Sam Gimbel

Tech, Beer, and Strange Thoughts.

From Monster To Muse

It's hard to overstate just how ingrained my anxiety is. I wake up every morning with the same tightness in my chest, even on those mornings when I anticipate a great day ahead. The weight of this frustrating animal spurs me to the bathroom for a shower to clear my head and get moving. It keeps me focused. It reinforces my routine. And it drives me insane.

I've dealt with this monster since I was a little kid, but only developed the awareness to separate it from my conscious intention around the age of 22, when the severity of my panic episodes led me to seek therapy and the help of my good friends, SSRIs. The outcome of all this work was a more complete understanding of how I'm affected by my anxiety, as well as a strong mindfulness regarding its interaction with the rest of my personality.

Years of practice led to dozens of techniques for managing my anxiety. Frustratingly, "managing" is the correct word. I have not suddenly become less anxious, even under the effects of medication (or after coming off meds, for that matter). After many years, the same stimuli still result in agitation, shortness of breath, anger, hopelessness, and frustration. A lot of these stimuli require no reaction. Many others do, and I've often struggled to react appropriately in situations that truly deserve an agitated response. So I developed restraint, self-reflective exercises, and learned to act rational when feeling rather insane.

One technique has been especially helpful: recognizing that I live with anxiety, I acknowledge its presence and speak to it as if it were a person living in my brain. I do this upon waking and looking into the mirror, and I let my anxiety tell me what it's worried about. It wants to continue forever, looping on itself and creating sparks of unresolved tension for me to deal with for the rest of the day. The trick is to deny it this privilege and cut it off after no more than 10 minutes. Attend to your anxiety, but don't let it rule you. This almost never leads to an anxiety-free day. Like I said, that's a pipe dream that I will simply never realize. But listening to the voice that tells you everything is wrong makes it easier to recognize that it, not you, is out of touch with reality.

Maybe that's counter-intuitive. Perhaps you've been raised to shove problems down into the basement of your brain to lead a relatively stress-free existence. If that's working for you, you're in the minority. Or maybe you've been taught to ruminate on your issues every minute of every day, approaching cognitively an issue with a strong emotional component. The emotional distance you create from that issue keeps you from seeing the forest for the trees. It makes it difficult for you to own the contents of your own brain. And if you don't own your anxiety, it will soon own you.

My anxiety leads me to think very little of myself. Like most people suffering from it, I don't receive many of the emotional rewards that typically stem from success, so I have a hard time knowing when I've done something great. It's easy to feel sorry for myself, but I've taught myself to see past that, too. The current moment may be an anxious one, by default, but the moments that surround it hold valuable context about how I should evaluate myself. Smiles on people's faces, graphs that go up and to the right, an intuitive recognition that the task is done. These are events outside myself, and these external rewards quickly overwhelm the internal handicap of strong anxiety.

In the case of struggle or crisis, however, anxiety has turned me into a superhero. Recently, a friend's dog had a seizure in my house. In a group of 6, I was the first to problem solve and somehow ended up leading the effort to help the poor pup (he's fine). The same is true in work situations. Rather than view crisis or failure with a negative lens, I prefer to see them through the lens of anxiety. Treat the crisis as an opportunity that needs attention, but ultimately as something that cannot control your full attention forever. The omnipresent negative evaluation lent by my anxiety prepares me for most situations before they enter my consciousness as needing a solution. Part of me always senses that something is wrong, so solutions become tucked right below the surface. I respond calmly by tapping into the mindfulness I've cultivated for dealing with other human beings. Time slows down, I have more time to consider potential solutions, and then I shut down the pity party to make that solution a reality. Crisis is a familiar sensation for me, even though true crisis is rare in my life, and the daily practice I give to attending to it is essential when real tragedy strikes.

