I hope you’re doing well! My week started out a bit rough — I was battling an onset of fatigue (brain fogginess, headaches, low energy). I realized I hadn’t been paying enough attention to my body, and was spending too much time looking at screens. I’ve been making adjustments to my daily habits, and thankfully am feeling much better already. I wrote a thread on my learnings from the experience.
With all the precautions we take just trying to survive, it’s easy to forget the things that help us thrive. Remember to take care of yourself!
This week I have a new essay to share with you: Echoes of Reflection, in which I explore the unique period of forced reflection that has been thrust upon us by the pandemic. I share my own story recovering from startup burnout, embracing my deepest inner questions, and developing a new lens on life.
If you prefer, you can also read this essay on my blog.
Amidst the lockdowns of a global pandemic, the sounds of life have changed. For the first time in a century, the hustle and bustle that fills our streets has gone quiet. In this eerie silence, the song of the birds echoes louder than ever before.
Even our deepest thoughts have amplified their volume. These existential provocations used to be drowned out by the busyness of our lives. Now, they relentlessly bang their drums in the chambers of our minds.
Listen for a moment. Can you hear them?
Is this what I want to be doing?
Are these the people I want to be seeing?
Is this where I want to be living?
…Is this it?
These questions terrify us, but we can’t seem to evade them. Our lives have become confined to one block, one room, one screen. It’s impossible to escape ourselves.
Like it or not, we need to face our own music.
Here We Go, Again?
The discomfort of deep reflection feels familiar to me. As I follow the path of my inner questions, I see the faint outlines of my own footprints.
I’ve been here before.
Once upon a time, I was a startup founder struggling with burnout. It felt like I was an asteroid, crashing and burning into the atmosphere. I was lost, confused, and utterly exhausted. I took some time off to travel and see family. Upon my return, I went to meet a good friend. He asked me what I wanted to work on next. Until that moment, I hadn't thought too much about it. My answer shocked both of us.
“Honestly, I have no idea what I want to do. My last run wasn't pleasant. I'm not exactly chomping at the bit to do it all over again. Frankly, I'm not even sure I want to work at all.”
My friend was taken aback. Both of us learned something that day — I was clearly not ‘rested and recuperated’. If anything, I came back from my break far less ready to work than when I left.
It wasn’t supposed to play out this way. I had my recovery all planned out — I had diligently followed the tried-and-true recipe for startup founder recovery. I traveled. I visited family. I relaxed. After some weeks had passed, I felt ready to come home. I figured I was ready to jump back into things.
I was wrong. The recipe didn't work.
But if a break didn’t solve the problem, what would? I was in uncharted territory. I knew I needed to work eventually to survive, but thankfully I still had a little buffer to figure it out. More than a decade of working my ass off in startup-mode had afforded me that privilege.
So I made a “freedom list”. If I had this period of time to myself, I wasn't going to waste it. I would do all the things I had always dreamed of doing. That could be my work, at least for a little while.
Weeks turned into months. I stopped traveling on planes, and instead explored the far reaches of the galaxy with my mind. I dove into the world of meditation and developed a daily hour-long practice. I learned a ton about illustration, animation, character design and drawing comics. I read more than sixty books. I dove into technical subjects at a depth I had never done before.
Despite having no structure to my day and few commitments to keep, I found myself more productive than ever. I was driven purely by the search for wisdom, and the pursuit of my curiosities.
For a brief moment, I felt truly happy.
Soon afterward, I was ready to dip my toes back into work. I tried doing some independent consulting on a part-time basis. I wanted to create a structure for myself where I had some income while still having space to explore curiosities.
It was a struggle. Finding clients and marketing myself was difficult, especially since at the time I had virtually no online presence. It was also quite a lonely pursuit, and I missed working with others. I had greatly underestimated how much I cherished collaborating with a team.
