18 Nov Solve for Happiness (MO GAWDAT) | Part B’
My father was a distinguished civil engineer and an exceptionally kind man. Though my passion had always been computer science, I studied civil engineering just to please him. My field of study was not the biggest contribution to my education anyway because, as my father believed, learning takes place in the real world. Ever since I was in secondary school my father had encouraged me to spend each vacation in a different country. At first he squeezed every cent to make these experiences happen for me, and he made arrangements for me to visit with family or friends as I traveled. Later I worked to support the cost of my trips on my own. Those real-world experiences were so valuable that I vowed to offer a similar opportunity to my kids.
As luck would have it, my choice of university offered me the greatest benefit and blessing of those student days. I came to know a charming, intelligent woman named Nibal. A month after her graduation we married, and one year later she became Umm Ali, mother of Ali J, as women are called in the Middle East when their first child is born. Eighteen months after that, our daughter, Aya, came along to become the sunshine and the irrepressible, energizing force within our family. With Nibal, Ali, and Aya in my life, my good fortune knew no bounds. My love for my family drove me to work hard to provide the best life I could for them. I took on life’s challenges like a charging rhino.
In 2007 I joined Google. Despite the company’s success, its global reach was limited at that point, so my role was to expand our operations into Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Six years later I moved over to Google X, now a separate entity known as X, where I eventually became the chief business officer. At X, we don’t try to achieve incremental improvements in the way the world works; instead, we try to develop new technologies that will reinvent the way things are. Our goal is to deliver a radical, tenfold—10X—improvement. This leads us to work on seemingly scifi ideas such as autonomous carbon fiber kites to serve as airborne wind turbines, miniature computers built into contact lenses that capture physiological data and communicate wirelessly with other computers, and balloons to carry telecom technology into the stratosphere to provide Internet service to every human anywhere in the world. At X, we call these “moonshots.”
When you’re seeking modest improvement in what exists, you start working with the same tools and assumptions, the same mental framework on which the old technology is based. But when the challenge is to move ahead by a factor of ten, you start with a blank slate. When you commit to a moonshot, you fall in love with the problem, not the product. You commit to the mission before you even know that you have the ability to reach it. And you set audacious goals. The auto industry, for example, has been focused on safety for decades. They made consistent incremental progress by adding improvements to the traditional design of a car—the design we’ve all gotten used to since the early 1900s. Our approach at X is to begin by asking, “Why let an accident happen in the first place?” That’s when we commit to the moonshot: a self-driving car.
Meanwhile, with my happiness model working well, and as I was deriving great pleasure from my career, doing my part to help invent the future, my son and daughter were learning and growing and, in keeping with my father’s tradition, traveling to new places every summer. They had plenty of friends to visit across the globe, and they were always out exploring.
In 2014 Ali was a college student in Boston, and that year he had a long trip planned across North America, so we weren’t expecting him to make it home to Dubai for his usual visit. I was pleasantly surprised, then, in May, when he called to say he felt an overwhelming desire to come and spend a few days with us. For some reason he felt a sense of urgency, and he asked if we could book him a flight home as soon as school was over. Aya was planning to visit too, so Nibal and I were happy beyond belief. We made the arrangements and eagerly looked forward to the joy of having the whole family together in July.
Four days after he arrived, Ali suffered an acute belly pain and was admitted to a local hospital, where the doctors prescribed a routine appendectomy. I wasn’t concerned. In fact, I was relieved that this was happening while he was home so we could take care of him. The vacation might not have been going as I’d imagined, but the change in plans was easy enough to accommodate.
When Ali was on the operating table, a syringe was inserted to blow in carbon dioxide to expand his abdominal cavity and clear space for the rest of the procedure. But the needle was pushed just a few millimeters too far, puncturing Ali’s femoral artery—one of the major vessels carrying blood from the heart. Then things went from bad to worse. Precious moments slipped by before anyone even realized the blunder, and then a series of additional mistakes were made with fatal consequence. Within a few hours, my beloved son was gone.
Before we could even begin to absorb the enormity of what had happened, Nibal, Aya, and I were surrounded by friends who helped us handle the practicalities and supported us while we struggled to comprehend the sharp turn our lives had just taken.
Losing a child, they say, is the hardest experience anyone can endure. It certainly shakes every parent to the core. Losing Ali at his prime was harder still, and losing him unexpectedly to preventable human error may have been the very hardest thing of all.
But for me, the loss was even worse because Ali was not just my son but also my best friend. He had been born when I was quite young, and I felt as if we’d grown up together. We played video games together, listened to music together, read books together, and laughed a lot together. At eighteen Ali was noticeably wiser than many men I knew. He was a support and a confidant. At times I even found myself thinking, “When I grow up, I want to be just like Ali.”
