The English language lacks a tense for “was that – am this – will be.” We have the past tense, which is for revisiting old failures, and the future, for imagining a better self. But there’s nothing in our vocabulary for the condition of being in-between. For example, when I tell people “I ran seven miles every day,” or “I liked to drive on the freeway, by myself, with a Red Simpson record on the stereo,” or “I would go to the bagel shop for breakfast,” I don’t mean that I will never run, never drive, never get bagels again on an early Sunday morning. They see my wheelchair, my legs, and think that my past tense is a time beyond retrieval. It’s true that I can’t walk on my own right now, that I had an “accident,” and I might not be able to live my life as before. I’m fortunate, though, that I wasn’t paralyzed. My circumstance is temporary. As I recover, stuck in the middle of my former self and a blank future, uncertainty is terrifying and liberating. I wish I could use verbs that mean, “I was that” with the qualification, “and I don’t know what I will be.”
When people, usually strangers in the shopping mall or movie theater, ask me what happened, I say, “I fell off the cliff.” Ordinarily, that would be a preposterous answer. To punk the curious, I need a wilder explanation, “roller coaster accident,” “gambling debts,” “zookeeper.” After they gape at me, I test out reality. Then, the cliff seems plausible.
I was hiking, alone, in Utah. Took a wrong turn, realized I was off the trail, on a ledge, turned to backtrack and slipped. I slid off the rock face and fell 30 feet. Divine intervention, luck, whatever you believe, I landed on my feet, or what they were before meeting the ground. My right foot popped out of its socket. When two hikers found me in the desert, I had crawled a mile back along the trail, following footprints with my nose buried in the sand.
Be flexible. Be dynamic. Successful start-ups need to be prepared for the worst, ready to pivot, tough but supple, in control and independent while receiving outside counsel. The imperative to adapt is business cliché by now because it gets passed around without discretion. Flexibility, dynamism, and adaptability are exhausted buzzwords. They have lost their potency as a consequence of overuse. Obvious, isn’t it, a tru-ism, that we should change direction when facing insurmountable obstacles or a hostile market. But those who preach the pivot are often the most reluctant to turn their backs on beloved products and business models. Stubborn feels good. If you tell me otherwise, I won’t believe you.
After my accident, I’ll admit to moping. To self-pity. To regret and guilt. Even though I knew others had it immeasurably worse. That I was blessed beyond my comprehension. I loved running, driving, bagels. And if I couldn’t have them now, I wouldn’t ever have them again. I was living my past tense as an impossible future, and with that attitude, the present was like an empty glass waiting to be filled. To find enthusiasm for this, what I am today, I had to acknowledge my stubbornness. Who I was before my accident is not, however vigorously I might deny it, the true self to which my current body is but a shadow. Me running a marathon, clearing Nebraska through I-80 in a day, back in New York and healthy, is a me that I can desire but never have again, exactly. A stubborn attachment to what I was erases what I am now and what I can be tomorrow. What I will be, if I adapt. I will meet challenge without resistance, will change and bend instead of breaking. And so I am going to the track, in my wheelchair. And I will go to the track when I can only walk a hundred meters. And I will strive to succeed however I can, according to whatever standard is fair to the contemporary me. Live feed, not photography, is my new philosophy. I needed the business world and its buzzwords, cliché though they may be, to teach me that truth.