I had a physical recently, and my doctor was pleased to report that everything was normal. Across the board, my levels of things are normal. My blood pressure is normal. I weigh around 170 lbs (77kg), which is in the normal weight range for my height. My outlook is good!
It wasn't always this way though. This is actually the first time I've ever been in the normal BMI range. This is especially strange considering that, a year ago, I left my full-time job to start a business. I'm seemingly healthier now than when I left.
How is that possible? Well, I'm about to tell you. This is the story about how things were, and how I got to be here.
When I was attending UC Irvine, I thought it would be fun to build my own game console from scratch. Totally original, right? It would be unlike any console the world had ever seen, and I would understand everything about it, top to bottom. It was an impossible, a ridiculous thing to do, but I'd always been on an insecure quest to prove how smart I was, so naturally, I gravitated toward it.
I guess that's being unfair to myself. Sure, I partly did it for the wow factor, but I also did it because I like video games and I like building things and I like art. So a task was born that was more aligned with me than anything else.
A year and a half, three independent study classes, and a senior design project later, the LameStation was born. Here I was with all my cool stuff, looking cool:
So young, so naive, but I had never felt more proud of myself.
Life after college, I felt unfulfilled. I did this awesome awesome thing, and now I had ... a job, I guess. I did some cool stuff at work, but it was nowhere near as cool as what I did in school. How can I get that high back, while working 40+ hours a week, commuting an hour each way, and constantly on the go?
So I did what any sane person would do: I quit my job with no business plan, no backup, and not really enough savings, and decided to build a business around LameStation.
At the start of my journey, I couldn't have felt better. Finally, I was living the dream, taking charge of my destiny, all that crap. But if you've been paying attention in business class, some red flags should be popping up right about now. At the time, I would have never admitted it, but my thought process was something like this:
Did I have market fit? Who cares! I was living my dream!
Did I have the resources to expand? Why expand, when I can do everything myself!
Did I have a team? Nah, cuz nobody gets LameStation like I do!
Did I know how to run a business? No, but if I can build a game console, then I can definitely run a business!
I think, at the time, I was more in love with the idea of having a business than the realities of running one. It felt like a glorious extended performance of how awesome I was and all the cool stuff I could do. I was fulfilling said insecure quest to be awesome.
To be fair to myself, I was doing it. I was figuring out ridiculous things, like how to ship products out of my apartment, how to get things manufactured in China, how to publish on the interwebs, how to interface with a hobby community, how to make graphics, write documentation, take product photos, and on and on. I learned and learned and learned how to do new things, all day, every day, and that was all I ever really wanted. As far as my young mind knew, this was what success felt like. I had already made it.
But I hadn't really made it, had I? I wasn't making enough money to live on, let alone kick off the virtuous cycle of an ever-expanding successful business.
At some point, I started to get depressed. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what it was, but I felt my projects dragging on, and the endless work with little payoff (see: rent money) was starting to get to me in a big way.
So I did what any responsible, not-at-all-depressed young adult would do: I started to sit on the couch and watch anime, and binged so many good shows! I watched Attack on Titan and Gargantia and the not-so-great Samurai Flamenco, and oh, look at the time! It's 9am! Time to go to bed. I would get woken up by a passing car or a phone call or something else, only to discover that it's 3pm already and I can't fall back asleep. Thus began a continuous compressing of my sleep schedule. Not to mention the fact that I had undiagnosed sleep apnea to boot. 😅
On a good day, I was maybe getting 4 to 6 hours of sleep. It also wasn't great sleep, and all of this went on for months. I eventually did that long enough that, at some point, I think my body had had enough.
In 2015, I had a grand mal seizure. Certainly not something I or anyone expected. I had no history of seizures, though my father did.
I remember I had driven to a friend's house that day to have a get-together. There must have been about ten people there that night. That day, I had woken up and started my day at 5pm, if I remember correctly. I was pretty tired, since I hadn't been sleeping well in quite a long while.
I remember sitting on the couch, holding a drink, participating in some form of karaoke.
And then I wasn't. My next memory was almost an entire day later, in a hospital bed, as my friends tried to explain to me what had happened.
