This is one of my favorite lines to use to explain the business life I live. When asked what it’s like to be a partner in a VC firm, be on a bunch of boards, and have a continuous stream of random interaction come my way, I like to level set my reality.
It’s simple. Something new is fucked up in my world every day.
Now, just because something new is fucked up, doesn’t mean I’m unhappy. Quite the opposite – I’m usually happy, although when the pile of fuckedupness gets high enough I get tired. And day after day after day of 12+ hour days also make me tired. I used to be able to work through the weekends – now at 49 years old I need them to recover, get patched up by Amy, and get ready to go back out there.
Jerry Colonna at Reboot.io tells a wonderful story about the crucible of leadership on Fred Wilson’s blog with a section titled Eat Me If You Wish (read the whole post but the parable is about half way through.) It’s worth repeating here. Take your time reading it.
“One day,” begins a story re-told by Aura Glaser in the latest issue of Tricycle Magazine, “[the Buddhist saint] Milarepa left his cave to gather firewood, and when he returned he found that his cave had been taken over by demons. There were demons everywhere! His first thought upon seeing them was, ‘I have got to get rid of them!’ He lunges toward them, chasing after them, trying forcefully to get them out of his cave. But the demons are completely unfazed. In fact, the more he chases them, the more comfortable and settled-in they seem to be. Realizing that his efforts to run them out have failed miserably, Milarepa opts for a new approach and decides to teach them the dharma.
“If chasing them out won’t work, then maybe hearing the teachings will change their minds and get them to go. So he takes his seat and begins… After a while he looks around and realizes all the demons are still there…At this point Milarepa lets out a deep breath of surrender, knowing now that these demons will not be manipulated into leaving and that maybe he has something to learn from them. He looks deeply into the eyes of each demon and bows, saying, ‘It looks like we’re going to be here together. I open myself to whatever you have to teach me.’
“In that moment all the demons but one disappear. One huge and especially fierce demon, with flaring nostrils and dripping fangs, is still there. So Milarepa lets go even further. Stepping over to the largest demon, he offers himself completely, holding nothing back. ‘Eat me if you wish.’ He places his head in the demon’s mouth, and at that moment the largest demon bows low and dissolves into space.”
I put my head in a demon’s mouth every single day. Often, it’s a different, or new, demon. Sometimes it takes me a few days to get ready for this so the demons back up. Other days two or three new demons appear and I can only deal with one of them so the others hang around.
I learned how to deal with this in 2001. That year started out miserable with companies I was involved failing all around me. I did everything I knew how to do to help. I’d go to bed at the end of the day thinking, “Ok, that totally sucked, but tomorrow will be better.” It wasn’t – each day was worse. By about June I realized that every single day of 2001 had been worse than the previous day. I finally metaphorically threw up my hands and internally said, “Fuck it, let’s see what the world can bring on today.” That’s when I started to sit with the demons.
Up to that point, I was fearful of what the day would bring. I would fight against it. I would thrash around looking to solve every problem, chasing the demons around my cave trying to get them to leave. And then 9/11 happened, on a beautiful morning in New York, while I was fast asleep in a hotel room in midtown Manhatten at The Benjamin Hotel after taking a redeye from San Francisco. As the planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers, Amy frantically called me from the road as she was driving to the airport to come visit me in New York. I had turned off my phone so I expect I snored happily away as the first tower fell. When I finally woke up I to whatever station the clock radio was on, I thought it was all a joke. For about a minute, I struggled through the post redeye haze that enveloped me, along with the existential fatigue I was feeling from nine months of companies failing everywhere, people being angry, unhappy, depressed, stressed, scared, and under immense pressure, and then I realized it wasn’t a dream.
When I finally woke up enough to turn on my phone and call Amy, I was lucky enough to get through. She pulled over to the side of the road and cried. She was sure I had been on one of the planes that had crashed. After a few minutes, we realized a trip to NY was silly so she turned around and went home. I then took a shower and tried to process what was going on and figure out what to do next.
