3 LIFE LESSONS THAT I TAKE AWAY FROM 2017

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2017 is coming to an end and I look back feeling happy, grateful and at peace. 

While 2016 was the year of “sobering up” – a year in which I felt my life and overall drive was decelerating and one that gave me more limitations than opportunities – 2017 for me is the year of realignment. I think throughout my two years at Stanford I kinda lost a bit of myself. Something that was compounded by an unhealthy relationship I was in for the vast majority of this year. But this year, especially the last quarter of it, allowed me to realign myself, to find my voice, and to reconnect with my core and my essence.

Among the highlights of this year for me were definitely graduating from the GSB, the massive career risk I took by joining a Beijing-based company, and allowing myself to fall in love and to follow my heart. There was also the photography work I got to do for major brands like AirBnB, Virgin Mobile, and after many attempts, also Apple. Or my travels that allowed me to see and reconnect with a number of friends all around the world. Maybe on top of it all though was my activism against the travel ban and the Trump administration. 

Thankfully, on the lowlight-side of things, there isn’t much to mention, well, apart from the most obvious thing which was Trump and his stupid travel ban. If anything at all, it was that unhealthy relationship that consumed a lot of my mental energy throughout this year. But in hindsight, I am just happy to have made that experience and to have learned the things I did. Oh, and I gained 2kg over Christmas… that kinda sucks. And I still massively suck at speaking Mandarin which is just a painful daily experience in my current life – and something that makes me feel like a bit of a failure considering how much I love learning languages. 

This was a year with a lot of highs and lows, but thankfully they all ended up teaching me great life lessons.

Realizing how awesome you are and demanding to be treated accordingly

My story: Earlier in 2017, through pure chance, I connected with someone super charming and like-minded. We hit it off so well, that after just a few days, I knew I wanted to meet her in person – even though she lived on the other end of the world. One visit became two, then three then four visits that we did back and forth between the locations we lived (we are talking about 10+ hour flights). We truly fell for each other and were determined to make it work, no matter what. 

Yet as unique as our story was, and as amazing as our connection was, we were simply different people with different needs. She wasn’t able to meet mine, and I wasn’t able to meet hers. Yet we kept trying and trying. And while I don’t blame her for the way she was acting, because I think a lot of it was due to the situation we found ourselves in, the way I was being treated in the end was far from how I deserved to be treated. Yet I kept going with it, obsessed with this idea to make it work, and not realizing how toxic and hurtful things had become. Throughout this all I was slowly losing myself, my self-esteem, and my self-worth. Only until we parted.

The lesson: The truth is that you don’t intentionally or willingly enter a situation in which you allow someone to be mean or ungrateful towards you. You rather unknowingly morph into those situations, step by step, day by day. And only when you are deep in them, you start to realize that something is off. And until that point, you really don’t know how to get out of it quickly or easily – because you are so focused on achieving whatever drove you into that situation in the first place (winning someone’s heart, becoming friends with someone, etc.). 

Looking back, I was just too obsessed with a certain outcome in my personal life and really wanted to give it all and make it possible no matter what. And that zealousness drove me to a place where I had momentarily forgotten my awesomeness (yes, you got that too!) and the way how I deserved to be treated. I kept finding excuses and justifications for the other person’s behavior, by mostly looking to fault myself and by being forgiving forwards them. Only when I let go of the person, with time and distance, I realized what situation I had gotten myself in. What I took away from it this year is how important it is in life to not compromise on your own awesomeness and to let go of people who don’t treat you as you deserve. It’s easily said, but also easily forgotten. 

Opportunities are where others don’t dare to go to

My story: When I graduated from the GSB this year, I wasn’t too excited about my job prospects (which were actually pretty good). I had already worked in Silicon Valley for many years, and while 260 of my class of 400 were going to stay local, many of whom I count as close friends, I just wasn’t pumped about the outlook of continuing my pre-MBA lifestyle and ending up competing for the same jobs as my classmates.

Convinced that China is the new frontier in technology, a perspective I had developed during business school, I was determined to find a Chinese tech company that wanted to expand internationally – and then be the person who would help them do that. So only two weeks after graduation, I packed my bags, bought a round-trip ticket to China, and went there to find a job. 

