Today's Reading

A COLLISION WITH FATE

While I can now discuss serendipity from different standpoints, my journey to it and its power began with a personal incident in which juvenile hubris met bad luck.

As an eighteen-year-old in Germany, I crashed my car into several parked cars at a speed of more than 50 mph. Miraculously, I survived, but the cars I hit were severely damaged, as was my own. Until then I had never really believed stories about near-death experiences. But my life really did flash before my eyes in the split second before that collision, when my car was spinning out of control and I felt absolutely powerless, certain that I would die.

In the days that followed I asked myself questions. Many questions. "If I had died, who would have come to my funeral?" "Who would have actually cared?" "Was it all worth it?" I realized that I had been neglecting some of the most important parts of life, like treasuring deep and lasting relationships and being proud of doing something relevant and meaningful.

My narrow escape made me consider what my death would have meant in terms of lost opportunities: the people I would not have met, the ideas and dreams that I would never have explored, the (serendipitous) events and encounters that would have been missed.

The accident and the realizations that came from it set me on a journey to search for what life was really about.

I grew up in Heidelberg, a historic and romantic city in southern Germany that, while beautiful, is a bit sleepy when you are a teenager set on exploring what life is all about.

Ever since I can remember, I had always felt that I did not belong. My family moved several times when I was young, so I was often "the new kid" in school, and on the soccer club I was "the incomer." The skin problems I suffered back then were the icing on the cake.

My retreat was the coffee shop where I started to work when I was sixteen. It was there that I began to feel I had found my tribe. Working there as a waiter taught me a lot about human behavior and group dynamics, such as how people treat you if they assume that you're "just a waiter," and the value of physical work, of working from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. without a real break.

My boss at the coffee shop was an entrepreneur, and it wasn't long before I was helping him on different projects, from selling imported T-shirts to driving cake deliveries as soon as I turned eighteen. About that time I also started working part-time for a market research company, asking people in Heidelberg's main street which size of sausages they would prefer to buy, and why. Would they be open to buy salami instead of pastrami if it was cheaper?

I had lots of energy but I was never sure what to do with it. I tried to create excitement wherever possible, and I tested all kinds of boundaries in order to channel my energy. I veered between extremes: spending time with a group of left-wing activists (during my French/German-reggae phase) and going to clubs, while starting to invest my work money in the stock market—my parents having given, with hesitation, the bank authorization to deal with a minor. (To this day, I have deep admiration for my parents, who handled my rebellious streaks with grace and understanding.) I started to spend more time on the telephone in my school's basement to buy and sell stocks than I did in the classroom.

***

I always enjoyed tapping in and out of these very different worlds—I enjoyed them but never really felt at home. Naturally, these various explorations did not help my grades. I was a terrible student—I was in the 5 percent of the class that made the top 95 percent possible. I had to repeat a year and was "offered the opportunity to change schools"—a nice way of saying that I was expelled. The next school I attended fortunately proved to be more understanding about my rebellious streaks.

When I turned eighteen, I got my first car. It was exciting and I transferred my hedonistic and overoptimistic attitude into my driving style. I probably broke the city records in the number of parking tickets one driver can accrue in a week and the number of trash cans someone can knock over on the way to school.

Still, I felt in total control of life, of my destiny.

And then, one day, I pushed too far. The car accident shuttered my confidence and sense of control.
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