The Greatest Gift I Ever Got

When I was eight, my whole life turned around (for the first time in what would be a few more times to come). I left home, school, and country behind to start life in a different home, school, and country. The most important difference though was that my dad became a daily part of that life, with everything he had to offer.

My dad wasn’t the ‘I’m gonna tell you what to do and you’re gonna do it ” type of dad. He liked to give incentives! And he hated seeing us watch TV. So,  one day he made us a deal (my little brother and I). For every one hundred pages we read we could ask to do or get anything we wanted. I remember my first one hundred pages – they felt like Everest. Eventually though, it became a part of who I was. He found that soon enough he had to move the target up  – to five hundred pages, and then one thousand pages. And, somewhere near the end of elementary school he silently quit! His mission had been accomplished.

Soon enough, I realized that my dad’s gift to me wasn’t the teenie-tiny gifts, and neither was it the entertainment I got from reading short stories and novels. His gift to me was that of empowerment. It was the knowledge that was only a few pages away, the language with which I learned to express myself, and it was power and insight all in one. It was the gift of a brilliant parent to an unsuspecting child. It was the greatest gift of all time.

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My Week as a High School Teacher!

I’ve been experiencing this really eerie feeling lately; where every time I walk past any of the first year buildings on campus, I feel surprised that these places are still alive and bustling; and that people still come here to learn. Being as self-centered as human beings are, I think places are only alive when my life touches them. And when I move, they either automatically shut down or remain untouched until I come back; as if they have no other function to serve.

I walk in between the students carrying books, and realize that they look and dress and act just like we did, yet I recognize no one and no one recognizes me. Of course, it’s been eight years! It’s been so long!

This last week I substituted for a high school science teacher at the AIS (American International School). I used to be an AIS student myself (at a different campus); so for one thing, it felt very funny to walk the halls out of uniform, while everyone else was wearing it – the same navy blue pants and white shirt with the navy blue logo, and for another thing it felt very funny to be at least ten years older than most people there. And the students, well they looked, acted, and dressed in much the same way my classmates did  when I was in high school! I felt like I already knew them. And finding myself on the other side of the picture, I realized that high school is one story that repeats itself over and over and over. No matter, how ‘new’ you think you are, you’re really not – it’s all been done before. Self-centered human being that you are though, you think you’re novel!

As a student, I was pretty geeky, and I always saw the picture from that point of view. Sometimes I wished I was more outgoing, other times I wished I was more athletic. And at all times, I thought everyone that was more talkative or outgoing or athletic had it easier than me! However, this last week, I got to play teacher; and I got to see the classroom from an unbiased outsider’s point of view.  And I realized that for a class to be whole, it had to have the geeks and the athletes (athletic girls are my favorite!), the princesses and the tomboys, the class clown, the goofball, the ladies’ man, the cheerful, the quiet, the outgoing, the shy, the smart kid, the achiever, the musician, the artist, the one person that never seems to fit in, and the one person for whom it seems to come naturally. Each one of these guys is important for the picture to be complete, in other words, important in making everyone else’s experience whole.

With all their apparent differences, though, one thing was common – they were all simply children trying to figure themselves out; and they were looking for inspiration anywhere they could get it. It was no easier for the princess than it was for the geeky girl in glasses; neither was it easier for the athlete than for the goofball. The fact of the matter is high school is a tough experience – it is a daily battle between you, yourself, and everyone around you as you begin to understand your adult self (which by the way, still has a few more changes to make!). And, it is exactly the same for your peers. High school is where you start to prove yourself, and claim your rights to existence. Of course, it’s not easy. It’s the strength you develop here that you’re going to use in the real world later on. I think it’s an experience strangely similar to childbirth – fetuses have to puts up a fight to enter this world and become living breathing infants – claiming their rights to existence.

