The Landscape of My Life: A snippet of a biography
This article reflects text written for a book to collect advice from 50 inspiring individuals. I don’t believe the book ever got published, but I at least wrote something. This text aims to serve as an example of a self-reflection exercise to create better self-awareness.
In the summer of 2017, I was asked to write something for a book collecting the personal stories of 50 inspiring individuals. I remember when my friend Robin Haak introduced me to the idea, and I felt totally out of place, as I thought my life was unremarkable and hadn’t made anything for myself worth remarking.
Nonetheless, I decided to give it a go, and I am happy I did for no other reason than to pick this up again 4,5 years later. The cursive text is what I wrote, then including some advice I still subscribe to and added my current thoughts below, instead of in between. Hopefully, it makes for a better reading experience.
A snippet of a biography
Who am I? That is the title of a letter I write myself every year around my birthday. A habit I picked up four years ago. I write a letter I "open" and read when I write the next one. The letter contains the things I hope to achieve in the coming year, along with reflections on how I define and describe myself. I also reflect upon defined achievements and why I exceeded my expectations or failed to achieve something I hoped to achieve. For me, it is a yearly check-up on the commitments I've made to myself, how my thinking might have changed and how my experiences might or might not have changed me.
Reviewing the first one of these letters, I compare myself with the legacy of two great men, my grandfathers, and how they've affected the person I was at the time. Please note the past tense in the previous phrase, the person I was then was not affected the same by them as they affect the person I am today. I firmly believe people can evolve and change if they want to.
However, coming back to my grandad's, both of them had seen war. My grandfather served the Yugoslavian army as an officer from my father's side and was later picked to join the union's secret service. Unhappy with what his obligations to the state made him do, he fled the country. After traveling the world to seek asylum, he ended up in Brazil, one of the few countries to accept people from communist countries after WWII. When I was eight years old and visiting him, he told me some of his stories, how he had survived near-death situations countless times while leading his men into battle. He ended the storytelling quite cryptically, as heard by an eight-year-old;" I woke up today and for, that I am grateful. It means I am still alive…. you best remember the"."
My grandad from my mother's side was born on a semi-secluded island in eastern Finland into a bilingual (Finland is a bilingual country, us Swedish speaking Finns being the "most spoiled minority in the world") family, with roots firmly in the region. A man with a strong sense of loyalty towards society, his work, and his family. Being too young to serve during the war, he worked for an airplane factory in his aspirations to have become a pilot. Unfortunately, he never became one since he needed to find work to support my grandmother, who had tuberculosis. However, he lived his passion for airplanes by collecting figurines and post stamps. For several decades, he worked for Stockmann, the most prominent department store in the country, rising in ranks and working as the IT manager for most of his career. Once I asked him for advice on leadership when I first got a more responsible role at my first job, and this was the only leadership advice I ever received from him "Remember to smile and say "hi" to everyone you meet when you come to work."
The following two pieces of advice from my grandfathers shaped the foundation of my philosophy of life today:
1. Appreciate the beauty of just being alive. There are those in this world who can't take it for granted.
2. True leadership starts with the small things you do. It can be as simple as just saying "Hi" to those you work with.
"I'm not a leader, but people tend to follow me…" is what has been in my LinkedIn profile description for some time. It's one I came upon after reflecting over my time playing basketball. I wasn't, nor was I ever a captain of any team. However, I was the guy who never gave up no matter how hopeless the situation was, the guy who always gave 110% no matter what my role was and never complained. I was the first to show support even if others felt they failed and the coach gave them a hard time. Hence, people tended to look to me when the perceived leadership failed or gave up. Don't get me wrong. I can't recall I saved the game and pulled the team pack from a specific loss. I was simply the go-to guy when you needed grit and when everyone else gave up trying, I never did. Thus the team could at least finish with some dignity. I believe I've always carried this virtue of never giving up, but basketball-shaped and taught me many other things as well.
My basketball career wasn't glamorous, but I did play through all the National youth teams, and still, I was at the time quitting among those who have played the most youth national team games for my country. I always cut because I always was ready to fill the roles nobody else wanted and because the class of 89 wasn't one of the best ones. When I started playing basketball at the age of 13, I realized I had finally found a sport I liked. Mostly because being tall and left-handed was considered an advantage, which I had seen as a weakness. At my first basketball summer camp, a coach told me, "If you practice two hours, three times a day, six days a week, eleven months a year and do that for six years, you might be able to call yourself a basketball player," so that is what I set out to do. At the age of 16, I had a massive fallout with my parents because all I wanted to do was to play basketball. I wanted to become a pro player, and I never wanted to work any desk jobs as my parents did. However, my parents insisted that I keep up my grades at school regardless, so I did my best to accommodate that, and I'm glad I did since I never became a pro basketball player.
