You're reading my first message in a bottle.
It's February 2008, a late year to start a blog for a techie. But this is not my first. I had another blog in the 90s. One that spans three years of detailed events in the early years of the Internet. One that existed publicly before blogs became a public phenomenon. I've left it on the Island of Youth that I once visited, in the middle of the Ocean of Life. And now, instead of reflecting on the moments, I reflect on the years ...
I am the proverbial mighty pirate. I built a boat and I commanded an army of one. After a long chapter of struggle in the short story of my life, I set sail to the stormy sea again, but the tides changed. I was caught in a storm. Walls of water came raining down and crushed the boat. I floated in the water, semi-conscious, hungry, again, for days.
I live on another island now. It is inhabited by others. Some know how to swim, some know how to farm, but those who know how to build a boat are old and gray, left only with stories to tell.
Of being a pirate, I only keep the lingering identity, but ... I need a boat.
I need a boat for a different reason. Not for a gesture of grandiosity exerted by the self-made man. But because my heart belongs to the calm and unpredictable waves of the sea.
Desire and inspiration are unpredictable like the waves.
I found love once or twice, sitting there on the horizon, glimmering here and shimmering there under the rays of the rising sun. But the sun set ... and I let go to wake up to it another day. Days came and went. I woke up with energy, to go on board, to see the shimmering and feel the longing and the lust for getting there, where the horizon stood ... until the storm.
I need a boat.
I am a pirate that despises the navy and yet wants to be the navy, in search of the shimmering light in the horizon I think to be love.
I need a boat, and I need a navy.
This captain's log is on how to build the proverbial boat.
I wrote the above note in 2008 while I was moonlighting on my first startup in Seattle, reflecting on a broken heart, and heading into an economic recession. I completely forgot about the post, and in fact the entire log, until 6 years later in 2014.
I'm writing this update in San Francisco, having lost count of how many startups I've worked on so far. The words of innocent desire in the above post are a testament to the power of relentlessly pursuing a visualized self-image with the kind of faith that doesn't question "what if things don't work out".
When the US economic recession hit that year, I sank the startup and went backpacking to Europe, something I had wanted to do all my life. In perfect hindsight, that's one of the most important things I ever did with my life, because traveling has always been an end for which the journey of entrepreneurship has been a means. The next year after that I found my eternal love. The year after, I moved to California and embarked on many new journeys.
The "Island" I describe was the big corporation with its employees busy maintaining life's default mode of avoiding mistakes. I could still be on that island. But I'm on my journey. It turns out that the shimmering light in the horizon wasn't love. I found love already. The shimmering light was curiosity. It was a light from within, wondering about the regret of having lived a life unexplored. You see, when viewed in that way, sinking the startup and traveling the world was probably the best possible decision I could have made in that storm.
The measure of a lifelong entrepreneur is not how many failures he has avoided, but rather how many valuable opportunities he has correctly identified before the right time went by.
My reflections, 2014
It will appear, as you keep on reading my writings, that I see the process of entrepreneurship as a philosophy. I'm a strong believer of least-regret principle in life: you will regret things that you didn't explore more than all the mistakes you made combined. And in that sense, I treat entrepreneurship as a lifestyle and a journey. One that starts with an unrelenting desire and compulsion to be opportunistic, never receding from the faithful obsession to seek the enlightenment from touching that horizon.
I see it in the warm glimmer of an 80 year old mentor I hang out with every Tuesday:
It doesn't matter who knows your name or what you've accomplished in life. Nobody will remember you once you retire. All that matters is that you, and you alone, believe with all your heart that you lived the no-regret life that you could imagine at the end of your journey.
And for me, it's facing the fears and hopes of each day like a pirate captain.
My name is Amin.
Let me begin with a customer-focused observation: "Amin" as a string is half of the name "Benjamin". Though if you introduced yourself with the former in Starbucks, you'd always hear back "Ian?" My name doesn't fit the mold, which is fitting if you'll forgive the pun, because neither does the strange course of my life.
Noticing and taking advantage of such subtle disconnects makes the difference between engineers who "build it right" and entrepreneurs, who "build the right it". Value is not what you offer; it's what others want to receive. If you apply that lesson in overcoming resistance sporadically, you'll win a few times in life. If you're willing to master it through changing your default course, you'll understand wealth as a strategy game.
What is wealth? It's not money, which is its medium. Wealth is to have the time to write a paragraph introducing yourself to a stranger somewhere in this globe, who may be wondering how this paragraph ends. Wealth is to sit with a cup of coffee; to capture thoughts that might matter to others; to have the freedom from the oppression of the nine to five routine to work on a personal masterpiece that may materially improve someone else's life; and to gaze without focus at happy children outside the window, while you can remember a childhood forgotten without a trace in war and revolution.
