Cultivating Objectivity During Product Development

Last Tuesday, we kicked off friends and family testing of our MVP, this timing was both strategic and a byproduct of  the hoops we’ve had to jump through to get me to Spain enabling my cofounder and I to work together in person on a daily basis.

Having been through the launch of different web products and features, I am well aware of the emotional landscape that arises for myself and others when it comes time for real world user testing.  In a word …. it sucks ….. because this is where the rubber meets the road and all best intentions aside it’s often the first time ideas made manifest through a product itself sink or swim.

Depending on the roll you’re playing in the process of product development the specifics of emotional stakes will vary.  But in all cases cultivating some kind of objectivity, I believe, should be job one in terms of mental preparation prior to putting your baby out there for the world to see.

From the first days of working on this project,  my co-founder and I adopted the lean startup framework which supports the cultivation of objectivity through language and methodology.  As you do in a lean context, we documented hypothesis and validation criteria for our MVP but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t found myself struggling with the bias of hope and attachment to ideas about what users want or how things should work.

The insidious nature of aspiration – required for facing the insanity of starting of new business and developing a product from scratch – is hilarious if you stand back and observe how the cycle works.

In order to self motivate and opt into the unknown of building something new one must blind oneself and champion the merits of one’s idea strongly enough to get past the harsh realities associated with risk taking.  Well, I suppose one doesn’t have to but it’s a bit hard to avoid.

In my case, the blindness was reflected repeatedly through the following conversation:

‘Yes, I am moving to Spain to co-found a startup.’

‘No, I’ve never been to Spain.’

‘Nope, don’t speak Spanish.’

‘And yes, I know, Spain is in the middle of a huge economic crisis, yes, yes.  Can’t wait to get there.’

At a certain point in time it seemed odd to me that people would be confused as to why I might take this particular leap.  I mean, come on, why wouldn’t you leave your own country to go somewhere you don’t speak the language to start a new business venture?!?!

And given this kind of risk, now I need to be objective about the potential of my product?!

You gotta be kidding!

Well.  Actually.  It hasn’t been that hard.  But even still – let’s face it – objectivity is no cuddly security blanket.  It is however a slice of sanity.  Sanity that leads to building the *right* thing; that being a product that paying customers will enjoy and use repeatedly.  Knowing this is motivation enough to drop attachment to ideas and try to see clearly how users respond to early incarnations of a product concept.

Certainly, what I’m talking about is nothing revolutionary, but it’s none the less very real and no matter how many products or releases one has been through I would argue that objectivity isn’t necessarily something that is second nature.

Posted in Global Entrepreneurship, Leadership, Product Development | Leave a comment

The Gift Of Sharing Your Experience

It’s been 7 weeks since landing in Madrid, moving to a new city and a foreign country particularly one in which you don’t speak the native language puts everyday life in a very different perspective.  To make things even more interesting,  I ended up spending the holidays away from home this year, traveling through Germany with my parents who traveled to Europe from California.  Being away from all that is culturally familiar has been cause for reflection on the people and situations that shape my life.

Sometime just upon arriving here in Spain, I got a text message from a friend who’s startup I’d casually advised before heading to Europe.  I learned that the team was accepted into YCombinator’s new batch.  I was so proud of my friend, the team and thankful for having trusted my instincts and invested time in these guys.  Living in a culture that moves as fast and as furiously as American culture does makes time seem like a most precious resource that we never quite have enough of.

Just before the close of 2013, I got an email from another friend looking for assistance preparing for an important board meeting.  In a couple of emails I was able to give her just enough advice such that she could move forward and feel confident about presenting her team’s work, the road ahead and the numbers necessary to back it all up.

It’s such a gift to share one’s experience and wisdom – truly.  Obviously, the ego enjoys the opportunity to shine, but on a deeper level to be able to *share* what one knows is a chance to connect and participate in something so much bigger than one’s self or one’s ego.

As I settle into my new life here, I am fortunate to have a couple of people in my immediate midst that are incredibly generous with their time and experience.  They give me advice and laugh with me when I lose patience with  being foreign.   I only hope that sharing what they know brings them as many good feelings it does for me.