There’s a lot more from that day that shaped me, like it shaped so many others, but suddenly many of my demons just disappeared and went to torture other people. I realized that as fucked up as my world was, it was trivial compared to what was going on 60 blocks away. While I was terrified and trapped in The Benjamin for a while, I had at least four hours before I took action to just sit and process things.
Dealing with the particular set of demons in my cave at this point to another three months. That period was my second of three clinic depressions that ended around my birthday on December 1st. I spent these three months sitting with all of my demons, welcoming more into my world, and just learning from them.
When the really scary ones showed up, I didn’t fight. I just placed my head gently in each of the scary demons’ mouthes and said “eat me if you wish.”
Just like with Milarepa, it worked. And it’s now how I live every day.
To everyone who lost someone close to them on 9/11 – I’m sending you every bit of good karma that I can today. While I was in New York that day, I was lucky and didn’t lose anyone close, but I’ll always remember 9/11 and I think about it every time I’m in New York.
I’ve always had some survivor guilt around 9/11. I had a lot of emotional trauma from it, but everything ended up fine. My survivor guilt is amplified by my own anxieties around the events that lingered for about three months. I’ve never felt these anxieties were warranted on my part, but they were there and I couldn’t deny them.
While I’ve told my story to plenty of friends, maybe by writing it down and getting it out there on this tenth anniversary I’ll both contribute to the memory of loved ones on 9/11 as well as help me (and maybe others) get some closure. There’s a part of this that feels self-indulgent since I wasn’t directly impacted, but there’s another part of me that knows I’m searching for closure on this. So, here’s the story.
I took a red eye from San Francisco to New York on Monday night 9/10. It was something that I was regularly doing at this time as I tried to manage my way through the collapse of the Internet bubble. I landed at LGA at 6am, took a car to The Benjamin hotel where I was staying for the first time (I randomized my hotels back then just to experience different ones), turned off my cell phone and went to sleep. I didn’t have a meeting until 10 so I set the alarm clock in the room for 9:00. I woke up in the normal haze of jet lag to someone on the radio shouting about something going on at the World Trade Center. At first, I thought it was some sort of drive time radio talk show joke, but as I gradually woke up I started processing that something major was happening. I turned on the TV – something I rarely do in hotels – and saw the first tower on fire and the chaos that erupted as a plane crashed in to the second tower. I don’t remember seeing the plane crash, but I do remember seeing the endless plumes of black smoke.
By the time I was mentally functional, it was about 9:10. I turned on my phone to call Amy who I knew was on the road on the way to DIA to catch a flight to New York. Her birthday is 9/14 – she was going to meet me in New York, we were going to hang out for a few days, and then go to Paris for a week of vacation together. I had trouble getting through on my cell phone but somehow managed to get her on the phone around 10:00. She was bawling hysterically – she’d pulled over to the side of the road and was frantically trying to reach me. Since my phone was off, she couldn’t, and her brain had immediately gone to the place that so many peoples did which was “my loved one is on the plane.”
While we were talking, the first tower collapsed. I remember watching it on TV and being unable to continue talking on the phone. Amy asked me what was wrong and I simply couldn’t answer. It was inconceivable to me that the World Trade Center would disappear and – having been in the building a number of times, immediately starting trying to calculate how many people must have been inside.
I finally pulled it together, told Amy to go back home, and we’d figure out what to do once things settled down. I turned on my computer, plugged in the hotel ethernet cable, and connected to the Internet. Amazingly it worked flawlessly even though by this point I couldn’t make a phone call on my cell or the hotel phone. At the time I was using both AOL and Yahoo IM – a bunch of messages popped up from people who knew I was traveling to New York checking to see if I was ok. Email flowed fast and furiously for a little while and as I surfed the net and watched TV from my hotel room in midtown, I got more and more freaked out.
