Away from Keyboard – Episode #6
Mahdi Yusuf knows being healthy is a constant struggle
Mahdi Yusuf worked a startup in his twenties and wasn’t worried too much about his health. When he quit that job, he decided to take better care of himself and lost fifty pounds. Now, he’s the CTO of Gyroscope, a startup that aims to be the operating system for the human body, but ever since joining, has gained weight back.
Mahdi talks to me about how Gyroscope is trying to help people understand their bodies better, growing up with a love for computers, and trying to be healthy with a busy life.
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Notes & Links
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[01:46] I met Mahdi Yusuf in Portland for OSCON, a conference put on by O’Reilly, all about open source. Mahdi was one of the keynote speakers and talked about this thing called Gyroscope. A gyroscope, he says, is the operating system for the human body. I was intrigued.
Essentially, like, you track computers, you track servers… As engineers, most people keep an eye on what they’re doing at work, and stuff like that, but there’s really nothing for your body… And you’ve only got one of those, and people get sick, and you see people that are in their middle age just dying, and stuff like that… So ideally, what a gyroscope would be is something to monitor what’s going on with your body, so you can track changes and what’s happening in your body and in your life - behavioral changes, like you’re spending more time at work, or you’re spending more time at bars or restaurants… Stuff that can have impact on your health, generally; how much time you’re spending working, what kind of stress that does, tracking HRV, which is interesting… Stuff like that.
Basically, it’s a way to monitor and track your entire body, all passively, and we bring that into a cool interface that you can pull out on your device and take a look at.
Why was this so appealing to you?
Basically, I was at a startup before this one, and I really let my health kind of go to the wayside. I was still young, I was like 21 to 26, or something like that… I was at a couple of startups, and they were very time-consuming; I learned a lot and it was great, but it really lacked a lot of focus on my health and what’s going on in other aspects of my life… So once I left the second startup, I kind of was like “Okay, I’m on a contract for a bit, I wanna focus on my health”, and it was unreal. The change that happened was crazy. And what I did at the time was I got a Fitbit and I got a weight scale. Those were the two things I did. Then just a simple tracking sheet that would just track what I was doing, and in like 8 months I lost like 50 pounds. So I was like “There’s something here, and it’s important.”
I managed to undo damage I did across like six years of just obsessively working on a computer, and learning things, and stuff. Granted, those things were beneficial and I wouldn’t be where I am now, but there’s gotta be some balance to be struck here, or at least something to nudge you back in the direction that you should be on.
So once I saw that type of thing, I was like “Oh man, this is really awesome”, and I got tired of contracting, I thought “What could I possibly do around this?” and then I found Gyroscope and I was like “This is really cool.” I sent Anand, the CEO, this giant email of what I thought and what was really cool.
Then I was interviewing in San Francisco for a bunch of positions, and then I told him I was in town and we kind of met up. I ended up joining the team. That was close to four years ago now, so we’ve been working on it for quite some time now, and it’s been going really well.
[03:59] Wow… You know, it’s interesting, because I feel like a lot of people wanna work on something that is important, something that could potentially change the lives of people… And Gyroscope is definitely one of those things, where it’s like “This could definitely change the lives of a lot of people.”
Absolutely, and it has. We have this series called “The Profiles”, where we track how people use the app, and we have stories about people just walking more, and getting healthier and losing a bunch of weight, there are stories about people who have had heart attacks and are like “Okay, if I don’t get this under control, I’m gonna die.”
So a lot of people get really serious when there’s something that really makes them afraid for their life, or it’s like a wake-up call, and they end up using this tool really to kind of push it over the limit. I absolutely think that this direction that we’re headed in is gonna definitely be a thing in the next 4-10 years, where it’s gonna become really a thing that people are gonna be really focused on… Because knowing what your average heart rate is, what your HRV is from day-to-day is gonna be as normal as knowing what your car’s mileage is, or how old is something that you replace repeatedly, and it’s something that you need to maintain… Because people just let those type of things go by on the wayside, and then they realize, when they start hitting 30 and 40, they’re like “Oh, all this stuff I was doing prior to this has an effect on how I’m feeling now.” It’s easier to say when you hit that milestone, looking back. I was the exact same way, going “This is crazy”, so hopefully, when people see the numbers, it’ll really click them into understanding what’s going on, in a positive way.
