Category Archives: Achievement

A Former Student Inspires – Here’s What Youth Can Do

What do you do when you want to shout to the rooftop, no, to the heavens that a former student has now climbed to the upper reaches of the earth’s atmosphere…okay, so I exaggerate…to Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, with a group of friends and set a record? A week ago, she was nervously expressing last thoughts about this journey and the desire to fulfil a goal for the charity she represents, Reach Out to Asia in Qatar. Now she’s become one of the first Qatari women to climb the popular, but nonetheless challenging, Kilimanjaro.

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First Qatari women to summit Kilimanjaro, 2014: – Photo Dana Al-Anzy, Istagram

Note: it’s a collective win. I like that. No one has shouted out: “Hey, everyone! I’m the first.” No. Implied in those words Qatari women is the we did it together chic. I love that. There are many lessons I could teach my current students based on my experiences with those young people I have taught or worked with the past.

I met Dana Al Anzy three years ago when she engaged a colleague in a pie throw – whipped cream in the face – charitable project to raise money for one good cause or another. She whipped the entire student body into a frenzy, too, at Qatar Academy where the students and staff gathered around for a good laugh and fun after Dana announced the main reason for this mayhem: to raise money for a charity.

I ran a community and service program for two years before embarking on a new adventure in the UK. Qatar Academy is the highest ranking school in Qatar, and part of the illustrious Qatar Foundation, a think tank – home of several world-class universities and well over 100 enterprises – dedicated to science and research, education and community development. I rave on about Qatar Foundation because it is rave-worthy. The young people there shared their unique blend of similarities and differences to other young people I have met and taught worldwide. The truth is, learning difficulties are real for most of us. We’re all loved and potentially disliked by someone. Life has its twists and turns and requires a certain amount of diplomacy that I enjoyed watching at play in Qatar. I enjoy a good political scene. Dana Al-Anzy was a student leader who had an important role to play in our school, and she became the leader of the Model United Nations Amnesty International group. This required diplomacy. And this girl had it and had the passion for human rights that drives possibly everything she does today. The culmination of our efforts that year resulted in two peace doves being released to symbolize the group’s commitment to peace in the rising swells of war in the region. And now Dana has climbed Kilimanjaro to raise money for the rebuilding of Palestinian homes. Think globally and act locally. This is a truism that makes sense for us all. We’ve moved ahead now out of my classroom to the world…this young woman speaks my language: watch.

She talks of having a dream and of our need to watch the way in which we view the world. I think she’s so cool. I believe she is destined for leadership. And I imagine it is only a matter of time before she achieves her goal as a Qatari national. So, I’ve got to share her with my world, here, there, wherever you be. Watch this girl. She’s already making inroads with the First Lady of Qatar’s youth delegation to the United Nations.

If there is one thing I wish, I wish that my disenfranchised (some of them…I teach in tough areas) and far less privileged students in England could see themselves in her, for we all have the potential to be great instead of bricking up our real selves for an illusion of popularity, or because we ‘can’t be bovvered’. We can all be bothered to make a contribution, and to make a difference where there is need. This is regardless of our circumstances. (I’ve seen amazing feats in the UK, too, of course.) This young woman reminds us: simply choose your cause and go for it.

Tawakkol Karman – How I met this Nobel Peace Laureate at TEDx Salford

I bought my ticket as soon as I read that this Arab woman – a Nobel Peace Prize winner – would be speaking at TEDx Salford 2014. This was the woman who started a revolution in Yemen, the ONE country in the Arabian peninsula that I have always wanted to visit (my colleagues made it and have great photos of the qat-chewing men in the streets…hmmmm…while I was probably off gallavanting somewhere else or hanging about in Saudi writing during my breaks…it’s a hard life, choosing *where next* to go on holiday when you’ve got four months of paid annual leave). Sigh. I’ve seen much of the Middle East – Lebanon, Syria, Oman, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates – and travelled over 24 countries worldwide, to date. But Yemen got away from me.

