Have you ever thought: “I think I’m going to die?” Not in a “oh if I see my ex, I’m going to die” or “if I don’t do well in this exam, I am going to die.” I mean literally, “oh, my life may be over, very soon.”
Well, I did. Last Saturday.
Red Eye Flights Are The Worse
Last fall, I flew to Lisbon for Web Summit, coming back for the weekend; only to fly back days later to St-Petersburg for the International Cultural Summit.
A week ago on Saturday night, after back-to-back weekly red-eye flights from the West Coast, I checked myself into the ER thinking I was having a heart attack. I wasn’t.
For all intents and purposes, 2019 has been a great year and in many ways our best one ever. Professionally and personally, I can’t ask for more, and not a day goes by where I don’t count my blessings. But, like most entrepreneurs, while I’m not driven by money, fame or power, whatever it is that drives each one of us, we push ourselves hard. Most of us suffer from Icarus complex. I’m no different.
Spreading Yourself Too Thin
In 2018, we had a banner year but like every other year, building a business on YouTube comes with its own set of challenges. And yes, being in year 2 of our 3-year WatchMojo 2020 initiative where we invested in about 10 growth areas added to the complexity.
Managing both i) a senior executive team and ii) an army of millennials, as well as a) young digital natives and b) people I recruited from traditional to tackle those initiatives was becoming arduous for a perfectionist who operates at a fast pace. Those profiles were hard to mix, and frankly, unless you want to spend most of your day ordering people around to do things your way, it’s not obvious when you’re more of a leader than a manager. I’m not a perfectionist at the micro-level, I agree that “perfect is the enemy of good” but at a macro level, I want to win all the time: there’s no reason to accept defeat and losing. The more you do, the more you manage, the more you have to accept losses of fidelity and excellence.
By 2019, we had streamlined operations and as a result, I actually became calmer and more patient. I also quit drinking for two months (March and April) which definitely helped (I rarely drink before evenings, but still). Overall, I grew more zen. And yes, I realize the irony that I wrote this a year ago, but it was also foreshadowing the changes I knew I needed to make, which are paying off in 2019.
But, you don’t teach an old dog new tricks, especially when to be candid said dog experiences success and finds that his worldview and bag of tricks generally work. So when you’re an extremely ambitious, driven and intense individual, even becoming a bit more tame is still a few gears above most people’s pace.
By now, I’ve more or less accepted that I run a family-run boutique (aka lifestyle) profitable business and I won’t chase the institutional imperative because one thing I’ve learned is most companies are beyond inefficient and ineffective. Overall, this year has been great: mandating CIBC to manage all of the inbound and outbound (via business development for example) corporate development talks with strategics and investors has been one of my best professional decisions. I am highly coachable despite my confidence, and I’ve learned a lot from them. It’s also removed a lot of the awkwardness of managing those conversations.
But, last week I realized you can’t take anything for granted and as you get older have to pay attention to your health.
Vidcon’s Gonna Rock You
Two years ago I returned from a week at Vidcon and woke up thinking I had what felt like appendicitis. It clearly wasn’t that, but if I had to describe the pain and envision what appendicitis would feel like, that would be it. It passed.
Last year I returned from Vidcon with a mild case of a sinus infection. Blame poor air quality in planes, too much air conditioning in hotels, Disneyland – whatever. I told myself to temper myself this year.
I did so by flying to LA and then Anaheim, then flying back across the continent on a red-eye to Montreal that Friday after giving a keynote on the evolution of YouTube, only to return to San Diego the ensuing week to talk about fair use and fan engagement (slide show) at Comic-con San Diego… returning once again on a Friday red-eye flight. When I woke up on Saturday morning, I felt a bit dehydrated, but didn’t think much of it. Throughout Saturday I drove my two angel of daughters to friends’ houses in sweltering 40-degree Celsuis humid heat (for my American friends, that’s 104 degrees but with humidity that makes DC feel like SoCal).
