How I Judge Writing

Is it saying something new?

Is it saying something old, in a new way?

Is it even saying something?

Is it something anyone else could’ve written?

Is it something worth saying?

When all’s said and done, this game of writing is about the paradoxical pursuit of connecting universally through the specific.

Generalities don’t connect.

Specificities that correlate to universalities, do.

What’s required in order to find the specific that’ll correlate to the universal?

Honesty. Bru. tal. honesty.

The first real book I ever picked up on writing taught me a lesson that’s stuck with me for years: the writer’s job is nothing more than to tell the truth.

We don’t preach, we don’t pander, we don’t philosophize…we tell the truth.

And the biggest crime any writing can commit is ringing false.

So tell the truth.

Balance Is Not Bouncing From One Extreme To Another

Though it’s really hard to escape that cycle.

We fall into one extreme, and think the best way out of it is to bounce to that other end of the spectrum. We mistaken this for “balance.”

Balance is not something you’re constantly trying to chase – it’s not about actively seeking it.

Balance is the sum of the things you do, and the things you choose NOT to do.

Both sides of that coin are important to keep in mind.

On The Schedule

If it’s not on the schedule, it doesn’t happen.

Unless, of course, you let it happen anyway, at which point you have to inquire: who’s setting my schedule?

If it’s not you, you got a problem.

Take charge of your time by understanding first who or what you’re allowing to be in charge of it beside you,

Day Late and Dollar Short

Close but no cigar.

Little too late.

And I almost thought of a fourth phrase that means “almost,” but unfortunately, no such luck.

When you just miss the target, or fall off right before the finish line, it’s important to remember how far you’ve come anyway.

As Ricky Bobby learns in the film Talladega Nights, his dad’s lasting words to him as a child, “If you’re not first, you’re last,” are actually completely false.

His dad clarifies at the end with something to the effect of:

“Well that’s stupid, if you’re not first, you can be second or third or fourth…”
All or nothing almost always leaves us with nothing. And even when we get “all,” we often realize how much it feels like nothing, anyway.

The destination is important, but the path to the destination is where the growing happens. That’s the real achievement.

You Don’t Make Sense

“How do you reconcile ______ with ______ ?”

For you, it might be “wearing hijab” with “feminism.”

Or “studying the sciences” with “belief in God.”

Or “preserving your culture” with “assimilating to where you are.”

 

We’re all walking contradictions, or at least, that’s how it appears to those who watch us walk. But if we look closer, and think deeper, we realize that we find many more reconciliations than we do contradictions. The seeming dichotomies that plague us are really our own minds trying to make sense of the world by putting everything into boxes, with no overlap or fluidity allowed.

My take?

Revel in the contradiction.

Revel in the complexity of who you are.

Because the truth is, “You don’t make sense” really means “You don’t make sense to me.”

If we’re lucky, it means “You don’t make sense to me, yet.”

Acknowledging our lack of understanding, and then being willing to try…that’s the best thing we can do for one another.

But the worst? Believing we understand when we don’t.

“You don’t make sense” is rarely ever true. “I don’t understand you” almost always is.

The Way Back Can Be Longer Than You Expect

So give yourself time.

Don’t give up so easily.

When we fall off track, it can feel like we can never get back to it…but your path isn’t singular and straight. It’s a master key maze with more than one path to the same destination. Like with all directions, we can reroute, find new ways, and eventually, get there.

But don’t expect the shortest or fastest route at all times…

Instead, keep reminding yourself of the fact that this not a race…it’s a journey.

There’s No Typical Stage For Every Age

Like many of us, I’ve gotten bogged down doing countless amounts of “comparative math.”

That’s the math of what we’re supposed to be doing at this age, compared to what our parents did, or what our siblings or cousins did, or what our role models did.

“My dad had three kids by my age…” or “She finished grad school by that age…” or “Orson Welles made Citizen Kane by the time he was 25…”

The thing about comparative math, though, is that it doesn’t add up at all. We choose who we compare ourselves to (and we’re often unkind by choosing people who we estimate to be far superior to us). We leave out all the variables that brought someone to their accomplishments and all the variables that are at play in our lives right now, or at our age. In doing so, we pretend that all ages are equal in every person’s life.