What I hope to remember is that while we may feel like we never have enough time this is in fact not true.  We get to choose how we work with time and when we choose to work with others, sharing what we know or learning from hard won experience, we have the opportunity to become part of something bigger than our selves and our individual points of view.  This is a gift.

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I Am The Muhammad Ali Of The Internet – Impossible Is Nothing

Muhammad Ali, who is a hero of mine, is known for many things one of which is his mouthiness and within his repertoire of bravado laden poetics is this pearl of wisdom:

“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”

On the advice of Cindy Gallop, another hero of mine, I recently decided to declare myself ‘the Muhammad Ali of the internet – impossible is nothing’  as a way of describing what I do.

Pretty ballsy.

Yes.

But that’s the point.

From the beginning of my life I have been enraptured and driven by the combination of imagination and aspiration.   The idea ‘what the mind can conceive the body can achieve’ has been more than a mantra it has been an expectation.

And it is this expectation that leads me to hold and demonstrate the belief that impossible is nothing.

In my teens I studied and played jazz after hearing one of my high school teachers say ‘girls can’t play jazz’.

In my early twenties, despite being told that I couldn’t become a programmer by one of my good friends, I pursued programming, was paid to program and went on to work with and for programmers.

In my thirties, I spent much time as the only woman at the table in executive team meetings and deal negotiations.

And while I do believe that  ’impossible is nothing’ ….

it doesn’t mean that I believe every shot will be a slam dunk

it does not mean there aren’t times dominated by pain and frustration

and it certainly does not mean that there haven’t been set backs and phases of my life and career when my efforts felt totally futile.

I struggled with imposter syndrome off and on for years – unaware that such a thing even existed – I was baffled by the incongruity between my internal and external experience of my achievements.

Fortunately, the belief that impossible is nothing propelled me to keep going and work through the confusion that was a byproduct of my inability to properly internalize my accomplishments.  In turn I generated some good evidence supporting the fact that experiences and states of mind are temporary.

I love working on the internet because in many ways it is the perfect landscape for bringing  ideas that in any another context are deemed ‘impossible’ to life.

Certainly it represents a new mechanism for commerce but that commerce is merely a byproduct of a many, many sparks of inspiration and buckets of perspiration.

What good fortune to live in a time in which we have a platform to live beyond the limitations of physical location and literally share our dreams with the world.

What good fortune to live in a time where the reality that impossible is nothing is a little bit more in our faces than ever.

In fact, one could argue that we live in a time when  if we don’t embrace this reality there may be far more suffering than not.

We live in a time where we have big challenges in front of us – and when I say us – I mean all of us.

So while it may be mouthy and brash of me to declare myself the ‘Muhammad Ali of the internet’ – maybe now it’s more more important than ever to make such declarations and take on the responsibility each one of us has to explore our power and work with the opportunities and challenges we face individually and collectively.

There’s a Japanese proverb I like to remember when I’m taking on something I’m not quite sure I can do, “Fall down nine times, get up ten.”.

Have fun, don’t be afraid to challenge yourself and when you fall down get back up ~ because impossible truly is temporary.

Posted in Boxing, Gender, Global Entrepreneurship, Leadership | Leave a comment

As Predicted …… Video Format Battle Lines Continue To Be Drawn

Last week Cisco announced that they will open source their H.264 video codec and provide a binary install in order to support the ongoing adoption of WebRTC.

Going one step further they went on to  report Mozilla’s agreement to integrate Cisco’s gratis H.264 binary modules into versions of Firefox soon.

Clearly squaring up against a Google Chrome world in which the VP8 codec is heavily leveraged I believe we are seeing signs of market battles to be played out in the coming months as the proliferation of consumer based live video conferencing and sharing applications continues.

Honestly, I was annoyed with Google’s introduction of a royalty free VP8 (post acquisition of On24) after having migrated years of video bits to H.264 while I was at Kink.com.  It seemed like an unnecessary move on Google’s part and what really needed to happen was for some body to address the MPEG LA license fee issue that was looming over the heads of those who had already built  H.264 into their commercial products.

The good news is that on both sides we still see WebRTC being held as a viable transmission mechanism and that’s good news.