But knowing the numbers is just the beginning, right? I mean, it’s only the starting point of the journey to better health. In my experience, you can want to be healthier, but immeasurable factors like real life, work, stress and anxieties play a factor in all of this, and Mahdi gets it. He’s actually gained weight since joining Gyroscope.
It has nothing to do with being unaware… It’s just startups are tough, and people compensate in different ways; startups are obviously stressful too, so you can see that those types of things can really have some impact.
At the beginning of this year I got sick four times in four months. I just kept getting a cold. Then afterwards I went and looked back - it was strictly because I wasn’t sleeping. I’d get like 4-5 hours of sleep a night for months on end. It wreaked havoc on my immune system, and as an adult, you’re supposed to sleep around 7-9 hours; I was getting 4, or 5 maybe on a good day, for months. I just kept getting sick, and sick, and sick.
I went to the doctor and he was just like “You need to rest. All the stuff that I’m seeing just seems like you have a demanding job and you’re not sleeping.” I’m aware of these things, and looking back, I’m like “Yeah, I should have been sleeping”, but then the reality comes and you’re like “I’ve gotta get this work done, I’ve gotta push out some features, I’ve gotta help users get their stuff going…”, and then it shifts away from what you should be doing to what you need to be doing.
I think that’s something a lot of people deal with in terms of their day-to-day, but taking an hour or two to go to the gym, or having a light breakfast and light lunch and then eating comfortably for dinner are like cool little tricks that you can kind of engage and use to help you on your way… But generally, it’s been a losing battle for me since starting here, and it’s just due to the nature of a startup, and stuff like that. And it may sound like an excuse or a rationalization around the fact, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.
Growing up, Mahdi loved computers. Till this day, doing things on the computer is one of the coolest things Mahdi can think of. Some of his friends, not so much.
I’ll talk to my friends, like “Oh, check this out! I did this, and this, and this…”, and their eyes are glazed over; they don’t even care. And I’m like, “Man, this is the coolest thing that you could possibly see”, you know what I mean? So I think that aspect of it is just what I find so interesting…
I was a sports kid growing up. I played a bunch of sports, and stuff like that, and that was always my interest, but when I’d be alone, I’d immediately gravitate towards computers. My personality is kind of like that too, and it also goes back to why I have a lot of work, and stuff like that; I ended up doing that to a fault, because it’s just in my personality, it’s just all-in… I think that also has a huge part to play in people’s behaviors.
I remember when I got my first computer, I kind of just took it all apart, and my dad’s like “You’re gonna break this thing.” He was a chemist and he just didn’t get computers, but he was like “This is important, and it’s something that they need, because it’s gonna be a part of the future.” Now, I grew up in an age where DSL was just coming out, we were still doing dial-up, but I remember early on when I was young, playing around with HyperTerminal with my friend, and sending music files back and forth, and then my mom would pick up the line, it would disconnect, we’d have to start over… Then we realized if we compressed the MP3s really small, they’ll send over quicker, and then we’d get it, and then we’d be like “Oh crap, it sounds like crap” because we compressed everything out of it… And it was this giant, cool learning process of understanding how things work and what’s going on.
I was 12-13 at the time, so it was really cool to play with those things. I was like “Man, I wish I could learn more…” My first set of computers didn’t even have internet, so I just opened every dialog, every toggle, turned it on and off, just to see what it would do. Often times I’d flip toggles I didn’t even know what they were doing. I often times think people go to college and they don’t know what to do, and I was like “Nope, I’m doing computers. For sure.”
What do you like doing away from the computer?
Playing a lot of sports and stuff like that, to be honest. I like movies, I’m a huge movie guy. I tend to do that with a lot of my free time, because my work is so mentally involved… I like to go watch movies, read books, and stuff like that. Most of the books I read, unfortunately, are autobiographies or technical books, or other technical books about other interests that I have.
