Reflections on Europe

I left Europe last night after a whopping 56-day trip. I could not have anticipated that I’ll spend this much time there, especially when I traditionally had little interest in going to Europe. The MIT reunion was really the only major reason that drew me there in the first place.

I arrived to El Gouna in Egypt this morning. I wanted to take this time to reflect on my experience in Europe. Here’s how my itinerary in Europe panned out:

  1. Madrid, Spain
  2. Cordoba, Spain
  3. Seville, Spain
  4. Granada, Spain
  5. Tarifa, Spain
  6. Stockholm, Sweden
  7. Brussels, Belgium
  8. Dusseldorf, Germany
  9. Paris, France
  10. Bonn, Germany
  11. Lisbon, Portugal

On average, I relocated every 5 days, often using long bus rides or flights. Moving around was certainly a huge burden and barrier from me actually doing “work”. Not to mention that, in most of these places, I was staying at hostels, which are not necessarily the most productive of environments.

I am not going to lie, it was hard. Reflecting back, here are some moments that come to mind:

  • Reconnecting with my MIT comrades in Spain
  • Feeling the most lost I’ve ever been after the MIT reunion, and that was especially hard in Cordoba and Seville.
  • Applied to YC with Carlos and did some great brainstorming of ideas.
  • Connected with old friends like Lise-Lotte, Linnea, Rafa, and Amelie.
  • Made some great friends like Alina and Marie.
  • Caught up with the EdgeRyders crew and experienced a different model of thinking when it comes to communal living.
  • Visited the Catacombs in Paris with Bilal, Josephine, et al. – an incredible experience!
  • Attended WebSummit in Lisbon and connected with great people there.
  • Took some great kite-surfing classes in Tarifa.
  • Visited INSEAD in France and learned more about their MBA program.

Gains from my trip to Europe:

  • I started becoming more project-based and I think I found an approach that helps me stick with a project and commit to it. The first, and so far successful, example of that is Project Small Fish which involves calisthenics training, and I’ve been sticking to it religiously for weeks now.
  • I experienced the state of total loss, where I had no idea what I was doing with my life – no job, no career, no friends, and no home. I like to think that I’ve become accustomed to that, and I am no longer afraid. I feel a lot stronger and more emotionally resilient thanks to the training I’ve been doing.
  • I’ve identified two projects that have occupied a great deal of my time as I was traveling. It’s still unclear where they’ll go, but at least I have been spending my time doing work that is challenging me intellectually as well as growing my skill set over time.
  • Having the freedom to connect with old friends is a huge luxury that I have, and practicing that luxury while I was in Europe was highly rewarding for me. I would love to visit and connect with more of my friends who live abroad.
  • I learned that I don’t ask for help as much as I should be. I should’ve reached out to more friends about questions I wonder about and directly ask for help. I am a bit too independent for my liking.
  • I identified some key questions that I need to answer for myself to help guide what I should be doing moving forward. Two key questions that I am contemplating on are 1) whether I should do more product as opposed to more engineering, and 2) whether I should remain attached to my Arab heritage as I currently am. I’ll be reflecting on both of these questions in more depth in the future.
  • I learned that joining a business school isn’t really what I need right now. After going to that session at INSEAD, I felt very out of place and the crowd that I met there didn’t appeal to me as a crowd I’d like to spend a year with.
  • I should be spending more. I’ve been mostly cost-cutting while I was in Europe, and I think it’s more appropriate from me to invest in myself through courses, experiences, and whatever means necessary. Time should be what I’m optimizing for as opposed to finances in the meantime.

These are just my initial reflections, and having written those down it doesn’t seem like Europe was a time ill-spent. I’ll be digging deeper into some of the points I mentioned above in the near future.

The OpenVillage Festival

Today I went to the OpenVillage Festival that’s organized by the EdgeRyders community. I got referred to this community last week through Bilal, and through online exchanges the people seemed interesting/crazy enough that I knew I had to come to Brussels to chat with them.

I admit, I am still not too clear what EdgeRyders exactly is about. The people that are part of it are clearly ambitious, knowledgeable, and interested in making a positive difference. From what I gather, the way they are aiming to achieve this is by outlining what are the different needs that humans need to be happy, and exploring how these needs can be met through collaboration as well as co-living.