The interesting details are that while Google announced in 2012 that they would end support of H.264 it is not only still available via FFMPEG but their flagship video conferencing product Google Hangouts made good use of H.264 up until fairly recently when they migrated over VP8.

And finally, this week in Vancouver, the IEFT (Internet Engineering Task Force) convenes and one of the decisions on the table is which codec (H.264 or Vp8) will be adopted for the open web.  If the IEFT conference schedule reads correctly the discussion and decision will be made today in a session to be held this afternoon – looking forward to learning what the results of the decision are ~ stay tuned!

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Managing Risk And What To Do When You Get Screwed

Yes, it happens to all of us.

From time to time we get into situations in which we feel we are getting a raw deal.

Sometimes we are just on the end of unfortunate circumstances and other times we may genuinely get taken advantage of or otherwise ‘screwed’ by someone else.

These situations are often an invitation for the high achievers (of which I am one) of the world to torment themselves with thought patterns that include an awful lot of self blame and criticism.  This kind of mental torture is the worst part of getting the short end of the stick.

Sure.  There’s money or a deal that you lose – an employee that gets hired by someone else out from under you – contract terms that get used against you – but those things are merely externalities.  It’s the internal experiences that we carry with us that are the real hell because unlike external circumstances that have a way of shifting of their own accord we are responsible for the internal narrative we construct and allow to create our reality.

I chose to write about this topic as I have recently found myself on the short end of a stick and I’ve been talking with people who are choosing to take risks that while exciting and representative of new opportunities also have the potential to deliver unpleasant surprises.

Here’s my current thinking on how to deal with risky opportunities:

1. When you see red flags – yield to them – they appear for a reason.

2. When you see pink flags – slow down and take the time to parse through the information they are delivering to you – view them as friends baring gifts.

3. When you choose to enter into agreements with high risk call out the risk publicly.  This allows others to voice their observations and cultivate a shared understanding of the landscape in front of you.

4. Get clear about what you need to have happen and what you hope will happen – once you’re clear with yourself try to document these requirements such that you have them as a point of reference.  The distinction between needs and wants is an important tool in deciding when to stay in or leave a situation as it unfolds.

5. When things don’t go as you hoped – slow down, step back and try to let go of your expectations such that you can see the situation as it is.  If what you see is that you are positioned poorly recognize this for what it is and take care of yourself.  Do not blame yourself.  Ever.  Take responsibility, dig deep and make an honest appraisal of how you contributed to the situation but avoid hammering yourself at all costs.

The truth is we have limited control – in life and in business – we pretend and love to believe that we have much more than we do and this gets us into trouble in many different ways.

In response to people taking advantage of each other in a professional context we often hear ‘well, that’s just business’, this is a total copout as far as I’m concerned.  Certainly, there are times when business decisions leave one person or entity in a more enviable position than another and sometimes we just don’t like the outcome of a decision – this is simply how life works.  But don’t ever let someone fool you into thinking that not following through on agreements, lying or misrepresenting themselves is ‘just business’ – this kind of behavior has nothing to do with ‘business’ and while you cannot control it you also have no reason to believe you did something to warrant being on the receiving end of it.

Take risks – take big ones – and take them with a clear and open mind recognizing that they are vehicles for growth no matter what the outcome.  Avoid throwing yourself under the bus when things go sideways because you can’t reap the benefits of growth if you’re stuck underneath it!

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Going Global – Backdrop for Adventure as an Entrepreneur in Spain

So it’s official … I am co-founding a new company that will be based out of Spain through its early phases.

I. Am. Excited.

Like you have no idea – how excited.

Starting my own business has been in the back of my mind for the last 5 years and I’ve been trying to leave the US since I was 12 years old give or take.

My desire to live abroad started with MTV’s 120 Minutes, British New Wave, Beethoven and a lust for places rich with history and culture.  These places most certainly did not include Sacramento, California – my hometown – known for Governor Moonbeam, crystal methamphetamine labs and Govenor Schwarzenegger (sorry, Mom and Dad – I still love you and I’m glad you moved)!

