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.

An Open Letter to my Class

A lot of you have been checking in on me over the past few days to see how I am faring. In response, I wanted to share the letter that I read out to my classmates in yesterday's Community Solidarity Event.

Hi everyone. I want to thank each and every single one of you for being here today. Your presence is valued, your presence matters, and your presence makes a difference. Thank you for that. 

To say that the past few days have been extremely troubling, would be an understatement. There is a lot going on – in us, on this campus, in this country – that is hard to put into words. 

I therefore wanted to share three things with you. A little about me, a little about us, and a little about you. 

ME

Some of you have been following my social media over the past few days, and seen how I – as a dual citizen of Iran and Germany – have been affected by the executive order. These have been some turbulent days for me and my entire family, including my brother, who is working here in the US on a work visa. 

I came to this country 6 years ago. I came here because I was looking for a place I could call my home. And before I knew it, I did call this place my home. Over the course of the past 6 years, I have left this country 57 times. But I also came back 57 times. And every time I would cross the border, I would hear the words “Sir, welcome back home.” 

Following the events on Friday, however, I suddenly didn’t feel like I was home anymore. For many days in a row I woke up every morning, under the impression that I am imprisoned here – not able to return should I ever leave. That I am not welcome, that the past 6 years have been an illusion that I was forcefully being waken up from. And that I would not hear the words “Sir, welcome back home” for a 58th time.

Now thankfully, the situation surrounding the EO has changed drastically in my favor. My green card and my German citizenship are finally giving me the protection that I deserve and that was violated during the days following the EO. 

Nevertheless, I remain extremely worried about how the next few weeks, months and years are going to play out. Especially as a proud Iranian – as someone who has dedicated a large part of his life to portraying and promoting the real, human side of Iran – I remain particularly worried about recent developments. Over the past 48 hours, the US has repeatedly threatened Iran and put the country “on notice.” There is also a bill in the US House which specifically authorizes the president to launch a pre-emptive war on Iran at any time of his choosing and without any further Congressional oversight or input. I am afraid that before we know it, we are at war with Iran. You think it’s far-fetched? I tell you it’s not.

US

I would now like to say a few words about us as a community. Many of us came here from countries far away. In pursuit of education and a better future, we left behind all we have, we left behind our friends and families. For all those people here who did that, the GSB community is our replacement family. 

Personally, I have been extremely disappointed by the lack of public response by our Dean. I had the opportunity to talk to him 1:1 today, and I made it very clear that as the leader of this community, of this family, I find it unacceptable for him to take such impassioned stance. As a leading institution, we can’t just talk about our values – we have to act on those values. It’s despicably hypocritical if we pride ourselves with how international and diverse we are, but then don’t publicly defend all the diverse members of our community in the moment they are under attack. 

And while emotions are high among so many of us, let’s do not forget that we are all sitting in the same boat, we are all playing for the same team. GSB is family. And today, more than ever, we need to stick together and take care of each other. 

YOU

Lastly, I would like to say a few things about you. In conversations with many of you, I have learned that some of you feel helpless, confused and uncertain about what can be done. How you can make your voice heard. How you can effectuate change. Some of you are not even American citizens, so why care? 

To those among you that think that way, I want to remind you that much of the backpedaling that we saw happening after the EO went into effect, was a direct result of the demonstrations. 

We are living in times in which staying silent is not an option anymore. If we don’t speak up for ourselves, at least we have to speak up for our friends and those whose voices can't be heard – the refugees, the immigrants, the people in need. Because more often than not what matters more is the voice of the allies than the voice of those affected. 

And if you feel your presence in a demonstration doesn’t matter, you couldn’t be any more wrong. It matters to the person on your left who will feel connected when she turns around and sees you shout. And it matters to the person on your right who will feel supported when he turns around and sees you holding up a sign. Your presence is valued, your presence matters, and your presence makes a difference.

In many ways these times are a moment of truth. And I hope that years from now we will be able to look back and proudly say that we did not let this become the new norm. That we did not just talk the talk, but also walked the talk. And that we made sure, that we stepped up as the leaders that all of us, in this room, aspire to be. Thank you. 

The story of the brick wall – and what it tells us about our brains

I have frequently written about how our brains are wired to focus on the negative or to see the negative among many good things. In fact, I recently wrote about a hypothetical situation which exemplifies this phenomenon: 

"Imagine standing in a room with 10 other people, 9 of whom are holding things you desire in life: health, wealth, friendships, etc. Now imagine the 10th person is pointing a gun at you. Who do you look at? One might say "of course, the guy is holding a gun", but that's exactly the point. As humans, we are unconsciously programmed for survival. That's why our brain is wired to identify threats, danger and negative things in our environment and that's why thinking positively requires an extra effort."

Yesterday then I got to sit down with one of my best friends from high school. We've known each other for about 15 years now, and it’s a tradition for us to come together each winter and chat for hours and hours. We not only review the year, but we also discuss it philosophically.

And as we were talking about the importance of focusing on the good things in our lives, my friend came up with another hypothetical example that really resonated with me. It’s basically saying the same message as my example above, but for whom that example above was too abstract, the following one might take the point home. It seems to be some Chinese fable, so I apologize for butchering the actual story… 

There was a farmer who was building a wall with 100 brick stones that he had available. He worked tirelessly and orderly, and finished the wall the same day. He then took a few steps back and realized that one of the bricks in the wall wasn’t even. He became upset with himself and couldn’t stop looking at that one uneven brick in the wall. At the same time, another farmer came by and asked why the farmer was so upset about his wall. He then pointed out the uneven brick, to which the visiting farmer responded: why do you beat yourself up over one uneven brick if you could celebrate yourself for the 99 bricks that are straight?  