It was never quite the time, never quite ‘safe’ enough to go to Yemen when I wanted to. If my father was (and he was, initially) going to disown me for going to Saudi (it terrified him, until he realised I was safe, I had close friends both Saudi and among the expatriates; and I could bring home 18 carat gold and great adventure stories), well, the proposition of my going to Yemen would cinch that fact. I was told by my Saudi friends: don’t even think it right now. Al Qaeda had just bombed the American naval ship docked in Senaa.

I even examined the option of teaching in Yemen in 2010 and decided against it when the Canadian principal of an international school tried to recruit me and revealed upon questioning that he and his wife were leaving (no-brainer: not the time to go to Yemen). There is another part of me that has lived in the Middle East so long with the so-called risks and dangers, and I was in Qatar when the Arab winds of revolution swept across the region and my Saudi friends in middle class government jobs saw their salaries increased dramatically (to keep the peace), I could imagine that Yemen is likely reasonably safe if you stick to the tried and true…tourist hotels, the main souqs and no gallavanting around the best parts…villages outside of Senaa. Even to see Old Senaa would be a treasure. For me, it would.

But now it is less safe than ever, or so it seems, from so far away, from England where I now reside. My feet no longer dust the dunes of Arabia, and I no longer work in Saudi, or Qatar (I left Doha and the illustrious think tank, the Qatar Foundation, in 2012). I don’t have my finger on the pulse of the land…directly. I follow through my friends and former students who are scattered across the region, and they are my proxy. How I miss it. How I sometimes feel crazy when people could care less about the issues that burn holes in my heart. Syria. Palestine. Yemen. Egypt. All of it.

But my love for Arabia came back to me with the arrival of this woman, this incredible woman, Tawakkol Karman, when she walked onto the TEDx Salford stage at The Lowry and spoke yesterday.

She spoke eloquently of her struggle and triumph with the Yemeni youth to bring on the ‘rose revolution’ of Yemen, toppling the president…because she had a big idea, a big dream. And that dream is justice, human rights, for the women and men and the children of Yemen, and for us all.

My heart was in my mouth as I speechlessly and breathlessly watched and listened to this woman talk with her hands, as Arabs do. I understand intimately because I have lived among Arabs, specifically the Gulf Arabs, and some of my best friends today are Saudis, one of whom has a mother who came from Yemen. I’m not supposed to know that. But I do. I know she came as a young bride to marry a Saudi, but that’s another story. I know the ways in which Arabs feel things so passionately, they must express those sentiments with their hands, forcefully. I know the strength of those hands, and the love of those hands. I know the ‘hanan’ and deep tenderness and compassion of Arab women in particular. They are known for this. I also know they are rock steady; they have nerves of steel and we women in the West can learn from them and what they have suffered and still endure today. I have written songs about the wisdom of Arab women. I felt Tawakkol Karman’s passion. My heart yearned for the Middle East, a place I have lived for 13 years, in peace, in deep peace and harmony.

So, of course, I ran down the aisle, pushing politely past people who had no idea what I was feeling or where I was going. I found her, at the bottom of the Lowry Theatre, greeted her with my best Arabic, delighted in her warm and sincere character as I gave her my album Bakhoor a compilation of my own struggles and journeys through the Middle East, pre and post 9/11. She told me she loved the photos on the cover – my many photos taken over many years travelling – and told me that a man had made a song with her words. It’s not hard to see why. Listen…

You see, the story is all hers, Tawakkol Karman’s. I share it with you via the Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies. Today, the power of this woman steals my attention from everything else I have ‘on’. I called a Saudi friend who told me Tawakkol has recently lost her home in Yemen to the rebels who would love to topple her for promoting peace among the Sunni and the Shia…and among men and women…among people of all faiths and people who have none.

The power of this woman and her faith in a better world to come leave me humbled and heart full. She may be Mother Yemen, and maybe the Mother of Us All.

