I wrote this a year ago, and finally decided to post it. It's not easy being authentic. Here's to sharing journeys, especially at their most difficult times.
In the zenith of summer 2013, Nicole’s brother Mitchell helped us move our life into our third-story walk-up on the northern district of Queen Anne. When we set down our last box of possessions, we collapsed into the humid wake of our collective exhaustion. We were home, if home were nothing more than a collection of our belongings in a space to call our own.
As the days passed, the audacity and nerve of hauling our lives into a new city with neither schooling nor job to rely on or belong to, with neither friends nor family to ease the transition, became increasingly apparent. Though that could have easily disheartened us, we felt bolstered by the faith, bordering knowledge, that this was where we were meant to be. Furthermore, the novelty of it all aerated and energized the time and space. The unknown only glittered with possibility.
After settling in and furnishing our place, Nicole and I inevitably, reluctantly broached the topic of what was next. Had the last year just been an outlandish diversion, a foolish detour, a year to forgive and forget? At times, our minds would be ambushed by such thoughts as, “How did we naively believe liberal arts majors like us could build web apps, and a successful one at that?” Sometimes they were vocalized, vehemently; sometimes, they were suppressed for the sake of morale.
To clear our neural pathways from all the self-destructive debris (expectedly leftover from any remarkable personal or professional failure), we decided to pair our days of discussion with significant amounts of physical exercise. Endurance-heavy cardiovascular exercise is well-known for its physical detoxification abilities, and we have recognized in our own lives its superlative abilities to detox the mind as well. Nicole and I signed up for the Oregon Marathon and Half-Marathon, respectively, and we trained together. It was a beautiful way to get acquainted with our new home city. We ran for miles upon miles through its urban and coastal landscape, and experienced its refreshing, misty weather first hand. Mile after mile helped us heal from the oscillating grief of our miscarriage.
Our discussions continued, with greater effort and a dash of optimism. We felt obliged to consider first and foremost that the venture we embarked upon was the right thing to have done. We considered the other possibilities, certainly, that we were delusional, tone-deaf, borderline insane. More nuanced insights followed: that we were caught up in the fervor of startup mania, unleashed and untamed by the newfound liberty of unshackled self-employment, or given and vulnerable to flights of visions and fantasies.
At the time, we didn’t view the twin adversities of our miscarriage and sunken start up as positively as we do now, with 20/20 hindsight that it afforded us invaluable time with Nicole’s terminally-ill, fated-to-pass father. To the contrary, we still felt conflicted, uneased by the financial and professional tension and ambiguity it brought into our lives. All we knew and felt comfort in was that we were supposed to be in Washington, close to Nicole’s parents. We didn’t know whether starting the startup was a gigantic mistake or a move in the right direction, which was just suffering through a series of growing pains and lapses in judgment. We didn’t know what was easier, or – more importantly – nobler: abandoning the project altogether, or holding fast to our original plan.
Our thoughts were further complicated by our reflections and circumstances. Even if the experience allowed us the flexibility to drop everything and move, it also kind of didn’t. No startup succeeds without a tremendous amount of hard work, and no hard work was happening – at least, not dedicated to the start up – when we spent a month with Nicole’s parents, and another month packing, unpacking, and furnishing. Yes, we could return to our startup afterward, but it was still sunken. Time did not magically change that. It was equivalent, in my mind, to taking a two-month unpaid leave from an already unpaid internship (or dead-end job). And certainly, as with any Internet business, it can be done remotely, but with no real users yet, that was as much of a silver lining to us as the locational flexibility of unemployment.
Despite all this nagging negativity and cynicism, I was determined to at least try believing in our past selves, in giving credit to our discussions and decisions of the last year, and not just spurn them holistically as foolish. I would read stories of entrepreneurs who struggled, for years, to develop traction in their business. Or entrepreneurs who met with dozens, if not a hundred, investors before they found one willing to invest in them. I didn’t think we were done fighting. We had only applied to one incubator. We didn’t iterate much at all. From this framework, we had much longer to persevere. Little did I know that these conversations – whether we were done or whether to continue – were only beginning.
Did we enter the fray because we thought we were special – or chosen – in some way? I thought certainly there was an element of this, what I call elevated-self-posturing, or what others may just call pride. I’m embarrassed by it, completely, and feel that if we had approached it with the opposite extreme, that of steeped, sincere humility, I wondered how much our first year’s trajectory would have changed. I would have likely been more disciplined, more willing to check myself, more aware of my weaknesses and more resilient in times of doubt and frustration. Most importantly, I would have been a more wholehearted person, more genuine, more generous, more gracious.
