Sometimes our best decisions start out as our worst. In June 2021, I went on a road trip with a dear friend from college (this was not the bad decision lol). The wave of Covid had finally begun to recede, and it was the first significant travel I had undertaken since the onset of the pandemic. It was magical. Walking down the boardwalk in Ocean City, MD, and eating Chesapeake spiced rock crab on the roof of our hotel, I was reminded how much I had missed the hurly-burly of humanity during our shared 15-month hibernation.
One of the stops along our way was the beautiful home of another Harvard classmate. We convened an impromptu summit of friends from college and beyond, many of whom I had not seen IRL (in real life for the square among you) since my wedding reception in 2005. In the ensuing 15 years, each of us had struck out on our own and forged fascinating, but wildly different paths. One thing that I suppose should have come as no surprise is that just about all had done a considerably better job padding their pockets than I, as an Islamic school teacher and administrator, had managed.
My friends’ financial success came with trade-offs, of course. Many of them had spent a good chunk of their late 20s and early 30s up in the air commuting between exotic hubs like Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, and New York City. 60-to-80-hour grueling workweeks during those early to mid-career years were not uncommon. Several had delayed marriage or at least having children because of the rigors of their jobs. In fact, many remained so busy even now that the thought of my leisurely 10-day road trip engendered some envy. Overall, I sensed that I had stumbled into a lifestyle, with its ample time for long walks, tennis, and family summers on the Maine coast, that many of them were now seeking.
That said, during the time with my high-flying peers, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had neglected too many opportunities and paydays that my Ivy League education and incredible network were almost designed to open up. The niggling doubts I have always had about my career choices began their familiar whisperings. And I realized I wanted to catch up. Fast.
I called up another friend for advice who had been killing it in Silicon Valley. He pitched a sharia-compliant crypto hedge fund that had gone up 400% over the past year. I did some cursory due diligence, which largely consisted of ignoring the caution of my more sober advisors, and decided to swing for the fences, making a significant investment in a new market whose contours I only vaguely understood.
Initial returns were quite impressive. Within three months, my investment was up 125%. My plan of withdrawing my initial capital after the one-year lockup and then playing with house money was going swimmingly. But then, of course, things began to go south. Quickly. I went into this venture knowing that it was extremely risky and that I should only proceed if I were willing to let my investment go to zero. Deep down, however, I saw this as only a remote possibility because I believed, and continue to believe, that blockchain technology will revolutionize the financial services industry within the next ten years. Nevertheless, I also understood that this era in the crypto world is akin to the early stages of the internet, and I knew that I may have invested in Netscape and missed out on Google.
As of this writing, my investment is down more than 50%. The collapse of FTX is not just a news story for me; it hit me hard in the bottom line. But you know what? I am totally fine with that. Action always trumps inaction, even when it fails. The potential loss of a significant investment (I still harbor hopes of an asymmetric rebound) did not devastate me. Instead, it spurred in me the desire to use my God-given intelligence and talent to make it all back and then some. It helped me learn an important lesson about minimizing downside risk and being wary of get-rich-quick schemes. But I have no doubt that this painful education will serve me well in the years to come. One of my father’s most consistent pieces of advice was that I must learn to “meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same.” Here was a chance to live up to this ideal.
In recently teaching If, the Rudyard Kipling poem from which this advice is drawn, I came across a stanza even more apropos to my crypto adventure:
“If you can make one heap of all your winnings/and risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss/And lose, and start at your beginnings/and never breathe a word about your loss.”
Although I guess I am technically violating Kipling’s final provision by writing this essay, and while the jury is still out on whether the brave new world of crypto and NFTs are a modern-day Dutch tulip craze or the start of a transformational new paradigm, I am so grateful that I finally overcame the fear barrier and put some skin in the game. But I have also come to understand that, no matter where I go from here, I must never abandon the deliberate choices I have made to put my values and faith above fleeting worldly gains. These beliefs will always remain my real qibla or true north.
At the end of Kipling’s masterpiece, he appends a coda that I hope I am on my way to living up to. If you can acquire all of the qualities enumerated in the twelve consecutive if clauses, Kipling explains, “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it/And—which is more—you’ll be a man, my son.”