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. 

Finding happiness in misery

There is a Chinese saying that goes 否极泰来 (pǐ jí tài lái). It roughly translates as “out of the depth of misfortune comes bliss” or “the good emerges when the evil has reached its extreme.” Which in essence isn’t that different from some of the English sayings like “after rain there’s a rainbow.”

Now the reason why I wanted to write about it is because I have found a lot of meaning in it. It’s something I tell myself whenever things are not going well in my life. It’s this constant reminder that most things in life have a cyclical pattern. That a low is followed by a high, and that a high is often followed by a low. 

So what happens is that whenever I go through times of despair or misery, instead of ignoring my pain, I own it. I fully acknowledge that I’m feeling shitty and I give myself the right to feel that way. After all I’m not a machine, but a human being that is capable of feeling a wide range of emotions – the good and the bad. 

But at the same time, I remind myself that it’s all cyclical and that whatever is gonna happen next, it’s probably gonna be better than what I am experiencing now. So while I am embracing my pain, I also start to feel excitement for what is going to come next. Sure, I don’t know what that’s going to be, but chances are it’s gonna be something good. Chances are that in a few days from now, I will smile again and be happy. 

Anticipating what is going to come next helps put the pain of the now into perspective and mitigate it. It shifts my mental energy into an area of forward-looking anticipation and hope. And before I know it, I’m in a situation of misery, but I am already feeling excitement of all the good things that are going to happen next. "Sure, I’m going through some tough shit, but hey, a lot of amazing things are soon going to crash into my life and that’s kinda exciting”

The danger of this way of thinking is when someone starts to think it reversely. Meaning that when one goes through times of happiness, instead of being present in that moment, they start worrying about whatever bad thing might happen next – merely on basis of the cyclical pattern of life. Basically allowing worry to be the thief of joy. However, I certainly hope it has a different effect. That one appreciates good times more because chances are that those times won’t last forever. 

We all might be familiar with that saying, but I doubt we all are capable to stare into misery and defy it with a smile and a sense of excitement for all the good things that are going to follow. But that’s exactly the way I hope to deal with my own moments of misery going forward. 

Having a bias for action

The most flattering thing ever said to me is that I “not only talk the talk, but I also walk the talk.” I couldn’t make such sense of it at first, but over time I saw what people meant.

Whenever I come across something I like, or develop a new idea that get excited about, I just go and do it. If I really want it, I don’t let anyone or anything come in between. There are no excuses that hold me back or obstacles that deter me from pursuing what I set my mind on. In fact, I can’t think of anything in my life that I really wanted to do, but didn’t go out and do. Not saying I always succeeded, but I tried.

I live my life with a strong bias for action, and in the following I hope to encourage you to do the same. 

What do I mean with having a bias for action? 

It means that you – shocker – actually go and do what you feel you want to do. That if a crazy idea comes across your mind, you don’t fall into “let me come up with 193 reasons why this is not going to work” mode, but you go and make it work.

At the very least you give it a shot. And even if it doesn’t work out, you feel shitload of pride for having given it a shot, but above it all, you proved to yourself, and to the world, that the ideas that cross your mind, don’t just end up in a graveyard of ideas that never find fruition. 

So what’s keeping us from having a bias for action in our lives? Society does. 

The other day I came across the example of Huntington Hartford, who had inherited a fortune of $90M and spent $80 of that "chasing his dreams in the Bahamas.” He then passed away in 2008 at the age of 97. Yet instead of celebrating the fact that he spent his fortunate on pursuing his dreams, outlets like the NYTimes portrayed his life as a failure.

The way how his life was reported on is telling of how society expects us to behave. Our character is more often measured in our net worth than in our actions. Life is often deemed successful when we have more at the end than what we started with, not on basis of how much we explored, experienced, or put into action. As a recent HBR article pointed out: "We say “you can’t take it with you” but we be­have and judge as though you can."

This is the culture we live in, one that puts safety ahead of satisfaction. One that emphasizes the have to over the want to. One in which we are perpetually subjected to expectations. Expectations that suffocate our creative ideas and dreams, and that burry them underneath all the musts and have dos – societal expectations of what is the "right thing to do." 

What else is keeping us from doing what we want? Ourselves. 

We are probably our biggest enemy when it comes to living out our dreams and living with a bias for action. So many things we want to do, and so many more excuses we find not to do it. 

I have never done this before, I don’t have time, I don’t know the right people, what if I screw up, English isn’t my first language, oh, I just do it later. If there is one thing we are all really good at, it’s finding reasons to say no. 

Yet turns out life doesn’t get easier as we get older. Things get more complicated, our responsibilities pile up, and as we build families, we will have less and less time for ourselves. The sooner we start taking action on what matters to us, the more satisfaction will we achieve in our lives. 

Don’t let your fears and excuses prevent you from taking actions on the things you want to do now. Don’t spend your life making decisions, take actions. There is no better time to do it than now. Some of us spend their lives making up their minds, and then we die with songs unsung. The music is in us, but we don’t let it out.