Friday, 21 July 2017

Choosing Art Over Corporate and Academia

Choosing Art Over Corporate and Academia by Omar Cherif, One Lucky Soul

I left Egypt to Toronto in September 2010 and had absolutely no idea what life would lead me to. After 10 years of exposure, I knew I had no real intention of rejoining the corporate race or the mental, emotional, or psychological toxicity it brought along. But with moving from the Old World to a different continent like North America it seemed that there wasn’t much of a choice. The following piece is about the different roads I had to first explore in order to reach where I am today; all of which have taught me one thing or the other, either about myself or about the world we live in.

The option facing almost all immigrants is to get a “Canadian Experience”, which for me sounded quite silly. Not because of the idea itself, but on a personal level and with the languages I speak and the experiences I have gained by the time I were 32, it didn’t seem right — or fair — to accept about any job just to get “my foot in the door”. If I was 20 or even 26 it might have been different, but honestly I wasn’t that desperate.
 My dream was different one could say.

Yet at the time I was still trying to make it work, searching all over. So I decided to reach out to some of my connections. The two most notable people I wrote were Gamal Aziz, the President & CEO of MGM Hospitality who put me in touch with Ivan Goh, the Senior Vice-President of Four Seasons worldwide for many years who had later moved to MGM. Goh encouragingly ended one of his e-mails with: 

Good luck, immigrating to Canada for a new immigrant like yourself is challenging to get a fresh start but even more so in today’s economy but your luck will change sooner than later. Keep on pounding the pavement to knock on every hotel and you will find something.”

Through them I was kindly connected to the Regional Vice President & General Manager of the Four Seasons Yorkville, Dimitrios Zarikos. Interestingly, as I was searching for his name I came to find out that he is currently the Regional Vice President & General Manager of the Four Seasons Hotel Cairo at Nile Plaza, which is where I was working in 2005-2006. After some time I was set to meet someone for an interview at the Four Seasons Headquarters in Toronto. 

However, even with my VIP connections, that “foot at the door” catch-22 was a must. This meant that instead of the middle management level I had reached in Egypt I needed to take a somewhat lower post just because of the bureaucracy. It didn’t seem right, so I dropped the idea altogether. 

But in actual fact, even though I had an immigration lawyer, I never went on with the process. So paper-wise without a work permit, getting any job in Canada was actually a considerable dilemma. The option of marrying my then-girlfriend was looming on the horizon as it seemed like the smarter option. Nothing ultimately happened and I’m quite grateful for that.

After recanting the hospitality industry alternative, I began searching for myself — my true inner being. This self-realisation led me to writing and photography, which further became my life’s vocation. But then and there I was clueless of the outcome. I was just following that gut instinct and things just took off from there.

Around the same seeking time, I joined the School of Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto for a Creative Writing Certificate, which apart from training (Train The Trainer) at work, was the first time to be back to the class setting since graduating in 1999-2000. I ended up taking two courses, Copywriting and Logic, and befriended both teachers.

As previously shared in From English as a Third Language to Author — How I Expanded My Vocabulary, those two classes were a major boost for my confidence and self-esteem. I had just come out of a seven-year hazy period of self-medication, so mingling again with people in such a setting was quite the invigorating experience.

Choosing Art Over Corporate and Academia by Omar Cherif, One Lucky Soul
At The University of Toronto in 2012

I also did some volunteer work for Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) — once standing in the street in front of major publications to give out handouts, while the other I was some kind of usher/security guard during a film screening. It was a great way to peel off some layers of the ego.

Since I already knew that I love digging and researching and finding truths, Academia then came to mind. Actually, a few people I met there in TO told me that I look like a scholar or professor, which probably cemented the possibility in my mind. A couple of years into writing I was still frequently asked by readers if academic writing is my field.

Besides, higher education was one legit way to legally stay and be able to “work” in Canada.