I grew up studying and playing classical music – at 7 years old I contemplated whether or not I’d been Beethoven in a past life – shit. you. not. – I felt such a strong connection to the beauty of classical music and what I would soon learn was European art – I longed for some reflection of that appreciation and what I was met with was skateboard culture and Valley Girl speak.

At 11 or 12, I decided I was going to university in the UK (since all of my favorite bands hailed from there) so I gathered mailing information from the public library (yes, this was pre WWW) and typed out letters to several Universities (Birmingham and Liverpool if I recall correctly) inquiring about what classes I needed to take in my American high school in order to meet the UK university admissions requirements.

Yeah.  I was hell bent.

I got as far as Boston, Massachusetts where I attended a small but internationally recognized music school, Berklee College of Music. We enjoyed a 33% international student population and some appreciation for history beyond the 1960′s at Berklee and I fell in love with Boston.

Upon completion of my undergraduate degree at Berklee, I did a 2 year stint in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (1994-1996 – yes, I have pre-hipster street cred) working in the music industry a la Jive Records and MidAmerica Productions (producing concerts at Carnegie Hall).  It didn’t take long for me to hear the impending death knell of the music business and recognize that I needed to rethink my career strategy.

Recognizing that my love of technology and music could likely be combined and afford me many more opportunities than trying to forge my way in the world as a musician, I made my way back to Northern California to immerse myself in the world of high tech and learn programming.

Fast forward to 2001, Napster ripped through the online music distribution scene where I’d been working, the dot com bubble burst, and I found myself in London, England hanging out after Musicbank, the second startup I worked for fell into bankruptcy.   London charmed the pants right off of me and rekindled my desire to get out of the U. S. of A.

I flew home after 10 days  of proper holiday and started looking for jobs that would land me in Old Blighty.  I managed to setup interviews with BSkyB, Shazam and Music Choice – amazing considering I was doing all of this from my bedroom in the Potrero Hill geek house I lived in with 6 other tech workers.

While I was in London interviewing the United States was attacked by Al Qaeda.   I’ll never forget receiving a phone call from my American friend, Eliot Lear, who was working for Cisco and in London on business.  He called to tell me that he’d be late for our tea date and that two planes had flown into the World Trade Center.

It was truly surreal being away from home and watching 9/11 from a far.  I felt guilty and for maybe the first time in my life I wanted to better understand what it meant to be an American.

I flew home after my interviews and decided to stay put – despite Bush being in office – I wanted to lean into what was happening and participate rather than side step the whole matter and flee to a foreign country.

Not only did I stay but a year later I moved back to Brooklyn and placed myself in the thick of it.

A few more years later, some in NY and some back SF, and a few more jobs in tech later, I found myself itching for big change that I wanted to emerge organically.  After all, I am a lucky girl who’s always had great housing and excellent work in SF – so if it’s not broken???!!!

I let go of the dream of living in London – there just didn’t seem to be anything to get me there aside from sheer force of will and I’d long since learned the trap of relying on will alone to make one’s way in the world.

So I started exploring areas of interest with the notion that perhaps my change would come from the start of a new business but nothing clicked until I got a ping from a colleague of mine who wanted to introduce me to a guy in Madrid.

Two Google Hangouts later and I’m at my kitchen table spec’ing out live video broadcast infrastructure in a Google doc and thinking …… hmmmmmm ….. I really miss working in online media.

From there it rolled – my Spanish co-founder and I collaborated online for 6 weeks before we met in person for the first time.

Joking that we needed to learn how tall we were, Inigo flew from Madrid to San Francisco to spend a week working shoulder to shoulder with me while I closed the Blazing Cloud acquisition and now we are officially in the throws of an early stage startup.

As we are operating in stealth mode I will leave the details of our product and company for another post.

For now, I invite you to join me as I venture forward into the unknown and the realm of global entrepreneurship.

Posted in Global Entrepreneurship, Technology | 2 Comments

Blazing Cloud + Indiegogo = Love and The Demands of Transparency

Earlier this week we announced that my team at Blazing Cloud officially joined forces with Indiegogo.

This news marks endings, beginnings and journeys to be celebrated.

