Susie Wyshak sits down to talk human to me about having the will to live despite the odds, how resilience is an important life skill, her journey with cancer, finding ways to be grateful especially in moments of depression, living consciously, maximizing her life, and finding synchronicity and coincidences.
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Our Conversation with Susie Wyshak
00:00 Jeffrey Shiau: Okay. Susie, I've been wanting to do this Talk Human to Me episode with you for probably... Yes, since two years ago. You were actually a person in mind before I even wanted to get serious about this show. Thank you so much for hanging out with me today.
00:23 Susie Wyshak: I'm glad to be here. I've never had so much pressure to be human before. [laughter]
00:29 Jeffrey Shiau: That's awesome. Well, we'll load on the pressure right from the start 'cause I start every episode with the same question, and it's "What about humans strikes you the most?"
00:48 Susie Wyshak: It strikes me the most that so many humans have the will to live and the ability to live despite the world around them and despite all odds. I think a lot about people who survived long marches and the Holocaust, and all of the wars, and all of the stuff going on around the world. Even homeless people, I see for decades, who live on the streets, and how they live. I see them every day, doing what they do, and then there are other people who don't live and I just... People who wanna have babies and just sort of the human will to live and the will to be human. [chuckle] Is that heavy enough?
01:39 Jeffrey Shiau: That's really heavy. I would love to actually learn about why that's seeded in you as one of the core perspectives. This question usually leads to someone or something that's dear to people. What I'm hearing here is the human ability to want to live, or the lack of the ability, plus the human ability to bring new life. Why does that matter so much to you?
02:19 Susie Wyshak: I think it's something... I've been an observer ever since I was young and ever since I was young I always felt like I didn't wanna have children. I'd want to adopt children or foster children 'cause there were so many kids who needed people, same with animals. I've always lived with sort of a light footprint and thought about both improving myself and being the person I want to be. Thinking about the strength that people have, and would I have that strength and would I...
My college boyfriend's dad had been in a concentration camp and he was a happy person. I think he always had a sadness with him but he ended up having a great life when I knew him. Just having gone to UC Berkeley, living on Telegraph, and seeing people living on the street and hearing about them wanting to build housing and thinking about people who might choose to have that kind of, I'll say, happy-go-lucky lifestyle only in having seen people in people's park reading books all day. I think there are people who see it as maybe the ultimate freedom from mainstream life.
I just have always... The earth is human and maybe it was that Twilight Zone I saw when I was young were the earth was an experiment by people from other galaxies and sometimes I wonder about that. And especially now that we have this threat of North Korea and a nuclear weapon. I think about it even more because it's like we are so at the mercy of things that we can't control. I know I'm sort of rambling now. [chuckle]
04:35 Jeffrey Shiau: No.
04:36 Susie Wyshak: I just think about what it is my parents... I think everyone has had hard times and thinking about resilience and how to create resilience, and how to be resilient despite all the odds. I guess that resilience encapsulates it and what I've seen in people who are resilient and how they are that way and what keeps them going. [chuckle]
05:08 Jeffrey Shiau: I love to actually... It would be an honor to just maybe get a glimpse into the types of conversations that, around resilience, maybe that you've had with your parents or with your... Is that your... You said your college boyfriend or...
05:26 Susie Wyshak: Yeah, I mean...
05:26 Jeffrey Shiau: Your college boyfriend's father, right?
05:28 Susie Wyshak: Yeah.
05:33 Jeffrey Shiau: I think surviving a concentration camp is... You can say that is one of the pinnacle examples of resilience. What was it like talking with him? Was there a tone of voice? Was there a special feeling that you had every time you had a conversation with him?
05:53 Susie Wyshak: Well the interesting thing is... I actually have a video of him on YouTube. I think it might be private, but right the year before he died, he'd talked about how the Russians came, and he was very animated. It was almost kind of like an anecdote. I've never spoken to him about, "What was it like when you didn't have any food?" I just think... I've talked to other people whose parents were in concentration camps about just how they survived as orphans, or saw their families killed, and then went on...
Someone I know whose father sold cherries door to door, and he had blonde hair, and a woman took him in, even though she assumed he was Jewish, but she just wanted to help him. Those are just astounding stories. When I hear about people walking thousands of miles, or... I love entrepreneurial stories of people. I listen to "How I Built This," and the story of the founder of... I can't even remember, those cartoon. Do you listen to it?
