Running and Returning
Peaceful Hunza / Thrilling New York
September 2020, I looked in the mirror and there it was: my first white hair. This single white hair served as a better reminder of my mortality than any School of Life book ever could. Shortly after, I left Stripe as I’d been mulling, gave up my apartment in New York, and bought a one-way ticket to Pakistan. I had no plans.
In the coming months, many people inquired what I was up to. I dressed the answer up, but at the core it was: nothing. For months after I quit, I did absolutely nothing that people expected. I didn’t binge Netflix. I didn’t jump into building a startup. I certainly didn’t look for another job. Instead, I gave myself a blank page to play with. What would I do if there was little I had to do?
I slept better than I had in years and left my phone off for days. I played hide and seek with the servants’ kids on my street —a community that doesn’t stress about grades or status or corporate politics but instead rests, satisfied. I started kickboxing, then injured myself. I met models and learned to pose, bought a camera and took photos I couldn’t with an iPhone, started painting and writing again. I hid from my “real world” with no definitive plans to return.
And then I willingly and enthusiastically moved back to New York. Disconnecting was peaceful but I missed progress; new ideas, products, experiences. I didn’t have a clear vision of how I’d spend my time, but I knew I wanted to make things - technology, art, whatever - that resonated with people and moved the world forward. The future was going to come whether I sat it out or not; I didn’t want to sit it out!
The vague vision I had of my new life in New York is crystalizing quite well. I’m bootstrapping a dating app with a team of one: me. I design the app and develop prototypes, go to parties and find people to add to the beta. It’s a blast. I no longer need to convince myself to work; I have to drag myself to eat and sleep. Any temptation to hide out in the mountains is all but gone.
I’m writing this for a good friend who’s at a recognizable crossroads. One side of her wants to drop everything and live somewhere remote and cheap, away from her phone, advertisements and responsibilities. The other side wants to move to America and launch a consumer product, spend her time on exactly the kind of capitalism she wants out of. She’s worried because of the apparent contradiction within her, but I don’t believe there’s a contradiction at all.
Modern city life can be stressful! Our phones demand constant attention; they connect us to our friends, family, and work 24/7 and constantly bombard us with stimuli. A decision as simple as where to eat or work out can trigger analysis paralysis in me. Despite efforts, my Screen Time report for last week reads 6 hours and 15 minutes per day spent on my phone. Absurd. I understand the temptation to run away - I did.
But there are, of course, reasons to return. I personally get pulled back by technology, art, and people. I love being in cities because of the people and art I’m surrounded by; I hear live music just sitting in a New York park. I can go to a concert and meet fascinating new people. Technology stitches us all together and I want to build it.
The urges to run and return may seem at odds, but they have a symbiotic relationship. Some of the biggest contributors to our modern way of living have spent significant time hiding from the world.
Andy Puddicome has single handedly helped millions of people reduce their stress levels through Headspace; an event business, an app, now a TV show. I can attest that I was a lot more neurotic before I started using Headspace. Without Andy’s work, even if I had tried meditation, it likely wouldn’t have stuck.
While he’s an influential figure in our world today, Andy spent much of his early years disconnected from it. During his early twenties, Andy was a sports science student living with the trauma of two deaths close to him. He dropped everything and moved to Asia to train as a Buddhist monk. I doubt he could have pictured how that decision to disconnect from modern life would end up changing the very world he was disconnecting from.
Taylor Swift is another cultural icon who spent significant time hiding. For the better part of a decade, fans looked forward to Taylor’s albums not only because they sounded great, but also for all the juicy details about her personal life. Is “Dear John,” which paints a meagre image about a man named John, about Taylor’s fling with John Mayer? (yes it is). Could it be that “All Too Well” is about Jake Gyllenhaal, and that the sister in question whose house the scarf is left at is none other than Maggie Gyllenhaal? Is this the scarf she left behind? (You guessed it: yes and yes!).
But Taylor got sick of it all; the scrutiny, the pressure, the expectations. She didn’t release any music between 2014 and 2017, an anomaly for her, and kept a very low profile. She began dating someone and didn’t tell any fans. At her Super Bowl performance in 2017, she told fans that she was only doing one show that year, and she kept that promise. Fans missed her, but many of us moved on with our lives.
And then she came back with a bang. She shed her good girl image and took a political stance despite warnings from her campaign manager. In 2020 she dropped two consecutive albums and a documentary explaining her hiatus. She’s back, and better for having taken that time off.
The temptation to run away from modern life will strike from time to time. But there will be reasons to return, and it’s on us to find the balance.
As I wound my life down in 2020, I had applied to Y Combinator with a good friend. We got the interview but as we prepared for it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wanted to make no commitments to investors, cofounders, or even myself at that moment. The problem we were working on was important and interesting, but I wasn’t convinced that I wanted to dedicate myself to it. Heck, I didn’t want to dedicate myself to anything at the time. Eventually I told my cofounder and backed out of the interview. His response:
“Don’t discount the inner voice that wants to take some time off or head in a different direction. Let's recall how Mohammad also retired to a cave before he became a founder.”
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