Why would anyone jump into a freezing cold lake? There’s at least one good reason why.

This weekend I learned a great deal about what courage is. It’s knowing that scuba diving in freezing cold water is an absolutely awful and unpleasant experience because you’ve just learned it firsthand, and then still choosing to do the same fucking awful thing again the next day because you’ve signed up for it. And choosing to do it with a smile.

Why would anyone go diving in freezing cold water? For a while I was wondering why I’m doing this to myself. Even though I’ve been putting off this scuba diving course for way too long, nothing bad would happen if I didn’t complete it this time. I could make a deal with the diving school to finish it in the summer, start it again in a warm tropical sea, or decide that diving is not my priority right now. It never was anyway, at least until now.

Yet somehow out of all the possible ways to spend a December weekend I chose to get my ass wet in a freezing cold lake. Me, who fucking hates cold water from the bottom of my heart. I don’t know how they tricked me into this. That’s not something I’d normally do, and for sure not something I’d normally pay for.

In the morning before the first dive I realised what I actually signed up for, and what an insane idea it was. Putting my diving gear together, still safe and warm indoors, I started freaking out that I will freeze there, get sick, or do something crazy stupid and unsafe.

This wasn’t a totally baseless fear. With the first wave of freezing cold water over my head my mind went blank and I instantly forgot the basic stuff I learned at the swimming pool. I couldn’t even keep myself afloat above the lake bottom. Our divemaster suggested I complete the mandatory exercises and get the hell out of there as soon as possible. I ran back freezing, crying, and already terrified I’ll have to do the same thing again.

Then in the afternoon I passed the written test and had to decide what I will do next. I could either put myself together and complete that one last round of diving exercises the next day, or put it off for who knows how long. As much as I hate cold water, I chose to do this crazy ridiculous thing one last time, and to try having fun while I do it. Even if the ‘fun’ part meant crying and laughing at my own misery.

This second time I’ve postponed getting dressed till the very last moment in order to stay warm for as long as I could, put as much clothes as possible under my wetsuit, poured warm water all over myself, and ran into the lake screaming “I’M A FUCKING NINJA TURTLE!”. (Well, wearing the diving gear I totally looked like one).

It was still as freezing and unpleasant as the day before, but I no longer cared. Neither the blistering cold water, the diving mask fogging up, my breathing gear going bananas, nor losing a fin halfway through the exam would make me lose my nerve. I stayed on top of all these the things, and surprised both our divemaster and myself asking him if we can dive around for 5 more minutes (but no more!).

I was wondering why I’m doing this to myself, but I think I know now. This experience made me feel stronger and more powerful than I was before. I still despise cold water, but once I made a resolution to go back there even though it’s so awful, I stopped letting the fear overwhelm me. I’ve let fear paralyse me way too many times, and now I finally know I can be scared but still stay in charge.

Cold water isn’t the only thing in my life I’ve been dreading, but now I feel I am able to face all these things. Maybe not everything at once, and maybe I’ll need to ask for help many more times than I’m used to, but if I survived the scuba diving crash course, there’s not much more that can stop me. I’m a fucking ninja turtle after all.

Are you HIGH on EXISTENCE? How I found my community made in Cosmos.

