5 Lessons From 5 Years With a Concussion

What’s the most important second of your life?

I can give a pretty exact answer — January 31st 2015 around 12:05 pm. I had just stepped into the final lane at a Track and Field meet I’d be running in later that day. In between races the track gets packed with people warming up or walking to the infield, but out of the corner of my eye I saw a runner sprinting down the track at full speed. He looked like he was headed straight for BAM… next thing I knew my head slammed into the ground at full force and 5 years would pass before my life returned to anything resembling normal.

It was the best thing that ever happened to me. Here’s some of what I learned.

Lesson #1: Set Hell Yes Goals

It began with a prick. One small prick of pain inside my head calling out to me that something was wrong. By the end of the day it grew to more closely resemble the roar of the ocean and became a headache so bad that even my pillow became too hard a surface to rest on.

I had one thought, make the pain disappear. 5 years of unwavering dedication later and 2 questions have been hardwired into my brain: “what’s my goal?” and “is this what I went through hell for?”

Now all my goals go through the same sniff test; they’re either a “Hell Yes!💪” or a “no”. Goals needs to be a Hell Yes so I can look my brain-injured self from the past in the eye and assure him that he’s got a lot to look forward to. Not just for me, but for everyone else who’d give anything to have just one normal healthy day. For the rest of my life, I’ll be living inside my wildest happiest dreams. I’m gonna make the most of it.

What goals would you go through hell for 5 years to achieve?

Once a goal passes the hell yes test, I write it down. Putting pen to paper lets my goals make the quantum leap from imaginary to real and provides the spark my brain needs to activate its idea machine.

If a Hell Yes isn’t an option, I use Ray Dalio’s 5-step process to make it one.

  1. Have clear goals.

Most recently. I needed a full time job. I’d been out of school and work for 5 years and just then holy sh!t🥶 a global pandemic unlike anything the world has seen in 100 years struck. It was, and still is, a brutal job market. One job I applied for told me they got 1000+ applicants, only 30 of whom got to submit a 3 minute video to move onto the interview round.

I needed a plan.

  1. Goal: Get a full time job that would support me today and help me build skills for tomorrow.

Lesson #2: Know Your Mission

It was hell. I had to drop out of school, cut off contact with friends, and entered a bubble away from the outside world where only pain existed.

I couldn’t imagine ever being happy again. I knew I’d get better one day, but crawling back to zero wasn’t enough. I needed something more. I needed to find a positive force to push towards that was greater than the negative one pulling me in. I needed a mission in life.

Fortunately, negativity has a wonderful way of helping us spot more negativity, and fixing it creates happiness out of thin air. Like magic. So my life hack out of negativity was to turn my focus towards building my capacity to spot and solve meaningful problems to help others. As Batman’s butler might say: if I became hell bent on making everyone else happy, I might even make myself happy by accident.

I wasn’t even sure what problems I’d be solving yet, but I embarked on my mission anyway. Any destination was better than the present. I started by gathering the raw materials of knowledge I would need and filled my days by listening to podcast interviews with the smartest, most inspiring people the Apple podcasting charts could offer. Of course, I couldn’t actually do anything to help anyone, I could barely leave my house, but the energy my mission filled me with was enough to get me through the day.

Some favorite podcasts include:

  • The Tim Ferriss Show

This service mindset has become my substitute for religion. Religions are great at giving people stories to bring them together. Wahoo🙌! But they’re also great at giving people a license to kill each other. Oh 🤬! Not only that, but dedicating my life to serving some mystical higher being never felt right to me, what about my 7.8 billion neighbors?

Now I follow my own story. I’m becoming the best, authentic version of myself so I can spread joy wherever possible and leave the world better off than when I found it. Lebron plays basketball, Hans Zimmer composes music, some guys watch and talk about Star Wars minute by minute. I’ve got a lifetime to see what I can do.

I’ve enjoyed the following resources to help me find out how.

How will you spread joy?

