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Thursday, December 7, 2006

New Beginnings

It was raining heavily and I do not like heavy rain. It was cloudy and grey and I do not like grey clouds. It was windy and cold and I do not like cold wind. I put a few drops of cranberry fragrance oil in my burner and lit the tiny candle underneath, took my laptop in my arms, sat on the sofa, threw a blanket over my legs, and got online. I decided to browse Egyptian blogs and bloggers to see who is writing what. I typed “Egypt” in the search box and I was redirected from one blog to the other until I found his page. I do not know what made me stop and read; his words emitted a sincere and genuine vibe that blended well with the warming scent of cranberry that filled the room.

He is a typical Egyptian guy – not my favorite – who has a typical Egyptian wife to whom he got married in a typical Egyptian way. They were leading a typical Egyptian life and they had no serious issues but for the every now and then character clashes between him and his wife. She had a free spirited genie locked within the bottle of the traditional Egyptian girl and she thought marriage will set the genie free. She pursued her love of nature in desert trips, safaris, and excursions, and he never understood her urges to sleep on the sand or to watch the sunrise from a boat. Nevertheless, they reached some sort of an agreement whereby she can have her breaks when he said that it was ok.

Gihan went blind; she lost her eyesight all of a sudden and the doctors said that it was a rare case. My eyes watered as I read Ahmed’s lines: “My 25 year old wife will never see the nature she loved again.” He went on describing how she got depressed, shut him out, wanted a divorce, wanted him to remarry, quit her job, isolated herself, neglected her friends, and just gave up on life. There were a lot of tears between his lines and there were a lot of tears running down my cheeks. I could not even begin to imagine walking the famous mile in her shoes, or in his shoes. On her birthday, he nearly forced her to get dressed to go out and, to spare her the discomfort of being around people, he took her for a long cruise in a felluca.

Gihan asked Ahmed to lend her his eyes; she wanted him to tell her what he saw. He began talking about the scenery and she began asking him detailed questions. She wanted him to describe the sky; its shades of blue, the birds, the clouds, and the buildings in the horizon. She needed to know the color of the sun at the moment and he understood that orange is not a solid color. She asked him to tell her what he saw in the water and he learned the power of reflections. Gihan was the one who lost her sight, yet she was the one who lent Ahmed her eyes. For the first time he saw what she saw in nature and for the first time they enjoyed nature’s beauty together.

His words came to a full stop and my day came to an end. Ahmed and Gihan were in my dreams all night, and when I woke up in the morning I did not jump out of bed. I did not run around the house trying to get myself in the car to go to the office. I sat in bed and smiled at my cats, slowly reached out to the curtains, pulled them away, opened my window, and watched the sunbeams smile back at me. Their light filled my room and their warmth filled my heart. I reached out to my cats and for the first time I felt their soft fur; before, I used to touch them but that day I felt the warmth and the beauty of something that is beyond words – something that I took for granted.

What else did I take for granted? Who else did I archive unintentionally? What other signs did I miss on the way? What more could I not see? What did I never have the time to do because I was so busy? Who did I never had the time to meet because I had other priorities? I got a cup of tea and sat back in bed and enjoyed a lovely new beginning to my morning. Eventually I got myself out of the house and drove to work; I decided to take a different route. I wanted to see new things and I reminded myself of how lucky I was to be able to look at such beauty. I am lucky to have the heart to enjoy it and I am blessed to be able to feel it. I am eternally grateful to Ahmed and Gehan – two people that I never met. The smile lasted that whole day, the day after, and many days that followed.

New beginnings are always loaded with many contradictory feelings; hope, fear, optimism, doubt, resolution, skepticism, comfort, hesitation, and determination. The skeletons in the closet and collective experiences are a threat to new beginnings. Regret, or the fear of regret, weighs heavily on our hearts as we try to embrace the sunshine. We remember when we were last burnt or when we were last hurt, and we subconsciously look at our scars. Memories of how deep and how painful they were rush back to our heads, and with an involuntary movement we clench our fists as though we are holding on to the past. Something inside of us refuses to let go and that very same thing resists the change – the new beginning.

