in part, because when I did start working with Jason, I was forced into this.
So Copenhagen is seven times zones off Chicago, which meant that most of the work I was doing, I was doing not what overlap I was doing it. On my own. And then we have a couple of hours, uh, a week or [00:12:00] whatever, to sort of square up our notes and like, Hey, I work on the right things. This is going in the right direction.
But the majority of the time was not spent quote-unquote collaborating. So that's just one of the techniques. I've used to great effect. And I continue to champion is to get long uninterrupted periods of time. And then all of a sudden it seems like magic. I mean, there are days when I can really get into the sewn I can do in two days.
What would otherwise take me two weeks? If those two weeks were sort of the common corporate. Way of workdays, where they're punctured by constant meetings and constant things to check in with. It's just not even on the same scale on the same level that a, you can extract productivity when you do it in a focused way.
I note it sounds like. Sort of a cop-out because people say, well, you know, I can just not like check my wins no for five minutes or whatever. And I just don't think most people have actually tried this, which is why I think most people are skeptical about it or perhaps] tried it, but they have not tried an unsustained basis.
So it's easy to be skeptical that you can really get that much more done. If you turn off your. Interruptions, unless you give it a proper damn go. It's not just like, Oh yeah. I didn't look at my email program for two hours. Well, it won't be to do right. Try doing that. Like for a whole day, then try doing that for a whole week, then try and doing that for a whole month.
And then now you'll see something different.
Jonathan Levi: You're totally speaking my language. I recently, we also have a distributed team here at my company and that's allowed me to do basically make her and manage her days. So I have entire days, Thursdays are the only days I interact with humans. Well, Thursdays and Mondays, and then the other days I'm just making.
So Slack is off email, never has notifications, but basically, I've stripped down all the distractions so that on Wednesdays and Sundays, I'm just making.
David Heinemeier Hansson: I think that's a great technique to do it. I wish sometimes that I had the sort of discipline to split it up like that because I see the effects every single time when I don't try to petition it just days being lost, where you look at the end of it.
And like, this was not a good day's work. I did not get a good day's work done because it was just punctured by all these little things and constant context. Switching costs.
Jonathan Levi: Absolutely. I want to ask on another channel entirely, we got into a little bit of your time management. How do you learn? Because you have essentially, I mean, you've built an entire software development framework, which took, I imagine a very solid learning of Ruby and of kind of the worlds of software development, but you've also learned this physical skill and this very complex skill of race car driving.
So how do you go about, you know, As someone who teaches accelerated learning, I'm very interested in how you go about learning so much, so fast.
David Heinemeier Hansson: Sure. So I think the first thing is to strip out of your brain, that there is speed limits to learning that there is a certain pace like, Oh, in year one, you do this and year two, you do that.
Absolutely not. You can compress, uh, most sort of learning trajectories into a much, much shorter amount of time than most people do. If you're willing to practice diligently and intently and not just practice, but also put yourself in a situation where. It's not just about practice, but you actually feel like you're making progress.
Like I'm actually a terrible learner when it comes to sort of abstract. Let me just learn a skill for the sake of learning a skill for me, I need a purpose. So for me to learn Ruby and to create Ruby on rails, the purpose was to build Base Camp. I wasn't just sitting down like, Oh, let me learn Ruby from sort of A, to C.
Absolutely not. I learned just enough just to basics, to get starting. And then every single lesson from there on out was because like, Oh, I need to do this. I wonder how I do that. Let me look it up. Let me find it out. Yeah. So that's the sort of approach I take. And then the environment I try to do as well to quickly identify who's the best and mimic what they do.
So in Ruby, it was reading a lot of code, not just in Ruby, but also in Java. And to small extent, PHP identifying sort of the successful open source projects and the successful pieces of code, and then really studying them. Again, not studying them in the abstract of, Oh, let me just study this piece of code because like, that's what I want to study, but study them in the concrete sense of like, I want to solve this next problem I have, and I want to solve it in the best way.
Like if the best program in the world was sitting right next to me and was teaching me how to do this right now, like that's the sort of environment I want to simulate. And that's, I found to be surprisingly easy. There is a mountain of open source code out there. There's a mountain of instruction and teaching from really good people who actually know what the hell they're talking about.
And you can tap into that if you're interested. So that's what I did. I just, I read a bunch of code whenever I hit a problem or a challenge that I wanted to conquer, and I dove really deep into it. I took most of the Ruby standard library apart and tried to learn from that. And the same is true for racing.
So when I first got into racing, I mean, I didn't have any background at all. The only background I had was I played a lot of racing video games, which, I mean, I guess to be fair, actually, it's a bit of a background. There has been some very interesting programs, including the GT Academy run by Nissan, where they were picking, uh, gamers off, uh, GranTurismo and turning those into professional race car drivers.