I used to view my anxiety as a curse, a barrier between myself and any sort of lasting happiness. And while it's true that my continued happiness is hampered by this reality, I've accepted anxiety as a part of me. By owning it and learning to keep it in context, I've started to experience anxiety as a muse, not a monster. And so it came to pass, in the 29th year of my life, that I stumbled upon the strongest hope for the future of my mental health I have ever felt. It was as simple as recognizing who I am, what I am capable of, and where my strengths lie. I have weaknesses, sure. Many of them will never be helpful. But if you're also plagued by a part of yourself that simply won't go away, consider inviting it in and setting boundaries. You'll feel at home in your own skin, and it only gets better from there.

My Year In Review

Predicting the future is something I'm learning to do -or to admit I cannot do-as a co-founder of a startup. I spend much less time thinking about the past, but as this year comes to a close I am struck by how many noteworthy events contributed to personal growth and change. I am beyond excited for 2016, but let's spend a moment talking about last year.

In 2015...


###### I ran 600 miles. And I ran my first 10k and half marathon. Running is my meditation, my metaphor for the journey of life, and I credit it with being my therapist during some of the hardest times I've experienced in a decade. Plus, I lost 15 pounds, and the health benefits will last forever.

Running is the best investment I've ever made in myself and my future.

I watched and mourned the injustice that still overwhelmingly affects women and people of color.

The number of deaths by police in the United States in 2015 is almost incomprehensible. There are the names we know, like Freddie Gray and Michael Brown. But there are a thousand others, the majority of whom were male and of color. And then there are the mass killings, one for every day of the last year. Women fared a more insidious violence in 2015 in the form of terrorism cast as mental illness and the slow progress of equality compared to other developed nations.

I'm committed to supporting equality and an end to police and white violence in 2016. If you have causes that do great work and need support, let me know.

I experienced my first startup exit.

Technically, DramaFever sold to Softbank in October 2014, but close enough. Going through the sale with a handful of options was illuminating and provided me with the first financial windfall I've ever had. This gave me the courage to break out of my comfort zone without fear of financial ruin. The sudden receipt of funds has made it very easy for me to continually count my blessings.

Never take for granted the financial context that allows you to thrive.

I left a company that set me up to fail.

I joined DigitalOcean as their first product hire just as they were crossing the 100 employee mark. By the time I left, they were at 150 and I was the only product person for an engineering team nearing 50 people. I was tasked with building predictability and repeatability across multiple product verticals without a cohesive product vision or the blessing of the CPO or executive team. In short, it would have been a challenge for a team of great product people, and as a single person I was quickly overwhelmed and subsequently asked to leave after only eight months. In the aftermath I was freed from the daily stress and slow progress to reconsider my values and think about what I wanted out of my career. I decided to start a company, which I never would have done had I not left DO.

Being fired from DigitalOcean was the best gift I received in 2015.

I found my confidence again.

Getting fired was rough, and the way it was handled left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Without feedback or objective criticism about my performance I began to feel like I was worthless, a bad product manager, and a bad leader. The feeling permeated my being and affected my judgment. Nothing saps your energy like low self-esteem. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy resulting in repeated, but thankfully minor failures. I was ready to give up. Luckily, I had the good fortune to meet some fantastic, fascinating people this year who helped me back on my feet through a mixture of tough love and pure inspiration. To everyone who's counseled me over the last year, thank you.

Without you, I'd be nothing.

I took part in a summer fellowship.

In June of 2015 I started at Blue Ridge Labs as a product fellow in a user-centric design program dedicated to solving problems that affect low-income New Yorkers using technology. Over the summer I met my co-founder and many new friends. They, along with the dozens of interviews and focus groups I did with low-income New Yorkers, have taught me to be more open-minded and focus on outcomes as well as inputs. My perspective is broader and my resolve to do something that matters is stronger than ever.

Always be trying new things to broaden your horizons and find new avenues to explore.

I started a company that shares my values.

We've continually evolved our thinking at Populace and are likely to continue doing so. Amazingly, every step we've taken has been in line with my desire to build a sustainable business that enables people to improve their own lives. Rather than see our customers as consumers, we see them as agents of change who can lend resilience, economic diversity, and innovation to their communities.

I'm building something I love that will change lives.

I read a life-changing book.

