Dandelion Effect Podcast - Dave Morin: Seeking Balance in the Age of Technology

Dave Morin: Seeking Balance in the Age of Technology

Dave Morin is an entrepreneur, investor, and philanthropist, born and raised in Helena, MT. Currently, he is Co-Founder of Offline Ventures, an investing and inventing company focused on the creation of humanist technology and serving founder potential, and is Chairman of Esalen Institute, a leading center for exploring and realizing human potential through experience, education, and research.

Early in his career, Dave was the 29th employee at Facebook and his first job upon moving to San Francisco was at Apple. Needless to say, he’s been on the forefront of tech innovation since the start of the internet in the 90s, and over the last couple decades has co-founded and managed a handful of ventures in this realm: Path, a company dedicated to being a source of happiness, meaning, and connection through simplicity and privacy in social networking technology; Slow Ventures, a Silicon Valley venture fund that champions long term thinking and serves a community of over 300 of the most innovative startups in the world; and Sunrise, a nonprofit focused on bringing together science, spirituality, technology, and design to revolutionize how humans experience depression.

In today’s conversation, we talk about his path from a ski racer in small town Montana to an angel investor and serial entrepreneur smack in the middle of the tech capital of the country, Silicon Valley, California. Recognizing early on that his brain was different than most other kids, Dave describes his childhood as one of looking for belonging, and he found solace and stimulation at his grandfather’s house while playing on one of the earliest computer models ever made. He was also serendipitously introduced to Aikido, a Japanese martial art, through his best friend’s uncle, and that began his lifelong foray into eastern philosophy, self awareness and contemplative practices.

We tackle a big topic today—mental health in the age of technology—and while this interview just scratches the surface of the immensity of this conversation, I hope you walk away with an understanding of the nuance of our current predicament, the good and bad of modern technology, the intent with which it was originally created, and the knowing that there are people like Dave out there, pouring themselves into ideas like Web3, and how to make our interactions with these tools safer, healthier and more human.

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Episode Transcript

Dave Morin  00:03
One of the things people don’t realize is that your brain has no chance. Facebook is a 10 million computer computer. There are 10 million computers and data centers around the world that run Google and run Facebook. I think Google is actually 100 million computers now. And your one brain has no chance against these mega computers that are incredibly smart. The dream has always been this utopia where everybody can publish, and everybody can find a community. But the problem is, up until this point, we haven’t discovered a business model that’s not advertising.

Andy Vantrease  01:04
Welcome to the Dandelion Effect Podcast, a space for organic conversation about the magic of living a connected life. Just like the natural world around us, we are all linked through an intricate web, a never-ending ripple that spans across the globe. Here we explore the ideas that our guests carry through the world, remember who and what inspired them along the way, and uncover the seeds that helped them blossom into their unique version of this human experience. This podcast is a production of the Feathered Pipe Foundation, whose mission is to help people find their direction through access to programs and experiences that support healing, education, community and empowerment.

Have you ever wondered how we even got here? To the digital age of information overload, where it’s commonplace to check your phone hundreds of times per day, receive your news, email, laughs and all communications on a tiny device that’s turning your hand into a lobster claw and keeping chiropractors in business? Well, today we’ll get some insight into the evolution of the internet and the ways it has woven into our lives as we know it.

Dave is an entrepreneur, investor, and philanthropist, born and raised in Helena, MT. Currently, he is Co-Founder of Offline Ventures, an investing and inventing company focused on the creation of humanist technology and serving founder potential, and is Chairman of Esalen Institute, a leading center for exploring and realizing human potential through experience, education, and research.

Early in his career, Dave was the 29th employee at Facebook and his first job upon moving to San Francisco was at Apple. Needless to say, he’s been on the forefront of tech innovation since the start of the internet in the 90s, and over the last couple decades has co-founded and managed a handful of ventures in this realm: Path, a company dedicated to being a source of happiness, meaning, and connection through simplicity and privacy in social networking technology; Slow Ventures, a Silicon Valley venture fund that champions long term thinking and serves a community of over 300 of the most innovative startups in the world; and Sunrise, a nonprofit focused on bringing together science, spirituality, technology, and design to revolutionize how humans experience depression.

In today’s conversation, we talk about his path from a ski racer in small town Montana to an angel investor and serial entrepreneur smack in the middle of the tech capital of the country, Silicon Valley, California. Recognizing early on that his brain was different than most other kids, Dave describes his childhood as one of looking for belonging, and he found solace and stimulation at his grandfather’s house while playing on one of the earliest computer models ever made. He was also serendipitously introduced to Aikido, a Japanese martial art, through his best friend’s uncle, and that began his lifelong foray into eastern philosophy, self-awareness and contemplative practices.

We tackle a big topic today—mental health in the age of technology—and while this interview just scratches the surface of the immensity of this conversation, I hope you walk away with an understanding of the nuance of our current predicament, the good and bad of modern technology, the intent with which it was originally created, and the knowing that there are people like Dave out there, pouring themselves into ideas like Web3, and how to make our interactions with these tools safer, healthier and more human.

I’m Andy Vantrease, and you’re listening to The Dandelion Effect Podcast with today’s guest, Dave Morin.

Andy Vantrease 
This podcast, and even the Feathered Pipe Ranch, how it operates is really all about connections, starting with connection to self, connection to others, connection to land, and connection to whatever spiritual, religious background people have, this higher power. I want to start where you and I have a mutual connection, and that is Montana. You grew up in Helena, where the Feathered Pipe Ranch has been for the last almost 50 years now. I want to know, especially from somebody who’s now living in in San Francisco and is in a very different world than Montana, what was it like to grow up in Helena? Who was Dave as a kid?

