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The story of the past 3 years of my life.
“Yeah, it’s been a minute
This probably should’ve happened a while ago
Fuck it, we’re here now though, let’s go”
— Eminem and Snoop Dogg, From the D 2 the LBC
After three years of radio silence, I’m back online.
Why was I offline?
It may seem like a simple question, but it took me two years to figure out the real answer. As many good stories, it comes in three parts.
1. I thought I didn’t have much to say
Five months into this fierce self-education project, a classical Dunning–Kruger effect happened; or, rather, the coming out of it. I suddenly realized what an ignorant fuck I’d been, how much is out there that I don’t know, and how primitive my model of the world & my thinking are.
So, I thought that instead of writing, I should crawl back to my cave, study like hell, and keep my mouth shut until I had something worthy to say.
2. But the real reason was unprocessed Storyline trauma
Even though there was a lot of truth in that, I now think the real reason was unprocessed trauma from Storyline failure.
It played out as follows:
a) Prior to shutting down our shiny startup, I’d been pretty successful at everything I did. I hadn’t had any major failures, and my progress-over-the-years generally looked like Stripe’s early days growth chart — a damn good hockey stick.
b) My sports background also did me in. (I did 7 years of rowing as a teenager). In sports, there’s much less uncertainty than in entrepreneurship, and the athlete is indeed responsible for most of the outcome. I took that model of extreme responsibility and applied it to the game where many other factors apart from my performance are at play. Rookie move.
c) Finally, likely because we got into YC and had some local fame in Belarus, I overestimated my skill at creating valuable companies, which was rudimentary at best at the time, and ended up with a self-model that did not adequately correspond to reality.
So, when the company failed and we couldn’t figure out a good pivot and had to shut down, that hit me pretty fucking hard. So hard that I came up with every possible excuse not to do any serious entrepreneurship for the next two years without even realizing what my problem was. The ideas wouldn’t seem good enough, or I’d just forget them the day after their conception. This felt weird because I have exceptional memory and rarely forget anything, especially ideas for businesses to start. But that’s what trauma can do to you.
It was a big knockdown. It took me six months to begin doing things again, a year to begin thinking about companies to start, and three years to really process it. Therapy was very helpful, but it took me a while to try it because of my pride and ignorance. I highly recommend it now if you’re going through something like this. It may save you years.
3. And then long covid destroyed my brain and body
By Jun 2021, I was feeling a lot better trauma-wise and was ready to get back into the swing of things. But fate decided otherwise. I got covid, which morphed into long covid (MCAS, POTS, PEM, dysautonomia type) and basically turned the next two years of my life into hell.
In plain English, I’d get an allergy-like reaction to every meal that would decapacitate me for hours. Same for heat and cold. When I sat straight or stood up, my heart rate would jump 30-50 points and oscillate, leaving me dizzy and confused. Two sets of pushups would send my HR to 130 and it wouldn’t go down for hours. And I’d always feel exhausted, as if I ran a marathon every night instead of sleeping.
But the worst part was cognitive dysfunction. Like a psychedelic trip, it is very difficult to describe in words; it must be experienced in order to be understood. But I’ll try anyway.
Normally, you don’t think about how you do things — you just do them. In other words, more technically, you as a consciousness/conscious entity, operate on the level of intent. You want to lift a cup of coffee, and there you go: your body performs a remarkable sequence of fine motor movements, firing up those neurons and muscle cells in the exact way needed to move your arm and fingers to a certain distance and exert a certain amount of force, no more and no less.
Same for the cognitive stuff. When you want to write an email, or plan a project, or brainstorm ideas, what you really do consciously is putting your body in a chair, grabbing some writing implement, and directing your attention/mind to the task at hand. That’s all. Like with the cup of coffee, your brain & body do the rest. You just perceive mental objects as they flow through you, occasionally becoming a driver again and making a few turns here and there. Or, if you’re really good, you just let the flow take you.
Now, brain fog is when none of that happens, even for the simplest of cognitive tasks. You want to write an email, you put yourself into a chair, you point your attention to the email on the screen that you’re composing a reply to. But nothing happens. Nothing. Nada. And no matter how fucking hard you try thinking about what to say in that email, it just wouldn’t come. It’s like you suddenly became mentally paralyzed. Or you were Luke Skywalker who had always been relying on force and now you lost it. Or Yennefer who lost her magic — make your pick.
After two years of research, dozens of doctors, and numerous treatments, I’m doing better now. Allergy-like reactions (MCAS) are mostly under control; POTS and dysautonomia went away. I’m back to working out daily, and PEM (post-exertional malaise) only hits if I do a really intense workout (e.g., 40-min HIIT, 170+ bpm bike ride). Brain fog/cognitive dysfunction is also much better. Hell, I can write again!
