A Guide to Options at the End of the World
Jasmine Wang (she/they)
The notification lands with a soft ping as soon as I connect to the airport Wi-Fi.
“Hello Jasmine! We enjoyed our conversation and are excited to offer you a term sheet.”
My podcast drones on in my AirPods. The interviewer discusses how engineered pandemics more infectious than COVID-19 will disrupt the supply chain and wreak more destruction by an order of magnitude. His voice is low, steady, and comforting. The natural pauses between his phrases are engineered out so that each word smoothly elides into the next.
After a few seconds of debate, I duck out of the stream of fellow passengers pouring out of the airplane, tuck myself into a corner tightly against the wall, and free my thumbs.
The email contains a PDF file with delicate letterhead that says the company I started three months ago was worth more than eighteen million dollars. Holy shit. I scratch my head and feel a dull blueness develop at the base of my tongue. I can’t tell if it is dread, excitement, or the caffeine tablet I took while waiting for the plane to dock.
I look up, expecting to see my fellow passengers standing stock-still, gaping at me, faces stretched with incredulity, admiration, even envy. But no, the stream of passengers has thinned to a trickle, and everyone is busy deciphering their own small screens. I wonder what missives have landed in their inboxes.
Over the last week of fundraising, I have become unnecessarily paranoid about infosecurity, all too aware of how information is treated as currency in fundraising. The airport’s Wi-Fi is neither reliable nor secure, and my phone is about to run out of battery. I quickly take a screenshot of the term sheet, festoon it with cartoon exclamation marks, and send it to my mentor, a female founder who has raised several rounds from Sequoia. I open up the screenshot after it sends successfully and squint at it. The obscene numbers have not changed. This digital picture-in-a-picture stabilizes my reality. I turn off my screen to preserve my phone’s battery, but the after-image of the file stays with me, gently but insistently etched into the corners of my vision.
It is my first time in Cancun, and I learn quickly that I cannot expect amenities like charging ports in public spaces here. As I push my luggage cart through the winding corridors, my mentor, as well as other founders who are advising me on the raise process, try to call me. My phone dies in the middle of a call just as I emerge from the airport into a moist darkness, surrounded by tall palm trees, an early birth into a strange world. I turn in a few circles to orient myself. I search for a power outlet to no avail, digging through both my suitcases in the exit foyer, and finally return to the taxi area, where I plead at a sequence of desks for a charger. One lady takes pity on me. I prop my laptop open on the counter and text an investor who I am supposed to call later that night that I need to cancel. Riding double dopamine waves from the term sheet and cancelling the meeting, I let myself be exploited by the attendants at the taxi counter for what I learned later was more than four times the usual price. The taxi driver tries to point out local landmarks as the city flashes by. I leave my suitcases just inside the door to my Airbnb and find a $3 burrito a few minutes away. I scarf it down so quickly that I still feel the warmth of it in my throat when I fall asleep.
It is the spring of my twenty-second year. The world is caught in the throes of a global pandemic. I have retreated from the land of dreams, magic internet money, and robots to shelter at home with my family. Then, on this stopover to Cancun, I conditionally become a millionaire on paper.
It is nearly four more days until I have a proper meal again, as I zoom between different cyberspaces. An alien petitioner on pilgrimage for digital alms to build digital tools to produce more digital alms. My family has packed me a half-full Kirkland container of pistachios. In Mandarin, we call them “happy nuts.” I crack open pistachios between calls, and shells of happiness pile up to the left of my webcam.
Every morning, I wake up and apply a thin layer of sunscreen. When I was younger I read dermatology papers obsessively and now wore sunscreen every day. This is the only part of my self-care routine that persists for the next few weeks, even as every other semblance of normality dissipates. I develop strange red triangles under my eyes that remind me of the face paint on the Joker in a card set I had once lost. I take all my video calls perched on a storage stool in front of a large mirror. It is a setup for admiring one’s face, not for digital fundraising marathons. In between video calls, where I watch my face alternate between excitement and seriousness, I rest my eyes on my reflection in the mirror, gently smooth cream over the rough red skin, and feel my face burn.
If one must imagine Sisyphus happy, then one must imagine entrepreneurs happy, these glistening heroes of the American imaginary.
Late in the night, I scroll through articles of smooth-skinned and smiling young people under headlines with obscene numbers. If one must imagine Sisyphus happy, then one must imagine entrepreneurs happy, these glistening heroes of the American imaginary. I imagine myself as the subject of one of these articles. I imagine myself happy, the skin under my eyes smooth. Other than the happy nuts, I don’t have time to eat. I think of holy female anorexics, who fasted so that they might see God, and wonder what I am fasting for.
