AUK Graduation 2011 speech

Good morning. I am honored to be here today at the invitation of my fellow classmate who I attended nursery through high school with, Sheikha Dana Nasser Al-Sabah. I want to apologize in advance Sheikha Dana as I will be mentioning my age but not yours. Although we were in the same class, everyone knows you’re at least ten years younger. Today I am going to share a few stories from my life.

My first story is about education and innovation

According to Scottish Psychiatrist R.D. Laing, “1% of children in the UK go to university.10% end up in mental institutions.” To which he asks “Is the way we educate our children driving them crazy?”

And instead of answering his question, I’d like to add my own. “92% of Kuwaitis hold government jobs. Is the way we educate our children driving them away from innovation and entrepreneurship?”

My son Faisal received a 1/10 in an Arabic spelling test. I went to meet the teacher. I did a quick calculation and gave her his test back and told her I was not concerned, that he had a 61 out of 70. Not, it’s a 1/10 she replied. I said “there are 70 words and 9 errors. There is something wrong with the system, not with my son.”

My son Hamad was given five Arabic words to put into sentences in the fourth grade. I didn’t know any. I showed them to my mother who taught philosophy in the Arabic language, she knew two.

When I met Sheikha Dana we were at the American School of Kuwait. I remember I was very excited about our Arabic and English writing classes because I was allowed to write and express myself. I was allowed to be creative and explore. I loved it. Then I moved to Bayan Bilingual School in the 5th grade where I had a culture shock. My hopes of becoming a writer in Arabic were devastated, but remained intact for English. My 9s and 10s/10 in Arabic composition at ASK were 2s and 3s out of 10 at BBS. Apparently you’re not allowed to use words like “shinu”, “minu” and “laysh” in Arabic composition class. But that is how I think because that is how I speak. That is how you think because it is how you speak.

We all grew up hearing that the Arab world was the bastion of arts and sciences while Europe was in the Dark Ages. I grew up hearing it. Now my children are growing up hearing it. But no one explores why. Here is what I think the root of the problem is: Arabs were thought leaders when the language they spoke matched the language they wrote.

That is no longer the case.

Europe woke up and became the world’s thought leaders when the languages they wrote matched the languages they spoke and thought in. When Latin was sacrificed in the name of progress, Europeans were allowed to think, speak and write in English, French, Spanish and Italian, all languages that evolved from Latin. The common languages were finally allowed as a standard in the territories they were spoken in. In contrast, the Arab world went intentionally to sleep as the language it spoke continued to diverge from the language it wrote. Classical Arabic is not the linguistic currency of the Modern Arab. Instead it is Kuwaiti, Saudi, Moroccan and Egyptian. And until there are courses that allow modern colloquial evolved Arabic for creative expressions in school, and until there are courses that allow for the teaching of the sciences in the languages that kids actually speak and think in, we will not have progress, we will not have innovation, and my grandchildren will learn about what the Arab World was.

When I graduated from college my friends made fun of my wanting to write in local newspapers in English. I wrote for the Arab Times and the Kuwait Times and my friends would ask, so whom are you writing for, the maids and drivers in Kuwait? To a certain degree they were right. For me English won out over Arabic in my quest for knowledge. I got scared off of Arabic with all the rules that had been developed to keep the language from evolving.

But the Internet changed the game. All of a sudden maids and drivers from all over the world could read what I had to say!

My second story is about balance

When I was 20, I hatched a secret plan to beat the system at Tufts University. I was going to be Michael Schofield from Prison Break, only I was going to be the nerd version. I elaborately planned how I was going to graduate from college with 4 majors in 4 years. I researched what classes could double count. I had 2 classes left to beat the system. I took 54 classes instead of the 32 required but I was found out. The dean met me and said I would not be given 4 majors. I settled for 3. He asked what I would do with them. I told him I didn’t know.I never gave myself time to think. I just did.

I jumped from three majors in clinical psychology, English literature and history to three Master’s Degrees, in clinical psychology, organizational psychology and business administration. I completed my doctorate in clinical psychology and I found myself turning 32 without a clue of what I was going to be when I grew up.

I just turned 40 and I have tried to pull back from work and have been unable to. As it turns out I never chose to do the multiple degrees. I was driven. And there are positives and negative associated with that. For a while, I chose not to put my degrees up on my wall. I did not want my children to feel they had to over achieve to win my love. But most importantly I started to force myself to slow down a little. It was important for me to get to the gym.

And I have to tell you, to me being in the gym is tough. It’s tough because my mind is everywhere but there. My mind is with our investors in Kuwait, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, the UK and the US. My mind is with the writers in Hollywood. My mind is with the animators in India and our production partners in the UK. My mind is with my children who I could be spending that hour with.

