Saturday, June 11, 2016

what IS story-telling anyway?

And why does it matter?

Giving your brand a story really matters. But what IS a story?

"[Stories] are not only the arbitrary sum of our dreams, and our memory. They also give us the model of self-transcendence… a way of being fully human.” 

- Susan Sontag

I went to LeBook's Connections event in New York City last week and there was an interesting panel on story-telling and advertising - or brand story-telling - which is all the buzz these days and so many people say that they are brand story-tellers or experts in story-telling.

What was interesting is that each person on the panel talked about story-telling in a different way and used it to mean something else. When I first came to advertising, almost no one (except for one really genius creative director I worked with) talked about story. It was funny because I came from the world of journalism, poetry and fiction-writing - fresh from not-quite-finishing an M.F.A. in creative writing, publishing a novel and Robert McKee's famous story structure class. All I really knew was the story. I was drawn to Olivier because instead of asking me to come up with concepts, he used to say, "Write me some stories." And instead of coming up with concepts, I came up with word pictures that evoked both emotion and familiarity as well as surprise and sensuality leaving you with a sense that there was more to come.

These "stories" - actually, tiny snapshots from a story because you had to fill in the beginning from your own memory and fill in the end from your imagination - became fragrances, jeans, drinks, fashion and beauty campaigns, some of which are still icons today.

But the real question is - how do stories work?

At the time, I was asked to make a document which listed the most crucial points for a fragrance or fashion campaign. So what I wrote (because story-telling was not a thing then) was this list.


Here's what I mean: A great ad communication - any lasting piece of art work - makes you FEEL something. If it can tap into a universal emotion - love, loss, pain, jealousy, abandonment, security, serenity, euphoria - it will last long beyond its life as a brand messaging. Think about the famous Coca-cola advertising - I'd like to build the world a home - or the Benetton AIDS campaigns. They can still give you goosebumps or bring you to tears. In fact, to do that, the image or communication doesn't even need to be beautiful. It needs to work harder than just giving you something nice to look at. Eye-candy is delicious, but like all candies, you forget it as soon as you're finished with it. Have too much and it makes you feel sick. The image in itself isn't as important as the story that the brand lets you tell yourself. But then, even if you can evoke an emotion - how do you make it last?


All great stories - from the first stories ever told - begin with archetypes: the mother, the sister, the friend, the father figure, the brother, the lover. It sounds intellectual but what it means is the familiar. A great piece of communication leverages something you already know. As McKee's story structure explains, you open with something ordinary, you set up an every day logic that everyone can relate to. The alarm clock (the voice of authority - or your mother), the kitchen or sofa (the sense of home), the piece of music that opens with something that sounds vaguely like something else. When you use an icon or an archetype, you save time because your audience fills in the details. They add their own emotion and story to yours - that means that they invest something of themselves in it - so the story becomes theirs, too. When you invest in something - take part ownership of it - you like it even more. That's a song that keeps playing over and over in your head.


Because a beautiful - composition-wise - image is not enough without resonance. That's where story comes in. When I worked on ad-cepts - "pretend" ads that one makes for a client using existing images for inspiration, I used to like to use "swipe" (the images) that came from movie stills. I liked them better than simple fashion editorial because there was a sense of story inherent in each image. You looked at them and you had a sense that there was something that came before and something that came after. Maybe you'd even already seen the movie so the image had even more to it. It's what makes Cindy Sherman's images so compelling. Because you recognize a story - there is something familiar, there is something archetypal, there is something before and after that you can fill in, and there is something surprising that makes you want to look at it again.

The other thing about resonance is that there is something in the image that connects with some part of you. You recognize something of yourself in it - that's how you know the brand is talking to you.  Or your tribe. If the story doesn't resonate with you - I'm not a corporate businesswoman, for instance - I know that the brand isn't speaking to me. But, when I have to go to job interview, I know the brand to go to for my outfit or make-up or bag. That's why resonance is important - you don't need to be all things to all people. Your story needs to be clear about ONE thing - so that it creates lasting resonance.


Which bring us to coherence. If your story is about business, you need a really good reason to switch to a story about swimming, let's say, or amusement parks. Your story has to ring true. When you write a novel or a play, you know your characters inside and out. Even when you start with a character who is 25, you know what her childhood was like and what kind of student she was in preschool. You also know what she would never do. And if you make her do it anyway, she'd better have a really good reason and you will have to slowly lead your audience there, or you will lose everyone. So your brand or your product needs a really good reason to switch tracks.


This is really the thing that makes the song keep playing in your head. This is what story structure says carries the story forwards. It's all that stuff that feels familiar, that path or people you know intuitively, you understand innately and that - we as story-tellers - take somewhere else. That surprise makes you want to explore the end of the story. You want it to keep going. You keep playing it again and again in your mind. That's why little kids watch movies again and again. On the other hand, it's not a huge crazy ridiculous surprise - for instance, imagine a folk song that morphs into heavy metal - (look at coherence) but it's still unexpected.

Often - especially in fashion or beauty, which is image-driven advertising - a visual idea on its own is not enough to give it resonance and emotion, it needs the right words. The words add a layer of complexity which make the story deeper and more resonant.

But back to the first question - everyone is telling you about being a story-teller (and honestly, lots of them have no idea what they are talking about) - why does it matter?

A story connects with the viewers as humans. A real story elevates and values our experiences, helps us see them differently. 

A story gives your brand or product a narrative context to exist in.

A brand or a product with no story, no history to ignite, leaves a consumer confused. Or worse, uninterested. And that is a bad place for them to be. It's almost as if your product exists in limbo.

Today, we are so inundated with advertising and communication that without a good story - one that really connects with us but also feels new as well as familiar, believable as well as surprising, compelling as well as intriguing - a brand will not be able to hold your interest longer than it takes you to turn a page, swipe left, or click onwards.

That's where story comes in. Because with a sense of story or history - one that connects with you in some way, the communication is not just a picture or words, it is something that becomes a part of you.