Excuse me, Sir, do you have a spare moment to discuss the meaning of the Universe? It may sound funny, but I’d rather talk about that, than about politics, TV shows, or sports. For the most of my life I was seriously involved in religious communities, and a big part of who I am now was largely shaped by that.
One of the things I miss most about religious communities was talking about the Big Scary Stuff that’s rarely discussed at parties. The meaning of life, your hopes, fears and regrets. What do you do to become a better person. What do you do to raise up when you fall. How you can contribute your skills to make the world a better place.
Still, as much as I loved the sense of belonging, community and Scary Stuff talk, religion has grown difficult on me. I’ve become too much of a curious skeptic, as science taught me that the only way to arrive at better conclusions is to challenge the ones you already have. It turned out that doubt and challenge is too much of a taboo for most religions to bear.
It’s not like I don’t believe things without proof, everyone does. I believe it makes sense to do even the tiniest little thing despite the whole sea of suffering around. I believe everyone is worthy of love and respect, even if they’re a total mess. I believe every experience and person have a lesson to teach me.
I don’t have a problem with believing in things. I have a problem with believing in them without question. If at some point in life I realise my beliefs no longer serve me, I want to be able to reconsider them, discuss other options, and try what actually works best. I want to be able to admit that no one actually has any freaking clue what they’re doing, and we’re all making it all up as we go along. Even authorities or gurus are not free from doubt and despair, and I’d love to see them admit when they don’t know the right answers, or to apologise when they make a mistake.
These parts – open discussion, seeing own flaws, and acceptance of doubt – is what I lacked in my religious settings. It felt like they were trying to fit a whole vast sky inside of their church. I couldn’t help but turn to the open sky instead.
Still, that wasn’t an easy choice to make. There’s many benefits of belonging to a community, and I missed them a lot while trying to make sense of the puzzle by myself. I missed the possibility to discuss my spiritual journey with other people sharing the same ideals and goals. At times I thought I’m alone with such goals and values in the whole Universe.
I thought I could find people like me in rationalist or science communities. In the books of Sagan, Feynman, or Einstein I found the purest awe and wonder of Cosmos, and fell in love with how they looked at the world. Somehow, the communities online were not full of Sagans, Feynmans, or Einsteins. “Science, bitch!”, we’ve got it all figured, and whoever doesn’t agree is brainwashed or simply an idiot. Just as if admitting that science doesn’t have all the answers, and may never have, would automatically imply that some particular religion is right.
The various flavours of New Age shamanism were not able to help me either. Many of them had genuine and valuable insights into human spirituality, but served them mixed up with the weirdest kinds of superstition and anti-science denial. Just as if the failure to explain consciousness in purely scientific terms would mean that science as a whole is wrong and confused, and the only thing that matters is subjective experience. If evidence piles up against it, there’s something wrong with the evidence. A natural consequence of such thinking is turning away from science-based medicine.

***

With time I understood that accepting doubt is extremely difficult and feels unnatural. We all want to make sense of the world, and we want to be certain that our sense is the right one. How else can we make any decision without being paralysed?
This is probably why certain spiritual experiences can feel as the only true thing in life. They are, until you realise that other people had equally truest experiences, totally incompatible with yours. The feeling of awe, own insignificance, and dissolving in the Cosmos is so overwhelming and intense that everyone dresses it up with their own cultural narrative and calls it the thing. It takes a great courage to admit that what you found true for yourself may not be for everyone else, or even for yourself a couple years later.
This is also why the articles on High Existence got me so intrigued and surprised. For the first time I saw that it’s possible to be serious about spirituality and still approach the subject with scepticism and zero bullshit. They seemed very serious about spiritual growth, but they were also serious to perceive the world as it is, rather than as someone might wish it to be.
After a few months of subscribing to everything they publish, I decided to buy their flagship course. Not just because there’s challenges in it, you can find similar ideas in the Tim Ferris Show or other books. What I really hoped was to see what kind of people would create or pay for a self-development course about enlightenment. Since I joined, I’m wondering what took me so long.
It turns out, the kind of people interested in a course about enlightenment also happen to be the people willing to discuss the meaning of life, the nature of consciousness, and whether there’s such a thing as free will. But that’s just for the start. The most important thing I found there, is a community to keep me accountable when I start a challenge, to share their feedback and advice when things get difficult, and to help me get back on track when I fail. It’s one of the most friendly crowds I’ve been a part of, and their support and shared insights have become invaluable to me.
It seems that more and more chunks of my life are slowly moving online, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing in itself. Leaving the corporate world and working for a fully distributed team felt quite weird at first, until it turned out to be the most efficient and fulfilling way to work for me. If I can have my whole company online, why shouldn’t it work for a soul community too? Virtual or not, I feel like I’ve finally found my own tribe.

 

The Ultimate Happiness Engineer Starter Pack

So you just found out that Happiness Engineering is an actual job. You always thought customer support is all about scary call centers, but then you met some folks who do this and have fun. You might have heard some stories that sounded too good to be true, and then became jealous when they turned out to be quite true indeed.
Maybe you’d never heard of Automattic before, and only had a vague idea of what WordPress is, but the more you learned about what Happiness Engineers do, the more you realised this is the job you always dreamed of.
Does that sound anything like you? That’s great, you’re most probably a my kind of person. Here is the ultimate guide that will answer the questions you have on your mind, and help you get started as a Happiness Engineer.

How do I know this is the job for me?