So there's definitely, there's some parallels there, but for me, I didn't get, and my driver's license until I was 25. I didn't sit in a race car until I think I was almost 30 dosha, not the hallmarks of someone generally, who then gets to compete at a high level. Most of the drivers who get to compete at a high level, they started much younger, right?
Like they were go-karting since they were six years old or whatever, but I used the same approach. I used the same approach of thinking like. I will figure this out. So I will figure out the language and the mechanics of what racing is. I will develop an eye for it. So developing an eye in racing is a lot of like, first you figure out the basics.
Oh, what is understeer? What is oversteer? What's a slip ankle? What's a good slip ankle? And those are sort of the vocabulary, but racing, of course, it's you say it's a physical learning. So it's about getting the seat of your pants sensation and. You sort of paired those two together. So spend a lot of time just driving slowly in circles, around track making some mistakes, but then also sort of putting yourself next to the best you can as quickly as you can.
So that includes studying race videos. YouTube is an amazing resource for onboard. Camera and goals of various phenomenal drivers driving race cars, and making it look incredibly easy, even though it's most certainly not. So I did that a bunch and then, um, I just kept moving through the fetus series as quickly as I could.
I never had the ambition to be the fastest driver at my local track. Like that is an entirely uninspiring aspiration for me. I wanted to be the fastest. Amateur driver in the world. I mean, not really as a goal, but more just as a gold post, somewhere to aim towards it. Wasn't like a binary thing. Oh, well, when I get to that I'm done or if I don't get to that, I screwed up or a failed is a goalpost of like, Why shouldn't I be like, why should I not be able to become the best gentleman driver in the world take while I'm reasonably fair time willing to put in the time and the effort to learn this?
It's like, why shouldn't I? So I think a lot of that both has to go to programming. So this goes to business, as it goes to racing, we're sort of in indignation of thinking, like there are a lot of. People in the world who sort of can become really good at something. Why should I not be one of those people?
And I mean, when I say the best, I don't mean that in a literal sense of like, one-on-one, I just mean like in the world today in sports car racing, there's a small handful of, I don't know, 10, 20, maybe even 30 drivers who are really sort of the best at the amateur level. Like there's no reason I shouldn't be able to join that club.
So that gave me sort of. Perhaps the confidence from the get-go to say, like, there is nothing inherent. That's keeping that from happening. I can make that happen. If I do to work. If I do the study if I put myself in situations where I'm humble enough to realize that I will be the worst slowest driver on the team, maybe even in the series.
And when I get started, then I'm going to learn really quickly. And there's a lot of people who are just not comfortable with that. A lot of people are. Not comfortable putting themselves in situations where they will perhaps a little like a fool. I have never been afraid of that. I've never been afraid of looking like a fool because there was learning.
And because I was a beginner to me, there was just this, I mean, phenomenal opportunity of accelerated learning. If I show up in a group of people and I'm already at the top of that group, I don't know. Maybe I learned something from teaching other people and that's certainly valid, but I. Don't learn as much, or as quickly as if I was just one of the worst people in that group, because then there's all these other people in this group for me to learn from really quickly.
And what I found too, is that both sort of people aren't that comfortable putting themselves in the beginner's shoes and. Putting themselves under the risk of looking foolish on the flip side, most people were really good at something they really like when someone looks up to them, when someone approaches them and like, Hey, how did you do it?
Like, how did you figure that out? Like ask detailed questions about their craft in such a way that they can display an exert or expert put. So I did that a bunch. I just. I still do that both ways as it comes to programming. And this has come to racing, just walk up to people who figured something out that I have not figured out and just go in like, Hey, why didn't you do that?
I want to learn the secret. I want to learn this trick or this aspect or this angle of the discipline. And you somehow, you know how I want to get that out of your brain.
Jonathan Levi: Wow. I have to say you're blowing my mind because I often tell our students that the world's most sophisticated learners figure out so much of this stuff that I'm always going on and on about in my courses.
Like it's almost as if you were like reading off the crib sheet. I don't know if you like cheated before the interview. It's just like, Like, this is not a paid advertisement for our courses, but I mean, first you started off by saying you need to learn for a specific purpose. That's straight out of Malcolm Knowles, 1955 research adult learners need to have pressing need and immediate application for learning.
So, boom, right there, you're out of the gate. Already ahead to use a racing metaphor. Then you go into like this experiential learning, what we call brute force learning. You're like, Oh yeah, I watch on YouTube and I do this and I ask questions. And I think so many people would sit down with one Ruby book and they just read it from cover to cover it.
And you were saying, no, I read all kinds of different code. I read PHP, I read Java. I read this, I read that. I tried this. I tried that. So this kind of brute force learning approach. And then the third big similarity that I saw was just this idea of asking the right questions, knowing how to ask questions, putting aside ego, and again, doing the brute force learning, but through conversations, through discussion and through adopting the beginner's mindset.