Wealth is to chuckle at the name given to you with care, misspelled on a cup of coffee; invoking the thought that if you of all the forgotten children of the world can afford this precious moment of luxury, perhaps you can spend it such that more children can, next time. Wealth is to survive in the cracks of an intolerant world, without getting hung up on fairness; to come out at the precise moment when the world has lost its purpose; to seed it with exactly the thoughts it condemned to the cracks. To leave wealth behind is to have innovated; to have left the world with more meaning than it had when we entered it, as a participant in a glorious orchestra without a conductor. It's not to sell another cup of coffee, but to get strangers to ask each others' names.
By the way, what's your name?
I'm a Computer Scientist turned Software Engineer turned Tech Entrepreneur (my résumé), from San Francisco Bay Area. I have a Masters in Engineering and Innovation Management (M.S.) from CMU and a Honors Bachelors in Computer Science from University of Waterloo (B.C.S.), and I'm an ex-Google and ex-Microsoft engineer. Though in life, I always seek blank canvases, or what I call new "S-curves".
My areas of focus are Internet- and mobile-based social innovations backed by subscription models or the power of corporate advertising. As a technology leader, I've advised agile engineering teams on startup product strategy, systems and architecture. As a software entrepreneur, I envision, contextually design and technically validate innovative solutions and teams around disruptive new Internet-based consumer-facing markets following Moore's Law.
Opportunities for new types of experiences have always attracted me, because learning from them helps in creating and propagating meaning into the world. The lessons sometimes shine through in articles I've written. The purpose of my writing is to interpret for others the new experiences they're braving through for the first time. One generation's obscure reader, experimenting in the forgotten cracks, is the next generation's prophetic leader.
We founded Sponsorbrite , a San Francisco based fundraising startup, where I am currently the Technical Co-Founder and CTO. Sponsorbrite started with the goal of making every school in the United States financially self-sustainable after the great recession.
Our schools, after the U.S. government started slashing education funding, realized that most of their educational and sports programs had to be cut unless the local community helped. So a grassroots industry for school fundraising formed, moving $7B of donations a year from families to school and sports activities. We looked at how low-tech and difficult the operations were within the new industry, and decided to build a technology platform to eliminate waste. The typical fundraiser on our platform reaches more people in the community, keeps them engaged for more years, and costs less and less to run year after year than what every school is used to.
We've done so well with schools and sports that we're going to expand our services to non-profits ($37B donations) and religious institutions ($52B donations). Not only we figured out how to reduce cost and inefficiencies, we might have discovered the most surprising strategy possible: how to give away fundraisers for free. We'll be the first fundraising business, ever, to give schools 100% of what they raised.
A general social malaise of this generation is the effect that technology has had on job automation. Many have argued that tech, while increasing the total wealth in the world, concentrates it in the hands of the powerful owners of means of productivity while taking away lower-level jobs from the poor. I'm a techie and I can't change that. But we believe one remedy to the wealth gap is education, a social good that's becoming expensive at a rate four times faster than inflation. To address this from a high level, we believe corporations must fill the gap where governments have failed, and make education more accessible to everyone. The way we'd like to see that happen is by putting the weight of school fundraising costs on the shoulders of corporations.
The good news is that corporate brands love the idea of being mentioned as a supporter by a child to supportive parents. Not only can they generate goodwill, but also offer discounts aligning with the event's goals. The value is in the lift effect for the fundraiser promoters, and the customer acquisition effect for the brands. Our fundraisers essentially generate conversations and moments of generosity; and the sponsoring corporation is willing to pay the costs of those conversations and even make promotional offers, as long as its name is mentioned. "Johnny's dad supported his school's running team with a donation. Nike would like to match the cost, and offer a discount on shoes." #Win-Win-Win.
Solving social problems is a little like martial arts: there's a way to arrange the momentum of all the forces such that you can fight without a weapon. And when you spend enough time thinking, you'll find a way for everyone to appreciate the value they get out of it. I expect we'll master the nuances of this game in under 10,000 hours. And I'm all in.
More importantly, these days, I'm running around looking for others who can help a whole generation. Will you?
Prior to starting Sponsorbrite in 2012, I was an engineer at Google with the Ads team, working on penetrating SMB markets using lean and innovative technical strategies. Concurrent to full-time work at Google, I completed my masters in Software Engineering and Innovation Management from Carnegie Mellon University Silicon Valley campus in NASA Research Park. We consequently changed our name at CMU to Integrated Innovation Institute. Completing the program prompted me to switch gears and start up on my own.
Before Google and CMU, I worked at a number of social and advertising early-stage startups, where I gained on the ground-floor experience with how to calibrate a company at different stages, and acquire and maintain product-market fit.
