We Croak: the App that Makes You Think About Dying, Hansa Bergwall Ep. 20

Hansa Bergwall is the creator of a new app called “WeCroak”. Out of his own personal meditation practice, he determined that death contemplation could be beneficial, not just for him, but for many people.

Note: A Life and Death Conversation is produced for the ear. The optimal experience will come from listening to it. We provide the transcript as a way to easily navigate to a particular section and for those who would like to follow along using the text. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio which allows you to hear the full emotional impact of the show. A combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers generates transcripts which may contain errors. The corresponding audio should be checked before quoting in print.

Contact

You can download the app from your iPhone or Android device. You can also visit Hansa’s website to learn more and download his app.

WeCroak website

Transcript

Dr. Bob: So, Hansa, I’m totally curious about this. What prompted you to put an app out there that is going to notify people several times a day to think about death? What was the impetus for that? It’s fascinating to me. How did that all come about?

Hansa Bergwall: So I’m a daily meditator and have been for a while now. And regular death contemplation is actually a really millennia old part of most serious meditation practices. So that’s how I first got … I learned about some of these ideas. And some of them are pretty intense, much more intense than what I’m doing, meditating in [inaudible 00:01:19] grounds, where bodies decompose as a way of laying them to rest, to know about your impermanent nature. Stuff that would be hard to do today living in New York City.

Hansa Bergwall: And then I came across the Bhutanese formulation of the practice that was, one, recommended for everyone and just really simple. It was just think about it five times a day that you’re impermanent, that one day you will die. And you must do that in order to be a happy person. Immediately, it appealed to me as the kind of death contemplation that I wanted to add as a compliment to my meditation practice. So I just tried to do it myself. I thought, oh, this will be easy. I’ll just think about it five times a day. And what I found was it was actually really hard. We have this pretty stubborn cognitive bias that we don’t want to think about mortality all that often and it’s hard to do, so I would get through my day and get to the end of the day and realize I hadn’t done it even once.

Hansa Bergwall: So that was when the idea of something to remind me came about and the idea of WeCroak, the app, which sort of fell into my head as a fully formed idea that honestly I never thought would go anywhere ’cause I’m not a coder and had no way of making it a reality until Ian Thomas, my cofounder, happened to rent my extra room on AirBnB and we got to talking one night and I basically told him/pitched him my idea for WeCroak and he wanted it on his phone, too. He never thought it would go anywhere. And we made it together for the next couple of months, so it happened really quickly and really fortuitously, organically out of me trying to do something that I thought would help.

Dr. Bob: That’s crazy. So if Ian hadn’t rented your room, there’s probably a pretty good chance that this never would’ve come to fruition, right? Were you going to go out and seek an app developer? Had you gotten to that point?

Hansa Bergwall: I had. I made a couple of inquiries, and it was going to cost me $10,000 or something like that if I wanted to develop this on my own. And I didn’t have that kind of money sitting around, first of all. And, second of all, sounded like a lot of money to spend on something that I was quite skeptical would be broadly popular. So really we made this kind of as almost … We were talking about it when we started as it was like an art project or something that we really wanted for ourselves, maybe to share with our friends, and we wanted it in the world. That was how we went about it.

Dr. Bob: Great. Without any huge expectations or goals that would potentially disappoint you if you didn’t achieve them. That’s usually the best way to start something.

Hansa Bergwall: Yeah, and what it allowed us to do is we stuck to our guns a little bit, the Bhutanese folk saying is five times a day. So we had a lot of people asking, like, oh, shouldn’t you toggle it, so people only want one? We’re like, but that’s not the recommendation. We’re going to do this tradition. We’re going to do it right. So because we have our day jobs and other ways of making money, we could really make it be something that we thought would be a real mindfulness tool.

Dr. Bob: Great. So when did it actually become available? When did you complete the development process and put it up there for people to download?

Hansa Bergwall: So I first had it on my phone in August of 2017, and it started right away reminding me five times a day that I’m going to die with a quote that I had picked out. And it was really fun. It was this creation that we had done. There had never been anything like it before. For the first few months, it was just a few of our friends and us. I think there were 80 people on it tops as of a few months later, kind of working with it and enjoying it. And then I do communication and PR for a living, and so I had reached out to just a couple people about the idea, and the Atlantic magazine covered it in December, and that was when it really started to take off in the world, and it has to a huge degree since then, beyond our wildest expectations.

Dr. Bob: That’s awesome. So how many downloads? I’m sure you’re able to track that. How many people have downloaded it at this point?

