This is a copy of a speech given during an Induction Ceremony to the National Honors Society 2017, Kuwait Chapter by Dr. Mussaad M. Al-Razouki, an Hermes Society Member of Columbia University’s Business School (MBA) Alumni
About 13.7 billion years ago, a huge burst of energy created our Universe. Matter, space and time were initiated. Physics was born.
Three hundred millenia after this Big Bang, that’s around 13.4 billion years ago, energy and matter came together into complex microscopic structures we call atoms. Dark matter and dark energy started spreading out throughout the Universe creating these huge balls of gas we call stars. Chemistry was born. Today, there are roughly 100 billion of these stars orbiting around our galaxy, the Milky Way.
A few billion years after that, so around 4.5 billion years ago, the first single cell organisms appeared on our planet. Biology was born.
Only 70,000 years ago, that’s 0.0005% of the estimate life of the universe, mankind started grouping together into what were known as tribes, usually no larger than 150 people. Anthropology was born. It would take another 65,000 years for the first civilizations to rise up in the Fertile Crescent and along the banks of the Nile, using crude tools and writing technique called cuneiform, meaning that only 5,000 years ago, History was born.
If we then use some Algebra, something us as Arabs invented back when the words Milky Way and Galaxy meant more than just chocolate or a new mobile phone, and we equate the 13.7 billion years of existence of the universe to a full day on Earth, the entire collective might of our human society, all the past 5000 years of human development, would amount to just three seconds.
We can thank the Ancient Greeks for Philosophy, a relatively modern invention, which popped up around 2,500 years ago. The easy philosophical argument would be that our lives are pointless when compared to the vast obtrusiveness of infinity. I believe we all sometimes struggle with the meaning of our lives on this little blue marble that is over 1000 miles an hour around a huge ball of gas 12,000 times hotter than the hottest molten lava. Now, I do not claim to know the meaning of life, but what I do know for a fact, is that life is more meaningful if you choose to live it with meaning, by developing both meaningful relationships and seeking that hidden truth, beauty and elegance that is tucked away in between the lines that make up your life’s arc. By meaningful relationships, I mean go deep, as deep as the space-time continuum that keeps our universe in cosmic check. It’s that classic conundrum of quality versus quantity. Now, I’m sure you all have realized by now, National Honors Society اشعليكم بعد that you cannot get good at something without putting in loads of work. So does quantity equal quality? Does it really only take 10,000 hours to become a world expert at anything? So there is some research to suggest that, but the unalienable truth remains, if you do not try, if you do not work hard, then you will never be the best. No one ever becomes truly successful by sheer luck. In fact, the harder you work, the luckier you get. Now if given the choice, you should also choose quality over quantity. Just think of that one amazing friend, that one amazing teacher, that one amazing pasta dish. Wouldn’t you trade all your Facebook friends, likes on Instagram and Snap Chat filters for just one quality life experience. Something that you will cherish forever.
Forever was an abstract concept until about 25 years ago, when mankind created these intelligent machines we call computers and figured out how to connect them on a new technology called the Internet. Today, we compete with the infinite expansiveness of our universe with the endless amounts of content produced on a daily basis. Today, in a single hour, the seven billion people on this planet produce more information that was produced by our ancestors ever since the dawn of time. So again, always choose quality over quantity. Also, force yourself to take time away from screens. At my home we have a strict no screen rule during lunch and I try to spend my Saturdays lounging on the beach bil chalet devoid of any digital technology. #NoScreenSaturdays. It’s ok to be offline. I encourage you to welcome boredom, let your minds wander, daydream, explore, laugh, breathe. It is in this rare clarity of mind, surrounded by the impeding gloom of boredom that true innovative ideas come to light. Let them shine bright through you like those 100 billion stars spread across the Milky Way. Put the Galaxy or the iPhone down.
So let’s switch from forever, infinity, the Universe and other subjects of science. I prefer, as many of you might have already guessed, Art and Literature. Some trace the origins of Art to the first human cave painting some 40,000 years ago in Spanish caves, I prefer to think of both Art and Literature sharing a more recent origin, 550 to 450 years ago to be exact. To me, Art was born when Lorenzo Ghiberti, after laboring for 27 years, completed the first significant masterpiece of human endeavor. He went deep. Ghiberti’s masterpiece is known as the Gates of Paradise and was a summation of the noble histories of mankind’s greatest heroes, thinkers and law makers. Ghiberti bended Physics and Chemistry to his own human will, he used his Biology to forge two breathtaking bronze doors that one day opened up to usher in the enlightenment of the European Renaissance and help raise mankind out of the darkness of the Middle Ages.