Want to help build connection with your audience? Make sure that you tell stories. Really tell stories.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

what IS collagen?

collagen-3 and fat give you a nice, plump smooth face.

oh my gosh, you're losing that baby face! you need more collagen, right? right?

i recently worked on a skincare brand whose ingredients stimulate the growth of collagen-1 and, more importantly, collagen-3.

unfortunately, when we presented the advertising idea to the client, they thought that most women did not know what collagen was. (except - as one woman said - more is better, right?)

these days, in order for us to believe in beauty products, their effects have to be based on real science. however, when it comes to communication, most of us are buried in the chaos of our day-to-day lives and don't have time to read all the complicated processes that are usually based on biology and chemistry.

and also, for some women, words that bring back bad memories of high school biology and chemistry can cause anxiety. i know that just thinking about meeting my bookkeeper or accountant can shoot me right back to the day before a test in 11th-grade math (i barely made it out of that class).

so let me start this way.

your face is like a sofa cushion or a mattress.

reverse the before and after to visualize the aging process

the leather or velvet or cotton duck is your skin or epidermis. the secondary layer (sometimes foam or cloth lining) is your dermis.

underneath that is all the fat that holds it up. that is the stuffing. lots of fat - like a kid - gives you a smooth plump face.

the springs and the structure that give your skin bounce and lift is the collagen.

the easiest way to imagine it is little trees that grow up and spread out under your skin - turning into your sofa/mattress springs. collagen grows in little ropy strands and holds things up and together.

(if you have more stuffing (or fat) than collagen, the fat squeezes through under your skin, making it lumpy. in other words, cellulite. this rarely happens on your face - or i've never seen it. )

on your face, as you get older, your fat thins out, like an old mattress or sofa,  and your collagen gets weaker.

so your face doesn't just lose its smooth plumpness, it also loses its lift and resilience. and so it gets wrinkly.

see those little trees getting all saggy and weak and the fat getting thin?

darn! get that girl more collagen!

not so fast - there are 28 kinds of collagen! and only ONE will make you look younger! you can eat them, drink them, slather your face with them, get them injected and most of them will not do you much good (on your face).

ready for a little more science?

the nice, bouncy collagen that holds your face up in a pretty way is called collagen-3. that's the kind that is in young skin.

as you get older, there is a tougher kind of collagen, called collagen-1. collagen-1 is also found in bones and scar tissue. it is hard and lumpy and brittle.

[the ONLY kind of collagen that you can ingest that will actually affect your skin is collagen-2 and it has to be prepared very carefully. only one brand i know of, called bio-cell, seems to have done it properly by also mixing it with hyaluronic acid (this is not a weird crazy chemical, but something your body produces naturally as lubrication) - but let's save this conversation for another time.]

wait! what about lasers? yes! these days, there are lasers and radiowaves and microwaves that heat your skin to stimulate collagen growth. the idea is that they damage the collagen layer underneath your skin and your skin rushes to heal itself.

the drawback is (only ONE person seems to admit this in public, my friend mary schook) they damage your shrinking reserves of collagen-3 and stimulate collagen-1. you know that brittle, lumpy collagen. the kind that crumbles.

let's look at what happens to collagen when you cook it.

raw and soft (admittedly unattractive)

looks yummy but not how you want your face to look either
i realize we switched metaphors here. if you are still reading...

so now you have this nice crispy collagen under your skin. and like a shrink-wrapped gift, it is taut and shiny and lifted. and your remaining collagen-3 has been cooked. that tight, thin, papery look also happens if you do lots of peels and retinol. you know what i mean. 

but in six months to a year, the collagen-3 starts to break down.

now what?

um... rewind.

so before you start lasering your face, try big doses of vitamin c to get that sofa a little puffy again. it IS possible.

check out mary schook's video here.

ok - remember those little trees or your sofa springs - now do you know what collagen is?

Thursday, May 30, 2013

under your skin: i know you understand

love the way michael thompson photographs skin.

i spent the past month thinking rather intensely about skincare - especially, face products for women - and realized how much we actually know without being told.

what i mean is, the codes of skincare (even more so face) for women, are so clearly defined that most women know what means what without ever thinking about it.

so let's think about it.

starting with the setting, which is almost always white.

why white? because we know that white means clean and pure.

but not just any white.

a stark, cold white can mean scientific.

a slightly pinkish white means whitening or brightening products.

white with a splash of lime green or lemon means fresh, clarifying for young girls or young women with spots or pimples. bright orange or slices of citrus means astringent, but a yellowy orange means medicinal - think of the original neutrogena soap, almost the same color as listerine...

white with a watery blue means cool and hydrating.

in print and tv, on billboards or online, skincare products are usually shown against white backgrounds to prove their efficacy. for example, white for clarins, white for clinique, even the legendary creme de la mer is set against white.

more expensive and "natural" products have a little leeway here. they can place their products against celadon green or a color that reminds of you the secret formula of precious, rare ingredients.

the more potent the product - or the more potent it claims to be - the bigger and more important the size of the package on the page or the screen, the more it gleams in the light, and the less likely it is that we need a woman's face nearby to prove anything. the caps of the jars may be gold or brushed steel, but whatever they are, they are solid and reliable.

anti-aging products are the power players in the skincare world. they are prized, sometimes arrogantly so. in every skincare range, anti-aging are the ones that carry the biggest price tags.

we all know that topical anti-aging creams will never compete with surgery, that time can't really be - and probably shouldn't be - reversed but we are constantly seduced. (off-the-record, as someone who has tried and tested absolutely everything, imho only one product on the market works wonders - but not quite the drama or trauma of a facelift).

their serious emotional benefit tends to get anti-aging products careful placement. their glistening packages are advertised on black or purple backgrounds, showcasing their magical fountain-of-youth, now you see it, now you don't abilities.

or they are placed against iridescent rays to show how they transform the dullness of age to the reflective sparkle of youth.

and what about the woman? is her face beside the package, showing the glowing results?

the skincare woman is shot close, so we have the illusion of seeing every perfect poreless inch of skin. she doesn't wear visible make-up so we won't get confused and think she's selling us mascara or lipstick. we pretend it isn't obvious that she is retouched and blown out with light so most of her face isn't really visible. (no one wants to see the martin schoeller version)

generally speaking, the more the woman smiles, the more approachable and friendly she looks, the cheaper the product. if she's a celebrity, the bigger her face is in relationship to the packshot, the more affordable the product is.

the more powerful she looks, the more her chin is lifted and the stronger her gaze, the more expensive and desirable.

for whitening or brightening products, she glows like an incandescent bulb, often touching her cheek to indicate the irresistible softness and delicacy of her skin despite the melanin-stripping benefit of the product.

yet again, the process of stopping aging is where the big guns come out.

the woman, if the excellent hero product allows her to enter the page, is as serious as her skincare regimen. for a prestige (think department store) brand, if our woman smiles, it's a slight upturn to the lips, an expression of self-satisfaction. she's achieved a degree of lifted, airbrushed perfection.

