Sheikha Mayassa Al Thani is the Art World’s most powerful woman, who at 34 years old oversees the Qatar Museums Authority. Founded by her father, Sheikh Hamad Al Thani, QMA was established in 2005 to connect the world to Doha and Doha to the world, all a part of transforming Qatar from a oil and gas economy to a knowledge economy. Since returning from post-grad studies at Columbia University, Sheikha Mayassa’s job is to turn the QMA into a “cultural instigator, a catalyst of arts projects worldwide.”
I visited the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha a few weeks ago where I shot this photo. The building itself, designed by architect I.M. Pei, is a work of art influenced by ancient Islamic architecture. It houses Islamic art created over the last 1,400 years across three continents, many pieces collected over the past 50 years by the Qatari Royal Family. It is considered to be one of the best museums in the world, and I agree, making it a point to visit whenever I have a long layover in Qatar. Sheikha Mayassa works on the top floor, and according to an Economist article on her, “she wears hardly any jewellery other than a childlike bracelet made of coloured thread with a single gold charm, a tiny Arabic coffeepot or dallah. It retails for $82 in the museum shop.”
“All men are tempted. There is no man that lives that can’t be broken down, provided it is the right temptation, put in the right spot.” – Henry Ward Beecher
Low-income migrant workers from South Asia and East Asia help turn Arabian Gulf States with the largest oil and gas reserves in the world into paradises full of architectural marvels, world-class airlines, and playgrounds for the rich.
Take construction workers, for example. They go through a long and expensive recruitment process, paying recruiters nearly USD3000 to secure a job. This needs to be paid back in full before they can save money for their ageing parents or kids who need money for school. The new employers keep their passports for “safekeeping”, which the new employees cannot protest.
They live in hostels (located far away from the slick skylines) with several bunks per room and a handful of toilets to be shared with hundreds of others. Early in the morning they are shuttled by bus from the hostels to construction sites. They are promised 8-hour days and USD300 a month, but instead working 12-hour days in 50-degree heat and being paid USD150 a month. But they can’t just quit and leave, because they need to pay back the USD3000 debt. Oh, and they can’t switch employers without their current employer’s permission.
Let’s say they’re brave enough to go to their local embassy for protection. The embassy would encourage them to negotiate with the employer and will not provide legal support in employer-employee disputes. Employers often retaliate to complaints by reporting them to the authorities as absconders running away. They’re then considered “illegal” and can be detained indefinitely before they’re deported. If detained, they’ll have to wait until an embassy intervenes, or somehow work irregularly until they can pay off their debts, expired visa fees, and flight tickets back home.
This is the Kafala system, which puts an obscene amount of control in employers’ hands, turning basic human rights into a lottery, the prize being a good ‘Kafeel’ or employer. Some countries, including Qatar where this picture was taken, have claimed to abolish or reform the Kafala, but the system’s most critical issues still remain.
I spent most of my childhood in Saudi Arabia, where I lived in a few beautifully maintained gated communities known as compounds. I didn’t realise until much later that my family, my friends and their families, and anyone else who wasn’t Saudi lived there under the Kafala System. But we were lucky, because we were ‘expats’. Kafala’s most degrading features apply to ‘migrant workers’ – the construction workers, gardeners, drivers, housemaids, and customer service employees at restaurants and theme parks and hotels and shops – who made our tax-free lives so luxurious and enviable.
Check out www.migrant-rights.org to find out if you can overcome the common problems faced by migrants through their interactive infographic journey.
The Paradise Papers have been flooding news cycles around the world, but I don’t think many of us really get why.
Bono uses them to funnel his wealth into investments in shopping malls while fighting for human rights and ending poverty. Lewis Hamilton uses them to save millions in import taxes on his private jet. And then you have war criminals and corrupt politicians using them. Republics and Democrats in the US have been linked to sending their money to tax havens. The companies that help set up and manage offshore activity do not discriminate between a war criminal, corrupt public official, trust fund kid or celebrity. It’s all so incredibly opaque that the only time we get a glimpse of all of this is when a whistleblower leaks information to investigative journalists.