Dave Morin  05:33
Big questions right out of the gate for a small-town guy. It’s a good question to start off with, because the reason that I’m here is that I care so much about Helena, and Montana more broadly. I obviously grew up there, but the connection with the Feathered Pipe is especially important to me, because India was a dear friend of my family. I’m the chairman of the Esalen Institute now, and there aren’t many centers that are as long standing as Esalen and Feathered Pipe. Most of them go out of business; they don’t last. I think Feathered Pipe is important for a bunch of reasons. It’s in my hometown, and yoga and meditation, holistic health, as you said, really matter to me. I think being from Montana is such a special thing. It’s an ethos, it’s a vibe, it’s in my DNA. I grew up west side of town. I went to Hawthorne Elementary School, just like my mom. My grandparents actually were the ones that moved to Montana and were the reason that we ended up there. I think you’re from the East Coast, right?

Andy Vantrease  06:46
Right.

Dave Morin  06:46
My grandparents, actually, on both sides of the family are from Boston. On my mom’s side they originally came over on the Mayflower, and so we go way back to the East Coast, beginnings of America. People frequently ask me, “How did you end up in Montana?” My grandfather was in the 101st Airborne, and after he had graduated from Dartmouth, he went to Johns Hopkins and became a doctor. He then ended up in the military during the war as a paradoctor. When they got back from the war, they had this question of, “What do we do with all these doctors that can jump out of airplanes?” And the answer was, “Send them West, because all these people are dying in the wilderness from going on adventures and getting lost climbing and hiking.” So, he got shipped out West, first to Colorado Springs, then to South Dakota, and then ended up in Great Falls. He discovered Helena and fell in love with it and became the family doctor in Helena after the war. He was a really remarkable man, and a huge influence on my life. It’s a trendline that follows from my childhood all the way through.

Andy Vantrease  08:00
I think it’s really interesting how, when we look back on our lives is when we can really spot those types of things. You probably didn’t know it at the time when it was happening, but if you’re looking back on your young life, where does that trend line start? And what are some of the ways that he and other people began to shape you?

Dave Morin  08:24
One of the things that’s coming up for me is that, in kindergarten and first grade, going to elementary school, I knew that my brain was different than other kids. My mom would actually later on in life tell me that my teachers would always say, “Dave’s not talking about the same things that the other kids are talking about.” I guess I was asking them about the world and was concerned with the war. This was in first grade. I also was interested in topics and concepts that were more advanced to some extent, but I had a really hard time socializing with friendships and things. At the time, I didn’t really understand it. There were also things like math that were really difficult for me, so I got put in what they called back then, The Gifted and Talented Program. It’s really code for kids who aren’t like the other kids.

It turned out that I actually have ADD, so my mom had me on some medication for six months, and then decided that she didn’t want that to happen anymore. So, I just wasn’t on medication. She had had a son that died before I was born. He got to be one month old and died of spina bifida. Because of that, she didn’t want any chemicals or anything touching me. This is an important story because I think that growing up, I was looking for belonging, and I always felt different than everybody else. It can be really hard having a—there’s lots of different words for it these days—neurodivergent brain. Whatever you want to say, it can just be hard being different.

Early on, by second or third grade, my grandfather was a really interesting character, particularly in the context of Montana and Helena. He was jumping out of airplanes to try to save firefighters in forest fires. There’s a famous book that Norman Maclean, the author of A River Runs Through It, wrote called Young Men and Fire, about the Mann Gulch fire.

Andy Vantrease  10:34
Oh, I just learned about this fire when I was on a boat tour of Gates of the Mountains!

Dave Morin  10:42
That’s the fire.

Andy Vantrease  10:44
Yeah, we just learned about it this last summer.

Dave Morin  10:46
Yeah, so my grandfather jumped out of a plane into that fire.

Andy Vantrease  10:51
Oh my God.

Dave Morin  10:52
And there’s a book about it. My grandfather was this larger than life character. He had grown up on the East Coast and was a ski racer growing up, so he became the doctor for the U.S. Olympic ski team in 1960. And then became very involved in ski racing all over the world. He’s the vice president of the International Ski Federation. I tell you all of this to say that going into my grandfather’s house in Helena was like walking into a different world than anything else that you could experience, perhaps in Helena, if not most of Montana. Because I felt so different, I would go over to his house every day after school. He had a Macintosh computer. I was probably six years old, and he had one of the first Macintoshes. I would go over there every day and play with it and learn to program it and build things on it. He would watch TV, and he was always watching the space shuttle. He had a satellite dish, and he would show me these rockets and space shuttles.

He’d be on his speakerphone, talking to really interesting people all over the world about ski racing stuff and the Olympics. I would sit there on the computer, and it was sort of facing away from him, but I’d be in the same room. It’s one of the things that I look back on that was one of the real lucks of my childhood. Though I felt very different, and that was a really deep struggle, I had this outlet that really drew this through line to literally the place that I’m sitting today—I’m sort of set square in the middle of Silicon Valley. Had I not been able to go over there, I don’t know if that would have happened.

The other thing I would say is my lifelong best friend. We were pretty much in diapers together. He’s a fourth or fifth generation Montana ranching family, deeply embedded in Montana ranch culture. His family runs one of the largest ranches in Montana between Helena and Great Falls. His uncle, his dad’s brother, was a real cowboy, but he was a mystical cowboy. And he actually spent a ton of time at the Feathered Pipe.

Andy Vantrease  13:13
Really?

Dave Morin  13:14
Then he went to Japan and became a 12th degree black belt in Aikido when we were little kids. He came back to Helena, and right next to the Wells Fargo drive thru downtown, across from where the Real Food Store used to be, he started an Aikido dojo when we were in elementary school. He and I would go to his uncle’s Aikido studio after school, and we became pretty highly ranked. I think I made it to a kid’s brown belt.

