Dec 17, 2014

When Constraints Embrace You

April 2015 Update: With persistence, the doctors seemed to have narrowed down on the problem and after 6 months, While still not 100%, I’m well on my way to recovering!

Turns out I had mononucleosis over a year ago, maybe two, and not only did I not know, the lack of recovery has slowly eroded my immune system. I’ve lived through the low-energy experience of someone much older; a warning about ambition and life balance.

You know the parable of the frog allowing itself to be boiled, only because the temperature is increased so slowly? I feel like I’ve been given a thermometer.

When you’re young, old people tell you not to take your health and energy for granted. So you take your health and energy for granted.

With eyes wide open, you jump on a treadmill to chase a carrot dangling just in front of you. Why? You think you have the energy and stamina to beat the system.

The water edges up to a slightly uncomfortable 30 degrees. You burn out or realise you’ve been duped. You change jobs, you start your own business, you set out to carve your own path.

At first, I was misdiagnosed. I was told it was some kind of sinus bacteria connected to airplane airconditioners. (I travel a lot.) After the 3–4 weeks of fever subsided, I thought I was better. I should have been planning a few months off for recovery, but I didn’t know that. I got right back to work. More travel, more teaching, more startups.

I even thought I’d manage to get through my then 1000+ email backlog, but didn’t. A sign the water’d got up to 33 degrees. A sign I didn’t notice.

After each trip, I got sick again but just think it was overwork. I’d have a week or so to halfway recover in time for the next trip, and the cycle continued, slowly worsening.

35 degrees.

##Embracing constraints

Embracing constraints is a popular attitude in startups, but in this case, the constraints have sneakily crept up on me — unnoticed — over a year. The constraints embraced me, and I was none the wiser.

You can get caught up in life’s artificial pressures and never realise how much you’re affected. I misattributed my affliction, but in doing so allowed it to get worse faster.

37 degrees. I noticed headaches so cut out coffee.

40 degrees. I was too run down to handle a glass of wine with dinner. I’d be too foggy the next day, so I quite naturally just stopped drinking. I just didn’t want to anymore.

43 degrees. At this stage, I was chronically sick, but I saw all the symptoms in isolation so played them down. Even the people around didn’t realise I was sick all the time — they just assumed I was too busy.

At some point, the decision is made for you.

Now, I can’t get through 4 hours of teaching without my lymphnodes painfully swelling, and my fever creeping up. I get a little boost from a quick nap, but this doesn’t improve my overall condition.

I need immunoboosters since parts of my immunesystem are 75 times out of acceptable range. Doctors disallow me from eating meat or drinking alcohol — my liver can’t handle it for at least another 6 months.

It’s too late for me to call the shots. My condition makes the decisions these days.

I’m in a similar predicament to all the overworked job burnouts, or failed business plans. Discarded husks once containing so much promise, energy and good will. The silver lining is that Mono turned up the heat a bit too fast so at least I noticed.

##Lessons learned

Over this year, I’ve experienced a kind of sneak peak at the future, when I’m a grumpy old man with only a few good hours each day. And this has debunked a bunch of myths I was letting myself believe.

Motivation isn’t the answer

I’m lucky enough to own my own business, do what I love, and get paid for it. I work because I want to, not because I need to. I love who I work with. Master of my own destiny and all that. I feel privileged, but that doesn’t mean I can keep pushing myself.

Hustle is a lazy and misleading antidote

Move fast and break things. Hustle! Sleep when you’re dead, right? Sure, sometimes it makes sense to whip open a can of hustle, but just as often its egotistical nonsense masquerading as good business practice.

Hustle and persistence — use them wisely, or they’ll use you up.

Saying no isn’t enough

Looking back, I’ve been forced to be more decisive, which is a good thing. I’ve learned to pick my battles.

The problem is that I’ve picked the wrong battles.

My actions haven’t emphasised the important things, simply because I underestimated my own, dwindling, capacity.

Urgency is deceptive.

As you lose power, you don’t adjust your estimate of your capacity. Things still seem as doable as before.

I thought I could get the urgent stuff “out of the way”, only to get home tired, assuming I could get back to the important stuff tomorrow or in a few days. It always seemed I could get to them just around the corner, but something else urgent intervened before then. The cycle compounded.

The important stuff slips in way where it doesn’t seem so bad. It always feels like you’ll get to it soon. At this point, fighting fires feels like progress, especially if your business is growing.

That’s how important things like relationships fade. You’ll always make those phone calls tomorrow when you’re feeling a bit better. You miss people. You miss birthdays. Friends stop trying to get in contact.

60 degrees. Your mom resorts to posting on your Facebook wall.

You convince yourself that you’ll stay up late this weekend to call her. You haven’t realised that your definition of late has gone from 2am to 10pm.


When you look back on all that hard work you did in your younger years, you’ll probably remember how easily you could handle all-nighters, working through epic hangovers or sucking up gruelling travel schedules. What for?

The world is full of traps that take advantage of young, energetic fools with something to prove: crappy jobs, bad startup advice, political parties recruiting volunteers, thinking of clever comments on Imgur. Now you know better. You know you don’t have that kind of staying power so you can apply yourself more prudently. Still, imagine if you could go back and warn yourself? What could you have done with all that energy?

This feels like the same thing, only a decade later. I’ve only learned to focus my enthusiasm because I hit a wall.

But this time the culprit isn’t someone else making false promises, it’s my own hubris. My future self is looking back, asking, “why did you waste your energy like that?”

My constraints got the better of me. I thought there was more of me to go around. It’s time to embrace my constraints once again — and readjust my limited energy towards what truly matters.

What am I up to these days?

I’m a new parent, and prioritising my attention on our new rhythms as a family. I’m also having fun with slow creative pursuits: making a few apps, writing, etc.

Work-wise, I’m trekking along at a cozy pace, with a few non-exec, advisory roles for cryptography and microchip manufacturing programs.

In the past, I've designed peer-learning programs for Oxford, UCL, Techstars, Microsoft Ventures, The Royal Academy Of Engineering, and Kernel, careering from startups to humanitech and engineering. I also played a role in starting the Lean Startup methodology, and the European startup ecosystem. You can read about this here.

Contact me

Books & collected practices

  • Peer Learning Is - a broad look at peer learning around the world, and how to design peer learning to outperform traditional education
  • Mentor Impact - researched the practices used by the startup mentors that really make a difference
  • DAOistry - practices and mindsets that work in blockchain communities
  • Decision Hacks - early-stage startup decisions distilled
  • Source Institute - skunkworks I founded with open peer learning formats and ops guides, and our internal guide on decentralised teams