Teaching is a profession that can be as challenging as it is rewarding, but every now and then I am reminded why I chose this professional path.

In May I received a kind and heartfelt email from Omran Al Farsi, a human resources student at the American University in the Emirates. He had been  a student in my Principles of Management class during the spring semester which had recently concluded. 

The students in Omran’s class, which was one of my smallest at AUE, were uniquely mature and engaged; it felt more like a masters degree class than an undergraduate one.  We spent many of our class periods in the food court discussing management articles from the Harvard Business Review. It was refreshing and revitalizing.

And so, in some ways, I wasn’t surprised to receive a message from a student in that class. However, I was nevertheless surprised, inspired, and energized by Omran’s email; it was exceptionally thoughtful and sincere. The text of his message follows.

It is my pleasure to share it with you below:

“If my educational journey taught me two things, it would be the importance of knowledge and the person who is giving you that knowledge. Thus, I am forever grateful to you and appreciative for your mentoring throughout the course. You have taught me so many things academic related and in leadership on a personal level. I never heard your name mentioned without students and instructors complimenting you as a person and instructor. I found out why when I first attended your class. You have one of the most pure and kind hearts I have ever encountered in my life.” — Omran Al Farsi, Human Resource Management Student at American University in the Emirates

What have you learnt to forget?

Last year, during the heat of the summer semester, Ms. Alissar Nasrallah warmed the hears of my students with her keynote speech “What We Have Learned to Forget – The Human Behind the Business.” Alissar manages Prest, her family’s corporate gifting business. I first met Alissar when we were both extras on Star Trek Beyond; we struck up a friendship and I was fortunate enough that she was willing to share her insights and ideas with my class.

Acknowledging the connection between business and ethics, Alissar reflected on the importance of philosophical and humanitarian values and their role in business. The following is an essay version of her presentation — provided by Alissar.

We have segregated our life into two main categories: Business and Personal, forgetting that life has much more than that. We typically apply a “live in the moment” only between these categories with “don’t bring your home problems to your work” and vice versa. We got into the details of the norms and values “don’t be too friendly at work” “be too friendly at work to lobby well” “know where to stop” “your personality at work is different than your personality with your friends.”

The segregation got deeper, forgetting that this person is a singular one and that his life is much richer than being sized down to two sectors. Once we understand the big picture that makes us – what I call the big ‘I’ – we will know that this segregation is not needed and that our personality can be constant in all areas. We will know that the nuance is having clarity of how to act and when to act no matter where we are and whom we are dealing with. Enrich the big ‘I’ with humane values to find stability, clarity and to pave your way up in all your actions, words and thoughts.

An inevitable part of enriching the big ‘I’ is how we deal with the other ‘Is’. Because of the ferociousness of survival, we apply twisted strategies that, I believe, most are not filtered humanely – from networking (that comes from the basic human nature of relationships), plotting to defeat colleagues, human objectification and object humanization, etc.

Why not try to change the twisted strategies for once and see how the world evolves; we might like it better. Strategies are needed yes, and smartness is needed. Inhumanity is not. Depict negative connotations is everything you read, you see, you watch, you listen to and you think of. What we feed our mind will be unavoidably translated into our actions.

If you don’t believe in goodness to drive your actions and responsibilities towards others, you have to believe in the simple logic that says: if I encounter pain on you, you will most probably reply with pain. Put this on the whole population scale, having in mind the complex human psychic.

The world will be an unpleasant place to live in – an unsustainable place. We often use the term sustainability when we talk about the natural environment, and not the human environment. For us to live together sustainably, we need (not only want) to live well together which means we need to be good to each other. In the lines of this idea, I came up with a simple untwisted strategy that I called “Positively-Conditioned Objectives”.

Everything we do at any time has an objective, even if we are unaware of it. A coffee with friends has an objective of connecting, venting out, updating. Being aware of the objective allows us to eliminate anything unnecessary along the way. The objective is for us and the positive-conditioning is our responsibility towards others. “I want to be the best cook” is my objective – it is for me. “Supporting others along the way” is my positive conditioning – it is my responsibility towards others.

I am not only talking about big objectives. I am also talking about walking-in-the-park’s objective and having-coffee-with-friends’ objective. The biggest objective of all times is to live happily. And the biggest positive conditioning is to be loving. You can push this strategy down to your tiniest actions, thoughts and words. It is a compass to always know yourself, be aware of what you’re doing, thinking, saying and feeling all the while being responsible towards others for a sustainable, more pleasant collective life.

You can also watch a video of Ms. Alissar’s presentation below.

Some lessons last a lifetime.