in terms of packaging, anti-aging products wear their colors regally. their jars and bottles of serum are deep reds, deep purples, midnight blues, deep greens - the sober but flattering colors of an elegant woman of a certain age. sometimes, they are steely as surgical equipment but their jars are almost always short, heavy as crystal and serious. the writing on the package may be gold or silver. it's that weighty gravity that makes us trust.

what about other packaging? a smooth, organic shape to the bottle or jar, one that's easy to hold and open, usually means friendliess, a proximity to women.

brands like kiehl's and clinique play with the codes of efficacy by using simple, less adorned packages and photography. their language is straightforward, their images direct as if proving that they are practical, clean and no nonsense.

natural or nonsynthetic brands often use amber glass bottles - both to protect the product - and to remind us how close the ingredients are to herbal apothecaries. or they use fruit or vegetable-colored packages or a green leaf, a tree or vegetable-dye looking inks to remind us of their origins. their language assumes you know the value of nature.

the font or the typeface on the package tells us the price, the level of sophistication of its assumed audience. it tells us if the brand is homey or chic, if it's sleek, high-design (thus hyper-effective) or safely retro. is it a pump, a tube or jar? all those things tell us about price, texture and quality.

for most women, rushing into the department store, or even more stressed, the drugstore, they have to make their decisions on the spur of the moment. between the point of purchase signs, the stuff suddenly on sale, the favorite brand that is out-of-stock, a woman has to be convinced in a few seconds. she has to wade through the intuitive information she's absorbing and choose what she's going to trust on her face.

because we all know, the wrong product on your face can give you a rash, welts, pimples, redness, peeling - basically, destroy your most crucial point of contact with the rest of the world. unlike a bad choice in other areas, unless you wear a niqaab, you can't hide it.

thus, the codes must crystal clear. just like we want our skin to be.

but you already knew that, didn't you?

now, let me ask you to think about something else.

before you buy your product, whether it's prestige (department or specialty store) or mass (drugstore or mass retailer), look at it again. think about all the advertising you've seen for it (if any).

think about the way the package looks, feels and works and what it says to you.

and then ask yourself, does this brand like women?

does this brand back women up, is it a helper of women?

i'm not talking about all the breast cancer walks or pink packaging or any other cause that they throw money at to get our attention.

i'm talking about the core of the brand, the ethos that infuses it.

before you buy the thing that will come closer to you than your most intimate friend or partner, make sure you know how your skincare really feels about you. and your face. and your spirit.

you know the answer.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

What I'm Selling Now

For almost 20 years, I've sold products (mostly) to women: make-up, pencil skirts, hosiery, mattresses, online beauty services, insurance, face creams, fragrances, bed sheets and duvets.*

As a conceptor and copywriter, whenever I had the chance to impose my own value system on the messaging, I’d weave in something important.  I’d send my audience secret gifts  – embedded in the copy – ideas that led to a bigger truth. Something that said great hair, magical fragrances and less wrinkles are wonderful but... there is so much more.

I recently read about the advertising for Kotex. It makes fun of all those cliches about feminine hygiene.  There’s the cute new European campaign for Dove which is about subverting ads that play on our beauty fears.  Love the direction - slightly post-modern, irreverant, positive - but as a war-weary veteran of the fields, I’m disappointed. 

A mission to make all women feel sufficiently beautiful is a great start. Telling women they don’t have to hug kittens and wear white and bounce through fields of daisies on their period is funny.**

There’s something so much deeper, something we haven’t reached yet.

Changing the conversation about beauty and vanity and women’s troubles, means we're still talking about beauty. And beauty – at least the version we use to sell and buy things – is a hierarchy.  Using the commodified version of beauty (which is NOT, as we all know, the thing that turns heads or even attracts the opposite sex), no matter how good I feel about myself, how much hair dye, mascara, botox or liposuction I buy, or even all the confidence and self-esteem in the world, I will never ever be confused for Claudia Schiffer. She and Kate Moss and Christy Turlington, especially their retouched avatars, are at the top of the food chain in magazine beauty.

In my IRL  (in real life) experience, beauty is two things. The first and most obvious: the win in the genetic lottery, some perfect combination of features and height and metabolism one is born with. This is the beauty that is not only used to sell stuff to men and women – and, given our addled little brains – what we consumers demand to see, as I have seen tested and proven in so many focus groups, in order to believe it’s a superior product. What's depressing is how many really smart people fall for it IRL.

The second kind of beauty is more interesting. In the second case, beauty is not a goal but a side effect. It's the beauty we get later, as we grow and love and learn and experience the world. This kind of beauty, an irresistible you-can't-look-away kind of radiance that is not dependent on age or genetics usually comes from people who haven't been chasing it.

To really change the conversation, we need to stop making the wrong kind of beauty important. 

Let me put it this way. It’s not that we stop telling our girlfriends and daughters they are beautiful or that shirt looks so great or that mascara really makes your eyes look huge – but that we change the emphasis. 

We tell them FIRST they are so smart, talented, great at math, capable and wow - you get SO MUCH done in a day – and by the way, that’s a cute skirt. I'm not suggesting everyone stop wearing lipstick or buying fragrance (because then I would starve) but that we remember that they are purely accessories.

So here's what I am selling to women now.  And what's funny about this is – these are all the things I used to use to sell gunk, clothes and scented rubbing alcohol before.

Your Intuition

You have it. It's not that airy-fairy Bewitched magic. It's the way you actually do know stuff. It's solid and practical (like Samantha was with her witchery). It’s about stopping and listening to yourself. It's the way you know the relationship with that guy is doomed. You knew it wouldn't work from the first meeting, but you were attracted to him. So you swept away the fact that he spent the entire lunch talking about himself and didn't ask you a single question about you. Somewhere, deep down inside, maybe even after you get engaged, you really know it was never meant to be. All intuition stories aren't that long and complex, but you understand what I mean. 

Believe in your ability to perceive the correct path for you. Believe in your sense of self. That means knowing your worth, standing up for yourself when you’ve been treated unfairly.  And standing down when you know you’re one in the wrong – that’s a point of strength, too.

