“They just fired me”
The words caught in her throat and reverberated oddly into my brain. I could feel the moment starting to warp into some sort of shakespearian ‘lesson’ I was supposed to latch onto and spit out at my junior employees years into the future; and yet I simply stared staunchly back into that statements twisted face in denial. Standing before me was one of my best friends who I had recruited a year earlier to be a linchpin in a company I helped co-found. That moment would cause me to leave the company. It also changed my life forever.
My life up until this moment was a fairly standard american dream story, and I was doing well on that scale. Born to middle class parents in the suburbs of seattle; I tottered my way through early childhood with an incredible amount of love and support. In high school I would captain two sports teams, graduate at the top of my class and be lucky enough to get an opportunity to attend and wrestle for Stanford.
Fast forward 4 years and I graduated with a degree in Computer Science, which essentially means I was now able to do weird things with computers and had managed to vaguely understand some basic theoretical computing knowledge.
Startup Echo Chamber
As I progressed through my undergraduate studies I became infected by the startup itch. It started small but was compounded by the seemingly mainstream idea that all computer science people were supposed to be the next tech millionaires. After all, we had all been successful thus far into our lives…. what was to stop us from becoming the next Zuck or Gates?
Halfway through my senior year of college I was put in touch with three people (two domain experts, one serial entrepreneur) who were interested in forming a company. I was the first technical guy on the scene. We had a real team with some serious depth, a small amount of seed money in the bank and hopes of wild success both monetarily and in the industry we were hoping to help.
My wrestling teammates would joke that I would be the first guy to be a millionaire. He’s got it all right? Engineering degree, a fledgling startup…. oh and he’s young. That means he can pound the ‘work’ drum 24/7 like ‘all’ the successful startups stereotypically do.
I had worked on the company for a year and a half prior to the firing incident. I wasn’t unhappy with my life but it had the feel of suburbia to it despite the fact that I was 24. I rarely tried new things, dates were virtually nonexistent, and I’d let friendships flounder all in the name of a startup. Forced to choose between a friend who I felt had been wrongly fired and the startup I’d help nurse from infancy I decided to choose my friend, a decision I’m proud of.
My lease ended two weeks after I told everyone I was leaving, and after being best man at a fairytale perfect wedding I was sick of the status quo. My friend called me up shortly after….
“I’ve got a year before I start medical school. I’m leaving to travel South America for two months, you should come with.”
…and there it was. An adventure I hadn’t even considered taking was now staring me straight in the soul just daring me to say no. Equal parts scared and exhilarated I decided to freelance for a month to get some extra cash, and then I jumped straight into the abyss of traveling.
The Most Soul Stretching, Personality Bending Year of My Life
I ended up traveling for 9 months, and it was the best decision I’ve ever made. I spent 2 months in South America, 1.5 months in Ireland/England, 1.5 months snowboarding and 4 months in Southeast Asia. With the exception of South America and a stint in Vietnam I traveled solo.
Honestly, words cannot describe how much I have changed, nor accurately catalogue the experiences I’ve had while crisscrossing the globe with nothing but a backpack. I managed to knock out traditionally stunning bucket list places like Macchu Picchu, Bagan, Angkor Wat, and Stonehenge. I’ve also managed to sleep in an oasis in the middle of one of the deepest canyons in the world, pulled a snooze on several villagers floors, and done things that shouldn’t be written about publicly in many a hostel dorm room.
And yet none of those majestic places hold a candle to the people I’ve met. The sheer fact that as a solo traveler you have the opportunity to walk downstairs and interact with people from all over the world is simply stunning. It refines your own personality as you retell your life story while simultaneously bringing out the inquisitive extroverted side of you. There are simply so many people to meet with interesting tales that it’s stupid to not be start conversations. Usually I ended up tagging along with other travelers for days or weeks at a time, which makes the ‘solo travel’ thing a bit of a misnomer. Several people I have met I now consider to be lifelong friends who I hope to see again (oh and special shout out to you ‘Sleazy Riders’, the appropriately dubbed motorcycle gang I was a part of in Vietnam).
On an emotional level all the travel has caused me to be more blunt and honest with my feelings without fear of rejection. I fell in love four times. Before you cry foul and try to define love for me I simply want to say that my definition of ‘love’ is probably a tad looser than your traditional definition; however english simply lacks the appropriate emphasis. The point is that I’ve experienced deep heartfelt emotions for several people and have also experienced the deafening heartbreak of having to let them go (except possibly one, who ironically I met on Tinder and lives in Seattle… but that’s a tale for another day). For a guy who had previously only been in two serious relationships, I’m much more developed and in touch with emotions as well as confident in what I want.
On a personal level I’ve also managed to find peace in the moment. I’m much more content and happy, largely because I’ve discovered that my life as a whole is head and shoulders more comfortable than 99% of the people in this world. If a naked, barefoot little kid in Myanmar who lives in a bamboo hut can jump up and down in excitement before giving you a high five; surely my petty problems are miniscule. Perspective is a wonderful gift.
The Valley Round 2. This Time As An Employee
Since the beginning of September I’ve been back in the valley, and have taken up a development position at a seriously cool company called Curious.com. The team is an incredible mix of diverse personalities that mesh astoundingly well, and being the destination for learning anything is a goal I sincerely hope we fulfill.
Since being back I’ve been camping, started learning how to draw and play guitar, been on 4 dates, work out 3-5 times a week, baked some delicious muffins, ridden the majestic beasts known as roller coasters and have spent time with friends long neglected. I’m finally filling my life with experiences that touch me as a sentient being rather than some robot drone who supposedly gets his adrenaline kicks from development or company milestones.
I’m not trying to make a point about founders vs employees. I am trying to make a point about all of us as people. Do you really want to look back on your life and remember that time you increased the lifetime value of a customer by $1 through an A/B test? Even if you are ultra successful, will your life become 100x better because of an influx of money?
Cherish the time you have. Work on problems you want to see solved, but work with people you want in your life. Get out of your inbox and go push the boundaries of your existence. Cast away your comfort zone and wrap yourself in the unknown. I’d like to believe there is a clock counting down the number of days we have left to live that exists somewhere in the magical organ we call the brain. I have no idea when my clock expires but I do know that someday in the future when that clock expires I will confidently proclaim that I have lived. This past year has given me a taste for life, and I will boldly stride through the next years of it seeking more.
Take a step back and give your life a hard look. We don’t all have to live a drone like existence of work 24/7. There’s more, and I urge you to discover it.