Hansa Bergwall: Yeah, so as of a couple of weeks ago, we just crossed our 40,000th download.

Dr. Bob: Wow!

Hansa Bergwall: So that means that 40,000 people around the world have elected to pay 99 cents for an app to remind them that they’re going to die five times a day and we estimate we’re going to deliver our seven millionth reminder on May 7th. There’s been a lot of these little reminders going out, interrupting people’s days. They happen at randomized times, and that has been the journey since December. It touched a nerve somehow. [inaudible 00:06:53] not the only people that wanted these reminders, wanted to remember that life is precious and time is limited.

Dr. Bob: Have you gotten feedback from people? Have you had people who have shared any of what’s come up for them or any interesting stories that have come out?

Hansa Bergwall: Yeah, of course. It’s a strange thing because we know these reminders are going out, seven million of them, and mostly it’s like we have no idea how these are affecting people. Except when you hear back from people every once in a while. A very common response is that it helps pull people back to what’s important, gives them a little bit of perspective and they use that for everything from getting off addictive social media or technology, to getting out of anger or having better relationships just by not sweating the small stuff as much, to seize the day kind of moments of, hey, I’m just gonna go do this thing I wanted to do because otherwise I may not do it in my life and I want to.

Hansa Bergwall: So that’s the most common response is people just using reminders to live a little bit better. And then there’s this other category of people using it in much more serious positions and those, to be honest, moved me to tears a few times where I’ll hear from people who are using it to help them in the grieving process for this woman said her son had passed away, and somehow it was helping. Another woman reached out to say she was having a hard time dealing with a mother dying of dementia and that it was helping her appreciate the time that they did have at the capability that they did, rather than just get into the poor me and my life kind of story.

Hansa Bergwall: Just last week I had a young man reach out of the blue to tell me he’d been using it and mourning the death of 20 friends to the opioid epidemic over the last year. It gets out there in the world, and you realize that this kind of information is pretty powerful in that it’s useful whether you’re just trying to live a little bit better or if you’re really facing some of life’s hardest moments.

Dr. Bob: Such a simple, simple concept to imagine having that kind of impact. Are you getting a sense that it’s the reminders that are making more of an impact or the quotes that people are reading and that are touching them? What are your thoughts on that? Or what are you hearing?

Hansa Bergwall: I think it’s the whole thing. First, we’re doing the Bhutanese formulation of just think about it often. Five times a day. That alone is powerful enough if that was all it did. And then the quote part of it is we live in a society where there’s a tremendous amount of noise, distraction, technology, addiction, screens, everywhere that keep us from being really present where we are often. So in order to keep it fresh and keep it interesting, we introduced the quotes as well as the randomization of the timing so that it would interrupt you at times you couldn’t predict. Kind of like the idea of how an eight ball, it only has maybe eight answers, and yet it can be interesting for quite a long time just because of the randomness of you don’t know which one you’re going to get.

Hansa Bergwall: So that aspect keeps people engaged, on their toes, where just the many coincidences of life, there are those moments where the randomness of the time and the randomness of the quotes selected feels like it’s speaking directly to that moment because we have a database of quotes. They’re all worth looking at I think, but people never know what kind of quote they’re going to get. We have quotes from people writing from the palliative care community or poets or philosophers or meditation teachers or even comedians. So people really don’t know are they going to get a funny quote, are they going to get a quote about what it’s like at the end of life. So that aspect of surprise I think keeps people from just glazing over and tuning out as quickly as they otherwise might.

Dr. Bob: Yeah. I think that’s an interesting aspect of it as well, the randomness, the just being open and receptive to receiving something that is kind of unexpected. And it probably says something about each of the people who are willing to pay the 99 cents and download the app is that they are looking for, I guess, input from the universe that could be valuable. My alert went off not long ago and the quote that came up this morning was, “If a man has not discovered something that he dies for, he isn’t fit to live.” And you know who that was?

Hansa Bergwall: I think it’s Martin Luther King.

Dr. Bob: Exactly, yeah.

Hansa Bergwall: Jr, yeah. I do know my quotes. I have a lot of them in there.

Dr. Bob: This was a test, and you passed it, but I imagine … How long will it go before I would see that quote again? Is it months?