Today would have been the 100th birthday of my grandfather Alan “Papa” Gilbert. Although he passed away in 2006, he was my most meaningful mentor and his influence on my life remains a constant source of inspiration. To celebrate his life I have shared the short story below; I first wrote it for his 80th birthday in 1995 and have revised and reflected on it many times since.

While I was aware of the impact of his insight when he first shared it, I more fully understand its importance and relevance to my life as an adult. I hope my sharing this story inspires you to positively influence others and appreciate individuals who have helped shape you into the person you have — and still can — become.


The morning sun yawned above the foothills, revealing the reservoir below, as Papa and I descended the wooden staircase towards the water’s edge. Stubborn fog, which had tightly held the surface of the water, melted away into daybreak.

“What a beautiful day,” Papa said as he bounded down the stairs like a child on Christmas Day.

We then walked along a narrow dirt pathway and, after a few short paces,  discovered our canoe: 15 feet of green fiberglass and aluminum. But for Papa, it was perfection. I watched as he gleefully approached the vessel and attempted to release it from the chains restraining it.

“How did I manage to do this?” Papa said, frustrated with the intricate web of chain links in which he had wrapped the boat a month earlier.

“Do you need a hand, Mr. Houdini?” I inquired. “Or shall I call you a nurse?”

“I stage one breakout and suddenly I’m a criminal,” Papa joked.

A few years earlier Papa had an allergic reaction to medication while in the hospital. It was so severe that seconds after receiving the dosage, he became the Incredible Hulk. Highly agitated, he attempted to forcibly extricate himself from his bed to the great surprise of his nurse who quickly summoned backup.

Within minutes, four additional nurses were trying to sedate him.  With all other options exhausted, they confined him within a restraining jacket, which was then anchored to the bed.

When Papa awoke later that day – in a much calmer state – he took issue with his restraints. So, he successfully liberated himself using brains over brawn. When the floor nurse returned to check on him, she discovered the discarded restraints and deserted bed. By the time she returned to the room with a search party, Papa had returned and was resting comfortably in the bed.

With the defeated device dangling from his fingers and a grin that would put the Cheshire cat to shame, Papa calmly inquired, “Were you looking for me?” Even with clipped wings, Papa found ways to fly.

“Let’s go!” Papa exclaimed after unfurling the lock and chain.

Me and Papa in 1976

We squatted next to the canoe and grabbed onto the edges. Papa positioned himself towards the front of the canoe, while I awaited his instruction at the stern. I stretched briefly and inhaled the rejuvenating air that surrounded me.

“One, two, three!” Papa said. “Up she goes.”

With the craft elevated over our heads we began walking towards the dock. Small pieces of gravel crackled beneath our feet as the weight of the canoe traveled through our bodies and into the ground on which we walked.

Beads of sweat amassed on my forehead like troops awaiting the signal to advance into battle. The pace of my breathing increased dramatically.  My arms quivered as they strained to balance the weight.

Looking ahead, I saw that, despite his advanced age, Papa was in great condition. Biceps the size of grapefruits rippled underneath his shirt while he easily supported his end of the canoe – and a portion of mine I suspected.

Maintaining Papa’s quick saunter was challenging. His vigor and vitality often masked his years just as his mature wisdom serves as an odd counterpart to his progressive ideas. Wiping the sweat from my forehead with an elevated shoulder, I persisted.

“Are things all right back there? You’re awfully quiet.”

“I’m just trying to keep up with you!”

“I disagree. You’ve been pushing me this whole time!”

Within a few minutes we arrived at the end of the dock and our two-man army came to a halt. I felt the wooden platform rock slowly beneath me as I tried to maintain my balance.

Firmly grasping the metal rails of the canoe I awaited the next command like a soldier at inspection. The aluminum lip burrowed into my shoulder and my arms slackened. I ignored the pain and glanced at Papa for inspiration.

“Up and over!” he instructed.

Following his lead, I slowly lifted the craft over my head and – in unison with Papa – gently placed the green fiberglass hull into the murky water. I seated myself in front, allowing Papa the helm, an honor he earned long ago during a family canoeing trip on  the Russian River.

After recovering our spinning canoe from a whirlpool with the calm and command of Odysseus, Papa heroically rescued several other craft from the same fate.  Papa was my personal hero: strong, gentle, humorous, sensitive, reliable, generous. Adjectives cannot adequately define who this man was and what he meant to me.

“Off we go,” Papa explained as we pushed away from the dock.

“Into the wild blue yonder,” I added.

“Right-o,” he said.

Silence engulfed us, save the soft splash of the paddles stroking the water. We didn’t speak, words were unnecessary. Though void of sound, our time was full of meaning. Papa was always more of a friend and colleague to me than a grandfather. As a child, he was my favorite playmate. During adolescence, he was my ping-pong partner. When I became an adult, he was my confidant.

