It’s 7:00am, Saturday morning. My alarm goes off waking me from another restless sleep. That means I need to hustle to make sure I’m working by 8:30am, 9 at the latest. I’ve had this routine now for three years straight. I work six days a week, sometimes seven, which seems to happen more often than I would like. Right now it’s summer in New York, one of the most beautiful seasons this magical city offers. Even so I would rather stay in bed just a little longer. With both eyes still closed, I feel around the floor. Locating my iPhone, I turn the alarm off and rest for a minute. I open my eyes, collect my thoughts and turn the switch in my mind to ON. Today, I will change the world.
Five years ago I made a decision that has altered my life in ways I could have never imagined. I had an idea and the audacity to believe I could bring it to life. Something made with my own hands, manifested by my own abilities. All the tedious hours and long years working in digital advertising would pay off, translated into a new business startup called Declaration, the online creative archive. Declaration is about posterity, but it’s also about ensuring that those who haven’t put in the work won’t take credit away from those who have. With the help of my business partners, we refined this idea empowering members to connect to, collaborate with, and learn from other creators. In a world filled with temporary and disposable information, we would provide transparency into the creative process and make creators’ stories a permanent part of the creative record.
This was my dream. And like all dreams, they are quiet and personal. I come from an athletic background and every competitive athlete has a similar dream. A dream where you are on the podium because you pushed a limit that many have attempted, but you succeeded. A dream that you keep close to the chest, protecting it at all cost. And if by chance you happen to slip up and release it, most will nod their head giving some generic words of encouragement, while others may cast their doubt upon you. It doesn’t matter. Their doubt doesn’t matter. This dream is for you and you alone, and you’re fine with that. At some point you will ground yourself in the reality around you and step out of this dream. This is when you realize there are no crowds, no awards given and no cheers. You hear just the sound of your heart beating, slow and steady, ready to do the impossible.
For the first time in years I felt I had real value to contribute to this world. I knew the odds were against me as most businesses fail, but I felt the idea of Declaration was big, colossal even. I thought I was ready for whatever challenges lay ahead. I assumed that if my life were going to be changed by following a personal goal, it would be for the better. What did I know of the true cost of this path or how much of myself I would put to the test? Not days, not weeks, not months but years of effort would determine my future. Living a conscious life is difficult enough, but when one makes an attempt at self-realization, that changes the game. And so it began.
In the first two years I felt like a disciplined young athlete pushing each day to yield a result just a little better than the day before. George Tarantini, my head camp soccer coach at N.C. State, used to say, “If you cheat the game, the game will cheat you.” I never forgot those words and now, with a goal set, I repeated them like a mantra. I wasn’t one of those people who stayed on the sidelines and talked about how they would like to start a business. I was in the arena – and I played with all heart.
Looking back, I can say I made almost every mistake one can make when I started Declaration. I accept them all, with no excuses, as they were my mistakes to make and I had to learn. Some were small. Others, not so small.
Two years in and Declaration still hadn’t launched. Working almost every day for the two-year span didn’t come close to yielding the result I was looking for. In fact, the development team had to rebuild the code twice, forcing me to push the launch date. That’s when I got my first taste of defeat and it was bitter. Missing the launch date felt as if my partners and I lost a real battle.
To gain perspective, I thought back to a specific moment during my first marathon in Dallas in 2008. A bad storm hit the course that morning and produced winds up to 20mph. For the first 15 miles I managed to fight the weather conditions and stay with the pack. When I hit 22 miles my legs refused to fire. I had pushed hard during the race, but at the wrong time. I was still moving, but it was at such a slow pace I didn’t know if I could take the next step, much less finish. This was when my mind took over and told my body, “I’ll take it from here.” Simple and direct instructions were laid out. Left foot. Right foot. Repeat. Four miles later, as I crossed the finish line, I realized I had pushed myself further than I thought possible. More importantly, I had set a new benchmark for my pain threshold. It was now the beginning of our third year and I wasn’t ready to stop, not yet. Left foot. Right foot. Repeat. I got this.