Andy Vantrease  13:44
Is it a Japanese martial art?

Dave Morin  13:46
Yeah, it’s a Japanese martial art. It’s more like yoga than it is a martial art. It’s not an offensive martial art. The entire concept in Aikido is to redirect the attackers’ energy against them, in order to defuse the situation and to create more optionality. There’s a famous saying, “Take the hit as a gift.” That’s another through line, which is important because it really gave me an understanding of meditation, Eastern spirituality, and mysticism very early on in life in elementary school and middle school. It made me ask questions about traditional religion and spirituality that maybe I wouldn’t have. And I think it really colored my perspective as the years have gone on.

Andy Vantrease  13:56
And I guess around that time is probably when you got into ski racing as well, right?

Dave Morin  14:44
Being in my family with a grandfather that was involved with running ski racing worldwide in the Olympics, if you weren’t competitively winning and ski racing, you didn’t get love. I really loved ski racing. There are other sports like soccer—which my dad was really into—I wasn’t as good at the team stuff, which you can hear in my voice. I still feel bad about that.

Andy Vantrease  15:10
You needed to be able to go off on your own.

Dave Morin  15:13
Yeah, when you have a different type of brain, you tend to get a lot of negative feedback from authority figures. And so, I gravitated towards individual sports. I was very dedicated and serious about ski racing and took it pretty far to a high level in the Junior Olympics. I also played a lot of tennis and was quite good at it, but not as good as ski racing.

Andy Vantrease  15:36
One of the things that I’m hearing as you talk about your grandfather’s house, and then talk about your friend’s uncle introducing you to this form of moving meditation, is that to a young mind like yours, learning about energy at such a young age expanded your world. You have certain opportunities, and certain lack of opportunities growing up in a small town. Then you have these characters, and these people who get to introduce you to a whole different way of thinking. Even just to hear your grandfather talking to people across the world, that to me seems like possibility.

Dave Morin  16:25
I really feel so lucky in hindsight. To your point, you could have been conceptually not even understanding that you could be on the phone, talking to the head of Marker bindings, or Bolle sunglasses. My grandfather had this medal from the country of China on his wall, that was an honorary citizenship because they went over there to put ski areas in the middle of the Cold War. Just think about it in the context of what’s going on in the world today—this notion that even during times of great tension, there are topics and things that create harmony and balance. And it’s possible to be diplomatic for skiing reasons, or the Olympics reasons. As you know in yoga, right view, I was able to look broader than some folks. I think that growing up in a small town in Montana, it can feel very constraining, like there’s not a lot of opportunity. But even just knowing that it’s possible to live in Helena and have this influence and impact on this greater scope was really major.

Andy Vantrease  17:39
Maybe you can hit some of the highlights of the trajectory of you being exposed to some of these things at a young age, getting into skiing, and entering into the world of tech and moving West, and how that all happened.

Dave Morin  17:53
Throughout high school, I was really focused on ski racing. I would train in Mount Hood during the summers. I initially was quite good at the slalom and giant slalom, which was shorter and had more turns. But as time went on, I became much better at downhill actually, the speed sports. It was largely due to the realization that even though I wasn’t the biggest, everyone who’s setting foot into the downhill starting gate has the same skill set. You have the skills to go 70, 80 miles an hour on skis, top to bottom, for two minutes. Who wins and why became this interesting question. And I really started to realize that it was about who was willing to go the fastest, not who has better skills, or more weight or physiological advantages. It was actually a psychology game. That’s when I started winning. That was a real passion. At the same time, I was really passionate about computers and the internet. I was always really good with computers. Throughout middle school and high school, I was just doing internet and computer stuff, and building things on the internet. I was the editor of the school paper.

Andy Vantrease  19:11
What years was this, Dave?

Dave Morin  19:13
This was ’97, ’98. I was in high school between ’95 or ’96 and ’99, which really was the beginnings of the internet. The whole time I’m playing with the internet every single day. After school, all I ever wanted to do was be on these internet chat systems, like Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and AOL, building web pages, writing HTML, messing around with JavaScript, and all this stuff that was weird tech stuff. By my senior year, my dad worked at the state of Montana at the time. He had called in to the help desk to get help with his computer one day, and he just randomly asked them if they needed smart computer people.

So, I got a call from the state of Montana my junior year of high school, while I was still working at this shoe store in the mall. They were like, “Hey, kid, we hear you’re really good with computers. Do you want to come in and interview to work at the state?” And so, I get a job, and I think all my friends were making around $5 an hour, or whatever the minimum wage was back then. I know it was $5 or $5.15 or something. I get hired in the information technology division, so here I am making $10 an hour now. I’m the only kid in senior year of high school that’s carrying a pager. Everybody thought I was a drug dealer. That couldn’t have been further from the truth, because I was this hardcore ski racer who never touched alcohol or drugs period, because I was so in love with ski racing and didn’t want to ever get kicked out of doing that. Anyway, that takes you up to leaving high school. I was deeply a small-town kid that was not sure about leaving. It’s interesting—I always wanted to leave. I always wanted to get out. If you were interviewing some of my friends from high school, they would say that I was always saying that I was going to go out and try to change the world. But I remember being very scared to leave Montana.

Andy Vantrease  21:14
Of course.

Dave Morin  21:15
After visiting Boulder, I just fell in love with the campus and the beauty of the mountains. And it was really expensive. Nobody from Helena could afford to go to any of these places. My grandfather actually was the one that offered to not pay for it all but give me enough that I could have a job and pay my share of my tuition, and then he would help me cover the rest. So, I was able to leave the state and I chose Boulder. In hindsight, I think the thing I didn’t realize was how big it was. There are more students at Boulder than the whole population of Helena. I was legitimately freaked out. I kind of went into this pretty extreme anxiety, depression state when I went to Boulder, to the point where I was begging my parents to let me come home. Ultimately, I made it through that, but I think back on it as a traumatic time.

