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The Informed Life


Nov 21, 2021

Hans Krueger is co-founder of the international design consultancy MetaDesign. He also co-founded another design consultancy, FutureDraft, where we worked together for several years. In this conversation, we discuss Hans’s trajectory and how ancient teachings have helped him better understand his emotions.

Show notes

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Read the transcript

Jorge: Hans, welcome to the show.

Hans: Thank you, Jorge!

Jorge: I'll just say it, it's always a joy to see you.

Hans: Pleasure is entirely mutual.

Jorge: Well, folks, you might detect in the warm welcome that Hans and I have known each other for a while, and we've worked together. And I'm honored to say that I think of you as a good friend. But folks listening might not know who you are. So, for their benefit, would you please introduce yourself?

About Hans

Hans: Okay. I'll try to keep it brief. The problem at my age is the story is awfully long. So, obviously I'm from Germany, as you can hear with my accent. So, I think it's probably best to start... to take us to Berlin when the wall was falling, in the fall of 1989 and to a meeting where I met this guy, this funny typographer called Eric Spiekermann, and my friend Uli Mayer took me to meet him. And basically, out of that meeting came the creation of a company called MetaDesign.

And for those who know the design scene in Europe, that's a fairly significant company and continues to be. I was the... basically I was running the company for the first 12 years of its existence. From, you know, building it from scratch to a few hundred people and multiple offices. And it was one hell of a ride! It coincided the emergence of a technical phenomenon called the internet. That happened simultaneously. We were in the middle of that, even though MetaDesign had its core competency... it came from typography and micro design, and therefore the term MetaDesign — design for design. But it quickly became like a multifaceted design firm, with a huge emphasis on the internet.

So, it was fascinating and a long story, so I will not go too far into that, but basically just to add one more thing: we did things such as, just to give you an example, for VW built their first car configurator. It was one of the first online car configurators. In those days those were huge endeavors. All the code had to be created. And not only that, we managed to link that car configurator to the production database of VW so that the car configurator would automatically only show the options that were actually possible within a car, and the combinations that were possible. Because that's the huge complexity with these things. And these things change all the time. So, that was huge.

Jorge: And this was in the 1990s?

Hans: Yeah, absolutely — 1990s. So, it was awesome. And, those were like huge projects, you know? Like a year and a half and massive manpower and equivalent budgets. Very interesting.

So, after 12 years, I was literally finished, because I had learned how to build a company in a way. Got fairly good at that. But I had not learned how to regenerate myself. When I left, I had... I don't know how many but like way more than a hundred unused vacation days. And I was absolutely depleted, you know?

And so, I had not learned how to regenerate myself. I had always discounted that as a topic. That was a costly lesson and it led to a multi-year process of rebuilding that foundation, with the most important element of meeting the teacher that actually introduced me to the knowledge that I needed to do the rebuilding process. It was a dark time at times, I have to say. And his name is Arnaud Maitland, and he's now retired pretty much. But he is a Nyingma Buddhist.

So, the interesting thing for me was less... you know, I was never a religious guy, so I did not... there was no interest on that level. But the knowledge of the human condition that these guys have, in these lineages, in these knowledge lineages, is just extraordinary. It's immeasurably deep. You know, in our life and the way we live, we can barely scratch the surface of that, even if we commit to a significant amount of study.

So, that was important. After that, you and I started basically working together for a number of years in FutureDraft. It was a lot of fun, and from my perspective, really interesting in terms of the design process that we developed there, which was very much a collaborative design process. And from my perspective, and you might differ on that, but the extraordinary thing was that we started to design complex systems sort of from the inside out.

So, that was a great chapter and then... it ran its course. The sort of work we were doing was increasingly hard to find, so we decided to go do something else and I had another big revelation. The second really big revelation in my life was when a mutual friend of ours introduced the notion and the clear distinction of extraction versus regeneration. And I started to think about that. That really hit home. So, it suddenly dawned on me the nature of our economic activity and what is going on there, and then sort of close the loop to to finding the mission for the second half of my life. And that's basically... it took me a little bit away from the design industry, but I'm now completely focused on bringing the logic of regeneration into companies and building an organization around that. So that's what I'm doing right now.

