DISCOURSE: May - Omid Scheybani
Welcome to DISCOURSE, my monthly blog series in which I shoot and interview a different individual each month and have a discussion on creativity, innovation, passion, and heart.
I first connected with Omid Scheybani through Instagram. One of us probably liked or commented on the other's photo, and that's how it got started. Eventually, I had the privilege of meeting Omid in person at a photo showcase he put on to tell the story of his trip to Iran. Omid is one of the most passionate, driven, ambitious, and remarkable individuals I know, and I was very honored that he agreed to participate in this.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and what you’re working towards right now.
I was born and raised in Germany. My parents are both from Iran; they migrated when they were in their twenties. They moved to southern Germany and started a life in Nuremberg, in a state called Bavaria, not too far from Munich. I grew up in a small rural town of 25,000 citizens. We did travel a lot as a family: we went to Turkey for summer vacation every year, as well as to Iran to see family. But I never imagined living further away than anywhere in Germany, where I grew up. It wasn’t until on one trip to San Francisco at the age of 9 to see my aunt who had moved from Iran that things changed. Sometime after that trip, my mom was tucking me into bed, and I remember getting out of bed and telling my mom “I really want to go back to San Francisco.” I was still very young, but visiting the City really impacted me even at that age.
In the small town that I grew up, I sensedn some narrow-mindedness regarding what life has to offer and exploring more than what meets the eye. I was the skater, punk-rocker, concert-goer, law-breaking teenager... I would tell my parents that I’d be staying at a friend’s house for the weekend and then drive to France with my friends to go to a punk rock festival and do all sorts of stupid things. I wasn’t really on a good track. In the meantime, I really had a passion for media. I was constantly shooting with my video camera and creating short films and documentaries. I even made a documentary about Iran at the age of 14, which was then aired at a film festival in Germany.
I wanted to do film and media, but my parents wanted me to pursue a career in business at a small private university called European Business School, so one day they forced me into the car and drove me to the open house. I remember that day vividly, because it was the first time that my opinion of something changed 180 degrees. At the start of that day, I thought that it would be the worst day of my life, but on the way back, I knew that I really wanted to go to that school. In Germany, most universities are very inexpensive, but this school’s tuition was 10 times more, so people in my circle of friends didn’t understand why I would go and pay that much for my education. But I liked it because it exposed me to smart and ambitious people, as well as opportunities to go abroad, such as my internship in Spain and my classes in Argentina. And that was very eye-opening, because for the first time, I was around people that I didn’t have to try to fit in with. In Germany, my life was centered around the idea of fitting in, plus there were few foreigners. But in Argentina, people were intrigued that I was Iranian from Germany and spoke Spanish, and they wanted to be my friend. That was really eye-opening to me because that was the first time I realized I wanted to be abroad and tap more into this feeling.
Upon returning to Germany, I finished my degree in business administration and started looking into opportunities to move abroad. I considered consulting, but didn’t find a job in that industry in the summer of 2009, so I had to look at other companies. A former classmate suggested that I look into Google. And I was like, “Nah, I’m not an engineer, I’m not a tech person, why would I do that?” But I ended up applying and getting an interview, so I flew to Dublin (Ireland) and got the job. I remember on the night I signed the offer, I thought that this was really great, but I really wanted to do consulting, so I would work at Google for a year, and then get into consulting after that. But after one month of working at Google, I knew that I wouldn’t be leaving any time soon. So I worked out of Dublin for a year and a half, and after that, I had the opportunity to move to the U.S. and work at the headquarters in Mountain View. At that point, I could speak Spanish and was starting to learn Portuguese, so my responsibility was to build out the cloud computing and distribution network throughout Latin America.
As I was approaching my 5-year mark doing that, I felt like it was time to move on. Either I find a different company to work for, or I invest more into my education. The MBA had always been on my horizon, because when I graduated from undergrad, I would say around 80% of my classmates directly went on to start their MBA. So I felt that after 5 years of work experience, I should do that as well. I applied to the program at Stanford, mostly inspired by some of the managers I had at Google who had the most profound impact on me personally and professionally. I didn’t get accepted at first, but I tried again and got in, and ever since September of 2015, I’ve been studying there. It’s been a great experience with its own ups and downs, but I’ve come to embrace it as something that is very different from my previous life, a life that I very much miss. I had a great routine and a great setup: getting to live in a wonderful city and working for an innovative company, and getting to work in a market that was as adventurous as it was exotic. But I understand that I’m making a long-term investment in my education and future career, and while it’s very different that what I used to have, it’s still a good experience.
