Blog Post

What I Learned This Year

Exactly one year ago today I was overcome by what seemed like a case of bad heartburn, but what the medical professionals at UCSF would later diagnose as a heart attack. Within just a few minutes, my life changed irrevocably…and in hindsight, for the better.

I hate talking about my personal life on this blog (I have another one just for my personal musings), but I wanted to share some of the lessons I learned from this year-long journey back to normalcy. At times, it felt like I was climbing a mountain using my fingernails — a feeling I’m sure many of you, faced with your own personal travails and some of the biggest economic challenges we’ve ever known, can relate to.

Lesson #1: Set simple goals

When I came back from the hospital on Jan. 17th, I made a silent pledge to myself: I am going to do whatever it takes to make it to the first anniversary of my heart attack.
I am not a big advocate, however, of simply surviving. Rather I want to feel a sense of winning, on a daily basis. In order to do this, short-term goals had to supplant those focused on the long term. The result has been two good weblog posts a week, two great conversations a day, and more smiling, day and night.

Lesson#2: Binary choices help make better decisions

When faced with a binary choice — live or die — I made the following upgrades:

  1. After a 40-Dunhills-a-day-habit for nearly 20 years, I stopped smoking.
  2. No more cigars, either. 
  3. No drinking. 
  4. No red meat. 
  5. Caffeine, sugar, salt and all unhealthy foods are now banished from my diet.
  6. I go to the gym every single day.

Making such drastic changes wasn’t easy, but they offered me the best chance of staying alive — and 50 pounds and 12 months later, have clearly worked.

Help my favorite charity, UCSF

How to prevent a heart attack? Prevention Tips Page.Take a moment to check it out and see if you need to visit the doctor. Prevention, is much better than the cure.

Given the fact that UCSF folks saved me from near disaster last year, they are my favorite charity. I am trying to help them raise some cash for their various heart-disease related efforts. If you would like to help, then send them a check — however small (or big) — you can afford.

  1. Make checks out to “UCSF Foundation”
  2. Please write in the notes area of check “OM/Cardiovascular Research Initiative”
  3. Mail Checks To: UCSF Foundation, UCSF Box 0248, San Francisco, CA 94143-0248.

Lesson #3: Simplification through elimination

A culture that emphasizes success, like the one here in Silicon Valley, can make setting parameters especially hard. Lucky for me, my cardiologist, Dr. Eddie Rame, came right out and told me that unless I stopped working more than 10 hours a day I would be back in the hospital.

In doing so, he set parameters for my daily work schedule, leaving it up to me to be figure out how I would be most productive. Those parameters helped me make tough choices -– like cutting back on excessive public appearances, travel, frivolous RSS feeds and unnecessary company pitch meetings.

One year later, nearly 75 percent of my conversations are with people I love to converse with and nearly every topic on which I write (or focus) is something that I care deeply about.

Lesson#4: In your team you should trust

One of the biggest fallacies of modern life is that one person, alone, can achieve great things. If that were indeed the case, then A-Rod would have won a World Series title. Life and startups are no different than sports teams.

Before I got sick, it was hard for me not to interfere in every single decision that was made here at GigaOM. Of course, in my absence the staff soldiered on, and were able to not only keep the company running but growing.

When I returned, I had to choose to let go — which I did, albeit reluctantly. The results were astonishing. As a company we grew over 150 percent, acquired two excellent weblogs, hosted three sold-out conferences, named Paul Walborsky as our CEO, Carolyn Pritchard as our managing editor and raised enough capital to thrive during the economic downturn.

As I’ve written before, when you empower people, they, in turn, empower you. Remember that –- especially when things get really, really tough.

Before I go, I will leave you with these words from Indian philosopher Mahatma Gandhi:

“Live as if you would die tomorrow, learn as if you would live forever.”

Happy holidays, and thanks for helping me make it to today!

99 Responses to “What I Learned This Year”

  1. drosen1106

    Thank you for sharing. This is very powerful information. We all think the world will not go on without us. I feel this way in my personal life, and at work. I wish you the best in your new outlook on life. Sounds like you are very blessed. Best of luck in 2009.

