“Everything is great, nobody is happy” Louis C.K.(Link)
Do you know that guy in your family that you called when your printer didn’t work or you didn't know which computer to buy? I was that guy. I wasn’t a track star, a great swimmer, or soccer player. I was most comfortable staring at a computer screen. I didn’t like group athletics at all, even though I played soccer to please my father who was a soccer star in his youth. I just didn’t like the pressure that group sports entailed.
My love of computers paid off, literally. When I was a sophomore in college, I managed to get a full -time job in a large investment bank as a coder. Back then, if you knew how to spell HTML, you could land a well paying job.
There was such a demand for anyone that could “code” that you could work unlimited hours at a crazy hourly rate. I went from begging my friends to buy me a junior Cheeseburger Deluxe and Frosty at the Wendy’s in the student center to being able to buy a Cheese Burger Deluxe whenever I wanted.
Looking back, making so much money at such a young age and doing really cool work had its positives and negatives. I went from a being a good student to being a very poor student. I could not cope with the pressures of engineering school and the pressures of a job that I was learning on the fly. This broke my mother’s heart.
So much so that she would yell “I don’t care how much you make and where you work, if you don’t have a degree, you might as well own an ice cream truck!” My parents were immigrants to the U.S. and my father had multiple degrees. To them, education was the difference between a good and bad life. It was binary.
Yet, my mother would insist, “if you don’t finish your degree, I will go to my grave unhappy with you.” This line would be repeated by her for years to come . As with most things, she eventually got her way and I finished my degree years later.
My new career afforded me the ability to get married to my wife, Areeg, when I was 20. I was raised in a religious family and as such, I never dated before getting married. She was the first everything.
In our first counterculture experience as a couple, we didn’t go on a honeymoon. We stayed home and hung out. More than anything, we ate. Actually, we ate. A lot.
We both grew up in New Jersey, the diner and shopping mall capital of the world. We had access to cheese burgers and pancakes 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We also discovered what became our two favorite words: Ben & Jerry.
In less than a year, I gained 70 pounds. I was never "a heavy person. I gained so much weight in such a short period of time that until today, I have stretch marks all over my body as a tattooed reminder of the “diner days”.
I was not really a career minded guy. My idea of business attire would be wearing a baseball cap to work, which when you work for a large corporation just doesn’t fit in. I always fashioned myself as the fictitious character Peter Gibbons from the movie Office Space; basically, I was someone who didn’t care about “the man.” This attitude didn’t help me much as my boss John would tell me “you can’t wear a baseball cap to work; it’s unprofessional.”
I would find myself replying I won’t do it again,” only to find myself wearing the same cap the next day.
My wife and I did what was expected of us; have a baby, mortgage a new house, lease one car, finance the other, and start paying down our student loans. We even had a fish tank and two cats which we affectionately named Oprah and Frodo.
One fateful night, I went to our local Blockbuster (this was before Netflix and internet streaming) and saw a movie called The Motorcycle Diaries. It was the story of a young Che who travelled across South America helping the poor while discovering himself. All I knew at the time of Che was that he was the guy on the t-shirts that cool people wore while sipping five dollar frappacinos in the mall.
After the movie, we were silent. It was the kind of silence experienced after one watches Silence of the Lambs for the first time.
“Is that it?” I asked Areeg.
“Are we done? Do we just grow old and die?” I concluded.
That night, we made a list of all our possessions and debt. It would take us two years to pay everything off, sell our cars, and house. During this time I applied to jobs everywhere. I eventually got two offers, one in Saudi Arabia and one in London. Although the job in Saudi Arabia was far more lucrative, the job in London was aligned to what we were trying to do as a couple. The agent for the company in Saudi Arabia was incredulous when I turned him down, but the expat life in walled compounds throwing dinner parties was not what we were after. My wife wanted to see and visit museums, not attend tea parties. Plus, it didn’t help Saudi Arabia’s chances that my wife was a hardcore Anglophile.
We moved to London and it was terrifying.
Something started that I never experienced before. I started to get this anxiety that would sit right under my chest area and above my stomach. That anxiety was always there, so much so that I named him, “Mahroos,” which meant “trapped” or “guarded” in Arabic.
I felt like the dumb American in the office. My peer ratings, which historically were very high, hit rock bottom during my first year in London. I started feeling miserable and act miserable.
I even started working harder longer hours and sleeping less.
“You need to stop dressing like an American” my boss and later friend Gully once told me. He gave me a list of stores to visit. Stores that sold expensive clothes that were also form fitting. My younger brother could not stop laughing the first time he saw me.
I starting taking on more and more responsibility at work, sleeping less, stressing more. I was not pleasing to be around during that time. It was a vicious cycle.
I was making more money, getting promoted, and yet, was more miserable.
I would get so nervous before routine presentations that I would take beta blockers to keep my heart from racing uncontrollably. No one but Areeg knew of all this suffering. To my friends, colleagues and family, I was living an amazing and adventurous life. I was an embodiment of the quote byThoreau:
“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”
It was during this time that I discovered what would restore balance to my force; endurance athletics.