Lesson #3: There’s no back of the book

A month into my journey I went to see a neurologist. She gave me some drugs and said I’d be ok in 2 weeks. I marked the date on my calendar and lamented at how long I’d have to wait. 2 weeks came and went, then 2 months, then 2 years, and it dawned on me that this wasn’t calculus homework; there wasn’t an answer in the back of a book to learn how I would get better or how long it would take. Not for her, not for me, not for anyone.

There’s a saying, if you’ve seen one brain injury, you’ve seen one brain injury. They’re messy problems, meaning the problem is complex, you have incomplete information, feedback is difficult to measure and it’s easy to learn the wrong lessons. So when your brain gets damaged, recovery can last for 1 day… 20 years…who knows?

Our lives are full of messy problems, and the anxiety they cause can be crippling. On the day of my accident, if you’d told me how long of a ride I was in for, I’d have melted on the spot. I’d have known with absolute certainty that it would ruin my life.

I’d have been wrong. And today I know that I can always find solace from anxiety in the certainty of 5 things:

  1. Whatever I fear about the future, my prediction will be wrong in some way.

Of course, actually dealing with our problems is a whole other messy matter. There’s no such thing as an infallible source to turn to for help. Good. A messy problem will always have an imperfect solution. This means there’s a fascinating problem out there for each of us to investigate and learn how to solve better.

What messy problem would you love to solve?

Take farming. Why do we plant food in the ground outside? What if we planted it on the wall instead? Enter vertical farming, which uses 95% less water and 99% less land. Come on… isn’t that just f***ing awesome?

Lesson #4: Cherish The Hard Times

It was the best thing that ever happened to me. The perspective those 5 years gave me is something I’ll cherish forever.

Suffering is so underrated. The confidence it’s given me is unlike anything else. Our brains are neuroplastic, meaning they adapt based on our actions and the world around us. As we suffer, we can choose to keep pushing forward to make ourselves more resilient. So the greater the suffering, the easier everything else becomes by comparison. Now when I see a challenge, I think “Bring it on”.

Suffering taught me to be happy. As bad as 2020 was for most people, it turned out to be the best year I’ve ever had. I’ve got my life back, that’s enough, and I suspect it alway will be.

To make it easy I place any negativity on a scale from 1–10, 1 being I dropped my ice cream cone😢, 10 being… What’s the worst thing you can possibly think of? The rules are, I can’t choose 7, and if it’s 6 or below it’s nothing to worry about.

What does your suffering scale look like?

Lesson #5: I’m Someone Else

I learned I’d been wrong my whole life. In my previous bold and ambitious dreams I thought “I can’t do that…that’s what someone else does”. Fast forward to after my accident, I heard stories of people losing years of their lives to brain injuries and I thought “that can’t happen to me… that’s what happens to someone else”

You ever read Calvin and Hobbs? The cartoon with the little kid and his stuffed tiger? For years after my accident, the same lines repeated over and over in my head. Calvin and his family have just returned home from a camping trip, only to find the windows shattered and the TV gone. Calvin’s dad says “This is one of those things you always figure will happen to someone else.” Calvin’s mom replies “…unfortunately, we’re ALL ‘someone else’ to someone else”. I was now someone else.

It took a long time, long enough for me to surpass all of the “horror stories’’ I’d heard, long enough to become one of my own, but it finally dawned on me that if I could be “someone else” now, why not be the bold and ambitious “someone else” I always wanted to be?

This isn’t about becoming someone I’m not, it’s about being the person I always wanted to be but didn’t believe in myself to become.

What would you do if you were someone else?

And so with these 5 lessons in hand everything was smooth sailing from then on… right? Not even close… but thanks to immeasurable support from my friends and family I made it through, and came out better than ever on the other side.

Special thanks to Mom who deserves her own blog post for her extraordinary efforts throughout my journey.

Lastly, if you know anyone going through a rough time right now, reach out. It helps more than you could ever know.