As published on Fast Company's Executive Board, which is a private, membership-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.
“Getting bombed builds character,” someone once told me. They weren’t wrong—but there are certainly easier ways to go about it. Having spent several years of my life as a civilian across two warzones, I can testify that the realization that other humans are very actively trying to kill you awakens some unique perspectives and skills in an individual, some of which have proven extremely useful in building a company.
LIFE GOES ON
My early childhood coincided with the Lebanese War, in which destruction was a daily occurrence. In Beirut, civilization was decimated. Nearly one million people were displaced from their homes, and families struggled to meet basic needs such as access to clean water and shelter. There were days of seemingly endless volatility and violence, punctuated by brief reprieves—small implausible moments of near-normalcy and indescribable human intimacy.
Yet, even in those extreme environments, life goes on. People adjust—even to active bombing—and still go about their daily lives with some semblance of normalcy. Living with the ultimate uncertainty—the question of whether or not my loved ones or I would be alive at the end of that day—helped me develop a certain comfort with the unknown.
Businesses, too, present many uncertainties, and being comfortable in that mindset has proven to be a powerful tool.
WILL IT INTO EXISTENCE
As an adult, I went to Afghanistan to work as a civil engineer helping rebuild the country. In Kabul, I managed 114 people in one of the world’s most challenging environments. We repaired Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) damage to the airport and rebuilt other critical infrastructure. We created the country’s first factory and market for modern building materials, and we did so with limited access to supplies.
I witnessed firsthand the instigation of war by those in power, and how the will of one person can often bend the will of those surrounding them. Managing 114 people in a war zone, many of whom had combat experience, taught me that management sometimes means “over-willing” those around you to do what you believe is right. Leaders are faced with many dilemmas and uncomfortable realities, but you need to will what you believe into existence.
IT COULD BE WORSE
Waking up in the middle of the night because someone fired an RPG at the city, or an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) went off, or because machine guns are firing does not work wonders for your sleep cycle. Inadequate electricity and sewer services, questionable food sources, and a lack of medical infrastructure all add a layer of nuisance to the daily business of being alive.
Yet, some of the most inspiring moments of my life arose from interactions with those who had lost literally everything. I remember seeing a man who had lost three of his limbs many years ago, sitting in the middle of a crossroad. As he looked me in the eyes, he smiled.
The audacity of the human spirit is incredible and breathtakingly humbling.
Many people have felt at some point what you are currently feeling. Every person who has ever built anything of substance has run their own gauntlet of challenges and nauseating despairs. Building something out of nothing is infinitely more uncertain than adding to what has already been built. But no matter how bad your business is going, life could certainly be worse.
THEY DON’T EVEN HAVE A MACHINE GUN
Since coming to work in the U.S., I’ve never had someone walk into my office with a gun, demanding that we pay them more money. But, should you ever find yourself working in a less-than-accommodating environment, or facing this stressful predicament, my best recommendation is to respond with a smile. It puts everyone at ease. It presents them with your undivided attention and diffuses their need to intimidate while offering an opportunity to achieve their desires without conflict.
Whenever I bump up against someone in business who feels intimidating, I find it helpful to remember: They don’t even have a machine gun.
YOU ARE AS YOUR PROBLEMS
An old Arabic proverb states that “each human is, as their problems.”
Every entrepreneur is faced with their own set of problems and challenges. Yours, specifically, are what define you—and your potential for impact. Be grateful for them, as they provide you with the opportunity to grow.
The bigger the problems, the bigger the person who is dealing with them.
TURN BAD INTO GOOD
It is not at all my intention to glorify war or make light of conflict. However, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that my memories of that time are what, eventually, drove me to succeed in academics and business.
While my circumstances were extreme, the values I forged in times of crisis have translated well to entrepreneurial and innovative environments, and I believe others can find value from what I learned, too.
These times were, without a doubt, some of the most challenging in my life. But as with many such experiences, this was also where I discovered my purpose.
Now where will you find yours?