“Museum” by Andrzej Wróblewski

Silicon Valley Exit Event: the hard landing

Ihave been failing recently on my challenge for 2016 to learn how to write better in English. I set myself to publish a blog post every two weeks but I neglected keeping my resolution. I found myself shunning from writing altogether to not face the truth that stories I was planning to publish were all second-tier yet the best story I have would stay unwritten. Maintaining the commitment to my resolution is far too important to me so I decided to bite the bullet and tell my most significant story.

I want to share the story of my recovery from a nearly fatal ski accident when I injured body parts I didn’t even know existed. I went from feeling I’m winning my life and being limitlessly eager to join the next generation of Silicon Valley great entrepreneurs down to feeding myself with a syringe and worrying about going bankrupt. I plunged from having a perfect health and an athletic shape into being so physically broken to not able to carry my groceries home. In one day, my American dream slid into a nightmare.

My disastrous ski ride was followed by pouring 900 hours into physical therapy spread over 210 hospital visits. I spent another 1000+ hours training and exercising in solitude. I put all of my heart, my mind and my money into fulfilling my deep commitment to avoiding a “good enough” trap I feared. It’s a dark place where you get stuck sort of recovered, walking but knowing the thrill of doing sports is lost forever. It’s a place full of sorrow, loss and disappointment. Despite the doctors’ predictions that I would never fully recover, I maneuvered around the dark place. I’ve beaten the odds and not only I’ve undone all damages but I’ve long surpassed my before-the-accident physical performance.

The story I’m about to write is very American and it’s about America’s best and America’s worst. I’ve experienced a truly roller coaster ride with rip-roaring highs and dreary lows. These days, when I see an endless stream of Internet articles on life hacks, productivity tips or laundry lists of steps to life success, I cringe. I think to myself, “Yeah, this makes a comforting read for your morning coffee but falls short when life hits you with a wooden club”. These articles fail to address the question that really matters: “How do you get out of bed when your life turns into crap?”. Finding an answer to that question is now an important measure of success in life for me. Over time, I realized what’s important are not quick hacks but painstakingly applied principles. I don’t think there’s a recipe for a recovery and the principles I discovered probably won’t work for others. I would be spinning my wheels if I tried to distill my experience into a formula; there’s none. However, some thinking patterns seem to be widely applicable. Watching myself and other people struggling to get back on their feet taught me that the number one reason for failure in recovery is surrender.

By telling my full story, I attempt to deconstruct the genius of not giving up in tough times.

When I looked for accounts of other injured people, I enjoyed the long-form rich in minute detail. The little clues brought me an intimate feeling of closeness of the experience. I’m going to follow the suit and go for a long-form too. I’m breaking up my story into several blog posts. This one is focused on my background and what happened to me.

The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing. — Marcus Aurelius

Introduction

In January 2012, I got asked about my post-graduation plans. I was about to finish up my student exchange visit at École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland and move back to Warsaw for one semester of study followed by defense of my Master’s in Computer Science. One day, Martin Odersky, the head of the lab where I was studying and creator of the programming language Scala I was excited about, approached me with a question. Martin Odersky asked me what I’m thinking about doing after my defense. I was caught by a surprise. I realized momentarily I didn’t have a plan for life. Yet I had an idea of what I want to do.

Since my first visit to California three years earlier, my ambition was to move to Bay Area and start a company there. Even before visiting Silicon Valley the thought of building a company one day went through my head but my timeline got compressed once I heard of, and sometimes even met, people trying build startups at young age.

The common wisdom is that if you set out to build a startup you need at least two things: an idea and a potential cofounder. I had both. When Filip and I came about discussing the future, we talked a few times about building something together in US. Filip is a friend of mine from college and one of the brightest people I know personally. He spent years doing competitive programming and eventually became the world champion in programming. We had a vague idea of building a startup that would democratize investing in stock markets. None of us understood innards of finance industry and he was interested in learning about it so Filip’s plan was to first join a hedge fund. The goal was to learn finance as fast as possible and get the US work visa situation sorted out at the same time. I needed the figure out the work visa for myself too.