I always wanted to learn how financial markets work and what actually drives them, and I’ve been reading a lot of books about that recently, which I always find interesting. Also, I like biographies about people who were in these markets, and stuff like that, which I find to be super-cool, because it’s completely different from what we do, which is so analytical or logical… So I find stuff like that really interesting and really relaxing, because you get to learn, and also stimulating the other side of your brain is also good, just to keep things balanced.
Then a lot of sports which I do enjoy, playing on teams, and stuff like that. I play dodgeball on Wednesdays too, which is pretty fun.
You’re the CTO of a startup… How do you stay sane? How do you make sure that your life is not consumed by work?
[12:11] It’s the type of thing where you have to balance it out. Once you’re doing something long enough, it becomes normal. I don’t think astronauts wake up every morning when they’re astronauts going “Holy crap, I’m an astronaut! What the hell am I gonna do today?” I don’t think it’s anything that’s active. And balancing is part of it. It’s actually quite – like, every day you wake up and you’re like “Okay, I have X things to do today”, and then you just make a list and you work your way through it is the best I can say. You have things you don’t get to today, you shove those down the list, and then you work your way through.
And then obviously, you have days that are less productive or more productive, but the sanity just comes – you’ll find the balance. Often times what people have the actual problem with is finding that ratio. It’s not balancing like the work in the rest of your life. You’ll find some balance, but just finding the ratio between the two is the tricky bit. You’ve gotta find that sustainable part.
Then sometimes people end up skewing on the not sustainable part because of demands of just what’s going on. There’s a lot of mantras of working hard and stuff like that which are valid and good, but over a long time period if you lose sight of what’s important, you kind of end up becoming a bit skewed.
I think it’s so difficult for people like us to try to find balance when we really like what it is that we do.
That’s the other thing, you enjoy it… So even if you have free time, you end up gravitating towards it. And it’s tricky, because if your hobby is your work and your passion, it becomes this giant thing that exhausts you. So I think taking breaks from it is always healthy, in terms of like, you know, do your job, but take some breaks from it in your free time, do some other things…
That’s Mahdi Yusuf. Check out Gyroscope at gyrosco.pe. You can find Mahdi’s Gyroscope data at health.mahdiyusuf.com.
AFK is edited and mixed by me, Tim Smith. I wanna thank my amazing partner-in-crime, Kelly Smith, for her editorial help with this episode. Those beats that you’re hearing right now are from the one and only Breakmaster Cylinder. I’m @smithtimmytim on Twitter. You can find the show at @afk_show.
You know, I feel like you can never your significant other’s parents without something happening, and Mahdi, of course, is no exception.
I’ve met my partner’s parents, and it was the first time I’d met them, and it was quite early in the relationship; I was kind of nervous to see them. We were at this show where we had lawn chairs that we brought out to kind of sit down and watch… So I’m helping her father take them back to where the car was. I was so nervous about meeting them, and kind of focused on having to make a good impression, so I volunteered to take some of the chairs; I was like “I have some space in my car, let’s kind of go put them down that way.”
The dad was just having a one-on-one conversation with me, asking me what I do, and how did we meet, and stuff like that… And I’m answering those questions, trying to do a good job; all the meanwhile, we were right next to my car when we picked up the chairs… So he’s asking me “What do you do?” I’m like “I’m an engineer.” He’s like “Oh, so you’re a smart guy.” I’m like, “You know, I’m alright… I’m smart enough”, and all the time we’re talking about this, we’re walking farther and farther away from the car. I’m going like “What’s going on? The car shouldn’t be this far…”
We get to the car, I start unloading everything, and I don’t even know we’d walked in a circle. Then he points out to me we were like literally two feet down from his car… It was, honestly, one of the most embarrassing things in my life.
Then me and him kind of agreed we would keep it under wraps, but within two seconds we got back to the table he told his wife, and then it just became a giant joke.
I’m Tim Smith, and this is Away From Keyboard.
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