What Buddhism Taught Me About Product Management

Taken at one of my all-time favorite Airbnb’s in Joshua Tree

The Buddha would have made an excellent product manager 🤩. He was obsessed with solving people’s problems, he summarized his ideas into handy lists, and he developed simple frameworks for achieving his vision. He was also one of the earliest practitioners of working from first principles, famously sitting under a Bodhi tree for forty nine days straight in order to “see things as they truly were.” 🧘‍♂️

Though it seems like everyone in tech is talking about mindfulness and meditation these days (sometimes too much), there’s a reason: it works. As I’ve delved into the practice myself over the past year (a.k.a. just started to scratch the surface), the simple teachings have proven to be surprisingly valuable in my day-to-day life. Below I look at the three core teachings within Buddhism, and share how I’ve applied them to my job as a product manager. If any of the following resonates with you, I would encourage you to explore the ideas for yourself (see suggested reading at the end of this post).

These truths are not presented in Buddhist teachings as dogmas demanding blind faith. Buddhists feel that these truths are universal and self-evident to anyone who cares to investigate in a proper way.
Bhante Gunaratana

1. There is suffering 😨

The Buddha’s core initial insight into human nature was that we are forever dissatisfied. We do not find lasting happiness or satisfaction in anything we experience, and thus we suffer. We think we’ll be happy when we finally get what we want (e.g. that title, that raise, that house), but we quickly feel unfulfilled and desire the next thing. This is referred to as Dukkha.

Anyone who has had even the briefest introduction to Buddhist teaching is familiar with its starting point: the inescapable truth that existence entails suffering.
Jack Kornfield

Why is this? According to Robert Wright in his recent book about Buddhism, dissatisfaction is rooted in our evolution. Natural selection highly optimized us to spread our genes, NOT to be happy. Seeking more status, more wealth, and more possessions helped us find more mates, and better mates. Our intuition makes us believe that we’ll be happy when we get these things, and for a bit we are, but it quickly (and always) fades. We forget how many times we’ve been disappointed by that short-lived satisfaction, and thus continue seeking. It’s a very pernicious illusion. It makes sense though — if we were fully satisfied with that one meal, that one tool, that one trip — we’d be dead meat.

When it comes to leading teams of people and building products for people, we live under a similar illusion. We think we can get to a place where everyone — our coworkers, our direct reports, our users — are happy. “I’ll solve that one problem and things will be OK again”. In truth that is rarely the case, and when it is, it doesn’t last. There will always be more problems, more challenges, and more “suffering”.

The key to reducing (and ending) suffering, for you and your team, is to accept that you won’t ever fully solve all of your problems. Fires will burn. People will get upset. Things will go wrong. This is the natural order of things. Recognize this, fix the problems, and keep moving forward. Find your fulfillment in solving problems, not in forever keeping problems from arising. If you want to explore this teaching further, start here and here.

Suffering usually relates to wanting things to be different than they are. — Allan Lokos

2. All things are impermanent ❄️

So what is the source of suffering? According to Buddhism, our unhappiness is rooted in a very simple misunderstanding about the world — believing that things last. This is called Anicca. This misunderstanding leads us to cling to things that feel good (e.g. a great meal, a sweet new gadget, a promotion). We want them to last. When they invariably change or go away, we get sad. No matter how hard we hold on, everything (literally, EVERYTHING) changes, and eventually goes away. Buddha’s final words express this directly:

Impermanence is inescapable. Everything vanishes.
— Buddha

The solution is surprisingly simple (though not easy). Just let go. Let go of craving, of attachment, of desire. Recognize that all things are impermanent and that there’s no use in clinging. Fully appreciate the good times while they last, be present and in the moment, but when they change or go away, let them go. The following poem expresses the sentiment beautifully:

He who binds to himself a joy 
Does the winged life destroy
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise
William Blake

For me, this teaching has been transformative both in work and in life. At Airbnb, as with every hyper-growth company, change is ever-present. With regular re-orgs, shifts in priorities, rotating team-members, etc., you are constantly in a state of flux. There are two ways to approach these changes. One, you could try to keep holding onto what you have, to fight it. Often this is very necessary and important. However, in many cases you’re fighting just to fight, or because you’re afraid of change. See if you can notice this next time something is about to change. In my experience, a better approach is to learn to become very comfortable with change. To recognize that change is part of life (and business). Nothing, no matter how well it’s working, is going to last. Welcome change. Anticipate change. Use the change to your advantage. Appreciate the good times while they last, but don’t cling to anything.