Your Body

Loving it. Living in it. Really living in it. Because when you exercise all parts of it (including your brain) and feed it well, you live in it to full capacity. Your body is your interface with the world. For women, I feel like our bodies tend to reflect our sense of worth and to manifest what we are doing to the planet. The idea is not to smack it into submission. Because when you look after your body properly, it looks gorgeous. Not like a model. Like a luscious, touchable, breathing human. It begins to glow with the radiance that makes other people want to be close to it. It’s not about a hierarchy here. No one’s body is better than your own when you love it.  When you eat well, eat organic, breathe, exercise, get enough sleep, sit out in the sun sometimes.  
When you are living well in your body, you can’t stop respecting and loving it for all the places it takes you.

Your Sexuality

This is both a part of your body and your soul, but it also has a life of its own., doesn’t it? Like a wild and love-crazed Tasmanian devil unleashed on one extreme and a seething volcano in the basement on the other. How do you tame it? How do you enjoy it, harness it, ride it to all four corners of the earth without wearing it out? If not loved and respected, I worry that our Divine Feminine (excuse the New Age-yness) is turning into breast, uterine and ovarian cancers. I feel like we have not yet learned how not to chop off our body parts, how not to internalize the ways we don’t feel like women. I feel like we need to have fun with our power – how cool is it that we can create an entire human life inside of our bodies? How cool is it that we don’t have to? We are connected to the planets and the universe in ways we are just beginning to appreciate. We need to remember that it is a strength. Our sexuality is an asset not a liability.

Stop Getting Old

First, before you get all excited - I have no magic fountain of youth. I’ve tried almost every natural method – that doesn’t include injections or surgery – resveratrol, Chinese mushrooms, different kinds of exercise, acupuncture.  But what I mean is the figurative sense of the word. How to stop being passee or irrelevant. How to stop being tired. 

I do have a couple of tricks up my sleeve.  But you know tricks aren’t what you need. Good mascara and highlighter can brighten up your eyes but what it’s really about is changing how you see. That changes how you see yourself and how you live in the world. It’s about staying vibrant and dynamic. It’s about being filled with awe and laughter at the way the world surprises us. I know an almost 70 year-old woman who breezes into a room with the lightness of a teenager. She doesn’t wear make-up and has never had any plastic surgery.  Even if you don’t know her, you get the sense of a breath of fresh air. She rarely stops smiling or laughing, but she never laughs at anyone. As for me, I’m in my mid-forties and my business partner just said to me, “Ameena, the thing I love about you is that you still think you are 25!” 

I’ve sold (and bought) so many incredible, incomprehensible skin products that plump and brighten and renew and lots of them actually work – but if you are not open and young in your soul – they won’t make you younger.  Sorry.

Stop Being Judgemental

Ha! (Cough) Even as I write this, I have to laugh because I haven’t mastered it yet. But every time I manage to overcome a moment of irritation and frustration, I feel a surge of energy that is inexplicable. It is hardest to do with the people closest to you. The people whose behavior you subconsciously feel is a reflection of you. Those people you feel have wounded you or taken advantage of you. Or made you look stupid. Try and think about where they are coming from. Strangely, smaller slights sometimes sting more than bigger ones. If you really can’t get past something, pray. Pray for yourself, pray for the person or group of people you are mad at, pray for greater understanding amongst all human beings. It doesn’t matter what or who you call God, Jesus, Allah, Krishna, Brahma, the Universe, just pray because we are all connected.

If you do something hurtful or unkind, even unknowingly, apologize, but then, move on. Don't beat yourself up. If the other person is still angry, there's nothing you can do. The only person who has to forgive you is yourself. Regret and sorrow, self-punishment, take a big toll on you and your body. Learn from it, but don't take it with you. 

Every time you let something go, every time you are just open to other people being on their own journeys, every time you laugh and have faith in Universal Intelligence or God or the Divine, you get a moment of flow.  This is so unbelievable that I have to tumble on to the New Age wagon.  I swear this one thing will make you prettier, younger, happier and more popular. Isn't that what luxury is really meant to do?

Much much more effective than any expensive clothes or make-up or plastic surgery. 

Back when I was really an embedded reporter in the beauty and fashion wars, I used to ask my clients to sell me their products first. I needed to believe in something before I sold it. I couldn’t be excited and enthusiastic about a product that no one needed or that wasn’t lifechanging in some way. I refused to work on advertising that was full of false claims.

This is what I am selling now. Only because I believe in it. It won’t make me (or any big corporation) massive profits.

Are you buying?

Let me know. ***

*One of my lowest moments was an ad that conflated filling your home with plastic with protecting your baby. Sadly, or maybe necessarily, almost all baby stuff - car seats, toilet locks, outlet covers, baths, stroller seats - is made out of plastic.  With our new awareness of B.P.A., fluorocarbons and endocrine interrupters, I don't know how to think about that.

**We need to address the reason we ad people put in all those stupid cliches to begin with. Wearing white and doing gymnastics or diving into a pool proves that the product is leak-proof and comfortable. Hugging kittens speaks to our desire to be comforted and treated gently when our emotional pitch is high.  And the flowers imply innocence and cleanliness, a concern from back in the day when “women troubles” were dark and dirty. People make fun of the cliches but they forget that almost all advertising includes an iconography that is demanded by the consumers because it communicates quickly. What's frustrating is that, when I've run more realistic images through focus groups, the women get irritated. They WANT the cliches, the retouching, the unbelievable bodies, the poreless, wrinkleless skin, the make-up. We can't just change the advertising - because, of course, we need to sell stuff. We need to change our minds.

***Please comment! It is so strange to get 500 to 1500 views of a post and no idea (apart from facebook) of what people really think. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

can the internet stop evil?

i adore gil-scot heron.

i am ashamed to be yet another person bastardizing his words. but i now believe the revolution CAN be digitized.

a couple of years ago, there was an article by malcolm mcdowell in the new yorker, about how the civil rights movement would never have had an impact if it had started out with a facebook page. his theory, which i agreed with myself in october 2010, was that people click or "like" and then go back to their real lives. their somewhat passive "action" makes them feel like they are doing something so they don't really have to. and the truth is - as both causes and commercial products are finding - "likes" don't add up to people voting with their feet or wallets.

so what happened? why did things change?

there was the arab spring. people in oppressive regimes took to the streets and started demanding change. a young tunisian man who got an education and could only sell fruit on the street, set himself on fire - rather like a vietnamese monk in the 1960s - and people began to realize that they not only could, they HAD to change things. the vast, sweeping movement in egypt started, at least, with google and twitter.

in the past couple of years, there were movies like V is for Vendetta and the subsequent online activists anonymous and wikileaks.