I will welcome 2007 differently; the tree will shed its old dry corrupted infected leaves and will grow new soft fresh green leaves. I will slow down and enjoy the drive rather than the destination. I will take off my masks, let my hair down, face the sun, smile, and breathe. I will borrow Gihan’s eyes and, from now onwards, I will use them to carefully watch what I used to carelessly look at; to deeply look at what I used to superficially see; to simply see what I simply never saw. “Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. It comes in to us at midnight very clean. It is perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands and hopes we've learnt something from yesterday." --John Wayne

Happy New Year and happy new beginnings

Monday, December 4, 2006

Character is Fate

"A man's character is his fate." — Heraclites, Greek philosopher (c. 540-c. 475 B.C.)

After her father was shot dead, Clarice Starling went to live on a farm with a foster family, from which she ran away in horror when she witnessed horses and lambs being slaughtered. Their screams haunted her, and all her success, achievements, trophies, and honors were a relentless pursuit to silence the lambs. Mediocrity was the farm that I ran away from; my lambs were screaming for freedom and the wild horses within me wanted to feel the wind against their faces. Back in 1994 I read Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge. The pessimistic novelist made it sound as though the hero’s catastrophic fate was a natural byproduct of his character. At the time, it all made sense and I fully agreed. Then one night I watched “Return to Eden” and I saw how a woman faced her worst fears, altered her self perception, confronted the demons in her past, and changed how she talks, walks, and looks. She gave herself a new name and a new life. At the time, I did not like who I saw in the mirror and I resented the path that I was told to follow. I wondered if I could be someone else; would my fate change, were I to change my character?

It is amazing how much power we have yet we are so oblivious to its existence. At home we were directed to focus on our downsides, at school we had to improve our bad grades, and in the workplace we are asked to “develop” our weaknesses. Those who succeeded in aligning their character and their fate did the exact opposite. We invested in what made us feel strong instead of wasting time on things that only made us feel weak and bad about ourselves. Marcus Buckingham* says “all you have to do is find the one controlling insight that allows you to unlock your potential” – knowing your strengths is the first step. Stephen Covey* tells you to “live out of your imagination, not your history.” – This is the part where we get stuck; we do not believe in flying. We feel more secure with our feet on the ground, even if it is just quicksand. The most difficult step is the change itself. Change is an intrinsic part of our existence, yet we resist it to the bone. Dr. Spencer Johnson* wrote in his bestseller Who Moved My Cheese, that “if you do not change, you can become extinct.” Fear always intercepts our attempts to change; fear of the devil we don’t know; fear of the other side of the fence; fear of the maze. We hold on to stability, to our comfort zone, like a mother to her child on a collapsing bridge, and we avoid venturing outside for fear of getting hurt or getting lost.

Over the years I jumped one hurdle after the other I managed to finally silence the lambs. To unleash the power within me, I turned my back to the little nerdish girl that I once was. I silenced the screams of the student who sat in the front row but always went unnoticed. The shy frightened elf spoke up and earned her right to be heard. The little plain Jane Eyre has blossomed into a Madonna that is coveted for her uninhibited spirit and diversified career. I changed my character to change my fate. I began looking for needles of my kind in a stack of hay. I found many people who found their way inside the maze. Dalia Ibrahim (32), currently regional public relations manager for Hilton hotels in Egypt, says that the key to changing your fate is in believing in yourself. Dalia is very clear on the difference between the realistic knowledge of her potential and the delusional thoughts of what she could achieve; “You need to believe in your strength to reach the highest top of the highest mountain, but you also need to have the tools and the equipment to get you there – otherwise you might fall and break your neck. I believe in well-calculated risks; I try to keep my eyes open for opportunities and I am very honest with myself when I am assessing my options. I am aware of my talents and I capitalize on them but I also know that I still have a lot to learn.”