This brings me to the pinnacle of your question, “Where did the intersection with tech truly start?” Well, my freshman year, I had worked at the state of Montana the whole summer. I remember I had saved up $1,000 total in order to pay for everything. It was my spending money outside of tuition and stuff. I was planning to ski race for Boulder, and I remember I went to the first meeting. They detailed the costs, and it was going to be more than I had saved. This was ’99 when I went to college, and the Internet was really starting to take off in the fall of ’99. I think I’d already started doing website projects for people, but it hadn’t really fully gotten going. I was sitting there in this meeting for this ski team, and I was like, “There’s no way. I’m not going to spend all my money on this.” And I had this kind of awareness. In hindsight, I’m not sure how I even had this awareness, but it was this thought of, “Well, I could be a ski racer, and not really have a career. Or I could have a career.” I have this very distinct memory of being like, “I think that there’s something in this internet, website building stuff that I’m doing.”

Andy Vantrease  23:39
That’s a heck of an insight for an 18-, 19-year-old to have as a freshman in college—to foresee something like the internet getting big.

Dave Morin  23:49
Well, I got pretty serious about trying to create a little business right after that. The other thing that happened that year was that my grandfather had a heart attack. He had triple bypass surgery, ended up in a coma, and his whole estate was frozen. I lost all my funding for college.

Andy Vantrease  24:11
Oh, wow.

Dave Morin  24:12
Here I am, I’m like a fish out of water. I’ve never seen a city as big as Denver before, which in hindsight is kind of hilarious.

Andy Vantrease  24:20
Just knowing where you are now and where you’ve been.

Dave Morin  24:22
I’ve done business in Jakarta or Shanghai, 30 million person cities. I was really freaked out by Denver. And so here I am. How am I going to pay? I think tuition was $25,000 for a Montanan. Maybe this won’t resonate with people who are listening who aren’t from Montana, but most of my friends that stayed in state were planning to spend $4,000 for all of college. So, I’m thinking, “How?” I knew nothing about entrepreneurship. I didn’t know what sole proprietorship was, or an LLC. This stuff was not as easy to learn as it is today. You couldn’t go on a website to set up an LLC. And so, I started to take it more seriously. I made a website, and people started calling my dorm room asking if I’d build them a website. I had this idea—everybody was buying domain names back then, so I started calling these companies that sold domain names and asking them if they would refer people who bought domain names to me, after they bought a domain name, so that I could build their website.

Andy Vantrease  25:03
Good idea.

Dave Morin  25:30
I would get these emails almost every day of an introduction to somebody who had bought a domain and needs their website built for their business. This was before anybody had websites for their business, so I was building different types of websites for different types of businesses. Sometimes it was basically what you would today call graphic design with some buttons. And then sometimes it was a shipping company with a database that wanted to be able to track their packages. It’s funny to even say, in hindsight.

Andy Vantrease  26:05
And you’re just figuring out how to do this by yourself?

Dave Morin  26:10
Yeah, I was teaching myself. Back to the through lines—I was in first grade, this kid with ADD, who was largely told “You’re doing it wrong.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but now what I realized is that, I taught myself how to teach myself things. Because I had a hard time communicating with teachers and coaches about how I’m going to forget things, and how I’m going to not show up on time, or maybe forget to show up at all. There are all these things that the executive functions of this type of brain really upsets people. And so, I learned how to learn things, which was really valuable. I taught myself a lot about the internet, and what very quickly started happening was I had these people calling my dorm room that needed a website after they bought their domain. And they’re like, “I’ll pay you $1,000 to build a website.” I could do the work to build the website in a weekend. Sometimes they’d pay $2000, sometimes they’d pay $10,000 if it was a database. So, I started doing databases, and I’m making $10,000. I think that first year, I made $100,000 building websites.

Andy Vantrease  27:20
That’s amazing!

Dave Morin  27:21
And so, I was able to pay for college. I bought a car with cash, literally walked in and wrote a check, which is not something a small-town Helena kid can do.

Andy Vantrease  27:31
Was it exciting to you at this point? I’m thinking back to just the world opening up.

Dave Morin  27:37
It was more empowering. I very quickly started to realize that, like the movie The Matrix, when you see the code, that’s kind of what happened. For example, something I didn’t know—when you’re an entrepreneur and you build a new business, and you buy equipment for that business, you can expense that. It counts against your taxes, and all these things become tax deductible. And so, I’m able to buy really sophisticated computer equipment, and I have a cell phone. My freshman year in college, everybody had dorm room phones, which is really funny to even say. When you met someone, you got their number, you call their dorm room, and they had to be in the room when you called. I had a Motorola StarTAC and everybody thought that was futuristic and crazy. But again, all of these things are business expenses. It was like I’d figured out this thing about the world, which I wasn’t told.

When you grow up in a small town, it’s like, just get the job, and work hard, and do what you’re told. Nobody ever told me that I could start my own business, that I could be the author of my own life. I went from being like, “I don’t understand,” to “This is my path and absolute freedom. I’m never doing anything else.” I remember telling people in college, “I will always be an entrepreneur. There’s nothing you could pay me to go back to the other way.” And it meant some things. There are sacrifices, like I didn’t get to do a year studying abroad. I didn’t get to do a lot of things that other kids did in college because I had clients that were calling me. I remember I had a client in Brooklyn that’d call me in a Brooklyn accent, and I’d have to leave class and flip my phone open. People would just look at me funny.

Andy Vantrease  29:32
Yeah, like what is this guy doing? Like you said, it’s so futuristic. The word empowering really seems to fit because you got to make your own rules. In a world that was changing really quickly, that led to a lot of opportunity, and there was a lot of room to pave that new path.