However, I’m still far from being fully recovered, and new symptoms pop up every day (e.g., GI, joints, eyes). But I’m working on it. Most importantly, I brought my brain back, which enables me to do further recovery work, which at this point requires serious thinking and working with researchers rather than doctors.
I also changed my attitude to it, experiencing first-hand the famous five stages of grief: from denial to anger to bargaining to depression and acceptance. For a while, I thought how fucking unfair it was that I got post-covid complications and so many other people didn’t. I felt hurt, depressed, and frustrated. Now, I own it. My recovery is my responsibility, and I’ll do everything in my power — and then some more — to get there.
This picture beautifully sums up what I mean — just replace asthma with long covid:
Why am I back?
I’ve worked through my trauma and I want to do things again. I came back to work and started a new project. I also feel a lot better and finally have the energy and cognitive power to write. Plus, as I hinted above, I don’t want my health problem to completely consume my life. “I’ve long covid but, but long covid doesn’t have me.”
Most importantly though, I now know why I want to write; to document and share ideas and thoughts. I just love the damn thing. Along with creating systems through entrepreneurship, writing (and thinking that precedes it) is what brings me the most joy, the most flow. It is what I do when I don’t have to do anything. It is what I’m being pulled towards with a force stronger than gravity. It productizes and integrates all the weird things I do out of pure curiosity, like studying word origins, documenting meaningful and great-sounding quotes from movies and podcasts, and taking pictures of good slogans on the street. It makes me feel alive.
Plus, apparently, I’m good at it. Over the past few years, even though I haven’t published anything, I kept receiving emails from readers thanking me for my work. My post on learning, imperfect and dated as it is, is still getting hundreds of views per month, and this number only goes up. So, I want to double down on it. It’s like the Benjamin Button movie ending: “And some people write.”
What will I write about?
I’ve come to believe there’s only one right answer here: what I’m thinking about day-to-day. This obviously includes what I do: creating systems (entrepreneurship) and creating media (writing). But it also includes many other things I’m naturally interested in:
how our brains and bodies work
how to think and solve hard problems
how to learn
how to live well
how to be a cognitive athlete of sorts, who aims to live a life of exceptional cognitive performance
So, expect a stream of ideas, thoughts, observations, learnings, and theories on all the subjects above. It’s time to write.
What I’ve been up to: AI Study Camp
In March 2023, when I got my brain back and began feeling a lot better, I started teaching YC founders things they should know about Large Language Models (LLMs) like GPT-4.
This project has been going so well that apparently I’m now running a little online school! In six months, I’ve done 3 cohorts and taught 64 students ranging from founders in-between projects to series C CEOs to the directors of big-4 consulting firms. The business makes about $20k per month now. I called it AI Study Camp (website coming out soon).
Basically, it’s a month-long online course aimed at understanding SOTA LLMs and figuring out how to leverage them for your startup/business.
Key features include:
structured, well-researched and up-to-date curriculum focusing on LLMs as building blocks (i.e., what you can do with them)
small study group of ~10 C/Director-level people, most are YC alums
weekly speaker calls with folks like Sharif Shameem of Lexica, Raza Habib of Humanloop
SOTA science of learning practices (e.g., active recall, spaced repetition, accountability practices)
SOTA learning method taught as Module 0 — that 2020 self-study project really paid off!
As a result, founders get to better understand LLMs and also build something, be it a new feature in their product, an internal tool(s) to improve productivity/optimize business process, or a new product altogether within the industry they understand really well.
Lior Grossman launched two LLMs-powered apps, gift advisor and shopping assistant;
Yash Kothari started working on an AI executive coach startup, built the v1, and got his first customer shortly after the class.
Why did AI Study Camp work so well as a business? That’s probably worth another blog post. The main reason, however, is that the LLMs stuff I teach here falls into the Q1 bucket of The Eisenhower Matrix of priorities. It is urgent and important — or perceived as so. Apparently, no edu product outside Q1 would have real PMF; the kind where you wake up the next day after the bare-bones announcement with 100 emails in your inbox, as it happened here. That’s my biggest learning from this project so far; that if one wants real PMF in an edu business, they must find a way into that first quadrant. Otherwise, they’re dead or zombie.
P.s. I’m running another batch from Sep 12th. In case you’re interested, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll share more details re cost, logistics, etc.
Instead of a conclusion
About two thousand years ago, Aristotle said in Poetics that “a whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end.” I didn’t know how to end this post to make it whole. So, here’s a picture of my first artwork that I recently bought on the Greenwich Market here in London, and a quote from Eminem that I really like. They seem shockingly different on the outset but I feel there’s something in common between the two. Maybe you will find it.
”But it's never too late to start a new beginnin'
That goes for you too, so what the fuck you gon' do?
Use the tools you're given!
Or you're gon' use the cards you're dealt
As an excuse for you to not do shit with 'em?”
— Eminem, Believe