When I became a parent, he reprised his earlier role and became a playmate to my son, Jacob, who embodies Papa’s kindness. My younger son, Max, was born six months before Papa passed away. While he never met Papa personally he possesses his joie de vivre; adventure is his middle name!

Forever my protector, Papa always appeared when I needed a shoulder to cry on or an arm to lift me up. He was always very giving of himself, his abilities, and often, his well-being. Papa had an innate ability to understand people and bring them joy.

When World War II involved America, Papa was 26 years old. Although newly married with a promising life ahead of him, Papa volunteered to fight. Sacrificing his own future for the survival of his nation, Papa answered the call of a country in need.

Fortunately, his military service well suited his personality: he was captain of “The Biscuit Bomber,” an Army Air-Corps C-47 Skytrain as part of the Troop Carrier Command. Based in New Guinea, Papa logged nearly 3,500 hours flying missions throughout the South Pacific. During three years of service in this unarmed aircraft, Papa continually risked his life to ensure the survival of others.

Alan

One particularly poignant situation occurred when he was transporting Japanese prisoners of war who were under guard by Australian soldiers. Midway through the flight he heard a commotion in the cargo area. Upon investigating the situation he found the Australian soldiers trying to extract the gold teeth from the Japanese soldiers’ mouths.

Incensed, he pulled out his sidearm and aimed it at the Australian soldiers, instructing them that the POWs were his responsibility and he would not tolerate them being harmed or harassed in any way. The Australian soldiers acquiesced. In the bleak circumstance of war, Papa shed some humanity. Had he been a fighter pilot his stories may have been more exciting, but they would have been less meaningful.

Anyone can kill. It takes someone special to sustain life.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from him was to always help someone in need, even if doing so was inconvenient or promises no recognition. Considering all he did for me, I can attest to the power of this philosophy.

If only everyone were as kind and generous as Papa, perhaps the world would be a more positive place. Sadly, I have found that, more often than not, people are less like Papa than they are like him.

Nevertheless, I strive to live in the same sincere and sensible way as he did, although he was often too agreeable to the demands of other people. Despite his incredible generosity to others, he often gave away too much of himself to make others happy.

The one unintentional lesson I learned from him is that if you give too much of yourself to others you can lose yourself in the process. As a result, I often felt he was a bit unfulfilled, yet, admirably, he never said as much. I appreciate his fortitude in this regard, but often wonder what might have been for him, had he embraced his promising potential.

After World War II he could have enjoyed a lucrative career as an airline pilot. The plane he flew during the war, the C-47, was the military version of the very popular DC-3, which was widely used in commercial aviation after the war (many are still flying and being used commercially).

papa_new_guinea_motorcycle_square

He would have easily been hired by any of the airlines and enjoyed a rewarding and meaningful career. Instead he chose — though I often feel he was pressured — to stay close to home. Whereas he could have been flying the friendly skies, he commuted every day from New Jersey to New York and managed a dry cleaning store. He did this for many years until my Dad hired him to work for his company.

While I admire his fortitude as a father and grandfather,  I often wonder if he was truly content as a man? After he died my family discovered that he had been taking rides with a local private pilot in a small twin engine plane. Some dreams never die, I suppose, and I am glad he never fully deserted his dream to keep flying.

I can also say that while he never made $400 an hour to turn a phrase, $1,000 a day trading stocks, or $10,000 a week as a professional musician, he was richer in character and wealthier in spirit than any one of those people could ever hope to be. Money and material possessions can never replace integrity, humanity, and authenticity.

Although he never accumulated a huge fortune, Papa contributed more to the world than most people I have known in my life and, presumably, will come to know in the future. He also never felt the need to elevate his ego by trying to make others feel inferior.

Ultimately, he made the most of his life and, in doing so, helped others make the most of theirs. Papa’s unique approach to life provided me with many priceless lessons. One of those lessons took place that day at the reservoir: spending time with someone special is worth more than anything that person could purchase for you. Although, that doesn’t mean letting that same someone cook for you had no allure!

“How would you like it if we head home and I make you some Belgian waffles?” Papa asked, breaking the silence and inviting me out of my introspection and into the present.

“You just said the magic words!” I exclaimed as we made our way back towards the dock. Like the canoe, Belgian waffles had been one of Papa’s trademarks. Whenever I stayed over with him, he would whip up a batch of waffles covered in whipped cream and strawberries.

As we approached the dock, just before we reached out to pull ourselves in, Papa said something that surprised me:

“I think next month you should take the helm.”

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely. But only if you feel ready.”

I briefly considered his offer.

“I certainly do,” I asserted. “After all, I had you for a teacher!”