Why is this important, besides being juicy reading?
“Assuming conservatively that global offshore financial wealth of $21 trillion earns a total return of just 3 percent a year, and would have faced an average marginal tax rate of 30 percent in the home country, the unrecorded wealth might have generated tax revenues of $189 billion per year – more than twice the $86 billion that OECD countries as a whole are now spending on all overseas development assistance.” – TIME
That’s $189 billion that could have been used to improve schools and healthcare and jobs, help reduce taxes on the people who really do need the tax cuts, and send some of this money towards research and development to tackle climate change or superbugs.
It might seem like the ultra-wealthy live by a completely different set of rules than the rest of us. They do. But by having organisations like the ICIJ and journalists like Frederik Obermaier work with the material brave whistleblowers send them (risking their lives along the way), we can become aware of these rules and use our votes and voices to pressure governments to make changes. Big changes (such as the Pakistani PM resigning thanks to the revelations that came out of the Panama Papers last year).
I can’t believe it, but the day has finally arrived after 9 months of planning, researching, flying, recording, producing, and editing!
‘A Life Less Ordinary’ is the podcast about Asia’s extraordinary individuals. If you listen to TED Talks, Tim Ferriss, This American Life, How I Built This, or even RuPaul’s podcast, I think you’ll really enjoy this one!
My co-host Tanya Warnakulasuriya and I went to Sri Lanka to record the first nine episodes of the podcast in June, and for the next couple of months you’ll get to hear our conversations with some of the most interesting and adventurous souls on the island. We talk about climbing Everest, living with HIV, writing novels, building companies, challenging the patriarchy, and so much more…
I finally arrived in Beirut on January 13th, 2017. I’d been dying to explore ‘the Paris of the Middle East’ for years. Lebanon did not disappoint. I made incredible friends doing inspiring things with their lives, from journalism to wine bars. I discovered Lebanese cuisine, which I thought I knew about all my life but clearly didn’t (imagine Indian food in India versus Indian food in the food court). I left with new perspectives on war, conflict, and hope after talking to people deeply affected by Syria. And it was the 22nd country I’d been to in three years.
Leaving a successful career in Sydney three years ago and putting a great deal of effort creating a location-independent lifestyle, I now work on projects I love, sans office. I vagabond around the world while building skills, relationships, and work experience. The diversity of my projects – producing Instagram content for airlines, directing social media for reality TV shows, crafting communications strategies for tropical getaways – is matched only by the diversity of my workspaces– a cafe in Singapore, a wooden cabin in a remote Ecuadorian village, a balcony in New Delhi, a New York-bound Qatar Airways cabin.
So please don’t judge (not just yet) when I say: my status quo needs disruption. I want the next three years to be way more adventurous, bold, and creative than the last three. This doesn’t (necessarily) mean that I want to climb the world’s tallest construction sites or move into the Amazon rainforest, but I do want push my mind out into previously unimaginable places. To do so requires going right back to square one and becoming a beginner again.
Working in the advertising universe for three years, my status quo slowly crept in as a subtle complacency, and eventually the money become a safety net that took precedence over new creative ventures. If I kept my job, I’d use it as an excuse not to expand my horizons. And so Beirut evolved into a space to explore my innermost needs. Did I want to venture out, yet again, into uncharted territory? Did I want to start from scratch again and make a fool of myself? The questions scared me. And thrilled me. By the end of my visit, the answers were a resounding ‘yes, yes, and yes’. The brave young people I met, chasing their dreams in a region all too familiar with life-threatening conflict, certainly inspired me. And so February marks the first month away from advertising and the first month dedicated to writing.
Now, the reason why I say I’d like to disrupt my status quo is because everyone experiences a unique state of affairs that they’ve become just too comfortable with. A lot of people hate their desk jobs (or don’t quite love them). But not everyone’s status quo is the oversimplified corporate ‘9 to 5’ way of life. And the status quo isn’t just work related. It’s about personal growth in all areas of life. It might be your health. Your sense of adventure. Your relationships. It might even be your sex life. Most importantly, it’s about your state of mind.