A lot of people would have been content to stay at a place like Google and maybe even work there for the rest of their lives, especially if they were enjoying it and didn’t see any reason to leave. But it seems like you had bigger things in mind beyond money or career building, and that’s very admirable because it takes a lot of courage to do that.
Talk about your travels and how they have impacted your life.
To answer that, I want to talk about two things: linguistic fluency and cultural fluency. Linguistic fluency is explained through how many languages a person speaks and how well he or she speaks them. My awareness and passion for linguistic fluency is rooted in a comment that my grandfather made when I was in Iran with him: “Every language is like a ticket to a new world of ideas and values”. And I was very young, but that sentence really stuck in my head and shaped the way I look at languages. That was the point when I realized that I have to invest in languages. I’m 29 now, and I speak 5 languages fluently. My goal is to reach 6 by age 35, and 7 by age 40.
Linguistic fluency helps with something else: cultural fluency. That refers to your ability to throw yourself into another cultural environment and build empathy and connection with the people you cross paths with. It’s a mix of being curious, interested and empathetic towards the unknown, but it’s also about your ability to meet another culture on their eye level, which might be higher or lower than what you’re used to. Over the years, I’ve developed cultural fluency through my trips and can feel at ease going to a completely new, unknown place and connect with people there, as well as dive deep and absorb what the DNA of that nation’s culture is about.
Some of the trips that have impacted me most have been trips to remote places that aren’t very frequently visited. One of those places is Cuba, which I visited last year for 8 days. It was just me, my books, and my iPhone (no internet), and I spent the 8 days traveling like a nomad through the country. That was right when I left Google and was about to start the MBA program. I wanted to go on that trip to process the previous 6 years of my life. That was a very profound experience, especially getting to see how Cuba is a country frozen in time from 50 years ago.
Another trip that really impacted me was my trip to Iran that I did two years ago with three of my German friends. That was the first time I went to Iran not with my family and not to see family. Rather, I went there with my friends and to make friends. From the beginning to the end of that trip, it was all about meeting and connecting with young Iranians and building strong bonds through simple things, like sitting in a cafe and striking up a conversation with the people sitting next to us. And normally in Iran it’s weird, because people don't approach strangers there, but the fact that I spoke Farsi with a recognizable foreign accent really allowed me to break all these barriers, and suddenly people became very interested. We made friends that were not only momentary, but joined our trip and would come with us to the different cities and put us in touch with their friends in those cities. We experienced incredible, profound kindness from the Iranian people on that trip.
The last trip that really impacted me was my trip to North Korea. These trips typically are highly criticized, because North Korea is a very totalitarian regime, and tourists can be seen as taking personal fulfillment from the pain of others, for the sake of satisfying their curiosity. I acknowledge that criticism, but I want to point out that the person who took me there has been to North Korea 26 times on many different humanitarian and educational missions, knows the country really well and has a lot of friends there, and is someone that I trust. He designed this trip for some of his friends from school to gain deep insight into what life in North Korea is really like. Obviously, some of the elements we saw were things that the government wants us to see, but because of my friend’s contacts, we were able to see beyond the facade. And that’s why I joined the trip: not to satisfy my tourist curiosities, but more to take the opportunity to explore beyond the surface, or at least to see through the cracks. And we did! We had an amazing itinerary that allowed us to sit down with English-speaking high school and university students, without any government monitors, and have honest conversations. And that’s something that is normally inaccessible, so that was really important to me. But in the middle of the trip, we got caught in the worst snowstorm to hit North Korea since 1953 (since they started recording), and we were stuck in a rural part of North Korea for 5 days. All flights were cancelled, so we had to negotiate with the army to get flown out via helicopter, or get driven to the nearest harbor to catch a boat to China. It was the craziest, most surreal experience. Because this drastic reshuffling of the itinerary was beyond anything that we or the government monitors had foreseen, we just ended up seeing a lot of things that we weren’t supposed to see. I really came to appreciate the fact that we had a level of exposure that no tourist would ever have. So despite all the criticism, I know that this trip was a different one, from the way it was designed to the way it was executed.
It’s interesting that you brought up those three countries, because usually when people name countries that they don’t want to visit, it’s... those three countries. It’s cool that you were able to get a lot out of your trips to those places.