Martin Odersky listened patiently to my vague ideas. As soon as I was done explaining why I wanted to move to California, he offered me to join Typesafe, the company he cofounded. (Typesafe was later renamed to Lightbend but I’ll use the original name in my story.) I deeply respect Martin Odersky for his great work (especially for Scala) and the talented people he attracted over the years. Typesafe was in a late infant phase: it had money in the bank from investors but its CEO was interim and its business was yet to be built. To say that I was offered to join a risky undertaking would be about just right. I liked the idea that I would work on important problems and help build a commercial leg for Scala. I cared for Scala’s future and it was a great privilege to have Scala’s creator trust me to take on some of the pressing challenges of the time. I had only one condition that separated me from accepting the offer: Typesafe would get a US work visa for me and I’d be free to leave to pursue my own startup plans in a year. Fortunately, Typesafe agreed to my condition and I quickly signed the offer. I was excited: I’d join a team of great people, work on a cool project and I’d learn startups by being involved in one.

Satisfied, I was thinking to myself: “Everything comes together. Filip will learn finance and I will learn startups. We might have a good chance once we join our forces.”

Moving to San Francisco

I signed Typesafe’s offer when I was already back in Warsaw. I rushed to finish the last classes I needed to take before my graduation. I was impatient. My mind was already living in the future.

The plan for my visa situation was that Typesafe applies first for a J1 visa for me. It’s a student visa designed for interns and trainees. A big advantage of this visa is that it’s easy to get. You just need to prepare some paperwork and be either enrolled at school or freshly graduated. Yet, you can’t work on J1 visa forever, it’s temporary. The longer-term plan was that Typesafe would apply for an H1B visa while I was already working on the J1 visa in San Francisco. The H1B visa is an official work visa for professionals but it was much harder to get than J1 in 2012 and it’s even harder to get in 2016. Nonetheless, getting H1B visa was my goal. I thought H1B should be enough to let me work on my own startup eventually.

We could apply for J1 visa only once I had graduated from school and it takes 2–3 months to get all paperwork done. I graduated in June and then moved back to Switzerland to work for Typesafe in Lausanne while waiting for J1 visa to be approved. By September, my J1 visa was stuck into my passport with an expiration date set for 12 months.

I finally moved to San Francisco in early October and extended my summer thanks to beautiful California weather. Actually, I didn’t move directly to San Francisco but I settled in Silicon Valley first. When I arrived at the SFO airport, an old friend of mine, Sami, that I’ve met during my Google internship, hugged me and let me crash on an air mattress laid in his living room in a typical, cookie-cutter Mountain View apartment. Anybody who lived in San Francisco in recent years knows the tough reality: you don’t just board a plane from Europe and show up there to live comfortably. You first need to do your walk of atonement by spending countless hours searching online ads for expensive apartments and then wander around the city watching how pleasant people are asking a fortune to let you live in a rathole. The cheapest offer I found at the time remained a complete mystery to me; the entrance to the building was blocked by a pack of drug addicts.

The commute between Mountain View and San Francisco sucked. My day began with 15 minute walk to San Antonio Caltrain station where I would take the slowest, Diesel engine-powered train to the city. Then I’d spend around an hour in a noisy, crowded train car with cramped seats. Finally, I’d walk another 15 minutes from San Francisco’s train station to my office. If you’re European, you might be wondering why I wasn’t taking a modern train? There’s none. Silicon Valley is a place full of people who are immensely excited about building amazing technologies that send satellites into space or give you an instant access to the knowledge collected by the entire humanity of all time. But the same people can’t be more bored with the problem how to kindly send commuters 40 miles north using electricity and on steel tracks.

The temporary inconveniences didn’t bother me too much. My certitude was that I just have moved to a spaceship factory where people were reaching for the stars. Yet small details would get in the way: the long commute made it harder to find my own place. I had to head south to Mountain View after work because there were not that many trains running late. Also, reacting timely (showing up in person within an hour) to ads that appeared on weekend was difficult. Fortunately, Typesafe needed a corporate apartment for people visiting from European offices to stay at. Typesafe also had Mark as a permanent CEO now. Mark is a great guy who understands people really well. He knew about my annoying commute and offered me to stay at company’s apartment provided I found one, first. It was a great deal for me. My first task at Typesafe SF wasn’t programming but looking for an apartment. I found a nice 2-bedroom condo in SoMa district on a quiet Berry Street and moved in immediately. I stayed there for couple of weeks until I found my own place in Mission district, also on a quiet street. When I was moving out from Berry Street, I didn’t think I would ever return to that apartment. Could I be more wrong, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Baby Sequoia