What’s your status quo? Take a moment, a few moments, or a few months to define it. Seriously. It’s worth thinking about and then making a commitment to disrupt it. Pretty incredible things can happen with reflection and inspired action.
Once you shatter your status quo by doing things differently, you’ll eventually notice things getting a bit too comfortable again. For some people it’ll take years, for others much less. But once you get there, you’ll know its time for reflection and disruption once more. In fact, you’ll probably notice that personal evolution is complex, messy, non-linear, and ongoing. It never stops. And that’s beautiful. Embrace the beginner mind. As Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki says, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
Here is a small selection of books, podcasts, documentaries and other resources that informed and guided me deeply over the past few years, helping me define and disrupt my status quo:
I had just one dream to accompany my suitcase as I left my hometown, Sydney, for London in August 2010. As a 21 year-old aspiring songwriter and producer fresh out of university, I intended to make London my new home and writing hits for Beyoncé and Beyoncé-tier artists my new career. Standing by for Beyoncé’s team to pick up one of my demo songs, I took up a part-time sales job at a West London Apple Store that October, covering my costs in the world’s most expensive city. Three years later after graduating from the Apple Store Leader Program in Sydney in late 2013, I left Apple to begin a new entrepreneurial adventure that would take me to Sri Lanka, Singapore, India, Philippines, Malaysia, and Europe.
Looking back and connecting the dots, I realise that the education I received at Apple was priceless compared to a business degree or to anything that Beyonce could have ever given me. My classroom – the shop floors of some of the busiest Apple Stores in the world – allowed me to learn important life skills and even more about my values, strengths, and opportunities. My brief career at Apple, along with the Apple-alumni friends and mentors I met from all over the world, enabled me to become a better person, ignited my passion for learning, and expanded my songwriting dreams into entrepreneurial dreams.
I’d like to share a few of the most important lessons I picked up during my chapter at Apple.
1. Be Yourself. Being Someone Else Sucks.
At Apple, I didn’t have to play a role. I could be myself! I learned that though there are different ways of presenting myself depending on the situation or audience, the core of who I am shines through every meaningful interaction I have with others. On the other hand, whenever I lack authenticity, conversations become littered with awkward moments, tension, and fizzle out into nothingness.
How did I become more of myself? I channeled my authenticity by:
Reflecting on my core values, past, and life dreams
Being fully present within myself and noticing when moods or behaviours change
Recognising strengths and weaknesses
Asking for feedback on an ultra-regular basis to build into self-development
As a side effect of being myself, I became more open-minded, compassionate, and able to put myself in others’ shoes. This became especially important in an environment as diverse as an Apple Store filled with people from many different walks of life.
2. Know Your Why, Then Start With Why.
Shortly after joining Apple, the now-famous TED Talk by Simon Sinek was the first recommendation a manager gave me after seeking his opinion about applying for the Apple Store Leader Program. Watching it changed my life, because for ten years I thought the only way I would find fulfilment in life is by writing Grammy-award winning music. I was starting with what when I should have been starting with why.
Intrigued by the idea that why is more important than what, I took the time to dissect my pop dreams. What was deeper than the outcome I was seeking? I reflected on my childhood, and a flood of memories washed over me. As a 10-year-old growing up in Saudi Arabia, I published a tabloid newspaper using my pet cats, dogs, and ducks as the stars of its gossip columns. For years my little sister was my muse and singer for entire albums I would write and produce on my computer. I would direct album cover photoshoots using our floppy disk digital camera, edit the liner notes on Microsoft Publisher ’98, and manufacture the album using our cool new HP Inkjet Printer and CD-RW burner. I also loved to paint, cook, write short stories, and build model airplanes. Suddenly it hit me – I didn’t want to be a songwriter or producer. I wanted to be a creator.
I could now articulate my passions clearly – I love creating something out of nothing. I love bringing ideas to life. I love inspiring a team of people to help make it happen. After this realisation, my job at Apple became so much more meaningful and fulfilling. I wasn’t just selling great products. I was the creative director of amazing customer experiences on the shop floor for eight hours a day. At home, cooking a delicious sake infused salmon dish for my friends became as fulfilling as writing a song! And today, the excitement of traveling to a new city where I can take Instagram photos that elicit emotion and inspire wanderlust is more exciting than the prospect of winning a Grammy.
