Erik Fernholm is the CEO of 29k
, a Swedish open-source non-profit tech platform scaling personal development by combining proven psychological tools with technology.
Born in the Mormon state of Utah, the Swedish-American tech entrepreneur moved to his father's home country of Sweden as a young child. “I’m really proud of being part of the Swedish culture," he says. “It more or less saved my life when I was young because we were poor and the Swedish system held us up."
Erik resists what he sees as a “hyper-individualistic" guru culture that's common in the field of spiritual and personal growth, instead taking a learning-focused, humble approach. Since 2016 the Stockholm-based team at 29k have been working with psychologists and experts to design the world's first free peer-to-peer personal development app
, launched earlier this year. Now with 40,000 users, it's goal is to measurably transform five million lives for less than $1 per person.
With so much exponential technology driven by dopamine
, 29k hope to use insights from psychology to stimulate a different hormone: oxytocin. Based on research that the vulnerable and non-judgemental relationship is a key driver of effect from therapy, the team developed a model which groups users of the app together to undergo an eight week ‘process' involving exercises and sharing.
Having recently partnered with the Swedish government and the Swedish education system, the research and tech platform is using its app to scale personal development and make mental health treatment and personal development free and accessible to everyone.
In this interview Erik speaks with Emerge editor, Tarn Rodgers Johns, about the methods behind the app, the Swedish values system and creating a growth-focused work culture.
This interview was recorded during the COVID-19 pandemic.
If you enable a high school student to reflect on their values and cope with strong emotions at the beginning of their life, then the impact on society is huge.
Tarn: So Erik, how are you experiencing the ‘Great Pause’ so far?
Erik: I’ve always liked the quote “increasing your speed can never compensate for the wrong direction,” and until maybe now - The Great Pause as you said - most of society has been obsessed with speed. Increasing GDP, market shares and stockholder value, everything is about more, more, more. This way of thinking hijacks the limbic system. You begin to think that if you can just get ‘xyz’ then you’ll feel happier or more alive. It’s that expectancy effect, the state of being so engulfed that you don’t really feel when you’re off track because you’re fixated on that dopamine hit. When you stop, the longer you’ve been on that track speeding away, the more painful it is to reflect. Being forced to stop and reflect resembles a midlife crisis, but on a collective level.
Tarn: Like you said, we’re all being forced to look at the speedometer, but the slowness of life right now is also very painful. Especially for those that are socially isolated.
Erik: We’re already seeing indications from the World Health Organisation already that the mental effects of corona will be huge. We’ve recently launched three new courses on the app to address the secondary effects of the virus, like anxiety, worry and overwhelm. Some of the best psychologists in the world have co-created and designed the tools and processes to cope with the emotional upheaval that this has created. Mainly the programs encourage people to get in touch with their values and what they truly think is meaningful, and then support them in acting and contributing from that place.
Tarn: “Secondary effects of the virus” - that’s not a phrase I’ve heard before, but of course there will be many. What are some others?
Erik: Another theme that the courses address is relationships, because relationships often take a hit when the going gets rough. We’re working on programmes to help people to build and strengthen relationships through turmoil, and enable them to grow and deepen those relationships.
For many people, experiencing a trauma can transform their meaning-making and help them to grow into a wiser, more considerate version of themselves.
The question of how to make meaning out of the corona crisis is a tricky one. Post-corona, I hope that we can collectively use this experience to create a deeper sense of meaning. Everyone’s heard about PTSD but not many people know about post traumatic growth. For many people, experiencing a trauma can transform their meaning-making and help them to grow into a wiser, more considerate version of themselves.
Tarn: I dare to hope that we might collectively learn from this and experience ‘post traumatic growth’ rather than PTSD or returning to speeding along the wrong track. Or, maybe, we’ll see rising levels of inequality because we will have a recession and so people’s instinct to be selfish, individualistic and resource grabbing will be triggered.
Erik: Completely, the verdict is out. The game is set and now we’ll see how people act. Most likely we won’t see one line of action, we’ll see a myriad of them. The hope - and what I would want to contribute to is - a more complex, integrated, values driven approach that considers the whole of the system. Transforming these old systems which we already knew were unsustainable and destructive and reevaluating the old and disconnected story underpinning our industrial, linear, individualistic and capitalistic societies.