Dave Morin  29:56
Entrepreneurship is the rest of the story, and it still is to this day. My greatest passion is the power of ideas and entrepreneurship. It’s like yoga—it has come as a practice. The more I’ve worked on entrepreneurship, which to me is the process of manifesting ideas into the world, the more passionate I am about helping people do it. Life’s only short once, and are you going to write your own story? Or is somebody else going to write it? I always tell people things like, “Email is other people’s to-do list for your life. Are you going to just respond to what’s coming to you? Whether it’s the classes that your parents chose, or the school or the job, or whatever other people have told you. Or are you going to be on offense?” For me, entrepreneurship is this extraordinary blank canvas. And that can be very anxiety inducing for many, but it was the most important discovery of my life.

Andy Vantrease  30:54
That’s a pretty good segue into some of the topics of technology that I want to cover. I listened to a couple other interviews that you did, talking about ways to interact with technology and have more of a balanced approach—whether it’s social media, email, or the endless number of apps that we use within our companies and within our lives. I want to start that conversation around how to interact and engage with technology in a more balanced way that serves us rather than us serving it. Where are you with this conversation now? And how would you lead us into what you’re working on in that world?

Dave Morin  31:41
After I left college, I decided to move to California. I didn’t have a job. I had a friend that was from Marin County, north of San Francisco. She kept telling me, “This is your destiny. This is where you belong.” They always nicknamed me Dave.com in college. She’s like, “You’re moving to Silicon Valley. It’s the only option for you.” And I had never considered it, literally.

Andy Vantrease  32:12
Did you know it existed?

Dave Morin  32:13
This is what’s really funny as someone who grew up in Montana. As you know, there are literally people with bumper stickers that have the sign for hunting season on the bumper sticker. And then it says, “Open Season.” And then, you know how you can put the wood thing for “What’s in season?” It says Californians. So, California was quite literally never a dream. I never once thought about living here. In fact, I was incredibly biased against living here.

Andy Vantrease  32:47
I’m sure.

Dave Morin  32:47
But I really did love the internet, and all you hear about is San Francisco. I had another friend who grew up here and was moving out. I will never forget coming out here the first time to visit, driving from SFO into San Francisco for the first time.

Andy Vantrease  33:04
What did it feel like?

Dave Morin  33:05
I remember two things. One was, “Oh my god, this is the biggest city I’ve ever seen.” And number two was, “This is beautiful.” The buildings here are pastels, cream and pink. They’re almost Art Deco in a way. I moved out here, and I had one goal, or one intuition, which was, I loved Apple ever since my grandfather’s room growing up. Steve Jobs was back at Apple, and I’d known a couple of people there. But the .com crash had just happened when I graduated college. The economy was in a terrible recession. I thought that I’d move out here and keep making websites, but the business had really dried up. People didn’t want websites. I was putting my business on Craigslist, and it was very hard to find work writing software, which is hilarious in hindsight. I decided to start taking some of my friends that I knew worked at Apple out to lunch and telling them what I thought Apple should do with their strategy.

For about six months, I had no work. I was just living off of my savings and trying to figure it out. I had another one of these terrifying, several multiples of the fear, over the Boulder thing. And for six months, I’m like, “What am I going to do?” I tell this story to get into answering your question, because I got really lucky. I took these friends to Apple and they finally were like, “You need to come and interview.” In October of that year, I did 14 interviews in one day and at the end of the day, they offered me a job. I got this job at Apple, and I got to work with Steve Jobs.

Steve would tell this story about the personal computer, which was that when you look at the human in comparison to all the other animals in the animal kingdom, if you stack rank all of the animals on locomotion—how fast, how efficient is that animal at moving through space—humans are somewhere in the middle of the stack. The eagle and the cheetah are number one… unless you put a human on a bicycle. A human on a bicycle becomes number one, immediately. What you learn from this is that humans are tool builders. The computer was, Steve would say, “The bicycle for the mind.”

The vision for computers was one of human potential—that computers are a potential-enhancing, a creativity-enhancing tool. They’re tools. That’s why I loved building things on the internet. That’s why I’ve loved computers my whole life. These were tools for authoring communities and connection and new worlds. I worked at Apple for several years, and then I decided to go work at Facebook. I was very early at Facebook, the 29th employee. When I went there, we often thought of it as, not the bicycle for the mind, but we thought of what we were doing as another tool that dramatically expanded human potential, because the human brain is constrained in the number of stable relationships that it can maintain. Famously, Dunbar’s number, 150, is the maximum number of stable relationships the human brain can maintain. Our thought was that by giving people this powerful social networking technology, it would empower community and connection and people to have a voice in ways that never existed before. It’s hard to even put yourself back in time to 2005, when all of the songs you listened to, the shows you watched, everything was controlled by the newspaper, the radio station, the NBC, the ABC. All of the things that you consumed were mass media edited and controlled by someone else, or a very small room of people. It was very hard to start up a podcast like we’re doing right now.

Andy Vantrease  37:16
Yeah, it is hard to think back to that because it’s so different.

Dave Morin  37:21
Yeah. Even before I left Apple, I actually worked on the podcast product. It largely came out of people trying to use web publishing technology and some of these new protocols. This one protocol called RSS, which there was a bunch of debates around whether you could embed audio files in this RSS thing. We had been working on iPods at Apple, and the notion was, if you could structure a playlist in a sequence, and then enable people to subscribe to a playlist, you could effectively create a democratized radio where anybody could have a radio show. At the time, people thought this was crazy. We would go to these meetups in the city, where people were talking about the RSS spec and how to do it technically. I would come back and draw this stuff on whiteboards. Ultimately, we added a podcasting thing to the iTunes Store. Everything in that time period was focused on empowering the individual, first with the computer to have the ability to publish their own documents, and websites and videos. If you remember, it was like iPhoto, and iMovie, and all these creative tools for creating digital content. Then the next phase was taking that stuff you created with the computer, and then broadcasting it onto this new internet. The web made it possible for anyone to publish and gain an audience. It was really exciting and really empowering. It was intoxicating almost, how empowering it felt to be giving people these powerful tools for storytelling and narrative and developing their own audience.