The reality, though, is that I was still in that phase when I felt the need to belong to an institution in order to show a certain legitimacy and to reach “success”. Who would blame me. After all, I grew up on that. My dad was a General Manager for Sheraton, and I began working for Hyatt then the Four Seasons, thinking that this is the natural evolution of things: The bigger the name, the fancier the job, position, and status. 

You alone are not enough.

As such, after seven years of steadily climbing up the ladder in hotels, I decided to leave it all to join another multinational Real Estate company. Those two years were followed by a last year in another multinational before I came to terms that the matrix is not for me. 

Then, I had to take a leap of faith — in myself — to be able to leave these vapid jobs which were sucking my soul, forcing me to lead that inimical, toxic life. The problem with fakery and inauthenticity is that they always require you to wear some kind of mask, to appease to society, culture, and family. To be honest, I was actually pretty good in pretending to give a fuck about that which I didn’t give a fuck about. Naturally, this self-deception — more colloquially, all this Bullshit — brought countless unhealthy drawbacks.

But what about me? I would ask. What about what I really want? Isn’t this my life after all? I was already approaching my mid-30s, almost “half my life”, and such questions were constantly being replayed in my mind. 

My loved ones at the time humorously called it a second wave of mid-life crisis succeeding the one at 27 when I chose to leave the hotel industry

Choosing Art Over Corporate and Academia by Omar Cherif, One Lucky Soul

Back to the academia option, the first person I thought to consult is a studious cousin of mine who had been a professor in Cambridge, England for almost ten years. She is only few years older, though in actual fact she’s the daughter of my same-generation cousin, Djenane. My dad being the youngest of 10 half-brothers and sisters, that’s how my paternal family goes. So I have been an ‘uncle’ since the day I was born. 

As mentioned, I knew I love knowledge and like to engage with others. I equally knew that I had the means — in terms of language and communication skills as well as presence. I was confident that I was capable of teaching. Finally, I wrote Shima from Toronto, asking her opinion.

The young woman was as truthful as she could be and she eloquently shared the following in our correspondence:

Being able to speak in front of an audience is a bonus, being able to engage them and actually enjoy it yourself is a competitive advantage. So, now in terms of content: I am a firm believer in doing what you love — that’s the only way of being able to do great things. This is particularly important in academia where the line between the personal and the professional are very blurred. Late night and weekend working is the norm and vacations are conferences are sometimes the only time off you’ll get. You live and breath your subject all day, every day. And students have the most incredibly ability to sense if you are not totally passionate about what you do and that gets reflected in the feedback.”

She carried on, “Working with a prof is very much an option. In fact most academics are desperate for help. Try to get paid as that is often possible but a lot of the times, academics have interesting projects that they have no funding for as they are too early stage or too new/novel that regular funding channels won't touch them. And these are usually the most exciting projects actually. Finding yourself a prof and a project that suits your interests as well as your personality could turn out to be your intellectual foundation for many years to come. By that i mean it could develop into a PhD and/or a research and writing relationship that lasts for years. You could apply for fund and get your first research job on the back of this project etc etc etc.

I was grateful for her encouraging input, which gave me a better outlook on the idea. 

I was also totally ready for the blurred line notion. From Confucius to Alan Watts to Mark Twain among other mammoth souls, work and play have been indeed thought to be the same thing under differing conditions. It is all in how we look at it. Are you forced to do it or do you find joy in doing it? This very perspective is la crème de la crème of the crop. 

Fortunately, when I chatted with another academic who happens to be a friend, they asked me if I would be fine with teaching the same subjects over and over again, class after class, year after year?

Hmm. I left corporate because for me it was monotonous; because there is not much novelty or creativity. Would teaching be monotonous as well? Coming from them, I took their question seriously. There was obviously a reason why they asked it. Either they couldn’t see me fit in the academia model, or they were naturally projecting an issue they had been facing. This got me thinking.

Fast-forwarding to seven years later when recently I posted the following engaging question on Facebook: Would you rather have less stuff to do in life or more stuff you actually enjoy doing? I deliberately didn’t use the word ‘work’ since it means differently to everyone. 