By about 11am I was completely paralyzed. I didn’t really know what to do. By this point both buildings had fallen, four planes had crashed, and there was total chaos on TV as no one had any idea what was really going on. I remember looking out of the hotel window at the beautiful day outside but being afraid to leave my room. All kinds of doomsday thoughts crossed my mind, like “go get a few gallons of bottled water” but I sat, transfixed to the TV, email, and IM hoping someone would say what was happening. I felt safe in my room, but also terrified that I was in the middle of Manhattan – isolated in the middle of one of the largest cities on the planet.
Early in the afternoon I found out via email that my friend Paul Berberian, who was the CEO of Raindance (I was on the board) was in town with Nick Cuccaro, his CFO. Raindance was a public company and they were talking to investors downtown. They were safe and trying to figure out how to get home. We connected by email and decided to meet at my hotel. By this point all the flights were grounded and as I tried to figure out how to get a rental car, it quickly became clear that it would be – at best – really hard to do.
I wrote an email to Jenny Lawton, a close friend who was working with me at Interliant and lived in Greenwich. Jenny offered up her car if we wanted it. By this point it was early afternoon and the news reporting was now in a cycle of redundancy – lots of speculation but no new information. While I was still scared to leave my hotel room, I had this incredible urge to get back to Boulder.
When Paul and Nick showed up, we agreed to go to Jenny’s, get her car, and drive home. Around 5pm we made our way down Park Avenue toward Grand Central Station. There were no cars out, very few people, and an eerie hush had fallen over downtown. The picture in my mind is that it was already twilight and a chill was in the air. I was anxious but when we got to Grand Central it was empty. We figured out which train was going to Greenwich and got on without a ticket. Thirty or so minutes later we got out and jumped into Jenny’s car.
Jenny made us spaghetti for dinner – I can still remember sitting at her dining room table eating the first proper meal of the day. Jenny gave us the keys to her orange SUV (I think it was an Isuzu, but I do remember it was orange) and off we went. The roads were empty and before we knew it we were cruising through Pennsylvania.
All three of us had an overwhelming desire to get home. We each had cell phones and had touched base a few times so our families knew where we were, but none of us had a car charger for a phone so we were protecting our batteries. We stopped at a gas station to fill up on road food – I stayed in the car but to Paul to grab me some fruit stuff. A gobbled down a bag of it before I realized it was “fruit flavor sugar candy” at which point I had to rid out a hard sugar crash in the back seat of the car as Paul and Nick drove through the night.
I remember a lot of very specific things from the trip. We stopped somewhere for breakfast in Iowa at an I-80 roadside restaurant and had an awesome breakfast. There was no useful information on the radio – we just listened to the same speculation over and over again – clearly, no one had any idea what was going on. The sky was a perfect shade of blue. There were no airplanes in the sky and no contrails, which was especially startling in the context of the blue sky. Nebraska is a wide state – we ended up deciding there was an East Nebraska and a West Nebraska. Three guys in a car for 24 hours after a very anxious previous 12 hours makes for a very smelly car. Our capacity for being thankful that we were alive was endless.
As we got entered Colorado we were out of cell phone juice. Nick was obsessed with going by DIA and getting his car, so we ended up adding two hours to our trip at the end. When I finally got home it was dark, but Amy was waiting at the door. We had a very emotional moment, at which point I went and took a shower and then collapsed for a long time.
I didn’t travel again until December. It was the longest stretch of time since college that I’ve been in one place. Some was travel anxiety, some was re-evaluation of the tempo of my life, and some was just plain acceptance of the exhaustion that had been building over the past few years with the corresponding capitulation from a very emotional moment.
As I write these words, it’s incredible to me that this was 10 years ago. The sheer number of specific memories I have amazes me. The emotional feeling around the event continues to be overwhelming to me. While our capacity as humans to deal with, survive, and move on is powerful, this reminds me that there are many things we never forget.
To anyone who lost a loved one on 9/11 – my heart goes out to you. I know how hard this was for me, and as you can see from my story, I was simply a visitor in the city for a brief time in which this heinous event occurred. I’m thinking of you today, and sending you my love.