Man On Fire literally describes Alex Zlotnik, since he’s performed while on fire, gone highlining (similar to tight rope walking) at 800 feet above ground, lived in a tree house he built, is a mathematician and a successful software architect–among other things. He’s also an incredibly genuine person whose joyful disposition is infectious. Alex is truly an original and our Q&A below shows just how limitless he is.
- Acrobat and Director at the Vespertine Circus: In 2011, Alex performed with a circus in Oakland, CA and they went on a U.S. tour. He choreographed acts, managed rehearsals, and performed. Of course, this also means he has experience doing a handstand on another person while on fire.
- Software Architect at Subvertical, LLC: Alex is now part of a startup that manages data for social services.
- Mountain Bike Night Rider: Alex goes on a mountain bike ride with a group of locals every Wednesday and Friday nights. Rides last anywhere between 2 and 4 hours.
- Yogaslacker: Alex does Slackline Yoga and participates in yogaslacker teaching events.
- Partner Acrobatics Teacher: Although Alex considers himself retired from performing, he enjoys sharing what he can with excited practitioners.
- Juggler: Alex performs at juggling festivals once or twice per year.
- Expert in Self Sufficiency: Alex has built his own treehouse and lived there for about a year. He knows a thing or two about dumpster diving too.
- Mathematician: Alex dropped out of a math Ph.D program 5 years ago. He misses it, sometimes. (Alex did earn a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Arts in Mathematics.)
- Adventure Racer: Alex usually competes on one adventure race per year. These are teams of four competing in 12-30 hour races involving mountain biking, trekking, and paddling.
What are you currently doing or working towards that you would like to tell us about?
My main project right now is called verticalchange. We are a startup company that is trying to solve the problem of collecting and communicating data about services conducted through grants. This is an industry that has been keeping records on paper and proprietary one-project-at-a-time software. Our aim is to give agencies a tool that helps them organize their work and which can also seamlessly be an interface for funders to get the data they are looking for.
There is another thing that I have been focusing on recently: emotional awareness and acceptance. For much of my life, I have been emotionally closed off from myself. Recently, I have been focusing on learning how to have difficult conversations, say ‘no’ to people I care about, and not take responsibility for things out of my control.
2. Who or what has inspired you to do this?
I always love working on things that I am bad at. When I left the circus, I wanted to get back to a job that was constantly intellectually stimulating. I decided ‘programming sounds fun’, and went from there. I worked, for a time, with a startup incubator. People would come to us with ideas and money, and we would make their product whatever it was. That was fun because I got to build things from an astrology application to an engine for analyzing energy efficiency of large buildings.
When I found verticalchange, I was really excited about getting focused on something that really made peoples’ day to day lives better. Some of our clients could spend an hour less at work each day because of us – talk about validating!
As for the emotional awakening thing, I think this just happens differently for everyone. For me, it has been a long journey of analyzing thoughts and accepting my motivations. I guess one day I woke up and said, “Wow, I can experience love and fulfillment. I should cherish and give in to this!” Also, my wonderful girlfriend has been a big part of my learning to be more accepting of my emotions.
3. What drives you to go beyond the norm and put so much time and effort into doing so many different things?
I really love the feeling of going from being terrible at something to adept. The good thing about this is I get really excited to learn. The bad part is that once I feel ‘good’ at something, I tend to lose interest in practicing. Fortunately, feeling ‘good’ at a thing generally means putting in a few years of steady practice.
4. What challenges have you faced in pursuing these different interests and goals?
It is hard to find the time to try everything I am excited about. I need to get tired of what I am currently working on in order to find the space to get excited about something new. I end up going out of town most weekends and finding myself in unexpected places.
5. How did your teen years shape who you’ve become?
I grew up in Palo Alto, CA, which provided me with plenty of opportunities to learn various things. In high school I found that the administration wanted to hold me back from taking advanced classes due to the lack of homework I was getting done. It taught me that in the bureaucratic world of education, you really have to argue to learn. Sometimes stubbornness can be a virtue. I went from a decent GPA of A’s and B’s to A’s across the board – all because I hated an administrator who didn’t think I could do well in advanced classes. To this day, I wonder if it was all a ploy on her part.
In the middle of high school, my family moved to San Diego. When this happened, I became rather depressed. I instantly had no friends. I bounced around, finding myself in a social group for a few months, then realizing that I hated them all and I’d leave for another group. Having no close friends to ground me in who I was, I redifined myself constantly. I think that this is a very important part of who I am now. I see myself as the Tao ‘uncarved block’, which prevents me from feeling disappointed in myself. It is a really freeing thing to not remember that your very personality is changeable.
6. Did you ever imagine doing things like this as a teenager? How have you changed since those adolescent years?
No. When I was a teenager, I figured I would die by the age of 30 (probably because I was a gymnast). This helped broaden my spectrum of skills and interests: I was not looking for a passion, a life, a career. I figured that I did not have much time to live, so I might as well cram it with doing anything and everything I enjoyed.
7. Is there anything you would tell your teen self if you could go back in time?
“Hey Alex, you are an awesome guy. People actually do like you because you are kind and caring, not just strange and interesting. I know this might sound weird, but you actually do have emotions. You love people. That is okay, even better than okay. You should know: we are all looking for the same thing: to be vulnerable and loved for who we are. Also, life is going to be really fun, so stay excited! One more thing, you will only find her once you know who you want, but you aren’t looking.”
8. Are there any other jobs, roles, or goals that you want to pursue in the future?
I plan to keep learning to be a happy, more emotionally open version of myself. I hope to get better at letting myself get mad at people I love, as well as feeling like I deserve the life I have. I am sure that I will keep having all sorts of unexpected adventures, as it is all I have ever known. One day, however, I plan to be the world’s best dad.