What Do You Want?

Earlier this year I was watching some TED talks when I stumbled across this one by Mel Robbins:

If you haven’t seen it then take the next 22 minutes and give it a watch. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Are you done? Good.

The material Mel presents is not really anything new, so I think it is really impressive that she is able to make several powerful points with concepts we already know and understand.

What do you want? Why don’t you have it? Just grit your teeth and go get it!

Easier said than done in some cases, but honestly I think this is pretty good advice (and doubly so for young people). For whatever reason it seems like the majority of people think life is supposed to easy, kind, fair, and enjoyable. But the fact is that universe is indifferent to our very existence, let alone our wishes and desires. I’m not sure why people seem to think every second of life is supposed to be enjoyable. Grit and tenacity are really important traits for being successful in this life.

This post isn’t about that though. This post is about the very beginning of her talk: what do you want? It is a question only you can answer. As she says, “I want you to be selfish! This is about me, right now!” It doesn’t need to sound good to other people. Just pick something. But that is part of the problem — you won’t pick.”

Like many people, I tend to spend the end of each year reflecting on accomplishments, failures, events, and any other defining moments that are about to be filed away in the back of our minds. You only get one shot at 2018 — how did you do?

2018 has been a wild ride. There was a great deal of both love and sadness. So many opportunities punctuated by reality checks and hardship, both personally and professionally. More travel and meeting people than I have ever before experienced, and a great deal of time lost in thought to balance it out. It was a transformative and transitional year for me, and for many others around me. One of the biggest manifestations of this has been coming to grips with reaching the end of — and achieving — a goal that has defined me for the last five years.

After I shut down my startup I spent a year relearning to be a human being. I was so bent out of shape and tied up in knots I didn’t really function well, and the crushing weight of failure had destroyed my confidence. I was lucky enough to have the means to take what amounted to a gap year to find a new answer to Mel’s question: what do you want? During this time I also learned some valuable lessons she touched on about being too deep inside your own head, and saying things to yourself that you wouldn’t dare say to others. Normally my brain space is my refuge, but there are also some scary places I hope to never revisit.

Towards the end of this journey I came to grips with the fact that I dropped out of college to run a startup, the startup failed, and now I had no degree, no business, and tons of student debt that still demanded payment. So I eventually decided the answer to the question was to be debt free, financially independent, stable, and to continue my pursuit of being the best programmer I could be. With those things in mind, I crafted the following goal: work as hard as possible and make as much career progress as possible until I’m 30.

It was extremely difficult to make the decision to exit the entrepreneurship scene. That alone felt like giving up on everything I had been doing for the past several years at the time, and added a whole new level of failure to endure. However, I realized the entrepreneurial mindset is something that made me unique. I spent years learning about business, management, culture, and innovation. I’m comfortable with change and being a mover and shaker. I like trying to improve everything and challenge the status quo. I’m happy to have my own ideas challenged, analyzed, dissected, thrown away, or improved. And I want to work with people who feel the same way.

When I say “work as hard as possible”, I mean entrepreneur levels. I needed a cause instead of a job. Time outside of work was spent reading relevant books, trying new technologies, watching talks from conferences, and trying to absorb as much as possible to provide as much value as possible. This meant making the conscious decision to spend less time with friends, less time playing games, less time reading books for fun, less time for my own projects, no pets, no starting a family, and so on. My friend Allyn and I call this “badass mode”, and its usually reserved for critical times with a relatively short duration. However, in this case, I was 24 (almost 25), so I was going to attempt to do it for over 5 years.


So I grit my teeth and did it. And it worked. As Mel mentions in her talk, it was relatively simple — but it wasn’t easy. I went from no job to what I think is effectively the cap in my career (barring another startup) in five years, and I increased my salary 254% along the way.

Above is a graph of my net worth (with the scale left out 😉 ) since I started my first job after shutting down my startup, and where I’m at today. It is my primary measure of financial independence which was one of my driving factors. The red bars are debt, the blue bars are assets. The line is net worth, and when its below the X axis that means it is negative (to the tune of tens of thousands in this case).

I turn 30 in less than 4 months, and a few months ago, after the dust started to settle a bit at work, I started to feeling… something. Lost? Content? Relaxed? Confused? Happy? And I started pondering some interesting questions: Was this… it? Did I do it? What happens now?

Mel’s talk doesn’t really go into what happens after you get what you want, but I think its fair to say the process is an infinite loop. Also, I have some driving factors that are so open ended they will continue for quite some time, and possibly forever. But one thing is clear: I met my goal, and I need to think about what is next. I think this is why this talk struck such a chord with me. At the very beginning when she asks “What do you want,” I realized for the first time in five years I’m not sure I know the answer.

I have nourished some pieces of my life very deeply, but I have all but abandoned many others. Should I seek more balance? Or should I double down on my current modus operandi? Why change what works?

Just pick something. But that is part of the problem — you won’t pick.”

I do feel like I should pick something. I have a pretty strong preference for coming to conclusions quickly, and patience is not really my strong suit. I would rather be moving in the wrong direction and eventually course correct than stay put waiting to figure everything out. However, that assumes the wrong direction is not opposite direction.

I can’t conclude this post with anything definitive unfortunately. Part of me wants to write some 2019 goals, but in the past I have always made my yearly goals in service of my greater 5 year plan. What I need now is to figure out what I want the next 5 to 10 years to look like, and that will take a lot more deliberation. There are a few things I know for sure though:

  1. I need to define what traits and skills future me will have. Figuring this out also means objectively stating my core values, and I would like to have that be a living document so I will post it here.
  2. I’m pretty sure one or two new businesses will happen in the future. Maybe not for 2019, but the ideas are there. I also have some pretty strong beliefs in how a modern company should be run (mainly they should be pro-people), so it would be great to write perhaps a set of core business values or an entrepreneurs manual.
  3. Doing the above tasks requires dusting off some old sources of knowledge, so 2019 at the very least probably includes a great deal of books and writing.
  4. At the end of Mel’s talk she mentions getting out of your comfort zone. I’m very good about doing this at work, and horrible doing it elsewhere. I should probably work that in somewhere, even if just means actually going somewhere for a vacation.

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