The 2012/2013 was an ok season for skiing in California. There wasn’t too much of snow in Tahoe Mountains. When I first heard of people skiing in Tahoe, I was surprised there’s skiing in California at all. The sunny state is well-known around the world for excellent surfing but not as much for skiing. It’s for a good reason: slopes in Tahoe are not that impressive, snow conditions vary and ski resorts are crowded with tech people from Bay Area. Still, my hearty love for skiing set spurs to join my friends in visiting a cabin in mountains for a weekend. I knew that this one weekend in March was my only shot at skiing that year. The all-encompassing work was holding me back from going for a proper, a week long ski retreat.

On Friday night we arrived at a big house. We came by three cars so there was a fair number people, most of them I didn’t know. We got introduced to each other over beers and went to sleep. The morning drive to the Kirkwood ski resort the next day should have been pleasant. However, due to something that felt like a bad food poisoning I wasn’t enjoying a sunny, clear weather and nice views.

Once we arrived at the ski slope, I wasn’t keen to get on a chair lift. I was feeling weak. One of my problematic character traits is that I take loses badly. I thought to myself: “This is bullshit. It’s your only chance to ski this year. Will you sit down here drinking mediocre coffee and staring at people?” It didn’t help that I the day before I boasted to my friends how good skier I was and now I felt an inner pressure to prove myself. In hope I’ll feel better thanks to physical exercise, I decided to go on blue (easy) slopes.

On the second downhill run I felt worse. Suddenly, my skin got all wet from a cold sweat and I was losing my muscle strength with every passing second. I was convinced now that staying on slopes any longer was dangerous to myself and other skiers. All I wanted to do was to get slowly to the bottom of the mountain and call it a day. Unfortunately, as I was sliding down I reached a tiny cliff-like segment of the piste where it was much steeper. Being a fairly good skier, I’d normally glide through such a segment trying to cut a beautiful, deep, tight curve magically pushing skis against a nearly vertical slope and seemingly defying the gravitational force.

On March 10, 2013 I wasn’t a good skier, though. I started gaining speed uncontrollably. Knowing how weak I was, I panicked a little bit. I understood I needed to reduce speed quickly so I started breaking. More cold sweat kicked in and I lost control of skis. I was gaining more speed and I desperately tried to break. A few seconds later, when momentum got too large for me to handle, I fell on the ground at the edge of the slope. I tumbled a couple of times hearing the noise of snow flakes crushed by my body weight. In a trice, I heard complete silence followed by excruciating, high pitched “beeeeeeeeeeep” sound piercing my ears. The short silence came from the shock of crashing into a baby sequoia that was growing by the slope. California sequoias grow so large that “baby sequoia” wasn’t less devastating to slam into. From what I remember, it was of the size of a fully grown up European pine tree.

Airlifted

Rescue arrived extremely quickly. I was lucky. Less than a minute after my fall, a person patrolling slopes was going on my slope and saw me laying by the tree. There were also my friends on the same slope who told me later they saw me but I don’t remember seeing them. I couldn’t move my head so I saw only people I could reach just with my eyes. I think the patroller called for help even before he approached me because the second person came very quickly too.

One of the rescuers asked why I moan so much. Partially it was from pain but mostly from fear and shock. The excess of running blood in my mouth was making it hard for me to catch a breath. I couldn’t answer them clearly because a piece of tooth was blocking my throat. I somehow asked them to help me remove it. They did take out the largest piece and I spit out a few smaller tooth pieces. Meanwhile, the rescuers moved onto running the standard medical examination to asses the damage of my body. Next, they told me they would lift me onto sledges and take me down the slope where I would receive the first aid. I believe they told me a Trauma helicopter was on a way already. I’m not sure because of the prevalent “beeeeeep” sound filling my ears made it hard for me to recognize words.