The people I met today were certainly a diverse crew of talented people, and often have ways of thinking that I haven’t been used to, at least for someone coming from Silicon Valley. A reasonable portion of the people I interacted with are anti-capitalist, anti-corporation, and believe that everything should be open-sourced.

While I appreciate open-source, I am also a huge believer in the power of business. Also, while capitalism is far from perfect, I have yet to see a better model by which a society should operate. I’ll be keeping an open mind these days though – would love to observe a better (and more environmentally friendly) alternative.

We did an urgan game today where we split into teams and explored the city. Somehow, I ended up wearing an eagle mask. Here’s a picture with me and Bilal pimping it out in Brussels!

Last Day in Sweden

I just arrived to the airport in Brussels, and writing this in the tight seat of the bus that’s taking me to the city.

My last day in Sweden was quite a ride. Linnea, given her background in international relations, was planning to attend the utvecklings forum, a humanitarian forum. Out of curiosity, I decided to join. I would say it was quite beneficial.

  • I learned about Shahira Amin, an Egyptian journalist who works at Nile TV. She spoke of the struggle journalists are going through in Egypt and how freedom of the press has evolved since the days of Mubarak (it got worse).
  • We did a workshop to discuss how diversity relates to democracy. Everyone in my group presented themselves through their NGO (all the attendees apparently are working for humanitarian NGOs or for the government). I decided to represent “Kayany” since, strictly speaking, I consulted with them in Lebanon this past Summer.

I managed to meet up with Ahmed Elewa, the brother of my great friend Motaz. We’re now exploring creating a DIY youtube series in Egypt.

Towards the end of the day, Linnea was insisting that I try “Surströmming”, a fish delicacy from Sweden that, I must confess, is probably the most disgusting thing I ever smelled and tasted. Here are videos from the experience:

After that painful, yet very authentic, experience. We went for sauna + swimming in the river. The fresh cold water was a great remedy to the horror my taste buds had been through.

Finally, Linnea’s friends Amir and Victoria came over and we baked. I think this is the first time I ever bake in my life. Not a bad start, I’d say:

Anyways, now that I am in Belgium, I am quite tired of “having fun”. Time to change gears a bit.

Sweden Day 2

Today I ended up going with Linnea to the Fotografiska, Stockholm’s Photography museum. I haven’t been to that many photography museums before, but this one was certainly very special.

I got introduced to the work of Paul Hansen. His exhibition featured humanitarian photos from Iraq, Palestine, Egypt, Afghanistan, the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe, Ukraine, and Sub-Saharan Africa – a very memorable collection that left an impression on me.

Aside from the photographs, there was one part of the museum where they had three projects for RGB (Red, Green, Blue). It was a very simple setup, but left a very artistic touch. Here are a couple of photos Linnea and I took:

Later we met up with Sebastian and Joakim for a fine Swedish dinner. It was lovely catching up with these folks. I feel like a have a mini-family here in Sweden.

Catching up in Sweden

Today was a beautiful day. I met with Linnea and walked around the city together. While walking around we ran into Sebastian – what a coincidence!

 

Other than that, we went home for a home-made dinner. Linnea’s boyfriend Amir and friend Victoria came over and we had a great evening chat. I even made my signature tabouleh dish, though it didn’t come out as good as I would like.

This is just a super short update. That’s all for now.

Landed in Stockholm

I landed in Stockholm earlier this evening. My visit to Sweden will be a highly expedited one. I am only here for three days before heading to Brussels to join the OpenVillage Festival in Brussels.

Only two days ago did I decide to come here, and upon arrival I started to get those euphoric feelings of having the ultimate freedom. I feel very blessed and privileged to be able to travel around the world this easily and to have a global network of great friends.

Speaking of friends, I am here to visit my Swedish friends Linnea and Sebastian. We were close friends back in Taiwan when we were all exchange students. It’s been 3.5 years since I saw them. Can’t wait to see them over the next couple of days – so stoked!

Arabic Voice Assistant Prototype + Tarifa

It’s almost 3.30am here in Tarifa. It’s my last night in Spain, and reflecting back, it’s been quite an adventure!