then across the water in peaceful, complacent u.s.a, we realized we were running out of money and natural resources. teachers, professors, workers, ordinary people in wisconsin moved into the state capital to protest budget cuts that would reduce their health benfits and force them to relinquish their right to collective bargaining. all this in the country that gave us emma goldman and norma rae. people all over the u.s. got online and ordered them deliveries of pizzas, sleeping bags and drinks so they could hold out.

people came out in force to demonstrate for and against park51.

the tea party and ron paul had made everyone start to think grassroots. whether we like them or not, we learned we didn't need to simply accept what authority told us.

then came #occupy - first wall street and then cities across the country. admittedly, it was a rag-tag bunch, mostly students who couldn't find jobs out of college and the usual band of socialist workers and people out of the mainstream. but what was surprising was their level of support in the mainstream. religious leaders across the spectrum - christian, muslim, jewish, buddhist - spoke about how the movement represented the necessary ethical struggle against greed and excess.

even though #occupy lost its physical space, in an almost predictable battle with a massive real estate holding, the idea that the average person DOES have power and presence in the political and economic landscape had taken hold. the issue, of course, was the fact that it was a band of people held together by their unhappiness with the economic situation, but their specific goals were so diverse that they were never made clear.

and now there is STOP KONY 2012 - a viral video and campaign started by an organization called invisible children. the video is the story of a young american man who is so moved by his meeting with a ugandan boy that he vows to help him eradicate the villain whose forces killed the boy's younger brother and destroyed his home and family.

in my advertising mind, the video was genius in several ways. there was a clear and evil "bad guy" (black and sweaty), there were clear and sweet "good guys" (mostly white and smiling) and a very simple message along with - we LOVE this term in advertising - a single-minded proposition. they tell you EXACTLY what to do, how to do it and, best of all, how it will make you feel.

i had only two issues with the campaign (from a purely commercial standpoint) - 1. the 25-minute video was WAY too long for my attention-span. on the other hand, since it targeted 13 to 17 year-olds, they have more time to watch and they were drawn into the story and the way the momentum built. 2. it was a little too obviously "white man's burden." the activists and the good guys were ALL white. the black people were either bad or victims - and they were ALL africans. we saw no non-whites (except in massive crowd shots) who were activists. a bright, young uganda woman explains how often americans/europeans arrive to "fix" africa.

on the other hand, from an advertising standpoint, we have a lot to learn from the exercise. like what everyone wants is an idea that makes them FEEL better about themselves. what is simplistic is to promise them that an antiaging creme, a hair dye, a lipstick, a fragrance, a dress or a pair of jeans will do that. we also all want an idea that makes us feel like we can have an effect on something important. who doesn't want to change the world? we all want, as they say in advertising jargon, "an activation." the DOVE campaign for real beauty did that, but didn't manage to deliver on the product.

however, a host of other places, the washington post, the new york times, the huffington post, friends on facebook, criticize the simplicity and sudden popularity of the campaign.

as for me, from a political standpoint, i agree with forbes. what the campaign has succeeded in doing is mobilizing a group of idealistic young people who could feel themselves powerless. when you are young, you have the space to think and care deeply about the suffering of others. when you are young and fed and clothed and sheltered, you can see the injustice of people who are not.

perhaps, since my children go to the united nations international school in new york city and grew up memorizing the "rights of the child" (rather than the pledge of allegiance), they are especially vulnerable to such propositions. but it seems like children all over the country are responding to the cry of another child, even though he's halfway round the world.

yes, the kony campaign is imperfect. it seems that the forces enlisted to rid the world of kony are only slightly less bad than kony's lord's resistance army. the solution proposed is simplistic. but then again, in today's complex world, we crave simplicity. the campaign is a bit loose and sloppy with the details and the facts, but so are most ad campaigns because the idea is to make a simple point. we get you thinking and then you do the work to find the important details.

if you are 13 to 17, the idea of triumphant music and a children's march to paper the country with STOP KONY posters on april 20, is both inspiring and empowering.

despite the horrible history of the word "crusade," i like the poetic sound of the word. for me, it means marching towards a goal, a sense of moral or ethical purpose. STOP KONY implies a children's crusade, much like the disney revival of newsies, a group of young newsboys who rise up for justice and fairness.

when rara was eight, she took all her pocket money and donated it to an organization called falling whistles, a campaign to end child soldiering in congo. they gave her a whistle to wear around her neck and sent her a letter telling her whistles would be given to children in congo. the idea was to make a noise, to stop the suffering of these - as the kony campaign tells us clearly - "invisible children."

in my opinion, the STOP KONY campaign, is both a massive success (whether or not it stops Kony, who, according to some sources, may already be starving and weak in the jungle) and also a testament to the desire of our young people today to change the world for the better.

can the power of the internet stop evil? yes. maybe. not totally. but it can change the way we think and make us realize even more how we are all connected. it can educate young people in global realities. the fact that american children's emotions are an online connection away from those of african children means that the global village is getting closer by the moment.

and that's just where as humans, we should want to be.

want to take another step towards stopping child soldiers all over africa? stand with amnesty international

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Accidental Fundamentalist stumbles into Islamophobia

I'm an interesting type of Muslim. The kind you couldn’t pick out on the street. There are no obvious outward signs of my faith and my ethnicity isn't clear. You can barely tell I’m an Indian – or of Indian origin – because I’d pass for Greek, Italian, Israeli, Spanish, even southern French.

The Islam I practice is Sufism – and, in my case, most of my practice is internal. I call myself a Muslim Fundamentalist because I follow what I believe are the “fundaments” of Islam – which are generosity, compassion, kindness, loyalty and honesty. I'm always fuming at the tv when they call someone blowing up a bus a "fundamentalist Muslim." And, as someone who lives in downtown Manhattan (and has lived and worked here for 20 years), I hear it a lot. I would call them "nut cases," "cultural reactionaries"... but they would never represent the fundamental essence of Islam.

Not to say that I don’t love ritual, culture and the joy and magic of tradition, but I believe you have to come to the Divine on your own – and on your own path. And, as the often-quoted hadith (saying) of the Muslim prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) says, "There are as many paths to the Divine as there are souls."

Sufism is strangely, one of the best known, unknown parts of Islam. Most people know the writings or teachings of Mawlana Jallaluddin Rumi and Shams-ud-din Muhammad Hafiz, their quotes are now on magnets and calendars. I even saw a bohemian outfit described by a blogger called Rumi in the window of Forever21 on 34th st.

"I Have Learned
So much from God
That I can no longer
Call Myself
A Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim,
A Buddhist, a Jew."