So I just think it's incredible. Like it kind of proves my hypothesis that you, as one of, I would consider one of the fastest, most accelerated learners out there. You've just figured this stuff out intuitively.
David Heinemeier Hansson: In your journey. And I think, again, it's not because there's at least for me with some sort of deep discovery of rocket science, I just, I tried different things.
And like, these were the things that worked. And when I found these things to work in one domain, I just took that template and applied it to something else. I've applied this template to driving a race car. I've applied this template to learning photography. I've applied this template to being a public speaker.
There's just. Like, there's a way of learning that applies just to most domains. And once you sort of find that to be successful in one domain, it's not that hard to just basically say, Hey, copy-paste. Let me go back to square one. And then I'll apply the same thing again. Although I will say to that, I've seen people who did follow some variety of this approach in one domain.
And then they become really good at that domain. And then again, they have an ego that's stopping them from going back to being a beginner, which then prevents them from learning another domain as well as they learn their first. And that's a real shame. And I think that that mixture of both knowing the technique I've had to learn something, but also having just the, I don't give a shit what people think.
Like, I don't give a shit. If people think I looked like an idiot or asked too many questions or I'm poor in the beginning, just because like I'm an expert in one area does not by any stretch or extension, make me an expert by default than another. Yeah, absolutely. If you just embrace that and just don't give a shit, what people think then it becomes so much easier.
And I think just so much quicker.
Jonathan Levi: Absolutely. So your template is essentially learn based on what you need. Ignore the recommended timeline. If I could just reiterate. So ignore the recommended timeline, learn things as you need to know them taking as many sources as you can adopt the beginner's mindset. And then just put your ego aside and ask as many questions as you can possibly draw up.
David Heinemeier Hansson: Yeah, absolutely. That's a, there's some patterns there. I think it's a whole pattern, language of learning and all of those patterns are relevant to the structures that I've taken in these many different domains.
Jonathan Levi: Incredible. So let me ask this. I mean, obviously the learning toolkit, you've applied to many different things by the way, saw your photography. And obviously, you're very skilled in that arena as well. Have the actual things that you've learned, for example, does the structured way of thinking that you've developed in your business help you on your, on the racetrack or vice versa?
David Heinemeier Hansson: Yeah, I think in the overall census of. Developing systems thinking critical theory and all of these. Sort of tools that are not just like the template of learning, but also the templates of thinking I applied those exact same way. That's part of why I love racecar driving so much because it's so similar to programming in the sense that you get immediate feedback on whether the thing you tried worked or didn't work in.
Programming you run the program, another it worked or it passed its unit tests or testing in general, or it didn't right. It's a very binary distinction in race, car driving, you do a lap and then you try something different. You try to break it deeper in here. You try to train up, right? You try to do other things.
And then in usually about two minutes, you get the answer. Because you get your new laptop. Did you improve, did you not improve if you improved? Excellent. The thing you did just worked now, there's a feedback loop and now you can proceed and not only just in the car, but also outside the car. I think of software as the whole system would feedback loops and running a successful race.
Programming is very much the same thing. You have the driver who tries to do the very best that they can on track. But then you also have a whole team behind it who needs to execute perfect pit stop. So need to have perfect strategy who needs to root cause analyze any failures and faults? Um, very, very similar like the retrospective approach I try to apply at the race teams I'm on is almost identical to the retrospective approach that I try to apply when we have a failure at.
Base camp for some technical issue of like, Oh, we were just down because like this thing failed and like the way you ask questions, the way you interrogate the problem, it's just the same. It's critical thinking and it's sort of deduction and it's the same tools and techniques you can apply to all of these domains, perhaps a little less.
So to some of the creative domains that are more just totally creative, but even that's not even fully the case. I was going to say like, photography is not quite like that, but in very many ways it is. You can absolutely analyze good photographs and figure out like, why are they good? Like, how is the foreground middle ground and background used?
How is the isolation of the subject used? What is the sort of the off thing? The thing that's like the weird angle or the offset net, is that the rule that you broke in this particular photograph that made it unique and special, and those are very much the same things.
Jonathan Levi: Absolutely. And I would advocate and I do advocate.
Creativity is actually just a skill like any other. It is not in any sense, an innate ability and you can actually teach people and we do this in our courses. You can actually teach people to be more creative just by teaching them a framework of thinking. And I think it's very similar to your framework of thinking.
I also have to say just interestingly enough, like speaking of memory and mnemonics. As you were talking about the feedback loop of going around the track and knowing within two minutes, I had this weird flashback to the first time I read your first book, getting real to the exact hotel room that I was reading in, in Thailand.