All my communications move to text or Signal in an effort to consolidate my information streams. Founders, mostly the male ones, encourage me to raise at a higher valuation, to get aggressive, to play things fast and loose. Founders, mostly the female ones, warn me to be careful. I do reference checks with founders, on the venture capitalists that offer me millions, as I’m supposed to, staying mostly on-script. I try to beam my questions to them, like some request for shaktipat: Is the investor a good person? Are they the sort of person you want to line the pockets of? Are you happy when you wake up? I hope that these founders feel the subtext in my questions. I mine their answers for potential subtext, alternate readings, anything at all, and come up blank.
Mexico has not yet solved the last-mile connectivity problem. I fight with the Wi-Fi gods to no avail. Questions from investors arrive in drips and drops, smiles frozen midway in strange grimaces. Sometimes, they ask where I am, and I apologize profusely. It is bad timing on my part, I say, to move to Cancun in the middle of a raise process. I wonder if they feel like they are talking to a glitchy cyborg.
I test out different spots in the house for calls. While speaking with a partner at one of the world’s top seed funds, their smiling face suddenly freezes on my screen. Shit, shit. I swear under my breath, turn my video off, and decide to try a space outside. I remember that the hallway right in front of the balcony had done well during a cursory internet speed test. I step outside barefoot onto the small balcony, close the door behind me for privacy, then sit down cross-legged on the red tile. The face begins to move again and then freezes yet again. I test the door, and realize I have locked myself outside. I am beyond the worldly grasp of connectivity and cannot do anything about it. I close my laptop and relax into fifteen minutes of something almost like peace.
I grew up telling stories, and I am in my element as I tell stories over and over again. Stories about myself and my upbringing. Stories about the company’s metrics, and stories about where the company is going. Past, present, and future layered on top of each other in a complex wheel, births and deaths and reincarnations and re-imaginings. Every call, I leave feeling that I have made a successful case: the one and only conclusion, both necessary and sufficient, of my story was that I would start the most successful AI-powered marketing company the world had ever seen.
One of my last video calls with the top tech venture fund in the world is taken outside by the pool, with the sun streaming behind me. I feel like a fiery angel, executing the algorithm of how to raise a successful seed round as if it were a divine mandate from the universe.
I wonder if investors would have been so excited about handing me millions of dollars if they had met me in person, without the armor of the Zoom blur feature and Wi-Fi delays. On good days, I am five foot three. On bad days, the red triangles under my eyes are terrifying. In person, I wouldn’t have been able to hide the septum ring that was just thin enough not to show on video calls—it catches the light obviously in meatspace.
As more and more term sheets come in, I feel the same nervous excitement I had at the airport. But now, I am bone-tired. It is the sort of tiredness that makes me want to lie in the sand and bury my neck there, along with all the other humans patiently awaiting oblivion.
There’s one investor I’m quite excited to meet. I pace around my room steadying myself before our call. I’m ready to weave my story, having already woven it a dozen times today. But he cuts in before I can finish my monologue.
Why are you doing this?
I answer, and he repeats the same question. Each time it feels like the emphasis rests on a different word. Why are you doing this? Why are you doing this? Why are you doing this?
The question of the company itself falls quickly behind us. He speaks of airdropping teddy bears all over the African continent that carry essential nutrients inside their bellies and can simulate real human hugs. I tell him about my dreams of being a writer, of the immense burden and gift of my own subjective experience, of being constantly overwhelmed by the beauty and ugliness of what I perceive. He laughs a silvery, ringing laugh that makes me understand what Hesse meant when he described the laugh of the immortals. He sold his first company a decade ago, and is now merely outrunning death, but he is no longer afraid of it.
I never see this person’s face. I prefer to keep it that way, to remember them as a disembodied voice in the ether, entirely free.
I hang up and fall asleep. I dream a dream I’ve dreamed many times: the trip I’d take my dad on if I were rich. He loves Les Miserables; it is the only movie he has watched multiple times. We have dinner somewhere in Tribeca, somewhere where the menu doesn’t have prices, then take a yellow cab up to the theatre, the biggest in New York. When the curtain comes up, my father begins to cry immediately. I watch him out of the corner of my eye with something like curiosity. By the time the third death happens, I am frustrated with myself that I have not yet cried. At intermission, I hug my dad, give him my tissue pack, and go to the washroom to inspect my face. I try to make myself cry, and instead red triangles bloom under my eyes.
I wake up and call my sister. I tell her about all the term sheets. I don’t tell her about the dream. I talk quickly and seriously, not letting her interrupt. At the end, framed as an afterthought, I tell her that another potential path has emerged—an acquisition. I spell out that path more hesitantly. It would mean that I could leave the company, while she would have to stay on. It would mean I would be free to pursue other dreams to which this particular project had originally only been instrumental, before it had started to fill up my entire life. While I wait for her reply, I watch the moon outside my window. It is large and bright. I always have to watch my mood when the moon fills my vision like this.