These three trips have really educated me around the massive gap between media and geopolitical tensions versus underground reality. Being the people that we are and the way we consume content, the dependency we have on outlets that are driven by very capitalistic motives and clickbait and so on, we need to acknowledge that the water we drink is colored. The news we consume is skewed towards what can make the networks money and what can attract eyeballs. That’s part of what drives me as a photographer as well: to come back and not portray what is known through media and what is seen through geopolitical tensions, but more like: what is actually happening on the ground? What do people actually feel and think? What are some of the real, raw emotions that people in those countries have?
Would you recommend that other people go to a place like North Korea too?
I'm torn. I would say do it if you have a way to go that allows you to see beyond the facade. I would recommend going with my friend’s company because they’re specialists in this, and they have a very interesting network in the country. But if you want to go on a tour through a government agency that takes you to all the places you “should” see, then I don’t recommend making the trip.
The first time we met was at your photo showcase of your Iran trip, which featured photos all taken on your iPhone. Talk about your approach to photography and how that has shaped your life and how you see the world.
I’ve always had a passion for media, but it was mostly on the consumption side, less on the creation side. I was the campus photographer during college, but it didn’t prompt me to buy my own camera or anything. So I dismissed photography as a path that I would probably never go down. It wasn’t until 2009 when I transitioned from a flip phone to a smartphone that had a camera on it, that I started to take more pictures. And it wasn’t until Instagram was released on Android (2012) that I realized, wow, there’s actually power in taking a picture, editing it, and then sharing it on a platform to get feedback and enter this recognition loop. And discovering that was simultaneous to my discovery of storytelling as a very meaningful way to share experiences and evoke emotions in others. And I realized that storytelling is something that can be done by speaking or writing using words, but also visually through photography. From 2012 on, I started taking photos and using Instagram with my Android phone, with no purpose at all, but simply because I enjoyed doing it. I started following some photographers that I really liked, like Chris Connolly and Pei Ketron, and I started studying their pictures. Whenever I liked a picture, I would ask myself, “what is it about this picture that I like, what can it teach me, and what can I implement in my own picture taking?” And that’s how it all started. I was able to implement those elements and techniques to get better, and people noticed. Friends noticed, and told their friends. Eventually Instagram noticed, and put me on their suggested users list. Suddenly you build an audience, and that only excites you more, because you realize that what you’re creating is evoking emotions in other people.
The way I do photography now is very much about capturing cultures and sharing them. I’ve been extremely fortunate in my life to have friends and family all around the world and have the means to go and see them, but also have jobs that allow me to go to places that I would otherwise not visit. My job at Google not only took me around the world to different conferences I would attend from Sydney to London, but it also allowed me to travel throughout all of Latin America, from Mexico all the way down to Argentina. Through these fortunate circumstances, I realized that it would be a shame if I didn’t capture what I saw and what I experienced, and if I didn’t share that with the world. So I call myself a “world culture storyteller”. It’s this notion of traveling the world, capturing the culture that I’m exposed to, then telling those stories through photography and words. More specifically, the way I look at photography is: I don’t take pictures; I create pictures. For me, no picture is a coincidence. The pictures I take... I already see them in my mind and in front of me. I see a corner, and even though there’s nobody there, I imagine a person walking through, and then I stand there and wait for that person to come. I see the outcome before I create it. I really enjoy seeing something, capturing it through photography, and then showing it to a person who says “Man, I was there too, and I didn’t see that the way you did.” For me, that is the ultimate recognition demonstrating that with my mind, eye, and skillset, I was able to capture something beautiful that other people were not able to see.
Photography is a central theme when I travel. On any trip, be it business or personal, my itinerary is often designed around places I want to visit because of good photo spots, or destinations that I want to visit because I’ve been inspired by other people’s photos. I recently went to Hong Kong for a mere two days, and it was a detour, but I really wanted to go there, because I’ve been inspired by the photographers there. And within those two days, I took a shit ton of pictures that became four weeks’ worth of sharing on Instagram. So photography has impacted my life quite a bit. It’s one of my outlets, it’s one of my passions, and it’s one of the things that really impacts my everyday routine.
Show me one of your favorite photos that you’ve taken, and share the story behind it.