Andy Vantrease  39:06
It’s really interesting to hear what it felt like when you were building these tools, and the intent when you first started at Facebook and some of these other platforms that have gotten so huge, and are at the center of this battle—battle for attention, and battle for focus and consciousness, like you mentioned in the beginning. I appreciate you bringing in that narrative and just laying it out.

Dave Morin  39:39
That’s where this all came from. I think it’s important to start there because it’s important to understand intent. The problems that we can get into with how to think about using technology and integrating technology in a more balanced, healthy life, are problems which were maybe foreseeable, but I don’t know. I think about this all the time. It’s very hard to go back. We were sitting there in 2006, and we had 15 million college students, or 10 million college students using Facebook. It’s just impossible to put your mind into, “What does the world look like when 2 billion people are using it?” Every culture in the world, every single individual human can pick up their phone and have a million-person audience with a tweet—instantly. You can’t project what culture would be like. Even watching what just happened with this war in Ukraine and how big of an impact social media has had. I don’t even think a week beforehand I would have predicted some of the things that happened. Some of the things that we deal with now are hard, and they’re not easy. They’re very nuanced. Figuring out what to do, and how to live in the modern world is very difficult with technology. I think my overarching point of view is that balance is the goal. I am not a fundamentalist in any way, but I think that with technology in 2022, whether it’s your own individual use, or if you’re a parent, or a serious yogi, it’s very hard to cold turkey it. So, then the question is, “What is the right balance?”

Andy Vantrease  41:31
I think about this topic mirroring a lot of other topics, and the ways that people react to the potential solutions. You have those people who are going to be dogmatic on both sides, or fundamentalist saying, “We need to get rid of it all together.” Or there’s other people who will just say, “Well, let’s go on a retreat.” We have a retreat at the Feathered Pipe Ranch, called “The Mindful Unplugged,” where it’s all about how do we engage with it differently? And could we do digital detoxes throughout the year? Then you have people who are able to engage with it in more healthful ways and build their own boundaries. And then you have people where it’s totally addictive, and they do need to have parameters set for them. I understand that nuance, and I understand that there’s not one answer. In my mind, there’s never one answer to any big issue or big challenge.

Dave Morin  42:33
There are so many levels to this problem. I worry a lot about the Twitter-ization of consciousness. The more time that you spend in yoga practice or meditation practice, the more you realize the power of sustained focus, and nondual, nonreactive, nonjudgement. The ability to notice the feelings that arise from either your own internal narratives, dialogues, and monkey brain, or the interactions that you have with others, and the ability to pause and react intentionally or not react at all, but experience the experience, or the emotion, or whatever arises based on what’s happening in this moment, and then make an intentional choice as to what the next action is.

I worry quite a bit that a lot of the world is experiencing the world through technology in a reactive way. Because what’s happened is that social media in particular has really become quite good at getting people involved in systems. It’s not just any individual piece of content, but it’s the way that the system encourages you to respond to very short pieces of text or photos, which generally are most effective when they cause an emotional reaction or some kind of reactive response in your physiology. What you have is a stream of reaction-based interactions, and there are these deeply human things. A lot of people don’t think about this, but if you study belief and belief systems, and why do some people believe in the Republican ideology or the Democrat ideology? Or why is somebody Christian? Why is somebody Buddhist? Why is somebody Jewish? What people don’t think about is that many ideologies, whether they’re political, social, spiritual, they’re information technologies. They help you make sense of the world. They help you have a personal belief system, which enables you to interact with social structures around you to understand what to expect. And what social media has done is, people think that they are Buddhists, or they think that they are this or that. But actually, they are the sum composite of having experienced a lot of these different philosophies through the internet. I almost think of everyone as their own little walking subculture, like everybody is their own combo of all of the things.

If you feel discluded from a group, it’s deeply human to tend to take the opposite side. This is very well studied that when somebody decides to be in this religion, or this ideology, if they feel as though the group that is the “in group” is discluding them or that they no longer belong, they tend to aggressively adopt the opposing viewpoint for the opposing set of values. This is super well studied. I think that the internet is extremely good at doing this on a micro level all day, every day. You take that and fill it also with a lot of reactionary text and words, and things that aren’t totally factual and are mostly rooted in emotion and the desire to belong, but also driven by the feeling of not belonging. You end up with this really confusing, exhausting, collective consciousness. And to me, that’s what Twitter is.

As a person focused on mindfulness or mental wellness in any form, this can be exhausting. How do you engage with this stuff? You’ve got a business or you’re trying to build it. You’re a yogi, and you’ve got a Sangha and you want to engage everyone. Or you’re Feathered Pipe Ranch, and you want to stay engaged with people. Do I have to use this stuff? Do I want to be out there in this world? Well, it does seem to give me a voice, but it seems really exhausting. My joke is that everybody talks about the metaverse like it’s this thing that doesn’t exist. I think the metaverse does exist, and it’s called Zoom and Instagram. We’re already in it. We’re all already staring at screens all day, instead of being in nature. There’s some good, it’s kind of cool that we can do what we’re doing right now. Being on Zoom from 8-5 every day is probably not healthy, but a lot of people I know are doing that right now.

Andy Vantrease  47:39
What you just laid out was pretty clear as to why people have the mental challenges that they have. We have feelings of FOMO (the fear of missing out), the comparisons, which is something I talked about in the last episode with VJ, and the ways that you find yourself able to belong, but then there’s also this underlying feeling of not belonging in a lot of other groups and spaces on the internet. What are the things that the tech industry can be doing better? How can they be serving us in a more healthful way?