Previous to my Silicon Valley experience, I worked at a number of Enterprise related companies, leading to an early career start at Microsoft in Redmond, Washington. I transitioned from Enterprise to Consumer products there by working on MSN and consequently XBox. I also fell in love with the West Coast.
My career originally began as a Computer Science student in University of Waterloo where I pursued fundamental lessons in Mathematics, Operating Systems, Compilers, Databases and Machine Learning design, formerly known as Artificial Intelligence. In conjunction to engineering, I found an interest in Social Psychology in which I have a minor. The lessons from those electives played a major role in my later decision to tie in engineering and computing to doing a social good and changing the world. My first entrepreneurial project happened during my internship in a hospital IT mini-department as a freshman in the late 90's: I created an Internet hub for doctors to share and collaborate on radiology imaging scans, a very radical idea for the early Internet.
My relationship with computing and my identity as a tinkerer and disruption seeker began in 1988 with an Atari 2600 that my father insisted on getting me instead of a plastic robot that I wanted, followed by stumbling upon GW-Basic on an 8086 16-bit DOS machine running on a 5.25" inch floppy. It's a funny story now, but when every waking moment of my time started going into programming, my parents and school teachers were dismayed that I had chosen "a toy with no future" over studying for a bright career.
I have a world view that stems from my life experience as an immigrant. I immigrated as a teenager from Tehran, Iran to Toronto, Canada and later, to Seattle, Washington. I now live where my heart is, in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I find culture, opportunity, tolerance and beauty everywhere.
Like many others, I'm fascinated by the idea that life itself is a computer, a Turing Machine: a Y combinator algorithm on a sub-atomic Operating System, where the computing agent is a Quark, the memory is made up of distance, and the only assembly instruction is gravity. This world view has informed my interests in the past, such as genetic algorithms, functional programming, machine singularity following Moore's law, neural-network-based collaborative robotics, nanotechnology, replicators and memes.
My motivation comes from the observation that unlocking the secrets of nature creates wealth and eliminates the need for hunger, conflict and war, putting us on the path to discover new frontiers for our curiosity. I consider life to be a dream state for the universe, one that may rise and tide universally like waves of the Pacific Ocean. We are part of that metaphysical dream. We are not responsible, but are rather defined by the work of expanding our world beyond the borders of curiosity.
It’s February 1979, exactly 35 years before someone writes a memoir about your decisions today.
You’re still youthful, save a couple of white hairs you trim in secret. In your small office, you turn on the light and it embraces the room. Its power source is a dam that you built early in your career. The room is full of large engineering blueprints that you’ve hand-drawn over the years. You sit at the table and open your suitcase. It’s emergency cash; savings from the company’s last project that you keep on hand for payroll and expenses. You’re my age as I’m writing these words. And the emergency lurks behind the doors.
You’re inside your own house. One in which you’ve lived and been respected by the community around for years. But there are now mobs of armed people roaming the streets outside. You know some of them. Your friendly disagreements with them for many of the recent years are fresh in your mind; but in a sea of zealous ideologies, boring pragmatism is no longer good for impatient ears. You could as well be full of hope and joy; others are. But you know better. You helped rebuild this country from the ashes of its former glory. And now, once more, it’s burning itself down to ruins and tearing its children apart.
You’re a civil engineer; the first engineer in your family. And you happen to be the CEO of a large capitalist corporation in one of the richest countries in the world, at the exact moment in history when it decides to shake off all of its international relations in an act of independence from superpower hegemony.
Revolution is brewing right on your front door.
Past success will be seen, in the popular black and white colors these days, as supportive of past status quo. And you no longer belong in the country you helped build, and call home. You have a wife -- no kids -- and relatives you care about. Your friends and partners have already fled the country at the first signs of instability months ago. They weren’t sure whether communism is coming or theocracy. But they were sure, unlike the uneducated masses, that capitalism is going to be witch-hunted.
The progressive monarch of the country, the Shah of Iran, left the scene on a plane with goodbyes, tears and rumors of cancer. This was just three weeks ago. Law and order left with him. You are surrounded by absolute chaos, dressed up in the utmost black and white glory of a human ocean. You’re in the middle of one of the epochal events of the twentieth century, and your good deeds will not go unpunished. You look at the suitcase one more time. Depending on the way the chips fall, this may be your last and only hope.
In this coming avalanche, which snowflake do you trust to act responsibly?
The black and white world was not forged today. If I’m being honest, I blame the Great Depression of the 1930s. And how becoming, it is of these words, to stumble upon that historic event. Because I owe the inspiration behind writing them to a bout of personal depression not two decades ago. It forced me to seek introspection and formulate lessons from half a life spent in fear. Memorize "False Dilemma" as lesson #1! But what transformation can be conferred in a single phrase? Let’s take yet another walk down the memory lane. Can you remember these past cognitively distorted decades?