And on a personal note, I've been married for a long time. I have one son. My son is already almost 30. And, I've also always been a musician, you know that about me. So I play drums in too many bands to mention. And, still love to do that. And, I also know fairly... I could still hit a fairly decent golf ball! That's another thing I know how to do fairly... fairly well. But, yeah! That's about it.

Jorge: Oftentimes when I invite folks to be guests on the show, there's a topic that we agree on beforehand. And in your case, we're kind of going into this with many possible topics to explore, which is a challenge, right? And the thing that draws my attention, just in hearing you introduce yourself, is that there's this trajectory in your career where you helped build this organization, and helped grow it to a fairly large size, especially for the design world.

Hans: Yeah.

Coming out of the dark

Jorge: And, as you said, you... I don't know if this is exactly what you said, but I got the sense that you kind of burned yourself out in the process of doing that? And the time when I met you, and when we worked together, it felt to me like you had overcome that and you had overcome it... I got the sense that you had overcome it in part through these teachings that you were talking about. And just in my knowing you and knowing your trajectory since then, it feels like those have been central to both the work that we were doing at FutureDraft and also the work that you're doing now in regeneration. And I was hoping that we could explore that a little bit here because it might be of value to folks listening in to hear more about how you came out of this kind of dark period of your life and how these ideas have influenced the trajectory since then.

Hans: Oh, that's a loaded question, my goodness! How do you come out of a deep dark period? So... but, I can give you sort of a glimpse and it's very much an individual thing, you know? In the end, everybody has to find the path individually and it starts by becoming aware of what calls you. In my case, I had always felt, like, an affinity to the Tibetan Buddhists for some reason.

I mean, that's also... and it started way earlier before it became fashionable, and the mountains and all of that. But what I experienced... so, the way I met my teacher, I was at a retreat in Brazil, invited by a very good friend of mine, Walter Link — who played a big role in my life and continues to — and he invited me. And part of that program in that retreat was a Buddhist teacher, teaching two days on the subject of time. And I thought, when I looked at the program, what is he going to talk about for two days on time? Time is a fairly straightforward topic.

I went into this and after an hour, it dawned on me that I could study the subject of time for the rest of my life and would not even be able to scratch the surface. So, that was like a relief because at that moment, the realization was — and it's not... it wasn't as explicit as it is now when I look back on it — but this has happened in some shape or form was, the revelation was that there is knowledge that is so far greater than anything I have the idea off — that it exists. That I can actually take refuge in it. That I can rely on some basic things that others have really thought through carefully.

And I have not found that before in my life. Certainly not in the church I grew up with in Germany. None of it. And I would describe it as knowledge of the human condition. And you could also say knowledge of our own operating system. And when you shine a light on what actually drives your patterns — your thought patterns — and they become visible, that's when the relief sets in. So what basically has power over you without you realizing it becomes visible. And that's in the end, the process.

So, I know we've talked about the whole subject of emotions. Huge topic. What surprisingly few people realize is that there is like a real system behind this thing, this whole emotional complex. How they work, how they interact with each other, what leads to what, what you can do to actually cultivate your own emotional state. A state that allows you to perceive as clearly as possible what is real, versus what you imagine is real.

Jorge: What do you mean by emotions? Like, what emotions are we talking about?

Emotions

Hans: Well, you can start anywhere but of course, classic emotion is fear, or anger, right? So these are very strong expressions. And if you talk about the system... if I shed like a little light on it, maybe? So each one of these, for example, fear or anger, they're connected to a whole complex of emotions.

So, there's like a sequence. Fear is actually... and this might not be so intuitive, but I can tell you it's, for example, connected to apathy and aversion, right? And anger on the other hand, which surprisingly many people sort of think has a lot to do with fear, anger actually is connected to emotions such as attachment and desire, stuff like that. The interesting thing is that... so one of the core realizations is that each one of these emotions, for example, anger. Good example, anger. If your mind gets used to being angry, you will be angry all the time. So anger is actually something that... it's a pattern in the mind.

And for example, if you are used to experiencing relief when you blow off steam, that's a pattern that when that happens, it's way more likely that it will happen again in the very near future. What that means is you can actually dry these things up. And why do you want to do that? You want to do that because when you're angry, for example, and you get to a real rage state... this is like when it becomes most obvious, you're completely disconnected from reality. You don't know anymore what's really happening in the world. And it goes as far as hurting yourself, you know? You might run with your head into the wall.

