BYU College of Life Sciences Alumni Achievement Award Recipient Dustin Freckleton, Founder and Chief Science Officer at Happy Health
I graduated from BYU in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience and then went on to medical school. I did my training at the University of Texas in Houston where I graduated in 2013 with an MD/MBA. Since I was a kid, I always wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon. But much to my good fortune, my life took a little bit of a different path.
Today, I want to share with you my thoughts on embracing uncertainty—learning to not only cope with but also thrive in the unknown. As much as we like to pretend otherwise, we live in an unpredictable world that we can’t control. I once had an executive coach tell me the secret of a successful entrepreneur is the ability to stare into the face of a darkening abyss, laugh, and then walk forward with confidence. That’s a terrifying proposition. We often naively—or maybe more appropriately, optimistically—like to chart a course where progress is a stepwise function that progresses linearly. But the truth is that there’s no magic bullet, there’s no secret to success, and everything we do is a series of two steps forward, one step back. It’s not predictable.
My goal today is to convince you that uncertainty is okay. Even though it can be unsettling, uncomfortable, gut-wrenching, and not fun, that doesn’t make it bad. In fact, in those periods of darkness and soul-shaking struggles, we often make our greatest discoveries.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do want to share three stories that illustrate lessons that I have learned. My recommended strategies are: (1) find rest in the Lord, (2) plan by principles, and (3) lean in and be patient.
FIND REST IN THE LORD
February 23, 2009, was the day I forgot how to walk. I was in my first year of medical school, one week away from block exams and a few weeks away from my 25th birthday. I woke up that morning with a splitting headache. That wasn’t unusual because I spent a lot of time studying—sixteen-hour days with bad posture hunched over books with small text. I was not a stranger to headaches, but this one was different. I went into the bathroom to take some Tylenol, and I had such visual disturbance that I didn’t realize I had slammed into the door frame. I couldn’t even read the word Tylenol on the bottle; I just took a handful and swallowed them down.
As I looked into the mirror, I realized that everything was slanted because I was standing on the side of my foot. It took incredible effort to straighten my foot back out, and as I did so, it felt like somebody had snuck up behind me and poured a vessel of warm oil over the top of my head, but the oil never crossed the midline. It always stayed on the left side. As the sensation went from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet, I lost all strength and all feeling. I half stumbled, half fell out of the bathroom and called to my roommate, a third-year medical student at the time. I said, “John, I’m having a stroke!”
He bounded in laughing because one secret about medical students is that we are all hypochondriacs; you spend all day studying disease, so every headache must be meningitis. He was sure this was the case but quickly realized it was not and called 911. As we were waiting for the paramedics to arrive, I called my father. I just needed to hear his voice for comfort and stability. While my father was on the phone, I asked John, who was also a Melchizedek priesthood holder, to give me a blessing. I don’t remember exactly what he said in the blessing, but I do remember that I was promised that I would fully recover with no residual effects.
In that moment, all fear and anxiety went away, and I knew that everything was going to be okay. I didn’t know all the details. I didn’t know how long rehab and recovery was going to take. I didn’t know how painful the process was going to be. I didn’t know what would happen in my medical training. This experience was professionally transformative because it led me to a different path in healthcare, but it was also spiritually transformative. I learned the importance of entering into the rest of the Lord. Anyone can survive uncertainty, but to thrive in uncertainty requires entering into the Lord’s rest.
In the Book of Mormon, we read, “Now these ordinances were given . . . that thereby the people might look forward to the Son of God . . . that they might enter into the rest of the Lord” (Alma 32:16). Having a stroke changed my definition of what it means to enter the rest of the Lord. I came to define this phrase as the perfect assurance that comes from knowing the end from the beginning. In my case, I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen, but I knew how it was going to end.
