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does your body want to chew glass
A young Asian woman dressed in leopard print and wrapped in a fuzzy blanket was telling me about her new career as an "embodiment coach", and in the moment it seemed not even slightly absurd. This was partially because I was at a house party in the Berkeley hills, only just starting to come down from whatever was in the sticky brown wafer a stranger had offered me several hours ago, but mainly because this woman actually did seem to have the best posture of anyone I'd ever met. Not just posture, actually, but a full sort of mind-body alignment – the way she closed her eyes and swayed from shoulders to hips when she was thinking, or how her spine and neck and gaze all snapped into focus together when she wanted to make a point.
I was explaining that I didn't quite know what I wanted to do next – not at this party, which I'd been thinking of leaving until I'd met her, nor in life more generally since I'd quit my job a few months earlier with basically no plan at all. "What is your body telling you?" she asked me. "I just try to listen to my body and then do whatever it tells me."
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Recently I've been meeting a lot of people who say things like this. This seems impossibly hippie-ish to me, but living in California you discover that the hippies are everywhere now, disguised in business casual in Beverly Hills coffeeshops or at techie burner parties in Oakland. The morning after the party, I drove back to LA with a different acquaintance, who I primarily know as a very sharp trader of shipping and commodity metal stocks, and recounted this exchange to her. "Oh yeah," she said. "I just wake up and do whatever I feel like doing. I guess I'm lucky that I mostly prefer reading K-2 forms to playing video games."
So there are surprisingly functional and even successful human beings who claim that internally they are like children in a candy store and not tightly bunched up bundles of self-coercion. This sounds lovely but awfully far removed from my own experience. Personally I wake up in the morning and start thinking of ways to trick myself into doing all of the things that need to be done. My model of success comes from people like Marc Andreessen who said "being a startup founder is like chewing glass. Eventually, you start to like the taste of your own blood." Or as a friend once told me, if you're picking a cofounder, look for someone who would beat you in a ditch-digging contest.
The hippies call this being internally unaligned. If you really wanted to do something, why would it be so hard for you to focus on it? It's true, it often feels like I'm hosting a group of squabbling children in my head. Do I want to make money, or work out, or level up in whatever stupid video game I happen to be playing? Or make art, or make friends, or just lie in bed? I've learned that it's no good to wake up and start asking myself these questions, I'll just be paralyzed. I have to make a plan and stick to it, and if I don't feel like doing that in the moment, that's just too bad. I'll feel better when it's done.
It took me a long time to figure this out for myself. I never really learned to bear down on anything in school. At math team practice, I yelled at my body to pay attention to theorems and sometimes it did, but more often it just fetched another donut and rode the sugar crash down into oblivion. For my tests I'd wait until the night before and then cram, and I was smart enough to make it work. But even then I felt the panic around the edges, how weird it was that I seemed to not quite be in control of myself. I wasn’t enjoying procrastinating. I was just noticing that I wanted to do other things instead but not doing them either. Why couldn't I just do the things that I wanted to do?
It became a real problem at work because the deadlines were looser and less well-structured, easier to shirk at least for awhile. I spent hours on Reddit and other internet forums, trying to press down this feeling of falling further behind, of lacking control. One well-intentioned manager asked me if I needed classes in touch-typing, at a loss for any other explanation for why a bright kid consistently failed to turn in any work on time. "Has trouble managing his time hour-by-hour," wrote another coworker on one performance review, surely having noticed how rarely my code was actually up on my monitors. If I had asked my body what it wanted to do at that point in time, it surely would have told me that it preferred to stay in bed.
Looking back, it wasn't very fun spending my time this way. I was caught up in a spiral of panic and attempted self-soothing. The further behind I fell, the more avoidant I got, putting me yet further behind. I was lucky to be working in an undemanding corner of a famously cushy tech behemoth, where this behavior was not just overlooked but basically rewarded.
Against this backdrop it might seem insane that I decided to quit my job and strike out on my own. "I'm worried I'm losing my edge here," I told my coworkers. "What edge?" they must have wondered. I was coming in at 11 and dipping out right after the company-provided dinner, taking an hour off for a coffee break in the afternoons. I had all the edge of a spatula.