When you sat me down and taught me history, it always began with the glories of a defiant world at war: the battleships, carriers and warplanes; the courage of Charles du Gaulle to stand in the face of tyranny and walk the ruins of his homeland, in the same way you would walk the ruins of Persepolis and curse Alexander the Great who set them on fire. You’d think of Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill’s strategy meeting in the Tehran Conference of 1943 and The Big Three’s signed protocol in recognition of Iran’s independence. 'What a shrewd meeting!’ you’d exclaim. "It takes great men to turn the wheels of the world" — left as the blank to be filled in that sentence, was always, who arranged that meeting and forced their hands on the extra protocol. You were an underdog who liked other underdogs, and wanted me to become one.
Though in all of our lessons together, you never actually mentioned the Great Depression; perhaps because it happened a decade before you were born. But I researched it for you. I had to. If my own introspections in a decade of solitude hadn’t led me there, my 2008 visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps would. That’s where I finally found myself.
I walked into the gas chambers, sat on the ground and talked to the spirit sitting next to me. I saw the brick walls and the ironic “work shall set you free” writing on the gate. I walked down the short pathway of the firing squad. I walked to the end of it, stood against the wall and closed my eyes, and counted. Three. Two. Fire!
This place, with all its green grass and brown bricks painting a black and white image of the lives of its former residents, felt like the fate I was warned of and raised to endure: A black and white world; A world full of fear and misguided men; A fear that was born when men found themselves in uncontrollable circumstances; And men who would rather hear what would please them, otherwise who knows which god’s “will" their next transportation train was destined to serve.
When I walked down Auschwitz, I finally found the fate from which I’ve always been trained to escape.
Did I mention that I eventually made it to the Acropolis in Athens? What a beautiful place. It must have been even more glorious in the Hellenic world of 500 BC, before it was burned by the Persians. This in theory led to the burning down of the Persepolis. So if I’m being completely honest, maybe I should blame the Greco-Persian Wars ending in 449 BC for the black and white world that we live in today. Though the burning of the Acropolis, itself, was revenge for the burning of the 7th century BC Persian city of Sardis by the Athenians. It seems like history is full of misguided men who don’t learn that burning the colorful world into black and white ashes will not restore the color to the pale of their revengeful hearts.
You never told me that economists still to this day are analyzing the Great Depression and don’t fully understand its causes. But it led to whole societies and countries defaulting on their obligations and resorting to war to settle the score. It led to a world where one had to take sides with black or white, or be trampled on by both. Your great men and mighty armies lived in a treacherous world, where even Huckleberry Finn couldn’t figure out who started the feud.
The Germans after the depression and previous battles got the short end of the stick and headed for a default. They elected a madman to deliver the news. His black and white life of fears led to an All or Nothing (Us vs. Them) view of the world. The fascists wanted to be the new black in this monochromic reality. The communists couldn’t stand for that, and soon the democrats and liberals followed suit. But what does all this have to do with your moment in 1979 and my thoughts in 2014?
When WWII was over, two of the three colors, Capitalism and Communism, had defeated the third color, Fascism. In the fearful minds of men from both sides, there could only be one color. So we all put on smiles in public while drawing borders, walls, and plans for more wars, in hiding. The borders were sensitive. The walls were concrete. And the plans for war required resources.
I don’t blame you for not knowing this history, although I learned most of my history from you. You listened to the Korean War of 1950 on AM radio between the North and the South. You watched the Vietnam War in 1956 on black and white television between its North and South; and marveled both at the American might and the Vietnamese resilience. You read the news about the Berlin Wall in 1961 in a black and white newspaper and admired the power of Khrushchev with the same level of awe as the proud speech of Kennedy in 1963 to protect the West against the East.
As you’re sitting now in your 1979 office in Tehran, you don’t know about the movie Apocalypse Now, displaying the atrocities that you admired about this fearful and black and white world. The avalanche outside your door is made of people angry at the dictator (Shah) re-installed by the United States and the West as a strongman against the spread of communism from the Soviet north. 1951 was the year Iran elected democracy. It wasn’t a good year to want democracy, as the UK needed its oil resources and the US needed its strongman. So in a 1953 CIA coup, the US overthrew democracy and brought back a progressive visionary that our people had accepted for decades, under force. Things were never going to be the same again. The black and white world had reached our colorful and neutral home.
And as you sit here and then stand there in your office, you wonder which color will tear the gates of your house down first, and how will that color judge yours.