When I look at what we’ve done to ourselves and the planet it makes me want to use this ‘Great Pause’ as a giant springboard. It’s horrible and it’s creating a lot of suffering, and at the same time there is this opportunity - a unique space between stories - where we actually can create something different.
Tarn: Like you said, reflection is going to be key to this. Is it possible to reflect on something whilst it’s still happening? I think that before reflection can happen, there needs to be grieving and also, maybe, a reckoning.
Erik: If we want to create something new and more sustainable then we have to first accept that we are the ones that created and upheld the old system. It formed us to who we are, so our way of thinking, acting, valuing and even solving problems has the problem encoded within it. We are not the solution, we are the problem. So we don’t just need to mourn the old way of life, but also who we thought we were to then move beyond it.
We started out by looking for the leaders who had been talking about sustainability and the environment before it was mainstream. We wanted to know: where is the deep, wise leadership?
In the fields of social entrepreneurship as well as some spiritual communities there’s a lot of people who identify too quickly with being the ‘new’, the problem solvers. Not being humble when approaching these deeply encoded problems could just make them worse. A participatory definition of both the old and the new gives a new perspective — we may first need to learn to skilfully hold the humiliation of being the problem, before we can become humble enough to be part of a solution. At 29k we therefore avoid the gurus and the heroes, and instead work to create the conditions for people to see themselves, build negative capacity and deepen their meaning making.
Tarn: So tell me about the founding of 29k.
: The co-founders are Tomas Björkman, Niklas Adalberth and myself. Niklas is a tech entrepreneur and he also founded the Norrsken Foundation
, which gives grants to entrepreneurs looking for solutions to some of the world’s greatest challenges. Tomas is also an entrepreneur and the founder of Ekskäret Foundation
, which aims to facilitate personal development and social change.
Before founding 29k I was a full time key-note speaker researching things like ego-development, neuroscience and positive psychology and running an educational non-profit working with the school system in Sweden to promote researched-based psychological training, like how to cope with failure. I met Tomas some years ago and joined the board at Ekskäret, then Tomas and Niklas met at a dinner for social entrepreneurs.
We’d all been looking into how the problems of the world are interlinked and had come to more or less the same conclusion that the problems are man-made and global, so if we’re going to create systemic change and build systems that are sustainable then we really need to get to the root of what type of thinking and acting in the world are creating today’s symptoms. That’s where personal development comes in.
Tarn: Was the goal always to develop an app?
Erik: We actually didn’t set out to build an app. One of the biggest crises we’re facing right now as a species is climate collapse, yet ‘green washing’ and ‘good washing’ have made it difficult to determine the genuine actors from those who are just trying to increase profits but in a green costume. We started out by looking for the leaders who had been talking about sustainability and the environment before it was mainstream. We wanted to know: where is the deep, wise leadership? That’s the kind of leadership we need.
If we are going to build a sustainable society and survive, we need to distribute wisdom and technologies for openness, curiosity and compassion in the same way that schools spread maths and chemistry in the Industrial Age.
What we eventually discovered was a bunch of psychological theories, processes and tools that can help people to develop in a way that enables them to make mature decisions and become wiser, more compassionate and more centred. Then the three of us sat down together and asked: What if technology today is mature enough to scale this kind of development? It was a wild dream we thought was worth exploring.
Tarn: What are the methods behind the app?
Erik: We built the platform around three components: screening and matching individuals with evidence-based intervention programmes or courses, deep vulnerable human connection and thirdly, ways to practise and integrate new behaviours over time. This triad enables data analysis to figure out what works best for whom and creates a learning ecosystem.
In meta-studies on therapy one of the biggest driving effects is not the method used, it’s how safe the person felt in the relationship with the therapist. Did they feel safe enough to explore their inner world, who they want to become, what they’re longing for? The cool thing we discovered was that this can be facilitated between peers, and when done digitally it can be scaled.