Shima was one of those who commented: “I am getting to an age where I want to do more of what I love and almost none of what I don’t. Collectively though, I’d like to do less and have space to sleep and reflect on the things I am doing instead of always doing.”

It seems that at a later stage in life she is now consciously seeking more peace of mind.

Then back again to this time of metamorphosis, the ideology that one needs to belong to and depend on an institution to “adopt and take care of you” was alive and well everywhere around me. Parents, family, friends, most ex-partners, my then-girlfriend and, last and least, her own parents. This is how you make it and become a respectable person. The mantra is summerised as follows: No one can survive alone because you are not enough.

The common shared idea is to be “working” within a certain system that you are not in control of. That is just the old model that is being preserved by the brain’s left hemisphere. You are just a replaceable brick in the wall. Then in your mid-50s or even younger, they have every right to tell you one morning: Thank you for your effort, time to go home. More so in corporate than academia. When through my short life I saw how devastating this feeling of being discarded by that same organisation you gave all your life to is on a few people, I only knew one thing: I never wanted to end up in their shoes. Ever. 

I had already experimented with the corporate world for ten years, while for academe, well, I was aware of quite a few truths.

First, I knew that if I did become a faculty member it means going back to certain “rules and regulations”; to tenure, routine, structures, political correctness, some exhausted ideologies, ego issues, assignments, exams, deadlines, conformity, competition, and certainly some lack of real-world experience. I have spoken with many professors in my life, and as much as I often communicate well with most of them, there is a bit of an overall cluelessness about real life. Once one becomes a specialist in a certain field they tend to forget about all other fields of life. This is not to say that every scholar is lacking experience, but I personally didn’t see this for my future self. This is even worse in corporate. 

Further, even though you can intrinsically love your line of work, but doing the same thing, over and over again, year after year, eventually becomes dull. Routine can be lethal; and it is through change, novelty, adventure, and some uncertainty that us humans remain captivated by keeping the magic alive. This is how we grow through life.

I equally knew that such scholastic life has the potential of isolating me from experimentalism. Being constricted in such a way — again — was not an option. All the patterns throughout that decade were enough to show me that I was through. I knew I needed more freedom as I knew I have had enough of systems in general. From now on, I shall do what I want. 

Choosing Art Over Corporate and Academia by Omar Cherif, One Lucky Soul
“Rats” by Steve Cutts

On a parallel note, when you come to think about it, people who haven’t had enough life experience tend to compensate by hiding in books. Those book-smarts can be intelligent and educated, but the intellect is not enough to lead a full, happy life, at least how I envision it.

Conversely, having experience — being street-smart — gives you situational awareness; the wisdom and the needed skills to survive in the real world, rather than following more abstract knowledge which is largely based on the experiences of others.

Sometimes, though, one kind of ‘intelligence’ can induce the other and a certain balance is manifested. Being “world-smart” as well as “word-smart” would then lead to astounding achievements.  

Generally speaking, another thing to consider when pondering the topic of today’s education is that education does not equal intelligence. Repeating what we are told to repeat and being tested on it is not the best way to learn. As I came to reckon, nothing worth knowing can be taught. Or as Isaac Asimov expressed, “Self-education is the only kind of education there is”. Indeed, how can we love learning if someone is telling us what to learn? We can’t. How can we see beauty in growing through learning if we are forced to? We don’t. 

If you take notice, taught material rarely ever stays in our minds and almost always evaporates after exam time. And that’s a major flaw in today’s education system; most of what the youth are taught is not designed to be useful or practical for the rest of their lives. What to think is more important than how to do it when the very opposite should be true. 

This kind of enforced learning is limiting as it is disempowering, because you only get to learn what you have been taught. Just repeated, recycled information which someone thought is a good idea that you — a student — should memorise. But there is so much more to learning and it should be fun before anything. Echoing with a quote by Ludwig von Mises that serves as a reminder of why education should not be confused with intelligence: “Many who are self-taught far excel the doctors, masters, and bachelors of the most renowned universities.”