In a marketing communications workshop, I met the marketing manager of El Sewedy Cables, Ahmed Hassouna (33). A remarkably solid person who has determination written allover his face, Ahmed believes that people can grow and develop; “the backbone of the personality is more likely to stay the same but daily interactions, experience, reading, and self-education are the tools to help us stretch our character in all directions and dimensions.” Ahmed thinks that your vision is your fate; so if your vision is unclear, your fate will most likely be unclear. “Having a personal vision is like knowing where you are going when you leave your house in the morning, and having objectives and goals is like having a clear route to follow to get you to that place. We grow and our vision grows with us; hence we need to adjust the route to our new destination.”

Shahinaz Ahmed (34) is the CEO of the Egyptian Education for Employment Foundation (EEFE). She used to think that she is what she was born with then she began realizing that her actions decide her destiny. “Character is like an onion and we discover one layer after the other as we go on in life. Training is based on the idea that people have the ability to alter their behavior and ultimately their character, otherwise it is no use to learn presentation skills if you fear public speaking. We were born in a risk-free society; we want to live and die with a clean slate regardless of what we have learned. Change has a high price tag and those who resist change are just avoiding the responsibility that comes with it.” Leaving Egypt and going to England to study at the age of 32 was frowned upon. People discouraged her; they reminded her of her stable career, great position, big salary, and stability. “I was not content. I had so many unanswered questions and I had to find the answers my way. This was one of the best things I did in my life I learned so much about myself. Now, I make my own choices; regardless which country, or culture, I live in, I am the compass.”

I crossed paths with Ahmed El Badawy (31) back in 2000; he was the marketing coordinator for Dar El Fouad Hospital. A bright optimistic smile lit up his face when I asked him about how he saw his future; he had big dreams. In 2001 he formed a partnership with three of his best friends and they opened the first Café Mo. In 2004 he became the marketing manager of the renowned hospital. His mentor at the time, Dr. Hatem El Gabaly helped him “toughen up” and saw him through the challenges of the position. “I was getting bored and my work was becoming monotonous; I was aching for my dream of going 100% private and I wanted to give a free rein to my creativity. I resigned when I was at the peak of my professional career and I created REACH Advertising.” Ahmed does not deny the fear of failure that haunted him in his quest, but he kept his eyes fixed on his dream every time he had an anxiety attack. “I had the support of my parents, Dr. El Gabaly, and my wife to lean on when I needed someone to hold a torch in the tunnel.”

Those are just a few examples of the remarkable people that standout as exceptions to an obsolete rule. Dr. Yasser El Manawy, clinical therapist and life coach, says that every human being is born like a white sheet. On the one hand, our nature is dictated by our DNA and genetic traits – and that we cannot change. On the other hand, our character, or personality, is shaped by the people we meet and the things we see in our lives. We can change our fate by changing our personality. “It takes a few steps; first you change how you think, then you change how you feel, then you take actions to support the new thoughts and feelings.” said Dr. Manawy. When I asked him about the fear of change, he replied saying that “this is a societal imposed fear; it is part of our upbringing. Had we any faith in a higher power, this fear should work for us not against us. Healthy fear protects us from harm and empowers us; unhealthy fear holds us back and inhibits us. In order to change our personality and gain control of our fate, we need to face our core issues and innermost fears; we need to shift our motivation from the fear of loosing to the excitement about winning.”

Sow a thought, and you reap an act;
Sow an act, and you reap a habit;
Sow a habit, and you reap a character;
Sow a character, and you reap a destiny. - Samuel Smiles

Marcus Buckingham: best-selling author, expert on outstanding leadership and management practices. www.marcusbuckingham.com

Stephen Covey: internationally respected leadership authority, family expert, teacher, organizational consultant, and author, Dr. Covey dedicates his life to teaching principle-centered living and leadership to individuals, families, and organizations.

Dr. Spencer Johnson: One of the world's most influential thinkers. He is renowned for his brief, profound parables that help millions of people manage in changing times and rejuvenate their spirits.