-Shams-ud-din Muhammad Hafiz

The idea is that the fundaments of Islam are almost too great and too universal to be contained in any one religion. Sufism, like Kabaalah, deals with the essence of Islam, the idea that the Divine is everywhere, in everything - like the Sanskirt word, Om - the all-encompassing.

Sadly, most people don't realize that Sufi ideas are based on an Islamic viewpoint.
Like Buddhism, Sufism is about giving up the ego, the desire for power, the wish to be right, the craving for material satisfaction. Again, these are fundaments of Islam.

For me, this quote describes the practice of Sufism on a personal level.

"Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment
Knock, And He'll open the door
Vanish, And He'll make you shine like the sun
Fall, And He'll raise you to the heavens
Become nothing, And He'll turn you into everything.”

-Mawlana Jallaluddin Rumi

In my understanding of Islamic fundamentalism, the truest practice of faith is demonstrated by your actions on the planet, towards all other life. A brilliant modern thinker in that vein is Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, who wrote “Green Deen,” a powerful Islamic argument, based on Quranic quotations, for the necessity of being environmentally and socially-responsible.

Since I'm your everyday single Muslim mother, I go to school for Muslim holidays with my three daughters to talk to their classes. One morning on our way to the Ramadan presentation, when my middle daughter was about 10, she said, “So when do we find out that we’re right?”

I said, “What do you mean?”

She said, “You know, that Muslims are right and everyone else is wrong. Do we find out when we die?”

And I said, “We’re ALL right. The goal is to be kind to each other and help each other and find some peace in ourselves. Different religions are just like a different languages. It’s like calling a chair, 'une chaise' in French. It’s the same thing. So in Arabic, we use the word, Allah for God. In French, you say, Dieu. In Spanish, Dios. It doesn’t matter what religion you are, you can call God, Allah, Jesus, Buddha, Shiva – you can follow your culture – and if you follow something with your heart, you will get to the same place.”

So people often ask me, how do I call myself a Muslim if I don’t veil – or wear hijab. And I say, in Islam, being a Muslim requires one simple phrase, “La illaha ill lallah, Muhammad el-rasulallah.” Which means I believe in God and Muhammad is the seal (or the last Prophet). It implies that you also believe in the Torah and the New Testament. Everything else is between you and God. I have no place judging your choices or what calls you.

What I’ve told my kids is that what you call yourself – Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Jew, Buddhist, Bahai – is less important than what you do with it. The imperatives in Islam are called the five pillars – faith, prayer, fasting, charity, pilgrimage.

But I have plenty of friends who are culturally Muslim but in practice agnostic, never fast or even consider going to Mecca. They drink alcohol, eat pork and have spent their lives working with underpriviledged children in the Delhi slums, or helping families in New York City who have been torn apart by the immigration laws. Or improving the lives of homeless people. And, from what I understand of faith, THOSE are the people who are going straight to heaven (without passing purgatory). Not the ones who just touch their foreheads to the floor five times a day or starve themselves on ramadan while making their families and friends miserable. (Not that one shouldn't pray or fast, but if you don't do it correctly, it's not worth it.)

Again, I tell my daughters that fasting on ramadan - not eating or drinking - is the easy part. The hard part is fasting from anger, from impatience and frustration. I tell them that for 30 days, they shouldn't raises their voices, they shouldn't be unkind or hurtful, they should be even more careful not to be untruthful or disloyal or mean. Trying to do that when you've had nothing to eat and been up since the crack of dawn is really, really hard. Many people say that if you get angry when you're fasting, your fast is broken. You might as well eat at that point and start apologizing. Because the fundamental goal of fasting is to get closer to the Divine - and how close are you when the small irritations of the material world bring you right back down to the ground?

So as an Islamic fundamentalist, here’s how I deal with “Islamophobia” or the current anger towards Muslims. I act like it doesn’t exist. The Muslim Bar Association is using the civil rights precedents set by the LBGT community – and I use the behavior of my gay friends as an example. I go into every situation assuming that people who don’t like me just don’t know me yet. I see it as an opportunity for dialogue and a chance to prove religious profiling wrong.

Talking about Islamophobia reminds me of going to a party once and meeting another Indian single mother like myself. She murmured to me, “Don’t you hate the way they look at us? The way they are all whispering about us behind our backs?”

I said, "Really? They are?" I'd never thought of that.

Suddenly, the room changed for me. Maybe they WERE all whispering behind my back. Until that moment, I’d always assumed everyone liked me until my actions gave them a reason not to. I’d always thought that my difference was an opportunity to show people that things are never as simple as you expect.

I remember when I first moved to Washington, DC, just on the edge of my teens. A girl asked me, "Do you like Black people?"

I must sound absurdly pollyanna, but I was baffled by the question. No one had ever asked me if I liked or disliked an entire race of people. And of course, since I was a new kid - brown and Muslim when almost everyone else was Jewish and European - I was keenly aware of getting the answer wrong. But I had no idea of what to say.

My mumbled answer was, "I guess there are some I like and some I don't."

Not to say that prejudice doesn’t exist but, as a fundamentalist, it is not to your benefit to internalize it. If I assume that everyone I meet is hostile towards me, then I miss the chance to connect with people who are not. And I miss the chance to change people’s perceptions. I judge someone's intentions before I experience them.

Someone who dismisses me without meeting me, misses the chance to find out that a Muslim mother with teenaged daughters is probably spending more time thinking about how to get her teenaged daughters to go to Friday prayers instead of watching Gossip Girl. Or how to get them to think more about their schoolwork and spirits and less about their looks.

Not to be Panglossian (for you Candide fans), but for me, the current public conversation against Islam and American Muslims is a good thing. This spring, when I started reading and watching the press about Park51, I said to non-Muslim friend, “Oh my gosh, they all HATE us. Did I just never notice or is this all new? When did the American public start mistrusting Muslims?”

He said, “No, it was there all along. It’s that no one said it in public.”

What’s happened is that because it's now socially acceptable to vilify 1.3 billion people (and a faith that has its roots in Christianity and Judiasm) in a public forum - even as an election platform, we can start addressing the fears and the lack of understanding in a public forum. If 60% of Americans say they've never met a Muslim, it's time for us to start shaking hands. We should be standing on street corners with "Ask me, I'm Muslim" badges on.

The scary part is that part of the reason for all this fear and anger is the Islamophobia Industry. As an investigative article in "The Tennessean" points out, keeping the American public angry and on edge generates millions of dollars. Steve Emerson alone makes $3,339,000 a year with his site.