Freaking Seth Rogen
Fortuitously, my daughters were sleeping at their cousins’ house that night, so after my wife and I grabbed sushi for dinner we came back home and relax for once without having to wrestle and negotiate bedtime with the gals.
We were watching Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee on Netflix. I listened in awe to Eddie Murphy talking to Jerry Seinfeld about balance, family, not over-extending himself professionally while they drove around LA in a Porsche Carrera GT (“perfection”). Then as one Netflix episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee dominoed into another, Jerry pulled up in a 1976 Dodge Royal Monaco Police Car to pick up Canadian comedian Seth Rogen.
I won’t say that Seth immediately sent me into a Mary Hart-induced Kramer-like seizure or anything, but within minutes, I started to feel… heartburn, something that usually a Rolaids would do the trick.
Not this time. “Are you ok?” asked my wife?
As I walked around, this wasn’t no ordinary heartburn: I was feeling an immense pain around my chest. Not sharp as much as if a sumo wrestler had decided to rest on my chest. I couldn’t breathe… and after jokingly asking if she could “watch the end of the episode” my awesome wife suddenly worryingly asked: “should we go to the hospital?”
Had my daughters been with us, I’d probably passed, not out of macho stoicism, but more out of not wanting to figure out who could watch our two young daughters at 11:30pm on a Saturday night. But partly because we were alone, and because this was no ordinary heartburn, I said “yeah, I think we should go.”
Am I Going To Die?
I recall back in 2011 when my second daughter was about to join us in this world one October night at 1am, we drove from our condo to my in-laws’ house, burning the odd red light through quiet streets before dropping off our elder daughter. This time around, at 11:30pm, the streets weren’t empty, but as I sat in the passenger seat, for the first time ever in my life, I wondered: “was I going to die? Was I, in fact, dying?” What does that feel like? How are you expected to feel.
I am 41. The average life expectancy in Canada is 82. I am a mere mortal with no delusions of immortality, but I am beyond fearless (without being reckless) in the realms I roam in – business, sports, life. I don’t take crazy risks. Why bother?
This was something that I felt was clearly out of my hand. If I had to venture what a heart attack felt like, this was it. And if not this, then what on earth would a heart attack feel like?
When my father was approximately my age, I recall him experiencing a “panic attack.” This was not that. When we pulled up to the hospital, I asked my wife to drop me off (if I could have opened the door while the car was still moving I would’ve) so I could rush in to the emergency room and inform the staff that I was experiencing tremendous chest pains.
A Knock on the Window
The nurse was looking down at her phone, I knocked on the window and said in a quiet voice:
“Hi, I’m having severe chest pains.”
They strapped me up to take my heart rate, took some blood samples and half an hour later when the doctor walked in, the pain had passed. It wasn’t my heart, thankfully. It wasn’t cancer, either, thankfully (I did worry esophageal, maybe, given the location of the pain – but I’m a paranoid mofo).
The doctor started to talk about deep vein thrombosis though I didn’t actually have that, either (thankfully). I recall first reading about that while flying to Australia in 2001, being urged to get up and walk around. (Subsequent research led me to think it may have been something related to pulmonary embolism but since I wasn’t given blood thinners or anything, I am uncertain if it was anything per se).
The doctor repeated what I’d relayed to him: a combination of back-to-back weekly red-eyes, a poorer diet than usual, a bit more alcohol while meeting clients and industry friends, a bit less drinking of water (and my trusty apple cider vinegar mix which has helped me reduce bad cholesterol & high blood pressure) and just overall fatigue and exhaustion created this nearly-lethal mix that sent me into the ER.
Oh, and Seth Rogen, of course.
Being Healthy Starts Between The Ears
Now, for what it’s worth, overall I have always had great doctor checkups: my diet is pretty good and I load up on enough antioxidants to make the most health-conscious person envious. I play soccer (at an intense competitive level, natch) at least twice per week for the last 10+ years.
But you can operate at work or on the pitch at a intense level and still find yourself vulnerable to things. Eventually, you have to take care of yourself because no one else can.