Despite its toughness though, I found I was in a place full of hope – much more than the world I’ve been living since I entered the workforce; and it was a most welcome change! This week I met presidents, ministers, psychologists, and world-class football players in the making. I met kids who seemed like trouble makers on first impression, but later proved to be very smart, very mature young adults. And,  I met sweethearts who reminded me of the sincerity of a first love, and who restored my faith in the whole romance thing, slightly! These guys all spoke with the confidence and positive energy of high schoolers, with that funny faith that if things are happening in our imagination now then they’re bound to happen in our future real life!

Being a high school teacher was by no means an easy task, but it was definitely inspiring. There are professions that give you a reason to get up and go to work in the morning, and there are those that don’t. I think it’s safe to say that high school teachers belong to the former group, and in that sense are quite lucky.

I haven’t decided if I’m going to share this with them yet, but just in case you were in my class this week and are reading this at any point in time, thank you grades 9 & 11 for a truly inspiring week. It is much appreciated!

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Quote on Patience

“Creativity is tolerating the unfinished long enough for you to sprinkle magic on it”

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2012 Book Reviews – I

I had the opportunity to read a lot of books in 2012; many were worth sharing, and some no one should waste time on. So, I’ve decided to take some time this month to post reviews for all of them.

They’re a total 16 books. Since this is fairly time consuming, I’ll probably be posting them in groups of 3 or 4.

Here are the first 4:

1. Children of Gabalawi,   Naguib Mahfouz

2. How to Find Fulfilling Work,   Roman Krznaric

3. The Psychopath Test,   Jon Ronson

4. Lost at Sea,    Jon Ronson.

1.    Children of Gabalawi     أولاد حارتنا – Naguib Mahfouz , 1959 Children of Gebelawi

First, a note about the author: Naguib Mahfouz’s (1911-2006) career spanned 70 years, in which he wrote 34 novels, 350 short stories, and 5 plays many of which have been adapted into films as well as translated into various different languages. His works are set in Cairo where he spent most of his life, and most are in the eras before and after the 1952 revolution.

In 1988, he was awarded the Nobel prize in literature for the “forming of an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind”. Mahfouz remains the only Arab writer to have received the Nobel prize in literature.

Now, a note on the book: The controversial theme of the book, in which God, Adam, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad are allegorically depicted, caused an attempted assassination on Mahfouz in 1994, when he was stabbed in the neck. This attack injured the nerves leading to his right hand, and subsequently affected his ability to write with it for more than a few minutes at a time, nevertheless he continued to write. The novel was also banned for 50 years from many countries, and only started circulating in 2006.

http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1988/presentation-speech.html

This was the first time I read a Naguib Mahfouz book in Arabic; actually it was the first time I read any book in Arabic! The book is 500 pages long, so it took me a while, but it was worth it. A simple story on the outside, but the analogies inside won’t be missed, and neither will the message. Whatever religion you belong to or even if none at all, the imagination with which this book was written definitely makes it a worthy read.

Mahfouz takes the story of the creation of mankind, starting with Adam (whom he gives the Arabic name Adham) & Eve, followed by Adam’s rivalry with his brother – Satan/ ‘Iblees’ (given the Arabic name Idrees), their subsequent expulsion from heaven, followed by the rivalry between their sons, and the emergence of prophets and civilizations from among their grand-kids and great-grand-kids and turns it into a simple tale. The representations of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, their stories and obstacles although different, won’t be missed.

I found this book to be an ingenious portrayal of the continuous cycling of human civilization between prosperous times and crumbling times. The rivalries, betrayals, deception, and weakness at some points, balanced out by honesty, strength, and fairness at other points is the infinite character of the human race.  It also captures the continuous shift of power from one people to the next; and the ease with which the newly powerful will forget that they were once weak, and how they will readily oppress their weaker neighbours.

The message, as I see it, is that all of civilization sprang from one man – Adam, yet in the pursuit of money and status – we, his children have forgotten that we are brothers. And thus our world is plagued with poverty and war.

Mahfouz concludes with an analogy of what is today the conflict of science versus religion – where the rise of scientific advances has been met by an increasing distance from God, faith, and religion.

