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May 20, 2024

Emily Montgomery’s Journey and the Impact of HiLU

Join us as we explore Emily’s path, the challenges she faced, and the meaningful impact of fostering genuine connections through HiLU. (Article reposted with permission from Harness Magazine)

Can you share more about your personal journey that led to the creation of HiLU? How did your dad's Alzheimer's diagnosis impact your perspective on life and purpose?

My dad's diagnosis catapulted me into the place of deeply knowing that this one beautiful and precious life is not a dress rehearsal. You know this from a far off intellectual place in your 20s, and then from a place in your bone marrow and soul whenever this comes for you in midlife. Knowing the journey ahead with my dad, I took a sabbatical from work for three months, and spent that time only focused on myself. It was a hard reset from filling my mind with the needs and priorities of others.

What inspired you to walk across Spain as part of your reflective process? How did this experience shape your understanding of what truly matters in life?

For forty days, I walked across Spain on a pilgrimage called the Camino del Santiago. My dad had gone on a portion of this years prior, so I'd heard of it.  My journey really started from the moment I made the decision to go. I had to battle all the forces that wanted me to stay small. A week before my journey, a mentor of mine from my early 20s died unexpectedly. After I had walked for a week, another precious mentor of mine had a life-altering stroke. I spent the rest of the journey thinking through what made these men so great in the eyes of many, and what I came to was that the meaning of life is giving back to others as an active, regular practice.

On another level, the walk for me was about how I was alone physically - I flew to Spain solo and my itinerary was mine alone - but I was not really alone. I was certainly not lonely. Not only did I meet wonderful humans who were fellow pilgrims, but a group I'd been a part of sent me off on my journey in the most extraordinary ceremony, part of which included recording voice memos to me for me to listen to along the way to encourage me. I think this is a beautiful metaphor for life: we do many things “alone” but also supported.

The combination of reflecting on what really matters in 100 years, how my mentors really altered the course of my life, and these voice memos became the basis for HiLU - which encourages people to take on a regular, active practice of sending affirming voice notes to others in a place they can be kept all together to listen to on a rainy day.

Developing an app like HiLU must have come with its challenges. Can you discuss some of the struggles you faced during the creation and early stages of launching HiLU?

One of my biggest challenges has been being a non-technical tech founder. This has resulted in me having to learn how to ask for help - because I’ve needed a lot of it. Everything about HiLU has come to be because I asked for favors and referrals. I've had hundreds of conversations that may not have gone anywhere at that moment, but helped me refine where I was going. I've become friends with some of the most incredible founders in the kindness space, and I'm happy to report that we're all pulling for each other's successes. This community has given me vital connections when I needed them the most.

What lessons did you learn while working on HiLU that you believe are valuable for other entrepreneurs and creatives?

It gets better after the initial creation stage. For me, the product design and creation phase was a really lonely journey. I was working hard but had nothing to show for it; I knew what I wanted to design but didn’t have users to interact with and gather feedback from. I credit my teacher Aaron Rose with the concept of mission seasons, much can be built during winter, underneath the grounds’ surface, in preparation for spring. The idea that we must be in summer - loud and in full splendor - all the time is a very Western, modern one, and I’m not sure it serves us.

HiLU is centered around the idea of connecting with purpose and supporting others. Can you share a specific story or example of how HiLU has positively impacted someone's life?

I love hearing stories from our users about a compliment they received or an encouraging voice note that impacted them. I will say about impact, though, that the lead time on other-centered kindness can be longer and more subtle than we might hope for in our instant-gratification world. One of my mentors from my 20s told me relentlessly that I was smart, and I could do good things with my writing. This positive feedback is why I applied to law school in the first place, so this changed the trajectory of my life. But I didn’t know it until 10 years or more later. So in giving positive feedback or sending your first gratitude audio note, I would keep in mind the totality of the relationship, and not get too hung up if you don’t hear back right away. That’s quite normal. In the meantime, focus on the lift in your own mood and feelings of well-being by spreading joy and happiness everywhere you go (when you can).

In your experience, what are some effective strategies for staying motivated and focused when pursuing a passion project or business idea?

This may sound harsh, but one of my teachers taught me to focus on how much I will suffer if I stopped - if I failed to create the thing, if I didn’t follow the creative lead, the passion project, or the business idea. Sure, some ideas come and go and have no substance to them. But those that come to you time and time again, I believe (meaning, I’ve been influenced to believe by Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert) that those are the ideas that are yours to bring forth into the world. By pursuing the big idea, we align ourselves with magic and possibility and hope and faith. By not pursuing the big idea, we are leaving ourselves open to that nagging feeling that we haven’t lived up to our full inborn potential. There can be no greater suffering.