First and foremost, I want to extend big congratulations to the Blazing Cloud team who valiantly soldiered through the entire acquisition process with me.  I am so proud of these people because participating in a transparent acquisition process is hard and here’s why.

Those of us who’ve been around for a minute in the tech industry know the drill – re-orgs, acquisitions, layoffs and bankruptcies happen.  These events often mean that one day you come into the office only to find a swath of empty desks or a boss missing and an awkward all hands meeting in which management stands up and talks about changes that have already taken place.  In many cases this way of introducing change within an organization is required but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck for everyone involved including the poor soul who has to stand up in front of staff and try to help them play catch up.

Tomes have been written about organizational change management – but despite all the theories and practices one factor remains – human beings don’t usually like change.

When Blazing Cloud began the acquisition process earlier this Spring the company founders made it clear that they wanted to operate as transparently as possible so that our staff felt empowered and engaged through the whole process.  As I was responsible for leading the sale of the company internally and externally I was thrilled – this meant I could be real with my people.

We opened the acquisition process with several suitors each possessing a variety of merits.  What a sweet spot to be in I thought!

With each round of meetings and negotiations a similar process unfolded – we fell in love with each of our suitors.  Great, right?

Well.  Yes.  Except that just like falling in love with a person there’s a bit of a roller coaster ride involved.

We got on that ride 4 times.

There were loopty loops and drops – big pauses – screams of fear and cries of elation – nervous hands and a lot of fatigue.

Turns out transparency is demanding.

I knew this intellectually but I’d never had it echo’d back to me by my own staff.  In the past, I just assumed that my team would be grateful for hearing the hard stuff, that they would feel included in whatever was going on and be happy.

This team didn’t complain as much as they commented about the level of uncertainty they were having to cope with – initially I thought, ‘what do you mean uncertainty?  we’re laying it all out for you …’, and then I took a giant step back and realized that while we were laying it all out what we were laying out was a stinking pile of uncertainty.

Buddhists talk about uncertainty and how much human beings struggle with it all the time so once I was able to get a grip and recognize what our transparency was bringing my folks I took a deep breath.

We were asking them to be brave – together – through a process that is rife with unknowns poised to directly impact their future.

5 months later as we formally closed the acquisition process and Blazing Cloud team exit interviews commenced I had the privilege of getting to read some of the feedback from my troops.

My favorite quote was something to the effect of ‘The last several months have been hard.  Transparency cuts both ways.’.

So.  The next time you get pulled into a meeting and some piece of news is dropped in your lap try not to leap to the conclusion that management is terrible for not including you in the process.  Instead try to remember what being included in the process would require of you.  I don’t suggest that ignorance is bliss but that there are times when being able to focus on what’s in front of you while someone else is off slaying dragons on your behalf might not be a bad thing.

To my Blazing Cloud family – thank you for being brave – I know wherever you go and whatever you do your courage will be of benefit!

 

 

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Is WebRTC The Future Of Online Video?

After having spent nearly 4 years running tech at Kink.com (which included both pre-recorded and live video production and broadcast infrastructure), it took me a minute to get used to the idea that browser based video data transmission could be the future.

The forward thinking, ‘empower everyone’ side of me loved the idea.

The technologist responsible for delivering KPIs and 9′s to a company who’s bottom line was tightly coupled with the quality and stability of said video transmission bristled at the prospect.

Plus. I kind of have a thing for hardware.  It comes from my early days doing digital audio engineering.  I like see and touch the metal boxes!

Several months ago, I started spec’ing out technologies for a new live video product (positioned in a non-adult vertical) as such I now find myself digging through online commentary re this question of WebRTC for live video.

In a nutshell, WebRTC allows for data transmission browser to browser.  This strategy applied to digital media delivery is provocative on a couple of different fronts.  All of a sudden there are a lot less pieces of technology involved in the puzzle which should open up new possibilities for developers (game dev sits at the top of the list).  There are also some interesting implications around security and privacy of data transmission.   Adam Roach, Principal Platform Engineer for Mozilla gave a nice breakdown of the situation in a recent blog post WebRTC:Security and Confidentiality .

From where I sit, while I miss working with hardware I’m delighted to be able to quickly prototype and test new application ideas without the overhead of having to invest is said hardware out of the gate.