This was one of the most creative books I’ve read in a long time. I’m also glad that I was able to read it in Arabic, it taught me how much Arabic literature loses when translated into another tongue. So, even if you know very little Arabic, I still recommend you try. And if you don’t, I’m sure the English version would do. Reading this book felt like someone had summarized for me, in 500 pages, thousands of years of humanity past and maybe given me an understanding and a glimpse into the thousands of years to come.

  1. 2.    How to Find Fulfilling Work – Roman Krzanaric , 2012

Short. Effective. Insightful. Truly a mind-opener.

The best thing about this book is that it is not your classic self-help, 7 easy steps to success and happiness, sort of book. Rather, it opens your eyes to different perspectives and stimulates your mind to think and come up with your own solutions for your own life. Some of the stories inside are very inspiring. My favourite is the girl who for her 30th birthday, realizing that she had been undecidedly jumping from one job to another for too long, gave herself the birthday gift of trying out 30 different jobs, until she met the perfect one.

This book tackles a lot of the confusing feelings many people (including myself) have towards work, success, and fulfillment by presenting to us the origins from which these feelings emerged, and creative ways to motivate yourself to do that which you find most fulfilling.

By adding live examples from a myriad of people and professions, Krznaric shows the reader that if he’s confused about work and life, then he’s not the only one out there and that his/her feelings and rationalizations are justified. Afterwards, he follows up with ideas that help you change your life toward a more positive direction, such as having a ‘bespoke career’ in which you invent your own job to suit your lifestyle and talents.

One of the ideas presented in this book that really struck a chord with me is that contrary to popular belief, there is no one perfect job out there for each of us. Rather, there is a best suited job for us in each field, and it’s only a matter of finding it. For example, if one chose to be an artist maybe they would do best as a photographer, but say they had a computer science major, maybe they could work in internet marketing, and so on.

How to Find Fulfilling Work is part of a series of books written by authors from an enterprise called The School of Life. Their aim is to give good advice on dealing with every day worries and intelligently fixing them. I stumbled upon this book by chance, but seeing the positive effect it has brought on my mind-set and my approach to my career, I’m sure I’ll end up reading more of their works.

This book is a must-read to anyone at any stage of life. I’ve added the link to the talk given by Roman Krznaric on his book, as well as a link to the books page on the School of Life website.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1y6417fnIKU

http://www.theschooloflife.com/library/?Types[]=ProductRedirectPage

3.    The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry – Jon Ronson, 2011

I reviewed this book 2 posts ago but here are the links to the author’s TED talk and to his interview with Jon Ronson.  http://www.ted.com/talks/jon_ronson_strange_answers_to_the_psychopath_test.html

http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-may-16-2011/jon-ronson

4.    Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries – Jon Ronson, 2012

http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-october-31-2012/jon-ronson   

I first heard about this book on The Daily Show ( link above); I decided to read this one and The Psychopath Test, because I found Ronson’s description of his adventures rather amusing. I started with the previous one – in which he was literally following mad people around the world trying to interview them and bring to us the human side of them as much as he could. Lost at Sea seems to be a continuation of his journey after madness. It’s also organized as a collection of articles, only it has less of his thoughts and anecdotes than does the Psychopath Test.

The opening chapter is rather funny, it’s an interview with the band Insane Clowne Posse, but the book is very dynamic. It moves from one topic to the next – some plain bizarre, some pretty serious. But all in all, he doesn’t lose his subtle humor or as Jon Stewart calls it, his sense for ‘investigative satire’!

Reading this book, you’re certain to meet some pretty interesting people; some are trying to create robots with a conscience (cyber-consciousness), others are parents who believe they have Indigo children. There are people who spend their lives waiting and preparing for the first signal of extra-terrestrial life; and people trying to donate their kidneys to random strangers. There’s also Jonathan King, Stanley Kubric, the founders of amazon, and the so-called psychic Sylvia Browne.

