Why breathing isn’t so easy for a CEO.
Breathing, like blinking, seems so easy.
An involuntary pulse in your lungs.
There are two times in your life when that breath is anticipated — that first moment when you enter the world and that last moment when you aren’t quite ready to leave it yet.
My dad gave me my first breath and now I am faced with his last.
And then you realize that breathing hasn’t always been so easy, that all the breaths in between are filled with moments in which it seems the next may never come.
Your father, he has always been there. That involuntary pulse in your lungs. And you are not sure if you will breathe again without him.
You begin to think about all of those breaths strung together along the way to form some of your life’s biggest moments. That time your teacher told you to go run in the corner of the classroom because your energy and eagerness to help the other students overwhelmed her, the moment you knew you were abandoning the Stanford dual degree that you were months away from completing, the moment you realized the business you co-founded with your friend Nipul supports 25 families.
That business you co-founded with your friend Nipul.
Nipul pulses in your lungs. You make fun of his hair. But really, you are envious of his hair. He leaves his six figure consulting job for you to live on $1,500 a month. Half of that goes to rent. The other half, of course, goes to burritos. You revel in this cliché. When your car gets stolen, he drives you around in a rental while you hit the panic button, and wait. and wait. and wait for your wayward car to find its way back to you. To drive you around aimlessly through the streets of San Francisco. He must love you or something. When your car gets stolen a second time. And he drives you around again. You realize that he must believe in you. Or, you know… something like that.
That business you co-founded with your friend Nipul.
Over guac and chips you think about how your father’s silence spoke volumes in Asian disapproval. You said no to the MD/PhD. And he said. Nothing. And that’s all he needed to not say, for you to know. Everything.
And now you do not know quite how to say it to Nipul. That your idea for an event app for small businesses, the idea the two of you spent the last year building, sucks. He has left everything for your idea. He has endured a year of high-sodium burritos for your idea. And now everything about the idea sucks. You hate it. Everything is terrible. And you don’t know how to tell him. You don’t know how to break his heart. Or maybe you just don’t want to disappoint him. Because that would break your heart.
But you do tell him. And he doesn’t want to hear it. And you want to punch him in the face because he is just being stubbornly invested in what you’ve already built, even though it’s no good. But instead, you gently shove him because he is bigger than you. And that’s a little scary.
Actually. This is all very scary. And you hunch over and gasp for breath. You do not know who you are without this business. You do not know who you are without your best friend. But maybe it’s okay to let go and not know, in order to know something entirely new.
And you remember to breathe again.
When you shoved him, it jiggled something in his brain and he says yes to a new idea. A network that connects small businesses to each other.
And so you begin to know something entirely new. Something better. Something that could be better only because of what you knew before.
This business you co-founded with your friend Nipul.
You sit in a conference room that is too large for the three of you. Miwa is the third wheel. You are all sciency and stuff and she is all designy and stuff. She thought she’d give this start-up thing a try. She dresses up in body-length tubular Halloween costumes. There was that sushi roll. Then the Pringles can. And the Vita Coco Water. You realize she is composing an entire meal and it is amazingly, beautifully, wonderful.
She suggests 300 names for the new business. All of a sudden, all of the potential of all of the things you can possibly be are on little yellow post-it notes. You yell. She talks loudly back. Nipul does some aggressive whispering. You bump into whiteboards and curse out dried-out dry erase markers. You’ve spent 10 hours in this room already. You hold your head and take a deep breath in.
It was so hard to let go of who you thought you were. It is even harder to decide who you want to be.
It’s been a long walk with some running, sprinkled in with moments of skipping, punctuated with a crawl or two. It’s been such a terrible, joyful, journey. And so you guess it’s never really been about being. It has always been about becoming. And maybe that’s okay.
You let go of your head. You let go of your breath.
When you finally leave that conference room, you’ve written an obituary for what you want the company to be remembered for. A place where small businesses have the same resources to be successful as larger business. A place where you can help people. You feel comforted by this sudden clarity and that, no matter where you are or where you’ve been, you know that you will be okay walking, skipping, running, towards simply becoming that.
My dad. He had been unresponsive for months. I sat with him, in the hospital chair that eventually knew every contour of my body. It was always so oddly warm in that room. Every two seconds, I would carefully listen for the breath to flow out of his mouth and then quickly inhale to help him pull it back in. I repeated this thousands of times until finally all I could hear was the stillness of the room.
What is happening right now is one of my life’s biggest becoming moments.
And across the country, Nipul, Miwa and more than 20 other people are helping me inhale by skipping. running. flying.
And I am beginning to know something entirely new. Something better. Something that could only be better because of what I knew before.
Breathing, like blinking, can be so easy.