07:21 Jeffrey Shiau: No. I know it's a really popular podcast.
07:25 Susie Wyshak: I don't even remember his name, but anyway, it was just amazing. I'll tell you, for the most part, my parents weren't big talkers. They both passed away last year. But just seeing how my mom got through a lot of hardships with this ridiculous optimism that drove me crazy, [laughter] because it was against all odds, but she was one of the strongest, most resilient people I knew. I always admire that, no matter how much it drove me crazy in the process.
08:05 Jeffrey Shiau: These features and characteristics of resilience. Thank you again for sharing the kind of experiences you had observing these people. I’d like to actually know, before that or within that, why it's so important personally to you, just as Susie?
08:29 Susie Wyshak: It's important to me because I think that's one of the number one life skills that makes for a happy, fulfilling, long life. I think it's important for kids to get through problems, to get through bullying, or disappointments, or anything bad that happens. It's to be able to bounce back and have perspective, and have a plan for what's next. I often see that when things happen or if I haven't gotten a job, or if I didn't land an apartment I want or whatever, I came to learn, as I got older, that something better was always around the corner, and there was a reason it didn't happen, and that's happened for me. I don't know if it is because of my attitude, or if it's because I believe in signs and that everything happens for a reason. But I think at the core, not getting depressed and just being able to be resilient, and think like, "How can I get through this? What should I do?" Connect with people to ask for help. That's a core skill in life.
09:53 Jeffrey Shiau: Do you feel at your core if... On a weekly basis, do you feel that you generally hold a view of high optimism and positivity? Or that your mind does wander towards things that... Where you have to practice resilience more often than other people who are maybe super bouncy and positive all the time?
10:22 Susie Wyshak: I definitely am optimistic. Honestly, I'm not optimistic in the macro sense of the world today.
10:32 Jeffrey Shiau: Right, right, right.
10:32 Susie Wyshak: But I do things and think things of like, "What can I do? What am I in control of?" And think about different plans of like, "If this were to happen, what would I do? What could happen? What would I do?" In my mind, I plan a lot and try to create experiences that will prevent me from having to be resilient, but I try to project ahead so that if something happened that I would have a way to be resilient. Instead of stuck, I guess, stuck and hopeless would be the opposite of resilient.
11:21 Jeffrey Shiau: Right. In terms of feeling stuck and hopeless, and learning that and having that skill. I'm sure it came from previous lessons. Can you talk about one of those pivotal moments in your life where you did feel stuck, and you did feel hopeless, and the beginning of your lifelong journey of resilience was really tested there?
12:00 Susie Wyshak: That's a good question. [chuckle] Well, probably one of the most pivotal moments was when I was in a job that I hated and I had asked to be laid off. The day they did the layoffs I found out I had cancer. But I was living...
12:22 Jeffrey Shiau: How old were you at that time?
12:25 Susie Wyshak: I was in my late 30s.
12:30 Jeffrey Shiau: Late 30s, okay.
12:32 Susie Wyshak: I was living across the country and I knew nothing about cancer. I had never known anyone who had cancer, which seems hard to believe now, since it seems like everyone's doing it. [laughter]
12:49 Jeffrey Shiau: Yeah. I love that you joke about it right now.
12:52 Susie Wyshak: I actually immediately reached out to my network. The previous time in my life, when my life fell apart, I reached out to my friends and that's when I realized that having a network of friends was more important than anything. Being able to reach out to people and they all... People I never knew were my friends helped me. What happened when I reached out about, I asked... I don't even remember, it was before Facebook, so it was probably better because I think I emailed people and then they emailed their friends. I found out the best place to get treatment.
One of my friends offered for me to live with her for free and said she'll take care of me. I had to ship all my things back to California myself. PS, the company said, "It's too late, you're being laid off." [laughter]
14:00 Jeffrey Shiau: Wow.
14:00 Susie Wyshak: I know. Anyway, and it all worked out. It was an amazing time in my life.
14:12 Jeffrey Shiau: That's like a huge juxtaposition in life in the way cancer was an amazing time in your life. Why did you describe it that way?