“Big sister, you don’t sound so well. I worked on this company with you because I wanted you to be free, in order to be well. That was the whole point. I love you. I trust you to do whatever you think is right.”
It was as if some missing pin had been slotted into place, cleanly dismantling a massive and indestructible mental construction. As the construction imploded, it screamed. But you’ve already convinced so many people to support you. You could be happy doing this, maybe, starting a B2B SaaS company and telling yourself you’re saving the world. A different tack: You need to amend your morals; if in fact small is beautiful then it should be enough that you are able to salary people you believe in. A final swipe: what kind of storyteller are you, then, that you convinced so many others and not yourself?
The skyscraper of justifications and counterarguments fall all at once, cleaving possible futures in its wake. Ones in which I keep telling this story, where my self-concept becomes even more inextricably tied to that of the company. These futures play across my mind, miniature films. I watch myself play a successful prophet for the religion of my company. I watch as various successes lit up my eyes but not my soul, and failures scarr me permanently, as I remember this moment and the choice I made, and what that says about my values. I watch as I stop going to bookstores, because seeing different variants of the common critique, “the best minds of my generation are consumed by improving click-through rates”, becomes so painful that it almost drives me insane.
The morning sunlight paints the insides of my eyelids soft red. I am awake again, and ready to work. I have to tell new stories now in response to new questions, but these stories feel more true.
Why do you want to sell the company now, when it’s doing so well? Because I don’t want to spend my youth on this problem. It doesn’t make me come alive.
Well, what do you want to work on? I don’t know. I’d like to go back to school perhaps, and write for a bit. Oh, and music. I miss that a lot. I think it’s quite likely that I will start other things, as a serial planter of seeds. Some might look like companies.
Why were you going through a fundraising process, then? And what changed your mind? Because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do. That’s the story I was told, and the one I told myself.. I learned a lot from telling the story, most importantly that I didn’t want to live this exact one. There are so many other stories to tell and inhabit. The moment when I finally understood an equation on a chalkboard. The glint in my father’s eyes as he tells me about how he knelt at Tiananmen. How I tenderize the piano with my hands, and how it tenderizes me.
At the height of the GameStop frenzy, I have a strange, terrifying realization. What if I was being catfished? The deal had been miraculously timed, and everything had been going almost too smoothly. I texted the acquirer. Can I FaceTime you very quickly?
His face matches his profile page on the firm’s website. Smiling, smooth-skinned, clearly wealthy. Great, I just called you to verify you had a face. Thanks. Bye!
The man would tell me later, after the deal closed, that he thought the interaction had been very funny. An unprecedented event, he chuckled.
The deal is finalized on Chinese New Year. I fold dumplings with my housemates, most of whom work in crypto. For Chinese people, dumplings are a sign of prosperity. They ask me if I am rich. I shrug. They all think fiat is fake anyway. But I do say a small prayer inside as thanks for my salvation, for allowing me the road less travelled by.
It’s been a few months. Not much has changed. My friends talk of impending war, predictions around the timing of the next pandemic, and sketch their plans for the apocalypse. I joke that my praxis is non-instrumental time, what the young people call “hanging out”, after a decade of being painfully on. I have space to breathe.
I do often think of the constructions and stories I built, and how easily they might have remained unfelled, growing deeper and deeper roots into the very inner sanctums of my soul. How could I have come so close to harming myself in this way, to offloading my thinking to templates and playbooks? How could I have not allowed myself time to think? How did I get so close to executing other people’s algorithms without judgement, taste, or real pleasure?
Sometimes, I look at my face and touch my scars. Sometimes I talk to my friends who are just beginning their careers in technology, and I want to grab them by the shoulders and shake them. Please, please keep reminding yourself who you are and what you’re fighting for. Or else you might grow at supernatural speed into a beautiful tree, and everyone will admire your flowers and your fruits, but you will know that in growing so quickly you have become ungrounded, have lost any real driving principle, have lost your roots.
Most times, though, I stay quiet. I think, one day I’ll write a story about this. I think about all the ways that people who hope to impress some beautiful dream upon the world yet end up caught up in side quests justify the work they’re doing. I hope that when they finally make it, finally free themselves, that they do not retreat from the world into fancy villas, tired and jaded.
I am careful now to avoid blithely following algorithms, and I am wary of putting off the practice and pursuit of transcendent value. I try to think about, and talk through with friends, options that aren’t explicitly on the table. I think about how humanity has always been searching for the answer of how to be, what to do, what stories to tell in the face of seeming apocalypse. I feel the light behind my face, bright and moon-like. I choose to lift my head.