But life experience is not a math equation.

Your life is your life, and the ages at which you do things are the ages at which you do things.

This train of thought started with me thinking of one particular youth organization that existed when I was in my teens, and when my siblings were in their twenties.

They helped to run that youth organization, putting on events and programs and projects that invariably…I attended and participated in.

After years passed, and that youth organization is now succeeded by a multitude of efforts that have taken its place, I would think and think about whether it was supposed to now be my turn to do what my siblings did, now that I’m in my 20s. Whether I was supposed to inherit that organization and that work, whether I’m supposed to do just as they did.

But I realized something.

That time has passed. That organization has passed. And while it existed, I got to be a teenager experiencing it, and they got to be in their 20s experiencing it.

Now times have changed and new challenges and opportunities and organizations have arisen. And now, I get to take those on in my 20s, just as my siblings get to take on their new companies, projects, and work of building their families now in their 30s. (Sorry sis, “soon to be” 30s).

And so, life is not a paint by numbers portrait…it’s a canvas we continually work on and develop in our own styles and times.

A line from one of my favorite artists comes to mind:

“I’m just a piece of art, and the paint’s fresh…

Cuz I’m not near finished yet.”

A Day of Rest

We all need one.

Not all of us get one.

But if you find yourself not having one, make sure you’re okay with why you haven’t gotten one.

If it’s because you’re giving your all to things you believe in (whether your family, a vocation, a cause…), then more power to you, until the tank runs out of gas (at which point, don’t run on fumes, take the day).

But if it’s because you don’t feel you deserve one, or you’ve said “yes” too many times, or you believe rest is for the weak…then I implore you to take a day off, and examine your humanity.

Exhaustion isn’t weakness. It’s merely an indicator of having shown strength for a bit too long.

Reasonable Doubt

With everything we do, we should have a reasonable amount of doubt.

It’s only healthy to have some skepticism. Expecting too much can be the source of all unhappiness.

But there are a few simple things we should have absolutely no doubt in.

These are beliefs, or causes, or truths we’ve come to know.

Much of the adventure of life is in figuring out what those few things are.

Because belief–truly unbounded, uncorrupted, unencumbered belief–is exhilarating in a world filled with reasonable doubt.

In The Moment

Today I did several things that I love, and I almost didn’t enjoy them.

I taught some kids about improv, and saw a couple open up more than they would’ve before.

I taught some students some of the Quran, and got to dive deeper into a passage I haven’t studied much before.

I received some coaching to help me build my business and had to ask questions that I probably wouldn’t have answered by myself, or answered in enough detail, before.

I met with some inspiring individuals volunteering to be part of the leadership of a group trying to make a difference with the youth in my community; a group which I wouldn’t have joined before.

 

I love opening people up.

I love opening myself up (spiritually and entrepreneurially).

I love opening my community up (with people who love to do the same).

 

Don’t let busy-ness, or tiredness, or the lure of laziness distract you from taking in the moments while you’re doing something you love.

I feel like sometimes, I’m more present-minded and focused on myself in the moments between…the moments where I’m not doing much, where I’m wasting time or I’m stuck in something I don’t particularly like.

But if we only pay attention during these times, and forget to show up and recognize the times we get to do what we love, we paint a picture that’s inaccurate. We think ourselves uninspired, or in the wrong circumstances, or just…missing out on the life we want.

But our circumstances are rarely the problem. Most of the time, it’s our perspective, it’s the things we make big and the things we make small in our eyes. Happiness ends up being a matter of what you look at, rather than just what’s there.

So in this moment, I thank God that I am where I am, doing what I’m doing, with the people whom I’m doing it with.

And I pray to have this appreciation more often.

Empty Yourself

If you want what’s best for you in this moment, you have to let go of what was best for you in a previous moment.

As you seek growth and personal development, also take the time to empty yourself of the beliefs, habits, and limits that no longer serve you.