In the personal growth space there’s so much hype around quick fixes, but it’s naive to think you can go on one short retreat and the change will be strong enough to maintain without a community of practise around you. Changing behaviour is really difficult, and changing values even more. The app has a series of structured courses that take one to three hours a week over a period of four to eight weeks, so rather than deep diving during a few days and hoping the change will last, this process is deeper, gets integrated and is more reflective.
Tarn: How is what you’re doing different from other apps that are geared towards personal development?
Erik: First of all, the platform is non-profit, open-source and co-created. We’re not competitive and we don’t believe we could ever solve this by ourselves. All of our content and products are non-profit and open source, so any foundation, tech company or individual that wants to use them for the common good is free to do so.
Secondly, with our goal to measurably transform people’s lives we also have a ‘bigger picture’ mission. As a society we’re increasing our capacity to hurt each other at an exponential rate, so if our capacity for mature decision making and compassion isn’t keeping up then I don’t see how we can have a long-term future. This is one of the most central challenges of this century. If we are going to build a sustainable society and survive, we need to distribute wisdom and technologies for openness, curiosity and compassion in the same way that schools spread maths and chemistry in the Industrial Age.
By sharing and supporting other people you’re tapping into the holy grail of motivation: meaning.
Finally, the way we’ve designed the app means that the entire process is predicated on human connection. Evidence based tools mostly involve solo exercises, like journaling, so we had to find a way to bring them to life, which we did having users share their raw, honest reflections from the exercises for others to mirror themselves through. But the real issue is always commitment, especially when things get potentially transformational because that often awakens a lot of avoidance. The way we have solved this is by matching people that sign up to a course into small, intimate groups of practise. These groups of four to six people join together in a live video call once a week in the app. That way, if you do your practise, you’re also helping other people. There’s this sense of being needed from the start and by sharing and supporting other people you’re tapping into the holy grail of motivation: meaning. You are contributing to someone else’s life in a meaningful way, and supporting yourself.
The way we did this was working with people who already have a trusted community. We teamed up with Rachel Brathen - or ‘Yoga Girl
’ online - and paired her with a team of 17 of the best researchers and psychologists. They helped us to create the course, which Rachel then took as a participant just like anyone else on the platform. Everyone who takes an exercise will see Rachel going through it as well, so they’re doing it ‘with’ her. What’s forbidden for her to do is move into an expert role, she’s simply there sharing her personal experience. In research on self-compassion they’ve found that when people realise that they’re not alone with all their issues and broken parts it’s a massively powerful intervention that helps people heal.
We have some ground-rules for communication on the platform. The central part is listening without interrupting, just holding space for each other. We are also strictly no-guru, you can’t give other people opinions or advice because people aren’t problems for you to solve. This is a space for sharing, not problem solving or advice giving.
Tarn: It’s an unusual thing to have this level of engagement, an app might have forums or reviews but I’ve not heard of any other app where you do video calls with strangers before.
Erik: I think it’s so interesting how we as a society have chosen to use technology so far. If you think about the big social media platforms, even though there’s some level of social connection they are still running on dopamine, not oxytocin. We haven’t yet really explored the potential of technology to facilitate deep human connection through screens. It’s unchartered territory.
The fact that long-form podcasts have become so popular in the past years is, I think, an indicator of a deeper need to connect.
Tarn: What’s been the feedback so far?
Erik: Before people try it many feel uncertain and sceptical, because they’ve never used technology in this way before. They’ve never used it to deeply connect with others, and especially never done it with strangers.
We have nearly 40,000 users. Not everyone participates in the live video sharing, but for the people that really commit the feedback has been amazing. We have over 2,000 five star reviews on app store. People have said “wow this has been more powerful than therapy for me” because in therapy, you don’t get to hear that you’re not alone.
It’s sad to see how little listening and space holding people need to make powerful, positive shifts in their life.
I did the process myself recently, I was only there as a participant, even though they knew that I work with 29k. Every Sunday at 7pm, we were there supporting each other and holding space. One feature of the app is that everyone’s privacy is protected so you only share your first name. One person said “you guys know me better than my best friends, and I don’t even know what your last name is or where on the planet you are!”
Tarn: How are the calls structured?
