10 Questions With Leo Babauta of Zen Habits (Interview)

I am pleased to have the indefatigable Leo Babauta, of Zen Habits, as our interview guest. Leo was the first “Top Blogger” to give me a shot at guest posting so I was quite enthused when he agreed to the interview.

For a little background information, Leo lives in Guam with his wife and six children. He is a prolific guest poster and often publishes insightful articles on such sites as, Freelance Switch, Web Worker Daily, NorthxEast, and ProBlogger.

Leo’s blog, Zen Habits, and the simple productivity and inspiration that he provides on the site has struck a chord with many people. At last check his RSS subscriber count was at 24,200 people. To help satisfy his readers and their desire for more of what Zen Habits dispenses, Leo recently released the eBook “Zen to Done – the Ultimate Simple Productivity System.”

Question 1: Did you grow up on Guam? If yes, how did the Chamorro culture affect your upbringing and the person that you are today? For those who might not know, what is Guam’s political status with the U.S.?

I grew up mostly on Guam, but also lived for a few years in Portland, Oregon, Seattle, and the Bay Area (S.F. and Vallejo). Of those, San Fran is the place that won my heart. I’d love to live there again someday.

As a person, I am both a mixture of American and Chamorro cultures (and am a mixture of both), and also stand outside of both of them. But I identify strongly with the Chamorro people. The Chamorro culture is a unique one, with a blend of islander, Spanish, Japanese and American influences …

I think Guam is in the middle of an identity search right now, with a revival of interest in our Chamorro roots, and it’s interesting to be a part of that. I am one of those who are searching for a Chamorro identity.

For those who aren’t aware of Guam’s political status, we are considered an “unincorporated territory” of the United States, which means we belong to the U.S. but that there are no plans to eventually incorporate us into statehood (as in the cases of Hawaii and Alaska, for example).

Although the word is an inflammatory one, it’s a fact that we are a colony of the United States, and while most people on Guam are patriotic Americans, nevertheless we deal daily with colonial issues.

Question 2: With such a serious nature to the majority of posts on your blog do you feel a responsibility to your readers? It seems like people leave their heart and souls on the comment form, does that surprise you?

It has been overwhelming to have such a dedicated, generous, positive and involved readership. They’ve become a community of friends … we often disagree, as friends do, but most of the time we support each other and encourage each other.

It’s been vastly rewarding to me. When I started blogging in January 2007, I had no clue that Zen Habits would turn out as it has, and it’s been a huge surprise for me. A great and wonderful surprise. It’s because of the readership community at Zen Habits that I put all this time and energy into it.

Question 3: Do you ever have a bad day emotionally, or get angry?

Of course! I think there’s a perception that I’m somehow more disciplined, or more emotionally mature or something, than most people. But the truth is that I’m human, with all of the trials and struggles of human life. I get angry, I have struggles with motivation, I get into fights, I get depressed, I get lazy.

I’m just a regular guy, struggling with all the same things that everyone else is struggling with. Of course, I’ve had successes with some of these issues, and that’s what I share with people. But I have many failures too … I probably don’t write about these failures as much (though I do mention them from time to time) just because I often don’t feel that they are as useful to people as the things that work, that lead to successes.

That’s probably not true, so it’s something I need to think about more. I think one of the reasons my posts connect with many people is that I’m not just writing a bunch of advice as an expert — I’m writing it as a regular person who has been working through these issues, sharing what has worked for me.

Question 4: Do you remember your first post? What was the title and topic? Did it get any comments (and I don’t mean your wife (smile))? Did you start off with a generic WordPress theme template like the rest of us? And how have you as a person changed since that first post?

I’m not sure what post was my first — I think it was a review of my year in 2006, actually celebrating a lot of my successes: becoming vegetarian, becoming organized and productive, becoming an early riser, training for and completing a marathon, increasing my income and reducing my debt. It had been a great year for me, and I was just reflecting on that. Sometimes you don’t realize how far you’ve come until you stop and take a look back.

There were no comments on that post, as I had absolutely no readers. I don’t think I had any readers for a few weeks, and to be honest I was mostly writing for myself.

That’s what Zen Habits was in the beginning: a kind of journal for me to reflect on my life, with the hope that I could share what I’ve learned with others. It’s evolved into a bit more than that, but that’s still at the core of Zen Habits.

I started off with a generic Blogger template. A month or two into my blogging, I had gained several hundred readers, and I decided to take Zen Habits to the next level and get my own domain, move to WordPress (I used a generic theme but customized it, which lasted until my recent redesign) and change to a paid web host.

How have I changed as a person since my first post? Well, for one thing, I think I’ve found my calling. I know for a fact that I’ve found my passion. Writing for Zen Habits has become one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done, and it fills my life with a purpose and a love for what I do that I’ve never had before.

I’ve also evolved as a blogger and a writer, learning about what works and what doesn’t, although I think there’s still a lot I can do and experiment with in the future.

Question 5: In all of your writing online has there ever been one comment (or email) in response to a post, be it negative or positive, that really made you feel taken aback or shocked?

That’s a difficult one. I’ve had a number of comments that really deflated me as a blogger. I try to take them in stride, but sometimes certain comments cause me to question what I do, and whether I’m really doing a good job, and whether it’s all worth it. Doesn’t happen a lot, but it’s happened. Mostly (95%) the comments are overwhelmingly positive, and my readers are encouraging.

I think the most intense comments and posts have come from the readers who say that I’ve changed their lives. I get so many of these, it just takes me aback … how could I have imagined, when writing these posts, that it would have such a profound impact on people?

One of the more memorable came from a woman who was suffering through cancer … she took inspiration from my writing, and I believe since has overcome the cancer. When you get emails and comments like that, it just floors you.