I took language classes in the morning and helped a friend’s start-up in the afternoon. And during the remainder of the time, I just tried to find companies whom I could help go international. After just six weeks of searching, and a lot of help through my Stanford network, I ended up finding a gig that was exactly what I was looking for – and so much more. I love what I do, I learn a shit ton, and I feel aligned. In the end, the opportunity I got and the level of responsibility I was entrusted with, one that is making me punch above my weight, reflects all that risk I was willing to take, and that is a very satisfying feeling. 

The lessons: When I boarded that flight to China, I didn’t know where I was going – I was going to look for a job in a market where I had no credibility, with limited knowledge, a language I didn’t master, and where I neither had friends nor network. Yet in the end, I was able to find something amazing because I had the courage to take a massive risk and try something that other people were not willing to try. I was willing to leave behind the comfort and safety I had ahead of me and go to a place with absolutely no certainty. But I was determined and I was convinced that I would succeed.

What I learned along this journey is how one can find big opportunities in places where others are not looking. And it’s not that they are not looking because they don’t think there would be any opportunities, but because the search for opportunities in those places is hard, is uncertain, is risky, and uncomfortable. But the reward, if successful, is even bigger. And that’s a lesson that I learned this year and that will most certainly influence all future decisions that I will be making in my life.

Sometimes you don’t choose your fight, but your fight chooses you. 

My story: The days leading up to the travel ban, I had a sense something bad was going to happen. And when the ban was issued, I felt like I got hit with a sledgehammer. The country I call home was degrading and humiliating me as a second-class resident and basically showing me the way out. I waited about a day to think about how I wanted to react to it, but then I decided that if you fuck with me, I’m gonna fuck with you. 

So I went public with my story. And within a few hours, I found myself speaking to all sorts of major news outlets. And before I knew it, I was on the frontline of demonstrations and rallies, chanting, speaking, resisting. I was even asked to co-sign an official lawsuit against the government. Thinks just got crazy and for the weeks that followed, I was fully consumed by what was going on. Yet this wasn’t just a fight limited to two weeks. The travel been was re-issued and re-blocked for the third time just a few days ago, so the fight is not over yet. 

The lesson: This was such a massively turbulent time for me early 2017. I suddenly found myself in a position in which I never wanted to be in. And with the decision to speak up, I had to assume a leadership role I had never been in. I was mobilizing my audiences, I was being vocal, I was public, exposed, vulnerable. It felt difficult, yet it also felt right. Looking back, I did everything right. I fought back and I resisted. 

There were two things that really stuck with me from that time. One is how quickly a situation can change and how you can suddenly find yourself giving 200% of yourself, your time, and your energy. There must have been a turbo switch somewhere in me that the travel ban triggered – because I have no idea how I was able to resist so forcefully and make it through so many sleepless nights in a row (or write a full 10-minute speech just five hours before I was scheduled to talk in front of thousands of people at a rally). As shitty as the situation was, it was amazing to see how it unlocked so much in me. The other thing I learned is that sometimes you don’t choose your fight, but your fight comes and chooses you. And that’s exactly what happened. 

2017, thanks! 2018, bring it on.

I'm Back

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I’m back. 

Back after taking a break from writing for the past four months or so. 

After running this blog for almost four entire years, my willingness and readiness to share had taken a massive hit. A lot happened this year which was gradually moving me away from my essence – the things that drive me and the things I am good at. To the point that I didn’t recognize myself anymore by the time September came around. So I had to hit the breaks and take a break. 

And so I did. Instead of sharing my thoughts here the way I used to, I just kept journaling privately. I think I filled some 40-50 of pages over the past few months, just writing down all my hopes, thoughts and emotions. There was a lot going on, and I made sure to capture them all until I ran out of pages and had to reorder my journal. 

But it took some time. It took some healing, some reflecting, some letting go. It took a lot of self-work, tough conversations, and simply time. It’s not uncommon to end up being misaligned with yourself in life. But it’s very important to realize that quickly and to realign yourself. And that’s what I was doing for the past four months. Realigning myself. Finding my voice. Reconnecting with my core and my essence. 

Life is beautiful and I look forward to sharing my thoughts with you again.

Cherishing the shitty things in life

My broken car window

My broken car window

Last year, two pretty shitty things happened to me. In May, my apartment building caught fire and in November, I got my car broken into (and plenty of valuables stolen). Not gonna embellish this – both of these events rank 9 or 10 on a 10-point shittiness scale. 