A container can only hold so much.

Oftentimes we try to fill ours with new ideas, new dreams, new people…but find that everything new keeps spilling out as fast as we pour it in.

Emptying what we don’t need anymore is the half of the equation that we often forget.

Sometimes life will force you to empty out what you don’t need anymore. It’s in those moments you start gaining the insight into what is truly necessary in your life and what is not.

Every so often, empty yourself.

And be replenished by the best of what you’ve come to know thus far.

We’re In The Heart-Building Business

We’re not vigilantes.

We’re not Avengers.

As much as I hate to say it, I’m not Captain America.

And it’s not our job to solely right wrongs in society…

Our job is to connect to the hearts of those doing wrong. It’s to soften them, to help build them, to reform them through love.

And you can’t fix hearts with fists.

You fix hearts by recognizing their brokenness, and opening your own heart to them.

We don’t rectify through force, we heal through connection.

Realization: Daily Blogging is Not Good for Business

I used to think daily blogging was a business tool — that consistent content was king.

It’s only over the last few months that I’ve learned that daily blogging, or doing any mental work that’s high volume in a very short amount of time is actually not very effective at all in actually achieving business goals (sales, audience building, branding, etc.)

Consistent content is still king, but putting quantity over quality can actually hurt your brand, because it communicates you’re hit or miss.

Daily blogging is still a great tool — but for personal daily reflection and building the habit of delivering something to the world everyday.

But, don’t look at something as more than it is.

A daily blog is a wonderful personal exercise in noticing things and communicating them.

But to establish your brand, to provide real, deep value to people — put in the time to create remarkable content.

For those you’re trying to serve, be world-class every time they hear from you. Nothing less. Even if they hear from you a little less often.

On The Opportunity to Seek Knowledge

A friend and old classmate of mine recently shared a statement of the Prophet Muhammad (s) to our fellow classmates as they prepared to graduate:

َ‏مَنْ سَلَكَ طَرِيقًا يَبْتَغِي فِيهِ عِلْمًا سَهَّلَ اللهُ لَهُ طَرِيقًا إِلَى الْجَنَّةِ، وَإِنَّ الْمَلَائِكَةَ لَتَضَعُ أَجْنِحَتَهَا لِطَالِبِ الْعِلْمِ رِضًا بِمَا صَنَعَ، وَإِنَّ الْعَالِمَ لَيَسْتَغْفِرُ لَهُ مَنْ فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ حَتَّى الْحِيْتَانُ فِي الْمَاءِ

He who follows a path in quest of knowledge, Allah will make the path of Paradise easy to him. The angels lower their wings over the seeker of knowledge, being pleased with what he does. The inhabitants of the heavens and the earth and even the fish in the depth of the oceans seek forgiveness for him…

(Abu Dawud and At-Tirmidhi)

Alhamdulillah, I’ve been blessed with many opportunities to seek sacred knowledge. Each time I set out toward it, it was enabled for me. Whether I was a kid in Sunday school, a teenager in the front row of an AlMaghrib class, or a 20-something prolonging the real world to study Arabic and Islam full-time in a new city, Allah paved my path whenever I set an intention toward knowledge.

But it pains me to say that I didn’t always treat each opportunity with the respect and determination that it deserved. I didn’t always value what I’d been given. I didn’t always give it my all.

As much as the knowledge and my teachers gave to me — the insights, the improvements in my own life, the understanding of true reality — I didn’t always give the pursuit of knowledge its due.

It reached a point where, despite all the benefit I was gaining and all that I was learning (even despite my efforts becoming less and less)…I found myself in a situation where I had to step back. I had to re-examine my purpose in seeking knowledge. I had to connect the dots I’d been drawing for so long, and take time to work on myself based on the knowledge I’d gained so far.

As I realize now, because I took the pursuit of knowledge for granted, and because I started doing the minimum, and because I stopped seeing this opportunity as something I should be endlessly grateful for…I stopped deserving the opportunity.

