Day 27: The Magic of Thinking Big

Unwittingly and with no forethought, I have positioned myself to use all the knowledge and wisdom from my years in the trenches to advise the top of society from below. I used to tell people that I had solved the big picture but had forgotten to sweat the small stuff. Finding Islam at the age of 15 meant that I had a worldview that extended to eternity. I had discovered my purpose in life—to worship and glorify my Creator—but I forgot to read the fine print that said you had to figure out this world to achieve eternal felicity in the next.

I had a near mystical conviction that if I just focused on developing my faith, then Allah would open doors for me as He saw fit. When recruiters from Fortune 500 companies descended on the senior class at Harvard like carrion feeders, I stayed far away, sure that a career in corporate America would erode my faith. When my peers were heading off to Wall Street and towards lucrative consulting gigs, I was packing my sleeping bag for a four-month spiritual retreat in Pakistan and India. Upon returning, many of those doors that I had shut before they were open had now become locked.

After a brief flirtation with Islamic finance (Day 17), I stumbled into a career in education with little planning and no cohesive long-term vision. Eventually, I lit upon the dream of founding a top-flight Muslim boarding school that would combine best practices of the private schools of my youth with the classical pedagogy of the Islamic tradition. For many years I kept this idea percolating on the back burner, convinced that things would just develop on their own when the time was right. Way led on to way, and eventually I carved out a great life for myself as Assistant Head of New England’s first full-time Islamic high school. My lifestyle was low stress and high impact. I had plenty of time for long walks and tennis. Best of all, I was able to spend the entire summer with my family by the ocean in achingly beautiful Blue Hill, Maine.

As I crested the age of 40, however, I began to question my life decisions. The pandemic exposed me to the work-from-home lifestyle and the magical classroom management tool of the mute button. I suddenly had even more freedom and realized how much I had come to bristle at the frustrating extras of a teacher’s life like re-directing aberrant student behavior and covering for absent colleagues. I longed for the lockdown days when I was more-or-less in control of my own schedule and when I would get in half of my 20,000 steps (Day 2) before the school day had even begun.

But other, darker thoughts that I had long suppressed began to creep in during that year of isolation. Was I a case study in wasted potential? Had I squandered my most productive years toiling in the trenches of an underfunded institution allergic to strategic thinking? The answer I came up with was my old standby: yes and no. By virtue of my pedigree, academic and otherwise, I was well positioned to adopt a top-down model of impacting society from above. But I had always stuck to my guns and focused on developing myself and young Muslims to transform the world from the bottom up. Was there a way to do both? Could it be possible to collate all the wisdom from my years in the trees to push through changes that could reshape the forest? Increasingly, I began to realize, the answer was yes.

For so long I have undervalued the incredible life Allah has bestowed on me. I have internalized false narratives like “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” I have let my low salary lower my self-worth. I have been stingy with sharing my story with the world. I have neglected some of my greatest strengths like writing and public speaking. But most of all, I have not used my unique position at the nexus of Muslim and western culture to help both these groups see the beauty in the other.  

Last year, I read a book called the Magic of Thinking Big that made me realize how limited the scope of my thinking has been. It shifted something in me, and my mind is alive with optimism and possibilities. Perhaps I was right all along to patiently wait for that door to open. All I needed to do was develop the courage to walk inside.

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