And worth watching…the entire 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony and acceptance speech of Tawakkol and the two other women who shared the honour with her.

SMART means more than Smart Goals

I have been a goal setter virtually all of my thinking life. From the time I could determine what to do for myself, which was some time in my formative primary school years, I have set goals and (as they became more complex), written them down in a diary then pursued them with a vengeance.

I was inspired by my father (who gave me his Eko acoustic) and my mother (who gave me a thin book of songs with chord fingerings, the first being ‘Tom Dooley’). I began to learn to play the guitar at the age of nine, and as soon as I could I started to copy the accomplished experts on radio. That may well have been the first ambitious undertaking I ever dedicated myself to.

I remember, too, earlier ambitions: playing in the sandbox! What an apt memory that is. For ‘playing in the sandbox’ to adult creatives represents the free-flow, spontaneous experience of listening to your impulses, following them, experimenting and stimulating your creative mind to find solutions. And often that is a social process. In my case, I was in the sandbox with one of my best friends, a boy named Shawn, to build cities. Side by side, we cooperatively and separately built our worlds up in mind and reality. Then we let the elements bake and blow them away, taking great joy in the day and days that followed to build and rebuild again and again and again. The pleasure was in the process, and that was a very mindful experience. The metaphor is rich with learning.

In junior high or middle school, I remember having the internal drive and goals, though they were never written down, to write news articles, publish magazines, deliver musical performances, run a ‘Turkey Trot’ and more. Right before high school, I began to keep records of my life in the form of a diary, and for much of my adult life I have kept diaries and journals to track the goals I have had. Where did and does this desire to achieve a goal come from? Upon reflection, it comes from the wish to live a full life. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Growing up in the country, in a somewhat stimulating and under-stimulating environment, I had both the space in which to think. This was the era before the Internet. I had the space in which to get bored. And that boredom spawned creativity and the desire to create and construct my life in various ways. To this day, I think it is good for children as well as adults to experience boredom and to have to think their way through to the other side of it. I am certain it is the precursor to creativity.

SMART goals, then, were introduced to me when I was 19 and took a course called Personal Best, which is now revamped into a program called the Creator’s Code. In all their variations, SMART goals stand for the following: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound.


Time and again, I have achieved things by setting creative goals. I have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. I have recorded music in contexts people could only dream of (Bollywood, Berklee College of Music, a 24-track studio in Canada, the tombs of Tutankhamun in Upper Egypt) and the wadi (dried) riverbeds of Petra, Jordan where the Raiders of the Lost Ark was filmed. I have lost 40 pounds in less than 40 days. I have travelled over two dozen countries in 18 years and ‘seen the world’ as I’d always dreamed about. I’ve honoured the fact that life is for living…and I still do. Happiness is the goal.

So, my goals have always been defined, even if there have been moments of being sidetracked along the way, even in the face of failures with a small ‘f’. SMART goals help you stay focused and have helped me to set new directions and keep persisting and pursuing what has been important to me for most of my life. I believe in the virtues of SMART goals. My experience, as outlined by this writer and organisational facilitator of ‘sandbox play’ for executives, is that you need to connect emotionally to those goals in order to achieve them. Connecting emotionally with yourself, and giving yourself the gift of reflection, sharpens your focus and helps you gain the specificity needed to go after something do-able in your life, even if it’s grand and exciting. So much the better if it is!

But I believe that there is more to SMART goals than ‘specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound’. I would add these ideas to the mix:

S – Soulful – Make your goals soulful.

Goals that are inspired by what you are ‘called’ to do, be or have. Goals that you intuitively know are ‘right’ for you. Do we listen to ourselves and to what some say is our soul…deeply? How do you know if you are listening to the right voice within? Trust the desires you feel to define goals that bring a deep and clear sense of satisfaction, because they are good to achieve, and here is a hint: anything that is good for you must be good for others. Where there is a reciprocity in these intentions, this is good for your circle of influence, your family, friends and community. No man is an island. Establish the goals within you that are most soulful and, where possible, slightly selfless. Then watch how rewarding and significant life becomes as you journey towards your achievements.