Dave Morin  48:22
Maybe to think about the future for a minute, you could argue that computing needs to evolve because we are using very primitive interfaces for computing and for collaborating through computers in particular. For example, you and I are sitting here, you’ve got headphones on, and I’ve got a microphone in front of my face. I’ve got a camera mounted above my monitor. This is very inhumane. What we’re doing right now, it’s all composite tech. Some old, some new. None of it’s very human. I’m still using a keyboard and a mouse to talk to the computer. Steve Jobs used to say that all of the value at Apple was created by three things—the keyboard and the mouse, the click wheel on the iPod, and the multi-touch interface. All of those things were the human interface with the computer.

One of the things we need to be demanding from the world and from our technology companies is more humane technology, more humane interfaces. We can all do the best that we can. We can go learn meditation, and you can use those skills to moderate, whether you’re on Zoom all day, whether you’re picking up your phone too much. We can look at the tech companies and say, “Are they putting tools into the phones that help us manage screen time?” Well, yes, they are. But I’m a parent and I really would like to put limits on my kids’ ability to use their iPads and things. I don’t mind that they play education games and watch some shows each day, but It’s actually quite hard to get an iPad to shut down.

Andy Vantrease  50:05
Yeah, and I think about how many times a day I ignore the time limit that I have set for myself on Instagram or on screen time. I would rather my phone just completely either log out of the app, close down the app, or do something to where I don’t have this tiny, easy choice to click a button and say, “No, thank you, I’m actually going to ignore my time limit now.”

Dave Morin  50:32
My main thing that I wish that the iPad had was “dinnertime mode,” which was a button that parents can push that literally shuts the thing down. There’s no button that I can push to turn the internet off in my house. It’s illegal to have a cell phone jammer in your house, so you can’t even make the internet go away if you wanted to in a building in the United States.

Andy Vantrease  50:59
I went to Nepal a few years ago in 2018, and we’re doing this big trek in the Annapurna region. All of these tiny tea houses up in the middle of nowhere have WiFi. You pay two bucks for WiFi or something, and it was shocking to me. I remember thinking, “It’s everywhere.”

Dave Morin  51:21
There’s something to this, and Feathered Pipe is one of these places. I’m the chairman of the Esalen Institute, and we just got internet this year that’s fast enough and doesn’t feel like a 2,400 baud modem. And people are begging us to get rid of it.

Andy Vantrease  51:39
Yeah, we need to have ways to escape it. And like I said, not have that choice to even engage, but to fully get away from it sometimes.

Dave Morin  51:48
It’s this really interesting problem. There’s sort of a combination—there’s individual skills, which I think that we don’t need to get into super in depth today. It’s skills of the ages, ancient wisdom and meditation, awareness, yoga, somatic awareness. The ability to understand when you’re reacting, versus intentional about your actions, and applying that to your individual technology use in being a parent or in your workplace.

Andy Vantrease  52:18
And really building that into our lives so that we are using these things as tools. I know when you work with founders, you say get a coach/therapist, somebody to help you through this. And prioritize yoga, prioritize meditation, some of these self-awareness techniques, social time with your family, with your loved ones outside of technology.

Dave Morin  52:47
Yeah, I think it comes back to the point that I was making earlier around—be on offense, not defense. I always say this to entrepreneurs that I work with, “Design your life first, and then let the company eat the rest of it.” When building a new company, or a new family, all available time will be taken. Design the balance into your actual schedule. If you’re married, make sure you’re doing date nights, once or twice a week. If you’re a parent, make sure you’re taking time for yourself probably every day, whatever your workout is. Make sure that you’re prioritizing when you’re going to eat. There’s all these things that are part of living a holistically healthy life, that the internet will consume all of if you don’t design in the stuff that’s healthy first. That applies to being a founder or entrepreneur, or just trying to live a more healthy life.

How to think about society and what we should be demanding of our leaders, thinking about better rules and laws around what drives these systems. One of the things people don’t realize is that your brain has no chance. Facebook is a 10 million computer computer. There are 10 million computers and data centers around the world that run Google and run Facebook. I think Google is actually 100 million computers now. And your one brain has no chance against these mega computers that are incredibly smart. The whole fundamental problem of the internet right now is that we haven’t discovered a business model that is a humane business model. Internet has been around for 29 years since I was a child, when Mosaic launched, and I was playing with Mosaic in my grandfather’s room. The dream has always been this utopia where everybody can publish, and everybody can find a community. You can find the 1,000 people that are into what you’re into. That’s the thing that I’ve always loved the most about the internet, because when I was a kid in that room in Montana, I could find other ski racers. I could find people that were into the music that I like. I could find other kids with ADD. I didn’t feel so alone. Those are the great things about the internet. But the problem is, up until this point, we haven’t discovered a business model that’s not advertising. Because of advertising, when you have a 10-million-person computer at the center of a billion people using a system, the system will always be smarter than any individual one person. If you think of it, it’s very simple—the computer knows what everyone is doing. There’s an asymmetry. It’s like the computer is smarter than any one person.

Andy Vantrease  55:39
What are you working on in this realm right now? I know you have your hands in a lot of different ventures, in for profit businesses, angel investing, and also with your nonprofit, Sunrise. Can you lay out some of the places that your energy is going towards making the internet a healthier place to be?