I am realizing that I am not writing as much as I would like, but I’ll make an update on today and try to be more consistent and provide mini-updates.

Today was a very productive today. Firstly, I prototyped my first ever mobile app. Secondly, I prototyped something I have been thinking about for some time: an Arabic digital assistant. Voice assistants (think Siri, Amazon Echo, Google Voice search) will become more and more useful as wearables proliferate and as voice recognition reaches human parity.

Here’s a quick demo of it (in Arabic). The only thing the assistant does is schedule alarms, but that’s already super useful for me to use every day.

Work aside, Tarifa is apparently the kitesurfing capital of Europe. I took a couple of kitesurfing classes over the last two days, and earlier today I went to the beach to see the Kitesurfing League that was going on this weekend.

I also had a great Spanish dinner with Lisette & Ilga, two Dutch girls I met while here in Tarifa. A Spanish guy from my hostel also joined us, and I slowly realized he was gay given how annoyingly touchy he was (and how he’s still sitting on the couch behind me waiting for me to finish working, even though it’s almost 4am and he really should leave).

Anyways, time to sleep. Tomorrow I take the bus to Malaga, then from Malaga to Sweden!

The Ultimate Freedom

Greetings from Madrid! The last few days I was occupied with the MIT Global Entrepreneurship Bootcamp reunion here. It was refreshing to see everyone and for all us to spend a few fun days together.

I am now sitting at Café de la Luz, about to finally start “working” again after all the festivities. I put “working” in double quotes because I am using the word “working” in a fluid sense. “Working” these days, in the absence of any structure or a job, is really just analogous with me just having my laptop open.

I bring this up because today is special. It’s a day where, for the very first time, I have no plans in my life. Literally zero. Nothing. Nada.*

Sitting here at this coffeeshop in Madrid, I have no sense at all of where I should go next or what specifically I should do. There’s no reason for me to be in Madrid, but there’s also no reason for me to be anywhere else, really.

At the same time, I have the capacity to do practically anything. I can take off on a world-trip if I feel like. I can go to the Far East and indulge in martial arts. I can go to Africa and climb Mount Kilimanjaro, or maybe Nepal to do some meditation?

What I am experiencing now is the luxury of having the ultimate freedom. Having said that, there is a very fine line between ultimate freedom and being completely lost. That fine line, I think, is purpose. I currently have no purpose that I am fully committed to, and as a result I consistently feel lost.

I do believe though that purpose is attained with a blend of thinking and acting. I have done plenty of thinking (and this blog is a testament of that), and it’s now time to be acting. More to come on that.

* Well, strictly speaking, I just booked a bus to Cordoba tomorrow. But, I think of that as random probing rather than an actual plan.

Forging a Warrior Mindset

In my last post I wrote about my state of mental weakness. I have been lacking firm opinions, deferring decisions to the last minute, easily getting distracted, giving up on things I plan very easily, etc.

Before when I had a stable job and home I was able to get away with this. But, now, gaining mental toughness and emotional resiliency is becoming increasingly necessary.

Another way I can describe my current state is that I am simply in a limbo state. I don’t have a clear purpose, I’m not offering the world anything of value, and I don’t have a sense of where I should live or what my life should look like. Not only that, but I am also falling into an “analysis paralysis” while trying to figure this all out.

To be able to get myself out of this limbo state, I need a sense of direction. And, to get that sense of direction, I need focus and a methodical way to explore the possible directions I can go. And, to get focus, I need mental toughness and emotional resiliency.

A few days ago I came across a great book: 8 Weeks to SEALFIT: A Navy SEAL’s Guide to Unconventional Training for Physical and Mental Toughness

The book is inspired by principles from the Navy Seals, Sun Tzu, yoga, and ninjutsu. So far the underlying philosophy in that book resonates with me a lot. It sees physical training as a catalyst for mental toughness and emotional resiliency.

The training in this book is certainly not easy. It’s been very physically demanding the last few days. Here’s an example training I did yesterday and today:

  • Warmup
  • 5 rounds of:
    • 20 airsquats
    • 20 burpees
    • 200 jump ropes

In addition to intense physical training, the book is emphasizing “the warrior mindset”.

