A 35-year-old CEO who sold his first startup for $1 billion says he relied on alcohol for years to escape facing his life. Here's why he's giving it up permanently.

justin kan atrium ceoFlickr/Web Summit

  • Justin Kan is a mid-30s entrepreneur who sold his previous startup, Twitch, to Amazon for $1 billion, and has raised millions in VC funding for his current project, the legal startup Atrium.
  • On Twitter, Kan recently explained why he's decided to give up alcohol permanently, even though it's been a big part of his identity since he was in high school.
  • "As a young founder in high-stress situations, I often used alcohol to escape facing things," he wrote.
  • Kan also published a personal guide to Feeling Good after realizing that he's the happiest he's ever been in his adult life.
  • With his permission, we've shared his Tweets about alcohol below, along with the best tips from his Feeling Good guide.
  • Among other things, he suggests committing to five minutes of journaling a day for a week, turning your cell phone to grayscale to reduce its addictiveness, and giving therapy a try.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

I've decided to quit drinking alcohol permanently. This will be a tough challenge for me: Drinking has been a big part of my identity since I was in high school. Unfortunately, it's also been an unhealthy way to avoid being fully in touch with my emotions and my experience of life.

As a young founder in high-stress situations, I often used alcohol to escape facing things. I've struggled with this for a long time, and while I think I've gotten better over time, I believe that this is the last thing preventing me from actualizing my 100% conscious self.

Normally I would keep this private, but I hope for two things here: One, to encourage others who have struggled the same way, and two, to hold myself publicly accountable to my personal commitment.

I've been using the Streaks app to build a habit here (every day I don't drink, I extend the streak). Building a habit with an app has worked really well for me with meditation (93 days straight on Insight Timer!). (Editor's note: At the time of this publishing, Kan has made it to 56 days straight without drinking and 143 days of meditation.)

Screen Shot 2019 06 05 at 1.17.32 PMjustin kan tweetTwitter, Justin Kan

Personal change is building a practice or habit one day at a time. There are no silver bullets in life. The good news it is possible for anyone to build a new habit.

You can have all the success in the world and still be unhappy or engage in toxic behaviors (and you will not be alone). But it is never too late to make changes in your life. I wish you the very best in your journey.

BTW, I will still meet you for a drink… but I will have soda water.

It seems like there's interest from others in joining me. If anyone is interested in joining a support group chat on Telegram, send me your handle and I'll make one (even if it's just a temporary change for you).

Guide to feeling good

I decided to write this guide because I have been pretty happy recently. I would go as far as to say that I am the happiest I've ever been (in a sustained way) in my adult life, and completely independent of my external circumstances. This is how I've done it.

Note: I started off as a beginner in each of these areas, and personally have relatively low willpower. The following things aren't very hard to do, they just require repetition, consistent reminders, and practice.

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1. Taking time for gratitude with 5-minute journaling

1. Taking time for gratitude with 5-minute journaling

I started off using The Five Minute Journal, a simple app that asks you every morning to name three things you are grateful for, as well as three things you are going to do to make that day great, and the positive affirmations you have for yourself that day. Explicit gratitude is important because it helps re-contextualize the short term negative things that happen to you throughout the day in the greater context of all the positives in your life.

The good thing about the journal is that it really just takes five minutes a day. My recommendation is that you commit to it for a week (that is only a commitment of 35 minutes) and then see if you feel better.

2. Negative visualization

2. Negative visualization

One stoic practice I've adopted is negative visualization, the practice of imagining (with as much detail as possible), what your life would be like if something bad happened to you. What if you got cancer? What if you became paralyzed? What if your company fell apart and you had to get another job?

By imagining the worst case scenarios very vividly, two things happen. First, you realize that you would adapt to them; the human mind and body are very adaptable and people have adapted to far worse things that you have or will likely ever experience. Second, when you are done, you will wake up in your real life and realize how awesome it is.

3. Meditation

3. Meditation

I'm pretty new to meditation. I started off using Headspace, which worked reasonably well to create a sense of calm for me throughout the day. After a couple of months, I would do focused meditation following my breath (on average once every other day) for about 10 minutes.

I'm now doing Transcendental Meditation (TM), which Ray Dalio recommends in Principles: Life and Work. TM is a form of mantra meditation that is quite easy to adopt, that you do in two 20-minute daily sessions (I do them right when I wake up, and then in a supply closet at work in the afternoon). While this is a big time commitment, I feel like it has paid dividends to my daily happiness, energy, and ability to be present.