Jorge: I'm hearing you describe this Hans, and thinking that that sounds like the business model for a lot of the social networks, right?

Hans: Right! right. Well, I mean, they absolutely... they trigger these emotions and they play with it and it's actually like a drug. And what it does is it could completely disconnect you from reality. And the whole goal, as far as the Buddhists are and what they teach in terms of the human condition teachings, they say that your aspiration in life... a good, healthy aspiration in life is to be as clear in your perception of reality as possible, as often as possible. So, meaning that these emotions that basically take away that clarity or that connection to reality, are really detrimental and they lead to all sorts of actions that we might regret afterward, you know? And they also lead to actions where we destroy our own habitat. Greed, by the way, is one of these emotions, you know? So, if you're in the grasp of greed, you do damage and you don't realize because you're completely disconnected from reality.

Jorge: Well, and I'm thinking another example might be when one gets angry at someone and you just let your mouth fly and say all sorts of hurtful things, right? Which you then regret.

Hans: Of course. And you can go into physical altercations, you know? So absolutely.

The structure of emotions

Jorge: So, these ideas sound fairly intuitive. What is different or at least was different for me when I first heard it, was the way that they're structured. They're grouped in particular ways, right? And they relate to each other in particular ways, which I first heard of from you, and I was hoping that you would tell us a bit more about that because I think it's very intriguing.

Hans: Happy to do that. So, I just basically try to describe how these emotions are grouped in clusters, right? That actually there's like a common core to them. There's like a common core. So the thing is, of course, there are also positive emotions. Emotions that actually help you to see the world as clearly as possible. Where you really like... you're breathing pure oxygen. Okay, that's not so healthy either. But you're like completely clear and connected to everything and you'll hear all the voices and you know exactly what's going on and what's needed at a particular moment, right?

I'll give you an example of how this works together. So, when you love something, you care about it deeply, when you love something. This could be another human being, or it could be a beautiful flower, or the planet itself. Or it could be anything. There's like, there’s…

Jorge: The Beatles?

Hans: The... who's that? He's pulling my leg, you know? So, anyway, that's another huge topic, don't get me started on that!

But basically what happens is that when that love is pure, for example, you love another human being, it does not infringe on that other human beings "being," if that makes sense. So, it's actually... love is an emotion of freedom. And when that turns, and there's a shadow side to it, and that shadow side is attachment. Because now suddenly something that you love, you want it to be in a certain way.

You take away its freedom to develop as it needs to develop because you want it to be in a certain way. So, now you're attached, right? And now there is a progression from attachment to anger, to rage... it's just one progression, you know? It's just a question of time. So how this systemically works is... this means there's a shadow side actually to those emotions that are actually beneficial for you.

And the little trick is you cannot, when you have become angry, you cannot go back. First of all, if you consider what happens to most people is they become angry that they're angry, right? So now you have anger times two. Anger, layered on top of anger. And then actually, that continues to the third and fourth and fifth dimension. And so the anger gets thicker and thicker.

Jorge: It's a positive feedback cycle, right?

Hans: Yes. I don't know if it's positive.

Jorge: Positive in the sense that it grows, right?

Hans: I know. So, the trick here is you can only get rid of it with an antidote. And the antidote is actually... in the case of attachment and anger, which is very much about yourself, you want something to be in a certain way, right? That's like the common root of this, and you get angry because it's not like that, is compassion -is the cultivation of compassion. So, compassion means you take somebody else's wellbeing, or the wellbeing of the planet, or whatever, you take it on the same level of importance as your own.

So, when you do that, anger can't exist anymore because it's not about you anymore. So I hope the logic gets clear, is sort of visible in that description of one of the quadrants. And the thing is there's like a whole circle of these. It goes around in a 360-degree circle. One thing leads to another, it's the antidote of another, and you cultivate that and that can go wrong again, and so this goes all the way around, which is too much in our format here, but that's the little secret.

And what was the breakthrough for me was that I actually have the freedom to cultivate what I want to cultivate. To realize that I'm not the victim of whatever I'm in the grip of. That I can cultivate it myself.