To me, Literature (and I promise this is the final core subject I will talk about tonight) was invented around 1590 was invented when the son of a glover wrote a play about a mad English King named Henry, the Sixth of his name, who history shows us loved to go to war but who I’m sure hated roses. More on English a bit later.
Now that we have covered the entire story of the universe, existence and most of the core subjects you will go on to study at university, let me spend a few moments speaking about a subject on which I am without a doubt the world’s greatest expert on, dare I say, the greatest expert in the history of the universe; me.
Typically, when I introduce myself, I like to lead with “I’m a Maxillofacial surgeon by training.” It’s something I parroted from one of my dear mentors. The truth is, I love it when most people usually give me a confused look, a few even have the courage to ask, maxillo-what? My usual response is its surgery on the bones of the face. I first fell in love with maxillofacial surgery when one of my professors showed us a case where he basically opened the patient’s face up “like a book.” I will never forget those words, but let me back track for a bit, let me breathe.
Last millennium, when I was about the same age as many of you (no dinosaurs did not roam the Earth back then بس كان في ضبوب بالبر which used to be probably where many of you live now, like جنوب السرة). The year was 1995 and I had received my first truly noteworthy achievement. It’s similar to your National Honors Society, only we being brought up in the British education system called it Speech Day. Even though it was over 20 years ago, I still remember how proud my mother was when I won that year’s Speech Day Award for English. A Kuwaiti winning the award for English. Unheard of. In fact, I don’t think my mother has been any prouder of any of my achievements, maybe when I got the leading role in our school play, but definitely not as proud as when I graduated with honors from college with a Triple Major in Biology, Philosophy and Theology, not when I got accepted into an Ivy League University where I would go on to get both a Masters and a Doctorate. Not even when I met world leaders like Bill Clinton or Tony Blair early on in my career. In fact, when His Highness the Emir selected me to represent Kuwait and present a lecture on The Challenges of Healthcare in Africa to Bill Gates, do you know what my mother said? That’s nice, remember when you one the Speech Day Prize for English back in 1995, now that was special.
Well, the good news is, the next year in 1996, I won the Speech Day Prize for History, the first Kuwaiti to do so as well, but I think that now I have finally figured out why my mother was so proud of that early achievement. I believe there are two reasons. First, it was my first truly notable achievement, but secondly and more importantly, it was the achievement that my own mother had the greatest claim to. She had single handedly molded and shaped that scrawny, scruffy looking, four eyed teenagers into a polished young scholar. Much in the same way your parents today claim the lion’s share of shaping your character as members of the National Honors Society.
يالله…ادعو معاي كلكم: وقل ربي ارحمهما كما ربياني صغيرا
One more time
بسم الله الرحمان الرحيم
وَقَضَىٰ رَبُّكَ أَلَّا تَعْبُدُوا إِلَّا إِيَّاهُ وَبِالْوَالِدَيْنِ إِحْسَانًا ۚ إِمَّا يَبْلُغَنَّ عِندَكَ الْكِبَرَ أَحَدُهُمَا أَوْ كِلَاهُمَا فَلَا تَقُل لَّهُمَا أُفٍّ وَلَا تَنْهَرْهُمَا وَقُل لَّهُمَا قَوْلًا كَرِيمًا (23
وَاخْفِضْ لَهُمَا جَنَاحَ الذُّلِّ مِنَ الرَّحْمَةِ وَقُل رَّبِّ ارْحَمْهُمَا كَمَا رَبَّيَانِي صَغِيرًا (24
For many of you, this is the first step towards achieving great things. But you must, absolutely must, pursue your passion. There are people who will tell you that life is too short, why bother striving? Well, they are right, life is too short, but where they are wrong is that they think because life is short you should have only one passion. One job, one passion, two mutually exclusive goals. Well, you have my permission to look them right in the face, to get up close and personal and tell them: you are wrong. That you are a member of the National Honors Society. Life is too short, so do it all! But do it well. Always seek quality over quantity. Don’t be two dimensional like the other 99.99% of people on this planet. Don’t just be some boring doctor بو صلعه, or just another engineer at the local oil company. Be a sky diving doctor. Be the world’s best pediatric neonatologist that also bungee jumps off a helicopter into an active volcano off the Chilean coast while Snap chatting: Losers focus on winners and winners focus on winning! #YOLO
Now, it’s ok to not know what your goals are at this stage of your life. Growing up during the 1980’s I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I absolutely loathed that question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” I guess that my encyclopedia reading inner nerd just wanted to scream out “I will grow up in the future, who knows what jobs will exist then?” Instead I just mumbled “I dunno.” But, I do remember one day, driving down the fourth ring road on my way to school, passing by the Kuwait University Medical Campus, saying to my dear mother, I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, but I do know that I don’t want to be a doctor. I guess I should have listened to my seven-year-old self a bit more closely a few years later, it would have saved many a Friday night in New York stuck in the library studying pathophysiology.