Question 6: What do you think is the major problem in the world today (with respect to humanity) and what are your recommendations for how we can create a positive change?

I don’t think there’s a problem with humanity. I think human beings are wonderful, incredible, shocking and beautiful creatures. They never fail to surprise me. I think there’s a problem with systems.

The systems we use, that are so entrenched in our society due to decades and centuries of use, produce miserable results. Look at the incredible poverty and suffering in the Third World … does that need to exist?

There is enough food in the world to feed these people. In fact, there’s usually enough food and money in these countries to feed themselves. But because of actions of First World governments and corporations, most of the wealth of these people is exported out of the country, by corporations exporting goods and money and by governments (such as ours) collecting on debt and forcing laws on these people. As a result, they are not able to feed themselves. That’s horrible.

But does this situation exist because there are evil people in corporations or governments? Not at all. These people are good human beings, acting in the best interest of the people they represent. Unfortunately, because of the systems that exist, that best interest is in the worst interest of people outside of their entities.

And that’s the problem: our systems should be designed not to act in the best interest of entities (such as corporations) but in the best interest of the community, of people.

How can we correct it? It’s a daunting task, to be sure, but it’s not impossible. In fact, if the right people could be convinced to make changes (such as the head of the U.S. government and other First World governments), these problems could be corrected very easily.

They would just have to erase Third World debt (something that would have minimal impact on their finances) and stop imposing “reforms” on these Third World countries. Unfortunately, our government representatives won’t be convinced to make changes until *we* the people make changes.

Because they represent our interests … and if they continue to do what they do, it’s because we let them. We are complicit in the deaths of millions of children from starvation and diseases, because we choose to do nothing.

Are we evil people because of that? Not at all. We are wonderful human beings who are living our lives in peace — blissfully ignorant of the suffering of others and what we need to do to stop it.

And so it all starts with awareness … if more people became aware of the real problems, and started giving attention and thought to the issues, perhaps we could start to make changes. And perhaps eventually the harmful systems that control our society could be changed.

Question 7: If you could meet with George W. Bush what would you say to him?

I’d probably read him my answer from the last question. Bush has the power to end so much suffering, but I doubt that anything I say to him would change his mind.

He has an outlook on the world that has been ingrained in him since birth, and I doubt I could change it overnight. Perhaps if he had to spend some time living among the people of the Third World countries, he’d begin to change his outlook. I think about a year should do it.

Question 8: Where do you see blogging and Zen Habits five years from now?

I have no idea! At the beginning of this year, I couldn’t have predicted where Zen Habits would be right now … I can’t imagine where it will be this time next year! All year, I’ve been taking this approach: Just see what happens.

Do my best, be true to myself, do what I love, always look to improve, and see where it takes me. I try to take advantages of opportunities that come my way. I try to enjoy it all. I don’t have any concrete plans beyond what I’m working on now.

That said, I hope I’m still doing it in five years. There’s no telling what the online world will be like in five years, as things change so rapidly. I think instead of trying to control the tide, I will try to go with the flow, and be there when things change and change with it.

My hope for five years from now: that I still have the chance to do what I love, that I still have a great community of readers. That would be awesome.

Question 9: Why do you think so many people seem to be depressed or caught in a rut?

It’s part of the human condition. Our emotional lives have peaks and valleys, some more than others, but it’s hard to live a life without sadness, without frustration, without depression.

Many times I think we feel depressed when we feel like our lives are beyond our control. It seems overwhelming, it seems that nothing we do helps, it seems that we cannot achieve happiness, it seems useless to give any effort. And there will always be reasons why we feel like our lives are out of control.

The key, for me, has been to find ways to get things under some semblance of control, and that always means action. Take action, and you’ll feel instantly better, because you’re doing something to get your life under control.

Even if you’ve got an ocean of troubles, taking a bucketful of that water and doing something with it is a start — it’s getting a part of that sea of troubles under control. T

hat might mean making a list of things we need to do, creating a plan, going out and exercising, starting on that project that’s overwhelming us … anything, really, that’s a step towards getting things under control.

Question 10: Other than the website, and being a prolific guest poster, what are the future plans for the Zen Habits brand? Perhaps a Zen Habits energy drink? Self help DVD series?

I can’t imagine creating merchandise, because I don’t see how selling useless stuff to my readers helps them in any way. If anything, it makes them a little poorer. I don’t mind if they buy things from me, like books or e-books, that are actually useful — then we both gain.

In fact, that’s what’s next for me: I’m in the process of writing a book for print, and trying to sell it to a publisher. That’s a new experience for me, but I find it tremendously exciting. I’m a book lover, and the prospect of having a book in print with my name on it is exhilarating.

BONUS Question
Is there anything you would like to add, or any announcements that you would like to make?

I’d like to thank all of my readers, the amazing people that make writing for Zen Habits a thing of pure joy, the people that encourage me every step of the way, the people that make Zen Habits what it is. I’d like to thank my wife, Eva, and my kids, and my mom, Shannon Murphy. They are incredible supporters of mine, and I would be nothing without them.

As for announcements, besides the print book I’m working on, I’ve got a few other projects that I’m working on, including a new blog and another online project. I can’t disclose details yet as I don’t know them myself, but things are shaping up and I hope to be able to announce things soon.

Leo, THANK YOU for your time, and I wish you and your family peace, happiness, and tremendous success in the future!

If you have any additional queries for Leo that were not covered in the interview, please feel free to post them in the ‘comment’ section and I’ll see if he can stop by and check for follow-up questions from the readers.

About Collis Ta'eed

As cofounder and CEO, Collis Ta’eed leads Envato, one of the world’s most thriving digital marketplaces and creative educational blog networks.

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