Jorge: That sounds incredibly liberating. I just want to point out because you hinted at the fact that there's a cyclical structure to this, and we don't have enough time to get into it here, but Jessica Fan has written up the model based on a presentation that you did, and I'm going to include a link to that article in the show notes for folks to check out. It is worth checking out.

Hans: She's lovely. Yes, she did a great job on it.

Jorge: This idea that through greater awareness of your emotional state, you can liberate yourself from being kind of driven by these things is incredibly powerful. And yet from experience, I know that it's hard, right? Like when you're in a rage, you're not thinking straight.

Hans: No, that’s right.

Escaping emotional cycles

Jorge: So, how do you overcome that? Like, how do you gain the ability to escape from these feedback cycles?

Hans: Yeah. So a very good question, Jorge. So what I would say is... so the path — my path, and I always have to preface everything, that this is my path. So this is not... you cannot generalize it. But for me, the path was to... for a long period of time, and I do this still every day, I contemplate the system. Whenever I'm somewhere — and it runs like a background program — the first step is to really memorize the system, which takes surprisingly long, actually. That you have it completely in your mind; that it's ingrained in your mind. That it becomes part of your normal, interior structure.

So, memorizing the system is the first step. The second thing is to actually start contemplating yourself, how these things interact. Because it's literally like you discover... I can tell you I've done this now for more than 15 years, I think? Every day, I discover new dimensions in this. How like little mechanisms, how they work. And then, the process is, in the end, is classic. So, usually what happens is you have like an episode during the day and you lie in your bed at night and you contemplate, "Geez! You know? There it was again.:" So, you become aware. So, the practice is, as it gets ingrained into your body, into your system, these intervals become shorter and shorter.

So, you're... initially, you probably think about it at night in bed. Then you get closer and closer to the point where it actually occurs. And if you're a master, — I'm nowhere near — you actually catch it at the onset, when it's like the first tiny irritant in your body, you already got it. And you apply what I call the antidote. You immediately catch it. If there's like the tiniest amount of attachment, you already got it. That way, it never progresses.

So, that's the path. It definitely starts by really memorizing the whole thing. You have to know it. That this leads to that, that leads to that, that leads to that. These are the different groups .... and you have to have it in your system. That took astonishingly long. I had like one that I was constantly missing. I could not remember it, you know? That, of course, points to other psychological phenomena; that you have a blind spot.

Design and the cycle of emotions

Jorge: Like you were saying, this stuff is so deep and vast. Like, there's a lot to explore here. Many of the folks listening to this show are probably interested in design. They have either a design background or are practicing designers. And I'm wondering if you can talk about the relationship between the framework — this cycle of emotions — and the design process… if there's any relationship there?

Hans: Oh, there's a huge relationship!

So, let's start by saying what happens to you on an individual level, happens to organizations on an organizational level. So, you can have angry organizations. You have arrogant organizations; organizations who think they know at all. You have all that, and if you know how this works, you can actually design according to what's needed. You can design for the antidote. And you can also completely miss it because you are not aware of it. So, if you apply the wrong antidote, there's not going to be any impact. So, that's like one huge thing. You can actually observe it.

Do you know who really knows this stuff well? People who write movie scripts. Since I've been aware of this, I watch movies and I go like, "Ah, there it is." This is like a blueprint, how they operate with the system, you know? And I'm sure it's not, in many cases... I would be surprised if they actually explore it through Buddhist teachings, but these are all universal truths. This is not something that the Buddhist own or something. They just describe something that exists.

So, it's inevitable that others come to the same conclusion because it's the truth. That's just how it works. And I see it in movie scripts all the time. But it definitely applies to organizations. It applies to teams, to design teams, you know? When you work in a team and you have a person who is in a particular state, if you have this knowledge, you can address it. The challenge is to actually apply this in an organizational context. And we even had that at FutureDraft because there's so much resistance.

There's a lot of resistance to actually... which is really interesting, to making this stuff visible. Many people don't want this to become visible. They sense that there's sort of a complication for their life. They love their emotions, you know? Why would I start manipulating my emotions? Right? My anger is healthy. I hear those, but... yes, there is sometimes a place for anger, but from my perspective, the trap is to become caught up in it. Sometimes you just have to blow up. But how do you calibrate your own system afterward so that it does not linger in your system and block your ability to see clearly?