My mind is on the AUK speech that I haven’t written yet.

I had to train myself to spend quality time with my wife and children. Take a break and breathe once in a while. Balance things out. The reality is that your mind stretches to where you train it to be. If you stretch your stomach by eating too much, it gets bigger and you need more food to fill it that puts more weight on you.

Not that I would know.

The mind works the same way. If you work too much you need to work to feel good. Your mind becomes stretched and will feel empty unless you fill it up or train it to accept less. Unfortunately, if you don’t work hard enough then you don’t need to work to feel good and that comes with it’s own set of problems.

Working too much is not good. I can tell you that. But working too little is not good either. I don’t advise you a life split between the chalet, the diwaniya, and the mall. I don’t advise you trying to beat the system in the other direction, doing the minimum work possible to get your paycheck. If you don’t feel like you have contributed to yourself, to your future, to your country, you will not feel fulfilled. If you don’t feel like you earn and deserve what you get, then you have nothing. You’ll feel like something is missing.I worry about young adults turning to unhealthy things to substitute for feelings of emptiness.

I have spent the last two years trying to balance my life out. I am still a work in progress. You too will be works in progress your whole life. Working too much was my drug and I numbed myself. I implore you, don’t let complacency be yours. We need you to create jobs, not just consume them. You are the future.

My third story is about entrepreneurship

When we had our first child my wife sent me to buy “Hilba”. So off I went to the local herbalist and was dismayed to see him spooning in the herbs along with the cigarette ashes off his still tightly held cigarette. I was appalled but some of the dots in my head started connecting. I started to ask myself questions that became a business plan revolving around an Islam inspired herbal business. I was going to modernize the industry. The idea sounded great but when the US invaded Iraq it did not make sense to raise capital for such a project. I thought I had wasted a year of my life planning.

I took a break for the first time in years when I was 32 and it was then that my education conspired against me to create THE 99. My sister asked me to go back to writing for children, something I was not prepared to do. But her asking that question was a catalyst and by the end of a short cab ride from Edgware road to Harrods, resulted in the initial spark that would become THE 99.

With THE 99 I was able to connect all the dots that I had been collecting and answer the question I was asked so many times. What are you going to do with all these degrees? THE 99 is English Literature as it took an ability to analyze heroes already in existence to be able to create new ones. THE 99 is history with a rich back-story rooted in the fall of Baghdad in the 13th century and the fall of Granada in the 15th. THE 99 is psychology because it involved creating over 100 characters to date with at least 50 more in the process of being created. And THE 99 is a business.

What started as a question asked to me in the right place at the right time turned into a business that has raised over $40 Million in financing, has created just under 1000 jobs on 4 continents and has made a dent in how Islam is seen in the world, not just by non-Muslims, but by Muslims themselves. And it happened by accident. With all the meticulous planning I made, my life’s work came to me by accident. I had to take a break for it to happen, but I had to have the basic information to connect the dots.

But it wasn’t all easy. In fact none of it is. With every new chapter in the story of my journey with THE 99 there are new challenges. The spark that initially ignited THE 99, lit a fire of self doubt in me. I knew that if I tried to raise capital for an Islam Inspired Superhero project and failed I would be known as the crazy guy that tried. People love calling psychologists crazy. It makes them feel better about themselves. Once I overcame my own demons I had to wrestle with my family’s expectations. Here I was, Dr. Naif who according to one of my friends had more degrees than a thermometer, took a $1 Million of higher education and deciding to get into comic books. My father thought I had flipped a switch. You’re gonna do what with your degrees? I told you psychology would make you crazy!

All of you have collected dots over the years. Those dots are the classes you took, the people you met, the newspapers you read, the tweets you re-tweeted, the Facebook status updates. Those dots are the things you like. The things you don’t like. Those dots are the experiences you’ve had and the ones you plan to have and the ones you could never imagine today.

In a few months THE 99 animated series will launch globally and be viewed by hundreds of millions of people throughout the world. I took my sons to India to watch the first episode in a movie theater. It was an incredible experience. I cannot tell you how proud and fulfilled I felt seeing my team’s hard work translated up on the screen. I cannot tell you how happy I was that I was sharing the experience with my boys. It was one of the most incredible moments of my life.With THE 99 the Arab World no longer was the bastion of arts and science. With THE 99, the Arab World is.

At the end of the episode, I leaned over and whispered into my babies’ ears words that I say to them this morning as a couple of them are here and that I leave you with AUK Class of 2011.

“ THE 99 is proof that anything is possible; anything at all.”

Thank you all very much.