M – ‘Mental’ or Mature? – Your learning and working style determines your approach.

Take your pick. In the spirit of play, which is called ‘structured play’ in the world of theatre, music and the arts where one adds a dose of discipline and thoughtful exploration as well as research to the mix, you have choices about how to set and pursue your goals. You could go with the idea of throwing your goals like a gauntlet on a spontaneous whim and then make a mad-dash for them. This would be firey and full of excitement, momentum and likely some peril. Is that the nature of your personality? Slightly ‘mad’ and chaotic in your thinking (no offence intended and no reference those with mental health issues)? Go for it! Or you could scribble something onto something, a napkin in your favourite cafe, a journal, your hand, your To-Doist list, a note in your iPhone, iPad, laptop or android device and let the steps unfold as you begin. Your reasoned response has the potential, then, to become an even more personal one, and one that requires you to understand only this: the nature of you at this moment in time. Where are you at today within yourself and how do you operate? A mature approach to goal setting need not be a stuffy, complex or complicated one, though it can be one that you give some time to. All that is required is that you think or reason your way through why you wish to do what you wish to do, after which you get to it. Action is what makes a goal come to life. So, what steps are you going to take? What’s your plan?

A – Aptitude – Know what your strengths and weaknesses are, then compensate.

Where is your intelligence? Some goals are complex and require skill and knowledge that you do not possess. The thing is this: do you need to ‘do it yourself’ or could you delegate some of the tasks at hand to someone else? What is your aptitude for learning and achievement. Go back to the idea that no man or woman is an island, and think of the power of social interaction and connectivity in building your project. Research shows time and again that humans do not function well in isolation. We are an ecosystem within ecosystems – and this is the nature of life and living things. What connections can you make? Who can you reach out to who will relate to where you’re going? Build cities together? Build dreams together. At least when you get there, you won’t be alone. How lovely is that? Know your strengths and weaknesses, and compensate for them. Now, that’s smart!

R – Recognise – Track your progress so you can respond to anything that gets in your way of achievement.

Most experts on goal setting talk about the importance of charting your progress as you go along. In business, this is called ‘controlling’ for success. In gestalt therapy, it is the recognition that we are organisms that live within and are affected by an environment that helps us determine how to respond when something in the environment changes. In business, we do SWOT analysis of our Strengths, Weaknesses (already mentioned above), Opportunities and Threats (in the environment…as these are the things that exist for and against our efforts). To keep an eye on your progress as you work towards a goal is to enable yourself to respond when something throws you off track, and to boost yourself when you begin to falter, which you will. Most of us do. This is the nature of humans. We are not automatons, not robots or machines capable of repetitive autonomous action over and over and over again. Creative thinkers need to be able to respond, and to know what to respond to and how to respond, we need to track progress and then think! So recognise the importance of this and create the simple systems or habits that will help you stay aware of how you are doing.

T – Treats and Thankfulness – Treat yourself as a way to motivate yourself from time to time, and show gratitude and respect to yourself and others for a job well done.

A goal worth having is one that requires effort. Behaviourists recognised that we respond to rewards, and while you need not go overboard with this, you might consider how to chunk your goals into mini-goals and reward yourself for getting to the quarter, halfway and three-quarter points, if these are relevant. What treats can you give yourself? Don’t sabotage your weight loss by binging and putting yourself back in the hole where you started! Be thoughtful with rewards, and when you finally get to where you’re going, think about who has supported you along the way – show respect to them and gratitude, just as you show yourself the self congratulations you truly deserve. When you get to the end of the race, to the point of achieving your goal, whatever it is…note the time it took. Jot a thought. Pass it on. Share the love. Share the wisdom. Goal achievement is a great thing. Many great people in the history of the world have talked about this. Know that you’ve joined their ranks.