The Best Leadership Advice I’ve Ever Gotten

It’s been an amazing year. Stepping away as Vittana CEO was one of the hardest things I’ve done, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

Spying the midnight sun over Priekestolen
Spying the midnight sun over Priekestolen
As I was leaving, I asked lots of people I admired for advice. “What should I do next?” As every entrepreneur knows though, getting advice is a pain in the ass. (Let’s be honest.)

One (smart) lady says one thing—

“Go travel for a couple years, don’t worry about it— Vittana is amazing, you’ve earned it.”

Another (equally smart) dude says another thing—

“Don’t send yourself into exile, start your next thing now— I’ll write you a blank check today.”

What do you do? (Both real quotes, by the way.) They both sound great, don’t they?

Catching the sun rise over Barcelona
Catching the sun rise over Barcelona
But then, once upon a cloudy Seattle day, you talk to someone who gives you some of the best advice you’ve gotten in your life. Here’s what he said—

Kushal—

You talk about starting a family, starting an even bigger company. Here’s the thing— you’re always on. That white-hot intensity of yours never turns off.

What’ll your team do if you’re always on? If you’re always on, you’ll burn yourself out, you’ll burn your team out.

But, worse: How’ll your family be if you’re always on? Those are going to be some seriously fucked-up kids.

Here’s my advice—

Go relax until you learn how to relax.

Damn.

Dreaming Spanish guitars off the Lycian coast
Dreaming Spanish guitars off the Lycian coast
He was dead right. I’d been clocking 100-hour weeks since I was 15. First, at Berkeley: an EECS and biology double major, plus two research jobs. Then Amazon, helping lead the recommendations team. And finally Vittana. What I lacked in experience or intelligence, I made up in sheer intensity and grit.

But, it came at a cost. I delivered results, but I drove people crazy doing it. I pushed people away— some of my closest mentors, friends and colleagues.

In recent months, I’ve been asking those folks for feedback. The three most common replies? “Inspiring.” “Infuriating.” “Exhausting.”

Laughing in Istanbul
Laughing in Istanbul
Sometimes, there isn’t much to say except, “Yup. You’re totally right. I’m going to go do exactly what you said now.” And that’s exactly what I did.

I broke my lease in March, put all my stuff in storage— my only link to Seattle being that my billing address was my assistant’s home address. The plan? A one-month sublet in every place I’d ever wanted to live.

I’ve seen the midnight sun set over Priekestolen, hiked the sea cliffs of Molokai, gone skinny-dipping in the Arctic, thrown back vodka shots on a Cold War-era Russian base with old Cold War-era Russian guides, been proposed to on a midnight bus on the way to a Turkish monastery, been straight-up vetoed by the American Embassy in Algeria, lived in a UNESCO world heritage site in the 1,000-year-old Marrakech medina, discovered true awe amongst God’s fingers in St. Peter’s Basilica, and much, much more.

Flying in Paradiso
Flying in Paradiso
Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • People are the same everywhere: moms worry, boys try to impress girls, and everyone just wants to be seen.
  • ”We cannot provide consular support” is code for “The SEALs aren’t coming for you. Don’t fuck up.”
  • Crayons are really good for drawing in the shower.
  • Always jump off the cliff, always dance with the girl, always go for the kiss, always say yes — and always chase bubbles.
  • Corollary: Skinnydipping in the Arctic is always a good idea.
  • Learn “thank you” in every language you can. Smiling and pointing is good enough for everything else.
  • Discover awesome— the classic definition, not the surfer one.
  • Never try to bribe a Bangladeshi border guard about a motorcycle.
  • Smile, even (especially) if you don’t feel like it.

But, most of all? Breathe, be present and see the moment.

Running the midnight Marrakech streets
Running the midnight Marrakech streets
Back in Berkeley, I fell in love— that you could build something from nothing was intoxicating, electrifying. As entrepreneurs, we’re always trying to mold reality to our dreams. And that’s beautiful: it lets us do beautiful things, create things others can’t even imagine, solve problems the world thinks are unsolvable.

But it has a dark side too. Sometimes, it means we don’t celebrate the little things. Sometimes, it means we’re blind to others’ emotional state. Sometimes, it means we miss the beauty of the moment. Sometimes, it means we don’t listen when we really should. Sometimes, it means we forget we already live in the future.

Disappearing below the towering sea cliffs of Molokai
Disappearing below the towering sea cliffs of Molokai
I was lucky in an infinite number of ways— not everyone can leave everything behind and travel for a year. Go for a meditation retreat instead. Take an interpretive dance class. Draw in the shower. Try acroyoga. Chase bubbles. Cliffdive. Dance. Live.

After a year of living, do I have any advice? Sure. Here’s my advice—

Go relax until you learn why.