14:21 Susie Wyshak: Well, I think, you can either be depressed and whiny, but I was so grateful. That's when I was grateful for everything. I was grateful to my friend. I was grateful to be back home, grateful to be out of the job. I was grateful that within one day I got on disability. So, I had some income during the process. I had access to the best doctors and I just had time to think about what I wanted to do with my life.
You later heard Steve Jobs talking about how you aren't afraid of anything after that 'cause you're like, "Whatever!" [laughter] I think I went through that. I'll tell you something funny. At the time, I wasn't able to drink coffee because you just weren't supposed to, and I felt so peaceful. Once I started drinking coffee again after, I felt like, "Oh, I'm myself again!" But I often wonder like, "Would I be a better person if I didn't drink coffee?" I'm like, "Nah!" [laughter]
15:43 Jeffrey Shiau: Liquid gold.
15:45 Susie Wyshak: [laughter] It's like... Yeah. The treatment went well and that's when I developed, I don't know if I told you about that website, Super Viva, where...
16:00 Jeffrey Shiau: No, no.
16:01 Susie Wyshak: Oh. Well, I decided... It was before it was in the web 2.0 or "two dot oh," or whatever they said, heyday. I was trying to raise funding for this website where people could make lists of life goals, like Netflix for life goals. I ended up hiring a developer and created it 'cause I was like, "If I die, I wanna have a way to inspire people, even if I'm not around, and generate ideas." The site was pretty cool. I had never raised funding so I dumped a bunch of money into it. I had actually proposed something like this at my job and they loved it, but they were like, "We're not doing it."
16:47 Jeffrey Shiau: How quickly did you go back to working?
16:50 Susie Wyshak: Well, I started... That was... Elance was around already, which is now part of Upwork, and so while I was getting my treatment, I started wri... I had been a product manager; it was an Internet company. So I was able to... I wrote a spec and I was doing it while I was getting my treatment. It was when AdWords was new, and I was... It was a pretty good strategy. I still don't know why this hasn't taken off. I mean, it would be the perfect thing for Facebook to do. Whatever. Steal my idea!
But anyway, so while I was getting my treatment I helped someone. I did a sale of... I was trying to be useful, so I was very active, trying to make contributions to the world. I was lucky. I didn't have side effects, so I wasn't bedridden from, you know, and having... It wasn't like a horror... My treatment wasn't a horror story.
18:00 Jeffrey Shiau: Right.
18:01 Susie Wyshak: It was a really... I was grateful for that, too. I really learned gratitude during that period and...
18:10 Jeffrey Shiau: What does it mean... How would you describe your view of what gratitude means to someone now?
18:19 Susie Wyshak: Good question. I think it's... I'm thankful... I actually put myself to sleep thinking of all the little things I'm grateful for. It's like a way of thinking that... I don't know about chemical things [chuckle] in your brain but I'm pretty sure I've read that it releases some kind of chemicals that make you happy and it's... Last night someone invited me to a Seder dinner and I was just grateful to be able to partake in that and meet new people, and have this good food, and that it was close to me. It's just being thankful for what you have and appreciative, and letting the people know especially who you're grateful for. How would you define gratitude? [chuckle]
19:15 Jeffrey Shiau: You know what? I actually... Well, for me, I had an experience as well where, with my health, where I think a lot of things came into perspective including gratitude, including what the term "relationship" and what a relationship meant to me, and what was overall important to me, and what also didn't matter to me. I think I became very focused on the "me" and understanding that, before trying to spread myself and create this worldview. Because I realized I can't really participate in a worldview or with a relationship with someone until [chuckle] if I'm not well, right?
I think gratitude soon became something that became very personal. That's why when I talk with people now I always ask them, or I try to ask them more often, when they mention a word that I think... A lot of words are buzzwords now, especially in the Bay. I always like to pause and say [chuckle], "Actually, what does that word actually mean to you?" Like the word "consciousness" is thrown around left and right [chuckle] in the Bay. I always ask, "Wait a second. Can I actually ask you? I don't really understand consciousness from a technical point but what does it actually mean to you?" And then they'll describe it. It's really fascinating because it's always different from people to people, right?
21:08 Susie Wyshak: Well, I would like to chime in on consciousness 'cause I often think about double standards [chuckle] also.
21:15 Jeffrey Shiau: Right.
