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3 Buddhistic Business Lessons from Harper Reed

“I like that Chicago is a 'flyover' city,” said Harper Reed, former Chief Technical Officer at Threadless and Obama For America, now humbly billing himself as "Probably One of the Coolest Guys Ever." “It means nobody bothers us while we're working.”

Thus, it was on a frigid evening at Chicago's sprawling 1871 workspace that I witnessed a "Fireside Chat" with Reed, sponsored by General Assembly. I am extraordinarily skeptical of shoehorning centuries-old wisdom into get-up-and-go business-speak. But some of Reed's ideas hit too close to my spiritual home not to share here.

1. “It is very, very difficult to unlearn.”

“I like to experience 'success amnesia,'” Reed said, explaining that he avoided tech conferences and much of the web because he prefers to allow his own ideas space to rise and grow without smothering them with fertilizer. At Threadless, “we tried successful ideas because we didn't know we weren't supposed to,” Reed said. “We have this amazing opportunity when we don't know the rules.”

I don't think Reed recommends not paying attention to the world around us. But we can never process all the available information we might need to take every possible angle of a problem into account. When we practice meditation, we tap into a deep calm normally obscured by information overload. When we spot memories of past successes or failures, we label them “thinking” and we let them pass, before they can calcify into new, constricting habits. Meditation gives us an opportunity not just to calm our chatter and to clean our instruments, but to unlearn what is no longer of use.

2. Work with others who embrace the moment.

Like most entrepreneurial tech pros, Reed insists that the most important thing such a person can do for herself is to assemble a crew that's tight and right. “You can do anything if you have the right team,” said Reed.

But when he discusses his own colleagues, he doesn't run down their qualifications and achievements. He speaks of all the laughter they've shared working on doomed, silly, and hilarious ideas that never took off.

“I didn't say 'no' to anything,” he said. “We just liked working together. When the president came calling, we could trigger that creativity.”

3. Nothing is permanent.

“When I quit Threadless,” Reed said, “I felt like I'd finished a really big dinner.” He said that, although he was proud of his work, he knew, in his gut, that his time there was done.

Before the economic collapse of 2008, many Americans had a sense of job security, for better or worse. No matter how thrilling or chilling college might have been, we knew that if we kept working hard enough, we would eventually be done with it. When we entered the work world, we were led to believe that we needed to find work that was just tolerable enough not to quit and work just hard enough not to get fired. Either our jobs would end badly, or we'd pretty much be stuck there. For awhile. Nothing is permanent.

Instead of sticking with a good thing until it played out, Reed simply got his fill and moved on. By risking humiliation, he created a temporary gig for himself at Rackspace and strung together enough work to get him through to his job with the Obama campaign. Now he's working on his own startup. He doesn't seem to expect that it, either, will be around forever, or even a meaningful fraction of forever.

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