And I was sitting with, I was traveling at the time with my software developer, who was coding in Ruby on rails. And I go, dude, you got to read this. This is brilliant. Like what have we just iterated so rapidly that you always had feedback? We had this epiphany moment. I think that's really interesting that that skill has transferred also onto the racetrack and into photography for you.
David Heinemeier Hansson: Yeah, I think that the way I think about this notion of figuring out the domain is the idea of developing an eye for something. I remember when I first got into photography. I, as most people, they could look at a great photograph and go like, that's a great photograph, but they couldn't tell you why. And they couldn't look at a poor photograph and they'd go like, yeah, that doesn't look as good, but I don't know why.
And the answer is usually that there are answers. There are very specific things. There's lines. There's a golden, third stirs, um, white balance. There is subject isolation. There's all these very specific, actual technical definitions of why something is good, at least from a technical sense. I mean, there's also some.
Sort of the unknown creativity element that, uh, sometimes you can even break all the technical rules and you can still make up a great picture. But for me, what I was interested in then at the outset was to just be able to make great, technically proficient photographs, right. Things that looked as good as if a professional photographer had taken them and color-graded them afterwards, like an all those skills.
Absolutely learnable. And they're learnable by developing the eyes as did you see it? Like now I look at a, and sometimes it's a bit of a curse. Like I look at a photograph and I like if the white balance is off and it's like either too tinted to neither way, I just go like, ah, it's just like, it hurts my brain.
Right. It's the same thing in programming. Like I will look at a piece of code and I will just see, like, I've developed an eye for a compost method of how big it should be and what the naming should be and the clarity of it. And like, When I see a piece of code that does not live up to those definitions of technical proficiency, I just go like, ah, it hurts my eyes.
Wow. And I think developing that, I it's just one of those critical elements that when you get there, it seems easy. Like now when I, I mean, I mostly do photography that doesn't make it to the web or elsewhere because I just. I take family photos. And they're mostly just from me and my family and for us to document the cherries, the experience of having kids and watching them grow up and so forth.
It's just sort of, you get into this moment, you have to die for it. And then it seems easy because, you know, instinctively, they become sort of gut responses, even though they're real things, they're not just like subjective, whatever, but now once you have that eye, you can in a snap moment. You can make something good.
And I think that that's what you need to get to where it's not that conscious of a process, or at least it's not a conscious process all the time in certain domains like race, car driving, it can be a conscious process at all. You just don't have time to analyze, Oh, well, the way I take this corner out at a hundred.
40 mile now, or it works because I trail break that last 20% of it. And then I actually did a double-take on steering. Since that I leaned over the weight of the car to the outer wheels. And that gave more traction. You can't think through it like that, right. You just have to get to a point where you've developed an eye and then it's, uh, it happens automatically.
Jonathan Levi: Right. It becomes essentially a pattern of neurons firing you've mapped all or wrapped all your myelin around these connectors. And they just fire really, really quickly. You've upgraded your CPU from running like a hundred megahertz, so running to get Hertz and all of a sudden things seem slow, which.
David Heinemeier Hansson: It's funny because I get this risk of driving in, in some cars, you can have a passenger and you can take them up. Right. And when I take out a passenger, right. I usually think like, all right, I have a passenger. Like I should take it easy. Right. So for me taking it easy, driving around at 95% and almost every passenger I've had out who is not used to being in a race car on a racetrack, they go like, dude, you're out of control.
Like, this is like, we're just a second away from crashing and it's because they're perceiving that experience at a hundred megahertz. I'm perceiving that experience at two gigahertz. So for me, we have all the time in the world. I can enjoy the scenery. I can keep a conversation. It's not hard. Because everything just happened so much slower for me.
Right. Which again, this isn't about me being magic or special. This happens for everyone who was good at anything. You ask any person, especially in sports about like, Oh, what's that like a really hard shot? Or did you have to think about like, know what, what are you talking about? Like, this is easy and it's easy because everything happens at two gigahertz.
Jonathan Levi: Right. Which is the flow state. I mean, what you just described the passenger is obviously not in the flow state, but you as the driver are very much in the flow state. And there is literally when you want to talk about general relativity, there is a slowing of time and this effortless, I mean that this is how chicks them a high describes flow as well.
The most difficult tasks become effortless time seems to slow. You lose all perspective of the outside world. And that's almost exactly what you just described, even when you're going at 95%.
David Heinemeier Hansson: Absolutely. And I think you have that flow and then you also have this sort of residue flow, which is, I mean, I'll have flow state, but I don't have flow state all the time.
And. In fact to some degree when I'm in the car going 95%, it isn't so much of a flow state. It would have been if I went a hundred percent, right? Like I think for flow state, you have to be reaching for something that's just at like the peak of your ability, your sacrifice verbally, even a little beyond.
