Mortality and Me

One night, shortly after moving to Palo Alto, I hopped in my friend’s car. He was 8 years older than me. 8 years wiser, but 8 years more anxious. It took me a while to learn all of this. But anyway, I asked how his night had been and he shrugged his shoulders. We drove for a while in silence. Then I lobbed another small talk question. Again, he gave me little in the way of an answer. Finally, sitting at a stoplight, he let out a scream. I looked straight ahead at the silent world passing our insulated car by. No one noticed. Pedestrians kept walking, a bus passed us on the left with a half dozen strangers staring at their phones or at the sidewalk. It was silent for a few seconds and then he let out another scream. 

Minutes later we parked and made our way to the restaurant where we met some friends. He apologized and told me that he blew it with a girl he’d been dating. The one. She had slipped through his hands, and on the eve of his 30th birthday he was single and alone. 

I knew what it meant to be alone, but only barely. When I first moved to California I was a 19 year old college dropout, unable to enter bars, and just able to buy cigarettes or a copy of Playboy. At first I thought maybe I’d meet Stanford students. They were my age. And besides, who would really care if I actually attended classes? By the fourth time that a friend asked me how long I’d be “visiting” Stanford though, I realized that was all I’d ever be in that community: a visitor, an “other” despite all our similarities. So I moved on in search of friends. 

I had started a company six months prior, but quickly became a devotee to the “Fail fast” philosophy of tech. So I found a job at another startup. It was work, but it was a community so I was happy. I headed into the office early everyday and stuck around late each night, content to be surrounded by other people. Eventually I began to meet friends outside of work who kindly accepted my immaturities. Loneliness gave way to a busy schedule and soon I was a part of a larger whole.

The feeling of being an outsider never quite left me though. Part of the reason was my insecurity about being younger than all of my peers. But I’d be lying if I said it was just in my head. Something about the place made it impossible to fit in, whether it was at Stanford, work, or at a party. 

In Silicon Valley there is an air of envy always lingering. My friends and I frequently discussed the latest person to hit it big and make their millions. Every day the valley floor gave rise to a new success. But those successes were few and far between. We could all see the oasis, but the process of its creation was always a mystery. Alchemy of sorts. Occasionally we drank from the oasis, partying in a luxury penthouse, or taking advantage of free booze at an open bar. At those parties the successful few would tell us exactly how they built their empire. We’d all feel like we learned the secret. Then we’d wake up the next morning, go to a coffee shop, and hit the same walls that had always blocked us. It naturally gave way to envy, a sort of eternal lust. 

I always viewed that lust with perspective. I forced myself to remember that I was young (eventually I was able to ditch the mocktails, but I was still very young). I believed that eventually I would build my oasis in The Valley. After all, time was on my side. For my friends it was different though. And my presence was a constant reminder of that fact. When I once said, “Forest Gump was released the year I was born,” a friend stared at me in horror. She went to the opening premier in high school. 

In California, the millionaires were a reminder of failure for everyone around them. But I was something worse: a symbol of their mortality, a reminder that their time to make millions, have a child, and live happily ever after was ticking away. 

The screams of frustration were frequent. I watched people with perfectly good lives despair over bigger dreams. In most places a six figure income is the pinnacle of success, especially at the age of 30. In The Valley it’s a mark of failure. Everyone is aware of the fact that the expectations are absurd, void of perspective. Dwell in a place long enough though and perspective itself gets distorted. The Valley’s effect on reality is like a mirage in the desert. Dreams of six become seven, and then eight, and nine, and ten. The skies the limit. But for most of us the floor is the place we know the best. It’s on that valley floor that the screams are the loudest. And I could never shake the idea that my presence was making those screams louder and more common. 

Eventually I moved on to a place where dreams of six remain six, where family is more important than apps and widgets, and late nights at the office aren’t admired. My hope is that one less daily reminder of mortality will ease some of the angst. Maybe I’ll be replaced by someone 8 years older than my friends who can be a reminder that things can always be worse.

Michael Thomas