Not everyone can be a Happiness Engineer. Not everyone would even want to be one. If all the jobs you had so far somehow revolved around people and problem solvingthis is a good sign. Here are a few other ones:

  • You enjoy working with people. This is an absolute must. Happiness Engineers work mostly with people, even if they only “see” them online. If you’d rather hide in your cave and do stuff on your own, consider a different position out of the many we have.
  • You have high empathy levels. You care about people and do your best to help them. It’s easy for you to imagine how others perceive the world, and how it’s like not to know something.
  • You love solving puzzles, learning new things, and have exceptional googling skills,
  • Your secret superpower is explaining technical stuff in terms understandable to your mum or seven year old kid,
  • You’re willing to stretch yourself for 4 weeks and get baptised in fire during the trial. There will be more on that later.
You probably noticed there’s no mention of technical skills on that list. I skipped that part on purpose. The only technical skill you really need is the ability to google and learn new technical skills, fast. Our products evolve over time, so get used to learning by trial and error rather than by heart.
Before you apply, it’s good to have a decent understanding of HTML, CSS, domains, HTTP requests, and browser debugging tools. It’s even better to know how WordPress works, and how different people use it. Coding skills are not required by any means, but often help. However, if you know how to google and how to learn, you should be able to prepare yourself for the trial in a few months, even if you don’t know anything about WordPress or HTTP yet.

How do I learn about WordPress then?

Glad that you asked! The fastest way to learn is to start actually using it. There’s a few things you can do, and the first one is obviously to…

Start a free blog on WordPress.com

This is the product you’ll mostly work with during your trial. The free version doesn’t have all the awesome features of premium plans, but it’s more than enough for a first encounter with WordPress.
Challenge yourself to use the product, so you can learn how it works. Play around with the site design and see how it looks with different themes. Connect it to your Facebook and Twitter accounts and observe how your posts get automatically shared with the public. Set up a homepage, some widgets, and a contact form.
Commit to adding at least one or two posts per week. If you don’t know what to write about, post photos of your food, dog, or kid. Or if you’re like me, find a rainbow pencil, ask people to draw something for you, then post it on the blog. I’ll be happy to ship a rainbow pencil wherever you live, if you need one.
Still doesn’t sound like fun? If you’re too pragmatic to play around with no purpose, you should probably try something else…

Find a non-profit without a website, and help them create one

You’ll learn much more this way, as their needs might be specific and unusual. It may turn out that the free plan is not enough, and you will need to move to a self-hosted WordPress and install all the themes and plugins yourself. Perhaps you’ll even end up setting a fundraising campaign for them, or an online store of some kind.
Above all else, working for a non-profit you will learn how non-technical customers communicate what they need, which will be invaluable at your work. You’ll also have a great story to share in your application letter. Plus you will earn karma points. That’s a quadruple win.
Not sure where to find an organisation you care enough about? Start with the Worldwide NGO Directory, or find a local one. In the NGO catalog provided by the city of Warsaw, only half of the entries have a website link.

Start helping out on the forums

And start it sooner than later. There’s only so many ways to break a website you can come up with yourself. Other folks in the forums will surely have other ideas, and helping them will speed up your learning a lot.
You’ll spend the most of your trial on WordPress.com, so start on the WordPress.com support forum. Reply whenever you know the answer, and follow up if there’s extra questions. Observe what others say in threads where you don’t know what to do, watching out especially for staff answers. These people got the job, so they might have an idea what they’re doing.
This shouldn’t take more than few hours per week – you probably still have a full-time job at this point, so the worst thing you can do is to burn out before even applying. If you don’t have any coding background, and still have some free time, you can learn a bit about CSS or troubleshooting with Chrome Dev Tools.
Once you’re comfortable replying to about 80% of the forum threads you open, you are ready to apply. Provided, of course, that after a few weeks of blogging, setting up websites and helping folks out in the forums, you still think it’s super fun and would like to keep doing this thing.

Application

Before you apply, make sure to present yourself in the best way possible. So as the first step…

Spice up that resume and application letter

It’s too easy to spot a generic application sent to a hundred companies for a hundred different positions. Yours will be a very specific one that shows why you’re a good fit for a Happiness Engineer. No matter what your past job experiences were, they are always relevant, as long as they helped you learn how to solve problems, communicate with people, or act in difficult situations. Make sure to present them in this light.
There’s more than just past jobs you can write about in your application. Write why of all companies on the planet you want to work for Automattic (because you do want to work here, right?). Write what you liked most about blogging, setting up websites and helping out in the forums, and what you learned in the process. Write how and why you’d like to make the world a better place.
There’s no need to write a long application letter, a few short paragraphs are surely enough. It’s much more important what is in there, so make sure to check suggestions on the job listing page, and reference at least two of them. Double check for any typos and ask a friend to triple check. Ready? Then send that email and…

