I grew up in the beautiful coastal town of Mombasa, Kenya. The setting was idyllic and languid. But underneath that calmness, there were extremely high expectations of me. My parents had to drop-out before completing high school, and my father in particular was determined that this fate would not befall my sister and I. So we were expected to work extremely hard so we could “make something of ourselves.” While today I greatly appreciate their focus and discipline, it was a tough upbringing, and I well remember the humiliation of getting hit from time to time for not scoring perfect marks on a test or exam!
I carried this resentment for almost two decades, but it would be many years before I understood the fear that drove my parents, and only then could I forgive them for being so intolerant of my mistakes. For years too, I lived with terrifying nightmares about starting to write an exam, and drawing a total blank.

However, my blessing was that I drove myself to study hard, aim high, and was able to get into one of the best boys schools in Canada in 1977, thanks to the incredibly generous support of my uncle Alli Amlani who drive a taxi to pay for my schooling. I was ecstatic when I gained admission to Trinity College, University of Toronto, won a prestigious scholarship that covered all my costs, and by age 23, had completed an MBA from the Rotman School, also at University of Toronto.

Life moved fast My childhood sweetheart Narmin and I decided to get married at 20, had our first child Aliya at 23, our second child Amaan at 25, and by age 30, I had secured a number of promotions to become Vice President, Facilities at Sunnybrook Hospital, one of the largest teaching hospitals in Canada. I oversaw a construction and development portfolio of $500million, and by age 34, was ready to move on to bigger, entrepreneurial challenges, having accomplished everything I set out to do in record time. But something deep down inside also told me that as successful as I had been, I had not yet found my true calling. Little did I know it would take me over a decade to do so, with many ups and downs along the way.

But “success” came at a price. I was frequently ill with stress induced stomach pain, which saw me hospitalized three times for almost a week at a time. I was so driven to succeed that I did not pay enough attention to my marriage, so our relationship floundered for quite a while. And regrettably, I did not spend enough time with the children, leaving Narmin to bear the brunt of child-rearing responsibilities. As if my work responsibilities and challenges were not enough, I also had a senior level volunteer role in my faith based community, managing a heavy communications portfolio, to which I brought my same strong need to succeed, at all costs. You see, I was still trying to please my father. Again, I did well, but by 1995, was burnt out and quit my volunteer responsibilities at the end of a three year term, which capped a then-15 year volunteer career. In the process of working so hard, always feeling I had to prove myself, over and over again, my spirituality nose-dived, and my health continued to have more valleys than peaks. I was becoming increasingly miserable.

After soul searching for a year, I decided in 1995 to join Narmin’s small but growing communications firm, as we saw great possibilities at the dawn of the Internet. We grew the firm, moved to increasingly bigger space and more staff, and in 2000, moved again. But this time, a combination of factors would almost push me over the edge, making me so depressed that I would end up wanting to take my own life.

First, the Internet bubble burst. Not only did business from our technology clients dry up, but we lost a significant investment in a fledgling Internet start up. At the same time, we had high overhead expenses, including a particularly expensive office lease that we had entered into at the height of the Internet boom. Business friends advised us to declare bankruptcy and walk away from the lease. We stubbornly refused, and took on more debt to keep us going. Our integrity was the one thing we would not compromise: we committed to meeting our obligations, though at great cost to us.

Then my lower back, which had seen many ups and downs over 20 years, gave way completely, leaving me in agony that I could only control with increasing doses of morphine, and soon, a more powerful narcotic, OxyContin. For the first time in my life, everything seemed helpless. I could not apply my usual formula of hard work and obsession with getting results to solve our business problems. Some days, it was too painful to even come down the stairs for dinner with the family. My relationships with my immediate family soured, and I had no time for my extended family. I struggled with my volunteer role, doing the best I could, but enjoying it less and less every day. Having succeeded in many ways to date, I felt completely helpless, and useless. And to top it all, what little spirituality I had left evaporated in the face of these difficulties.

I saw only one way out, to take my own life, and I had the means at hand – lots of powerful painkiller. Each midnight as medication wore off and I woke up in pain ready for the next dose of massive painkiller, I thought how blissful it would be to not have to face life anymore. I felt I was a burden to my family, and contributed nothing to the world, a stark departure from the success I had enjoyed to that point.

But a small voice in me told me not to go through with it. My parents had always been deeply religious, and so had I until my teenage years. I knew that the taking of one’s life was severely forbidden within my faith, as it is in many other faiths, and furthermore, a Koranic injunction has always been at the back of my mind – “he who takes a life, it is as though he has killed all of mankind, and he who helps save a life, it is as though he has saved all of mankind.”
Over and over, I wanted to end my life, and had it not been this one thought, and the subsequent help that I was blessed to receive from Frank Tielve, just weeks before I was to go in for last recourse surgery, I would have taken my life.

Slowly, as my back improved, I began to rethink my priorities and outlook on life. I had let my highly depressed state get the better of me, and was blind to the many riches that were accessible to me every day: my family, friends, spirituality, nature, home, and meaningful volunteer work, to name just a few.

Then, a friend gave me a gift of two free tickets to an Anthony Robbins seminar, saying he thought I might find it inspirational. All I knew about Tony I’d learned from late-night infomercials, so I was skeptical.  However, I was still wrestling with the same questions about my life’s purpose that had plagued me during my darkest days, so I decided to attend.

The seminar made me think really hard about my life, and about what I wanted to achieve. It helped me recognize that I had overcome some incredible odds in the past, and that I had tremendous skills and potential, as each of us does.  Above all, I came away with the clear sense that I still had much to contribute to the world, especially since I had been very fortunate given my humble roots.