The revolution succeeds outside your door. Weeks go by. You watch as the peaceful protesters of weeks ago disappear and armed men on motorbikes with automatic guns roam the city, chanting theocratic slogans. The very liberty-seeking voices that brought on the revolution are now quiet. A dark cloud hangs in the air, as fear and terror conquers the city. Page after page in daily newspapers are full of thumbnails of hundreds of men, executed for the sin of having lived well under the previous regime. The turban-wearing black and white god of revenge is sitting on the seat of power and purifying his world.
You are utterly alone. There are no clear paths to survival.
One morning, conquered by the insanity of survival mode, you dress yourself well and grab the emergency suitcase. You put on a smile and ask your wife to follow you to the airport, as "you’re expecting a guest". Oblivious, she follows. At the airport, surrounded by self-appointed and armed revolutionary guards, you ask her to follow your every action with a 10 second delay. With full confidence of a businessman-in-suit, which is not yet forced out of the culture’s consciousness, and a steely serious face, you walk across every armed person. As if you are sent there on the authority of the new government to inspect their actions. Suitcase in hand, you walk past the last line of security and board the plane. Your wife follows. The curtains close. A few hours later, you’re in Germany, West Berlin to be exact, and greeted by your business partner.
Six months go by. It’s late Summer of 1979 in Berlin. You have no personal or social identity. Your wife cries everyday, missing her parents. The fervor of the revolution has subsided. You have nothing meaningful left in life under your name, save relatives that you’ve left behind, in a culture that relatives and not society are the backbone of your moral support. On a final visit in Fall 1979 to Switzerland, you decide to settle down and have a child. With the child conceived and no purpose in life but to live quietly past your prime days in your own home and among your own kind, you return to your country. The grass back home looks greener from the “outside world”, when your whole world is black and white.
A few weeks after your return, in the same Fall that your child is conceived, a few half-wit revolution-minded students independently invade the United States embassy in the same city you live in, and take all the personnel hostage. They do so in a violent act of revenge against the US-backed coup d’etat that overthrew their democracy 26 years earlier, and demand that the US return their dictator. The interim government at first distances itself from the students, but in reaction to their lack of leverage with the US on multiple fronts, make a 180 degree diplomatic shift and take credit for the spontaneous act, leading to the 444 day “Iran Hostage Crisis”. 33 years later, Ben Affleck directs a movie about these events called “Argo”. But you don’t know anything about Argo. In fact, Ben Affleck is only seven years old right now. This is October 1979.
A few months later, they finally “find" you.
One of those dark days when you’re sitting in your room, you hear a knock on your door. You knew a street beggar well. Perhaps you helped him once or twice. He is now appointed to the treasury. He knows a former pimp really well, who is now conducting the “Friday prayers” and leading the masses. The beggar tells the pimp about your past economic success. The pimp tells a few thugs. And the thugs are at the door, in personal clothes, with guns and handcuffs.
Hours later, you’re attached, limbs and all, to a tractor that used to provide your employees with a living. You have 10 minutes to contemplate your fate or be executed. You have a wife, a child on the way and a lifetime of savings. You confess your “sins” on a piece of paper, signing away your lifetime of savings. You buy your freedom by parting with the fruits of your labor in youth, and walk away. You get home with a new identity. You are now dirt poor, and you’re soon a father.
Waves of angst and wrath take a toll on you everyday as you contemplate your fate and the fate of your newborn. The suitcase from the airport incident is the last thing standing between today and absolute social abandonment and starvation.
That's not all that the black and white world had in store for you.
The United States government, after a failed hostage rescue attempt, starts a close relationship with Saddam Hussein and arms him with enough weapons to feel courageous against Iran, then the fifth most powerful military in the world. To the uneducated majority around you, Uncle Sam is some individual asshole sitting somewhere far beyond the oceans who took their elected leader away 26 years ago and tortured their youth under coup-based dictatorship ever since. To you, it’s the superpower in charge of the black and white world. You know what’s coming. War is brewing. War. There is no substitute word for describing the magnitude of the destruction that's about to happen.
That Spring in 1980, your son is born in the house that you built.
That Summer of 1980, the Shah of Iran, dies with cancer in a Cairo, Egypt safe-house. The US, his “puppet master”, loses its leverage in the hostage crisis. The Iranian revolutionary government succeeds in punishing President Carter for giving the Shah a safe-house, by costing him the US election. Republican Ronald Reagan succeeds Carter. Reagan sends Donald Rumsfeld to Iraq to meet Saddam Hussein in 1983. Rumsfeld and Saddam shake hands, as you’re holding your three year old in your arms and watching TV in black and white.
You decide, in that moment, to just survive.