Wait…

It may take a few weeks before you hear back. It’s a little bit stressful, but perfectly normal. Use that time to expand your knowledge about WordPress and keep replying in the forums. If you make it to the trial, domain-related questions will make a big part of your work, so make sure to review the All About Domains page.
Or if you want to learn the fast way, buy a WordPress.com plan, move your site and existing domain there, and immediately lose access to the email you used to send your resume. Bonus points if that’s also the email on your WordPress.com account, which now controls all the settings of the domain you moved. You’ll learn much more in one day than you would if you just kept reading articles for a whole month. Believe me, I’ll never forget how nameservers and MX records work.
Now is also a good time to start reading the Customer Service Survival Kit. If you only have time to read one book during these few months, make it this one. You’ll thank me for this later, and will be wondering where this book has been for your whole life. If you absolutely don’t even have a spare while to read it, here are the key lessons I’ve taken from it.

Interview time!

All interviews at Automattic are in Slack, just like the most of internal communication. If you’re used to traditional face to face interviews, this may feel very weird at first.
Don’t be surprised if the questions will be different from what you’re normally used to – since you can use Google during the interview (and, khem, during your everyday work), traditional knowledge quizzes don’t make much sense here.
Also, once you’re finally hired, we’d love to hear what is your spirit animal, what you were like as a child, and what box of cereal you would be, but a first interview is probably not the best place for these.
If all goes well, you’ll be invited over to the next step of the process, which is…

The Homework

You’ll get a few problems to solve – either to write down an answer, or to set up something on a WordPress site. You can take as much time as you need to complete it.
If you’re not sure what to do at any of the steps, remember that “I will not just work on things that are assigned to me” is part of Automattic creed. Whenever in doubt, feel free to go above and beyond (and don’t forget to google!).

Second interview

For me, this one was mostly about the homework. There may be more technical questions at this point, but if you did all the assignments yourself, you should have no problems answering those.
If you successfully pass the second interview, you’ll be invited to where the real fun begins.

The Trial Process

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This exquisite goat is brought to you by Michael Kahl, to help you relax a bit before the rest of your journey

The idea is very simple – you get hired as a test, both for you to see if this is how you want to spend a large portion of your life, and for the company to see if you’re doing a good job. The details have changed a lot since I was on my trial, but you can expect working 25-30h per week for up to several weeks. You will get paid for each hour you worked.
For the first week you’ll start out in the forums (yes, the same forums you should be already familiar with), along with a bunch of other candidates. If you do a good job there, you’ll take a quick training on internal workflows and tools and move over to working on live chat and tickets. Get ready, this will be intense.
You’ll need to learn a ton of things during the trial, and you’ll need to learn all of them fast. The most important one is how to search for answers – we have a vast library of internal and public docs, which soon will become your best friends.
You’ll also get a buddy – another fellow Happiness Engineer who will help you with rest of your trial process. You can always ask anyone for help (and are strongly encouraged to do so!), but if you feel that your questions are too silly, or you messed something up, your buddy will be the best person to help you get yourself out of trouble.

Can I do the trial while working full-time?

Yes, it’s doable. Tough and exhausting, but doable. I did this, my friends did this, I don’t have official stats but it’s likely that the most of the company did their trial while still working full time, or taking care of small kids (but very few people did both!). It helps if you prioritise sleep above everything else, give up on most household chores, and have an understanding and supportive partner.
Still, despite having the best partner in the world and giving up on pretty much everything except for work, I was physically and mentally exhausted by the end of my trial. The process is so intense, and you learn so much over such a short time, that it would be tiring even as the only job you have. Doing it as a second job is certainly going to stretch you out.
Luckily, it’s easier to stretch yourself when you know where the finish line is. No one would be able to work this way in the long term, but a few weeks’ sprint won’t do that much harm.
You’ll also learn things about yourself you always deemed impossible. Like that you’re able to wake up daily at 5:30am, to do some live chat in the morning before going to work. I still have no idea how I did this. There’s no such hour as 5:30am on any of my clocks.

What is evaluated on the trial?