Once we see that everything is impermanent and ungraspable and that we create a huge amount of suffering if we are attached to things staying the same, we realize that relaxing and letting go is a wiser way to live. Letting go does not mean not caring about things. It means caring about them in a flexible and wise way.
Jack Kornfield

This teaching can apply to changes from the outside, as well as from the inside. Often times the hardest things to let go of are our own ideas/products/strategies. We identify with them, and we get attached to them. That is exactly the problem. Early in my PM career I felt that when I owned a product, it was my job to make sure it survived, no matter what. It took a long time for me to learn this is completely wrong — your job is to help accelerate the good ideas, and kill the bad ideas. The longer you keep a bad idea alive, even if you were tasked with making it work, the worse it’ll be for both you and the business. Eric Ries explains this well in James Beshara’s recent podcast, around the 31:00 mark. You can learn more about the teaching of impermanence here and here.

All human unhappiness comes from not facing reality squarely, exactly as it is. — Buddha

3. There is no lasting self ⛄️

A third foundational teaching of Buddhism is that there is no lasting “self”. This is referred to as Anatta. According to the teaching, which is actually supported by recent scientific research, the sense that there’s an unchanging and lasting “me” inside our bodies from birth to death, is an illusion. Your identity and ego are constructs of your brain. The sense of control you have over your actions is similarly a construct. We see ourselves as the CEO of our lives, when we’re actually the observers. These constructs are very helpful for our lives, they help us be productive in the world, but that doesn’t make them real.

To understand not-self, you have to meditate. If you only intellectualize, your head will explode.
Ajahn Chah

As the quote above so eloquently puts it, this is a tricky teaching to fully grasp. Advanced meditators experientially feel this teaching, and I’ve felt glimmers of it in my own meditation practice, but the idea itself is powerful even if you haven’t personally felt it.

For me, this teaching has been a valuable reminder to always keep my own ego in check. As a PM, you’re often the default choice to present your team’s work and the first to get credit when things go well. In my experience, whenever I’ve instead given those opportunities to other team members, or deflected credit, the team and its efficacy has gotten stronger. Though we all know that the most effective leaders place the team above themselves, we forget this in practice, especially when our ego has a chance to shine.

This same idea is echoed in one of the most important business books of all time, Good to Great, which looked at over a thousand companies to understand what distinguishes so-called “good” companies from “great” ones. What the data showed was that the most successful companies were led by leaders whose “ambition is first and foremost for the cause, for the organization and its purpose, not themselves.” This is what Jim Collins called a Level 5 Leader. At the risk of your head exploding 🤯, if you want to learn more about this buddhist teaching, check out this and this.

According to the teaching of the Buddha, the idea of self is an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality. [It] is the source of all the troubles in the world from personal conflicts to wars between nations. In short, to this false view can be traced all the evil in the world.
Walpola Rahula

Additional resources 🤗

As a beginner, I still have much to learn about these teachings and how to apply them to life and work. I’d love to hear from you if you have any stories to share, or suggestions for topics I should explore further. If you’re curious to learn more yourself, I would encourage you to explore these resources:

Books

Online reading/listening

If you’ve have any questions, suggestions, or just want to say hi — don’t hesitate to tweet at me.

Big thank you to Sean, Yelena, Ben, and Gauri for or reviewing early drafts of this post. 🙏

Sincerely,

Lenny