    à votre santé


  2. Om. Life is a tragedy. It always seems bittersweet to me that many of us need a near death experience so that we can appreciate our lives and only then do we make common sense changes in our lives. Thanks for using your experience to remind others. Share the love brother. Good on you.

  3. Stephanie

    Thanks for taking the time to share these important lessons.

    I hope you don’t mind that I take this opportunity to share one of my own.

    Folks that read your post will see you have eliminated red meat from your diet and they will probably think it is okay to eat fish and chicken as protein alternatives.

    As someone who has been struggling with my own health issues around mercury poisoning this year, I want folks to know they really need to limit their fish intake as well.

    The best web resource I have found on the net that helps sift through what fish are safe to eat is found at the Environmental Defense Fund ( site. Look for the Seafood Selector tool under the “Oceans” section on the home page.

    These folks provide all the details regarding the types of toxins found in fish as well as the recommended serving frequency for men, women and children.

    I had given up eating red meat when I was a young adult and 20 years later after eating chicken and fish as my primary source of meat protein ended up with the highest levels of mercury that my doctor has seen in her entire practice! My mercury levels were literally off the chart of what they could graph in the test!

    If readers take nothing else away from this comment, please stay away from Swordfish and canned white Albacore Tuna, which were the primary sources of mercury for me.

    Some background on the growing mercury problem in seafood below:

    The problem of mercury-contaminated fish is widespread. According to the EPA’s National Listing of Fish and Wildlife Advisories, mercury advisories increased 163% between 1993 and 2003 (from 899 to 2,362). The number of states that have issued mercury advisories has risen steadily from 27 in 1993 to 45 in 2003. As of 2003, more than 13 million lake acres and almost 800,000 river miles were covered by some type of mercury advisory. Currently, 21 states have statewide mercury advisories in freshwater lakes or rivers, and 11 states have statewide advisories for mercury in their coastal waters. Statewide advisories urge people to limit their consumption of all fish and shellfish from freshwater or coastal areas.

    What Are the Health Risks Associated With Consuming Mercury-Contaminated Fish?

    Mercury targets the nervous system and kidneys. Developing fetuses, infants and young children are at the highest risk from mercury exposure, since their brains and nervous systems are still forming. Fetuses can absorb mercury directly across the placenta, and nursing infants can get it from their mother’s breast milk. This is why it is so important for women of childbearing age to minimize their consumption of fish with high mercury levels. It can take 12-18 months for women in their childbearing years to significantly rid their body burden of methylmercury.

    Children exposed to mercury before birth may exhibit problems with mental development and coordination, including how they think, learn and problem-solve later in life. These neurological symptoms may appear similar to cerebral palsy. Developmental and neurological damage can be irreversible for fetuses and young children, but as children get older, the risk associated with mercury exposure decreases.

    Mercury exposure can also harm adults. Symptoms can include numbness, burning or tingling of the extremities (lips, fingers, toes); fatigue; weakness; irritability; shyness; loss of memory and coordination; tremors; and changes in hearing and blurred vision. Extremely high mercury levels can permanently damage an adult’s brain and kidneys, or even lead to circulatory failure.

    To your continued health, happiness and hopefully a mercury-free 2009! :-)


  4. Excellent post. I am glad to hear that you’ve been sticking with your changes. :)

    Here’s to a great 2009!


    P.S. Eliminating caffeine, sugar, and beer from my diet resulted in a loss of 8 lbs for me in the last two months. It really works.

  5. Steve Eisenstadt

    Om, congratulations on the turnaround in your health. And thanks for sharing such insightful words. As someone whose health is good, but whose career has been caught up in the economic downturn, I can really relate to your mountain-climbing analogy. And how “short-term goals had to supplant those focused on the long term.” Happy holidays, and here’s to a great 2009.

  6. Happy to hear your health is improving, and that you have had the mental strength and discipline to keep it going.

    My best friend of 20 years back recently decided to make a similar change in his lifestyle, and has dropped from around 290 pounds to 180 pounds in less than a year (that’s from very obese to a fit looking guy in a year), and I have not seen him as happy since we where kids.

    Health and happiness truly go hand in hand!

  7. The Kitchen MC

    Inspirational post, Om. “Mens sana in corpore sano”. “A sound mind in a sound body is a short but full description of a happy state in this world”. (John Locke)
    All the best,
    The Kitchen MC