At the age of 17, I had my first burnout. I remember two incidents that year. The first was bursting out in tears after a game and telling my coach I needed a break didn't. I didn't know why, but no matter how hard I tried, I wasn't; I wasn't getting any better. So I decided to take a break from everything, and I went to my godmother's restaurant in Oslo, Norway, for a couple of weeks. It helped, however later the same year, I burst into tears at home just watching TV. My dad asked me what was wrong. I just said out loud the thoughts that ran through my head at the time, "What if I never make it? I don't become one of the best basketball players? What if I never become a pro?". My dad hugged me and said, "We will love you nonetheless." I decided that it doesn't matter whether I made it or not, but I would continue giving it my all while I'm at it. I saw progress and continued to get selected for the youth national teams of my age, but something changed at 20.
I was serving the army (mandatory for all Finnish men), but I was allowed a lot of leaves since I was playing basketball like a pro. It was a winning season, I got transferred to a better team in the league, and I saw a lot of responsibility from my coach. However, during the playoffs, I tore my meniscus. Not a "fatal" injury, but the doctors that tended me at the time said I was never going to be able to practice or play properly again. Thus I spent the last month of my military service just sitting around waiting to recover from surgery and contemplating my life. The coming summer would mark six years of practicing two hours, three times a day, six days a week, eleven months a year, and I didn't see I had the purpose of doing this for another decade. Don't get me wrong, I had a passion for basketball, and I still do. However, I didn't see why I wanted to give it all that. So instead of trying to recover from my injury effectively, I decided to seek what else life had to offer.
Basketball gave me these understandings of life, profession, myself, and teams:
- What you do (as a profession) does not necessarily define who you are. Even if I didn't become the best basketball player globally, my family would still love me.
- If you set out to do something, give it all you got. It takes time, commitment, and patience to see any results.
- Passion and purpose are not the same things. I had a passion for the game, and I continued playing basketball as a hobby. But, I didn't have the reasons, the purpose, to dedicate myself to being one of the best.
- There are always some things in every team nobody wants to do. If you fill that void with passion and do it wholeheartedly, others will recognize you for your commitment to the team.
- For achievers, "burning out" in some form or another is inevitable. However, the trick is not to avoid it. It's how fast you recover. Know your limits and keep pushing them, but make a recovery a constant habit. I found my practice of healing working at my godmother's restaurant. It was my love for cooking food. Since then, I have decided to cook an excellent meal to deal with stress.
What is my purpose in life? A pretty big question many don't even care to ask. A more straightforward question is "What do I want?" and many don't even dare imagine what they honestly would like. These questions were the ones I implicitly sought to answer, but at first, I was lost. I thought I would never find a similar passion as I had for basketball, so I might as well try to find something I could make a living out of doing.
I got my first summer job as a pool boy at a private club. It was the most incredible summer job ever. I just took care of the pool, did some gardening, and got to hang out with the inhabitants of the club. So many being millionaire families, living the good life, and me being able to enjoy some corner of it. Soon the summer was over, and after spending all my earnings on partying when I wasn't working, I started university. I applied to computer science because;
1. It had the lowest requirements to be accepted at the time to make sure I'd pass to at least some faculty within the university
2. Everything will be tech-related in the future shouldn't be hard to get a job after I graduate.
My dad called me up on the first day of university. He kindly reminded me of the fight I had when I was 16. Telling my parents I would never do anything they were doing, and there I was, starting at the same university my dad had taught at, studying the same subject he had a doctorates degree in. I felt beat by the wisdom of my parents.
However, I soon realized I was not too fond of coding. What I liked was partying. Hence, like many didn't study much. However, not learning and only drinking wasn't very cost-efficient. So I found ways to pass with the minimum credits needed and combined forces with my peers who were better at coding than me.
Additionally, since I liked parties, I started organizing them instead of wasting money. I got involved in my union's union's student-led restaurant and found a way to make a little money instead of spending it but still being at the parties. I found a home in that community, sharing workload from school with couldn’t care less and organizing parties during the weekends. Evenings I was still keeping up my hobby, basketball, playing for the club that taught me to love the game of basketball. Summers I spent working at the private club, I didn't bother applying anything within computer science.
Life was good for three years. I passed some challenging courses at school and gained responsibility and respect at the student union. The team I played rose from 4th division to 1:st division during the time I played for them, I got promotions at the club, and I had a girlfriend with whom I never had to fight because we got along so well. However, I still felt something was missing. That my life wasn’t going anywhere hadn't found purpose. I didn't explicitly think this, but I had this notion, so I decided to find something new. Unfortunately, finding something new did not at first mean things got better.
Instead of another summer at the club, I decided to grab an opportunity presented by an old high school friend into Dj'ing. The love of music and Dj'ing drove his passion and purpose in life. Reflecting on why I decided to help him, he appeared to have found his purpose in life, which inspired me. He was making a name for himself and required some assistance business-wise. He was also allowed to run a summer club concept once a week, which he thought I could help with because I had the experience of running parties. So I started running clubs, producing parties, and managing DJs. The "business" included drinking, drugs, and other backstage activities.