21:15 Susie Wyshak: I don't use... I think being conscious is... Conscious versus consciousness. I guess consciousness is the state of being conscious. One thing like... Now pedestrians have the right to walk across the corner whenever they want. But I always wonder, first of all, are they worried about being hit by a car that doesn't see them? What is the impact on the environment of waiting for a second, so a car that's going 30 miles an hour doesn't have to stop and then start again, to wait for you to cross. Just so many... I'm so into living in a state of flow and so I always, if a car is turning the corner in front of me, I let them go because to me their car flowing is more important than my saving two seconds to run in front of them and have them have to stop and start again.
22:24 Jeffrey Shiau: Right.
22:25 Susie Wyshak: I think, I go back to people having all these kids in this world and it's like the world is really different now than it was 40 years ago [chuckle] or something. I don't know what it's gonna be like but I just think when people, especially where I live, I love that there are all these techies moving in, 'cause I have these sides of me that find it interesting. I have an Airbnb rental but I can see... I feel like people... There are so many issues with rentals and the lack of housing, and the high price of the real estate market that are tied together, that people don't talk about all the time. I think living consciously, sometimes it fits into a definition of what's a good marketing [chuckle] message or how can I position myself as someone who does yoga and drinks pressed local juice and that's conscious living. I think paying attention and being kind to people, and doing things that make common sense are of key to conscious living.
23:57 Jeffrey Shiau: How does that perspective guide the relationships that you've made, especially since that pivotal experience in your life. You briefly mentioned how relationships became very, almost more distilled, more focused, you become more conscious about who cared about you.
24:28 Susie Wyshak: I'll tell you one thing. I spent the last few years helping my parents as they aged and seeing... I put signs up all over my mom's apartment telling her to ask strangers for help, and helped her get around with Uber and Lyft. She really found this freedom in asking for help and letting go of her conceptions of pride and things like that.
24:54 Jeffrey Shiau: Was she a very proud person?
24:56 Susie Wyshak: Oh yeah. Yeah, and private. I hear that a lot about her generation and struggles of kids with their parents, that they don't wanna share when they have problems, they don't wanna ask for help. In terms of being conscious, I always, I mean not always, but I try to talk to older people and if I see people on the... I know these aren't my direct connections but the populations of people that are normally invisible or that people don't notice, I converse with them, I ask if they need help carrying something, or if they seem lost or whatever.
I don't wanna wait until I see a notice that there's some issue and it can make all the difference with these people to pay attention, especially if they don't have family around or if they're having these changes in their life that could put them at risk. I find older people so interesting, too. I try to say hello to people on the street 'cause so many people are looking at their phones just... I think everyone can trigger something in the people around them, whether it's letting people know that they matter, or that they're noticed, that their presence is making a difference in the world.
I try to do small things like saying "Hello" or making a comment to someone and that might make them think, "Oh yeah, it is fun to talk to strangers on the street," or "Oh yeah, that's what a neighborhood is." I really try to do these small things to trigger change. To me that's another way of living consciously, by being conscious of the people around you and the place around you.
27:04 Jeffrey Shiau: Was that something, the practice of those small gestures, was that something recent or was that something that you feel you've always had your entire life?
27:16 Susie Wyshak: I think I've accelerated it more or I make more of a point now. If I'm sitting next to an older person at a cafe, I'll talk to them and just engage with people more. Part of it is 'cause I miss my parents. My parents had always talked to strangers, which I loved, but I just try to do it more 'cause I think now it's more important now that so many people are looking at their phones. I think it's a skill that people are losing as they become more introverted. I think in 20 years there's gonna be an introversion crisis, or 10 years [chuckle], or five years. It's just like a way of putting it out there to remind people or trigger them that hey, there are people who wanna talk to you, and it actually can be fun and interesting. [chuckle]
28:24 Jeffrey Shiau: Right. I just find this interesting, the way we've been having this conversation. We started with resilience, and at its core, I think a lot of that really means, in a way... The resilience, the threads of resilience to you is relationships as well. Right?
28:48 Susie Wyshak: Yeah.
28:49 Jeffrey Shiau: Just being conscious about your other humans around you, and how you present yourself to those people.
29:01 Susie Wyshak: I think living, in a way... I've always loved finding solutions to problems, and I think that has helped in every... Helped me and helps other people.