While both events naturally caused me to feel flooded with emotions like frustration, despair and vulnerability, they also brought a rather unexpected set of feelings: excitement and gratitude. Yes, you read that right, I actually felt excitement and gratitude.

I was feeling excited about the fact that both of these things were things that had never happened to me before and that I was experiencing something new for the first time. And I felt grateful for life giving me a learning opportunity that would eventually make me a better person. 

Now to understand why I felt that way, you need to understand one of the ways how I look at life. For me, life is a lot about the experiences I make. Each new experience is something that makes my life richer – richer in knowledge, wisdom and stories to share. Yet it isn’t just the good experiences – the travels, the friends, the fun stuff – that counts as a life-enriching experience. It’s also the bad experiences – the break-ups, the losses, and yes, also the apartment fires and thefts. 

I remember how I was approaching my car, I started noticing something was off. There were pieces of broken glass everywhere, and as I looked up, this sad and shitty feeling dawned on me: "fuck, they broke into my car." Yet maybe an hour later, as I was sitting in my car with the cold wind blowing through the broken window, driving through San Francisco at 1am trying to find a police station to report the incident, I had a second thought: “mmh.. as shitty as it is, it’s also kinda cool to make an experience I have never made before."

Some might call this an overly optimistic – almost even forcefully optimistic way of seeing things positively, but if there is one thing certain in life, then it’s that some of the best things in life come in disguise of the worst. They seem like “the worst thing ever” the moment they happen, but they turn out to be starting points of incredibly good things to follow. It just takes a little time until we are able us to look at them that way. So no, it’s not a matter of being forcefully optimistic, it’s more a matter of shortening the time it takes for us to appreciate some of the things that rank really high on that shittiness scale. 

And the way I shorten that time, is to be appreciate of any kind of new experience in my life, the good ones and the bad ones. So next time something shitty happens, allow yourself to be frustrated, but also remember that in reality you just gained something in your life. Cherish that. 

Growing up in between cultures

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People have asked me what it was about my upbringing that made me so worldly curious. And I always say that it has been the fact that I was raised multi-culturally (even multi-religiously).

Sure, you might say this was inevitable in my case. Parents from Iran, born and raised in Germany. “More than one culture” was already my starting point. But believe me, it’s not a given. I have seen plenty of immigrant families where the default attitude was full assimilation, and not the wholehearted celebration of both home and host cultures.

With deep-felt gratitude, however, I am able to thank my parents for going the extra mile in my upbringing. They could have made my childhood all about “fitting in” by renouncing our Iranian heritage, but they didn’t. They could have also lived a life all about preserving our Iranian culture by way of fending off the German culture as much as possible, but they didn’t do that either. 

For them, it was all about finding a healthy middle ground. And I don’t think anything shows that better than the way how they dealt with the aspect of religion. While not religiously Muslim, we are certainly culturally Muslim – growing up in rural and Christian Bavaria (it’s so Christian compared to other States, it has its own Christian Democratic Party, the CDU). But that didn’t prevent my parents from encouraging me to attend Christian religion classes in Middle School. Or sending me to the local YMCA where I – no joke – ended up playing biblical characters in musicals and plays that were aired on TV (Moses and co. were Middle Easterners, so it wasn’t that much of a stretch after all).

And next to religion, they were always there to help me walk this very fine and ambiguous line of cherishing my Iranian heritage – for example by way of learning Farsi, visiting Iran, building strong ties with relatives back home, or learning the customs. Yet at the same time adopting the culture of the country we called our new home, namely many of the things that immigrant (Muslim) families struggle with: eating pork, drinking alcohol, dating, what have you. 

But there were also moments I remember where walking that line was not so easy. I have this memory of sitting in the back of the car, I must have been 10 years old, while we were driving to Italy for vacation. And I remember how I was looking at the beautiful landscape and expressing my liking with the word “geil.” Now geil is colloquial for “cool/awesome,” but it’s literal translation is “horny.” And while my parents knew that it was being used colloquially, they didn’t like it. So they forbade us to use it. Everyone was allowed to use it, but we were not. 

Adopting these seemingly minuscule elements of a culture might seem insignificant to some, but the degree to which you play along – culturally speaking – matters. At the end of the day, even if you adopt 95% of what your host culture has to offer, you are probably going to get judged on those 5% that you don’t. Especially if you already don’t look like the rest. 