But then that leaves this residue that you can access 95% of that. Achievement. And it still has all those attributes of it being easy and seemingly slow and so forth] because you've wrapped your mile in so effectively around those neuropathways that you're just firing. So got them quickly. And that's why sometimes it's tough for me to remember.
Like being bad at driving because now when I get in a car and I go 95%, whatever, it just seems so easy. And I go, like, why was I not able to do this? Like five years ago? What was different? And it's exactly that it was like, I started out a hundred megahertz and I ended up at two gigahertz and yeah. Like a CPO that runs a two gigahertz.
Doesn't think about like, Oh, well I used to run my computations so quick or they, this is what they do, right? Like this isn't the nature of the beast. Like that's just the way the neurons are firing. You don't really think about it in terms of like, Oh, this is hard. Wow. So that's the thing that sometimes makes it hard to be a good inefficient teacher.
And I think sometimes I am a bad teacher, certainly when it comes to teaching people how to drive a race car, because. I've lost contact with, or I have to imagine like, Oh yeah, like doing this particular element of driving a car was really hard when you're a beginner, you really have to spend time to reach or actively study.
What was these humps to get over, which is why. Being a good educator is not something that just comes natural to most people. That's a skill in itself. That's developing an eye, that's developing a sort of a language and a set of patterns of realizing how do you help others get to that point?
Jonathan Levi: Absolutely.
You seem very well-read on the whole flow and neuroscience and everything like that. I have to ask, do you have a big reading habit?
David Heinemeier Hansson: Absolutely. I think definitely around personal development and specifically the science around talent and experience and happiness basically was how I got there. One of the quests I've had for a long time is to design my lifestyle in such a way that it's sustainable and.
Filled with as many happy moments as I can cram in, not in that had a mistake sort of threat mound kind of way, but just in a sort of steady state of constantly good experiences. So I spend a lot of time. We're just trying to figure out both from neuroscience and from philosophy and D's studies of a flow and so on.
How can I get more of this? Because once you've tasted it, Flow, for example, you want more, like it's like crack cocaine, right? Like you want to get back into that damn flow state. So I've tried to put myself in situations as often as possible where I can get there. Race car driving is one photography at times programming at times there's a lot of domains where.
They're just like, you can make it happen. You can get flowed there. And then I tried to avoid and cut down on the things that I've found that don't produce flow, where I won't get flow. And I think that that is one of the tricks or secrets to the longevity that I've been able to enjoy in both programmings and in business and so forth is to constantly try to refine the.
Process itself and the tasks that I do within that domain and some of the time, it just means like, okay, like I've done this for 12 years now. Like I don't need to do this aspect of running base camp anymore. For example, like that's not producing flow for me on a, on any basis. So let me cut it out and replace it with something that has the potential to.
Jonathan Levi: Brilliant. Brilliant. So let me ask, are there any kind of skills, routines or habits that you practice in your daily life? That kind of day-to-day things, things like meditation, things like a specific diet that you feel enable you to perform at such a high level.
David Heinemeier Hansson: Yeah, there's a bunch of things as opposed to physical things and psychological things.
I think on the physical side, I'm very thankful to have a wonderful wife. Jamie, who cares a lot about nutrition is a wonderful cook and prepares fantastic healthy meals. And absolutely I can feel the difference, like when. Before I met my wife and when I was, uh, just making food for myself, uh, back into dark days, like the difference between eating fresh, healthy food and eating the shit that I would eat when I didn't want to spend any time on it is astounding.
And it's a absolutely a great basis. And I think it's one of those areas where, unfortunately, currently I think caught a little bit in no man's land. We're like. Traditional medicine and investigation has not paid that much attention to diet. Like when I go to the doctor and I have my yearly checkup, does he ask about what I eat?
No, he doesn't. Yeah, that doesn't mean he's, he's a bad person. He doesn't care. It's just, it's not really part of their curriculum. Right? Like it's just not right. Really on the radar in the same way that I think it should be. Right. Right. And on the other hand, unfortunately too, you can also easily go overboard.
There's a lot of dietary plans that I think are. Not only are they not helpful, they're harmful. So I try to just varied diet of the freshest ingredients you can get and would not a lot of other stuff. And I mean, that takes a lot of time to prepare and I'm just, I'm thankful to be able to do that because.
I share my life with someone who cares really deeply about that. So I think that's probably one of the most important things in the physical side that I do sort of prior to racing season in particular, have a somewhat regular, well, not somewhat regular workout schedule where I workout three times a week and especially do strength training, endurance training.
But on the psychological side, one of the things where I, again, sort of like learning, there's a lot of core truths that people have studied for a long time and codified, and I stumbled perhaps into, on my own and discover it as it comes to keeping a sound mind, it was a little bit of the same. And when I found the principles of stoicism yep.