However brazen our leap was, we also felt strongly that everyone had a mission in life to fulfill, divinely designed according to our resources and talents, and our mission was this. We had felt drawn to this mission, in the same way we expected everyone would have felt drawn to their own life’s mission. Somewhere halfway between open-minded serendipity and willing adventure.
When I ask myself if I were to do it all over again, if I would have done it differently, I think yes, and list all the ideal circumstances that would have been perfect for starting a startup. But the reality of it is this: that if I waited until all the stars were aligned for us to jump ship, it would have likely never happened. And would I have wanted this to never have happened? No, I would not. I don’t regret our decision in the least, and that’s because I proved to myself I was willing to take risks to make the world a better place. I proved to myself I was willing to infuse faith in my everyday life, even if I did not execute it perfectly. With the limited information and resources we had, and the state of our souls (faithful, yet prideful) at the time, I believe we made the best decision we could have, and I only look back hoping that the struggles we experienced would grant us the wisdom to live and work differently as we forged ahead.
When my days come to an end, I would want to know that I took the leaps necessary to live a meaningful life. I am grateful that I have preserved some self-admiration for the courage to sacrifice my walled garden for an endless forest.
After an exhaustive inventory of our spiritual state, we felt we needed to survey all our viable options before settling on any major life direction.
A part of us felt that we couldn’t continue. Though failure, we had always known, was possible, and a rite of passage we’d experienced countless times before, it felt more penetrating when the failure was in practically the only thing we had going for ourselves. Our startup consumed our life, swallowed our hobbies and shelved all our side projects. Our natural pride had precious little left to depend on.
But if we didn’t continue, what would we do instead? I started to look for jobs, just to see what was even available, what I qualified for, and what would pique my interest. Nicole, already set on a path of motherhood, was not interested in pursuing traditional full-time employment, especially if her pregnancies rendered her steadfast and immovable (as in steadily in bed all day, fasting, and unable to move).
In the meantime, we shuttled back and forth from Seattle to Wenatchee every few weeks to spend consistent quality time with Nicole’s parents. Since we had left, Randy’s state of health had declined measurably. We would spend most of our days indoor, just being there with him.
One day in Wenatchee, we were called as (or appointed, in secular parlance) seminary teachers for the high school students in northwest Seattle. We were surprised by the calling for several reasons. Firstly, I never graduated seminary myself, and only attended a little over a year, in what could best be considered apathetic and slumber-prone participation. (Nicole, fortunately, is a true-blue seminary graduate, though she had to bow out halfway through the first semester.) Secondly, seminary is one of the most time-intensive callings in the entire church, barring full-time missionary service and certain major leadership callings. We would prepare and teach a 45-minute class to teenagers every school day. How we could even have time for something like this while attempting to start a company was a timescape full of uncertainty. Additionally, we came to Seattle so we could be closer to Nicole’s parents; this new commitment restricted us from traveling over as or when we pleased. Thirdly, Mormon seminary in Seattle, as it is in most places outside of the Mormon Belt of Utah, Idaho, and Arizona, happens in the early morning before school, around 6AM. As instructors, we would arrive fifteen minutes earlier, to make sure all was ready for the day’s activities.
We didn’t have to accept the calling. Mormons are typically asked to say “yes” to every calling given them, even or especially when the responsibilities are outside their comfort zones. But with seminary, and all of its attendant time dedication, seemed like an exception; we were given the impression that turning down a calling like this was different, even understandable. The last thing a teenager in church at 6am needs is a teacher who doesn’t really want to be there.
Nevertheless, if you’ve been following along so far, you’ll know we’re rather loopy, so you probably guessed that we decided to take the calling.
So nearly every schoolday that fall, we leapt out of bed at 5:15am, and made the trek over the Queen-Anne-Magnolia divide to our local chapel, to open the doors and turn on the lights, both literally and metaphorically. Our first Friday, Nicole and I planned a script of Joseph Smith’s retrieval of the Book of Mormon. Our students volunteered for the roles, and we even brought props and simple costumes. One of our students played Angel Moroni, and his monotone portrayal of what was likely a much more triumphant announcement caused the room to erupt in laughter. It was then that Nicole and I looked at each other and telepathically communicated, This is going to work. We can do this. We can teach students at six in the morning, uncaffeinated as we are, discouraged as we are in other areas of our life. We were living out our course of faith just as we were teaching that course to others. It provided structure and purpose to our days while we figured out our lives.