What I love most about Jon Ronson’s style is how he challenges his interviewees’ bizarre beliefs with direct questions, then his objective presentation of the facts albeit mixed with his own sometimes humorous thoughts; and most importantly his ability to see past the  weirdness and present these people to us as fellow human beings.

If anything, this book is certainly entertaining and enlightening. It’s long, but since it’s organized into articles, you don’t have to read it in one go. Definitely recommend!

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Next on my list are:

The Tipping Point – Malcolm Gladwell  

Fe-mail: The Trials and Tribulations of Being a Good Egyptian Girl – Amy Mowafi

Tuesdays with Morrie – Mitch Albom

Life of Pi – Yann Martel

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Creative Identity – Where Art Thou ?

Somehow I never feel creative enough, funny enough, sarcastic enough  artistic enough, or scientific enough! Anyone else feel the same????

Coming out of high school and throughout my university years, that’s exactly how I felt. At first, I wanted to do an arts major – English literature, philosophy, sociology.. but I was worried I wasn’t “creative” enough; my thoughts then moved towards something more solid – architecture or interior design …but again I never felt “artsy” enough; so I found solace in sciences , thinking it was the most solid thing out there, the rationale being if you studied you made it. But seven years and a medical degree later, I did not feel “sciency” enough ! And I was back to square one!

So I decided to take a year off, to search for “my creative identity” if such a thing existed! I tried out five different jobs, I took a few online courses – sociology, finance, reasoning & arguing (thank you Coursera!), I did some travelling, I started two blogs, I took up yoga, I made a dozen new friends, I’ve diversified my reading, and I finally have an idea for my first book! Oh, and I tried a hot stones massage – something that was always in the back of my head to try when I had the time. They may not seem like much, but these are my personal accomplishments and I’m proud of them.

The experiment is four months away from over so I can’t give you any conclusions yet, but here’s what I can say about the experience itself. Some days the liberty is exhilarating – to be able to go swimming three mornings a week when I would’ve otherwise been cooped up in some hospital or clinic was amazing! Other days the confusion is a sucker and it’s very easy to look at your friends and classmates who already have budding careers and worry about yourself; but on all days I know I don’t regret it. I get to consciously make each of my decisions, rather than blindly go with the flow.

This idea of a sabbatical has become something of a culture for me. I’m already thinking about how I could schedule one every four to five years, to re-connect with myself, to unwind, and find out more about what would make me happy and what I want to do next with my life.  If you let it get the upper hand, life has a tendency to get too hectic, we obsess over deadlines and milestones, small battles, and there is so much comparison of our status in this world to that of our peers that it spoils the joy in life; it’s hard not to want to click the refresh button every now and then. I don’t believe we were meant to spend whatever time we have on earth as fussing miserable creatures, and I’m gonna try my best not to turn into one.

Throughout this year, I’ve learned a lot about myself and those around me. I noticed that most people are as confused as I am sometimes; very few are so focused from the beginning and know exactly what they want and how they’re gonna get there. And that it’s very natural to be intimidated by them. I’ve also learned that there are a lot of people out there who aren’t happy with the way their lives are, but believe they can do nothing about it, and so they don’t.

On the personal level, I’ve finally separated my identity from my “profession”. From the very first day I walked into med school, family and friends have been treating me as “the doctor”. They would ask me things I hadn’t learned yet, they would wonder if I knew professor so-and-so just because he teaches at my university, and they would always assume I was the smartest one around. They surrounded me with a character I never felt was mine. And I’ve successfully rid myself of it. I no longer take confidence from the fact that I’m a med-student, and I no longer feel threatened by the disappointed looks on their faces when I say that I haven’t picked a specialty yet. They can no longer sum me up in a title  ( paediatrics resident, radiology resident, surgery resident, …etc.) !