Ignore the hippie bullshit— yes, you’ll be happier. But, you’ll also be a better friend, better partner, better leader and all-around better human being.

Chasing bubbles in Oslo
Chasing bubbles in Oslo
And me? Did I finally learn how to relax? Yes. It took eight months and more dollars than I care to admit, but I finally learned how in the Sahara this September. No laptop, no phone, no camera— just me and a sketchpad with a lot of sand and sky.

At the end of it all— Simba and I hanging out in Laguna Beach
At the end of it all— Simba and I hanging out in Laguna Beach

30 thoughts on “The Best Leadership Advice I’ve Ever Gotten

  1. Awesome. As I head into my sabbatical this was a perfect read! I love to travel. My inclination after reading this is to pull my two twelve year olds and my six year old out of school and take them on the road for a year. I am confident they would learn more in that year than they would learn in any school. The only question is do I have the courage to do it?Thanks for the inspiration!

  2. As you know, I did the same thing when I was 30 yo – I chucked my entire life, including my professional path, to discover the world and the me in it. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life and changed me – and now a decade later, I can certainly say that that year still can be felt. It’s encouraged me to strive, but also be present in the moment because the moment is actually all we have. Balance between the two is key. I am very happy for you. The other thing that happened for me – I take time to travel every year – take the break and go live.

    I love the last picture of you and Simba – so gorgeous!

  3. Love this post. So many inspirational nuggets about how to live fully. Thanks for sharing your beautiful journey with us, Kushal!

  4. Great advice (and awesome pictures too)! Sounds like you’ve done some really cool things. I know way to many people (mostly in the Bay Area) who never take a break to travel, relax, etc. By the way, I live just a few miles from where you took that last picture in Laguna.

  5. So what you’re saying is if I want to truly relax I need time and money? 😉 J/K Seriously feeling inspired (and jealous). Thank you for taking the time to share your experience.

  6. Thanks for sharing. I’m glad to see you’ve learned to relax by trying to relax. That takes a lot of self discipline. Most people don’t learn until they break their leg or cell phone. I like chasing bubble too. Even my 20 year old grandson does.
    I have to admit that I can’t wait to see your next project though.

  7. Hey Kushal, this is so inspiring! ….very helpful in my own journey
    too. Thanks for sharing it with me. Its so important to chase your
    happiness and to be you! I love the pictures, especially of the little
    girl chasing bubbles!

  8. Kushal, even in relaxing you are an over achiever! Good for you! I hope you permanently incorporate chasing bubbles — and acro-yoga???– into your future. What a great year you had. I’ll be curiously watching to see what’s next. I know whatever it is will be good!

  9. … Beautiful work Kushal … when you are in Seattle next let’s make a point of catching up. As you know we launched the #SeattleGlassExplorers Artists & Developer’s Incubator last week and have secured gorgeous loft space in SODO to work from … we are shopping for Exploratory Seed money.

    #SGEIncubator is focusing on #Wearables #Glass and Contextual Computing, The Internet of Things [particularly with a Home focus], and Big Data especially as it pertains to Privacy and Security.

    Let’s catch up!

  10. Hey Kushal,

    Thanks for sharing. This is great post about managing psyche.

    I’d love to hear about you post vacation enforced relaxation, next time.
    When you are back to the grind, how do you keep the boundary to say this is relaxation time now?

    Go Bears!

  11. Congrats on learning how to stop and smell the roses. Your post brought back lots of memories, I remember working 100 hours weeks and they were very satisfying times. For results oriented people, hitting a milestone is like a runners high, the endorphins just carry you, that and caffeine. My story deviates from yours because I was married at 25 and my first of four children at 29, my job took me around the world several times, but I learned that 100 hour work weeks and family life are mutually exclusive endeavors. I had to let one go and strike a new balance in my life, I don’t work 100 hour weeks anymore and family life has taught me how to relax. I do know why I chase bubbles, her name is Emma. I don’t usually work more than 40 hours a week now, but every now and then I feel myself falling back into old habits and have to remind myself that I can answer the email tomorrow. If a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, then being the strongest link is pointless. I like what you have learned, and would like to add that while most people want to be seen, about 10% want to go unnoticed and they usually have the best stories. Also if your doctor tells you, you have a viral syndrome – that’s code for you are sick with an unknown virus and he has no idea what to do. I pass on the following advice that I’ve found useful; your family deserves your time, never accept a job or task without the resources to accomplish it, never bet on technology that exists only in power point, a pleasurable life does not equate to a happy life, your people have feelings too and treat them accordingly, have fun – if you are not having fun, look for something else to do.
    “Self-knowledge involves relationship. To know oneself is to study oneself in action with another person. Relationship is a process of self evaluation and self revelation. Relationship is the mirror in which you discover yourself – to be is to be related.” ~Bruce Lee

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