There’s another six years left for Reagan to compel Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall on color television. But right now, in black and white, he’s funding Rumsfeld to fund Saddam to turn Iran, the former US ally, into a pile of manure fortifying its position against the Soviet expansion. A million people are about to lose their lives in your country. And you have a son in your arms.
To survive, you finally decide to consciously look at the world in black and white colors. You decide that there are no intelligent and pragmatic ears in the world. There are only those who voted “Yes” and those who voted “No” in this fervor where only one choice was given. And according to the media, 99% said “Yes" to it. You decide that people are either saints or corrupt. Why bother with the shades in between? The pages in the “executed” section of the newspaper are full of them.
And thus it was that, you, my father, learned to look at the world from behind a lens of distorted All or Nothing Thinking.
You endured watching a million of your countrymen walk to their own demise in a country you helped build, under the uncertainty for our next meal. You stayed the course for another 17 years, never seizing to offer bitter and cynical laughter to corrupt theocratic pretenses, and gentle support to any young man who wanted to make something of himself. You never -- and I say Never, with the same conviction of an All-or-Nothing Thinker -- never worked with others in your new world, even to make ends meet. All this, in front of your children. And when the time came for you to assume a new identity again, after years of struggling for one, you simply embraced the word “baba” (“Dad”)
The prisoner's dilemma is that he has to cooperate with other prisoners, for the optimal outcome, as long as their term is indefinite. I suppose you never bought the indefinite terms of your taken-away liberty. To you, the prison of the black-and-white world was an inconvenient mistake on someone else's part. You picked us up, despite all the difficulties of old age, and moved us to Canada: to see us educated and empowered in a colorful world. Education! The same antidote, which, had it existed in more abundance during the transition of your society, would have achieved wonders (as it finally started to, 30 years later with the next generation of people in 2009)
You, my industrious father who once kneeled and sighed before the atrocities of time, taught me how to stay hungry when comfortable, and decide with the conviction of clear choices in chaos. Shoot, Aim, Ready: you taught me to live by that, or stay behind as chaos would take over.
You've lived an anxious, worried and distorted reality. But that’s alright. I forgive all the passionate and angry rhetorics and uncontrollable out-lashes of emotion. "If you wish to experience peace, provide peace for another”, said a Dalai Lama. And you did that for your family. And for me.
Today, I embrace fear. I seek it willingly. I walk away from comfort and seek avenues to create peace and livelihood for another generation. That’s your gift to the world, not mine. I write this rather simplistic memoir as tribute to a life of complex ironies, just to prove to you one thing in return for all the things that you have proven to me:
No matter how convinced you are of thinking that you have nothing to show for your life of industry, for once, I disagree with you in all color.
With sincere love,
Your Son representing 35 years of your decisions
February 2014, San Francisco, California
The Vessel of Time
This moment marks the beginning of my enlightenment: my dad showed me a ship off the Caspian shore, from a larger world beyond borders of imagination.
Shortly after I was born, the man whose face was on every single coin in my country died. He was the last Shah of Iran, dethroned by the 1979 revolution.
The timing wasn’t a coincidence. My father, an elite civil engineer, had built many roads, tunnels, dams and waterways for the previous 15 years of the monarch’s rule, marking the most prosperous period of the last few centuries of Iranian history. He was a millionaire in the upper class of the society. The revolutionaries, with the mission of “rooting out corruption”, arrested him, put him under his own tractor, and threatened to kill him without trial unless he signed his last dime away. I didn’t know the fallen king who died in foreign exile. But I knew a fallen father who lived in a domestic one.
My maternal grandfather was an orphan who worked up to becoming a rich land-owner. When my father asked him for help and warned him about the emerging kleptocracy, he took sides: “your favors and fortunes were disturbed, now you think everyone is a thief.” A few years later, they came for my grandfather and took thousands of acres of land that he had cultivated over the years. He died of a heart attack and left my grandmother a widow for the last three decades of her life.
From 1980 to 1988, the first eight years of my life, my country was at war with the opportunist Saddam Hussein of Iraq whose psychological-warfare bombing of my birth city’s power plants guaranteed that I started learning the alphabet under the light of a candle. I don’t remember once crying because of the war. The only time I cried in terror was when my mother, on her way to her job as a nuclear medicine technician, had to start wearing an ugly black scarf on her head. I cried my guts out as a 4 year-old, because somehow I knew her freedom, too, was being stolen.