I am not sure how aware my parents were about the way how they raised me. If all these efforts were intentional or accidental, but it’s those very efforts that allowed me to be aware of my heritage, appreciative of my host culture, and curious about all the other cultures foreign to me. The question of whether I am Iranian or German actually never really came up until much later in my life when I left Germany and found myself in positions in which I had to talk more explicitly about my upbringing. 

Looking forward, the challenge I’m facing is that I am already someone who is in between two cultures. Culturally speaking, I am neither fully Iranian, nor fully German. So I have always wondered what part of my identity I will be passing down to my children. A question that is likely going to be compounded by two additional factors: one, the country in which I will raise children, and two, the person with whom I will raise those children with. My future partner could easily be someone who brings another (or even two other) cultures into the relationship.

It’s a whole different level of complexity, but it’s also a massive opportunity to raise a new generation that has a very multifaceted identity and unprecedented levels of cultural fluency. 

Mom and dad, while you will likely not read this, I thank you wholeheartedly for everything you’ve given me and for raising me the way you did. Super geil of you. 

What you seek is seeking you

In one of the last conversations I had in San Francisco before I boarded my flight to Shanghai, I heard something that stayed on my mind for quite some time. The comment came from someone with whom I had met under very serendipitous circumstances a few years back. After hearing about all the reasons why I wanted to go to Shanghai and the things I was hoping to achieve, she just said: "be careful not to attach yourself to any outcome. Rarely does it manifest itself when you do."

A part of me wanted to believe her, but another part in me didn’t: "why wouldn’t I want to strive for the outcome for which I was going abroad in the first place?” It just didn’t make sense to me. For me, it seemed that not attaching myself to an outcome would mean that I wouldn’t be doing enough for that outcome to occur. So she clarified: "if you can find a way to let go, what you want will find its way to you – assuming you are working, remain focused, and stay present."

Now admittedly, there is a lot of kumbaya in the notion of “what you want will find its way to you,” but after giving it some serious thought, I realized that I had heard something similar once before. Namely a fable about a guy who was chasing a butterfly. I couldn’t find the actual story anywhere, and I also don’t remember where I heard it in the first place, but here is how it went more or less:

There was a guy who was inside his kitchen looking outside the window into the garden. He noticed a su per beautiful butterfly whose colors and patterns just mesmerized him. He instantly jumped up, dropped everything and ran outside trying to catch the butterfly. He was so in love with what he saw, he wanted it no matter what. So he ran up and down, chased the butterfly around all corners, put up nets, traps, just tried everything. But after minutes of running back and forth, he was out of breath, all sweaty, giving up his on his goal to catch the butterfly. Exhausted, he sat down on his patio, and moments later that butterfly slowly approached him, flew around his head, and then sat down on his nose. 

In many ways, the "what you want will find its way to you” notion was very evident in this story about the guy and the butterfly. What happens is that by wanting something really bad (a specific outcome in this case), we channel all our stress and anxiety and actually make that outcome less likely to happen. We push it away, scare it, distance it from us. But if we shift our minds to a place of patience, to self-control, to complete peace with whatever outcome, we create the right environment for what we want to come to us, to attract it, and awaken it. 

But for that to happen, we need to be at complete peace with ourselves and with whatever the universe will serve us. Being ok with whatever the outcome there may be, as indifferent as it may sound, actually makes it most likely for us to effectuate what we actually want. And as my friend pointed out, this is not an act of indifference or laziness. It’s an act of working hard, remaining focused, and staying present – and not to stress out over what might or might not happen.  

Rumi’s word are often mistranslated or misinterpreted. And while the title of this post (a Rumi quote) can be looked at from different angles, for me it fits the notion of this post – what you seek is seeking you .. you just need to allow it to flow to you, painlessly and effortlessly. 

Now not everything I came to Shanghai for happened the way I wanted. Sometimes, I admit it, I’m too attached to a specific outcome. Sometimes, I want something so bad that I make it harder on myself (and everyone else involved). But then again, I am not perfect. I’m a human being that is work in progress. I am a living and breathing person who feels love as much as he feels pain. And while I can’t turn back time to undo mistakes, I care enough to learn and improve going forward. 

This is to living a life less attached to outcomes.