Hansa Bergwall: Right. Just to give you a little backdoor to the programming stuff. So every time it selects a quote at random from a database of about 400, we’re updating to about 500 very soon. And you can get any random quote within that database at any time. However, we make it so that you don’t get a repeat within, I think, it’s a two week period right now, and I might have to double check that for you, but it’s a little while. You can see it again in just a couple weeks if, by luck, that’s the one that it selects, but there might be others that you haven’t seen at all. We try to keep it so that you can’t predict, that you’re just on a loop or something like that. Sometimes you might get one every couple weeks just because that’s what the ghost in the machine wants to give you, to really put that one in your face. Other times there’ll be one that you just haven’t gotten because of that randomness.

Dr. Bob: Because of randomness. And that’s part of the beauty of it. It reminds us of the random nature of life. So it’s achieving two things. It’s reminding us of our mortality and that we need to be looking at this day as something very special to be grateful for or this hour or this moment. And it also reminds us that, man, things are just random, and as much as we might want to control and predict, that’s not really the way it works.

Hansa Bergwall: Yeah, we like to say that the reminders can happen any time, just like death.

Dr. Bob: Yeah, in my experience, I was an ER doc for 20 plus years, and very early on in my career, I became very clear about just how random life is. I like to say that the vast majority of the people who ended up in the ER that day woke up that morning not expecting that that’s how their day was going to go and that’s where they were going to end up. It was great life lessons early on for me. And now I’m at the other side of it taking care of people who are at the very end of their life, which is also an incredible classroom for me to be in. So how has this affected your life? What’s different now in your life than it was in August when you started this project? Aside from being more aware of the fragility and randomness and that there are people out there who are interested in this. Any other major differences or new trajectories?

Hansa Bergwall: Yeah, there are a lot actually. I would say that the wonderful thing about thinking of death often is that it’s always true and it’s amazing how few things that we know for sure are true in this world that we can really hang a hat on, but this is one. That our time’s limited by an unknown amount. We might get the full natural human life cycle or might be much shorter. We don’t know. Any decision we make every day, if we’re not keeping that close, we’re not living on true ground. That makes a big difference, to live life on ground that’s more real. I think I’m making better decisions on a day to day basis in a number of areas and there are particular qualities that people have used death contemplation to nurture for a long time that I’m noticing coming up in my own life. I’ll give you an example of some things that I’ve learned.

Hansa Bergwall: One is courage, just the courage to do what I want to do, talk about what I want to talk to, make a big move that I want. It’s one of those elusive things. Sometimes I think even having an awkward conversation or calling someone out on something that hurt you, or something can feel like an insurmountable burden, but death contemplation kind of gets you there. And I’ve learned since that samurai used to do daily meditation on all the horrible ways you could die on a battlefield because they knew to truly be the best on a real battlefield, which fighting on true terms meant that you could die any number of ways at any time no matter how good you are and accepting what a battlefield is and that you could die at any time. And by accepting that, you can really find the courage to do what you needed to do. So that’s an extreme case, of course, but I’m noticing that I have more courage to just face the daily things that come at me in life.

Dr. Bob: But what about the small battles?

Hansa Bergwall: The small battles. Battlefields are not part of my life, but everyone has fear to a certain extent, and the courage to get through it is important. Just the sense of appreciation and thankfulness of I’ll get a reminder, and I’m walking down the street, and I realize, oh, I’m walking really fast. I think I’m an in a habitual hurry. I’m actually not late for any appointment or anything. Maybe I’ll slow down. And it’s spring here in New York, and that happened to me just the other day and all the sudden I’m noticing daffodils by the side of the road and birdsong and all the sudden my life is filled with this richness that I was about to just habitually rush through.

Hansa Bergwall: And there are others as well. Compassion, to a certain extent. When you are constantly remembering that you are going to die and that is the nature of life, and some misfortune follow someone that you know or something like that, you feel it in the heart a little faster than I did before at least. So all these things that I’m now learning about that people have used, these kinds of practices to nurture, slowly, bit by bit, start to happen in your own life. So I’m more a proponent of this kind of practice than when I started. I think it makes a big material difference in my life and I’m still discovering to all the possibilities of how that’s true.

Hansa Bergwall: And I think it’s a great compliment to things like yoga or meditation practice or these other kinds of things, which are great things to do. I do them. And I think it compliments it because it’s that grounded, feet on the ground, real-world kind of stuff, rather than getting off into, say, positive thinking or these things that can maybe take us a little bit away from the truth, which I think can be problematic.