Everything! How many interactions you can normally do in certain time, and how accurate your answers are. The way you speak to customers, especially if they are angry, confused or upset. The way you ask for help, the way you help others, the way you give and receive feedback.
If that sounds scary, imagine how scary it must be to be hired based on what your spirit animal is… Here you are given a fair shot to do the work, and prove yourself competent.

Final Interview

This one is to see how you fit in the company culture. What makes Automattic such an awesome bunch to work with, is that everyone cares about what they’re doing, and agrees on the values written down in the Creed. If you’ve reached this stage, there’s high chance that you do fit here, so this one will likely be a friendly chat.

What if I don’t get hired the first time?

You’re more than welcome to apply again in a few months. Many of our colleagues were hired on their second try. Get some rest, learn some more, read more books on customer support, and come back refreshed whenever you feel that you’re ready.

Is it worth all the hassle?

I may be biased, but it totally is! Yes, the hiring process at Automattic is much longer and complicated than in most companies. From the moment you send your resume, till the moment you start working full time, it might take about 3 to 4 months, or even more.

Still, because of the very fact that the process is so long and complex, only people who do care about working here end up working here. Coincidentally, these people also tend to care about their colleagues, the products they create, their clients, and a whole lot of other things. And, believe me, I know how big of a difference it makes.

The tree that grew on a rock

There’s at least few of them on every hiking trail in the world. The heroic trees that grow in places where no trees should ever grow. You can see all odds are against them, but for some crazy reason they keep on surviving.
On a bare rock. 300 feet above the ground. On the shaded side of a canyon. With nothing to hold onto, no access to nourishing water, sometimes even the sun. Growing sideways, twisted ways, roots hanging down off a cliff, looking worn out and tired.
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Photo: Jos

I can’t help feeling sorry for these trees. Life hasn’t treated them fair. With nowhere to stretch their roots, all their lives was a struggle to survive. They never had enough water, enough energy, or enough support. They can’t even pack all their stuff and start a new life somewhere else.
If I were one of these trees, I’d probably complain a lot. All the other trees in the forest have enough resources to live by, and never have to worry about the weather breaking them down. They grow tall and beautiful, much taller and much more beautiful than my sad little tree self will ever have a chance to be.
Why am I not allowed to fulfil my true tree potential?
Is it karma? Bad luck? What have I done in my previous tree life to deserve this?
Or maybe the Universe hates me for no reason at all?

***

I am not one of these trees. I had a lot luck in my life, and I’m really grateful for it. I don’t know where I would be now if I wasn’t so lucky.
Maybe that’s why watching these trees grow is such a profound experience to me. They don’t know how to complain. They don’t know how to compare their lives with all their tree peers around.
They simply take all they have, and grow it into the most beautiful thing that they can.

Post-communist minimalism – what if we stopped chasing things before we have it all?

Joshua from Becoming Minimalist just posted an excellent article on what he learned about minimalism on his trip to Poland. It strongly resonates with me, not just because it’s about my home country. After decades of extreme scarcity, minimalism seems quite abstract for most Polish people. At the same time, we need it much more than we might think.
I was born in Poland in 1988, a year before the Berlin Wall collapsed. This makes me the first generation raised in a free country, with all sorts of goods available in a free market. My parents, on the other hand, spent their entire youth under communist regime. For years food was only available with ration stamps, and people would queue up for hours to get some.
Growing up, I wondered what made my parents keep certain things in our crowded apartment. They never gave away a single book – even encyclopaedias outdated by decades. There was a yarn set older than me in one of the closets, which my mum intended to use – someday, when she retires. She hasn’t retired yet.

With time I realised minimalism is a first world privilege.

If tomorrow there might not be even bread or toilet paper in stores, you learn to buy things just in case – everything you can, as much as you can.
In communism people didn’t have much, so they clung to the few things they did. Their lives literally depended on these precious things. When you grow up like this, it’s hard to change this mindset later in life, even when supermarket shelves are full of everything you’ll ever need (and more).
In Poland we’re still nowhere near the wealth of America or Western Europe. There’s still many families struggling with serious poverty, unable to afford the most basic commodities. But even those of us who live comfortable lives always compare Poland with just the few richest countries. In result, we’re quite dissatisfied with what we have.
As a kid, I watched many folks fantasise about America, the land of abundance and endless opportunities. Growing up in scarcity, we used to believe that having more would solve all of our problems, or at least the most.
We didn’t know abundance also has its dark side. Most of us never had a chance to experience it. “Money doesn’t buy happiness” is only true if you have enough food to feed your family. If you don’t, money does in fact buy you a lot of it.