As we evaluated all the pathways we could take, our thoughts were turned to holy writ. We consulted scripture as we sought direction in our lives, and we found particular inspiration in the Book of Ether, an account of a people who venture to the Americas after the divine confounding of languages due to the Tower of Babel.
In the passage of interest, the protagonist of the story is Mahonri. He is leading his family to America, and the Lord asks him to build ships of a particular, peculiar design, in order to safely cross the deep waters to the destination continent. I’ve always pictured them as almond-shaped. They would be water-tight, so the turbulence of the tempests might temporarily bury but never fully sink the vessels. Once Mahonri finishes the construction, he has a few concerns for the Lord. He tells Him that the passengers of such a vessel would not be able to breathe (let alone gain entry), as there are no openings for air. The Lord tells him to make a hole on both sides of the vessel, and to seal it with cork. When the tempests come, seal it, but when the seas are calm, they can open an orifice to let in fresh air. Mahonri then asks the Lord about light. He says they could not reasonably bring fire into such a small ship. The Lord asks Mahonri what he should have Him do. Mahonri thinks for a bit, and brings back stones. He asks the Lord to touch the stones, that they might give off light in the night, that they may see. The Lord does so, and Mahonri and his family successfully (though not uneventfully) traverse the oceans to America.
When we read this passage, we immediately thought of our web application. We thought, Here we are, having designed and built something that was just like a ship without air or light. No one could reasonably enjoy or appreciate a journey on such a ship or an experience in such an app. The app had major problems, problems we couldn’t deny, and problems that made it unlikely for our users to thrive. On an even greater scale, our life had glaring problems too. Our nonexistent salary, our unclear future, our irresistible self-doubt. We felt drawn, as Mahonri did, to seek divine guidance about our concerns.
We decided to head to the Mormon Temple. Temples are of ancient origin, and Jews visited them often as a way to worship and as a way to commune with the heavens. Mormons revived that ancient tradition. We went with the intent of finding guidance for our lives.
This particular occassion, I decided, required a bit of preparation. I began writing our story out, from before we even resigned from our jobs. I wanted to go back and analyze every single one of our decisions, our revelations (or supposed revelations), the validations, the blessings, the warning signs, every little thing and important detail that made our journey something out of a novel. It was cathartic for me to write it all out, with all the ups and downs, pain and suffering, jolts and ignitions... When I reviewed the events, something seemed amiss about it all. Why did this all seem so incredible? And yet it all failed? Had our story not ended? Had we quit before we were supposed to? Was Antho supposed to end the way it did? I brought some of these thoughts to the temple, having no ulterior motives as to what we were supposed to figure out and understand by the end. I was exhausted, yet hopeful.
Yet something else bothered us too. We were wary that a temple visit would only result in more “revelation” that would keep taking us further astray. We were faithbroken. We doubted our own abilities to receive revelation accurately, just as we considered, if the revelations were in fact God’s will, whether we really wanted to submit to it. Despite these feelings, we leaned towards our pared-down beliefs and took to the temple.
There, in that sacred space, our paradigms shifted gears, as if to another plane of life, parallel yet elevated. From that lifted perspective, we sorted our lives and battled our insecurities and gave life to our faith again. We resurrected our belief that we were led to do this, despite the lack of success we had so far endured. We reminded ourselves of the ideals we were pursuing, the world that could still be, if we continued our hot pursuit. We felt that the only reason we had not succeeded was that our story was not yet over.
For the first time in a long while, we both decided that we would do what God wanted us to do, even if we didn't want to (and there was plenty of that). But we were so willing. The Spirit* saturated our lives again, and the inundation was thoroughly welcome. It felt so joyous to have it back. For so long, I had felt starved of its influence.
Then we started to think about things logistically; is this really going to work financially? Another year of frugality, of living outside of our means? We checked our accounts on Mint and the numbers shouldn’t have added up as it did. Our assets were practically the same as when we started this venture over a year ago. We were dumbfounded. This, I thought, was Providence. We felt it was God’s way of letting us know that we were not alone in this, that we would find a way through this.
And so we went.
Not all of our questions were answered, but the most important ones were. We chose faith over fear. We had yet to realize how significant that choice will become.
*For those uninitiated, the Spirit to us feels like great peace, with hints of hope and notes of love. I often feel it at church, singing hymns or listening to a particularly relevant sermon. But I also feel it when I behold works of art, watching powerful films or listening to authentic music. And talking – really talking – with my wife.