In the early 80’s, she and my usually remote father (he rebuilt deserted areas) had scraped together enough money to partner up with my dad’s best friend and build a duplex house together. We lived on one side and they lived on the other. Life was just starting to look stable when my father’s mom died. She was a kind woman with many children; she still managed to leave a small piece of land for my dad who had just become a father. In that same year, Ayatollah Khomeini (the leader of the revolution) announced that because there were too many homeless “thanks to the previous kleptocratic regime”, no middle-class person is allowed to have more than one property. My father, who had just inherited this tiny land from her deceased mother, didn’t want to part with it for sentimental values. My mom was still in inheritance limbo. So he trusted his business partner’s wife, now our neighbor, with our share of the duplex. A few months later, she talked her husband into evicting us. We became the new homeless. And the house I grew up in, with all my childhood dreams, was stolen.
In the mid-80’s we moved to a rental closer to the mountains of Tehran, and I started first grade. Most of my classmates had lost their fathers in the war that claimed almost a million lives. One of the most pivotal moments of my life was the day I was walking up the mountain with a few other first-graders. An abandoned black cat showed up out of nowhere. We all loved how cute the cat was, and started chasing him. As he picked up pace, my classmates became more vicious in their chase, until they cornered the cat in a dead-end street, beat him to death with sticks, and put his decapitated head on a spike above their heads, laughing, running around town manically. The pale, shocked and distant expression of my face was that on the innocent dead cat's face. It has taken me decades to overcome that gut-wrenching shock (as I write this, the two cats that I consider my children are sleeping next to me). In retrospect, that was the day I discovered that I was different from the herd. I was not a taker.
We had a shopkeeper in the corner of our school: an old grumpy man who sold chips. The first time in my life that I understood money was when I took a treasured royal coin that my dad gave me to buy a bag of chips. There was no line, just twenty noisy kids chirping for his attention like a nest full of baby birds. The man looked at the coin I handed him, spat on it, and throw it back in my face: “This currency has no value.” I suddenly remembered what my mother always told me at home: “Never mention the Shah anywhere. It’s dangerous.” Maybe this man was angry at the face of the Shah on the coin. But what he said confused me: “no value” ?
My father explained to me that evening that somebody had stolen my money. “No, it’s right here!” I said. “No it isn’t,” he said, “the thieves now own the banks and money-printing machines. They don’t have to touch the money in your pocket. If they simply print more money without working for it, there will be more paper money but the same number of bags of chips. So even if you have money, the person printing the money can always pay more for the chips. It’s as if they stole your money without touching it.” Then he handed me a bill worth 100 times the coin I had. “This will buy you a bag of chips tomorrow, but don’t wait until the next day. They’re stealing your money as we speak."
The next morning I went up to the shopkeeper, among the other chirping children, proudly held up my money bill and said “a bag of chips please!” He took the bill out of my fingers while I waited patiently. The other children became louder and louder: “a pencil please!” “chips please!” “coke please!” … But my bag of chips never came. The bastard stole my money.
Seeing my predicament that night, my father said “OK, I can’t keep giving you money for nothing, or I might as well send you to work for the government. I will let you earn it instead.” How? I pleaded. And he showed me his dirty shoes: “Wax those”. At age 7, I learned to wax shoes for money. When I started, I charged what he told me to. But as soon as I learned that the price of chips in school were getting inflated, I’d raise my price. He’d smile: “A savvy businessman already?” I emulated the shopkeeper by putting up a sign on my wax stand at home, advertising Black polish, Brown polish, and other options for alternative prices. Business at home was excellent. I kept making money from my two customers, my parents, until the day I waxed my dad’s brown shoes black by mistake. I went bankrupt that day.
In 1987, the war was escalating out of control. A million were dead, their lives stolen. The international community, the very countries who were arming Saddam’s counter-revolutionary war, started forcing him to ask for a ceasefire with Iran. Khomeini, in his usual absolutist style, said “Absolutely no peace until we have the bloodthirsty aggressor’s head.” My father decided that the currency was going to become toilet paper immediately. He converted all the cash that he had earned after the revolution into gold coins. The next day Khomeini announced that he had changed his mind, and that he was going to “drink this glass of poison” (to sign the U.N. Security Council Resolution 598, ending combat operations between two countries within a year). My father recalls running down the street trying to sell the gold coins. The first exchange shop quoted one price. The exchange shop five minutes further down had a price 10% lower. The next one’s price was 25% lower. By the time he sold all the coins, he had retained a fraction of what his years of work were worth. The war and its chaotic rumors stole all his earnings after he had rebuilt his life from scratch.
He stopped working for money in 1987. He still worked on long term projects, but it seemed that he had changed permanently. I knew it when I accidentally learned that he was one of the benefactors in the rebuilding of the school I went to. “Benefactor?” I’d wonder, “but I thought everybody thinks we’re rich while we’re actually poor.” He explained to me later, “money is not the only currency that can buy power to help people.” I didn’t understand, but I was proud of him. (Thirty years later, I started a startup without money to help rebuild schools. More on that later.)