Honestly, I am no different than this farmer. I, too, would be obsessively upset with that one uneven brick and have it spoil the joy of having done everything else right. I joke that the German in me has an eagle eye for spotting mistakes, discrepancies and asymmetries.

Yet this is so wrong and it only demonstrates the inner works of our brains. Now I am not saying that this is how it is and that we should accept it. But I hope that both these examples expose the (mal-)functioning of our default thinking. Only if we understand its flaws, we can consciously work on resolving them.

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3 life lessons that I take away from 2016

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This is it, 2016 is coming to an end. Another year in the books. Admittedly, it wasn't the best – partly because of all the shit that happened in the world (Trump, terrorism in Germany, Syria, brexit, etc.), and partly because of a long list of personal disappointments.

While 2014 was the year of “enlightenment", and 2015 was the year “unlocking myself" – both years of immense personal growth – 2016 will go down in the books as one in which I felt life was decelerating. A year of seeing the limitations to my #cantstopwontstop-lifestyle, that I can’t always get what I want (no matter how much I try and push for it), and of admitting to myself that at times I have been pursuing the wrong things in life. If this year had a theme, I would call it the year sobering up.

There were many highlights that I look back up: I visited China for the first time and was so impressed that I decided to learn Mandarin, I took 10 friends from school to Iran, I became part of an artist collective of photographers with which we have had two successful showings, visited 16 countries (5 of which I had never been to), bought a car, cut down alcohol and meat to a fraction of what I used to consume, and emceed a 1,500 person charity gala which was a very rewarding experience.

But along all those highs, there was a number of lows: my apartment building in San Francisco caught fire while I didn’t have any renter’s insurance, my car got broken into and I got valuable worth $2k stolen out of it (again without insurance), twice I was offered a publishing deal by Apple for my pictures to appear on the global #ShotoniPhone6s billboards, and both times I was removed from the final creative, I got my heart broken, I was rejected from a number of programs and courses at Stanford that I really wanted to take, and I had to cancel one of my summer internships 6 days prior because I was being offered an insultingly low salary of $10/h on a 25-hour work week. 

Despite its many “FML”-moments, 2016 was full of lessons learned, three of which I would like to share in the following.

Learning not to give a fuck

My story: For too long in my life, I cared about what others think of me. I cared about their opinions and judgement – to the extent to which I would sometimes change my behavior to please and to be liked. Not always, and not always consciously, but it happened. Probably more often than I am comfortable to admit to myself.

One turning point I had this year was a brand survey that I had participated in. A recurring piece of feedback I got was that people who do not know me, can perceive me as disingenuous. At the same time, those people also said that this perception gets disproven once people do actually get to know me.

Somewhat unsettled by that feedback, I went to get advise from one of my professors. And the key question he asked me was: why do you care about the opinion of people who don’t know you? And as simple of a question this was, it was one that kept me thinking for days – until I reached the point at which I concluded to not give a fuck. To become more confident in who I am and what I want, and to care less about what others will think of it.

The lesson: Not giving a fuck doesn’t mean that I don’t care about anything anymore, it means that I don’t care about the unimportant things in life. And that I am reserving my fucks for the things and people that truly matter and that make me happy. Extended, it means that I don’t care about the adversity in the face of my goals, and that I don’t care about pissing some people off along the journey as long as I feel what I am doing is right or important.  Ever since I reached that conclusion, I feel liberated. I have stopped trying to be friends with the wrong people, I have become more confident in who I am as a person, and I am more determined to pursue the things I actually want to pursue.

Ain't got no more time for excuses

My story: For very long in my life, I found excuses. I found excuses for everything. For why I shouldn’t do something. For why it’s not the right time. For why I am not the right person. For why I am not ready. Or why it’s too hard. As opposed to just going out there and fucking making it happen. Especially int the areas of dating and entrepreneurship, I would excel at finding 571 reasons why something would not work as opposed to just making it work.

The key point for me this year was turning 30. Even though I approached the new decade with vigor and positivity, it did have an eye-opening effect on me. I suddenly realized that time is running out – that I didn’t do many of the things that I wanted to do because of lazy excuses. Sure, I got so many more years ahead of me, but the 20s that I so loved, are gone. And the same thing is going to happen with this decade or any future decade of my life. So what’s the point of finding excuses if time is running out?

The lesson: A big lesson for me this year was to acknowledge that excuses are just coping mechanisms to protect myself from things that I actually feared, like failure or rejection. That excuses are just creating the illusion of protection like a pain killer, but that they are not actually solving the underlying fears That excuses are just limiting me from reaching my full potential, and that they limit my learning. And that confronting those failures and rejections head on is exactly the type of learning that I need for that underlying fear to be defeated.

The why behind the what

My story: This year I took a lot of courses at the GSB that had a strong introspective character. One of the things I sort of knew but never really practiced or investigated was understanding the why behind my whats.

I think it all started with my application essay for Stanford in which I had to talk about what matters most to me and the why behind it. For the first time I really dug deep and unearthed the reasons and motivations behind some of the decisions I had taken in life.

And especially this year I have learned to do this more often and to "feel my pulse." I don't want to do something? I ask myself why, why, why until I find the real reason for what bothers me. I enjoy someone's company? I ask myself why, why, why until I fully understand why that is.

The lesson: In today's world we are so stimulated – from the moment we wake up to the moment we fall asleep. And in between it all, there is very little time for introspection or the opportunity to pause and understand our motivations. I feel we are acting on impulses without fully understanding what drives us to act a certain way. Asking "why" multiple times really helps uncovering the real drivers. And asking why of others also really helps understanding them better. Someone might say they love skiing, but ask them why multiple times and you might learn it's less the activity they enjoy but more the opportunity to be in touch with nature.

2016, thanks! 2017, bring it on.

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