Sometimes Things Just Keep Getting Worse
- Posted by James Altucher
Around the summer of 2000 I lost a lot of money. About a million dollars a week in cash. This may seem like, “ok, at least he had that money and he must’ve stopped before he went to zero.” But i went to zero. And the worst part is finding the strength to continue going. Staring at the screen, mumbling about fate, all of those stupid decisions, suddenly all the cruelty and malice in the world that had been storing up just for me was unleashed for the first time in my thirty years of life and it wouldn’t let me go.
I went from having more money than I knew what to do with to having zero. I could’ve given money to charity. I could’ve set up my kids for life. I could’ve used the money to help my father when he was sick. I could’ve saved his life. I could’ve saved my life.
I could’ve saved myself from losing my apartment. I could’ve saved myself from so many sleepless nights. I never slept. At most, two hours in a stretch. And I would drink every night. I would sit snug in this giant couch inside this giant apartment in the dark thinking, “how stupid was I? I made money when it was easy and then I lost it all. Now I’m never going to make it back again and my kids and everyone else around me will suffer. I’ve done bad things to people and this was karma. I’ve squandered all the good will I created as a kid.”
I honestly thought that the success I had was generated as a combination of luck and because I spent many years meditating as a kid. I thought that I had built up some karmic warchest and I used it to generate enough money to dominate the world and then I squandered it. Now I was gone. But I couldn’t kill myself because I had two kids to pay for. I had to make sure they were ok.
I went to therapists, astrologers, psychics, zen teachers, zen therapists. One psychic said I needed to find a coconut TODAY and smash into the street. At 10pm one night I decided to do it. I had two problems: where to get the coconut at 10Pm and how to find an empty street in Manhattan to smash it.
I went out and around the corner where there was a Thai restaurant. I figured they must have a coconut. They didn’t really understand me. Finally one waiter did. He started speaking in Thai to a woman who I assumed was his mother. “No coconut,” she said, but she wrote down an address where I could find one.
Behind me, “James, what are you doing here?”
It was Flash. I had been playing chess with him for 15 years in Washington Square Park. I didn’t know this but apparently at night the entire Washington Square Park crowd moved to this Thai restaurant on the corner of Reade and Church, a few blocks from the World Trade Center. Flash owed me money but I knew I would never collect it.
Instead I played chess for a few hours. JP was there also. “Why are you out right now?” I said, “I have to find a coconut and smash it into the street.” He laughed and said, “I knew it. There must be a woman involved.” And we all laughed and played chess. A small respite for me in a five year period of non-stop pain and agony.
Then I went to the address the woman gave me. It was a basement store in the lower east side that was still open at 11pm. I told them I needed a coconut. A guy came back with this hairy round brown thing. I bought it. Then I wandered up and down Washington Street until I was sure nobody was looking. I threw down the coconut as hard as I could. It smashed everywhere, the milk splattering my pants and everything around.
Things are going to change now, I thought. Sort of like that line from the Beck song, “Loser”: “things are going to change. I can feel it.”
Things did change. I lost my job as a venture capitalist. That job was at least paying my mortgage. I got kicked off the board of a company I started. Selling that company was my last hope. I was too demoralized to stop it or to start anything new. I would lie around, unable to get myself back up and start generating new ideas.
I tried to get a loan. Nobody would lend to me. Not even when I paraded two little babies to the bank. Banks have rules, you know. No lending to degenerates. At least not yet. That was years later when banks would lend to anyone.
Every month I’d go to the ATM machine and I’d have this feeling like someone was stabbing me all over my body and mind when I looked at how much was left in the account. I’d yell at my now ex-wife as if it were her fault, “How are we supposed to live on this. We are GOING TO ZERO!”
And because I kept saying it over and over, the reality was created and we did go to zero. “The Law of Attraction” works in reverse much more than it works in a positive way.
Then 9/11 happened. I hate talking about 9/11. So many people had it far worse than me on that day. Far, far, worse. I was standing on Church street when the first plane flew overhead. Dan said to me, “Is the President coming into town today?” because the plane was so low. It was right over us. Even though it was actually about 600 feet higher, everyone on the street felt they had to duck because we had never seen a plane that low coming in so fast and we all watched it go into the building.
After that there was no way I could sell my apartment, with the mortgage each month that was crushing me. The week after 9/11 I decided to be brave and buy the stock market as it opened. This is how I went to zero. I lost basically whatever I had left. I finally couldn’t take it anymore. On Friday of that week at around 10:30 I had to sell everything. I was screaming at my broker on the phone, “I’m going to go broke!” And he sold whatever I had left. Scraps that I knew I could use to pay my mortgage a few months more. Starting around a minute later the stock market went on a run upwards that lasted at least three months. If I had held on for at least 5 more hours I would’ve doubled my money on the week. If I had held on for 3 more months I would’ve had more money than ever. Instead I was broke.