Read more: Ray Dalio runs the world's most successful hedge fund according to these 20 management principles

4. Using the phone less

4. Using the phone less

You have voluntarily decided to carry around a toxic, time-wasting Skinner-box in your pocket at all times, from the second you wake up in the morning to right before you fall asleep at night. This is incredibly stupid, and yet every smart person does it.

After realizing I was spending 5.5 hours a day on my phone, I decided I needed to kick the habit. I tried to go phoneless, and replace my phone with an Apple Watch, but unfortunately I still wanted to use some utility apps like Uber and Venmo. The solution I've settled on is that I've turned my phone to grayscale (to reduce its addictiveness; go to Color Filters in Settings), deleted email, Slack, and all entertainment apps (YouTube, Twitch, Instagram, and even the browser), deleted the app store (locking it with a passcode that I don't have access to). My phone is now only useful for reading, music, texting; I find myself using it much, much less, at basically no cost to my quality of life.

5. Exercising more

5. Exercising more

I try to exercise every day, even if it is just five minutes of crunches or push-ups. In order to hold myself accountable, I have a trainer who shows up at my house 3x a week (I built a small gym in my garage). If you can't afford a trainer, I suggest committing to meet a friend at the gym on a regular schedule: a social commitment will further obligate you to go to the gym, and remove it from being an active decision that you need willpower to make.

Eating better

Eating better

I started experimenting with diets last year as well, after discovering that I was particularly sensitive to carbohydrates. For the first six months of 2018, I tried to stick to eating a ketogenic diet (this is a good guide to keto), which worked well to increase alertness and reduce fatigue throughout the day, but was hard to keep to. For the second six months, I tried intermittent fasting (IF) and eating only one meal a day during the weekdays (dinner), and eating whatever I wanted for that meal. IF seemed easier to stick to and had about 65% of the benefits of keto.

7. Trying therapy

7. Trying therapy

I was very resistant to trying therapy. Finally, after a breaking point at a previous company, I realized I had to make a change and found someone. This was life-changing for me: I worked through a lot of paralyzing guilt around failure that I felt, and learned how to detach myself from my daily emotional ups and downs. I still see someone (a different person) today.

Unfortunately, many people don't have a close, impartial person they can talk to; therapy simulates this by making it someone else's job. If you're new to therapy, I recommend that you talk to a couple of therapists before picking someone. You want to find someone you vibe with, who you feel you can learn from, and that you respect. That might take a few tries.

8. Removing attachment

8. Removing attachment

I try to actively remind myself that attachment to outcomes (future successes, or even things staying the same as they are now) will only cause my own suffering. Of course, this is very hard to actively hold in your mind.

The truth is that one day we will all lose everything we have, will ever have, love, and will ever love. Your friends and family will grow old and die, your fame will be forgotten, your health will fail, and eventually you will die. That might seem scary or sad, but it's not! The sooner you accept that life is change and that you can't control the outcomes, the freer you will be.

9. Being authentic

9. Being authentic

In an effort to connect in a more deep and authentic way with people around me, I've started to try to tell people more of the positive emotions I feel towards them. For my friends, I will literally say things like, "I just wanted to tell you that I appreciate your friendship, and I've always admired that you are someone who connects well with other people as that is something I've always aspired to myself." At work, it might be something like, "I wanted to tell you I appreciate your willingness to give me constructive criticism; I know it is not always easy to honestly criticize the CEO. I think that takes guts and it has helped me improve."

The responses I've received have been surprisingly positive. Instead of being awkward as I'd feared, my friends and relationships have expressed gratitude for these authentic sentiments. (Of course, when you do this, it is important that you are actually authentic and not just blowing smoke up your friend's ass.)

10. Feeling and naming emotions

10. Feeling and naming emotions

A big realization for me was that emotions (anger, sadness, fear, joy, excitement) are neither good nor bad; they're just a form of data. I've become committed to feeling all my emotions (and not trying to avoid them through escapes like drinking alcohol or distracting myself through media). Also, I've tried to develop the skill of being able to name those emotions explicitly with myself and other people ("I feel anger right now") as a way to drive more deeply into the underlying interpersonal issues ("I think this may be because I don't feel heard by you in this conversation"). This was very scary to do when I was first starting out (generally we are afraid that talking about our "bad" emotions might cause others around us to withdraw their approval), but has really helped me connect more deeply and authentically with people around me, both at work and at home.

A fuller version of this article originally appeared on Justin Kan's blog.

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