All that said, eventually I chose uncertainty with a chance of happiness over certainty with guaranteed unhappiness. I chose non-affiliation. I embraced arts in all its forms and become my own independent researcher. I write about whatever engages me without having to worry about guidelines or political correctness or some patriarchal institution. Thank you very much. I can keep learning and develop my intellect all by myself. Also, most knowledge is now free on the Internet. 

Speaking of affiliation, a publisher who actually paid me for two well-researched pieces told me once: “You write for an intelligent audience. This is not what the masses want. The goal is to create fear. “WOW WE’RE FUCKED!” (using better words). The doom and gloom. End of the world. Make them feel that.

They also wrote: “This may sound counter intuitive, but we need to make this mid level or low. We’re not looking for readers who want to learn anything, we want the same people that visit tabloid magazine sites. 

Reduce the research, reduce the references (it’s not even necessary), just make the article sound and have the affect I’m looking for. Here you have to SOUND like you know what you’re talking about inside out. This is different from actually knowing what you’re talking about inside out. Just sound like it. Sound like a professor teaching a bunch of students. 

A different time they said: Try to write on topics people love to read about. Hollywood gossip and music videos are excellent places to start.” Uhm... say what?

 Wrong address, man. I will not sell my credibility for some dollars. I never will and that is to stay.  

Another publisher wanted me to use clickbait titles for my pieces. Stuff like “12 Ways Your Mind Lies to You.” or “How to Reclaim Your Anxious Mind Through These 8 Tips.” I obviously refused, because it felt I am addressing school children. After a period of introspection I finally had to sent them the following:

Educating the readers and letting them connect the dots about themselves and their lives is not useless. This is what psychology is all about; it teaches you about yourself and about others, which empowers you because you come to KNOW yourself.

I wanted to share my views with you earlier when you had mentioned the titles some time ago. The link you sent me was full of clickbait titles which do not suit what I usually write about. In fact, they are too mainstream, too sensational. If you read left and right on the Internet, you
ll find that a large portion of these articles are reworded, re-edited, and paraphrased from earlier articles found on different publications; many of which are New-agey/Astrology, ‘Spirit Science’ kind of stuff.

Perhaps because my writing often entails psychology, philosophy, and research, there is a certain level of intellectual endeavour which I cannot seem to be able to go beneath.”

Ultimately, I stopped contributing to both publications. Now I freely write whatever I please in my own One Lucky Soul. Actually, now other publications often share my writings from there, usually with my approval. I’m not getting much payment though, because I’m not trying to please someone else. But I am certainly free and happy and I know that this way I’m doing my true will.

Once again, just like what I previously wrote doesn’t concern all scholars, this also does not concern all publishers. Only that this had been my own experience with those I have dealt with. 

Choosing Art Over Corporate and Academia by Omar Cherif, One Lucky Soul
“Matrix” by Zackary

The final nail in the coffin during those fateful times of change came in the most unlikely way: Spending 5-6 nights at the Don Jail in Toronto for an alleged DUI.

My then girlfriend was out of town and I was all alone in Canada yet her parents chose to not bail me out, despite sharing a family. So they knew my parents well and were aware that I left all the comfort and abundance I had in Egypt in hope of a newer life with their daughter, which they themselves had previously encouraged. But then as soon as something so casual happened, they just sold me out and forbade the girl to see me. The heartless father even waited till after the weekend to go to court and watch me on video from an adjacent room while the judge was explaining what I should be doing.

“He doesn’t look remorseful,” that smarmy man later told his daughter. Perhaps he expected to see me cry my eyes out and beg the judge... just because I was driving with half a drink above the legal in me blood. 

After six full days of incarceration in a real jail such a The Don, my ex-brother in law had to fly all the way from New York just to come pay my bail.

Note that, out of decency, I had previously chosen not to mention my ex’s parents and what they did — writing that they were also out of town which is nothing but a flat lie. So this is the first time I publicly come clean with the full story which, minus that specific part, can be found on here: Banged Up Abroad — My Few Days @ The Don Jail.