Admittedly, the world economy, global warming and environmental concerns - not to mention, in my case, a mortgage and three girls about to go to college - are scaring everyone. Fear makes you do strange things. Which is what I feel is happening in the world today. Whether they are Quran burners or soldiers or terrorists, it’s based on a fear of losing control of life. Of trying to hold on to something that you know is familiar.

Working on the Park51 project – which I have since the inception – has been an incredible journey into facing and understanding fear, especially of the unknown.

Obviously, there is so much fear expressed against the project and against Muslims. But what I think outsiders don’t realize is that there is equally so much fear within the Muslim community. There are Muslims who say they don’t want to go to Park51 because they are worried about men and women praying together, because Shias, Sunnis and Sufis pray together, because there are gay and lesbian Muslims who pray there.

People, Muslim or not, are scared of the government, they’re scared of their neighbors, they’re scared of change and the future and how it might take away everything that’s familiar and move them out of their comfort zones. If you're an immigrant or a minority, you're scared that the majority will seduce and steal your children - as we saw even in "Westside Story" or "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."

Even if the future is better – it’s not what we know, it’s not what makes us feel safe – so we don’t like it.

That said, this Muslim Fundamentalist has been blown away by is the level of support we’ve received. It’s almost like – for lots of people – the controversy really made them come alive. It’s made them question their prejudices and their beliefs as a Americans. It's made them remember their experiences as new immigrants. In so many ways, the controversy over Park51 has been a groundbreaking moment – because it’s brought the dialogue into the open.

As a Muslim mother, I started an organization called Muslims for Peace. The idea was to create a unified Muslim voice for Peace – no political agenda – just a Million Muslims standing up for peace and compassion across the different kinds of practice.

I have friends who wear niqaab or beards and I have friends who are gay and lesbian Muslim activists – I even have a friend who’s been going on tv and saying she agrees with religious profiling - but speaking out for peace is something that we could all agree on and come together on. Muslims for Peace started out with a project I launched in November 2001 - after living through September 11 as a Muslim in lower Manhattan - 100% Human (click on stories and pictures to get the whole idea).

(Then, of course, I was a casualty of the economy myself. Since I work in advertising, the canary in the coal mine of the financial industry, I lost work, got cancer... and spent a lot of time not able to get much done. That said, I dealt with my cancer in the same way I deal with Islamophobia. I don't believe in it. So far, so good.)

Recently, I met a guy in a social setting who's a PR wiz. When I told him I was involved with Park51, he sent me a video of a tv appearance in which he said the project would never happen. In later emails, he told me that public opinion is against us and growing more hostile every minute (though we might be saved if we hire him). The 9/11 families would never be behind us.

But on the ground, what I notice is, when I wear my ONE MORE MUSLIM FOR PEACE t-shirt on the street – and around the site of the world trade center, which is after all, my neighborhood, people smile at me. They honk out of cars, they ask where they can get one. My neighbors say, "Can I get a ONE MORE JEW FOR PEACE?" Or "ONE MORE FRIEND OF A MUSLIM FOR PEACE?" The greatest impact 9/11 had was felt in the surrounding streets and schools and parks and homes, and my neighbors - Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Atheist - welcome us with open arms. Especially the swimming pool.

Since I becoming an accidental fundamentalist, I made ONE MORE PERSON FOR PEACE t-shirts and I am trying to figure out how to get cafepress to allow me to have ONE MORE JEW FOR PEACE, ONE MORE BUDDHIST FOR PEACE, ONE MORE CHRISTIAN, ATHEIST, etc without having to pay monthly fees to keep the designs up there. Because a fundamentalist knows that actually everyone wants peace, harmony and a safe place to live a healthy life.

That the fundaments of Islam are the fundaments of every faith.

The only way to escape from Islamophobia is to click my heels together and say my favorite Dalai Lama quote (that I stole from my brother) - the truth we discover as we evolve and the world shrinks and our plastic shopping bags in new york city kill dolphins on the other side of the planet -

"There is no us and them. There is only us."

Thursday, October 14, 2010

how to be a leader without really trying...

[the context: i've written this to read to college students attending project nur's leadership conference this weekend from their website: project nur is a distinct and alternative Muslim voice: a civic identity grounded in pluralism and moderate thinking and action. it emphasizes civic action with the goal of forging a cohesive and mutually respectful multicultural community of university students committed to the advancement of human rights, civil rights, social justice, tolerance, understanding, and co-existence.]

i prefaced this talk with a quote from zarina, my middle daughter. when she was 10 or so, we were on our way to school where i was going to talk to her class about ramadan. she asked me, "so when do we find out that we're right?"

i said, "what do you mean?"

she said, "when do we find out that muslims are right and everyone else - like christians and jews and hindus - are wrong? do we find out when we die?"

and i said, "well, everyone is right. it's all the same thing. it's like a language, you can call god, allah, jesus, buddha, krishna and they are all just names for the same thing. all religions are trying to get us to the same place."

so here i am speaking in a muslim context, but i am really speaking to everyone. because we are all in this together.

here goes:

everywhere you look now, business culture is telling you how to be leader. there are books, seminars, cds and dvds all telling you to take charge.

saturday night, my daughter and i walked past a pop-up shop on 23rd st (in new york city) and there were mobiles and signs with affirmations and personal cheers like this:

be an individual
stand up for yourself
go your own way

you know the stuff. you see it all over the place. on posters, printed at the bottom of textbooks.

it occurred to me that the best leaders are the people who become leaders without really trying.

which doesn't mean it's easy. actually, it's really really hard. it's harder than doing every single leadership course and reading every book on it. that's like putting a lot of time into learning how to drive a car without ever knowing what you will drive or where you want to go.

from my experience on the planet, the best leaders are not the ones you imagine. they're not the ones who run the mean girls groups or the bullies in high school. they're not the ones who seem to have tons of friends around them all the time. they're not the ones trying to control anyone at all. a born leader isn't always - in fact, isn't often - a good leader.

real leaders, from my experience, are the people who are dedicated to a cause. who really believe in an idea. who are passionate and committed. so much so that they sometimes seem almost crazy.

in the harvard business school's "primal leadership" handbook, the initial premise - the culmination of their studies, articles and research - is that the "fundamental task of leaders... is to prime good feelings in those they lead. That occurs when a leader creates resonance - reservoir of positivity that frees the best in people."

