Asking a business leader for the secrets to his success, as we often do in popular entrepreneurship culture, is like asking an artist for tips on painting her miniature masterpiece.
An empty canvas is a miniature masterpiece; only, before a million careful decisions to prime and stroke in the right ways. You take away from the blank whitespace, and you take away again, until what's left is the image shared between your mind and the evolving art before your eyes.
In that sense, the engineer seeking a good idea is like the apprentice looking for the perfect canvas and the right strokes. He fails to see that it’s not the master stroking the blank canvas. It’s the evolving canvas stroking the master’s imagination; every stroke retouching a part of his mind that recalls a story from his life, until the complete story is taken shape as a painting.
None of the single strokes are a masterpiece.
And none of the single days of our lives are the decisive day that turns our efforts into a work worthy of biographies.
All the single strokes of the canvas, together and building on each other’s constraints over time, make up the masterpiece. And in the same way, all the days of our lives, together and building on each other’s highs and lows, make up the masterpiece of a life worthy of inspirational narrative.
To become a master is to eliminate the thousand bad ideas that hide one’s core potential. Once you reveal your potential through elimination, the message in its audacious purity resonates with the world.
To be a leader, your haphazard days must sing to the tune of a mentally well-orchestrated miniature painting; one that makes sense to you and you alone.
A high level concept can leave you needing oxygen, so let me tell you a personal story:
Engineering is an empty frame
My father wanted me to become an engineer like him. It was a logical choice to aspire to be a force for reconstruction, especially for a worried eight-year-old who had seen eight years of war . And so for a decade, he devotedly filled his son's head with math, chemistry, physics, and all the rigidities inherent in an engineer's well-structured world.
Our upbringing is often filled with stories of grappling with conflicts like these. They are zero-sum games: one side has to lose if there is to be a winner. The black and white choices that presented themselves to me were to choose between creativity and engineering. The post-conflict scramble for economic survival manifested itself through the single-mindedness of my father’s mentorship style: No time afforded for play and creativity.
The luxury of a wide-open future to focus on drawing, painting, or learning music were not the social priority in my world. The age of post-war mass-unemployment was coming. It was to coincide with my adulthood; my father could see it; and if I wanted to survive, I was to become an engineer who could build for a country marred in destruction.
Rigid subjects, 18 hours a day for ten years, filled my days. The blissful experience of painting blue whales at the age of 6 (inspired by watching Pinocchio) gave its way to solving or simplifying equations of logical convergence and arithmetic confluence at the age of 16. The last memory of kicking a soccer ball faded under the new footprints of calculating the volume, pressure and temperature of a cylinder necessary to generate sufficient acceleration to kick a soccer ball across ten stadiums. In a word, a childhood defined by a sense of wonder slowly bowed out to a real life identity obsessed with economic survival.
The music and dances of my people
Noorollah Hamoodi, a 6 years old from Iran, winner of Honorary Diploma at International Contest for Children Drawing, Montana Bulgaria, 2012
Entrepreneurship is the painting inside the empty frame of engineering
If my father ushered me into the world of disciplined engineering, my mother left the door open for me to find the way out. She was the encouraging voice in the background, intriguing me to look outside the box. This very essay, perhaps, is the gentle reminder of my mother, re-crafted for boundlessness and immortality, to reach the ears of every aspiring child. In every one of us, there is a timid potential entrepreneur thirsty for encouragement.
You too, need to be reminded that you are a painter; even though you're not painting today.
My mother was among the first generation of career women in our little world, if not world-wide. While revolution and war had men struggling to reinvent their collapsed identities as bread-winners in an economically dysfunctional world, women were just beginning to move towards careers in larger numbers. They were marching towards their expanded horizons. She would probably have been a housewife had she been born just 10 or 15 years earlier, but her job as a Nuclear Medicine technologist took me many years to be able to fully understand.
She was from a generational movement that saw its horizons expanding, not closing in. And she didn’t see a life lived with the certainty of putting structured blocks together a life lived fully. On the 18 hour burn-out days of going to school and studying under the iron fist of my father, she would sometimes sneak me out of the house, despite her very long work days.
She would unofficially sneak me into art classes to play with clay pots.