That was really where I went like, Oh, Those are the words like those are the techniques I've been trying to do for a long time. One of those things is a negative visualization. So imagining that the worst happens in your personal life, in business, in your hobbies and sports, and then coming to terms with those things upfront ahead of time.
So when they do invariably hit to some extent or other, they don't destroy, you. And I've had that. For example, I wrote something up, uh, know a couple of months ago, maybe a year ago about the business we're with base camp. Like I often think about like, okay, this could all be over tomorrow. I could go out of business tomorrow.
We could something up. So terribly on the technical side that perhaps we lost all data. I mean, we've taken all the precautions and more to prevent that from happening, but has in the history of time that happened to companies? Yes, it has. Yeah, it could happen to us. We could miss the market. The underlying trends could change.
Like there's all sorts of things that could happen. That would take us from where we are now to going out of business. And. I mean, that's incredibly realistic, right? Like most businesses, if you can look at them, how many of them survive 50 years? Like a tiny, tiny my door or D so it actually is the majority chance that we will go out of business at some point.
So I try to look at that and say like, okay, that's probably going to happen. How can I deal with that? One of the ways to deal with that is to visualize it as it actually is happening, and then figure out ways to cope with that. One of the ways to cope with it, I've used. It is to just look at like, Well, okay.
Let's say it ended tomorrow. Then I had 15 wonderful years of working with Jason and working with now the 50 people we have at the company on all these different products, let's Ruby and rails. Like that's amazing. This legacy will be there, whether it all ends tomorrow or not. And nothing can take that away.
And even if I had to go back to working for someone else and find a job somewhere like that would still be there, like that would still be part of the time I had spent on this earth. And that would be wonderful. So if that's all true, then perhaps if the catastrophic thing happens, it isn't so catastrophic.
And I find that that technique visualizing all those things on a continuous frequent basis works wonders at reducing anxiety. Whereas some wonders is eliminating fears and just, I'm not afraid of a whole lot of things because I've already lift those things in my mind. I've already visualized all those things.
I mean, from crashing cars to losing limbs, to all sorts of calamities that people think like, Oh, why would you think of that? Well, I think that's part of the. Stoic brilliance and counterintuitively is that if you actually think about these things and come to terms with them upfront, they hold no power over you.
And you can rid yourself some anxieties and fears and just put it in a, in a box somewhere and like, okay, I've thought it all through. I've come to terms with that. Like this can happen and like, okay. Yeah.
Jonathan Levi: And having contingency plans, I'm actually going through the exact same thing now where I say, you know, this is all almost too good to be true, getting to do what you love with the people you love and impacting people for a living and so on.
It could all go belly up so fast and I've been working through like, what is that contingency plan and how will I maintain kind of that gratitude if it does.
David Heinemeier Hansson: Absolutely. I think just being prepared and thinking about the worst thing that could possibly happen and coming to terms with them is a great way to get them out of your life.
I think it's kind of like, um, getting things done that the approach to productivity that was popular in the mid two thousands were for me, at least the central insight was get tasks out of your head onto some system, a notebook or whatever. Have you. So just the dirt, not in your head and wasting precious brain cycles, it comes back to what we started thinking about or talking about, which was like, Oh, how do you get a lot done while you try to focus on as few things as possible at the time?
And you cannot do that. If your brain is cramped packed full of like, Oh, here are all these tasks that I need to remember to do here. All these anxieties that I'm carrying around here, all these fears that I have to hold onto. Like then it's just full. There's just not that many cycles left to do the creative interesting work that eventually is going to get you into a flow state and hopefully it's going to make you happy.
Jonathan Levi: Absolutely. We had actually David Allen on the show, and that was my biggest takeaway as well, that I sometimes as someone who does memory for a living, I rely on it and I make these little task lists. In my head and then realize, you know what, it's like one Slack command to just pop it into whatever system you're using, whether it's base camp or anything else, you know, it's just a click away.
Just get it out and get it into the real world.
David Heinemeier Hansson: Yeah, absolutely. Carrie had. And you, your head on just the fewer things than I was overstating things. When I said a two gigahertz and a hundred megahertz, it's probably more like one megahertz and five megahertz. Like we just share our brains. Aren't that powerful at this stuff.
They don't have that much operating memory. They might have a lots of long-term storage memory, but that's just not that useful for. Sort of making progress on things here now.
Jonathan Levi: Exactly. David. I know we're getting towards the end here. I want to ask you what's your next milestone? What's your next goal? I mean, where do you go from here?
David Heinemeier Hansson: It's funny, Jason, just posted a post yesterday on medium. That completely echoes my thoughts on this, which is. Don't have milestones, don't have goals. These are just ways to set yourself up for disappointment. And I found this time, and again, when I set up a goal of any kind and they didn't reach that goal, it's like, Oh, okay, fine.
