My life, philanthropy, work as an entertainer, and non-profit pursuit have been guided by the belief that the future is in our hands and thus open to our influence, that we have the power to impact culture with important implications for ourselves, our environment, and our shared future.
I was born in Paris in 1959, into a family of Iranian immigrants. My father passed away when I was only 2, and two years later I was sent to a boarding school in Switzerland where I lived and studied until adolescence. I was an introverted teenager with a fascination for magic, for outer space and anything that held a mystery – inspired by things I couldn’t understand. My passion for magic didn’t turn into a career until my mid-thirties, and my passion to understand life, which guided me my entire life, led to a second career in the non-profit world in my fifties. (I’m not too old yet).
Moving to the United States at the age of 12 was like an explosion of openness. A liberation of some sort. It was here that I realized that teachers were human beings, unlike the distant demeanor they maintained in a strict boarding school in Switzerland. And for the first time in my life I felt like a “person.”
After attending Amherst College and teaching for a few years, I went for my Master’s in Education. I had experienced myself how Education hadn’t really prepared me for the big questions in life, such as who are we, and what are we here to do with our precious life? Essential queries which we are so often left to deal with on our own. It was clear to me that education needed a major transformation. It needed to include a very important core subject that was missing – our humanity. But how to do that?
As that vision became more concrete, it became evident that education could indeed go much further in supporting students to explore, discover, and develop their humanity, to expand their character, openness, purpose and understanding about life, in ways that didn’t rely on religion and spirituality. Through my own philanthropic investment, and the support of my wife Francesca, the Open Future Institute and the QUESTion Project were born. Through programs and a creative curriculum, students have an opportunity to dive into the all-important human questions that are at the heart of building an identity and finding one’s place in a larger whole.
But starting Open Future Institute wasn’t easy. Sometimes when we have a profound vision we can be unrealistic about what it’s actually going to take. At the beginning I was often met with responses such as: “Sounds great but how are you possibly going to do that?” And since I had still had to do the hard work of defining the “how”, there was not much I could say, but stay true to my sense that it was possible. I was often regarded as an idealist without substance, and that struggle is ultimately what enabled me to connect that deep inspiration and vision with the most practical and realistic steps to bring the project to fruition. This is a struggle that I’m sure is very familiar to my philanthropic peers. The institute is now a product of extensive planning and crucial feedback from experts and students, along with the input of my wife, who is now the Executive Director and co-conspirator.
The QUESTion Project’s high school curriculum supports students to go into some of the big questions in life and deal with five important topics: choice, purpose, fearlessness, interconnectedness and a bigger picture.
When education formally includes humanity as a core topic, my work will be accomplished. This may not happen in my lifetime, but as educators see the curriculum we created and the impact it is having on students, we are building important support and momentum. As a new organization, we have just completed a few pilots in universities and solidified a beautiful partnership with a public high school in the South Bronx, where we taught three daily electives for a full semester. We are now working on expanding to other schools to build models for the larger step of scaling that will follow.
With this vision – and now a concrete tool for making it a reality – I’ve also struggled with drawing a line between how much money to keep for our family’s future and how much to give to the institute. I don’t believe there is a single objective answer to this question. Before getting married I lived in a $600/month apartment, gave away 90% of my savings to different causes, and it was all effortless! But after getting married, moving to New York City, and taking into account my responsibility for the future, I recognized the importance of building some savings for the long term. While my financial contributions have lessened and are primarily focused on Open Future Institute, the QUESTion Project has presented me with the privilege of contributing my time which I find deeply purposeful because of the potential I see as students find the courage to truly be themselves.
To me philanthropy is all about being oneself anyway. And just as we are not perfect, we cannot expect our philanthropy to be perfect either. Philanthropy is very powerful when it is an extension of ourselves rather than an outside object that we relate to. And as we improve and expand our perspective on life, so can we improve and expand our philanthropic approach. The talents and resources we hold serve as an expression of who we are. And I found that the most powerful way to approach money is to associate it with who are we; clearly, consciously, and with what really matters to us. I think about questions like how can money, as a tool and energy, be used as a further expression of who I am, what I’m feeling and the things I care about?
My other professional work as a mentalist and speaker/entertainer is guided by this same spirit and a love of mystery. I really enjoy creating an experience that evokes wonder and mystery, where people can suspend their ideas of what’s real or not, and of what’s possible. I see myself as an artist and my art as a metaphor for not putting everything in a box. In wonder, we suspend our ideas, and boundaries can disappear.
What incredible good fortune to have a successful career that gives me the opportunity to evoke mystery for others, while having a non-profit career that allows me to support students to dig deeper into the mystery that is our humanity. I guess you could say the mystery of life has truly captured my heart…