Even though minimalism is a privilege, it’s also a necessity.

Nowadays, most of us luckily have our basic needs met. This means we have a choice to fix our relationship with money and possessions, before we get caught up in wanting more and more.
It’s tempting to think that we can only be happy once we reach the standards of living of our peers in the West. But once we get to know them and their daily struggles, we soon learn that these people in America or France living the live of our dreams are as dissatisfied with what they have as we are.
Polish folks hardly contemplate that 80% of the world can only dream of the luxuries we take now for granted. Looking up to those few countries richer than us, it’s easy to lose track of how much we already have.
Even though we’re not that caught in overconsumption yet, now is the best time for us to consider minimalism. It’s a great way to make sure than in the search of true happiness, we don’t end up instead with just a pile of stuff.

Automattic and the perfect work/love balance

Two years ago my friend told me he works for the best company in the world, and that I should totally apply. All the things he mentioned – extreme trust and openness for discussion, fully distributed environment that lets you work from anywhere in the world, a complete disregard for job titles, or unlimited vacation – sounded too good to be true.
The more I read and heard about how it all works like, the more I got to believe this is no hippie dream, but an actual profit-making company with hundreds of employees. I fell in love in Automattic and asked Artur to help me prepare for the trial. In the process, I fell in love with him as well.
Two years later, we got engaged on our way to the company Grand Meetup. We’d arrived a few days early in Canada to spend some time around Banff. This was one of the most beautiful places we’ve visited on our last year’s extreme road trip, but didn’t have enough time to fully enjoy back then. On the top of a mountain that was a Cosmic Ray Observatory, surrounded by beautiful views, the most fascinating man I know asked me to become his wife. The next day we were in Whistler with all 600 of our work colleagues, celebrating this.
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Artur and I on our way to Gondola peak.

We’re not the only couple here at Automattic. Many of our teammates brought their partners along with them, many more wish they could do it someday. This alone is the most powerful sign of how great our company is. There’s not much better things you can say about a job than “I really wish the love of my life could spend the most of their days this way”.
This is not just because of the incredible perks the job has to offer, but mostly due to the kind of folks it attracts. Our CEO Matt Mullenweg truly believes in WordPress and open source, and only hires the people who believe in that too. We’re passionate about making the web a better place, and we mean it. You can feel this passion overflowing in our Slack channels, internal blog posts, and wherever we meet in person.
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Silly company photo selfie. Getting 600 folks together in one picture is no easy job!

We’re also having fun along the way. The stuffed bear in our hotel lobby became a good friend of ours, and has his own blog on WordPress.com now. The meetup ended with a  “Prom / formal through decades” themed party, but I wasn’t the only one to interpret this as an occasion to get all dressed up in galaxies and glitter. Actually, I thought I’m quite serious about my Cosmos and glitter, but one girl took the space game to a whole different level, rocking a skirt with LED stars. Another one of my teammates asked our CEO to be her prom date on that day – and actually, he didn’t say no 🙂
Of course, amazing doesn’t mean problem-free. Since I joined, I’ve had my fair share of frustration, misunderstanding, overtime work, and feeling that we don’t care enough. Working from home with my partner for the same company means that many work issues turn into personal ones. But while problems will naturally arise wherever there are human beings, it’s the way they are handled that makes all the difference. It’s incredibly impressive how our folks are able to put their own agendas aside, and work together towards a solution, even when the discussion gets heated.
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CEO Town Hall. We managed to wrap up at 11pm this time, which was a real challenge with so much to talk about.

I’ve always been proud to be a part of this company, and now I’m more proud than ever before. All the discussions, classes, activities, and informal parties this week helped me understand not just how we can move our work forward, but also a huge deal about myself. This wouldn’t be possible without the incredible colleagues that make up the Automattic team. I’m honoured to have such amazing people in my life, and would love to see all of my friends flourish in an environment like this. If you’re on the edge, remember that we’re always hiring, and I’ll be always happy to help you prepare.
On the last day of our Grand Meetup, Artur and I did the one thing that people don’t normally do at work. Who we are now is largely thanks to the amazing culture of Automattic, so we asked our CEO to come to our wedding one day. And you know what? Actually, he didn’t say no 🙂

Zen in the art of traditional singing

I used to believe I had permanently destroyed my voice.

As a teenager I sang serious classical stuff in various choirs and music school. Then I moved in to a student dorm, and switched to screaming on top of my lungs while drinking and smoking heavily.