Once I was attached to the sledges with belts, the taller guy put an oxygen mask on my face and we started going downhill. The same guy who took care of the mask was leading at the front of my sledge and another one was at the back. We were going down pretty fast, taking quick turns. To my panic, the front skier cut one of the turns too abruptly and thrown a bunch of snow onto my oxygen mask. Air ventilation became clogged and my breathing was handicapped. I couldn’t remove the snow myself because my arms were attached to sledge with belts. I tried screaming but they didn’t hear me.

We arrived at the bottom of the slope shortly after and the oxygen mask was removed off my face. I could breathe again. I was moved into a little shack where I was put on a stretcher and some of my skiing gear was taken off gently. I was further examined and I was awaiting for an air rescue.

The wait for helicopter ambulance wasn’t long. I think it came 10–20 minutes later. From what I remember, it was a small machine. There’s one vivid memory I have from the moment I was loaded into the helicopter. Once the medical workers from Calstar rolled a stretcher under the tail of the air ambulance, they lifted me and placed me on a flat, stainless steel tray that was sticking out from the back of the machine. Then, in a coordinated motion, they gently pushed my tray into the helicopter. I realized I was loaded into a metal case that had a shape of a simple, angular coffin with a small open segment at the top that made my whole head visible and accessible from the outside. The combination of a stainless steel and the shape of the case and the metal try I was laying at brought me a striking memory of a frequent scene from Hollywood movies. It’s when a police detective visits a mortuary to examine a dead body that is pulled out of a cold chamber. I thought to myself that I’m weirdly feeling almost like laying in mortuary’s chamber. Chills ran through my back as the thought of death crept into my mind for the first time.

As we were taking off the noise from engines forced the medical workers to shout in my direction:

- What’s your name?! — shouted one of them
- Grzegorz — I responded heavily
- Where are you from?! — shouting again
- I’m from Poland but I live in San Francisco — I struggled to say
- How old are you?!
- I’m 26
- Please look at me! What’s your name? — the medical worker yelled
- Grzegorz — I gasped out
- “Gshegush”, is that your name?!
- No… Call me Greg — I responded with a resigned pitch of voice
- Ok, Greg! I want you to look at me and stay awake the whole time! Where you from?!
- I’m from Poland
- How old are you?!
- 26
- Greg, keep looking at me!
- …

We repeated this simple exchange a few more times until I finally lost last bits of energy. I passed out. A flash of memory remains with me from the time we landed on the roof of the hospital and I was offloaded from the stainless try. I didn’t bounce hard enough into consciousness to think clearly about the question that was running through my head “Am I about to die today?”. As I was rolled inside the hospital building, I passed out again.

Trauma Center

Late in the afternoon, I started waking up and examining my surrounding. I was in the center of the room laying on a bed. The room was very spacious and I was alone. On both right and left side of my bed, there was an array of medical equipment with lots of screens. Claire, a nurse assigned to me, walked into my room and greeted me warmly with a beautiful smile. We chatted a little bit but it was mostly her answering my questions. She explained me I was at the Intensive Care Unit of the Sutter Roseville Medical Center near Sacramento. I was brought here by the Trauma rescue team. Only after a while, I said slowly “Claire, I have trouble speaking but don’t feel too much pain. Why?”. My mouth, nose, cheeks — everything on my face was swollen. Claire explained I don’t feel pain because I was under very strong painkillers. Only much later, I registered, she meant I was high on morphine.

A group of people wearing white outfits walked into my room. They introduced themselves but obviously I didn’t catch so many names. There was an orthopedist, a neurologist, a neurosurgeon, a jaw surgeon, a general physician and somebody else. I was given a long overview of what did and what didn’t happen to me. The doctor who seemed to be leading my consultation started speaking by breaking the big news:

- Good evening. I’d like to tell you’ve been lucky in your accident. You don’t have any life-threatening injuries. You had a serious head injury but your condition is stable. The CT scan reveals no brain damage, just a slight swelling from the impact.

I didn’t say anything but my eyes revealed I listened attentively. The doctor kept going:

- Apparently, you skied head first into a tree. We’ll inspect your head more carefully but the CT scan suggests that the helmet you were wearing absorbed the energy of the impact and most likely saved your life.

