Part of our “How I Did It” series, featured in the January 2017 issue of Inc. Arabia. Insider stories from some of the Middle East & North Africa’s most innovative companies; and the grit and wisdom from their founders.
It was the summer of 2013. After enjoying early and successful career kickoffs within the tech sector in the US and MENA region, my close friend, Sinan Taifour, and I had confidently and enthusiastically thrown ourselves into the deep end once again to venture off with something new.
Like before, we severed ties with our past lives where we were handsomely compensated, and had a professional impact within our respective organizations, to dive into the abyss. Little did I know that this dive was going to be an unanticipated plunge.
Like many things in life that you know are difficult, you often forget that ‘difficulty’ in itself is not the problem you’ll be challenged with, but rather it is the ‘type of difficulty’ that you can never prepare for. My previous successes had built me up to be a cocksure entrepreneur that was involved in too much and failed too little.
From my days at university, and even before, I had become an independent over-achiever and loved every bit of it. Righteously overworking myself, I earned the chance to associate with far more accomplished individuals and far larger companies than your average working guy.
I was motivated by achievement and reward, and benchmarked it all against that of others. Miss-believing that I was ‘special’ or that I had found myself, all my successful dips into entrepreneurship would not prepare me for the ‘entreprenuershit’ that was to now follow.
PayHyper was the product that Sinan and I launched out of a borrowed, cold, and rather lonely office near downtown Amman in spring of that year. It was a distributed cash payment network that interfaced with e-commerce platforms to enable merchants to accept cash payments from the largely unbanked population in the Arab world.
It later evolved to become one of the core components within the CashBasha product, but at the time we were proudly pulling 12-15 hour days to bring it to life, and our expectations grew larger with that.
We scored meetings with some of the biggest players in the region, who were all unanimously interested in what we had built. But frustrations started to stockpile once we realized that these larger companies would be very slow to move and their promises were mostly careless whispers that were dragging us down.
Our social and emotional lives had diminished, we were digging deeper into our savings, and there was a now a growing personal lack of fulfillment. Expectant and perhaps impatient, we waited but tensions quickly grew, and we were bound for disappointment.
In the fall of 2013, Sinan, who is a Syrian national, and who had lived his whole life in France and Jordan, faced passport trouble in the shadow of the Syrian civil war as the local embassy was not renewing his documents.
This meant that my friend and business partner might become entrapped within the country he was in at the time his passport expires.
With no system in place to accommodate such cases locally, the most logical option was for him to leave for somewhere else, where he may have a better chance at residency or stability.
Considering the circumstances, he traveled off as he rightfully should have but I, for the very first time in the eerie office space we had both once (barely) occupied, was alone in a sense that I wasn’t familiar with before.
Although still partners in crime, our close camaraderie was disrupted by a sudden uncertainty looming solely inside my head at my desk. Voices of vulnerability and doubt echoed feelings of powerlessness that were amplified by over-thinking and a receding belief in what I was doing. Especially when I began comparing myself to the established young professional I was not too long ago. It was unlike me to entertain thoughts of doing anything but creating ventures, but here I was thinking that the grass seemed to be greener in some separate dimension where I continued on a more secure path.
I was stripped of many things that meant a lot to me, and my confidence was at the top of the list.
As I consciously wandered, I started reviewing the 27 years I had up until that point, and my initial feelings of doubt broke out into strong regrets. I evaluated relationships, life goals, motives, and remember feeling that I should have done things differently. I had realized that most of what I had wanted in my life did not matter to me anymore and that I had wasted significant time and opportunity by being narrow-sighted.
Despite having much to be proud of, this discernment took a suffocating toll on me. In what appeared to be one fine day, I fell into depression.
The months to follow saw me at home, weak, emotionless, purposeless, and undesirable to be around. My state slowly seeped into the environment around me and had an effect on those who loved me the most.
You realize that the most dangerous thing about depression is that it awkwardly feels good and bad at the same time. You go into a condition where you don’t want to wake up or get better. You become trapped in an awkwardly captivating idle mode with no end in sight.
The feeling is insidious and compounds daily, thus making it impossible to see a resolution. It became a disorder, one that was never my decision and now one that was severely affecting my professional performance. I was digging my own grave and was yet to learn how to get out of it.
Although I still backed myself at that point to have a strong mind over matter, I acknowledged how disorientation entered my life. It was like being lost in the desert.
It sometimes takes you a while to notice or admit that you are lost. You attempt to convince yourself that you’ll find your way back to the familiar course, but then darkness veils over you and it’s time to concede that you are not winning.
The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain only increases the burden because it’s harder to bear mental pain in comparison to the physical one. It also goes undetected in its lighter stages, but you first need to recognize that your heart is broken and somehow start putting your finger on what is a very opaque wound.
I started the old-fashioned way and gave in to seeing a medical doctor. Little into the conversation, and as if I needed an extra helping of existential questions, I was asked as if I felt hopeless and had considered taking my own life.
Now that I was clinically diagnosed with the condition, I was prescribed some rather potent psychiatric drugs, which I proceeded to flush down the toilet shortly after. I started exploring my own regimens.
I found initial comfort in reading the accounts of others, who were going through mental strain, over the internet. The parallels to my experience were astounding, and this was offering some consolation to me. I knew I wasn’t alone. And I realized that after being as lost as I was, that the turning point for me will come when I stop trying to find my way back to who I once used to be.
Naturally, security is what you’d gravitate to as a person. A place that houses one’s understanding of what is healthy and safe. Once you come to peace with the fact that you cannot go back to ‘who you were’ and need to stop trying, you become ‘what you might be’.
I found that security, no matter what it means to you, is a superstition and somehow only exists when you feel accepted in the eyes of others before your own.
What if I lose everything? What if my life turns out to be very different than I planned for? Do I keep beating myself about it? Do I keep setting expectations that will leave me downcast and dispirited? What if I fail? Will I ever be happy in life if I attain everything I set out for?
Once you stop having to question yourself on everything or worry about attaining some airy-fairy sort of euphoric level of being, you get real.
You embrace the growing pain and believe that life, not for the early years alone, is all just an experiment and that this unique experience you’ve been through brings you closer to unraveling it.
The growing years never end, you will change entirely and you can’t plan for it. Within the cocoon that is your condition, you will learn about your frailties if you can bare a moment of clarity. The type of person you are is usually reflected in your work, whether that work is internal or external in life.
To improve, you must first improve yourself.
This is an ongoing exercise you need to take charge of. It takes time and coordination to harness it and discover yourself —despite the fact that you might not fit into a particular societal matrix. Be great at your craft or at least great at trying to improve youself.
It took me four years to get here and write this, and there is still part of that path to uncover, but I’ve been fortunate to get the chance to build thicker skin now rather than later in life when things might turn out different.
The fact is that some people are born comfortable, others achieve comfort, and most earn it as a graduation gift.
Nobel prize winner Alexis Carrel beautifully puts it that “Man cannot remake himself without suffering. For he is the marble and the sculptor.”
You are great, and it will take time. And if life presents an opportunity to shape you, the short pain will lead you to extensive inner glory. Recognize it but let it be.
Photograph by: Hussam Da’na