And thus, I lost the opportunity. Yes, I actively stepped away myself, but it’s ultimately Allah who lines things up and allows us to be in the pursuit of knowledge, or to be taken away from it.

But this hiatus was only temporary, and alhamdulillah, I was able to get myself back to center, back to my purpose, back to valuing the opportunity to seek knowledge, now with an even greater appreciation.

Which brings me to why I’m writing this post today. Yesterday, my classmates, whom I started a journey of knowledge with, graduated without me. I listened and watched from afar, and in all honesty, the biggest feeling I had was pride. I was so immensely proud of my friends and classmates for the journey they’d completed, and for valuing this opportunity for knowledge more than I had.

I missed them. I missed my teachers. I missed the experience.

But by Allah, this is what was supposed to happen. In order for me to value the opportunity for knowledge, it had to be removed from me for a while.

And as my friend and classmate narrated that Hadith above, I started to tear up, because it made me realize a very specific nuance of the mercy of Allah.

And that is this wording: “He who follows a path in quest of knowledge…”

The benefits above are not for those who have knowledge, it’s for those who simply follow a path, in quest for knowledge.

Simply taking the step toward it is enough for Allah to activate the angels and everything in the heavens and earth to facilitate you.

We often use the term طَالِبُ الْعِلْمِ (taalib-ul-‘ilm), translated in modern Arabic as “student of knowledge.”

But the word طَالِب linguistically means “one who seeks something.”

We don’t say صَاحِبُ الْعِلْمِ (saahib-ul-‘ilm), “one who possesses knowledge.”

We say the seeker of knowledge.

That’s the person who gets the reward, the sweetness, the facilitation, and the ease.

And whether our memories fail us as we try to memorize vocabulary and ahadith and ayaat, or if we’ve covered all the classical texts or just the Arabic letters, if we’ve been blessed to retain everything with photographic precision or we’re still struggling with the basics…as long as we keep seeking, we’ll keep receiving the reward.

And if there’s anything I’ve learned in all my learning, it’s that as long as you show up, the opportunities will show up, too.

We just have to remain sincere in our intentions, in our seeking, and in our understanding that in this whole equation of the preservation and learning of Islamic knowledge, we are the part that’s replaceable.

We do not dignify Islamic knowledge because we choose to learn it; it dignifies us by allowing us to pursue it.

I ask Allah to let us all recognize the blessing of the pursuit of knowledge, and to bless us to never take it for granted.

Distance from Allah

This is the worst part of anything bad.

It’s not the consequences, how you affect people, how you feel after — all of these are only side effects of this biggie: feeling distant from Allah.

Every step you take away from Him will feel like a step away from life itself.

He even says:

وَلَا تَكُونُوا كَالَّذِينَ نَسُوا اللَّـهَ فَأَنسَاهُمْ أَنفُسَهُمْ ۚ أُولَـٰئِكَ هُمُ الْفَاسِقُونَ ١٩

“And do not become like those who forget Allah, and Allah causes them to forget their own selves! Indeed, it is they who are the transgressors.” (59:19)

Your life’s fulfillment, happiness, sense of purpose and meaning is all measured by your distance from Allah.

The closer you get, the better life feels.

The farther you get, the worse life becomes.

So the only active choice we have here is, like Ibn Taymiyyah alluded to, let whatever’s happening in your life bring you closer to Allah, not farther away.

That’s the part you control — your reaction to what happens.

And you can react in a manner that takes you further from Allah, or a manner that takes you closer. The choice is yours; be aware of it.

Iteration Requires Starting

And iteration is the key to excellence.

You can’t improve unless you test, adjust, test, adjust, test, and adjust.

But if your fear of starting stops you…you’ll have a hard time starting over and over again.

And thus, you’ll have a hard time becoming excellent.

What’s Best For You

It’s easy to make decisions with factors that everyone else uses.

Money, ego, time. How will this decision affect these things?

Sometimes we forget about our own well being, our families, our legacy.

Every decision is a sacrifice of something for something else.

Don’t get too distracted by the something else you’re getting that you forget to notice the something you’re giving up.