It was the end of 2008, I walked into the office energized as usual, ready to deliver a presentation to a high-ranking executive, and just as quick, I was walked out, unemployed.
Despite working for one of the greatest cash stockpiled companies in the world, I was impacted by the financial bust of 2008/2009 and in one day, my life literally turned upside down.
My persona revolved around my professional life, and the people with whom I collaborated, so my loss of employment slowly became the bane of my existence. I felt humiliated and did what everyone does after losing a job: apply, apply, apply. I even attended several interviews – but alas, none of the opportunities resulted in full time employment and pretty soon, the bills and stress began to pile up. Emotionally, I felt like I was losing hope.
The loss of my job was an ominous start to a brutal year. We sold our home, and fought the bank for a massive penalty charge to break the mortgage under the circumstances. I became bitter and angry at the world, including the universe, to say the least.
Yet, losing what seemed like my foundation at the time became one of the greatest catalysts of change and opportunity. I simply didn’t see it at the time.
The term “resilience” is now a buzz word, but back then, there was no guidebook on how to be resilient. I knew that I couldn’t change what had happened to me, but I could focus on what was left in my control. I channeled my energy into taking action, perceiving the loss as a challenge from the universe, one I could take head-on given my youthful energetic reserve. I mean, what else was there to lose?
I energized myself to look introspectively and started to take stock of my positive attributes, the competencies that I was recognized for and realized that I could make a living using these gifts. For example, we were working on innovative analytics in digital and search engine marketing, and I thrived working with diverse teams across the world, so I knew this somehow had to be part of my path. I believed that I could actually start a business by reaching into my network and so I tested the proposition of consulting to further explore the possibility.
Fast forward a year later, and all was not lost. I landed back on my feet, and even began consulting for the company that had let me go. I supported global clients, sharing my knowledge of the digital domain and built myself up again - from the ground up. My wife and I settled into a new place, and we embarked upon raising a family. Yet, come around the corner, six years later, another series of events would come to pass and test my foundation of resiliency at a much deeper level.
TRAUMA BY TEXT
It was February 28, 2016. I was onboard a flight from Spain, returning home after attending a high profile tech event. Like everyone else onboard the aircraft, I turned on my smartphone as the plane taxied to the gate. I was expecting emails for work, and heard the usual “ping, ping, ping” of text messages and chat alerts but little did I know, these were no ordinary messages. And they didn’t stop coming. They were endless messages of condolence, support, apologies, with all of them saying in one way or another, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
Loss of what? What - or who - did I lose?
My dear cousin passed away in Los Angeles as I was en-route home. He was like a brother to me. We lived next door as children, traded clothes, played music, socialized and even had a few friends in common as adults. And despite the fact that he had moved to Los Angeles to pursue his career, we remained connected over the years.
As I started to process what these messages on my phone were really about, an overwhelming anxiety began to surface in the pit of my stomach. Eventually, it converted into panic. My fight or flight response took over the nervous system in my body. My heart began beating faster and faster, my breathing became shallow as I experienced what is known as an “Amydala Hijack” as the rush of adrenaline coursed through my veins. I couldn’t think clearly, yet I sat there feeling claustrophobic for those long minutes, anxiously waiting to disembark the aircraft. All the while, in my mind, the rational side of my brain processed thoughts to sort out what had just happened. Thoughts like, “is this some kind of joke?” to “I just messaged him from Spain” and, “didn’t we just confirm to meet in Vegas when I got back??” Clearly, I was in shock and disbelief.
The next morning, after a sleepless night, I was on another flight and this time, to Los Angeles. I was escorting my uncle and aunt to the L.A. Coroner’s office with the help of my cousin’s extraordinary friends and the family that graciously invited us to stay with them. They supported us with what we needed most - empathy - as we rode an intense rollercoaster ride of emotions. However, what transpired after a couple of weeks after the funeral would become an added weight on my shoulders, one that lingered on. Little did I know how much I was taking on as one individual.
Playing the role of a sibling, son and nephew who just wanted everyone else to feel better, and still in denial, I thought that God was playing a bad trick on our family - that somehow it would get better. I just didn’t get to process the shock, trauma and grief since I was “holding it all in” to be present for everyone else.
Bereavement quickly became a deeper sadness within my heart, an emotion of pain and loss, a trauma that was different from anything I had ever experienced before. It was much harder to accept, but the fact remained: my cousin was gone, and there was nothing I could do to change this. Clearly, I was feeling depressed.
I had to activate my resiliency once again, but felt I was without any tools. I had no training for what this situation had presented. But, what I recognized was that my emotional wellbeing was in my control, and that I could be brave enough to seek help. Being the spiritual person I am, I also turned to my faith as an Ismaili Muslim and started the inward journey to understand what the pain was there to do (more on that in another post).
While deep in grief, I knew that I could still focus on my career, and I buried myself in my work. I channeled the pain into my success, took on changes in the org, was given a new team, and literally put double the effort in the office to make work my primary priority - even more so than it was before. All was being resolved resiliently, or so I thought.