After a summer of seeing all the big festivals in the country, meeting the influencers, and most clubs in the country, I soon realized that this was a minimal scene, and the people surrounding me weren't people that made me any better. After almost a year, I no longer recognized the person I saw in the mirror. I had become someone I didn't want to be. I had cheated on the girlfriend I had been with for six years. I had spent a lot of my inherited savings on partying, and after four years of studying, I was nowhere near finishing my Bachelor's, nor did I have a proper job. I had reached the lowest point in my life, and I needed a change. So many things happened after that moment in time, and they happened fast, some more intentionally, others out of luck.
This phase of my life, however "unproductive," it was still taught me some valuable lessons.
- You should respectfully listen to the advice given by those with more experience than you. Of course, you don’t need to follow it, but you shouldn't undermine the wisdom it might entail. I would've been less embarrassed that first day at university if I had shown the respect my parents deserved and them when I was 16.
- If you're not good at something you need to get done, find those who are good at it and contribute to relationships with things you can do. I teamed up with fellow students and did all the work they didn't want to do or traded math & physics homework answers for coding solutions I needed for other courses.
- An easy way of financing your hobby is by making it a side business. I might have gone overboard with this one, but I liked partying, so I started organizing them instead of paying to be there. Additionally, I played basketball for my old team because the team covered my expenses instead of playing in a non-competitive team.
- We all have our strengths and weaknesses. A good way of keeping to your strengths is to surround yourself with people who draw those out of you. If you find yourself surrounded by people who draw out your weaknesses, try not to spend too much time with them. Even if you consider them good friends.
- The only way to find happiness is to be true to yourself. Even if I had become the best DJ manager in the world, I didn't think I would've liked myself any more than I did at that time. It didn't seem like my purpose or something I wanted for myself.
In the moment of desperation, I was reflecting on my feelings and becoming honest with myself. I found that I always had feelings for one of my best friends for as long as I had known her. I don't know why I never acted on those feelings until I did. I remember thinking it's normal to have an affectionate feeling it's a good friend, but it's not ok I'm on them. However, I'm glad I did because the feelings were well received. It was one of the first actions where I felt I was being true to myself for a very long time. However, what followed was an excruciating process of being true to myself. Finally, I owned up to my mistakes and told my then-girlfriend everything, all the times I had cheated on her and my feelings for this other woman. I knew I had to break up with her, but it was painful and shameful. She never forgave me for my actions, nor did I expect to be. However, it doesn’t haunt me anymore, and I'm now happily married to my best friend.
Next, I set out to find something new I could feel proud of being a part of, a new community. Quite out chance, I heard of this thing called "Slush" at the time. I had no clue what it was other than an event organized by students. I asked for an intro to someone working at the organization, and I did get one.
Footnote: If you’re curious as to what happened after the “intro” in the last sentence of the essay, the story continues in A letter to my people: I.
My initial reaction to reading this today is, “wow, life does work in patterns.” I’m so grateful I keep writing as it allows me to pinpoint what patterns I should break and which to continue. Firstly as I’m reflecting today, I am now divorced from “my best friend” referred to in this writing. We’re still good friends, we have two children we’re raising together, but the story of divorce is reserved for future essays.
As for the advice given, I would still give the same advice, except for the advice on “burning out.” I covered some thoughts in my previous writing, “The landscape of my life,” a reflection of a school essay written around the same time as this article. You shouldn’t strive to burn out, and you should avoid it.
Further reflection is that I find it curious that this writing lacks thoughts of early childhood, and I’ve since refined the way I explain my heritage. Namely;
“I’m a son of an immigrant, who’s a son of an immigrant. Additionally, I’m part of the most spoiled minority in the world.”
This makes for an exciting icebreaker to a request of introducing yourself in a conversation when you have a seemingly “normal” suburban childhood.
I was able to speak four languages before I turned five years of age. Hence, I’ve spent most of my life being part of the majority but constantly feeling like the minority. Creating the ability to relate and navigate any social group I am in.
Speaking so many languages at an early age meant I didn’t ever learn how to learn a language — getting straight A’s wasn’t even an effort. I just did it until I tried a bit of French in high school and realized I didn’t know how to start learning a language, so I ended up not learning much.
I drifted through elementary school without feeling I had to put tremendous effort to be good, so by the time things got hard, I didn’t have that habit of relentless studying. By the end of high school, my grades dropped a bit, but it was probably also part of focusing on basketball more than school at the time.
This lack of work ethic didn’t translate into basketball. I put in the work, and I found myself many times in situations my coaches thought I practiced less than I did. It’s weird how at school, where I didn’t feel I made any effort, my teachers praised me, and I was the favorite of many. Opposite to my basketball coaches, I put the effort in, but they thought less of me than my teachers at school.
There is probably more to write about my childhood and relationship with my parents, but I’ll leave that to upcoming articles.
I have a habit of expressing gratitude to those who have helped me through the years and being a part of what I’ve become.
Robin Haak — Entrepreneur, Investor, World traveler, Master Networker, and Friend when I needed one in the entrepreneurial world. During my time at Slush, you were like a big brother to me and showed me how to think, act and network within the most prominent circles in the entrepreneurial world. We created many ridiculous stories together, but beyond anything, thank you for the time you hosted me at your home and the time you listened to me cry when I felt abandoned.