On the flight back from Mexico, I started to feel a shooting pain in my left arm. It was as if electricity was passing through my veins. I ignored this — as I had ignored the back pain that I’d felt on the cruise to Cancún and the extreme nausea after climbing the Chichen Itza pyramid. After all, I was indestructible. I had just turned around my startup — which had run into trouble after the dot-com bubble burst in 2000 and the economic shock of 9/11.
My company was now on track for 200% annual growth rates and 25% profit margins. It would be as big a success as my previous startup, which we had taken public. Nothing could stop me.
I was wrong — my body could stop me. I wasn’t indestructible.
Before I could understand what was going on, doctors put me on a stretcher and took me into an operating room, where I was sedated. I woke up to learn that I had been having a major heart attack and needed placement of two stents in my arteries. The doctor said that if I had checked in two hours later, I would not have checked out — I would have ended up in the morgue.Fortunately, my wife Tavinder insisted that I see a doctor as soon as the flight landed. But I had not been sick for a decade and didn’t have a personal physician. I didn’t know who to call. So we just went to the nearest hospital: The University of North Carolina Medical Center. There, the nurse strapped an EKG monitor to my chest, reviewed the results, and started making phone calls. Then she pulled Tavinder aside to talk to her.
I share this story because I want entrepreneurs who are as careless about their health as I was to realize that they too are vulnerable. You may not believe in anything called a work-life balance, but your body certainly does. You need to monitor and nurture your body. I used to have an obsession with building businesses and forgot about building health. I was focused on the destination instead of the journey. I caution you to not do the same. Get regular checkups, exercise, meditate and learn to relax. Do the things that are fun and good for the soul.
As it turned out, I had taken damage to my heart and couldn’t go back to the rough and tough world of corporate management. So I took a year off and then did what my wife said: Focus on what brought me the greatest personal satisfaction. She insisted that I forget about earning big money and that we make do with less.
I became an academic so that I could share my knowledge and experience with students. Later, I started researching topics related to U.S. competitiveness so that I could give back to the country. I started researching engineering education, entrepreneurship, innovation systems and immigration. Now I write about these topics and study advances in technology that will help solve humanity’s paramount challenges.
It wasn’t easy to crack the code of getting accepted into academia, but I figured it out. By volunteering my time to mentoring students and faculty members, doing research that was meaningful, and applying my entrepreneurial skills to academic problems, I was able to gain respect and acceptance.
A decade after my heart attack, I had appointments at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, Harvard Law School, UC-Berkeley School of Information, Stanford Law School, Emory University and Singularity University — all at the same time. (I resigned from Harvard and UC-Berkeley last year).
All this seems like a lot. How could this new life not be as stressful, you may ask?
Because I’ve learned to focus on doing what is most productive and effective while carefully listening to my body. When I start getting embroiled in heated debates and feeling stressed, I just turn everything off and disconnect from the world. I simply tell my colleagues and friends that I am not well and need to cancel all meetings for a day or more. I take it easy — go for a long hike, take a vacation somewhere, or just stay at home and read. What I’ve realized is that, just as I am not indestructible, I am not indispensable. The world can manage without me. No success is worth the toll it can take on your health. No amount of money can compensate for the time away from your family.
I know this advice doesn’t apply to everyone and that I had a big advantage because I had enough savings to carry me through the rough times. When you are living hand to mouth, you have to do what you must in order to support your family and yourself. I completely understand that. But even when you are in this situation, you can make the most of what you have—focus on the positives in your work, help others succeed, meditate instead of watching TV, and so on.
Enjoy the journey and remember that sometimes, you can have more happiness with less.