She'd take me to language classes to learn English (thus the credit for this very article is owed to her)
And on a momentous day and completely unexpectedly, she took me to see a special person: Persian miniature painting grandmaster, Mahmoud Farshchian . I had never heard of him before. But I didn’t have to.
Ten steps into his exhibit, tears were welling up in my eyes. The paintings were so beautiful that anyone would kneel in absolute awe. What magnificent life lived, when one can present his story in a way that even without his presence, he shakes the visitors down to the core. What courage! To transform the pleasures of many thousands of hours of introspective story-telling in an electrifying instance! And what waste of human curiosity and wonder my life would be, if it was spent entirely as a subject constrained to the laws of predictable rigidity, structure and certainty.
The love of a mother taught me that becoming an engineer was only a means to stand on one’s two feet with certainty. But to reinvent oneself and to touch the horizon, one must embrace the uncertainty that cuts right through your core and connects you with everyone else in a single instant.
The next year, my family immigrated. And it took another decade of standing on both feet and building the courage for me to say goodbye to a career built on the back of engineering. The cubicle will not miss you when you step outside of it, and you will never look back. And every morning, once you get through the fears of personal transformation, the thought of living the uncertain life of an artist offers you a purpose to be awake.
Fear of the uncertainty never left my side once; and we know it lives with you too. Readers of these articles before you have shared with me as much. Many are concerned if they’ll ever act on their dreams; or if they’ll persevere through the difficulties of what they’ve already acted upon; or whether the price they have paid for success is right; and if success is indeed coming with any degree of certainty.
To your doubts and uncertainties, let it be said simply, that if you’re placing every stroke on the canvas that truly represents your life, nothing else really matters. Every stroke on your canvas chips away one more non-essential blank space. Every stroke is to be your decision, not lived through the thinking of others. And what’s left in the end is the core potential, the audacious purity of which resonates with an entirely new generation to come.
The entrepreneurial engineer is that who can withstand a thousand strokes, of the sharp miniature pencil of failure, on his self-image; and the person who still wakes up the next morning excited to discover what lies deeper within.
There is a painting worthy of worldwide display inside every entrepreneurial engineer; in the same way that there is miniature painting waiting to be evolved painstakingly and masterfully over a life time. Between a blank canvas and a lovingly inspired child.
Lost in a dream, you will sleepwalk past the corporations that offer free lunches; past the sandwich lady with the cheapest deal; towards the pizza slices that made sense to eat before you had a career. Retrace your steps, and you’ll find yourself.
The homeless man along the way has lost his mind, rising from his own filth under the bridge near 5th and Bryant to scream across the block, over the policeman, at the rich man up in his penthouse office. The indignant words cut deep. You tune in, for a moment, to realize that none of them sound like words. The grim blanket covering his shoulders once covered you in the middle of the story, the middle of the eastern front, when bombs knocked on the city doors to ask if you'd please consider the fucking road, instead of staying home. You, too, had no voice once. A lost man sees himself everywhere, over and over again.
You will carry stories about enemies conquered and mountains overcome; stories that you'd leave behind as experience, except for that nagging uncertainty about whether you were the enemy all along, and if the mountains cried under your footsteps before getting washed into the sea of time. Do you carry stories throughout the day, or do the stories carry you?
The pizza man, too, looks lost. I recognize him. Half a decade ago, a friend and I walked in here, interviewing him to see if he'd like a chat-service to manage part-time workers. “To, ya know, expand!” my friend said. He'd love to, said the past pizza man, "because a full time worker will soon become a relic thanks to job redistribution." He's still here, but so are the chat-services. Because of their success, the rents have gone up. San Francisco now sports the highest rent in the country. To keep his relic of a business, he works harder than ever against adopting any technology.
He had dreams; wanted to branch out. Judging by the records from the 70s hanging from his walls — starring Bob Dylan closest to him — he's an American Revolutionary at heart. But the revolution took his delivery people, one Uber Eats at a time. His dreams rang the telephone all night long, back then, but now they arrive in silence, through Eat24. He cannot remember the exact moment he stopped becoming Bob Dylan and started becoming the pizza man.