Whatever. I forgotten it. Five seconds later, if I set up a goal, I do not reach that goal. It's misery and anxiety, and like beating yourself up and feeling shitty about it. And what did you win? Like the upside is so little like, Oh, you. Put down a goal, you meet that goal, you get your money back, like 1.05 times, right?
You set up a goal that you care about a lot and you don't meet that goal. You lose all your money in your house and your dog, and [00:47:00] you're having two weeks, right? It's just not a proportionate deal. Like it's really bad odds. It's I'd say it's a really bad bargain to be able to win that little and have such calamity waiting for you.
So. I try not to have those things. I mean, sometimes it's still hard not to. I think there's just a natural human drive to set those things up, but I try to combat it as much as possible. And then simply setting myself up for these neutral, natural States of tranquility, which is this other technique. That, uh, or perhaps the aspiration that the Stoics have tried to get people to adopt that this notion of tranquility where you're not like these undies mega swings of either, Oh, it was so terrible that this thing happened, or like, Oh, this is so fantastic that I met this goal more, just a steady state of tranquility.
Like that's what I'm trying to aim for, like a high baseline, but a baseline nonetheless. And I found that that comes around. Most easily when I don't have, so grant master plan of something else that like in the 10,000 foot [00:48:00] view, like I'm happy if I could just continue to do what it is that I do now for the rest of my life.
So in fact, in Virginia to program Ruby and rails and work on that phenomenal, I'll do that. If I can continue to have base camp best my business, and we can help small businesses get in control of theirs, then wonderful. Well, what is there more to want out of life than that? And I think that that.
Realization that there isn't something waiting in the sky for me to climb up to, and that's going to transcend everything that I have right now and turn my life so wonderful. It's really helpful. And I think that that's one of the things that's been guiding me from the get go. When I first started working on Ruby and Ruby on rails, I had a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Copenhagen with no AC.
It's funny. Like even just that no AC is, it's a, it's a thing I've discovered to move into the U S wherever. Stacy. Right. But all these luxuries or things or trinkets or whatever it that has helped then between that time. And now I think, yes, my base level of happiness has perhaps hitched up a percentage point or two, but that's about it.
And a lot of that comes from just realizing like, Hey, if these things happen, that's good. If these things don't happen, like. What goals do I have to meet to be able to write Ruby for the most of the day, or to write the things that I think about on the web? Nothing, it takes nothing like I could sort of fall in all sorts of ways from grace and heavens and those things would still be true.
I can still do all those things. And even the racing part. If sort of, for some reason, all the money burns and like, I can't go racing in, in these series anymore. No. What? I'd probably still be able to buy a old X-Box and go back to driving GranTurismo. As I spent many very happy hours doing before I got to this level and know what things we'll be just fine.
If we go all the way back to square one like that.
Jonathan Levi: I love it. It's such a wonderful stoic kind of approach. And I, I want to point out this, you have this wonderful balance between, you know, I don't need goals and I'm happy where I am and this idea of acceptance and presence. And at the same time, you're like, I didn't see why it couldn't be the best possible, you know, amateur driver on the planet.
I didn't see why I couldn't develop a new framework that millions of people could use. And it sounds like you have. A healthy relationship with ambition and it comes from your own inner passion. And a lot of people always ask me, you know, how can you be present and still have ambitions and goals? And I always say it comes from doing what you love.
The goal is not, I'll be happy when it's, I really freaking love driving this car. And I just want to get as good at it as I possibly can forget what the end goal is. I mean, that's not what the goal is for.
David Heinemeier Hansson: Yeah, I think this goes back to a lot of that research. Again, external versus intrinsic motivation.
Right? I try to center all aspects of my life around intrinsic motivation, not about other people's validation, not about trophies and trinkets and awards or accolades or people cheering on Twitter or liking this post or all these other ways that other people take judgment on your work and your life.
Thank you very much. I'll take my own judgment and my own verdict on the things that I'm doing. And I feel so much better when I filter all that out and it goes on both the negative and the positive side that it's not just like ignore the haters, so to speak. It's just as much. Ignore people who love what you do not ignore, but just like assign it.
It's appropriate level of influence on your life, which is very low.
Jonathan Levi: That's brilliant. Let me ask another question on the converse side, which is what is one of the biggest challenges that you're facing right now? Either in business or in life?
David Heinemeier Hansson: Oh, good question. I don't really know if. I often identify challenges like that, like as humps of things that I need to overcome. And I don't know if I ever have, so it's just, it's not really a, a frame of mind or an angle that I look at things.
Jonathan Levi: That's a fantastic answer.