I had apparently dislocated my own shoulder, and subsequently had it relocated(?) while at the hospital, both of which I was pleasantly unconscious for with no memory of either event. While I didn't bite my tongue off, its dark shade of purple indicated that I had tried. And I was on seizure medication, which I would continue to be on for the next couple of years.
I know this all happened because I wasn't getting enough sleep and wasn't taking care of myself. Whatever the reason, a loss of consciousness episode meant no driving for several months, lots of complicated follow-up medical things, and concern from everyone I know that it might happen again.
After my seizure, everything kind of stopped for a while. The best evidence of this is my GitHub commit history, which shows an extended absence from any and all coding:
My shoulder wasn't working quite right for a while, so I needed physical therapy. During my exercises, my physical therapist would often repeat that I should feel considerable discomfort, but not pain. This eventually transformed into a compelling slogan:
Story of my life. My mom loved that slogan so much that she would joke about how it should be the title of her mémoire (but that's another story).
During that time, I gained a lot of weight. Remember the blue shirt?
At max weight, I was just shy of 240 lbs (109 kg). I was pre-diabetic, and generally not feeling great. My seizure medication made me feel dull and uninterested in doing anything useful, so instead, I played a lot of video games.
I couldn't drive, so my partner drove me around everywhere. I lost some of my independence (but I knew from then on that she was a keeper).
Eventually, I started working again, but never to the same degree, and at some point, I realized that I was kind of just spinning my wheels without much to show for it. I went from feeling like an entrepreneur to just kind of feeling unemployed.
At some point, I started a frantic effort to get some version of a LameStation school curriculum off the ground, as well as get it into an online store, but I was so out of money at that point that I started cashing out my retirement plan, selling big ticket home goods like speakers and couches, and in general, just kind of worsening things for myself long-term.
I sold my Ikea Beddinge couch to make room for more shelves. I really liked that couch! And you can't buy them anymore. New ones, at least.
The worst part is that I never really accepted defeat. I waited and waited and waited, until I was starting to go into debt to finally accept that I needed a regular job again.
I went back to my previous job. It felt like the last four years had been erased. A blip on my radar. The crazy skills I had picked up, like learning Qt from scratch, writing a bunch of firmware in Propeller Spin, or designing PCBs in KiCad, no longer mattered.
Instead, I felt like I had fallen behind my peers, having invested in a bunch of esoteric skills rather than continuing down a more mainstream (and marketable) track. It stung.
The upside? LameStation was and probably still is the coolest thing I've ever done. I've brought it into every single interview I've ever had. I always like to keep one near me while I'm working to remind myself why I got into engineering. I've met so many interesting people and made so many friends over the course of this harrowing journey, and my life is richer for having done it.
Either way, years later, I'm still trying to make sense of that experience. Never has anything been so complicated, so stressful, and so immensely satisfying at the same time.
I continued working for a few years, until last year, I decided to embark on a new business journey—BrettOps. My expectations for BrettOps are wildly different than the ones I had for LameStation.
My goal is simple. To keep doing the work I was already doing, but under my own banner, with newfound autonomy, and ensuring that the infrastructure projects I'm building end up as part of the public commons, not locked behind a firewall.
My overhead is tiny, and my minimum viable product is no more than even a single professional services contract with a company. I'm not shooting for the moon. I'm just trying to do the good work on my own terms, and I'm happier now.
Most importantly, regardless of what's going on in my life—and there's a lot—being healthy is my, and BrettOps', first priority.
Nowadays, I eat fairly well. I wake up at roughly 9am everyday and work out for 30 minutes with my partner. I drink protein smoothies. I learned the Dvorak keyboard layout to put less strain on my fingers, but in general, I try to get away from my keyboard and desk more than ever.
I've been off my seizure medication for several years, and have not had a seizure ever since the first one.
Overall, I'm doing pretty great. My joints were pretty creaky for a while, especially during the pandemic, but I can once again run up and down stairs without worry.
You will make sacrifices when starting a business. Time, money, status, buying a house, buying a car, traveling, etc. There are only 24 hours in the day, and you can't have it all.
But you should get it through your head ASAP that, whatever is happening in your life, you can't sacrifice your health. You have to prioritize taking care of yourself. If you don't have your health, sooner or later, you won't have much else.
And last of all, remember to cherish the people that you meet along the way, because they are the best part of all of this and they will be the reason you survive when your life falls apart.