How do you stay hungry? What motivates you?
(Someone originally asked me this question on Quora and I responded. It is re-posted here with minor edits and updates.)
I was born in Lahore, Pakistan to a technocratic family of a govt. officer. At the age of 17, I was among the top in several robotics competitions. Somehow I knew that computers were the future, and the United States was the place to be. So, in 1994 I picked up my bags, left Pakistan, and arrived at the Oklahoma City airport.
I was wearing bright green colored pants with a red checkered shirt. My luggage bag had duct tape around it several times over because it was not strong enough, and I was sure that it would fall apart during international flight. I had never taken a taxi or spoken English.
I wanted to go to school but had enough money in my pocket for living expenses and tuition fee for one semester. There was no scholarship. There was no sponsorship. There were no prospects. I didn’t know a single soul in this country. No one from my family had ever been this far. My mother’s side is aristocrats, so they predicted that I would return as a failure, and beg them for a job. I wanted to prove myself. I was lost in the fog.
So I was hungry.
Hungry for learning, and broke, I rolled from state to state attending schools in Oklahoma, Texas, and Minnesota. While going to Minnesota State, I interned for IBM and worked as a Resident Advisor to pay my bills. After finishing Bachelor in Computer Science, I went to work for Microsoft. I had a great time at Microsoft. I was the first brown human working at the Charlotte, North Carolina office. They tried to fire me, repeatedly. Then eventually they promoted me to senior roles.
I married my college sweetheart, bought a house, and declared that at the age of 28 that I had achieved the American dream.
Little that I knew what was in store for me next.
After seven years, I left Microsoft to launch my startup. With investments from family and friends, we co-invented, built and offered a revolutionary payment system that held banks responsible for payment security and not the merchants.
We let series B snatch the startup from us at $70 million valuation, of which my friends or I did not get anything due to my naivete. My marriage broke, and so did my heart and body. I experienced financial collapse, ruined health, and isolation.
But the story was far from over. Want to know what happened next?
By 2010, I was utterly broke and single again. Within a few years, I would lose most of my friends and the ability to get any of my old jobs back.
I felt compassionate about my situation. I found that this kind of situation hits many startup founders. I wanted to help and make sure that no startup should ever fail. I was hungry to find a meaning behind my work. Using my technical skills, I began to offer my services as a CTO with a development team to non-technical startup founders. From 2010–2013, I built several early stage funded ideas. After 1–2 years most of them were failing not due to technology but due to lack of insight and ability of the founders to build what customers wanted.
I could not help them despite my best efforts. Hungry for answers, I studied the entire common literature about building startups from Steve Blank to Christensen Clayton and Alex Osterwalder to Eric Ries. I felt none of them had a good idea about how innovation comes into being. I spent time speaking with Eric Ries when he visited Seattle to no avail. I felt genuinely desperate as nothing has prepared me to deal with this kind of failure. I closed my startup factory business and went to study.
Mad with the hunger to learn how to build a successful enterprises, and creating meaning with our work, I met and studied with great many mentor. Eventually one of my mentors, Chauncey Bell introduced me to Fernando Flores. Under his guidance, I began serious studies in political design, innovation, and entrepreneurship in 2014. Fernando Flores opened my eyes to a whole new phenomenon about change and how things come into existence.
But, stress in personal and business relationships had caught up with my health. While I went more in-depth in my studies and saw the mistakes in my past startups, my body just hurt all the time and I felt exhausted. For two years, I ran around consulting with doctors and lab testing, but they all said I was healthy. I had essentially become trapped in several emotional, biological, and impulsive habits, like skipping sleep for days.
This condition was not acceptable. I was hungry to get better. My best friend said I should accept this and this kind of thing happens with age. To me, this way of being was not acceptable.
In Jan 2016, I declared a new future for myself. I deepened training in meditation by going for long silent retreats in the mountains. I also took up an ancient practice of Shaolin Kungfu and Qigong under the guidance of Master Zhou Lei. As well, I studied vast literature on nutrition, exercise, health, healing, chronic illness, gut-related issues, neuroplasty, and so on. I just wanted to get better. By the mid of 2018, I felt new energy and the fatigue was gone.
As of this writing, in early 2019, I am re-launching conceivian.com as a place for building startups with soul and supporting entrepreneurs and engineers that want to make a real difference with their work.
Today, my commitment to help entrepreneurs and my desire to make the world a better place gives me all the fuel and hunger. I want to use up every minute of my life spent in adding value to others lives and improving human condition using technology. A drive to grow and experience keeps pushing me to be curious and adventure through this beautiful array of reality.
Over the years, the nature of hunger has changed, but I have kept it alive by never settling, never compromising, never trying to secure future or build retirement fund (it sounds daunting and soul-crushing to think that I work to make my old-age life comfortable) but instead being absolutely delighted at being alive and experiencing life growth.
The result is an unusual life filled with hardships, adventure, unprecedented joy, friendships in all corners of the world, work experience to die for, and just pure bliss.
I haven’t become anyone particularly important; however, I earn well and draw tremendous pleasure from my work. But I am mostly out of money most of the time since I pretty much invest in tech startups and enjoy and share life with family and friends with what I earn.