I recall once flying to San Francisco for a meeting in 2007 and then returning on the red eye that same night as if I’d gone to the corner store to buy milk.
I realize that I need to heed some of the advice I dole out regarding balance. To be clear, balance between work/life/play is a near-impossible status. It’s not like climbing a mountain, it’s (to quote my colleague Mike about office tasks) more of a treadmill. You never achieve it, you strive for it. Our new brand Context is about all work/life/play balance, but if I had to think of one word to convey its spirit: it’s strive, because in life you’re never were you (think you) want to be, you’re always striving for it.
Perspective: Work is a Means to an End
When my wife was driving me to the hospital, I didn’t really feel any pity for myself. But I did feel bad for my wife and my two daughters. We are all blessed, I know that. I appreciate every second I live. But at that moment, I was reminded that they didn’t sign up for my life of entrepreneurship.
Yes, entrepreneurship is living a few years like no one wants to, so you can live the rest of your life like few can, but what’s the point of it all if the rest of your life isn’t very long. In 2012 I penned “Get Rich Or Die Trying” to convey the importance of persistence and defining success to meet your definition. When your cohorts burn through $5M-100M in venture funding and can’t build a sustainable business and you do so with $250,000, it takes a lot of drive and intensity. But, I didn’t actually mean that article title in a literal sense.
At the risk of sounding arrogant, I am a pretty great husband and father. But at that moment, I realized: they deserved better. I don’t need to strive for anything: I am where I want to be by their side.
Maturity is Walking Away From Certain People, Things, Situations
When I worked in customer service making minimum wage for Canada’s largest bank which earned billions each quarter, I used to get upset when I couldn’t make every single client happy.
When I read and replied to viewer comments on the WatchMojo channel (ah the Mr X days), I’d feel disappointed if not depressed when critics questioned our intentions. It was idealistic and immature of me to think I could achieve that.
I’ve scored thousands of goals in my amateur soccer life and the teams I’ve been fortunate to play with have probably won 90% of their games; but I get so upset (yes, even in friendlies!) when we don’t win.
Last year, I realized I didn’t need to prevail in every single copyright dispute. Yes I was driven to have a video on every topic to offer viewers the complete catalog on pop culture but eventually, I moved on from that too.
This year, I finally stopped trying to make every single employee happy. It’s impossible and frankly, unhealthy because the best leaders and organizations make unpopular decisions all the time. Only the weak ones agree with the last person they speak to and think they can do so.
This, to be crystal clear, isn’t addressed to anyone but myself. It’s about a realization that has been long overdue.
So, What Does This All Mean?
Overall, I’m pretty healthy with a reasonably balanced lifestyle. I don’t want to make any unrealistic proclamations. But what I learned is that if I’ve created a healthy work culture, it’s because of the #LiveAndLearn mantra we have where we don’t blame one another for mistakes and are too busy to care about who should get credit for our successes.
That stems from a few things, namely not having a board or outside investors: not only I don’t need to find people to throw under the bus, but I can absolve everyone from mistakes and errors so we learn and move forward. But as I thought of that Saturday night: red eye flights, one too many steak dinners and cocktails aside, what dawned on me is that I definitely am way too hard on myself.
I blame myself for every single mistake or error and I want to be perfect at everything with a flawless record. That’s just not possible. Life’s too short to dwell on what you’d do differently, and like an old dog, that’s just not a switch I can turn.
That takes a lot of discipline, meditation, thoughtfulness and maturity. Mainly, it takes a lot of looking ahead, and not looking back. The past is in the past. That’s absolutely a process and journey… and it’s the one objective I have now given myself in my 40s.
In life, you have things you control and things you can fix; then you have things you don’t control and things you can’t fix. Easier said than done, but I no longer care about the latter.
For me, writing this was therapeutic, but also an admission that as much as I think we all know what the right thing to do is, to actually do so is another story. The first step of any solution is acknowledging the behaviors & patterns that prevent you from a healthy state of mind, body and soul.
The first step of, you know, #LiveandLearn is to live, after all. Alright, I’m off to spend some time with my family. You should too.