Jorge: What I'm thinking in hearing you describe this is that in gaining greater awareness of the degree to which emotions are influencing your behavior, and gaining the ability to regulate that process, imparts upon you a certain degree of responsibility, right? Like, you can no longer point to your emotional state as the cause for these things. So, you were talking earlier about this victim mindset. It's like, well, you know, "I was angry, so that's the excuse!"

Hans: Yep, exactly. Exactly. Very true. Yeah. The notion, in a way, is to take responsibility on that level. Take responsibility for the state you are in. That's actually, I think, one of the core requirements of a leader. You have to take responsibility for the state you're in. And we had some very clear examples of people who are completely oblivious to that in recent years. So, yeah, absolutely. Taking responsibility for the state you are in, also as an organization, by the way. This is really a big deal.

Reading the emotional space

Jorge: Right. And I don't know to what degree this is something that we are trained for. I think that as individuals, we have a sense for what it means to be angry, what it means to feel, I don't know, greed or what have you, but I would expect that it's harder to read the room when it comes to a group of people, whether it's your team or the organization, or what have you. Any pointers in that regard?

Hans: Well, I mean, first of all, when you yourself are in a balanced state, you will be able to read the room. That what gets in the way is your own imbalance, right? If you had a fight at home in the morning and you walk into a meeting, that fight lingers in your system, if you don't know how to completely offset that emotion and you have a practice around it. You will bring this into the meeting. You will not see what's going on in the meeting and you will miss vital information. And information of course is communicated... only 5% or so is communicated verbally. The rest happens on completely different levels. You're missing all that because your system is blocked. It's clogged, literally, inside.

Yeah, it's astonishing. I mean, I don't know if it comes across, but you really have it in your... when you become aware of that, of what it feels like to have a system that is clogged like that, and you know the difference between the two states, it's astonishing, you know? The level of information that you suddenly get because you're not clogged.

Closing

Jorge: Well, this all sounds really fascinating, and again, a lot of it is not new to me because we've talked about this in the past, but I'm very happy to be able to share it with folks here. I'm wondering where they might find out more about this particular framework. I mean, I've already mentioned, Jessica's post.

Hans: Yeah.

Jorge: But if there are any other resources? And then, where can folks follow up with you yourself, should they want to reach out?

Hans: So, the second question is easy to answer. You find me on LinkedIn. I don't have... I'm not a big social networker, so, but on LinkedIn, you can find me. And if you put in Hans Krueger MetaDesign for example, that will lead you straight to me, I would imagine, because my name is fairly common, in Germany at least. So that's one thing. Also, if you're interested, take a look at a website called Now.Partners. That's actually the endeavor that I'm involved in currently, which is a decentralized global consultancy. We have not really talked about that — it's a fascinating topic — that, in service to regeneration of large multinational companies and family-owned businesses. So, Now.Partners, there's like 120 partners in there now. And you will find my portrait in there. I'm the CFO of that organization, so…

Jorge: And you'll find me as well.

Hans: Hey, you're also a partner? Fantastic. No, no, of course! Fantastic. Which is awesome. Yeah. So, you can also get in touch with me through that. So Yeah!

The first part of your question, where to look for resources, that's not so easy to answer. So basically this thing, what I've just told you, you will find snippets of that in any Buddhist book. I'm not aware of a book that actually spells this out to the degree that it... how it would be applicable to our normal professional life. I'm not aware of that, really. There are various frameworks actually out there about, emotional frameworks, I should say, meaning frameworks that describe this whole system.

I have to say, the knowledge that I've shared here a little bit comes out of a book that was written in the 15th century by a famous Buddhist teacher. 15th or 14th century. Incredible, when you read that. His name is Longchenpa. And the book has a beautiful title and I, say this slowly, Kindly Bent To Ease Us. What a title! Anyway, Kindly Bent To Ease Us. This is not the easiest thing to read, but it's all described in there. Fascinating! So, in the end, explore it where you can explore it if you're interested, and you will find the right place.

Jorge: I am very grateful for you to come on the show and tell us about it, Hans.

Hans: It was my pleasure, and, yeah! I hope it was interesting.

Jorge: Thank you for being here.

Hans: Thank you, Jorge. Thank you for having me.