The pizza man struggles to please; keeps the place clean as if cleanliness gave the place meaning. A group of younger women sit at a table, looking like regulars. They exchange advice over pizza. He cranks up welcoming music for them, and their conversation becomes a struggle. When you reach the climax, every way is down.
The Eagles blast through the sound system. Their dramatic melody welcome you to Hotel California. And had it not been for the middle-aged faces behind the pizza oven sporting long ponytails, you wouldn't remember that the rock band won their Grammy Award more than 40 years ago, when anytime of the year you could still "find it here". But now, watching the unmoved faces of the young ladies, you cannot help but realize the punchline. And it's not the welcome chorus line that the revolutionary man wants the ladies to hear. "Some dance to remember", the song says, warning him, "some dance to forget."
You finish lunch and walk back to the office to make the world a better place. Does the madman screaming want money, a passerby wonders. "Fuck you!” the madman says, and continues screaming at the towering world. A young professional records the insanity on his cellphone; for YouTube, no doubt. A Star Wars poster looms large above our heads, reminding us all of the climax of the movie. "Luke, I am your father." Where did Darth Vader go wrong? What's the difference between Luke and an anti-imperial terrorist?
It all stops making sense at the climax. Whose revolution did our parents participate in? Did the founding fathers usher in independence and freedom, or genocide? Why did we fight that war? Which world will our work make better? What qualities of the father are we still proud not to possess? If the cultural problems come from the top, are you now the problem? Do you still care about the life of the man you see in the mirror?
At the climax, you reach existentialism. You care for the past, screaming through a neck crushed between your claws, and the future you invite between the sheets at night. The symmetry of your allegiance reaches perfection between tomorrow and yesterday; those to whom you'll give birth, and those who gave you birth; between the newborn and the aged father; between the liberal and the conservative; the apprentice and the master; the modern and the classic; the efficient and the authentic; the scholar and the lunatic. At the center of mortal ambivalence begins opposition: the Big Bang, hiding behind the neutrality of quantum physics. As Nietzsche said, “God is dead.” At the climax, everyone’s insanity makes sense, because you no longer exist as yourself.
If you curse, mean it. When you take a left, take as sharp a left as you want. If you'll stick to your guns, bring chained canon. If you're building technology, make your knife the sharpest and don’t apologize for it. And if techies make it hard for you to live, fuck em! Fuck them all. Wait until they implode under the weight of their own ambition. When you look back at this chaos, you will remember nothing but the blanket separating the stories of your self from the supernova we call “life". They can all fit in a few thick books, stored in a dusty library that nobody will ever visit, among billions of stories all about the same fucking thing: Write down where you want to go, or you will not know it from any other place once you get there. At the true north, the inner compass points to nothing, and thus you know you have arrived.
Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.
Thích Nhất Hạnh
The Small Hours and a Steep Mountain
- The industrious father who crumbled
- Living under the stairs
- Solitude in assimilation
- Tunnel vision
- Hanging on to a fistful of sand
- Enduring unlovability
- Dropping Out
- The black sheep
- Jumping off of a cliff
- The writer’s block
A heavenly ride through silence
- The Bosnian Waterfall
- One Way Ticket to Seattle
- Love in San Francisco
- The Old Man from New York
- The Seventh Startup in Silicon Valley
Do not take for granted, powers out there.
Don't step into the demon's lair.
Time is an illusion, rising from time.
Steep is the mountain which we climb.
Metallica, The Small Hours (originally by Holocaust)
It’s February 1979, exactly 35 years before someone writes a memoir about your today’s decisions. You’re sitting inside a room. There are mobs of armed people roaming the streets outside. You know some of them. You have expressed your friendly disagreement with them for many of the recent years, but in a sea of zealous ideologies, pragmatism no longer attracts ears. You could be full of hope and joy; others are. Except that you know better. You helped rebuild this country from the ashes of its former glory. And now, once more, it’s tearing itself apart.
You’re a civil engineer, and 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 on your front door. Past success will be seen in black and white as supportive of past status quo. And you no longer belong in the country you helped build, and call home.
You have a wife but no kids, and relatives you care about. Your friends and partners have already left 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, flees the scene with goodbyes, tears and rumors of cancer. You are surrounded by absolute chaos.