Next, I understood why the idea of keeping one profession for life always felt so suffocating to me – I’m probably a “wide achiever” not a “high achiever” – I want to achieve in many different areas rather than achieve highly in one area (Roman Krznaric, How to Find Fulfilling Work). And I believe I’ve found a place where my passions can meet my ‘not too artsy’-‘not too sciency’ talents – I’ve recently decided that the next step in my life is to train as a psychiatrist. And even if I don’t end up doing that, these last eight months have given me more confidence, focus, strength, and a clear mind to judge with than any other time in my life, which I could probably use to get me through anything much better than my previous weak apprehensive self.

When I took that sociology course, we all anonymously corrected each other’s essays; and there’s a quote that stuck with me from one essay: “it is everyday life, to get out of the zone of personal comfort, to find new opportunity”. I pinned it to my wall, and I look at it every morning, to remind myself of what I’m going to do for the rest of the day. I’m going to head out there and grab at any opportunity I get and I won’t be scared to try something different, in fact the more different it is the more I will embrace it, because how else would I meet my creative identity if I wasn’t gonna open all the doors?

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Superhero Madness!

The future psychiatrist in me just couldn’t resist!

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The Psychopath Test – Jon Ronson

“There is no evidence that we’ve been placed on this planet to be especially happy or especially normal. And in fact our unhappiness and our strangeness, our anxieties and compulsions, those least fashionable aspects of our personalities, are quite often what lead us to do rather interesting things. “

Jon Ronson, the Psychopath Test

The Psycopath Test

The Psycopath Test (Photo credit: Bill McIntyre)

To someone who’s planning on soon becoming a psychiatrist or mental health researcher, or something in that vicinity, picking up a book called “The Psychopath Test” was only too natural. It’s the kind of title that would catch my eye before I even knew it caught my eye. Whether you’re into this sort of thing or not, this is definitely a book that keeps you hooked: interesting, humorous, and simple;  all I needed were two days and a half to finish it. And, if I were to sum it up in one word, I would say: INTRIGUING.

‘The Psychopath Test’ gives us a display of the spectrum of human madness. Ronson interviews people from all over the world to show us how on the one end madness can give rise to creativity in all its forms, introducing us to people like Mary Byrnes (an acclaimed painter) and Ian Spurling (Freddy Mercury’s costume designer), but on the very other end you have serial rapists and mass murders like Toto Constant; with fetishism and delusions, crazy capitalists and conspiracy theorists colorfully scattered along the line.

The question that comes up again and again is whether checklists are really a sufficient method of labeling people with psychiatric diagnoses, some of which could be damning. And in our tireless efforts to conform and to label, who should be labeled normal and who shouldn’t? Are psychiatrists all around the world over-diagnosing mental illnesses? Are we medicating people who in fact do not need it.

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 “maybe it was trying so hard to be normal that made people so afraid they were going crazy”

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I was reading this book as a neutral person at times, and as a psychiatrist-to-be at others. The psychiatrist-to-be kept wondering if I would fall into the same mistakes and tricks, if I would ever diagnose someone as bipolar or psychotic when in fact they weren’t; and if pre-prepared checklists would ever take the upper  hand over my judgement of a situation. Meanwhile, the neutral person was just worried I would ever run into one of those un-empathic, emotion-less, manipulative psychopaths and suffer some miserable fate!

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“Psychopaths: predators who use charm, manipulation, intimidation, sex and violence to control others and satisfy their own selfish needs.”

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So, yes it’s definitely a book that makes you think a lot about the little things in life, and the big ones. It makes you ponder questions of madness and sanity; conformity and rebellion; why we like to stick to the security of the norm, or why we decide to stray from it in order to make a statement, to let our existence be known – sometimes consciously, sometimes through illness.

Ronson travels around the world to better understand the worlds and minds of “psychopaths” and to learn to “spot them”. He sits across tables from people most of us would rather not approach, and he simply asks them about their thoughts and their feelings – no barriers, no labels; some even become his friends.  I found that the thing most worthy of respect.  After a journey with some of the ‘maddest’ people out there, he still maintains that we should not “define people by their maddest edges”, and he challenges our deep-seated need to conform and to fit in, and be labeled ‘normal’ , by saying it keeps us from doing interesting things!