This is a picture I took in North Korea. And to me, it’s extremely meaningful because it really symbolizes the thinking, effort, and appreciation for photography that I have. This photo was taken in Pyongyang. And what you don’t see behind me is the Kim Il-Sung Square, where all the military parades take place. Another thing behind me you don’t see is all the numbers on the ground where people are supposed to stand in tight formation. I was imagining what it would look like if every number was a person, how crowded the place would be. Then I turned around and looked across the river, and I saw this massive statue with a flame on top, and it was all hazy. I didn’t know if it was fog, dust or pollution, but it looked wintery and cold. What I started to notice was this incredible symmetry formed by the flanking buildings. And suddenly I saw this cyclist coming from the side, and I remember positioning myself and waiting for him to cross exactly the middle of this picture. I took 4 or 5 shots and ended up going with this one, and it’s become one of my all-time favorite shots that I’ve taken. One of the reasons for this is that the main thing exemplified in this picture is symmetry, and my appreciation for that is influenced by my background in Germany: I like lines, things being in order. But I also like how clean, naked, cold, and minimal this scene is. And for some reason, it strikes me as very vulnerable. This big empty space, this lone soul on his bicycle just going from A to B: a story unheard, a story untold.
Awesome, that’s a wonderful shot, and I can really appreciate everything you pointed out about it.
What’s your definition of a good life, and do you think you’ve achieved that?
That’s a good question. For context, I’ve been doing a lot of personal research and writing in the area of positive psychology and optimism. In fact I have a blog called The Positude, in which I regularly write articles about the different ways to think about life. The blog sits at the intersection of life, love, happiness, and leadership. One thing I like to say is, don’t be the guy who comes into the office on Monday and complains that it’s Monday. Mondays are one-seventh of your life, and you don’t want to be the guy who is miserable for one-seventh of his life. Some people live and work just for their vacation. Let’s say 10% of your life is vacation. Why would you hate the other 90% of your life? And I say this because I’ve been trying to move beyond this notion that a happy life is a destination rather than a current state. Once you change that perspective, you need to focus more on how you feel right now, what is missing, and what you can do to feel better, rather than thinking about a destination that you’re aiming for. Really, the destination is never static. With every achievement, it moves. I can tell you about an endless number of times that I would look at something and think to myself “once I get that, I will have eternal happiness.” But once I do get it, my definition of happiness and success moves up. That’s just the way we’re wired: because we compare, we’re ambitious, and we constantly want more for ourselves. So if you have a destination in mind, you can never reach it, because you can always do better, and it will never be perfect.
So the question is: how can you train yourself to be fully appreciative of and embrace what you have now? Am I happy with what I have now? Yes, I am. I’m enjoying a fantastic education surrounded by smart people, I live in a beautiful state in a beautiful country, while at the same time having opportunities to go abroad. Are there also things that bring me pain? Yes. I miss my parents. They live in Germany, and I don’t see them for months at a time. I struggle with the uncertainty of what I want to do with my life after graduation and the burden that comes with such a costly education. But our brain is evolutionarily wired to focus on the negative. Our identity today is shaped by evolution, evolution has always been about survival, and survival is all about identifying the dangerous, hence the negative. I acknowledge that life is filled with turmoil and uncertainty, but I don’t let those feelings take over my appreciation for everything else that is going well. There is so much that I can be appreciative of, so why let a few things take away from the joy that I could be feeling?
That’s a great outlook to have! What would your advice be for someone who is trying to figure their life out, or perhaps is similar to you but earlier in their journey?
First of all, I would tell them that, if they’re a bit younger (and this still applies to me), the best days of their life still haven’t happened yet. If you’re in your early 20’s, you’ve probably been working for 2-3 years, and you think the world owes you, and you forget that you haven’t even completed 10% of your career, and you’re critical with yourself because you didn’t get a promotion... just relax. There’s so much you can be looking forward to. The second thing I would tell them is: you can train yourself to become a much happier person. Being in that state is not a utopia; it’s something that you can actually achieve. I’m not saying that that state is static, and once you attain it, it lasts forever. It’s like going to the gym. You build up muscle, and if you want to keep that muscle, you have to keep going back to work on them. Positivity is the same thing. You need to train those muscles, but once you have them, you need to maintain them. So the question is: what are some things you can do to get there? What helps me a lot is certain books that help me shape my thinking around what kind of person I want to be and how I want to go through my life. These include The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by Robert Sharma, Positive Intelligence by Shirzad Chamine, and You’re a Badass by Jen Sincero (I found it at Urban Outfitters). Another thing that really helps me is the people I surround myself with. There’s this common saying that I really believe: you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. I also believe that five years from now, you are the product of both of the aforementioned things.