Erik: You basically share the output from that week's lesson and hold the space for each other. In the group I was in, one of the participants quit their job and now is training as a mindfulness instructor. Another one was unemployed, but this process, according to him gave him the encouragement he needed to now have found a job. It’s both hopeful and sad to see how little listening and space holding people need to make powerful, positive shifts in their life.
Tarn: And what’s the work culture at 29k like?
Erik: We’re constantly working on maturing our problem solving skills, trying to solve problems from the root cause. We aren’t a ‘teal’ organisation, instead of setting that up a new norm and ideal we’re instead trying to find better and better ways to solve our problems all the time and just seeing what happens.
One strength of our work culture is that everyone on the team is expected to share and actively work on their backhand, that way everyone knows what everyone else sucks at. For me, I move into the expert role and try to push ‘solutions’ all the time and it can result in micromanaging and people feeling like they don’t own their tasks. Everyone knows that I suck at it, and it’s really helpful to take away the shame.
We’re now nearly 30 people and every Monday, in our Monday meeting, we start with personal work. This past Monday morning we had new people starting. Everyone was on Zoom call and we had a new team member who used to be a brand manager at Nike. The first question we all asked and had a sharing around was “what aspect of yourself are you ashamed of, and why?”
Tarn: That must have been a bit of a culture change!
Erik: All sharings in the meetings are confidential, like all sharings on the platform are, and the point is to encourage everyone to explore who they are, what their values are, what it’s like to break those values and what it’s like to live in alignment with those values.
Today there seems to be so many hyper-individualistic people armed with powerful psycho-technologies like yoga, Vipassana or ayahuasca, unknowingly used to further a deeply disconnected version of happiness.
We do have a culture where all emotions are accepted, but also you’re going to hear when your results suck. Creating a safe space where everything is permissible is the opposite of what you do to enable people to grow. You give them enough of a challenge, then you offer them support.
Luckily I hired a person that is amazing, her name is Lisen Lilliehöök. She in turn recruited some of the best people I’ve ever met in my life, I’m so proud to work with them and I’m also a little scared that they’re going to discover that I’m not all they think I am - a fraud - you know the imposter syndrome. That’s the feeling that everyone should have and then work on getting rid of. If you’re not working with people like that something is probably wrong!
Tarn: What’s your personal story, where did you grow up?
Erik: I was born in Utah, the Mormon state in the Rocky Mountains. My mother was a Mormon so I heard all sorts of interesting stories as a kid. My Swedish father was in the US training as an Olympic athlete. Seeing him, big, popular, strong, successful and someone everyone looked up to was paradoxical because that was only the external story. The internal experience we lived at home was one of mental illness, drugs, alcohol and loads of pills to sustain the amount of strain he was putting on his body. Eventually that lifestyle got the best of him and he collapsed under it, something that made me become weary of the stories we tell ourselves. Especially the ones about happiness and success.
They met and married really young and had three sons. When I was five we moved back to Sweden because it was an easier place to raise children. I’m really glad for that as I identify a lot more with the Swedish values and system. I’m really proud of being part of the Swedish culture. It more or less saved my life when I was young because we were poor and the Swedish system held us up.
We went to a Mormon church in Sweden until I was 9. My mother was religious somewhat, but also the community that the church offered was something she needed and it gave her so much, even financial support and food. It’s sad that the community and developmental responsibility that the church had has completely been thrown out with the bathwater when we over-focused on the market economy. At least in Europe. Being human is more than what can be measured in money, and we have needs that we can support each other with that are not monetizable. Sweden is one of the most secular, individualistic countries in the world.
Tarn: Yet in Sweden, as you said, the state takes good care of people so maybe that negates the need for religion.
: Yes, we pay taxes to the state and they take care of everyone. We’ve outsourced caring for each other to the state and anything to do with organised religion is treated with quite some suspicion. I think going forward there will be a reintegration of spirituality in our modern European societies. The embodied group will come into play again, the secular religion. This is what I’m hearing in the Emerge movement
. There is a need for ‘the religion that’s not a religion’ because we are now discovering that we’re not solely individuals. We’re more interconnected than we thought and we’re not just rational beings, but also embodied — we have bodies with their own intelligence and wisdom. It’s so telling about the culture we’re swimming in that we have to say to people “hey, you’re not a thing, you’re a process!''
