What I Learned From a Stroke at 26: Make Time to Untangle
As an idealistic, knowledge-hungry college graduate and aspiring writer, I had grown tired of hopping from one office gig to the next. It was 2000 and technology was in full bloom. I wanted to cash in on the digital gold rush. Like many of my friends in Austin, Tex., I figured, why not join the internet economy?
I answered an ad for a job at a venture-backed start-up company with a focus on education. More than just offering stock options, the job promised a creative launching pad that I would have been foolish to ignore. After interviewing for the position, I happily accepted the company’s offer.
Each day at the company was a sensory experience filled with color — the office was painted in 17 of them — fragrant candles, brain games and yoga balls. Each week pulled me into stimulating projects, problems to solve, new technology and, best of all, interaction with a team of talented, intelligent and dedicated co-workers.
My ambition swelled. I hustled my way up the chain of command and managed to survive layoffs. In a matter of months, I found myself leading development and marketing for a team of designers, programmers, producers, subject matter experts, sales staff and writers.
I would easily clock 70 hours of work a week — more if we were on a deadline. I was often the first in the office and the last to leave. But I was more than happy to give my job my all.
To keep up the pace, I put myself through a series of self-imposed tortures that included overcaffeinating and taking catnaps in place of real sleep. I was 26 and felt invincible. I figured I could handle the pressure, so I ignored repeated headaches, blurred vision and general exhaustion.
Early one summer morning in 2001, I arrived at the office and felt a slight buzzing in my right eye and some tingly numbness in my hands, which I dismissed as mere morning grogginess. A little later, I stood up to make a presentation at a team meeting. A colleague later told me she saw my mouth droop as my words started slurring.
The next thing I knew, someone was saying: “You’ve had a stroke. We have to run a scan to figure out what’s going on. Do you understand?”
I was in my 20s, and my brain was damaged. I couldn’t articulate my thoughts to the doctor or nurses. While the words were there and I clearly saw them in my mind, I couldn’t connect them to speech. My hands were still tingling, and I was unable to sign my name after my brain scan, because I couldn’t remember how to spell it.
When I was discharged from the hospital late the next day, the cabdriver asked me, “Where do I take you?” I couldn’t remember the name of my street. I handed him the discharge paperwork with my address on it, arrived home and slept for a long while.
Being so young, I had not even considered that having a stroke was a possibility. But I have since learned that they are on the rise among younger people. My doctor did not directly link my stroke to overwork, but said it could have been aggravated by stress, overexertion and exhaustion.
After being released from the hospital, I felt helpless and humiliated over my loss of control. My aura of invincibility had shattered. But I slowly recovered. Every night, I’d practice spelling polysyllabic words, like “arachnophobia” and “Czechoslovakia,” backward; I’d do complex math problems; I worked on relearning memories that had been disrupted. I practiced yoga and meditation. The more I accepted my imperfect mind, the more I settled into a place of contentment.
Thanks to the support of my colleagues, I returned to work, but by necessity my frenetic daily sprint had to slow to a crawl. Now I made time for pauses and reflection — and my work, and my life, became richer as a result.
Because of the stroke, I reset my professional priorities. With each new career opportunity — from writing books to starting a company to consulting on various projects — I learned the value of a calendar and how to avoid overcommitment.
I began to own my calendar and live by it. I scheduled everything in it: work commitments, exercise, walks, social gatherings and even sleep time. I continue to do so to this day. I now have a daily mental reset hour that is usually every afternoon around 4 or 5. I walk with my wife, I breathe, I smile, I meditate and say hello to random people and animals, and I write in a journal or draw.
Even today, as I run multiple ventures and travel frequently, I still make time to untangle from the digital world and plug back into what really matters: time with people I love, time for creativity and time in nature. As for my career, I look at it as a series of meaningful projects stacked one on top of another, none of them too consuming or overwhelming.
Overload is the way of work these days. It’s how the ambitious among us are hard-wired, and it’s quite dangerous, as my experience showed. But it’s also dangerous for us not to fully pursue — and give our all to — opportunities that move us forward. This is the dynamic tension we face in today’s creative economy.
If we want more, we have to give more, but we have to stay aware of what we might give up in the process. While it’s great to be ambitious, we must learn to listen for cues, step back and slow down the pace at times. We need to learn how to create space for both making a living and making a life.