PLAN BY PRINCIPLES
Following the stroke, I was still in medical school and approaching graduation. At this time, I was married and had between $100,000 to $150,000 worth of debt. The stroke made me rethink how I could better help people. I could do a lot of good as a one-on-one patient provider. But I also saw an opportunity for a macro approach: rather than putting my hands on someone to heal them, I could develop devices to heal more people. I went to my wife and said, “Look, I think we should take a different path. . . . Here’s the deal. I think we can raise a little bit of money [for a startup], but to take that chance, I’m going to have to put the last eight years of education and training in the balance. But this is a great idea, honey. Trust me! This is all going to work out.”
Finally, she said, “Dustin, I’m not going to tell you what to do, but I’ve seen you come back from the hospital, and I’ve seen you come back from your project. I know where you’re the happiest.”
For me, that was all I needed. Once I knew where I was happiest, it then became an easy decision. I didn’t complete medical school. But, what did I learn? First, marry well. My wife’s guidance was the catalyst that I needed to make an incredibly hard decision.
I also learned that proper planning is not an exercise of turn-by-turn itineraries. We spend so much time worrying about where we are going to be that we don’t focus on the more important question of how we are going to get there. Now, I’m not saying don’t plan, but what I am saying is to focus on the things that are in your control. Having no plan will put you at significant risk of acting in ways that are inconsistent with your values, goals, and aspirations.
To make things a little more practical, I want to propose three steps: (1) ask yourself, “What do I want?” (2) ask yourself, “What is true?” (3) identify what choices will help you achieve one in light of two. I take some liberties here to modify some concepts from Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Capital, and his fantastic book, Principles .
For me, what did I want? I didn’t want to have to “work” a day in my life. What was true? I knew that if I loved what I was doing, it would not be work. What choices would help me to get to one in light of two? Well, I needed to excel in my predetermined field of study, but I was going to be open to explore other opportunities as they came along.
LEAN IN AND BE PATIENT
After fourteen long months of trying to fundraise for our startup, we had run out of money. It was March 2017, and I had one last opportunity to raise funds. All my hopes, all the sacrifices—I don’t want to say it would’ve been for nothing, but it would’ve been for nothing. I was worried.
I was in the Bay Area meeting with venture capitalists one after another. It was a hard environment to fundraise. I got on the train from Palo Alto to San Francisco, and I considered taking a nap or opening up Hulu to make the time pass. Instead, I opened up a book I was reading by Dr. Robert Millet, where he was writing about expressing gratitude.
I thought, “Well, this is an appropriate time to do that,” so I closed the book, bowed my head, and offered a prayer. As I offered that prayer, I heard the words, “Now sit back and watch. This is not you—this is me.” I opened my eyes, and when I looked around, there was nobody there. It wasn’t a voice I heard in my ears; it was a voice I heard in my head. With that thought came a perfect assurance. It was powerful to know that the Lord was fighting my battle with me and that I wasn’t alone.
I would argue that the greatest growth is not in the sign, like the one I received on the train. Rather, the greatest growth occurs in patiently waiting and watching while reconciling faith and fear as well as doubt and determination over and over and over again. My experience on the train was enough to keep me going. It wasn’t until nine months later that we secured the financing needed to operate the company. I don’t want you to focus on the fact that we raised the funds; I want you to focus on the nine months of leaning in and being patient.
I promise you that the most profound moments of awakening and self determination will come during the darkest times. Don’t be afraid of them. Don’t try to engineer them out of your lives. You have to struggle, you have to fight, and there will be times you think you cannot go on, times when you think you have nothing left to give. Trust me, I’ve been there. In those moments of struggle, I promise you will find a deeper wellspring of strength than you ever thought possible, and there is no other way to discover that.
To summarize, find rest in the Lord, plan by principles, and lean in and be patient. I want to testify to you that life is hard, but it doesn’t have to be frightening. There is security in knowing what the Lord would have you do. And with that knowledge comes faith—faith to do, to become, to accomplish, to go places that you never thought were possible, and to recognize that we can do far more through Christ who strengthens us.