Second, a lot of people say that you should make and accomplish goals in secret, as we lose some of our motivation by sharing too early. I’ve certainly experienced that be true sometimes, but not with this project. I needed my cheerleaders and the people who wouldn’t let me give up. Those people gave me radical permission to cry one minute and be the positive, proactive entrepreneur the next, and never locked me in to any particular narrative. To them, I owe everything.

As someone who has navigated through personal challenges and turned them into a meaningful project, what advice would you give to individuals who are looking to make a positive impact in their communities or the world at large?

Start today. Where you are. We're facing a loneliness and disconnection epidemic, and everyone around us needs help. It's not just that we're sad, we're literally dying younger because of it. The 2023 Surgeon General's report on the matter noted the physical health consequences of poor or insufficient connection include a 29% increased risk of heart disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke, and a 50% increased risk of developing dementia for older adults. Additionally, lacking social connection increases risk of premature death by more than 60%. What I love about these sobering statistics is that they're physical. As much as I love the biohacking community (and I myself take part in a good bit of these practices), what does it really matter if you're doing a cold plunge, but you're disregarding this research that loneliness is akin to smoking 15 cigarettes a day? You're stepping over dollars to find pennies. 

We know if we need to lose weight to be healthier, the recipe probably involves diet, the gym, maybe now semaglutide. But loneliness is also a big problem, and one that we don't have a lot of specific, concrete practices to address. Everyone is lonely - what am I supposed to do about it? That's where HiLU comes in. We suggest that by spending 2 minutes a day reaching out to someone and recording a positive voice memo to them about what makes them great helps you live longer and feel better. Other ways are great too - meaning and connection can be really quite simple: you can give a stranger a compliment, you can have an engaging conversation with someone in an unexpected way, you can go out of your way to be kind. Make a plan to see a friend in person.

The one thing I would really insist on, though, is that you use your voice instead of your typing fingers and a screen. Research demonstrates that people who call and talk with a friend on the telephone (using their voice) over a weekend receive a boost in happiness. Those who text a friend don't. Ditto teen girls receiving messages from their mom: it was only the voice messages that lifted the girls' calm and well-being during a stressful event, not the written word. We often undervalue the decision on the modality of communication, but it's really important.

How do you envision the future of HiLU evolving? Are there any upcoming features or developments that you're excited about sharing with your users?

I’m excited to see the ripple effect of HiLU and a future where we each go out of our way every day to build someone up. I’m excited by the possibility that people feel empowered to create their own happiness, and proactively take one small step each day to end the loneliness epidemic for themselves and for others. I’m excited to see people embrace real, authentic human connection over the junk food of “social” media. 

All of our upcoming features are centered around user feedback, and we’re excited to be developing more ways to reward senders of gratitude messages. Humans have all of these interesting cognitive biases and incorrect assumptions that stop us from sharing what someone means to us. We think we’re going to make it awkward, and we fail to appreciate just how very much we can impact someone. Not only that, but sometimes our words can’t be taken in immediately, but rather have ripple effects many years later. In light of this research, every product improvement is about removing barriers and increasing the rewards for this inherently prosocial behavior that we all want to do - but often find a reason not to.

Can you share a memorable moment or achievement related to HiLU that stands out to you as particularly rewarding or fulfilling?

I live for witnessing people’s ah-ha moment when it comes to HiLU. It’s the moment they understand that it isn’t some vague woo-woo “oh I’m so grateful.” It’s a moment to step out of the passive consumption of what we think is social connection (I’m looking at you traditional social media), and stepping into a moment of actively reaching out to someone in what can be a quick, fun, and light way. That it can be made a habit and a practice, and that this can make us feel great. I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing this ah-ha moment with people, sometimes live. 

When a recent podcast episode came out, the way I shared my story caused several of these ah-ha moments, even from people who have listened to me talking about these concepts for many months! Connecting the deeper story with the product has been so rewarding - with a depth that continues to surprise me.

Lastly, what does success mean to you personally, and how do you measure the impact of HiLU in achieving that success?

Success to me means that I've left it all on the field. That I've honored the gift of life by living to my highest potential and I've become my biggest and most sparkly self. The superhumans I've studied have something in common - they warm themselves by the fire of giving back to others. It feeds them, it nourishes their soul. They've earned a level of immortality because - although they're gone - I will never stop talking about them. And I hope that in honoring them and creating a way for everyone to be more like them, I will have created a tool and a movement that can help millions see and feel and live into their highest selves.

This post originally appeared on Harness Magazine at https://www.harnessmagazine.com/emily-montgomery/.

We reprint it here with their kind permission.