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“Does the madman know he is mad? Or are the madmen those who insist on convincing him of his unreason to safeguard their own reality?” Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon

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And if you think of it, that’s absolutely true, if we all conformed, our earth would’ve still been flat, and apples would’ve continued to mysteriously fall off trees, and our generation would never have witnessed a man jump from the edge of the stratosphere! In light of that, I’m gonna raise an imaginary  toast to our wildest endeavors and our maddest dreams ! Cheers!

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A Few Things I Learned About Writing

I’ve been privately writing for the last ten years of my life. It wasn’t a diary. It was my “book of thoughts”. I didn’t share it with anyone, and I was comfortable that way. Five months ago, with a push from some friends, I finally mustered the guts to write publicly. I started a blog as an experiment – to find out if  I really had something of value or if I was just wasting my time. And through it all, I’ve made some pretty consistent observations about what makes a piece of writing better than the rest.

Here they are, feel free to add your own as well.

1. I find that when I use my brains while I write, when I think about what I’m gonna say next, it tends to bring out something lame. But when I switch the brain-switch off, turn to my soul and find out what it has to say, magically I get better results. So, I constantly remind myself: don’t think, just write. Write something you’re passionate about, something that makes your belly tingle, that makes you excited when you press that “Publish” button, something you’re in love with!

2. After you’re done, a little fine-tuning (editing) never hurt anyone. Putting the perfect word here or there, switching the order of sentences around, is like adding icing and sprinkles on a delicious cake. The obsessive inside me, finds a whole lot of pleasure in this step!

3. Clear your mind! I find that if I’m writing with images of people’s faces in my head, my ideas tend to deviate a little. They subconsciously go toward what I think these people would want to read, what they’ll think when they read what I’m writing, how they would rate it, would they agree with it. The end result: I don’ t end up saying something that I fully believe in. It doesn’t represent me, and so the gaping holes are only too obvious for anyone to see. To test that, I deserted my old blog, and started this one – of which no family and friends have any idea yet, and you know what? I’ve had more likes and follows in one week than I’ve had in four months with the other one ! Readers instinctively pick up on things that are more natural.

4. This one’s a quote by Ray Bradbury (author of Farenheit 451): “Write only what you love, and love what you write. The word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.”

5. This one’s a little clichéd, but still true: Be Positive. Even if the whole thing is sad, end on a high note, leave readers (and yourself) with a glimmer of hope. Nobody wants to spend time reading something, only to have their heart weighed down by your negativity the rest of the day. Hope, I believe, is the only reason we wake up every morning – we hope to accomplish this, achieve that, turn yesterday’s failures into today’s successes. You shouldn’t take that away from anyone.

6. Sometimes I write to satisfy an urge, not because I have anything meaningful to say. My fingers just want to flow across a keyboard, or my brain wants to spill something out to clear things inside. I’ve learned that readers don’t want to be the recipients of your mental waste! And when I look back on some stuff, I realize that as a reader, I wouldn’t enjoy reading it. So until I’ve tamed my still-maturing writing energy, I’ve developed a solution – I installed Evernote, a place where I could let my mind and fingers spill whatever they pleased without wasting anyone else’s time.

7. Follow no rules. Writing is an experience of freedom and courage. Experiment with it. Realize your full potential. Let no restraints hold you back. This is your territory! If you must, use a pseudonym!

8. Enjoy every moment of it! The feelings, the typing, the editing, the reading. It’s your mark on the world. It’s your mark on other people’s lives. It’s your mark on yourself. Someone somewhere out there will always relate to what you have to say. You grow when you write. It opens hidden doors inside your head, and unlocks places in your heart. Writing is such a beautiful thing, it can’t not be enjoyed!

Writing has such a personal nature, so feel free to enrich my post with your experiences and thoughts on writing!

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