David Heinemeier Hansson: Well, I don't know if that's really that helpful. It's just not. Like a way of looking at things. I just, I try to do the best that I can and sort of get the best at what it is that I do for the only reason of like that's fun and rewarding, and then everything else will follow from there.
Jonathan Levi: That's uh, in and of itself is probably the best possible motion. Formative answer.
David Heinemeier Hansson: I think you could have given. I mean, it's not because there's a massive thought behind that, but just like, that's the things that they roll out from my general approach to life and philosophy.
Jonathan Levi: Fantastic. Just a couple of questions to wrap up here, David, I wanted to ask you what book or books have most impacted your life?
We established that you're a pretty avid reader.
David Heinemeier Hansson: Yeah, that's um, it's a hard one to nail down too. Two, two, just a couple. And oftentimes some of the more recent books have a tendency to bubble up, I'd say on the technical side on very practical level smalltalk, best practices by Kent Beck is probably one of my all time.
Favorite books. It's exactly about teaching you that eye, the eye for good programming and good program design. So that's really powerful. Uh, another book that I actually read rather recently, it was punished by rewards, which goes into this whole body of research on intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation.
I find a lot of pink. No, he had one that's similar to called drive, right. Punished by wards is by Alfie Cohen. And it's a little broader than just, uh, Daniel pink focuses all on like business and business 2.0. And like I find some of the vocabulary there, a little grading, not that the, he references the same study, so it's all good stuff.
But punished by rewards extends into both. Child upbringing and schooling, education, and business, and references much at the same work. Even Daniel pink references punished by rewards. Oh wow. So just a great book and Africa in general just has a ton of great thoughts on education and motivation that I find.
Um, awesome. And then. As far as stoicism. My introduction to that was, I think it's called a guide to the good life or something like that, which is a broad overview of all the major works in stoicism. And then you can dive in after that, into the original sources, like Raley's and so forth, but it's just a great way to start in stoicism with a guide to the good life.
And it's a recently written book and I could win to dive into. And then finally, perhaps on business, the intelligent investor. By gray him something, which is a 1950s book about how to analyze stocks and companies and goes over all the core principles of business. And they're absolutely timeless, great book as well.
So. Amazing pickings from some of the different areas.
Jonathan Levi: Amazing. David, you've been so generous with your time. I want to ask just our two wrap up questions here. The first and possibly most important is where can people learn more about what you're doing and get in touch with you? I know we're definitely going to put all of your books into the podcast episode, and I'm going to give a personal endorsement for them.
Cause I've read two of the three and they were phenomenal, but where else would you like us to send folks?
David Heinemeier Hansson: Sure I'm pretty active on Twitter. So that app DHH the same goes for medium, for long form posts. That's also on medium at DHH. I post things about racing and cars and Instagram at DHH 79. And yeah, I think it was a good starting point.
And then of course the books.
Jonathan Levi: Fantastic. So final and closing question here, David, if people take away just one message from sepsis. I can't imagine how they'd take only one thing away, but let's imagine that they do and they carry it with them for the rest of their lives. What would you hope for that one message to be.
David Heinemeier Hansson: It's funny because I've gotten this question quite a few times. And I think the one thing that always Springs into my mind is to stop thinking that there's one answer to anything that there's one thing you can take away from anything. And that that's a useful way of learning something, as we talked about earlier, if you're developing an eye in any area in business or in tracing or in photography or in programming, and you think that there's just this one trick you have to learn, then it's not going to work out.
So stop thinking that there is one trick and you start realizing that it's a composite of all these things that you have to learn to develop a good eye and get good at the things you want to be good at.
Jonathan Levi: Incredible David Heinemeier Hansson. Thank you so much for your time. As I said, it's just such an honor to chat with you and just see.
How much our two experiences have lined up so much and how you are really, really setting the stage for what it actually means to be a super learner. I think you're setting a wonderful example for everybody out there. Just what is capable when you take this approach to life and treat it as a learning challenge and treat it non-traditionally in that regard.
So thank you so much. It's been such a pleasure as you're chatting with you.
David Heinemeier Hansson: Sure. My pleasure. Thank you. Take care.
Jonathan Levi: All right Superfriends, that's it for this week's episode, we hope you really, really enjoyed it and learn a ton of applicable stuff that can help you go out there and overcome the impossible.
If so, please do us a favor and leave us a review on iTunes or Stitcher, or however you found this podcast. In addition to that, we are. Always looking for great guest posts on the blog or awesome guests right here on the podcast. So if you know somebody or you are somebody, or you have thought of somebody who would be a great fit for the show or for our blog, please reach out to us either on Twitter or by email our email is email@example.com. Thanks so much.
Closing: Thanks for tuning in to the Becoming Superhuman Podcast. For more great skills and strategies, or for links to any of the resources mentioned in this episode, visit www.becomingasuperhuman.com/podcast. We'll see you next time.