Year three turned out to be even more challenging than the first two. Thinking this would be the year Declaration would go live, I pushed even harder and pumped more money into the business. Even with the additional effort, my partners and I ran into major setbacks, forcing us to postpone the launch date once again. We were developing a big platform, which is a huge task even for large-scale companies, but we were just a few operating on a shoestring budget. At this point, the two-year contract I made with my business partners was up and the guilt I felt asking them for more help was starting to set in. We even had early adopters who contributed money to make the business a success, adding even more stress. By this time friends and family had heard me repeat myself for three straight years and I started to interpret the look in their eyes as pity. I had given them ALL my word and my word held no honor. If I was on a path of deliberate action and truth, how could I have strayed so far from achieving my goal? This was when, for the first time, self-doubt introduced itself and tapped me on the shoulder. Until this point in life, I considered myself intelligent, experienced in my field and capable enough to complete any task put in my path. But make no mistake, the tap on my shoulder was real. I felt it. A cold chill went up my spine and I was terrified of what lay ahead. I always felt a person with self-doubt is crippled from within because they question their own abilities and may never gain it back. A death spiral if you will. Stopping now meant I would have wasted three years of my life, the money I invested and all the time my business partners put in. The weight of not letting everyone down was immense. The ground beneath me, once solid, felt like quicksand.
One year had become two, two turned to three, and then three disintegrated into a very brutal four. In the fourth year I was mentally and physically exhausted. Of course I couldn’t show it. I lost that option once I decided to become the CEO of a business. It would be one of the many little truths I picked up over the years. Plus, no competitor tells their opponents or anyone around them when they feel weak. In fact, that’s when they do the opposite. By this time each of the business partners had moved on with their lives, pursuing their own dreams. I, however, was stuck where I was four years ago. I had the same routine, worked on the same tasks and even found myself repeating the same words. I felt imprisoned. The guilt I once felt when asking the team for help had now turned to shame. Sure, I might have been doing most of the work at this point, but had I lost their respect? Had my word lost all meaning? I had spent my life savings on this dream and I was all in. I had accepted that reality and it was enough to make me question my own sanity. Still, if I lost the respect of my close friends and peers, I wasn’t sure that was something I could ever recover from. This would be one of the lowest points in my life.
In the beginning of the 4th year, that winter I was hitting the bottle hard. I was a proper mess and whatever had occurred to drive me to that point was something to be dealt with at another time, just not that night. Countless times that year I found myself alone in my apartment with the lights off. Hours would pass by and I remember being motionless, watching the JMZ subway train rumble outside my window, the metal of the cars reflecting the street lamps below. One evening, I had a moment of clarity that made the chill in my spine return. I realized that my advertising day job, which paid the bills and kept Declaration afloat, was taking up most of my life, dictating my time, my thoughts and even what I considered to be my happiness. It meant I spent most of my days in a world created by someone else and not my own. Every day spent in their world pushed the chances of creating my own further and further away. I understood that that air was not breathable anymore, not for me. That night, alone in the dark, I realized I was trying to salvage my soul. And it was clear I was losing.
On April 10, 2014, I received an email from one of the founding partners about some competitor information he had come across. What he didn’t know was that we had just hit another major setback in the build for Declaration and I had yet to tell anyone. The development came to a complete stop. I was devastated and the shame of having to repeat those words kept me silent. I didn’t sleep at all that previous night and after reading his email I wrote back telling him the truth: I was “almost broken.” I had to tell someone as I couldn’t keep it in any longer and somehow writing it felt less real than having to say it out loud.
This particular partner is a man who doesn’t speak often, but when he does it is deliberate, honest and bulletproof. He has answered every email, every call, every meeting, and every critique over the past five years of this endeavor. That type of loyalty can never be repaid and will never be forgotten. His instructions were simple and direct. And in just two words, he levelled all that came before and all that was to come.
Instantly, the words pierced my heart and filled me with such a wondrous rage that a heat began to rise within me. All of my senses became heightened to a level that they had not touched in years and pointed to a truth I had always known, but lost along the way. I knew in the instant I read those words that I wasn’t going down. Not like this. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever. I always wondered how I would fare against real adversity, the kind where life is smacking you around asking in its most condescending tone, “Is that all you got?” So now I had the chance to prove my self worth and I chose to fight.
In that moment I felt my dream had shifted as well. I no longer pictured myself standing on a podium, accepting glory. Instead, I felt myself standing on the earth, positioned in an athletic crouch. Knuckles white, stare unflinching, chest rising and falling with each deep breath. I know now, with everything I am, I’m ready for war.
We have come a long way since that day. Declaration went live in January 2015 and we will release the phase II redesign this fall. To push us even further, we have been working on a Declaration app as well, with a possible launch this winter.
No one can tell you when it’s time to let go of something. It’s an instinct that you have the right to dictate and a privilege that belongs to no one else. It’s over when you say it is.
It’s 7:00am, Saturday morning.
Today, I fight on.