For much of my life, my circumstances have been far from idyllic. A brown Ismaili Muslim originally from Tanzania, I was raised in foster care in England. My mom had abandoned me to foster care so she could pursue a crazy dream. I failed my high school exams. After training to become a CPA and moving to Canada to start anew, I decided to try my hand at commodities trading. It was the mid-1980s. Gold prices collapsed soon after I began trading, and I went broke. Soon I had nothing to my name but a sleeping bag and colossal debt.
That fiasco was followed by teetering on bankruptcy as a result of the stock crash on Black Monday-October 19, 1987. What followed was investing and borrowing to set up a home furniture business, a luxury women’s clothing boutique selling extravagantly priced outfits, and a high-end Russian restaurant.
Within a year, Canada’s once-booming oil economy collapsed. My young family and I lost our home. All our possessions were taken and sold at auction, with no money to retrieve.
There was no time to think. I could only react to one crisis after another: being chased by creditors- both business and personal, needing to find a way to work without a bank account or credit cards, all of which had been closed down by the bank.
However, I did not let any of this define me. Instead, I did these four things that enabled me to shift to a winning mindset – and ultimately push through to succeed. I offer them as inspiration for others facing obstacles and adversity:
Shift from ‘If’ to ‘How’
The circumstances of my upbringing bred in me a persistent sense of ‘if.’ If I could get a decent education. If I could break free from my circumstances. If I could make a better life for myself.
But ‘if’ was a question that often left me in a pool of uncertainty, wrapping me in fear and doubt. Perhaps that was why I never tried my hardest in school – and sometimes didn’t try at all. Why bother if I was bound to fail? And fail I did: I failed my high school exams and didn’t graduate. Then I decided to try my hand at becoming a CPA. I took a training course but failed the qualifying exam not once but twice. None of these failures were due to a lack of knowledge or understanding but rather a lack of confidence, focus, and intent. After failing for the second time, it dawned on me: if I did not pass this exam, the prospects for my future would be bleak.
So I asked myself: “How do I need to prepare in order to succeed?: I made the choice to give it my all. The third time—which according to the rules, was the final time I could try—I succeeded at last.
After that, I decided to shift my perspective. I began asking ‘how’ instead of ‘if’ whenever a challenge arose. It was a transformative moment that took me from passively pondering my fate to actively charting my course.
This made all the difference – and can for others, too.
Leap into Action
Every struggle and every hardship I encountered was a lesson in disguise. Before passing the CPA qualifying exam, I felt stuck. But then I realized: the longer I wallowed, the more I was overcome by fear and doubt. The time to act was now.
So, along with asking “how,” I took a leap of faith and put the “how” into action. It is what I have done time and again ever since: when facing near bankruptcy, when considering new business ventures — even when raising my sons.
Only action will crush fear and break a stalemate.
Always Seek the Next Step
Action means both doing and thinking ahead. If one thing doesn’t work, you have to keep trying. When you’re in the midst of one endeavor, you need to think ahead to what’s next. This not only keeps you prepared but it prevents you from reverting to fear and paralysis.
When I asked myself: ‘What is the next step?’ I found my way through the darkness. Asking this question can become your beacon, turning insurmountable mountains into climbable hills.
Believe in the Path Forward
My journey has taught me one invaluable lesson: there is always a path forward. From my humble beginnings to my present success, I’ve learned to hold steadfast to this belief, even when times are tough.
Every challenge I’ve overcome serves as a reminder of my strength and resilience, reinforcing my conviction that no matter how tough the times, I can carve a path forward.
These four small but essential mindset shifts have been my compass, guiding me towards hope and determination even when the odds seemed stacked against me. Your narrative is your own, as unique as your journey. Remember, the power to shape your narrative, to choose hope and determination, lies within you. Emil Rem is a creative nonfiction writer, an eccentric accountant, and an advocate for overcoming the odds. An Ismaili Muslim originally from Tanzania, he has faced—and overcome—daunting circumstances all his life, from being raised in foster care in England to emigrating to Canada as a young adult. He is the author of Heart of New York and Chasing Aphrodite and has more books in the works. His mission in sharing his stories is to instill hope and inspire people to choose action, resilience, hope, and determination to overcome even the tallest of odds, undaunted.