I’m 29 now, and when I was younger, like 25, I would ask myself, “what would the 40 year old Omid want to look back on?” Like if I had to write the story of my life, do I want to look back and write about my 25 year old self being heartbroken over a breakup and going through life being upset and angry? Or do I want to look back and be like, yeah this happened to me, but I overcame it really quickly and was able to become energetic and positive again and bounce back? What story do I want to look back on? And that’s really a profound question, but the answer was so obvious. Of course I want to look back on the person who was knocked down but was able to stand up quickly and move on. And realizing that I wanted the story to go that way, and be able to look back on it in 15 years, I was really motivated to change and do something about it. There were times in my early twenties when I was depressed, negative, and not appreciative of the things I had. And I remember these years going by: 23, 24, 25... and then I’m 26 and I realize that I’m in the second half of my twenties, and no one is going to give me back my early twenties. They’re gone forever. And if I don’t take my 26th year and make the most of it, that’s going to be gone too. Same with 27, 28... soon enough, I’ll be 40, and I’ll look back on the years that I didn’t appreciate and make the most out of. What a sad story to tell to yourself, to your children, and to the people around you. And that was the moment I decided that every year from then on needed to be better than the year before. And that’s how I’ve decided to go through life.
How much control do you think you have over that?
I’m learning to take control. At the end of the day, you’re in control of your feelings. They can take away everything from you, but not your ability to respond and to feel towards what has been done to you. And it’s not always easy. I’ve been hurt many times. I’ve been disappointed many times. I’ve been emotionally bruised many, many times. And I’ve had times that I wasn’t very compassionate with myself, where I would become melancholic and depressed. But at the end of the day, my ability to react is still in my hands. If there’s one certainty, it is that life will knock you down. But the variable of that equation is how quickly you get back on your feet. So I really believe that you can learn to be able to control these things.
Who are some people have inspired you over the years?
From a photography perspective, Pei Ketron certainly has been a big inspiration, like I mentioned before. On the professional level, one of my long term managers at Google named John Foong was one of my biggest inspirations and influences in life. He’s very smart, social, and driven, and very much a visionary who’s able to get people around him excited. He really believed in me. On my very first day at work, I had my first one-on-one with him, and I remember he said, “Omid, in eighteen months, I want you to get three offers from other teams.” And I was like, “What? Why would you want that?” And he said, “because I want you to be so good that other teams will come and try to recruit you. My responsibility is not only to make you good, but also to create an environment where you want to stay.” And when I heard that, my mind was blown. Now that is a leader who believes in you and wants you to be successful as a person. I didn’t even have to worry when it came time for salary negotiations, because he would take care of it. Building that relationship with him was profound.
Another person who really inspires me is my current roommate Benji. He’s very young, only 23, from Tanzania. We got to know each other before school started because he organized a trip to hike Mount Kilimanjaro. Benji and I connected really well, and I see him as a brother. He has political ambitions, and I always joke that if I had to put down money on who would be a future president of Tanzania, I would put down money on him right now, and I would put down a lot, because the odds are in my favor. He’s really talented in terms of hustling, street smarts, and being someone who’s able to connect with people really well. He’s also a very frugal person, because he grew up around a lot of poverty, and he grew up in a strong Christian family, and to this day is still a faithful believer. He really influences me in the way he views the world: his drive, his ambition, how intentional he is about making an impact in the world.
What are some things that you’re working on right now, and what are you excited about for the future?
Right now I’m pursuing my degree, and with that I'm trying to figure out where I want to live the next few years of my life, and what I want to do after graduation, which is still a good year away, but it’s certainly an ongoing thought process. More imminently, I’m thinking about how I want to spend my summer, which is four months long. School has been consuming me a lot, so most of my projects are somewhat related to school. I’m a co-chair of a club called Women in Management, and it’s very much about gender equality and helping women be more successful in a work environment. We’re trying to raise more awareness among men on what they can do to be more supportive of women in the workplace. I’m also on the Diversity Advocacy Committee of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where we think a lot about how we can create an inclusive environment for all sorts of identities, be it Black identity, Asian identity, LGBT identity, etc.
On a photography level, I’m going back to Iran this summer for one month, and I plan to capture a lot of different aspects of Iranian life. My last trip had a massive impact on me as a photographer, and also my relationship with Iran. I hope to replicate that, but also augment it and amplify the impact it can have on me and other people. I also want to go to Southeast Asia, because it’s an area that haven’t explored yet. Coming back from China a few weeks ago (which was the seventh Asian country I had visited in less than a year), I realized that Asia has to be, and will be, part of my life’s narrative going forward. I’m looking forward to going back there this summer, from a storytelling perspective, from a cultural perspective, from a photography perspective, but also just for the experience. I’ll also be picking up more projects once school is over.
Gear used in this shoot:
-Fujinon 35mm 1.4 lens