For a quick a dirty prototype, Tokbox’s suite appears to be the fasted way to get up and running building WebRTC video based applications.

This morning I stumbled upon the Vidyo platform.  This company was recently tapped by Google to help improve its web-native video  offerings – namely Google Hangouts.  Getting up and running with Vidyo as a solo developer is not as straight forward as requesting an API key via web interface and developer sign-up so I can’t yet comment on how their tools compare to Opentok but hopefully after a couple of phone calls to developer support I will be.

After my initial digging, I want to believe that WebRTC as a mechanism for online video transmission and distribution is a solid path forward.  But after living through the video codec wars and the early days of audio format battles (oy vey) I hesitate.

I certainly appreciate enthusiasm the developer community has shown around what WebRTC represents and is capable of – perhaps it is a solid path forward in the right context for some time – but given the magnitude of power and possibility that online media distribution represents I just don’t think that developers and startups can proceed without caution.

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The Conundrum of Self Promotion

Earlier this year Maggie Fox published a  blog post entitled ‘Women who don’t self-promote are letting us down’.  When I saw references to this post flying around the net I felt like a gauntlet had been thrown down.

After mulling over Maggie’s hypothesis and how it applies to me I come clean with two personal data points:

1. I Hate Self Promotion.

2. I am now consciously, actively and transparently engaging in strategic self promotion and a personal/professional re-brand.

Self promotion always struck me as as something out of reach.  From an early age, I could too easily see my own faults, short comings and future growth path; with that awareness how could I possibly be granted the right to self promote?

This question haunted me for years and ran rampant in several arenas of my life.  I’m sure its roots lie in an existential quagmire somewhere in my subconscious – not really caring one way or another how it impacts my ability to move in the world of careers, mentorship and around the topic of ‘changing the ratio’.

On the flip side, I am a huge sucker for a dazzling personality and public display of confidence, panache, bravado and flair particularly when the individual sporting such plumage has something of value to share.

So.  I can’t say that I’m 100% hater of self promotion.  I’m torn; caught in a classic dualist split.

What I’ve come to after spending time with some people who find much ease in the department of self promotion are two important ideas to keep in mind:

1. Don’t be blinded by the light of the self promoter.

Sounds elementary but as the frenzy of opinions, twitter handles, cutsy start-up names and IPO stats reaches a fever pitch (as I feel it has here in San Francisco) it’s easy to be swayed by the virtual swagger of a big personality.

Never lose touch with your own critical thinking – take time away from the frenzy – remember why you came to tech, what you hoped to achieve for your customers, your team and your self.

2. Don’t underestimate the value of what you learn along your unique path.

We don’t have to be perfect to self promote – this is where I have historically fallen down – thinking that I have to be an expert before I can share the learnings from my own journey.

This simply isn’t the case and as fast as technology, business and the world are moving I believe the ‘expert’ qualification is fleeting.  And thankfully.  If we all recognized our unique opportunity to be students of this place and time perhaps we would be in a better position to solve some of our society’s biggest problems.

As I contemplate my own future as a willing self promoter the word ‘humility’ comes to mind.

How can one self-promote and maintain humility?

A quick Google search returns the advice of author C.S. Lewis: ‘Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.’.

I think perhaps the point Maggie Fox was making re-phrased was that we all have something to offer the world and each other ~ the only way we can make that offering is by being willing to step forward and share.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Big Data’s Creation of Digital Self = Digital Samsara (Suffering)

Last Summer, I participated in a dharma book study class in which we read Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness, by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche. These writings outline a view on the nature of reality by the main schools of Buddhist philosophy and a means to realize it through meditation practice.

Through this progressive exploration and meditation on the nature of reality my book study companions and I were faced with the question that philosophers and theologians have contemplated for centuries:

What is self?

Each Buddhist school had different answers to this question but all of them come back to self as something that does not actually exist. Put simply, we are in the habit of clinging to a sense of fixed self in order to cope with fear of the unknown (death). In turn and by virtue of our notion of a fixed self we create a situation in which we work against the nature of things as they are – ever changing moment to moment – life becomes defined by this fundamental struggle.

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