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” – Sun Tzu

“Pain is weakness leaving the body” – Navy Seals

I started seeing training as a battle. Not only should I prepare the body, but I should also prepare the mind.  Here are three steps of mental preparation I do prior to training:

  1. Clear the mind. I eliminate distractions and focus on the task ahead.
  2. Know the “why”. I am doing this not just for the physical fitness, but for improving my mental toughness and emotional resiliency. I need both to help me explore and get a sense of where to go next in life.
  3. See victory in the mind, and practice for it. I imagine myself finishing the workout in perfect form in my head, feeling it as much as possible.

The first time I did this workout, and halfway through the first cycle, my first instinct was to immediately cut my goal from five cycles to three cycles – the burpees were just too tough! But, sticking with the warrior mindset, I plowed through it. I won that battle, and several other battles since.

This process of mental preparation is definitely helping me and is something I want to inject not just in physical training, but in anything challenging I intend to do.

I plan to continue with the SEALFIT training, as I am getting a lot of benefit out of it so far.

And, today is my birthday! I’ll be spending some time tonight with the family and tomorrow at dawn I head to Madrid. The MIT reunion is coming up!

My Mental Weakness

I left Lebanon and have been back in Egypt for over a week now, and generally my time in Egypt is an interesting introspection as I tend to spend a lot of time alone and without significant obligations.

But, the more I am spending time with myself, the more I am realizing a very apparent weakness in me, and is something that is becoming more and more painful for me as time lingers.

I am in a state of mental weakness. I lack firm opinions, I leave decisions to the very last minute, I give up easily, I easily get distracted, and my mind is dominated with negative emotions. Not to mention that a lot of the “plans” I make are often better classified as “wishful thinking” at best.

I don’t think any of the above is actually new. It has been creeping in me over the last couple of years at least. Now, though, that I have more time for introspection, that reality is more often than not hitting, slapping, and punching me in the face.

For me to do anything worthwhile in life, I need to overcome this state of mental weakness. Not only is it a blocker for practically anything I do, but it’s also causing me to suffer.

Here’s a recent example of my mental weakness. When I flew out to Egypt my goal was to spend two weeks working on side projects. Here’s what came out of it:

  • I decided to build a simple alarm clock app that greets with refreshing bird sounds. The primary driver behind this is I have never done any mobile dev and thought it would a nice gentle intro to get a feel of what mobile dev is like. I worked on it for a bit and didn’t finish it.
  • I decided to build a speech recognition system for understanding how people say the time in Egyptian Arabic – I wanted to use this as a building block to speak with my phone in Egyptian Arabic and have it wake me up at certain times. I read some papers and downloaded some datasets, but also never fully committed.
  • I decided to put all three routers in our home on one wifi network (as opposed to three separate ones). I thought it would fix a small nuisance and I’d learn a few things about networking while doing it. After a few hours of triaging problems, I actually set up the network. There was one issue though: a device connected to one router would stay connected to that router even if the signal is very weak, as opposed to switching to the much closer router on the same network with a stronger connection. I was supposed to figure out a fix for that problem, but I never did.

Or, consider for example my workouts. When I left my job almost three months ago I wanted to spend more time focusing on my physical fitness, as it’s something I haven’t been putting as much attention to as I’d like. Here’s how things evolved:

  • I came up with a plan that I wanted to train for Half Iron Man and be ready by next Summer.
    • I ended procrastinating and didn’t do much training, but a big hindrance for me was that a big pool was inaccessible. Traveling to Lebanon and not sticking around one location long enough makes it more difficult for me as well to commit to a gym for pool access.
  • I changed my plan to do something very simple but over an extended period of time. I decided every morning that I’d spend a couple of minutes doing ab workouts, following the guidelines of the book Convict Conditioning.
    • That plan lasted (with many misses) for 40 days, but relocating several times and the sheer ease of the workout didn’t make me feel like I was actually working out, so I subconsciously made the decision to stop.
  • The whole workout plan fell apart.

So far during my stay in Egypt there has been precisely zero projects that I took to full completion. This is dangerous, as it could spiral into further mental weakness.

I bring this up here because I have been thinking of ways to build up my mental toughness. More to come on that.