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Leo Babauta, Editor-in-Chief of Zen Habits (INTERVIEW)

— September 5, 2009 — Business
Zen Habits is a website dedicated to simplifying life and becoming more productive, and as the creator and Editor-in-Chief at Zen Habits, Leo Babauta shares his knowledge of zen living.

Leo Babauta is also the author of the top-selling ebook on the topic of productivity called “Zen To Done: The Ultimate Simple Productivity System.” With a brand new book called “The Power of Less,” Leo Babauta straddles the worlds of successful business and calm island living. We talked with Leo about the role trend spotting plays in his work.

13 Questions with Leo Babauta

1. How did you get involved with Zen Habits and what motivates you to continue?

Zen Habits was a way for me to share what I’d been learning about simplifying my life, changing my habits for the better, becoming fitter, more productive, debt-free and happier. It was a huge life transformation that had been happening for over a year, when I first started Zen Habits in January 2007, and I was excited to share all of it with others.

I’m motivated by the encouragement I get from my readers, who write to me every day telling me the ways I’ve made their lives better. That’s profoundly gratifying and humbling to me, and at the same time really exciting. I’ve never connected with people in this way before, and I’m in love with it.

2. How significant are the topics of cool hunting and trend spotting to Zen Habits?

What has really worked at Zen Habits is connecting with something deep inside of people. To the extent that trend hunting does that—finds a need that people have that perhaps isn’t talked about much in the media—it’s important. The surface trends aren’t as important to me.

I’ve found that people really crave a message of simplicity, in this world of ever-growing complexity, and in many ways that’s a trend that will continue for as long as technology and the demands of the world continue to grow. In other words, for quite awhile.

3. How do you define a trend?

Something that emerges from the real lives of people, slowly and over the course of years, and something that has a real impact on these people. Not something that is cooked up in the media by people who want to seem edgy or ahead of the trends. These tend to be surface things, passing fads, and aren’t important.

Trends are longer lasting and more meaningful.

4. How do you define cool?

People who are being themselves and expressing themselves freely. That applies to all the cool famous people like Miles Davis and Bob Dylan and Kurt Vonnegut, and to more hip types with body art, to introverts like me who just like to write or create and find ways to imprint our souls upon the world.

5. Do you need a culture of innovation to create something that is cool?

Absolutely. A culture that stifles innovation, that pushes everyone to be like the crowd, doesn’t allow people to truly express themselves freely, to really be themselves, that’s not cool at all—that’s just copycatting. You need a culture that encourages freedom of expression, new ideas, mistakes and differentness. Innovation should be revered, not stomped upon.

6. What is the best way to create an infectious idea, product or service? 

Do something really interesting. Create something remarkable. Make something fun, exciting, passionate, full of value for lots of people. When you create something like this, people will come, they’ll spread the word, because they’ll LOVE it. That’s how things spread wildly, not because you’ve packaged it with a trendy look or create a hype-filled pitch.

7. What is the key to innovation?

Rewarding and public acknowledging those who innovate, instead of punishing them by ridicule and scorn and shunning. Think of high school, a culture that traditionally rewards those who are the same, and socially outcasts those who are different. Innovation doesn’t emerge from a culture like that.

But a culture that places the creators and innovators on the highest pedestal, that publicly acclaims those who’ve created something good and beautiful ... that’s a place where innovation will be born. People will strive to innovate, and it’ll build upon itself.

8. What is the most important trend you see in your industry?

I’m a blogger, but in the bigger sense I’m in the publishing industry. The trend is for people to go towards great value that is free. They’ll eventually pay for premium services, but they’re attracted by free. When newspapers and magazines and other content creators erect walls around their information, they’re keeping people out, and those people will go elsewhere.

That’s why blogs are thriving and newspapers are failing. And the trend will continue, because when WSJ.com makes people pay, competition will eventually spring up where people will provide the same services and information, for free, and they’ll win in the end.

9. What are your ambitions for Zen Habits?

No ambitions. I am enjoying what I’m doing, right now.

I’ve never had too many ambitions with Zen Habits. I don’t plan far into the future, because I cannot predict it, I cannot know what the landscape will be or what opportunities will arise. I just focus on what I’m doing now, and I try to do it well and passionately.

10. How do you reset yourself to be creative? Do you have any rituals?

I start fresh, in the morning, before I get caught up in the Internet and email. I clear away distractions and just write. I also love running, because it clears my head and gets the creative juices flowing.

11. Professionally, what do you want to be doing in 10 years?

Creating, being passionate about what I’m doing, having fun. I also hope to be happy.

12. What are your most important hobbies?

Spending time with my family, writing, reading, running. Those are the four most essential things in my life, and I’ve built my whole life around them in the last few years.

13. What is an example of a time where you have thrown away an existing idea to force yourself to find something new?

Two recent examples. First was when I declared my blog Uncopyrighted—I suddenly asked myself, “Why not?” I forced myself to abandon all my long-held beliefs about copyright and our rights to our work and how writers make money. Then I said—what if?

Second example: I recently decided to start a radical transparency experiment (http://zenhabits.pbworks.com/). I said, “Why not? Why can’t I make all my communications and decisions public?” I gave up all my ideas of privacy and thought of what could happen if everything, including finances, were public. I haven’t gotten to this point yet, but I’m moving in this direction, and more importantly, I’ve given up my old ideas and am forcing myself to find new ones.
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