What I Learned From Being Cancer Free

Seven Years of Freedom

Normally, I wouldn’t have time to write this essay. On previous anniversaries, I watched the sun rise over Machu Picchu. Another time, I walked 24 miles rim to rim in the Grand Canyon. Usually, this weekend is a grand celebration of life and body. You see, on a Labor Day weekend like this one seven years ago, my doctor told me that I was going to live a healthy, normal life. He told me I was cancer free.

I smiled, thanked the doctor for his assistance, and walked outside. There, in a shaded spot on the corner under a willow tree, I sobbed. For so long I had been convinced I was going to die, that it was all over, that at 23 the Reaper would come knocking. Now, the idea that I had my whole life ahead of me was overwhelming. My body would fully function, my ambition would have a chance to run its course. I was cancer free. Free free free. 

This weekend was a little different than the celebrations that came before. Instead of hiking up mountains, I was hiking up the 3 floors of my new walkup apartment. Instead of loading up a backpack, I loaded up a truck for my cross-country move. In this break from tradition, I started to reflect on how different my life was now versus what I had thought it would’ve been before my diagnosis. 

Cancer is a crucible. It is soul-destroying and scary and can bring out the worst in you. However, if you push through, if you make it, it can be a chance for real change. I now look back at my cancer with gratitude. It gave me a chance to dramatically alter who I was (hopefully for the better) and I thought I would share some of the lessons that it taught me about work and happiness with y’all today. 

You’re not special

When I got my diagnosis, my mindset was purely grindset. I was prepping for hedge fund interviews, considering a job in consulting—you know, all the stuff that an ambitious person interested in business is supposed to do. I went to a fairly middle-of-the-pack school and didn’t know anything about the world, and I thought the only way to get ahead was to outwork everyone else. So I put hours and hours into my school and work, to the detriment of my relationships with my friends and family. It wasn’t great, but hard work is how you get ahead, right? You’ll hear this advice all the time from the bro-oriented business publications. “I may not be the smartest, but I can outwork anyone.”

This is stupid.

There are ~330 million people in America; it is pretty unlikely you are the hardest-working or the smartest. When I was sacrificing my life to the grind just to be competitive, I was almost guaranteed to lose. Cancer has a way of stripping away your self-delusions, and I realized that, while I am smart and I am hardworking, hard work is not the way I’ll be successful. Success comes from something that feeds into effort and intelligence—it comes from excitement. 

Give up on the output equation

It is tempting to think of work output as a two-factor formula:

Output = Time * Effort 

But that doesn’t account for ability, so maybe it is something like this?

Output = (Time * Effort) ^ Ability

But that doesn’t account for originality or impact, so maybe it is something like this?

Output / Value = (Time * Effort) ^ Ability

But wait, that doesn’t account for the fact that all work is interpreted by others. They decipher its value based on their perception of it, so maybe….

(Output / Value) + Social Perception = (Time * Effort) ^ Ability

But wait, that doesn't...

We can essentially do this exercise forever. There is no universal evaluation mechanism by which we can interpret work. This is why neoclassical economists have just defaulted to calling stuff “utility” all the time, because trying to do anything beyond a catch-all term will break our brains.  

Thinking you can win at the game of life via work or intelligence is stupid because it doesn’t account for all the complexities of the human condition. 

The best I’ve come up with is to only do things that excite me. Whenever I’m not excited about something, no matter my level of skill or the time I put into it, the outcome is subpar. Excitement is the secret herb and spice of building cool stuff. Excitement means that when you work you are crazy focused and you have no problem putting in the time.

After I was cancer free, I quit pursuing high-prestige finance jobs and went straight to working in the technology industry. I realized that what excites me is building the world of the future. It was hard seeing my finance friends earn twice as much as me, but I decided to play the long game. 

However, you should be careful with excitement. It is easy to get excited about money, prestige, or the wrong thing entirely.

Check the divorce stats 

A good way to gut-check your excitement is to try the IF function I ran after I had cancer:

=IF(Average Divorce Level>2, “Run away”, “Apply”)

Put another way, if the entire executive team of a company is on their third spouse, you probably don’t want to work there.

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