It took another year to sell. I started missing payments. I couldn’t afford diapers. I got shit all over my head.
Nobody would return my calls. I asked my neighbor if a bank or a hedge fund would hire me. He said, “typically you have to have a track record that’s good.” And I was too ashamed to ask him more. I actually had no skills I could think of that could pay my expenses. Dot-com entrepreneurs were a dime a dozen and everyone was broke after the bust. No bankers or VCs would return my phone calls. There was nobody for me to sue. It was all my fault and I’m not a litigious person anyway.
One time I called my parents. I needed to borrow $1000. That’s all. After having millions. It was 14 months after 9/11. I finally had sold my place but the deal had not yet closed and I had no money. I needed money to move. To live.
They began to yell at me. They didn’t want to lend me the money. I hung up the phone. I didn’t talk to them for six months. Then my dad had a stroke and that’s the next time I talked to them, although he never woke up from his stroke again. So the last time I spoke to him I had hung up on him.
Everyone says that “things cycle” or “what goes down, goes up.” But that’s not true. My dad was in his stroke-coma for three years. He never got better. He got steadily worse and worse. They would drop his body on the floor when moving him from one institution to the next. He had bed sores so bad you could see through to the skeleton. My family thought I didn’t visit him enough. But I was scared and didn’t want to be even more depressed and I had my own two kids to take care of.
I stayed in my new house all the time, about sixty miles north of the city. I gained about 20 lbs because I was no longer pacing the streets of Manhattan at all hours of the night and there was blizzard after blizzard where I lived. I was in exile and I had no idea what would happen. For the first year after I moved into town I didn’t speak with anyone. I didn’t want to. This was only temporary, I thought.
The worst part was trying to find the strength to continue. So my projects turned to zero. What was the point. Day after day. All the music I had danced to just a few years earlier was now silenced. The jukebox was broken. The dance hall was closed. Every night I woke up in dread, terrified of yet one more insecure tomorrow. I wasn’t even brave enough to kill myself. And the truth was only leading me closer to a death agony. The agony that youth was gone, and for the rest of my tomorrows I was finished, through, crushed by my responsibilities and the carved out hole of loss inside of me.
I went into one store and asked the woman behind the counter, “is it just me or does the entire world seem like it’s depressed, as if people can’t shake the utter sadness of just being alive.” She looked at me and said, “do you know anything about computers? I can’t get my computer to work.”
A close relative of mine wrote me, “You weren’t even as good as your father. He never would’ve lost a house that his children loved and been such a disappointment like you were.” The few times I would venture into the city I couldn’t think of a single friend or family member I could call that I could spend time with and who would want to see me and we’d all be happy and just enjoy. I had nothing and nobody. And I’m not blaming them. It was all my fault.
I’m still afraid of slipping back into that crevice. The Earth shakes every few years. 2008, for instance. Cracks in the Earth open. Bridges that were secure for 50 years break and cars fall into the water. Once you’ve seen the darkness in the center of the Earth, the heat that can burn your brain to cinders, you know it’s always there, an open invitation to come back to it. I knew too much, but not enough to ever come back. Once the bridge cracks, the car is already doomed.
I can tell you it all came back. I can say, “that’s why I’m writing this blog.” I can say, “don’t worry, things do cycle if you picture it and let it.” But things don’t always come back. Sometimes things get worse and worse. I’ve written before about the only thing you can do to start turning the cycle around.
But the important thing is that right around the middle of all of this, I started planting seeds. The abominable pressure of being forced to live, forced me to plant tiny seeds. Life goes on, the future is a joke, but we can never forget it exists and its hungry and it’s waiting to eat and destroy us so we must have food to give it. I was planting a garden. You pull up weeds. You dig out the dirt. You put seeds in, you lay excrement over it. Some plants get eaten up by ravenous birds. But some seeds are left alone and, if cared for, are allowed to blossom. That’s why I’m still alive. Because of the seeds planted. In retrospect I wish I had planted more of them but it’s ok.
I planted new seeds every day. I still do.
Maybe I can also lie to myself and say I am a better person for having been through things. Maybe I came through the other side and there was more light on this side than the side I started on. I don’t know. I hope so. Some seeds I planted ten years ago are still growing. Still need to be harvested.
The key is to plant the seeds. And never stop, even if weather, even if animals, even if mutations, look as if they are going to damage the garden and destroy it. Seeds take time to grow. A long time. And they need to be loved with patience, just like children. And there are seeds designed for every season. The key is to go out there, dig up dirt, and plant. Every day.
You don’t know what the final outcome might be. What the DNA of each seed holds for your garden. But over time, over years, over a lifetime, the garden turns lush – there are colors, there is food to eat, there are perennials that, like old friends, always return every year when the cold is over. You can never ever stop planting the seeds. Every day. Eventually there is a thick patch of joy where there was once nothing but dirt, weeds, and mud.
And you can look at it and finally say, “this is me. I did this.”
What seed will you plant today?
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