The Why

Amin A.

Chapter 1 of Entrepreneurial Story Series

By Amin Ariana — November 2019


Photo context: Google Christmas party where my wife took this photo. At that point I had decided to leave to start up a company full time.

Last Christmas at Google

Photo context: Google Christmas party where my wife took this photo. At that point I had decided to leave to start up a company full time.

I used to be the captain of an imaginary ship at age seven, navigating the turbulent waters of revolution and war. At fourteen, the ship became real, and I became a multi-cultured immigrant adventurer. At twenty one I picked up engineering, and started shipping tech products. When I reached twenty eight, I called myself a pirate, an entrepreneur. And my next milestone, at thirty five, is to write advisory essays to help others dream up adventures of their own. You only live once; what will you have left undone in your final moment?

Nothing written.

… and then when it had run its course, they put out a final issue. It was the mid-1970s, and I was your age. On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words: 'Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.' It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. Thank you all very much.
Steve Jobs, Stanford 2005 commencement address

I was born into a once beautiful world, surrounded by fresh ruin, destruction and fear. I was welcomed into a society suffocating in insecurity, desperation and nostalgia. As a shy and observant child, I learned early on that hunger sets people apart by their characters. I’ve lived through a childhood with no instruction manuals. I’ve found my compass through recognizing patterns in lessons between the lines of a nostalgic but audacious history told. I’ve watched my father choose moral dignity over mass delusion. I’ve watched my mother choose devotion over despair. I write this from one of the richest places in the world today, having elected a lifestyle of hunger. But since I first realized there was a world outside my toy-laiden bedroom with icicle-donning windows, hunger was outside our house, chanting, shouting, roaring, taking the voice of millions, raining from the sky; ominous sirens; absolute silence; breaths held; city lights darkened; the sound of a lone jet fading in from silence and suddenly rattling, shaking and imploding thousands of windows; a descending whistling sound; closer; closer and closer; until … a sound of thunder; a sigh of a relief here and a flowing tear there from the grown-ups that I somehow suddenly realize are holding me tight under the metal frames of a door that just happened to be not in front of the living room windows. The dark moment has passed. I can merrily play with my toys again, as my father breathes a sigh of relief and looks confidently at the 10 or 20 large sacks of rice that are for some reason piled up in a corner of our living room. I have a pile of legos, a children’s Zorro costume and a teddy bear. The house is beautiful, with the only complaint I voice to my mother on rare occasion: “why do our relatives not visit us anymore?” I have a photo of my birthday a year or two prior, where the toys I’m playing with now are given to me. I don’t remember the day, or most of the relatives in the picture. Instead of answering my question, she apologizes and says “some day again”. The dark moment repeats itself every night. After a while, we’re all used to it and laugh when the time for thunder arrives.

I’m very happy with this life. I love my parents and have my toys, who are my best friends. Only two things I would change about my life. First, once in a few days, my parents fight. I’m not aware of why. I know they love each other. But when they fight, they both scream at each other as if there’s a pain inside that the screaming washes away. I don’t recall crying as a baby. But I do recall the pleasure of crying silently in a corner as my parents would fight. I would give myself another birthday, or maybe two, to live. Not because of the scary thunder outside, or the sounds of fearsome people chanting in tongues. But because I would be abandoned. My parents loved me, but each of them without the other was too unstable to seem like they would be able to take care of me. My father couldn’t control a certain unquenchable wrath inside of him that periodically would take him over and turn him into fear itself. And my loving mother was simply too small for the vastness of whatever was happening outside our door. They needed each other. I lived long enough to reflect on this phenomenon as “co-dependence”. When the fights ended, they would individually come to me and console me. They would tell me it’s not about me, and despite their frustrations with each other, they’d confess their love for each other to me. I learned several things from this: It was ironic to me that adults would express their true emotions eloquently to a child, but would get stuck trying to communicate with each other. And that cold fearsome people are also warm loving people two minutes later. It was as if my father was on the falling edge of a dilemma: deathly afraid of losing his stance in an argument in one moment, and hungry for the love of his child with no expectations the next. The trade-off between fear and hunger seemed to take a strong toll on him.

Second thing I would change was the sacks of rice. I hadn’t noticed at first, but over the months that we were consuming from them, they were getting thinner and thinner. What had begun as a bunker’s worth of rice was now just a few bags worth. First I was sad that the bunker no longer looked cool. Then I was worried that our relatives would visit us even less, since there is not as much to share with them. But ultimately I discovered that the amount of rice we had left in our house had a great deal to do with why my parents fought.

Later in my life I was an entrepreneur and on several occasions fighting with co-founders as to the best course of action before money runs out. As the amount of money in the bank (the “runway”) shrinks while it’s still not clear which way to go next, nerves become raw. Before that, on the occasion of graduating from university, I experienced a similar thing where student debt was eating me alive and I couldn’t figure out how to sell myself in the job market. So decades later, I roughly understand what my parents were fighting about. But all I eventually understood at the time was that my father had an unquenchable level of anger for an enemy looming with many faces outside our door: Hunger.

What we ourselves think, we imagine others think also.
Julius Caesar

If I elected you as my mentor or advisor, and you articulated your insights to me as well as an HD movie, I would perceive your advice as if I was behind a Dial-up Modem: Choppy; Low quality; And soon not worth my attention or time.

We overestimate our ability to articulate insights by 2000%, according to one study .

That's the conclusion that changed my course, from mentoring and advising just a handful of friends and startups, to writing stories read by hundreds of thousands. A simple and unexpected insight, communicated effectively, can become the rock-climbing boots in your steep climb up the mountain of fulfillment and recognition. For me, after more than a year of striving for survival outside a cubicle, that insight came through writing stories about my experiences.

There's a naughty secret to my purpose in writing this essay, similar to the one that The Matryoshka (i.e. The Russia Doll ) holds inside her. I want you to give advice more effectively. Why? Because if I help you give advice effectively, by definition, I've given effective advice through my writing. I might be selfish after all, you see? By teaching you how to fish, we both get better at fishing. Knowledge increases through sharing.

But wait! I'm probably becoming too abstract and losing you already. As I described earlier, I'm sharing my experiences with you in full HD, but I understand if you're having a choppy and disconnected experience. Let's fix that by appealing, instead of a rich video download over dial-up modem, to the plain-text file transfer equivalent of the human-to-human communication: The power of stories.

Let me tell you a few stories that changed the way I give advice.

  1. Hunger

  2. Innovation

  3. Audacity

  4. Courage

  5. Influence

  6. Grace

  7. Mastery

  8. Fear

Amin A.

Written by

Amin Ariana

A software entrepreneur from San Francisco