29:13 Jeffrey Shiau: Right. Do you think that's always been in your life or was it hyperactivated after, every time there was some sort of tribulation that you had to overcome?
29:29 Susie Wyshak: When I was in high school, as I was learning about myself and learning that... I went through a phase, like a lot of kids, where I was insecure and underachieving, and then I don't know what happened to me but I decided that I wanted to overachieve, and work, and do... I actually took Taekwondo which I loved and I realized I was strong, and so... I haven't been... I'm not a super athlete by any means, but I've tried to do things that were stretches for me. I think finding success, the times I've stressed myself, has always helped me. I grew up in a family where we laughed about problems or joked. Luckily, I have a few sisters and we're all very close and supportive of each other, so that's like my tightest network, and...
30:35 Jeffrey Shiau: How many sisters do you have?
30:37 Susie Wyshak: Three.
30:38 Jeffrey Shiau: Three sisters? Any brothers?
30:39 Susie Wyshak: Nope.
30:40 Jeffrey Shiau: Wow. [laughter] Are you in the middle? The baby?
30:43 Susie Wyshak: Kind of. Yeah. No, I'm one of the older ones. The times I've had horrible tragedies I've kind of processed them by turning them into opportunities for adventure, seeing the bright sides, not dwelling on the negative, not dwelling on being a failure or any expectations but looking at what good could come out of something.
31:17 Jeffrey Shiau: So what does having a fulfilling life mean to you today?
31:25 Susie Wyshak: Really knowing your purpose in life, I think having a purpose in life is key, and, for me, having connections to people. I think about that a lot, especially if I'm feeling lonely. What is missing? What am I not doing? What could I be doing? What do I want? Having a fulfilling life would be knowing what I want and pursuing it. Is that a nice, dry answer for you? [laughter]
32:02 Jeffrey Shiau: No, no. I'm actually...
32:06 Susie Wyshak: And also processing it. [laughter]
32:07 Jeffrey Shiau: I'm thinking about what is it... You struck my curiosity. Well, what is it that you feel you want? Is that kind of...
32:17 Susie Wyshak: If I told you, I'd have to kill you! [laughter] Well, I told you I'm working on this new book, and I'm seeing it as... I really have wanted to have an incubator. I'm overloaded with ideas. But I'm excited that when this book is a huge success that it will incubate a cause I believe in 'cause I'm donating some of the profits to it. I want to start a podcast interviewing especially older people, and that ties into my interest of capturing stories from older generations, which I love.
One of my big things is kind of maximizing my life and thinking like, "So I have these goals. What can I do where they weave together?" I already mentioned being in flow, so it's the more... I've always tried to find jobs like that, or work like that, or a lifestyle where what I love all weaves together. I think about... I have this, starting a cottage food business at home, and I'm interested in freeze-drying, and how could I turn that into something, and where could it go? I don't even remember your question, but I'll tell you, I'm working on a framework to help people make the right decisions quickly. If I could launch that and that would help people, kind of using what I do for myself to help other people, that would be huge for me.
I've always just tried to figure out why do I exist, and it usually comes down to work. [chuckle] Although I love my friends and everything, and I love traveling and all, and enjoying life, but I love creating. And so creating things that help people and that are interesting to people and make some kind of difference are what is meaningful, and exciting, and fulfilling for me.
34:34 Jeffrey Shiau: Well, that's actually a great lead into the final question, which is the same question I ask everybody, and that is, ultimately, what's the point of all of this?
34:50 Susie Wyshak: [chuckle] Good question, Jeff! I think it's an experiment by the aliens. [laughter] I really think it's connecting. Connections and connecting. It's funny, there is a psychologist who wrote a book about synchronicity and coincidences. He kind of tries to turn the question, or explain them away in scientific ways and probability and things. The way I see the point of all of this is the more I connect and find synchronicity and life weaves together... I don't know the ultimate point, but that gives me hope and inspiration that there is a point. I just find it so exciting when there are weird coincidences, and I'm like, "There's a reason why this is all happening." And I mean, I think too, humans are here to help each other and create good things. And I only hope that Donald Trump is listening to this and sees the light. [laughter] That was mean. He's a good man. He's just misguided. Kidding. [laughter]