Eventually, I went back to work full-time at a big company. I was tired of the uncertainty of a solitary pursuit. I wanted structure. I got it in spades. Throughout my time there, not a day went by where I wasn’t plagued by the same questions. I had tasted the freedom of independent pursuit, and I missed it.
I decided to try an independent route again, but with a twist. I secured a part-time job at a friend’s startup. I structured my work so that I’d be putting in a fixed amount of time for a fixed income. I’d get the structure I needed, along with the opportunity to collaborate with a team. The rest of the time would be free to explore creative pursuits.
I’ve been working with this setup for about six months now. It’s still early, but so far I’m really enjoying it. I feel well supported by the part-time job, and my creative work has been flourishing. I just published the 35th edition of my weekly newsletter. I’ve been regularly publishing essays like this one on my blog (one of which went viral on Twitter and HN). My Twitter following and engagement has been steadily growing. My drawing skills continue to improve, allowing me to draw comics like the one in this post. I’ve started a YouTube channel publishing monologue-style videos. I’ve been growing a digital garden of notes. Most importantly, I’ve built so many wonderful relationships with folks who’ve engaged with my work (this includes you — thank you!) It’s an incredible feeling to know my creativity has inspired and helped others.
All of this has happened in less than a year, which makes me really excited for what’s to come. I’m just getting started!
I’m privileged to be able to make a setup like this work financially, but I’ve also had to make my share of sacrifices. I’m really glad I pushed myself through all the questions to get me to this point.
Looking back, I've realized this period of self-exploration was a form of Awakening. It changed me forever. Friends who met me after a long while joked that I’m now “Salman 2.0”, as though I’ve become a different person entirely. Perhaps there’s some truth to that. I’ve discovered a new source of contentment and happiness: myself. I’ve developed a new lens through which I view the world, my life, and my purpose on this planet. Most of all, I’m grateful for having developed resilience in embracing life’s deepest questions.
There’s more to life than finding answers. What we really need is to develop comfort with questions.
The more questions we ask ourselves, the more we can grow.
Flower Generator — I love this drawing tool by Sean Catangui! It uses programmatic generation to make flower-like patterns. You can play around with it and then save your images. But there’s a twist! Once you draw something, it disappears after a while. So the process becomes more of an experience of the flow of drawing, rather than focusing as much on the output. I enjoy stuff like this because it gives you a chance to have some fun with art. Not everything has to be a piece that communicates something effectively. We all need a little play in our lives!
Birds Sound Louder During Lockdowns — In today’s essay I talk about how the silence of lockdowns makes the song of the birds seem louder. As it turns out, the birds really did change their tone, but not in the way you might think: “They didn’t get louder, though you may have noticed them more. Instead, they got ‘sexier.’ The birds were able to say more, and say it better, because they didn’t have to shout so much.”
I love this timeless comic from Sarah Andersen. I often come back to it to remind myself that there is no shortcut, no hidden secret to mastery. I just need to keep writing, drawing, and iterating… The rest will take care of itself.
Last week I made an open call to readers to reach out with questions or thoughts on this newsletter. It was great to hear from different folks on what has resonated most (BTW, that call is still open!) One reader, Ciara McVeigh, reached out to share with me that QBF inspired her to launch her own newsletter (you should check it out — it’s quite good!). It’s such a heartwarming feeling to know I’ve played a hand in helping others share their creativity with the world. She also shared a snippet from a recent story she wrote which really resonated with me:
No golden path is going to unroll before you to the Great Valley.
You chop the brambles, the vines, the thick thorns, with a machete you make yourself, and you carve out the way forward from the darkest forest of your mind.
You’ll cut the path, not find it.
These beautiful words inspired me to think more deeply about a new project I’m starting. I had been waiting for a signal of sorts to guide my direction, but reading this helped me realize the only person that can give that signal is me. Time to start carving.
P.S. If you’ve been writing (or reading) a piece which you think I might find interesting, send it my way! I’de love for QBF readers to become another source of inspiration to fuel my writing.
Until next time,