Now, if you are lucky enough to be hit by that one amazing calling that allows you to pursue your passion then what are you waiting for? Do it. الحركة فيها بركة Don’t be afraid to fail. Wear your failures proudly on your chest as badges of success or simply use your failures as fuel to ignite your inner fire. Fail fast, fail often, because eventually those same mistakes will earn you breaks. And remember this, even Sheikhs make mistakes.
Now if you haven’t found your passion yet, then just live your life to the fullest each day with nobility, virtue and excellence. There is no job too menial, no knowledge is worthless. Excel in every task you do, there is honor is every line of work. #DreamJob
But was becoming a world renowned maxillofacial surgeon my dream job? You see, when I graduated from high school, I still had no idea what I wanted to be, or more importantly, who I wanted to be, but what I did know is that I wanted to go to the USA. As investors say, start with what you know right? Well, my father plainly put it that if I wanted to go to the USA and if I wanted a new car, that I should become a doctor. But that was his dream, not mine. Caught between making my father proud and the anticipation of an American adventure, I sadly caved and started on a fifteen-year path towards becoming a surgeon. Thankfully, I had the sense mid-way through my training, that’s seven and a half years of spending hours rotating through emergency rooms and sleepless nights stuck studying in the basement of the library, I finally took the opportunity to stop and think for a second. I breathed. Actually, it was my mother who reminded me of that day we went driving down the 4th Ring Road one winter break back in Kuwait. I decided to breathe again…and again. I dipped my toes in the water by opting to take a quick break to do a Master’s in Business Administration. I had always been interested in Business, Economics and the more social sciences, plus, my MBA would be focused on the Healthcare industry and would always come in handy if I decided to open up my open hospital one day or maybe even donate my time to become Minister of Health. So I sacrificed my spring break, studied for the GMAT, which is an entrance exam many of you will dread in a few years’ time. Don’t worry, its basic 9th grade English and Math, remember you just have to breathe. I mean, a three-hour exam was nothing compared to the six hour surgeries and eight-hour board examinations I had already taken, but during my MBA, probably for the first time in my twenty something years on this Earth, I actually found time to enjoy life. Studying medicine was one of the most intense experiences I have ever been through, that and starting my first technology company back in 2010. But life, as you will soon all find out, is about more than just your academic or professional achievements. It’s about the journey and who you share it with. Not sharing on WhatsApp or Twitter, sharing the way our species has been sharing adventures for thousands of years. Life is about the choices you make. These choices that shape your character.
Swimming taught me that. Throughout middle school, high school and during my first year of college, I swam competitively, first for my club Qadsia. اوه يالاصفر, and then for our beloved country. Sports taught me that silver sucks and second place is the first loser. Now, winning gold medals and watching the Kuwaiti flag being raised while the national anthem plays is an amazing feeling, but what I remember most vividly, what I truly cherish, are the strong bonds forged with my teammates, the hard training sets that eventually paid off on race day, and that tough choice I made every day to get out of bed at 530am in the morning and plunge into an ice cold swimming pool. Now early on, I would be remised to say that my mother made many of those choices for me, by forcing me to go to swim practice. The same way my father made the choice for me right after high school on where and what I should dedicate my life’s work to. It took seven and a half years, but in 2007, I decided that I had treated my last patient. I chose to sway the course of my career towards the management and finance side of healthcare. I have never looked back since.
My advice to you, as you start making these important choices, make sure you and only you, are completely satisfied. Listen to that seven-year-old self. He or she is sometimes far wiser than you will ever be. Also, respect your elders, but fight back if you have to. Respect your teachers, definitely respect your teachers, they are bestowing on you the most majestic and priceless of gifts — the gift of knowledge, but don’t be afraid to challenge them if you need to بس بالعقل يعني…مو تعايرونهم for arguments sake.
Soon, you will have to make all the choices, not just choices for yourself, but for others as well. Yes, other actual human beings. Whether it’s your own office, department, clinic, classroom, company, or family, you must tap into that fountainhead of personal achievement and carve a collective path towards excellence.