I couldn't picture what I was getting into at all. But I had a model for what I was doing, based on the single concept that I'd retained from an otherwise thoroughly wasted three-year masters program in decision theory. It's called the multi-armed bandit, and it goes like this: imagine you’re placed in front of a row of slot machines with unknown but different payoffs, but you only have a set number of tokens to feed them. Every play is a tradeoff between exploring the possibility space and exploiting what you already know. You should explore early on, so that later you can exploit your expanded knowledge. It was too early in the game for me to be so settled and comfortable. The model said it's time to explore, and so I did, ignoring the loud and panicked protests of my inner couch potato.
I hooked up with a cofounder who was my diametric opposite. Hypercapable, psychotically organized and driven in both her personal and professional life, she immediately instituted sixty-hour weekly minimum hours for the two of us and set an exponential growth target before we'd even closed our first customer. She and her fiancee were also juggling wedding planning, an apartment renovation, and a cross-country relationship, using professional project-management software, biweekly planning meetings, and a remotely-located personal assistant to keep it all on track. She'd already developed a prototype before I joined her, and my job was to translate it to a production-ready environment, run massive rounds of simulations to test it, and get ready for our clients to integrate.
I was miserable. We were working out of her unfinished apartment which was freezing cold in the middle of the winter and a constant reminder of all the things that weren't going well. I'm a low-conflict person who needs hours to calm down after an argument, where she was high-strung and preferred communicating via loud debate. At one point we hired a Taskrabbit to help us get the broken and drafty AC unit out of one window, only to discover after hacking it out that the window was rusted stuck and we'd only made the problem worse. I took to wearing fingerless gloves indoors and sticking my hands under her dog's warm belly when they got too cold anyways. She did sprints on her stationary bike to keep her blood flowing.
I was trying to learn all kinds of things that we needed for our business – how to work with clients, keep our servers up at all hours by myself, debug statistical anomalies in our data, or send out cold emails to find new business. I was the only one who could do these things, so I got them done. I woke up early in the morning and had trouble sleeping at night. Once I worked past midnight to compile a report for a client who'd requested a last-minute meeting in the morning, only for them to no-show, followed by an email two days later asking me why I hadn't found another way to send them their data. If I had asked my body what it wanted in that moment, it surely would have responded with incoherent screaming. It basically did that without being asked.
Our company folded in less than a year. But in eight stressful and mostly unpleasant months I accomplished more than I had in the eight years before that. We made some money for our clients and a minimal but nonzero amount for ourselves, and I was able to parlay the experience into an early position at a much more successful startup. More importantly, I learned how to just get things done when they needed to be done, instead of feeling like a helpless bystander watching a car crash.
If I could give any advice to myself ten years ago, I would say: just ignore that panicky feeling that sets up in the pit of your stomach whenever you think of doing something new. Make a plan, and try executing it for five minutes, then twenty, then an hour. Then do it again, and again, and soon you'll feel better. My body doesn't know how to plan ahead, or how to do something hard now so it can feel better later. That's what I have my brain for. Body sensations are for enjoying yourself after you win.
And yet. Now that I have enough money to stop worrying for awhile, I still wake up in early in the morning and can't figure out how to relax. I still find myself chatting up this embodiment coach at a random party hundreds of miles from home and I'm not sure why. And I have a daughter now, just a few months old, and I'm not sure I'd want her to take the same advice I said I'd give myself.
I make spreadsheets full of weights and metrics to figure out where to move, where to work. I make a plan the night before so I don't have to decide what to do with myself the next day. I create huge funnels of job opportunities and push myself through dozens of interviews to make sure I score just the right spot.
But what is that, against the body-sureness that simply wants what it wants? What if the hippies were right, that you really could just live in harmony with yourself, every day just doing as you please and that chain of desire leading somehow ever onwards to something new and good? I can't really imagine it; it sounds absurd. But if it were true, if I could, I think I would want to live that way too. At least, my body says it would.
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