The other people joined the main doctor in giving their diagnosis. The summary they agreed on of what happened to me was that I had:

Bilateral mandibular fracture
Le Forte I facial fracture
Basilar skull fracture
Right ulnar styloid process
Left pisiform fracture

More expressions like “bilateral maxillary sinus fracture” were flying in the air. Not sure if it would be any different if I was a native English speaker but I had no idea what they meant. Throughout a longer conversation I managed to get summary of what happened to me in plain English:

Broken base of my skull with internal bleeding
Broken both left and right wrists
Broken jaw in four places
Broken joint that connects the jaw and the skull
Several broken teeth

I learnt that breaking (fracturing) the skull is very dangerous because it leads to internal bleeding that damages your brain. The solution is to quickly drill a hole in a skull to release excessive blood pressure from the inside of the skull. This is called trepanning. I was very lucky to not need this procedure. One of the doctors said it’s rare to have this type of fracture of the base of the skull that I had. In my case, the internal bleeding found its way out through my ear canals. I had the blood coming out of my ears which was actually a good thing. I’m glad I avoided trepanning because once the hole is drilled, it stays with you for the rest of your life and limits activities you can do. For example, you can’t do scuba diving or sky diving or anything else that involves a change of pressure.

The doctors explained to me that I had a fully body MRI where they examined my neck and the rest of the spine. Fortunately, none of the segments of the spine were injured. The conversation went on for a while leading to discussion of the kind of surgeries I need to get and how I should take care of my life while at the hospital and after I would get released. There was one more important bit of information left to the end maybe to not disappoint me earlier: due to my skull fracture I was not allowed to get on airplane for next 3 months. It meant I was stuck in California and I couldn’t go home to Poland where all of my family was and where I could receive help.

In fact, I don’t remember almost anything I just described about my first evening in the hospital. I reconstructed the events asking Claire the following days what happened to me and by analyzing the hospital discharge report I received a month later. On the front page of the printed report it says:

The patient is a 26-year-old left hand dominant male who earlier today was downhill skiing when he crashed into a tree going down a turn. He went head first into the tree. He was wearing a helmet. He denies loss of consciousness or memory, but he complains of pain to his face, his head, as well as his right wrist.

I might have convincingly denied loss of memory but I have to trust doctors’ notes on that. A little ironically, to this day I don’t remember the conversation about my possible blackout, at all.

What I do remember, though, is the next day it was dawning on my slowly that I got myself into a deep trouble. I was in a foreign country without family but with both broken hands, terribly broken jaw and with no way to go back to my home land. Over the course of next few days, when painkillers dosage was cut down and I wasn’t as high anymore, I recalled with the help of visiting friends one more thing: the place I was renting in San Francisco was available only temporarily until the end of March. It was mid-March so in two weeks I would need to move out, in the city where vacant apartments are as rare as diamonds. My original plan was to look a for a new place right after the skiing weekend. Now, I had no chance of finding a new place. I thought that none of my friends could take me into their apartment because I just became a high maintenance individual.

“I’m fucked” — I was thinking to myself but tried to appear calm on the outside.

Wrong kind of worry

When I was planning my move to San Francisco and I was pondering the life of a future immigrant startup founder, I’d have those long internal debates. In various form, my mind was occupied by questions like “Is the startup idea good?”, “Isn’t it going into finance foolish as a first venture?”, “Will I be able to build the right network?”, “Does anybody else care about democratizing investing in stock markets?”, “What if Filip changes his mind about building a company together?”. These were all concerns prompted by stories I’ve read about building startups.

A frequently discussed startup concept is one of an exit event. It’s the point in time when a company is either going public or is sold to another company. It’s also the point in time when founders, investors and employees can sell their equity thus “exit” the ownership. There’re three types of an exit event: public offering, acquisition or bankruptcy. The latter two are seen as failures with acquisition often called a soft landing and bankruptcy labelled as a hard landing. When I theorized about building a company, I had this anxiety about failing at the startup game with the wrong kind of an exit event.

In the spirit of faithfully experiencing a Black Swan event, I saw now how off I was with the prediction of possible bad scenarios in my life. It seemed like my personal and literal “Silicon Valley exit event” would be kissing a sequoia tree. Yet, my lowest points were far ahead in the future where all of my new learning would take place.