We’re only just collectively realising that the way we’ve been acting in the world is destroying the planet, the rainforest is burning, and we now have to understand and re-discover that we are these embodied, not only verbal and rational, but also spiritual beings.
As a young man I was quite depressed because I was so disillusioned. I couldn't feel anything and kept chasing the next thing.
Tarn: So, have you ever had what some might call a ‘spiritual awakening’?
Erik: I was in San Francisco a while back and surprisingly many people felt the need to share stories about their ‘spiritual awakening’. In the morning I was walking past people that were suffering so much on the streets of the city, then in the afternoon meeting billionaires talking about how ‘enlightened’ they were.
Today there seems to be so many hyper-individualistic people armed with powerful psycho-technologies like yoga, Vipassana or ayahuasca, unknowingly used to further a deeply disconnected version of happiness and furnishing their personal brand with stories of their latest “enlightenment” experience. Sometimes me and a couple of friend jokingly describe this behaviour as the Vipassana asshole. So no I’m not sure I’ve ever had a spiritual awakening, and if I ever have one I hope it’s something people notice from me treating them with more care and love, not from me telling people about it.
One event that was significant for me happened when I was 15. I worked really hard for a year to buy a moped. I worked my ass off to save up the money, and I thought that once I got that bike everything was going to be different, everyone was going to want to be my friend. Eventually I got the bike. I’m quite small because I hit puberty late, so I’m looking at this huge bike and I just realised that nothing had changed. My body felt the same, the air felt the same, my home felt the same. I thought everything would be different. I remember then that I stopped and reflected and went down into my body and said to myself “OK so I expected this outcome, and I got this, is there a discrepancy here?” As a young man I was quite depressed because I was so disillusioned. I couldn't feel anything and kept chasing the next thing.
Tarn: Well it’s quite good you figured that out at 15. I think I’m still grappling with that one!
Erik: Haha well not quite, I’m still learning this all the time. Right now I really want the new iPhone and roof rack for my car. I recognise it has nothing to do with my real life, but I really want it. That’s actually the learning for me though. It’s observing that my frontal lobes are addicted to the next thing, and then just accepting that, but not surrendering to it. Acknowledging that I’m this open, social system and that I’m being imprinted by external values all the time. I’m participatory whether I like it or not and vulnerable - everything I experience is shaping my values and goals. This observation really has made me reflect on what I expose myself to since it’s shaping who I become.
This is where meaning and group work comes into play, it’s so much easier to help someone else than it is to help ourselves because most of us are not naturally narcissists. It’s easier to support others, we’re wired for it. This is what 29k is designed around. You and I can get together and say OK let’s get a grip on the way we’re distributing our time, the most valuable resource, and then hold space for self reflection and hear and see ourselves in this process. That’s a really good structure for change.
Tarn: What does the future hold for 29k?
: We’re just about to launch a program on values with Jan Eliasson
, the former Secretary General of the United Nations, which is amazing. He cares a lot about strengthening people’s civic responsibility and ‘bildning’, the Swedish word for ‘practical wisdom’ and shares our mission of creating a second and modern wave of ‘folkbildning’ through tech. Being one of the most respected and internationally known Swedes for complex leadership he’s a dream co-creator for us.
We’re also currently building a stress and resilience program for the Swedish Government to deploy to state employees, all 266,000 of them, and we’ve partnered with another foundation to build programs for all high school kids in Sweden, 360,000 people, to use the app. If you enable a high school student to learn to have more honest conversations, reflect on their values and cope with strong emotions just a little bit better at the beginning of their life, and get scaffolding and support along the way if they need it, then the impact on society is huge.
Finally, we’re also starting to run our first randomised controlled studies. We want to learn from the users so that we can constantly improve the platform as much as possible. The goal here is to make processes for improving mental health and personal development free and accessible to everyone, especially those who can’t afford or access those other routes. A key step in our strategy is proving larger effects than alternative treatments or processes but at less than 1% of the cost. Our mission is to transform as many lives as possible, and to do that with integrity.
Tarn: Sounds like a great model. Thank you for sharing with me.