Dr. Bob: Yeah, when you contemplate truths, there really is no greater or more concrete truth than I’m going to die. There are no gradients. We don’t know how, when, where, but that fact and, like you said earlier, alluded to, there are two absolute truths in life. That we’re going to be born, that we were born. We wouldn’t be here unless we were. And that we’re going to die. And everything else really is kind of up for grabs. They used to say taxes, but we know that that’s not necessarily true. So I like that. So, for you, the things that have really become more relevant or solidified in your life are the sense of courage, a sense of gratitude and appreciation in the moment and then compassion, which, if people … For 99 cents, if people get that without a whole lot of other effort involved other than looking at your phone or device a few times a day, that’s a pretty sweet deal.

Hansa Bergwall: Yeah, and one thing we’re proud of is, because we didn’t make this like some of the big tech firms, to make money off of people’s attention ’cause it’s free with advertising or this or that, we’re actually really proud that even though people are getting five notifications a day, even our people who are opening it all the time are spending less than a minute in the app per day. They just read the quote. We’re having a pretty big effect for a very small

Hansa Bergwall: amount of time. We’re really proud of that because there’s just so many things that can eat up our precious time, which is or limited life when you really think about it. The average person checks their smartphone 85 times per day, and I think the latest numbers that I heard were people were spending as much as four hours on their mobile devices and computers. Just on their mobile devices, not even computers like that, per day. You can leave 24-hour news on all the time. So there are all these things that can take up so much of your attention all the time, and we can get lost in them, so I’m kinda proud how it just grabs your attention and then lets it go immediately so that you can decide what you want to do with that information.

Hansa Bergwall: There are other apps out there that maybe remind you to breathe or notice that you’re on social media and like, hey, do you want to stop? To me, that would feel like nagging. I wouldn’t tolerate it.

Dr. Bob: Yeah, little judgmental.

Hansa Bergwall: Yeah, and this is just telling something that’s true, and then it’s up to you, whoever you are, each person, to decide what you want to do in that moment. Whether to pat yourself on the back, you’re doing exactly what you want to be doing, or switch course.

Dr. Bob: I love it. I love the simplicity of it and that everybody can take what they choose from it. Are you developing anything else or are you … Is this going to be leapfrogging you into other realms around this space or are you kinda just going about your other business and allowing this to just be?

Hansa Bergwall: This is all so new right now. It’s only been a few months that this has been in the world and people such as yourself have wanted to talk to me on such deep and important issues, so I’m still just enjoying the conversation started with this first thing. We have some ideas that are sort of in a square one idea phase right now of ways we could create other fun things for people to play within the mindfulness space, but right now it’s a really worthwhile and passion project that I enjoy spending time on. Because of the one time 99 cents download fee, it makes just enough to support the time that I spent on it so that I can easily do it and then the rest … So far on this project, we like having other sources of income so that this can be, I think, what’s really useful as opposed to what will sell really well.

Dr. Bob: Yeah, I get it. Well, good for you. I’m excited. Just being part of this space now, you can see that there’s so much interest, there’s so much need for people to move away from fear and move towards this openness, acceptance, and be part of this broad conversation. So I applaud you for putting it out there and having the courage to … Even though it started out as more of just a fun project, I think what you’ve put into the world is meaningful, and you should feel proud … Or not proud necessarily, but just feel really great about knowing that your efforts are bringing some peace and greater understanding and comfort to people potentially all over the world. Good on you.

Hansa Bergwall: Thank you. And I also wanna say that some of the most popular quotes, in terms of people taking screenshots of them so that they can look at them later or share them, are from people writing from the palliative care perspective about common things that people say on their death beds or this conversation of what it’s really like to be near the end. I think these perspectives and these conversations are really valuable to people and I’m just honored to pick up on some of the conversations people like yourself are having and get them to more people because people are really responding to them and they’re really important. And I’ve learned a lot from listening to people like you and reading and part of this has been like, wow, there’s some amazing thinking and just life philosophy coming out of these people giving care to end of life.

Dr. Bob: I really appreciate your time. I know you’re busy with your work and your contemplation and anybody who is interested, the app store is waiting for you and just go ahead and search for WeCroak, right? That’s pretty much as simple as that.

Hansa Bergwall: Yeah, WeCroak. One word. It’ll pop up, it’s the strawberry frog. Enjoy.

Dr. Bob: So, Hansa, thank you so much for your time. You can also access, we’ll have a link to this on the Integrated MD Care website. Thank you for your time. Look forward to any future endeavors, and I’m happy to have you as part of this tribe of people that’s trying to move the conversation forward.

Hansa Bergwall: Yeah, thank you so much.

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