Love to learn. Learn to love learning new skills. Both Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, some of the richest men in the world, spend six to eight hours a day, every day just reading.
But I guess most of our decision makers here in Kuwait prefer the adage:
“I am here to lead not to read”
Remember that nothing you learn in life goes wasted. While I no longer treat patients, I continuously use a lot of both the basic science knowledge and clinical medical training when assessing the latest healthcare technologies to invest in. Technologies that will truly sky rocket our species into a serene singularity free of diseases of the body and the soul. I use my love of history and ancient warfare to negotiate tough deals and make tougher decisions in the board room. I use my love of art and literature to inspire and motivate my 150 employees that depend on the choices I make.
A few more morsels of advice. Don’t just consumer, create. Consume knowledge yes وخففو شوي على الاكل Consume knowledge, but also create it. Create Art if you can. The first words spoken by the Angel Gabriel to our Prophet Peace Be Upon him were: اقرء
‘Read’ is the first word in our Holy Qura’an.
If you can paint, then paint. If you’re passion about music, then play. If you are talented at acting or directing, then inspire. If you are terrible at Art, as I am, although I am quite good at Abstract Stick Figure Art, then write. Just pick up a pen, put it to paper (or pull up a keyboard) and write. There is power in the written word. There is a limitless potential every time you put pen to paper, brush to canvas or notes to rhythm. Your work is the only thing that will truly live forever.
Now one day, when you are all successful and insha Allah you all will be
باذن واحد احد
I ask you to look back on this day fondly, you should always celebrate your success. I want you to remember all that youthful energy, all that promise of future achievement and remember to give a chance to the next generation. Remember to galvanize them. Don’t be one of those corporate dinosaurs that has no other interest in life other than playing a political game of chess and stamping on the dreams of future generations, trust me, we already have way too many of them, especially here in Kuwait. Don’t be a Puppet, but be the Puppet Master and if you think that the future life you live in is a circus, (whipping motion with hand) then be the Ring Master.
Your greatest nemesis in this great hustle we call life is…yourself. You cannot blame your parents; you definitely shouldn’t blame your teachers. You must own the choices that you make. You must believe it to achieve it. You must then have the audacity and the tenacity to never give up on your dream, because I guarantee you that other people, less successful people, less creative people, 99.99% of people will too readily tell you that: it’s impossible, or, you can’t do it because you are too young, because you do not have enough experience, because you’re Arab, or because you’re Kuwaiti اشعرفك انت, or because you are a woman. One final personal story I’d like to share, happened during the fall of that magical year 1999. It was my first day of freedom in the US and back in those days, all Kuwaiti student had to check in with the Cultural Office in Washington D.C. It was crisp and clear autumn day, the streets were covered with fallen leaves, something I had never seen in my life except on TV (and back in those days we had only…three…TV channels, admit it you thought I would say one, but I’m not that old). I met with our cultural attaché, a lovely and accomplished Kuwaiti woman, who spent the majority of our meeting curbing my enthusiasm. She told me not to aim too high, that the Ivy League is not for Arabs and that we as Kuwaiti’s could not compete with the Americans. Well, four years later, after I got accepted to Columbia, I made it a point to seek out that same cultural attaché, who had made me feel so inferior on my first day in the USA. I found out that she was now an executive at the Ministry of Higher Education in Kuwait. I eventually found my way into her office and after sharing a quick update and exchanging pleasantries, you know what I’m talking about:
شلونكم شخباركم شلون الاهل…بخير الله يسلمج
I decided to thank her by saying (with a smile of course): Oh, did I mention that I got accepted into Columbia University, you know, that Ivy League University in New York that was founded in 1754, that graduated 83 noble prize winners اي والله and all thanks to the way you encouraged me on my first day in DC.
So, in parting, and parting can be such sweet sorrow, let me share with you a secret weapon. Speech Day winner to National Honors Society Members. It’s a trick I used to use on those dark nights whenever I would be sacrificing my weekend studying at the library. Remember all those billions of stars I talked about spinning around the Milky Way? Whenever you feel bogged down by life, whenever someone tells you it’s impossible, it has never been done before or when they say ما تقدر…انت عربي او انت كويتي all you have to do is, first breathe, then look up to the sky and remember…that there are over 200 stars, the biggest and brightest stars in our galaxy, that have Arabic names. And that they are shining down on you. Just let their light flow right through you and remember these words: “You are the stars of the future.”
Photo Credit: NASA, ESA, G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch (University of California, Santa Cruz), R. Bouwens (Leiden University), and the HUDF09 Team