Turbulence is not velocity
I loved sailing. Not as a sport, but as an itching in my bones. I ached to be out on the water, pushing levers, pulling ropes, to convert wind into movement. It wasn’t an intellectual pursuit. Once I tried it, I just needed it.
My driving high was that moment, clear of the pylons and levy, when everything was right. The boat would list in the wind, with everything taut, the waves would cut against the hull. I felt like I was finally in perfect alignment with the waters and the sky. We were all working together. It was a fleeting congruence, like a surfer catching a wave. Then I was trying to find that alignment again.
With the wind in my face, I always felt I was going at amazing speeds, the master of velocity. One day I looked it up, full of prowess. The tinkerers sailboat goes about 6 mph when everything goes just right. With 15 mph headwinds, the wind speed against my face was over 20 mph, tricking me into believing its rush was real velocity.
Before I knew any people that were talking about startups, I had one by accident. My best friend wanted to escape his government job where he was under-utilized, unappreciated. And I, having been a consultant for many years, wanted to do something bigger than just me.
We both realized that I was equipped to thrive and adapt to unexpected changes in a desperate startup, and he was not. In the sinking ship of our venture, I took on more and more responsibility. So much of that was bailing water, desperately. I convinced myself that I didn’t have enough time to stop and consider the ‘what’ or the ‘how’ or the ‘how best’. I bailed because I had to.
Eventually I was working all of my waking hours, every day of the week, and I was trying to figure out how to work more. It felt like if I just had more time then I could save the company, alone, a hero.
The agile practitioners say we are “running a marathon, not a sprint”. I had become living proof that you can’t sprint a marathon. Though I worked always, I was getting less and less done. Even the glamour of busyness, which made me feel so important, which felt like wind in my face and velocity, was becoming stale. In a fourteen hour day, I realistically got six hours of work done. The rest was distraction, exhaustion, avoidance, chasing my tail, lost without priorities. Working all the time felt like velocity, but what I really felt was turbulence and its drains.
Slowing Down to Speed up
Around the time I gave up on my startup, I gave up my sailboat. It was hard to find safe people to take on a trip, and it was dangerous to sail alone.
I took a week before starting a new job to work on a new boat. It was a 38-foot house boat that had gone to the bottom of a lake near Modesto. After resurrection, it had been dumped into a dirt lot by a crane. As space in the lot was needed, it was chained to a truck and dragged to other locations in the yard, leaving large gashes in the hull that equaled the original leak location. I bought it for less than what I paid to transport it to a Berkeley shipyard.
Shortly after dawn everyday I got up, drove to the shipyard, and did the physical work of making the hull sea-worthy. Fiberglass, and sanding and more sanding. I took out the engines, which had rusted in the lake, and sealed the massive holes left behind with wood substrate and fiberglass.
It was hard physical work that I did without thinking, meditatively. It’s tactile nature shut down the constant chatter, the turbulence in my mind. I had a sense that nothing was very important now, and that I could focus on just where I was in this moment.
What followed was the agile build of a two story floating house: 800 square feet or so, 14 windows, hardwood floors, a full kitchen, and a bathtub bigger that we have in our home in the suburbs. It’s been 10 years. It isn’t done, but it’s livable and peaceful. My biggest architectural complaint is that all those windows make it too bright sometimes. It is the only house where I have needed sunglasses while inside.
I learned a lot of painful things during the failure of that business. That week of mental repose, allowed me to digest those lessons more fully than any thinking process.
The Nature of Turbulence
I learned that turbulence is a seductive drug. Even now I feel it tugging me in as I explain to my wife about how pressingly I am needed across country for a meeting. Twelve hour days of travel and dead feeling hotel rooms convince me that I am important, that I am getting things done. But the travel is not the important part. The meeting may be a waste of everyone’s time if not well orchestrated. But the jet provides a 500 mph wind making everything seem very big.
Free and clear of its allure, turbulence is the smell of destruction. The mind is not meant for such an enduring panic, and turbulence is a panic about the grand importance of your activities while you remain inadequate. The body is not meant to burn in a forever stress, and the diminishing returns are its attempts at self-rescue.
With your destruction, so goes all that you touch, like an inverse Midas. Nothing gets done, because you can’t get help, because it would take longer to get help than just doing it yourself; you are almost there anyway. Nothing gets done right, because doing it right would take too long; maybe when things settle down that will be possible to do the right thing. It is only when you look out to a point on the shore that you realize you have gone nowhere, at a very great cost.
At some point I got rid of all my moving boats except a kayak. Leaving from the harbor where my houseboat lives, we can ring Brother’s Lighthouse. My neighbors, senior citizens all of them, make these journeys daily or weekly. They outstrip me, intentionally holding back to make me feel not so bad, to keep me safe. We are joined by the seals and birds, and sometimes the huge cargo ships making their way to Sacramento with more and more cars.
It is a dangerous journey that we take with our eyes open, always with another person. The tide must be coming in so that we don’t struggle on our return journey when we are exhausted. The wind will be a hinderance, even when it is at our back. Small offsets between the boat direction and the wind direction spin the kayak, pushing it off course, squandering our energy.
The channel that acts as an avenue to those massive container ships leaves unsteady eddies of turbulence at the peripheries. Those are all the more confused with several islands breaking from the bay, generating odd currents. The surface, especially in a low tide, toils and troubles.
The world is a dangerous and beautiful place when life is lived well.
I still burst with ideas and passions that seems so critical, that pull at my every heart string. O the opportunity, knocking at my door. O the unending gamble of entrepreneurship.
These precious goals are so important that I know I cannot waste them in a rush. I cannot race to building great mountains in the roadways or corridors to nowhere. These things are now so precious to me that I have to build them consciously, with forethought, and with the proof that they will be the right thing to do. It is ten percent slower up front, but it gets me to the finish.
So, I say, go ahead and make a mole hill out of a mountain. Trade in your wind machine walking shoes. Walking is still hard work, but you might actually get somewhere.