Having discovered my why, I now enjoy and revel in each non-songwriting, non-Beyoncé project and experience, and I communicate my ideas with more passion, energy, and excitement than ever before.
3. Think Macro and Micro.
Observing my environment with macroscopic vision and microscopic detail was a crucial part of my training at Apple. On one of my shifts in Sydney, after getting my team energised for the eight hours ahead, reviewing our store goals for the day, and ensuring the look and feel of the store met our high visual standards, our most senior store leader walked into the building. She noticed only one thing – my outdated lanyard, which was due for replacement that morning because of a subtle design update. It didn’t matter that the rest of the entire store was ready for a great day ahead of us.
Tiny details like this that others might have seen as minor really mattered to us. A demo iPhone that hasn’t been reset to give that new-phone feel, customers waiting too long at a neglected part of the shop floor, an employee who has lost his motivation to create great customer interactions over several weeks – these are details that could easily be overlooked for the bigger picture. But at Apple, these details are what make up the big picture.
4. Become Comfortable with Uncomfortable
In order to thrive at Apple and beyond, I had to become very comfortable with being uncomfortable. The kind of discomfort that precedes virtually all life lessons and opportunities for growth can as subtle as butterflies in the stomach or as incapacitating as gut-wrenching nausea. I became familiar with a broad spectrum of uncomfortable situations – looking for specific constructive feedback from coworkers on a weekly basis, having difficult conversations with difficult customers, completing challenging projects and milestones every few weeks as part of the leadership program, and eventually choosing to leave Apple at the peak of my performance there. What I learned is that, if a goal or dream feels uncomfortable, it’s all the more important to pursue it.
Checking my ego at the door was crucial to finding comfort in discomfort. With my ego looming over me, each failure, rejection, or overwhelming frustration in the learning process would have chipped away at my spirit. An important part of growth is the willingness to look like a total idiot for the sake of learning and trying. With an ego, it becomes impossible to lean into the discomfort.
5. Find Courage
The last and most valuable lesson I learnt from Apple was a culmination of the previous four lessons. I received no no formal training in “courage”, but my learning came from the daily experiences, conversations, and mentors that pushed me to dream big, reflect on my self-development, and follow my gut on major life decisions.
The practice of making daily courageous decisions for three years eventually instilled in me enough courage to leave Apple. The company I was so in love with for its culture, values, and purpose, would be my last major employer (for now at least). With my newfound courage, I started my first company in Sri Lanka with no capital, business experience, or connections. My decision opened the door to new experiences, an abundance of new life lessons, and inspiring people to enrich my life. But had it not been for my journey at Apple, none of this would have been possible.
I could easily give dozens more lessons I learnt from Apple, but these five made the most profound impact on my professional and personal life.
Are you a former Apple employee? Share in the comments section below the biggest lessons you learned working at the company.
My Grandmother’s children scattered her ashes from a boat on Kalutara River in #SriLanka yesterday afternoon. The grand Kalutara Temple Stupa sits in the background.
My grandmother Seela De Silva had so many wonderful dimensions but to me she was a rebel, adventurer, feminist, and artist. She was one of the only female car drivers in her town when my dad and his siblings were young kids, was the first in our family and her entire village to fly abroad in 1960 on a Boeing 747 to Canada on a scholarship to study nursing, could freestyle beautiful Sinhala poetry, “kavi”, and never wore makeup because she was comfortable and confident in her own natural beauty. She raised 5 kids while building and running orphanages, hospitals, homes for crippled children and nursing schools all over Sri Lanka.
My personal favourite story of hers? She was kicked out of school as an early teen for making political speeches. Her dad was not upset, and she asked to move to an English-medium school instead. That changed the trajectory of the next two generations of our family, now scattered across 4 continents consisting of lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs, artists and CEOs.
Her ultimate dream was world peace, and today I’ve got cousins who are Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim. She taught us to be humble, love unconditionally, to question the status quo, and develop our spiritual side.