THE EXISTENTIAL CRISIS
A year later, I was at another conference and this time in Vegas. I returned from the flight home, but I wasn’t feeling well. The discomfort in my stomach slowly crept toward my chest.
I ended up admitting myself to the hospital and was prioritized immediately in the emergency ward. The nurse took my ECG, then turned to me and said: “Sir, my shift is about to end, but I’m going to come back and check up on you, alright?”
She patted me on the shoulder, walked away, and within a few minutes a group of ER staff appeared with equipment, and in a nonchalant manner, the news was delivered.
“Sir, you are having a heart attack, is there someone we can call for you, a next of kin perhaps?”
They took my shirt off, gave me some pills, and readied the paddles to shock me back to life in case my heart stopped. I was medicated further and prepped for potential surgery. Hospital staff called my wife and she rushed to the hospital. However, after looking at some charts and tests, they seem puzzled and decide not to operate right away. So, I was kept under observation in the cardiology ward, where I stayed for a few nights. After days of non-stop testing, I was given a cautious green light to go home. I had immense gratitude for being alive and now had an amplified awareness of my body’s fragility.
On the day of the discharge, a Priest came to visit me. I looked at him with confusion, feeling obliged to tell him that he’s got the wrong person because I’m alive and not about to die. “Father, you’re not here for me, because I’m being discharged today. I think you might have the wrong room!”
He smiled and said, “No son, this is what I do. I talk to all the patients, and I’d like to know if I can have a moment to speak with you too.”
Being connected to all the monitoring equipment rendered me motionless, so I reluctantly obliged. We talked about life, it’s ups and downs, and the one thing he closed with at the end of our conversation was this:
“Son, unlike the gentleman down the hall who didn’t make it through today, you’ve got a second chance. So when you walk out of here today, make it count.”
A week later, I was back at the office, and something was different in my very being. I had a feeling inside my heart, and I was present. I was not in any physical pain, but I had a sense of heightened awareness of myself, my being, and my future. I felt that I could do anything.
ADVERSITY LEADS TO PURPOSE
I had an executive coach at the time and after my release from the hospital, in one of our sessions, we shifted the conversation away from work to me. Our discussion revealed a deep desire to understand my purpose beyond my current role, what I’m really here to do with the time left in my life.
What surfaced by means of spiritual questioning was that a deeper persona was buried inside of me, one from my childhood years, one that I never discussed, but that was always present in my nature as an individual and as a leader. Growing up, I had an artistic personality deeply connected to music, poetry and art. I was sensitive to colour, form, sound and feeling. Similarly, I was able to sense the emotions of others in my workplace. Yet, I was portraying a leader who was invulnerable.
As far as I could recall, those closest to me always said that I had an intuitive sense, guiding others through personal struggle, including supporting my family after my cousin’s funeral.
Admittedly, that was a matter of private service that came about from performing seva (selfless service without recognition), but it upheld a theme in my life. I was a servant leader. I was always thinking about the team and their wellbeing. I began to ask the question, how could I leverage this understanding to fuel my purpose and my work?
Beyond the transactional nature of my day to day, I needed to go further and deeper into the meaning of my personal attributes and the joy of helping others. With an impending surgery still on the horizon, I knew that whatever job I had to do next was going to be about sharing my knowledge in order to help others succeed. It was not going to be a job, it was going to be a mission. Working along-side my coach, we plotted out some of my options.
HOW TO LOOK INTROSPECTIVELY
I reflected on my past experiences and created a life resume (different from a professional CV). I plotted all the ups and downs from my personal struggle, and I discovered that whatever setbacks I experienced in my life actually held the key to unlocking my future. In fact, the loss, resilience, and bereavement were my prerequisites for learning how to “be” with people at a much deeper, authentic and connected level. I thought of ways to formalize this learning into actionable work, so I applied to post-graduate programs. I would never have foreseen that at the age of 43, I would go back to school.
Yes, I stand firmly in my belief that we can upgrade our skillset and turn our adversity into options of possibility.
The form of work I practice now is that of an executive and life coach, specialized in helping others find deeper meaning from struggle to regain clarity, create momentum and take action aligned to their values and purpose in whatever they choose to do.
So, I challenge you to dig deeper and look introspectively. Take a moment to think about all the major events in your life.
1. How have these experiences caused you to grow and develop?
2. How has such a rigorous training program lead you to the next opportunity?
3. What is it that you [were / are] preparing for next?
Perhaps it accelerated your journey to a career change, or shifted the nature of the relationships around you. Maybe it’s the process to becoming a better leader.
Whatever it may be, seek the learning, the expansion, the growth in you from the experience, for this is the starting point to understanding what your purpose is and how it will eventually unfold.
Finally, if you’re in need of support right now, know that it’s okay to ask for help. That may be the greatest step you could take for your well being.