Ondrej Markus

Entrepreneur in ed-tech, building the future of education as a founder and CEO at Playful.

I write about the future of education, designing learning games, and running a startup.

I'm a generalist, introvert, gamer, and optimizing to be useful.

stickman sitting at a desk

Why you should go broke

At least once...

Why you should go broke

About four years ago, I went broke for like a week, and it was the best thing that could happen to me. It taught me a valuable lesson about money.

I will tell you that story today.

It’s 2018, and I’ve just left a business I co-founded with three friends. We were relatively successful financially, but after two years of working hard on it, I felt empty of meaning and needed to make a change.

So I left to find what I wanted to do next in life. I sold my part for a small payout, so I could afford at least a year of living without any income, and I was ready to use it.

Looking back, it was one of the darker periods in my life. I felt lost half the time. It’s was that unbearable feeling of, “I know I can do something great, and I have everything I need to do it, but I have no idea what to do, and I feel guilty I haven’t figured it out already."

In the first six months, I’ve tested several project ideas, read a lot, and met some new people. I was searching, exploring, experimenting. Increasingly desperate but hopeful I will get somewhere soon.

After that, I started doubting myself and thought about getting a job. I was deep into my savings with about six more months to fund myself. So I went to an interview for a job as a project manager. It was something I knew how to do because I had done it before. It left safe and comfortable.

The interview went well, and they invited me to a second round to meet the other project managers in the company. They also offered me quite a lot of money if we agreed on a deal after the second round.

I was very tempted. After six months of looking for what to do with my life without any tangible results, I craved some external validation of my value as a member of society.

Craving external validation

Craving external validation

But then I met the team. And I quickly realized I was at the wrong place. I didn’t belong there. The people were nice, but nobody wanted to learn and grow.

It was evident from the meeting that all of them wanted to continue doing their jobs with as little effort as possible, complain about how hellish their clients are, and go home at five.

I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that if it worked well for them. But it was not what I wanted. I wanted to learn new things and do something meaningful. So I told them no.

To be honest, I think they wouldn’t give me the job anyway because I was very open about what I expected and didn’t bother covering my disappointment when I asked and answered questions.

It must have been obvious this wasn’t a good fit. So I would seriously doubt their judgment if they offered me the job after that meeting. But as I said, it never came to that. I emailed them to say I won’t be taking it. And I continued my search.

Back to being lost.

A few months and experiments later, I got very excited about a particular project I was working on. And I worked hard to launch it before I would run out of savings, which would be soon.

I did manage to launch it, but it didn’t work. I mean, it kinda worked, but not really because I built it wrong. I didn’t know what I was doing.

But in the process of building the project wrong, I finally realized what I wanted to do next. I wanted to improve at what I was doing poorly the whole year: building useful things from scratch.

However, while my big realization was happening, my savings were rapidly running out. So I started looking for the right opportunity with a scary deadline hanging over my mind.

Having next to no money felt weird. Like I was starring into a gun, hoping it’s not loaded, as my savings dropped into double digits and my fear was growing.

Coming close to being broke

Coming close to being broke

I had less than $40 in my bank account when I found the ideal place to work at. It was a small independent design studio in Prague where I joined as an innovation designer. And I actually had to borrow some money from my parents to breach the gap between paying my rent that month and getting my first paycheque. Woopsie.

But it was worth the trouble. I quickly realized I was at exactly the right place at the right time. I learned like crazy, doing meaningful work I enjoyed like never before.

Now, I’m telling you this story to make this point:

Sometimes, you have to really get at the breaking point to know how you will feel when facing uncertainty. You have to have just 40 bucks in the bank to know how it feels and how you will react.

I knew I could get a job as a project manager relatively easily if I was in real trouble. Or I could always go and exchange my time for money doing some random weekend job I found through an app.

And that’s what enabled me to keep searching instead of running away from it. That’s why I could tolerate the terror of my savings approaching zero and experience real brokenness, even if for just a minute.

I felt naked, but I was okay. More okay than I thought I would be. Nothing terrible was on the other side of my fear. I waited for the click of the gun, and no bullet came out.

It helped me realize: I don’t really need money to be okay. I will be okay no matter how much money is in my bank account right now because I can always get more.

Experiencing an extreme situation and surviving gives you a feeling of inner indestructibility you cannot buy.

Of course, I’m not saying poverty is good or anything like that. I’m saying that we are sometimes unreasonably terrified of something even though there is no real danger.

So when it comes to money, if you are a smart person with options (and you are), you can always figure something out if you have to.

Running out of money will not stop you in your search for a good life. It might actually be a priceless experience for you to get.