After a year or two of such practice, I could no longer sing opera. I would jokingly say that at least I sound like Freddy Mercury now, but I was all devastated inside. Losing my precious voice was the only thing I ever truly regretted in my whole life.

***

Only after several long years I finally got the courage to join a singing workshop again. I chose traditional folk as there’s a part of my soul that has always strongly resonated with it. Besides, it’s so different from opera that I wouldn’t spend too much energy comparing how I sounded with what used to be.

The weeklong workshops I’d signed up for were organised by Fundacja OVO. This is a Polish non-profit established to promote Eastern European traditional folk culture and music. As it turns out, there’s an amazing community built around them as well. There were almost 70 people attending the workshops, most of whom had known one another already for a long time.

We were getting split into 4 workshop groups, so on the first day we all had a chance to take a short demo class with each of the teachers, and choose the one that worked best for us. For the most of the time we were learning beautiful polyphonic songs from Ukraine and Serbia. Only one of the teachers – Witek – didn’t prepare any songs for his demo class at all.

Unlike other lessons, this one consisted entirely of laying down on the floor, running around on tip toes while making awkward sounds, or violating personal space of complete strangers and vice versa. After half an hour of this madness we were asked to start improvising a melody, all of us at the same time. What I heard during these few minutes got me so intrigued I decided to join that group in the end.

***

Our class of 10 was the smallest one. This was a good thing cause all the crazy stuff we did required a lot of trust, and we were able to built that trust much faster than we would in a larger group.

When we weren’t exploring the most awkward forms of physical contact like massaging someone’s back with the tip of your head, or laying down on their belly trying to synchronise breaths, we would ridicule ourselves in other creative ways. There was shouting nonsense stuff to a tree on the other side of the road. There was purring like a cat as loud as we could. There was a whole concert of goat and sheep sounds, with different experiments that aimed at making them sound more goaty. If anyone used to consider themselves as a serious adult human being, there was no way to maintain that facade after a day or two.

Once we finally got to practice some singing still on our first day, it wasn’t as smooth and easy as I thought it would be. I was terrified to hear my voice collapse near the end. I asked Witek if it’s normal to end the workshop with a sore throat – he said it’s not normal at all. I went straight back to my room, almost certain I will never be able to sing again.

I decided to take as much care of my voice as I could during these few days. This meant no alcohol, no fizzy drinks, and breathing gymnastics practice every morning. At first it felt weird when I came to a party with a bottle of still water. Soon I felt weird it ever made me feel weird.

***

One of my biggest discoveries was an exercise in intention. One person had a wall a few meters behind their back. The other one was supposed to push them against that wall as fast as they could. Both sides fought hard and it took a decent while for each of us to complete the goal.

Then we were asked to do the same thing with a focused intention to push, and using a sound to help. Never in my life have I heard such a battle cry, especially performed by women. Every single one of us ended up on the wall in no time. This worked even when we already knew what to expect.

Another revelation came when we were lying down in a circle. Witek guided us to relax every single part of the body one at a time, just like during my favourite meditation for sleep. Then we watched our breaths for a longer while and were asked to make a long lasting sound with each outbreath. What followed was an incredible concert of magical, otherworldly harmonies. I felt totally hypnotised, hearing my own voice resonate with the others in ways I never knew possible until then.

“See, we naturally tend toward the harmony.” – our teacher said later – “The harmony is already here between us. If you find yourself constantly out of tune, ask yourself: What am I doing here that doesn’t let me harmonise with the world around me?”.

***

This was the day when I finally stopped struggling so much. At one point I just watched myself, hearing a song flow effortlessly through me for the first time. Somehow I just tuned into the stream and followed along with all the ups and downs.

As soon as I got it right, I realised what I’d been doing wrong for the whole time. Whenever there was a part of the song I considered difficult, I’d clutch the throat and my whole body, getting ready to tackle the challenge. Once I stopped behaving as if I had an exam to pass and chose to have fun with the song instead, all that tension was gone and the sound could just flow with no resistance.

This observation didn’t just help me with folk singing, but with every single area of my life. As soon as I let go of the pressure to perform, incredible things start coming to me naturally. If you’re struggling with a similar pressure or tension, you might consider doing something utterly ridiculous – like crawling on the floor using no hands, or making goat sounds for 15 minutes. You won’t be able to feel so serious about yourself after that for too long.