Why does there always have to be a next?
Confessions of a doer learning to be
Almost everyone I know: “So I heard you shut down your company. I’m really sorry.”
Me: “Yeah, it’s been r”
Them: “ So what are you going to do next?”
I’ve had this conversation too many times. Sometimes we’re sitting in a too loud coffee shop, screaming over the dozen other patrons trying to warm up against the sub zero temperatures. Other times we’re yelling past each other through the phone. Like a broken record, I know the music before it starts and my body tenses for the 6th grade cotillion dance we’re about to suffer through.
Why does there always have to be a next?
At first I was insulted when they asked. What do you mean what am I going to do next? The corpse of this company is barely in the ground and you’re already asking me to move on? It was like asking my grandmother when she was going to start dating again, only doing it as the third paragraph in my grandfather’s eulogy. “Grandpa loved raising horses. Speaking of horses, when are you going to get back onto that horse? Huh, Granny?”
Do you people have no decency?
Now I know they were trying to protect me. My family and close friends all wanted to help me move on, but I wanted to grieve. I had built the company I needed when I was at my lowest; my chance to give other parents the joy of a family meal after Autism had taken so many of mine. It was so personal I cried telling the story. And it had failed. I needed a minute to mourn. How about a simple, “How are you holding up?” Is that too much to ask? It might have made them uncomfortable, but the opposite – the rushing to ask what’s next – damn did that hurt.
I want to talk about being vs. doing.
I’ve always been a doer. Right now, I’m being.
Before, my “bias for action” helped me GSD1. Today my newfound “bias for joy” helps me CTFO2. Before I slayed to-do lists. Today I stay lost in wonder. Before I crushed SMART3 goals. Today I cruise imaginary streets with my kids. Before I planned powerful strategies. Today I plan the perfect cup of tea. Before I cooked a damn good french style omelet. Okay, I still do that.
The being and doing modes are classic concepts in mindfulness. Like the yin and the yang, being and doing are two parts of a whole personality. When we’re emotionally healthy, both modes are available to us – to choose what we need in the moment. Unfortunately, I have not been healthy for a long time.
I was culturally conditioned to do, even if I didn’t have a natural bias for it. At the Naval Academy, being lazy was the cardinal sin. Literally not doing. “An imperfect plan executed violently is better than a perfect plan executed too late.” Who said that again? Probably me. The thing is, doing worked really well. Doing led to promotions, new jobs, cool opportunities, and important projects. It led to more doing.
Then I realized something was missing.
That something was me. God introduced himself as “I am.” Yet somehow, I’d forgotten that. I had needed to finish that sentence.
Being is both beautiful and scary.
I’m awakening passions and curiosities I didn’t know I had, while old ones slip away. I have entire bookshelves of creased and worn technical books - Machine Learning in Python, Scientific Programming in Linux, The Handbook of Pulsar Astronomy – that I no longer care about. Their dog eared corners and bent spines are relics of an identity I don’t remember. Now my study is filled with new books – Plato, Rumi, Jung, and Shakespeare. But those books are becoming my only friends.
My conversations around town kind of suck now. Whereas before I could drop in at happy hour, expounding upon the latest fundraise, what’s happening in crypto, startups, macroeconomics, or climate tech, and get so animated my golden wheat beer would spill over my pint glass, now I meekly sit in the corner and sip my green tea. If I go at all. The last time I went, a friend tried to invite me into the party by asking what I was working on. I got excited, and animatedly told the group about spirituality, learning about Teresa of Avilla and Rumi, and my joy when I read Rumi out loud and felt it in my chest. That friend pulled me aside afterward and, in a hushed tone, asked, “Are you depressed? I know a good therapist. Can I introduce you?”
I find joy in writing. I always loved reading, and had childhood dreams of being a writer. But “you don’t make a living following your passions” and you don’t make a living being. So I shelved that idea next to my copy of Macbeth. Neither one saw much love in years. Today, I’m writing regularly. My soul goal is to make something beautiful. Decidedly not SMART. My writing has fueled my spiritual quest, and my spiritual quest is fueling my writing.
I wish that writing and exploring spirituality paid the bills. But they don’t. No one pays me for being, and the fear can be a lot at times. I can ignore the comments that I’m wasting my prime earning years. I can’t ignore the dread that I might be letting my family down. What if we can’t pay for my children’s therapy? What if this goes on too long and we lose our house? Remembering those conversations makes me teary eyed. My responsibilities, and the real consequences if I can’t meet them – for myself and my children – don’t go away while I’m being. My wife carries the weight of those responsibilities, but I can’t be selfish forever. I know I’m going to have to figure it out.
Simply being has forced me to build new emotional muscles. It’s a very feminine energy. I sit with my grief, and let it unfold. Before, I hid my sensitive side. Now I cry when my wife writes me a loving note. I stare in wonder at the snow falling. 20 year old me would have thought I was broken. And maybe I am, but that’s okay.
I also take random lunches with friends because it’s a Thursday and why not? I spend the entire day watching Star Wars The Phantom Menace on our chair and a half with my sick son. I get sick snuggles and I don’t miss my laptop. I ask questions like: What is it about stories that help us transcend our limits? Could I write stories like that? And I’m okay with whatever the answer is, no longer afraid of what it might mean about me. Because I am.
I love my “being” retreat. I’m not ready to go back into the world of doing while this is tenderly fragile. But the siren’s song of ambition still rings. I know there’s a better path for me. A new way. In order to get there, I’ll need to be as strong at being as I am at doing.
Today, I’m back in that same coffee shop. It’s still too loud, even with the doors open to let the spring air in. But today’s conversation surprises me.
Him: “What’s new with you?”
Me: “To tell you the truth, a lot, but nothing also. I’m just being.”
Him: “That’s amazing. You seem really happy. I’m stoked for you.”
Me: “I am.”
GSD: Get Shit Done
CTFO: Chill The Fuck Out
SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. A decidedly unfun way of setting goals, mostly in a business context.
Thank you toGreg Waning, Aswin Ranganathan, and for your support and feedback. Writing is truly a team sport and this wouldn't be what it is without your help.