The most recent novel by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me made me cry and kept me up at night. As a white person with much privilege I was touched and changed forever by the candid explanation of what it's like to be a man of color and be constantly afraid. The writing is lucid, beautiful, and moving. The take-away for me was to be mindful and aware of the experiences of others and to help out wherever appropriate.

Reading has always been a source of strength, and this year has been a source of positive change.

I leveled up my brewing game with the help of friends.

In 2015 I brewed 60 gallons of beer. That's way off the high mark of 200 in 2013, but this year was much more rewarding. With the help of my future brewery co-founder Drew I was able to nail the fundamentals and pour pint after pint of consistently delicious beer. We've reached proficiency and are now pouring out of a gorgeous 2-tap keezer named Keggory Peck (thanks to Taylor for the name!)

A photo posted by samgimbel (@samgimbel) on

I resolved not to get in my own way.

I am a dreamer. I want to make a mark on the world, be in a band (again), and write the stories that bounce around in my head. I love tinkering and experimenting and exploring, but I frequently let my anxiety and need to be "productive" get in my way. In the latter half of 2015 I recognized that the struggle is just as much an opportunity to innovate as the dreams are themselves. In 2016 I will get out of my own way. I will not hide from love, from friends, from myself, or from success. I'll seek creativity and fun in every moment and not let seriousness get in the way of discovery.

In 2016 I will be a better friend to myself and others and cultivate mindfulness in every action.


These are just the highlights. 2015 was hot, cold, wet, wild, confusing, clarifying, and uplifting for so many reasons. As a rule, whenever we recall an event we are curating the moments that are most meaningful to us. In this retrospectice I've done the same on a macro scale, leaving out events not because they're not important but because I have yet to understand them. Here's to a more holistic understanding of more of life's great mysteries in 2016. Happy new year, everyone.

Good Riddance.

Mailbox Shuts Down

It's a shame when good companies shut down. It really is. But when good companies build a great MVP, sell early for obscene amounts of money, and string customers along with empty promises, I say good riddance.

Here's to building products that last.

Make the best of it

Some situations force you to grow up. Not that everyone responds in kind when presented with such an opportunity, but in the moments I'm considering, the path ahead is clear for any who care to embark upon it.

I wonder what the spark is for those of us just discovering the power of forced living? Is it a change in disposition, a shock to the system, a slow and steady shift, tectonic in nature and inevitable from the start? In any case, once aroused, the need to grow never dissipates. Discovery becomes a fixture in the ideal state of a day well-lived. Pain becomes a gateway to foundational knowledge accessed by the physical and emotional breakages only humans are capable of leveraging with such impersonal, cold elegance.

So we sit, a lightning rod for flux and inspiration–strike that–lightning rods are passive, blasé, safe. No. We sit in constant danger of losing our balance atop a circus elephant's ball, bobbing merrily in the throes of a summer storm, no land in sight. It takes years to learn the dance, the motion necessary to stay above the waves as they regenerate from nowhere at the persuasion of the wind. Once learned, the ball becomes a proper vehicle on which to navigate, always in danger of going under, always requiring the full scope of attention available to the traveler.

So we sat. We sat and half of us were consumed by the temptation to give up and so they drowned, clawing at our vessel, unwilling to accept their chosen fate in the face of our struggle. Drown, dammit, and let us ride out this storm, I call, fury shrouding judgement and taking my fellow travelers by surprise.

If you give up, do not expect to be saved. Caught between the constant flexing of crowded strange emotions and your plea for respite, i will always choose the former. Not because I am better, more deserving, or arrogant in my journey, but because I fear the pain of drowning.

So we sat, diminished by half, exploring forcibly the facts and intrigues placed before us. We ruminate and pick apart the requests and hubris of a community of blind drivers tasked with our safe arrival at justice. The journey is bounded strongly by the necessary physical limitations of this hopeless room, devoid of spirit and in which the sun has never shined.

So we sat, burdened, the air from our circus ball growing denser in contact with the sharp cold water of the sea.

"No more," we cry out, and for that we are punished. Several more of us are lost, but we do not have time to mourn. The rivulets of thought erode, combining and separating, tracing webs of meaning and context on the surface of our brains. Like the deer in the rainy season, flooded from afar, the trickle becomes a rush becomes a puddle miles wide, and our understanding deepens.