Gratefully, however, the experience ended up being an enlightening turning point in my life. For it reminded of more things I did not want. It also convinced me even more that I should pursue art as a vocation while at the same time teaching me a whole lot about myself, human nature, and how people can be infected with fear. After all, we do learn by means of opposites.

Now, to hold such a seemingly radical life view against all the surrounding mainstream, you cannot help but feel slightly alienated. The feeling of being different is certainly challenging and not always easy to deal with. Because you don’t feel you belong to the same reality tunnel as the majority, leading you to withdraw from that frivolous race they are so embroiled in. Using Robert Anton Wilson words in Promethius Rising, “In our terminology, they are mechanically hooked to their original imprints.

More questions invaded my transfigured mind: Is it me or them? Am I the loony one who sees the absurdity and uselessness of wasting your life away, doing things you don’t have passion for, or everyone else is? 

Then came the sobering realisation that in today’s world, any conscious, aware lifestyle change to that which isn’t related to the production-consumption culture, which is largely built upon the notions of acquisitiveness and possessiveness, will always be followed by a hullabaloo.

Nevertheless, when down deep inside you know what is best for you, you come to gain the needed courage that empowers you to keep going against the current and disregard the hullabaloo. Knowing that you’re not the only one to do so is an inspiration as it is a relief.

Another realisation to come along was that everyone creates their own reality. When you delve deeper into the inner reaches of such statement you will find how utterly true it is. Whether from the point of view of physics, biology, neuroscience, metaphysics, spiritually, in addition to philosophy of course, it will blow your mind away — almost literally.

After going through everything else, the very last challenge to overcome was how to make it work logistically. If I don’t work for some institution or the other, I won’t be getting a monthly pay check. Then again, that pay check is another addiction, at least for the majority of people.

Besides, many of my previous pay checks were fully spent on getting high, yet I did survive. So without the highs, I ought to survive as well, no? Even better than just survive. If I was getting promoted and life was still flowing when I was wearing a mask, then without the mask and with much more health and truthfulness, life should flow even better. That was my own inner mantra when I took the final step of choosing independence and getting into the Arts. And Life has been getting
notoriously better ever since.

A friend and I were recently having a related chit-chat when she said that she needs $4000 a month to be able to live in L.A where I ended up after Egypt and Canada.

I told her that does not NEED that much, she just conditioned herself that she does. “Do you want to know how much I spend?” I asked. 

But you simplified your life,” she responded defensively. 

Yes I did, which means anyone can if they really want to.”

This simplification catalised enough freedom needed to research and write about any topic I wish without having to wait for funding or for approval from an editor or publisher. It may not be the easiest way, but we’re not here to lead an easy existence — for that is a waste of life and potential. Rather, we’re here to lead a life that is worthwhile; one that is full of purpose, meaning, and growth.

Another mantra that developed later is: Screw your social ladder; I choose to levitate.

In summation, part of the experience of growing up and facing the real world I happened to go through corporate employment, drug addiction, relocating several times, and yes, jail, before finding my true calling. By then, I was being slowly but surely introduced to more things — and people — I did not want in this life. Until I followed my heart and found my Meraki, those were all significant steps towards what my soul is inherently yearning for. And as you can see, that’s precisely what transpired.

Dear ones, by looking back at this eventful dérive I’d like to suggest not to be in a hurry to try to uncover all the answers. Instead, cherish the different possibilities and probabilities. When the time comes, and when you are ready, what you need to know will reveal itself to you... one after the other. Just flow with the natural, cosmic order of things with clear intents and everything shall be adjusted.

Lastly, whatever is to come, or not come, will always be a mystery. Do not worry or obsess about the future. The past is already gone and the future will always be “the future”. For what will be will be. The Here and Now is all that matters.

Be true to your inner self. Do what you love. And believe you can inspire others as you share it. The universe will somehow deal with the rest.

Choosing Art Over Corporate and Academia by Omar Cherif, One Lucky Soul
Artification Happy Nation on Abbot Kinney by #sart9


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