this is interesting both from a prosaic perspective as well as from a spiritual one. for the purpose of this post, a great leader is someone who - by the example of their integrity and dedication - inspires others to something greater, bigger, more important.

for example, if you are obsessed with knitting and you go out of your way to find and create exceptional wool, and in the process, improve the lives of sheep and the people who raise them; you could find yourself an environmental leader.

from a spiritual perspective, if as a muslim, you take the life of the prophet muhammed (p.b.u.h.) - not necessarily the historical life, but the life and stories that we use as an example and a tool to help us negotiate the world - you find a man who is so devoted to the idea of the oneness of God and teaching compassion, honesty and tolerance that others eventually followed him.

it should be obvious here that a leader isn't in it for the money.

not that there's anything wrong with making money - but the power comes from the dedication to something bigger than personal profit - that's what draws people to you.

in my personal experience, i found i've become a leader when i've clearly stated what i believe in and how it makes me feel. people are drawn to that, they respond to it. not because i am trying to stand out, but because we are all humans and we recognize the universal emotions amongst us. when one expresses those feelings honestly and clearly, even to the point of vulnerability, people feel moved.

the most important lesson i learned from advertising came from a neurologist called donald calne. he said, “the essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action while reason leads to conclusions.” (his book is called, “within reason: rationality and human behavior”)

the next step, once you are a leader, or perhaps when it's thrust upon you - as i found, when i suddenly became executive creative director of a large team at mccann-erickson - is what you do with it.

it seems that the biggest stumbling block for leaders is assertiveness. clearly and simply telling people what to do - whether they support you or sneer at you. most leaders, or people placed in positions of power, have trouble negotiating between over-assertiveness or under-assertiveness. under-assertive people become bullied by the people who they are meant to lead. they try too hard to be liked - they end by lacking direction.

in my case, i went out and bought a book called, "the girl's guide to being the boss (without being a bitch.)" or the chick in charge... i was trying to get a group of hostile people to work together, somewhat unsuccessfully.

and we all know the problem with over-assertive people - you've been avoiding those kids on the playground since you were four or five.

in forbes online recently, there was an interview with a neurobiologist about the brain chemistry of leaders. the interesting find was that as leaders become more successful, their testosterone levels rose, activating their dopamine systems. this means they become less empathetic to others and more likely to have a sense of infallibility.

the challenge for leaders, as they become successful, is arrogance.

we don't need brain scientists to tell us that, just history. or just the newspapers.

again, there's a spiritual side to this. just read lao tzu's "the art of war" - "a leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves." as muslims, we can take our example from the prophet as well, a great leader is selfless. it's not personal glory, it's the greater good.

bizarrely, as someone who works in advertising, i've always felt that selflessness has to be the starting point in every conversation.

i still try and sell stuff and often stuff of questionable tangible value. but i always try and find the larger story in every product. i try and find how it is part of the greater good. i might be working on a fragrance for calvin klein, skincare for avon or clothing for jennifer lopez, but i always try and approach it by thinking about the message it creates for society. sometimes, it's as simple as feeling better about yourself - and thus being kinder and more peaceful - in a crazy world. other times, it's about social or environmental responsibility.

i started my own advertising agency with the idea that it is possible to use the forces of capitalism for good. that it wasn't always about getting the consumer to love your brand, it was about loving your consumer. so if you were selling a lipstick, you were thinking about women and girls' self-esteem and confidence. if you were selling a pair of jeans to an african-american guy, you were thinking about his role in society and helping him get educated and stay empowered. i got involved with park51 - the lower manhattan muslim community center project - because i felt it was crucial to have an interfaith, non-sectarian space with a muslim starting point.

of course, i wanted it - and we needed it - in my neighborhood.

all that said, in my mind, there's a pitfall to all the conversation about leadership today. especially in the workplace. it's flipside to the '50s and early '60s where people did what they were told and often didn't question it. they worked, got married, had babies, watched them grow up, retired and died. they tended not to switch careers or get divorced or go back to college to re-think. they tended to lack perspective and larger goals.

but today, it's the opposite. it's all opposition. with all the go-your-own-way and take-a-stand theories, it's hard to get the boat moving at all. too many people are overwhelmed with the do-your-own-thing mentality and it takes years for them to figure out what that thing is. they flip-flop. they don't know how to fit into an organization and they don't know how to follow. my mother quoted a native american phrase, "there are too many chiefs and not enough indians."

too many people are trying to be leaders - and for the wrong reasons, more out of a desire for personal glory than a desire to change things for the better for everyone. too many people are leaping up and taking over because they want control, or they think they do, but they're not sure where they're going.

most people would be better leaders if they learned how to be better followers. how to listen more closely to what leaders were saying and choose smarter ones to follow. how to impact leaders - because as a follower, you give the leader his/her power - to stand up for the greater good. if you don't like the message, let the leader know, especially if it's a message that pretends to speak for you. don't let your leaders talk about violence or intolerance.

as a follower, if you believe in your leader, stand up for him or her. blog, twitter, facebook - the internet is a free and fast way to connect to a wide range of people. it's a communication platform. but what's even more useful - show up - attend events. create critical mass. be a body. not just a wired "slack activist."

in the days before the internet, people used to say, "you vote with your feet." or "your wallet." in today's world, that's even more powerful. go there. don't just join the facebook group, boycott (or buy) the brand. march. sit-in. talk to people.

malcolm gladwell wrote in the new yorker about why social media wouldn't have - couldn't have - created the civil rights movement in the u.s. because social media can often win minds, but it can't always win hearts. it can't often drag us away from our laptops and inspire us to take risks in the real world. "social media alone doesn't inspire the kind of high-risk behaviour required for social activism." we need to be more than "slack activists" and make things happen.

what was frustrating for me, as a muslim, was that after sept 11 - and even today - people going on about how muslims don't speak out about the violence and intolerance. i started a not-for-profit, 100 percent human and muslims for peace, especially to create that unified public voice. i don't want to argue - muslims DO speak out - but we need to do it more. and we need to speak out even more about the people who represent us. yes, on blogs and twitters and articles, but also in real life.

so in a sense, yes, every single one of us has a responsibility to be a leader - a thought leader - to talk to everyone we know about what we believe, at home, at work, in social settings. we all have a responsibility to do something that will make the world a better, kinder place because that's why we're here in the first place.

(oh, and i just answered the question - "why are we here?" - as well)

so - back to the beginning - the best leaders are the ones who aren't really trying. they're just trying to be better people.