Dave Morin  56:04
What I’m working on right now is what we’ve been calling Web 3.0 in the internet world, which comes on the heels of this crypto revolution that happened over the last 10 years. Largely most people didn’t understand it, and that’s good, because a lot of it didn’t matter to what’s going on now other than that it evolves things to the point where now there’s this new business model, which is putting people and the creatives that create all the content that you consume on the internet back at the center of the equation in a way that balances out the power between these incredibly centralized, massive computers run by a very small number of companies and the people who are actually the creatives, making everything that makes the internet so fun. That’s one of the things I’m really passionate about right now is trying to help the next phase of the internet happen, so that we can have a healthier internet that aligns these powers better. The other thing that I’m spending an enormous amount of time on is, I started this foundation in 2015 called Sunrise. We fund a lot of neuroscience and research into mental illness, and particularly around depression, neurodivergent brain types, and how to reduce suffering and fund technology that is in that vein. Most of my life’s work and passion, whether it’s on the for-profit side, investing in companies, helping founders, or my nonprofit work, all of it is focused on reducing suffering from these brain health related problems, and helping people come back to balance and then maybe find their potential as well.

Andy Vantrease  57:50
Is it as clear to you as it is clear to me that a lot of the things that you are involved in today are such a direct result of your own experiences? You talked about a couple of these periods of your life where you’re wanting to belong, you’re battling anxiety and depression. As we all grow, live and be human, this is all part of it. And then here you are using your businesses and companies and organizations to directly impact other human beings.

Dave Morin  58:26
I’ve loved the internet for my whole life, because of this sense that no matter who you are, what type of brain, what type of sexual preferences or gender, or whatever you think makes you weird, you can find your tribe. You can belong. I learned that from a very young age in Montana and working on all of this has been extraordinary. But I think that I feel a great sense of responsibility because much of the ideas that we had in the early days of the internet, when we were authoring a lot of this stuff that now is at such large scale, there were no bad intentions. But I think that there’s a lot of suffering that’s been increased by social media in particular, and that we have a real responsibility to improve the health of it. It’s possible for both of those things to be true.

I don’t even think that we would be sitting here having this conversation as directly as we are about depression, anxiety, and ADD, if it weren’t for podcasts, for social media. I think it would have probably taken decades longer for this to become normal to talk about. Even when I first started Sunrise in 2015, it was still stigmatized to be talking about this stuff. I wouldn’t do it on a podcast. Now it’s embedded in culture, and I think we do have social media to thank for that. Watching the way social media has impacted the Ukraine war. The ability for citizens to be eyes and ears and be part of how the whole thing is playing out. You could make the argument that the scale of the global response wouldn’t have been possible, were it not for social media. The sheer number of countries and citizens all over the world. That’s a new phenomenon. And I think we as a society should be proud that we, humanity, created these systems to do this. But at the same time, it can also be true that we’re dealing with—before the pandemic started, depression was already on its way to be the number one cause of death and disability by 2030. The pandemic, we don’t even have the numbers yet, but has dramatically accelerated that, so we now sit in the pandemic of the pandemic, which is the mental health crisis, which this thing caused and is still causing. We’ve got to move things forward. There hasn’t been a new antidepressant invented in over 30 years. It’s a good thing that meditation apps are now one of the largest categories in the app store.

Andy Vantrease  1:01:01
Yeah, I believe that.

Dave Morin  1:01:02
That’s great, but they still don’t retain people very well. People buy them, they try them, it’s only a month. So, we’ve still got a long way to go getting people more tools to access ancient wisdom, let alone new technology. I think of it that way, that a lot of the thrust of the work right now is how do you get people aware of ancient tools that can help them with these modern afflictions that are the suffering brought about by the double-edged sword of social media. It can make me feel like I belong, but it can also make me deeply discluded and feel like I don’t belong. It’s a really fascinating thing. It does both. People need to have these ancient tools in order to operate in this modern information environment.

Andy Vantrease  1:01:52
I think that’s a good place to begin to wrap up. In line with all of this, the tagline of our podcast is “the magic of living a connected life.” I’m curious of what it means to you to live a connected life?

Dave Morin  1:02:07
I’m fascinated by the concept of synchronicity. Maybe we’ll have to do another podcast on this sometime. But that when we set an intention in our lives, or a goal, frequently, you start to have these coincidences happen. I always say it’s like when you are thinking about buying a new car, suddenly you see that car everywhere. I think this is one of the secret truths. If you have a goal, and you’re seeing confirmation of that through interesting synchronicities, like you’re asking yourself every day, “Is it all connected?” and you’re following good energy, that’s what being connected to the universe, the stream, is about.

Andy Vantrease  1:03:02
Dave Morin. An honorable and brilliant man with a deep love for his home state of Montana, as well as a strong commitment to how we as a society can live better, healthier lives alongside technology. One of the many takeaways from his conversation for me was the reminder to build our lives first, prioritize what and who are important to us then find ways for technology to serve those priorities–rather than the other way around. And, if someone at the center of the tech industry is advising time away from devices and a resurgence of the ancient practices of yoga, meditation and awareness–it’s probably a good idea.

Dave’s personal life path was so inspiring, and I’m feeling incredibly thankful for his candidness in this conversation, surrounding his ups and downs and experiences with depression and anxiety. To learn more about Dave’s work, visit Sunrise.bio, Offline.vc, and Esalen.org. If you enjoyed this episode, you may also like Episode #5, Redefining Our Understanding of Mental Health with Matt Kuntz.

A special thank you to Matthew Marsolek and the Drum Brothers, whose music you hear at the beginning and end of this podcast, as well as Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen, who first turned us on to the phenomenon of the Dandelion Effect and how ideas move through the world.

This podcast is a production of the Feathered Pipe Foundation, a 501c3 dedicated to healing, education, community and empowerment. If you’d like to help support this project, please visit FeatheredPipe.com/gratitude or leave a review on Apple podcasts and share with your friends. Be sure to tune in to our next episode in two weeks. We cannot wait to share another amazing conversation with you. Until then, have a beautiful day!