How do you keep your footing when your life explodes?

Me, Guy Kawasaki and Sohaib Athar, SXSW 2012


When I was writing my book in 2008, I was looking for some examples of real people who had interesting business models. One of my blog readers, Sohaib Athar, was a software developer from Pakistan, who had experimented with many different work configurations, before settling on doing independent software development in his home country. He was kind enough to agree to be interviewed, and I included him in Chapter 5 of my book.

He has a wife and a son is one year older than my son Josh. He moved from busy Islamabad to a more tranquil part of the country.

When I asked him why he did his work, he said:

“I have always thought of the software industry as a huge puzzle that needs to be solved – I work with computers and software mainly to help solve that puzzle, and because it is a lot of fun, and getting paid doesn’t hurt.

I freelance because it allows me to maintain my own schedule (when allowed, my work tends to gravitate toward the graveyard shift) and so that I may spend time with my family when I want, and not when I am allowed.

When a project I work on contributes to making life better for people directly, or helps further our scientific knowledge, that is always an intellectually gratifying experience.”

-Chapter 5, Escape from Cubicle Nation: From Corporate Prisoner to Thriving Entrepreneur

Post-book publication, Sohaib and I communicated occasionally on Twitter, and I always enjoyed sharing updates on our work and families.

On May 1, the nature of the communication changed, when Sohaib typed what would become one of the top Tweets of the year:

“Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event)”

As you may have guessed by now, he was the first to inadvertently report on the capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden from his small town of Abbottabad, Pakistan.

As news spread about the attack, reporters found Sohaib, and he became the center of an international media frenzy.

Reporters were clamoring for interviews. His Twitter following went from a few hundred to over 100,000. He spent the next few days in a blur, gathering information and trying to provide insight and balance to the sensationalist stories that were flying out of news bureaus.

He was offered money to Tweet. He had the chance to do dozens of television interviews on major news channels. Despite these opportunities, he stayed focused on what was important to him; his work and his family.

After a few days, he retreated from his citizen journalism and went back to being a software engineer, Dad and coffee shop owner.

He knew who he was, and did not let enormous media exposure change his values or his behavior.

I heard his story first-hand at a panel at SXSW, where Sohaib was interviewed by Steve Myers of the Poynter Institute. It was an excellent conversation, and I hope that SXSW offers it as a podcast in the future.

He had no idea that I would be at SXSW, nor did I know he would be there. He found out by catching one of my tweets from Austin. It was so wonderful to meet him in person after so many years as a virtual friend.

While at SXSW, I met a pair of equally lovely yet surprised entrepreneurs, Glen Stansberry and Brian McKinney. For fun, they spent 12 hours designing and coding an alternative to the predominantly female and wildly popular social media site Pinterest. They called their site Gentlemint. Little did they know that the perfect storm of exposure was upon them, and their little fun side project would explode on the scene.

So whether your moment in the sun is due to unwanted exposure or unexpected success, here are a few ways to stay grounded:

  • Know who you are
    What do you believe? What do you stand for? What line will you never cross? If you have never thought of this before, you may have doubts about which direction to go when faced with catastrophe, unwanted exposure or unexpected success. Take the time to clarify your personal values.
  • Know what you want
    What are your goals? Have you been courting Internet fame and fortune? Do you want to live a quiet life in the country with your family? Do you want your company to be the next Facebook? We sometimes think that we all want the same thing, but we actually don’t. Create a definition of success that works for you and fits your vision of your ideal life.
  • Play out future scenarios
    Do you know what you would do if you got really sick? Experience a natural disaster? Hit a vein in the market and have massive sales or success? Happen to unwittingly Tweet about Osama Bin Laden? Start to visualize a few crazy scenarios in your life so that you can picture yourself in unpredictable circumstances. This will warm up your mind and nervous system for the real thing.
  • Identify trusted advisers before you need them
    If said future scenario happened, whom would you call? Who in your life is calm in a crisis, knows you well and could offer you reasoned and useful advice? If you have no one like this in your life yet, time to start building up your High Council of Jedi Knights.
  • Take your time
    When life is flying at you at a quick pace, you may think that you have to respond immediately. You don’t. Don’t be pressured into making a decision too quickly until you have had time to reflect on who you are and what you want. Take a deep breath. Talk to a trusted adviser.

Life is an adventure. It is full, messy, wild and unpredictable. Embrace that, and you will have a full-contact, full-color life that will be a delight to share with your grandchildren.

And for the record, I love the Internet. :)

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