From then until 1997 when my family immigrated to Canada, my father’s only mission was to teach me mathematics. I hated it. “Why can’t I go out and play with other kids?” I’d ask. “Have you ever felt that you’re different?” he’d respond. “Maybe” I’d lie; I knew for a fact since the death of that black cat that I was different. “You are different, because you don’t think like others. Others kill ideas. You hang on to ideas: in drawings that have the promise of becoming buildings; in writings that have the first words to interesting stories; in pulling the truth from everyday lies.” He seemed to be pushing this father-son legacy thing. “But why do I have to re-learn at home, after already having gone to school?” I’d ask. “Because I’m teaching you the language of truth,” he said, “and truth is your only currency in a world of false appearances."
The kids I left out on the streets stayed there, stealing from each other, and starving. The price of a bag of chips went up a thousand times in my birth city, while incomes remained the same. For a sympathetic comparison, if the same level of inflation had happened in the U.S., a single Big Mac sandwich would cost $1,000.00 today. What my father taught me for survival in the adverse conditions of my birth city became a startup career recipe: Chasing money is the fastest way to becoming poor.
After 30 years, one day in Silicon Valley, I ran into the shopkeeper who stole my cash. This book is the story of how I beat that fox in his own game and took my money back.
Darkness, imprisoning me. All that I see is absolute horror; I cannot live; I cannot die; trapped in myself, body my holding cell.
At five o'clock, the only channel on State Television began its children's cartoons program. I set my school bag aside and sat in one of the two well-worn chairs, the way pavlov's dog must have reacted to the sound of his bell. The other chair sat empty.
Nima tuned the FM radio in the kitchen. It went from static to intelligible voices, back to static. He suddenly stopped turning the knob on a channel playing an army march. The cartoon about the orphaned bee looking for his mother suddenly got interrupted on TV, broadcasting the same march in video. I glanced at Nima. He looked scared and confused. The footage to the march looked just a little too live for comfort: the corpses of dead soldiers were handed to their crying mothers, to a heavy-metal like rhythm; except the tears, tremblings and faints were real. A charismatic male voice began singing:
Upon the Tulip Sleeping in Blood ;
The witness washing his hands from his life
Upon that one final scream
Upon the trembling tears of the mother
We swear that our path shall be your path oh martyr!
We swear that our path shall be your path oh martyr!
All forward! All forward!
In one cry: Immortal is my homeland.
(Voice Over: We shall step in your footsteps until death.)
(I) swear upon the name of freedom
Upon the moment that you gave your life
Upon the exploding heart (of a whole nation)
To a witness rolling in his blood
(I) swear upon the will of my comrades
The sufferers armed with faith
Upon the tired, offering their lives
Upon my heartened conspirators
(Voice Over: We shall step in your footsteps until death.)
Most of the dead looked too young for war. The TV switched back to cartoons. I turned it off. Silence was piercing our hearts. Finally Nima broke it, trembling: "Their plan is to sacrifice children!" A tear rolled down his face. A key turned in the door lock and mom slowly stepped in, with our two year old sister in her arms: "Hurry up. We only have an hour left."
"Mom, is God going to keep us safe?", Nima whimpered, but I interrupted very confidently: "There is no God, is there mom." She frowned in a mix of pity and confusion: "Someday you'll find him."
Dad's fists banged on the door: "You're cutting it close. Bombing raids are about to start. We need to get to grandma's apartment. She's all alone." He picked up the FM radio and extra batteries from the kitchen, as if sent by God to protect us.
"Dad, can God build a rock so large that he himself cannot destroy?" I asked, smiling, antagonizing Nima. Dad froze in his footsteps and turned to me with a question mark all over his face: "Wow, I think a Greek philosopher once asked that. It's a smart question! You're only seven, how did you think of it?" he asked. "In school they keep saying God is all-powerful. I'm wondering if he's more powerful than himself." I asked, watching Nima turn red with shame. "Yes, he's powerful enough to build a rock he cannot destroy." dad responded. "So he's weaker than that rock?" I said with pride, so that everyone could hear. He squinted for a few seconds, then slowed his tone: "For that moment, he is. But over time!" he raised his finger and both eyebrows, "Over enough time, he grows much stronger than the rock."
Nima looked relieved. "Do you believe in God dad?" he asked, as my mother's head turned towards dad in silence. "Not their God" he said, looking at my little sister. Then he opened the door and commanded us without a word to run for the stairs. The sunset bled red into the sky. The radio began ticking like a time bomb, in preparation for the red siren. The bombers under the shadow of darkness sped towards Tehran.
Dogma dies by facing itself in the field. Red Tulips outside dogmatic poetry survive by sleeping in the mountains.