The revolution succeeds. Weeks go by. You watch as armed men on motorbikes with automatic guns roam the city and chant theocratic slogans. The very 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. You are utterly alone.
Once morning, conquered by the insanity of survival mode, you dress yourself well and grab an emergency suitcase full of cash. 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 by the perhaps-organized 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, 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.
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 a US-backed coup d’etat that overthrew democracy in your country 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 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, with guns and cuffs.
Hours later, you’re attached, limbs and all, to a tractor. 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 sign a paper signing away your lifetime of savings. You buy your freedom by signing away 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 was not all.
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, Uncle Sam is some asshole individual person 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. 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 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.
And to survive, you decide to 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 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 over-generalizations. 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 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. 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 embraced it. You picked us up, despite all the difficulties of old age, and moved us to Canada to have us be educated. Immigration for education! The same balsam, which, had it existed in more abundance during the transition of your country, it would have achieved its goals non-violently today (as it finally started to, 30 years later with a new generation in 2009)
You, my industrious father who once kneeled before the atrocities of time, taught me how to stay hungry when comfortable, and decide with the conviction of an over-generalizer in chaos. Shoot, Aim, Ready: you taught me to live by that, or stay behind as chaos would take over.
You've lived an angry and distorted reality. But that’s alright. I forgive all the passionate rhetorics and uncontrollable out-lashes. "If you wish to experience peace, provide peace for another”, said a Dalai Lama. And you did that for your family.
I write this quick memoir as tribute to a life of ironies, just to prove to you one thing:
No matter how much you over-generalize having nothing to show for your life of industry, for once, I respectfully disagree.
With sincere love,
Your Son 35 years later, in February 2014
San Francisco, California
while bombs were falling (fortune telling that I’ll be friendless and things will only go towards nostalgia and destruction)
Integrating as an immigrant and keeping isolated in high school (disqualifying the positive of immigrant friends)
First rejection by Masha (mental filter: forgot that she liked me. Just remembered that she didn’t want to be with me)
First heartbreak from Katia (Blaming / externalization instead of introspection)
Learning to engage the attention of opposite sex (mind reading)
(All or nothing thinking)
Unemployment and rejection after rejection (personalization leading to Canadian Tire anger)
Wanting out of a bad work relationship or the cubicle world but feeling like I was chained (catastrophization of potential impact)
Tapgreet failing and desperation of rapid ideation (perfectionism and fallacy of self-worth preventing me from trying small or enjoyable things. Has to be serious or worthy)
Where were you when I was burned and broken?
While the days slipped by from my window watching?
Where were you when I was hurt and I was helpless?
Because the things you say and the things you do surround me
While you were hanging yourself on someone else's words
Dying to believe in what you heard
I was staring straight into the shining sun
Lost in thought and lost in time
While the seeds of life and the seeds of change were planted
Outside the rain fell dark and slow
While I pondered on this dangerous but irresistible pastime
I took a heavenly ride through our silence
I knew the moment had arrived
For killing the past and coming back to life
I took a heavenly ride through our silence
I knew the waiting had begun
And headed straight… into the shining sun
Pink Floyd, Coming back to life
Not jumping off, but finding courage, thrill and enjoyment in what comes after (satisfaction has more than one dimension)
Not fortune telling. Opposite of nostalgia. In the peak of recession, I bought a one way ticket to find a job.
Learning to let go of how my partner “should” be and instead finding the one whom I wouldn’t change for the world
The story of David. How I said hello. How he became a friend over 6 months and helped me formalize accelerator my business plan. Opposite of over-generalization: I saw his individuality and chose to connect with him, even though he represented everything that my mind should have been closed to: Different generation, culture, race, politics, religion, nationality, socio-economic status, etc. All we had in common was that we wanted to be surrounded by books at 11am on a Tuesday.
Letting go of perfectionism and the idea of “worth”, and helping others accelerate their ideas instead of sticking with mine (same thing PG did)
Convergence of mass tunnel vision
Giant steamer goes down with lights blazing and band playing
Webvan vs. Amazon Fresh and Google Express
Webvan, an "unsinkable" e-grocery Titanic, became one of the most iconic bankrupt startups of the dot com bubble because of innovator's tunnel vision.