Although all parents see their children as exceptional, I honestly believe that Ali truly was. When he left us, we received messages from all over the world, from hundreds of people who described how this twenty-one-year-old had changed their lives. Some of the people who wrote were in their teens, and some were well into their seventies. How Ali had found the time and wisdom to touch the lives of so many people, I’ll never know. He was a role model for peacefulness, happiness, and kindness. And he had a sense of presence that spread those characteristics abundantly along his path. Once, I watched from a distance as he sat down next to a homeless person and spoke to her at length. He acknowledged her as a fellow human worthy of connection, then emptied his pockets and gave her everything he had. As he walked away she caught up to him, searched deep in her sack, and gave him what must have been her most valued possession: a small unopened plastic container of hand cream. That gift became one of Ali’s dearest treasures. Now it’s one of ours.
But now, because of a medical error, I’d lost him in the blink of an eye. Whatever I’d learned about happiness was going to be put to the test. I thought that if I could save myself and my family from the deepest depths of depression, I could count it as a great success.
But we did much better than that.
When Ali left our world so suddenly, his mother and I, as well as our daughter, felt profound grief. The pain of missing him still lingers, of course, and we regularly shed tears that he’s no longer available for a hug, a chat, or a video game. The pain we feel drives us to honor his memory and wish him well. Remarkably, though, we’ve been able to maintain a steady state of peace—even happiness. We have sad days, but we don’t suffer. Our hearts are content, even joyful.
Simply put, our happiness model came through for us. Even during the moments of our most intense grief over Ali’s passing, we were never angry or resentful of life. We didn’t feel cheated or depressed. We went through the most difficult event imaginable just as Ali would: in peace.
At Ali’s memorial, hundreds of people filled our home to pay their respects while a huge overflow crowd waited outside in the 110-degree heat of Dubai’s summer. They just would not leave. It was an exceptional memorial, in all ways built around the happiness that Ali had radiated throughout his life. People showed up in tears but quickly blended into the positive energy of the event. They wept in our arms, but when we talked, and when they came to understand our view of these events, which was informed by our happiness model, they stopped weeping. They walked around the house admiring the hundreds of photographs of Ali (always with a big smile) on every wall. They tried some of his favorite snacks set out on tables, or picked up an item of his as a souvenir, and remembered all the happy memories he’d given them.
There was so much love and positivity in the air, countless hugs and smiles, that by the end of the day, if you didn’t know the circumstances, you might have thought this was just a happy gathering of friends—a wedding maybe, or a graduation. Even in these distressing circumstances, Ali’s positive energy filled our home.
In the days after the memorial, I found myself preoccupied with the thought What would Ali do in this situation? All of us who knew Ali went to him regularly for advice, but he was no longer with us. I desperately wanted to ask him, “Ali, how do I handle losing you?” even though I knew his answer. He would just say, “Khalas ya papa”—It’s over, Dad—“I’ve already died. There is nothing you can do to change that, so make the best out of it.” In moments of quiet, I could hear no other voice in my head but Ali’s repeating these sentences over and over.
And so, seventeen days after his death, I began to write. I decided to follow Ali’s advice and do something positive, to try to share our model of happiness with all of those who are needlessly suffering around the world. Four and a half months later I raised my head. I had a first draft. I’m not a sage or a monk hiding away in a monastery. I go to work, fight in meetings, make mistakes—big mistakes that have hurt those I love, and for that I feel sorrow. In fact, I’m not even always happy. But I found a model that works—a model that had seen us through our grief, the model that Ali’s life helped generate through his example. This is what I want to offer you in this book.
My hope is that by sharing Ali’s message—his peaceful way of living—I may be able to honor his memory and continue his legacy. I tried to imagine the positive impact spreading this message could create, and I wondered if maybe it is not for nothing that I have a high-profile job with global reach. So I took on an ambitious mission: to help ten million people become happier, a movement (#10million happy) that I ask you to join so that together we can create a small-scale global pandemic of Ali-style joy.
Ali’s death was a blow I never could have expected, but when I look back, I feel that he somehow knew. Two days before his unexpected departure, he sat us all down as a wise grandfather would gather his children and said he had something important to share. He said he understood that it might seem odd for him to offer advice to his parents but that he felt compelled to do it. Usually Ali spoke very little, but now he took his time and spent most of it telling Nibal, Aya, and me what he loved most about us. He thanked us kindly for what we had contributed to his life. His words warmed our hearts, and then he asked each of us to do some specific things.
His request to me was “Papa, you should never stop working. Keep making a difference and rely on your heart more often. Your work here is not done.” He then paused for a few seconds, sat back in his chair—as if to say But now my work here is done—and said, “That’s it. I have nothing more to say.”
This book is my attempt to fulfill the task assigned to me by my happiness idol. For as long as I live, I will make global happiness my personal mission, my moonshot for Ali.
Solve for Happy