So we ride the circus ball, neither amused nor taken in by the antics of those we've lost. Learn the dance or drown. Lose your footing and the opportunity is lost.

How We Learn

The month of October led to much reflection. Path-altering experiences occurred with theatrical frequency, affecting my life and those of the people I care about. It was brutal at times to watch, sometimes entirely helplessly, sometimes in the driver's seat making painful decisions that had to be made. As things settled down in November I started to feel relief and a perverse joy at having come through the other end of this struggle. I Immediately began looking for new challenges. The pain returned. Reflecting on this apparent insanity, I asked myself:

What motivates us to keep going when we hit roadblocks, and why do we seem to revel in the struggle?

I found myself trying to define what it means to be a founder of a startup, or an entrepreneur, or a self-starter, or whatever label you want to give to the shared instinct to create something new and change something–however small–about the world. Ultimately, I was dissatisfied with the common wisdom and (very appropriately) felt the need to add my own interpretation to the mix.

Convention

On the surface, there are many characteristics that appear to provide the basis for the motivation we feel to seek out and surmount challenges, even when easier paths exist: We're chasing success, monetary or otherwise. We find significant reward in overcoming the pain of the struggle. We don't want to take the beaten path. We think we know better ways to do things. We don't want to be tied down by convention. We like solving problems.

Why do we insist on the long-term peril that is creating and selling a thing? What is driving us to seek out these challenges and approach them methodically and repeatedly, seeking out new answers and new problems with every step? And why do we do it knowing all the while that we'll be in prolonged pain?

Driving Forces

I like building software with my team at Populace. Building software is a cyclical process, and we use the term "iteration" to describe one full cycle.

Build Measure Learn

This cycle is designed to provide the development team with an informed set of learnings to understand what should be built during the next cycle. Contrary to perceptions, measurements and analysis are significantly larger portions of the cycle than the actual building of new pieces of software. In short, software development is organized around a process of iterative and applied learning. We enable new development opportunities every time we learn something new. We open new paths, find new problems to solve, and add nuance to existing understandings.

The development process is one of many abstractions of our need to learn. By providing a constant feedback loop, development acts as a flywheel, storing and evening out our exposure to new information while allowing us to only attend to the ideas that are relevant to us at the time. It's this feedback loop that we chase, and it's this learning that drives us.

Learn. Repeat.

Startups are frequently referred to as vehicles for the proliferation of new products and ideas. They're also vehicles for constant learning. It was this realization that struck me as I was reflecting on my difficult October. The motivation I felt to break through the challenges I faced were firmly rooted in a desire to discover new ideas, to break down complex problems and to learn by doing. This is a largely unconscious process driven by our brain's amazing response to the cyclical nature of both learning and software development. I was being rewarded for new information on a neurological level, which directly fueled my perverse glee at the presentation of new and exciting problems.

For those that know me, this declaration that I enjoy learning comes as no surprise. However, I was genuinely surprised by the intensity with which I've been seeking this learning as of late. The alignment and sense of center I feel when seeking new information is a recent development. It's a direct result of finding problems I enjoy solving and of the patience I've been fostering for what I recognize to be a long-term uphill battle. Once accepted as a marathon and not a sprint, learning can be attended to in detail as it arrives and not ignored in the pursuit of swift progress.

The joy of problem solving is hardly limited to entrepreneurs. Problem solvers are a cohort unified by our pursuit of the most appropriate vehicle to fuel our learning, and that vehicle is different for everyone. Some find it in music, or science, or exercise. Others are entirely unaware of their vehicle but pursue knowledge with forceful instinct nonetheless. In my case, The mindfulness I've been cultivating of the last year has led me to identify my vehicle. I know that in the next cycle, whatever it may be, this knowledge will fuel further explorations. These are likely to be painful. I couldn't care less. Just around the bend is more information, more knowledge, more inspiration. It's yours for the taking with the right mix of patience and mindful awareness.

Keep pushing. Keep learning.