I promised myself I would take complete responsibility for every aspect of my life: my poor health, my disconnected spirituality, my struggling business, my strained family relations, and my continued dispirited outlook. I was inspired to outline a new vision for my life, one dramatically different from what I was experiencing! Most importantly, it was the beginning of my discovery that I was not alone in the world, but that I had a life spirit, a sliver of divinity, connecting me always to the greater divinity of life. In short, the Tony Robbins seminar, Unleash the Power Within, was a HUGE turning point in my life. It was also the start of unconsciously refining the blueprint that would soon become a proven process to help me transform my life dramatically, and that would later lead to my writing a book.

I came home from the seminar physically and psychologically energized. The next day I signed up for the 60 km Weekend to End Breast Cancer walk, something I had been contemplating for months, but thought I could never complete. After all, when walking round the block for a half hour represented the pinnacle of my recent fitness achievement following my back pain episodes, even thinking about 60km seemed painful! But, our bodies are remarkable resilient, and bit by bit, as the training walks grew longer and longer, my health improved. I began to think about my future in increasingly positive ways as well.

Narmin, who had also attended the seminar with me, was so impressed with my changes that she signed me up to attend Date with Destiny, a week-long, intensive seminar with Tony Robbins, in December 2003 though we could barely afford it. The seminar included a half-dozen life-coaching sessions. I had the great fortune to be coached by Elisa Palombi , who as it turned out, was one of Tony’s most senior coaches. Elisa’s support was pivotal in my staying on course with the changes I had begun to make in my life, and she remains a close, dear friend many years later.

Slowly, I intuitively incorporated systems that had allowed me to become very successful professionally during a 20 year period, when I had planned, managed and overseen over $750 million in unique building projects, both in my hospital role and as a volunteer involved with a major cultural project in mid-Toronto. I documented my daily progress, and started making rapid changes in my life.

I was determined to find a new strategic approach for my business. My colleagues and I charted a course to work with elementary and high schools in a way that allows us to help clients and causes we believe in, while putting ourselves on a firm financial footing. Though it has been a challenging journey, we are on track to achieving most of the ambitious goals from our five-year business plan.
Spiritually, I now feel connected all day long to my Creator. From July 2004 to July 2005, I woke up extremely early each morning to lead a congregation in meditation and prayer for two hours, reflect on my day, and then go for my morning walk, rain or shine. Most days, I still wake up at 4:00 am to meditate and pray in congregation, and to keep up my walking. And I discovered I have a gift for singing, now sing before congregations 1,000 people strong, and am working on my first CD with the many signing coaches who helped me over the last three years. Imagine: a few years ago, my fears prevented me from singing!

And I celebrate nature, whether it is being in awe at seeing a sunrise, giving an environmental focus to all my initiatives, or taking up photography. My relationships with my immediate and extended family have blossomed. Each day, I appreciate them more and more, and recognize how fortunate I am to have them in my life.  I thoroughly enjoy my volunteer commitments, where I have been involved in envisioning, leading and managing some $250 million of unique architectural projects over the last ten years.

Most importantly, my attitude towards life has changed. Now I see each day as a wonderful blessing, and as an opportunity to make an extraordinary difference in the world, one step at a time. I set “huge, audacious goals” for myself. I review these once a month to reflect on where I am and how I can spur my progress. Keep ANY Promise, a book about to be published, is an example of one of my audacious goals.  I am living and playing full-out, and keeping my promises.

These days, I radiate energy all day long. I have completed four 60 km charity walks to help end breast cancer, and Narmin and I have recruited teams to walk with us each year: together, we have raised about $70,000 to fight this devastating disease. In 2008, we plan to complete our fifth 60 km walk. Imagine: I thought I could not complete one walk!

I have lost—and kept off—forty pounds. I am free of painkillers, and from the massive back pain that plagued me for twenty-five years of my adult life. But while I’m extremely grateful for my good health, that’s only one of many accomplishments. Most have taken place over the last thirty-six months.

On January 20, 2005, I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with my daughter, Aliya. In March 2006, I organized a challenge for a group of high school students through a leadership development program that involved a trekking safari, an overnight climb up an active volcano, and a climb up Kilimanjaro, to raise almost $50,000 for HIV/AIDS projects. In March 2007, Narmin and I organized two such expeditions that will help support school programs in Kenya and Tanzania . . . and helped raise close to $200,000, impacting the lives of hundreds of young school children. And in August 2007, I hiked the Andes to over 15,000 feet, in preparation for an upcoming hike to base camp Everest and to fulfill a life-long dream to experience Machu Picchu!

If you had asked me a few years ago whether I thought such change was possible, I would have answered with an emphatic NO. But I now know that I am only scratching the surface of my potential. As I prepare to fulfill my life’s purpose over the next decades, I know that I am capable of much, much more, as we all are.

So, how did I become pain free, a mountain hiker, deeply spiritual, and closer to long-term financial stability, with great family relationships? How did I get to a situation where I am living my dreams?
I was able to take the key principles from my two decades of managing large, complex, one-of-a kind construction projects, and put these principles to use in my personal life.  I learned from the experts that the Universe placed in my path, people like Tony Robbins, Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, Dab Sullivan, Robin Sharma, Eckhardt Tolle and many others. I absorbed their wisdom, which resonated with my instincts.

As that thinking process has deepened, I am able to achieve more and more with my life, in the service of the world, my family, and myself: gains that I would never have thought possible in such a short time. I have had the good fortune of sharing some of my “wins” with family and friends. As I see them making changes in their lives, I’ve come to realize that by using the right tools and reshaping our thinking, we each have the ability to achieve our own transformations and fulfill the unique purpose for which each of us is on Earth.

Over this period, I have developed a very clear purpose for my life that guides my choices and how I spend my time, every day. Quite simply, my purpose in life is to get ever closer to my Creator by sharing my wonderful blessings to make an extraordinary difference in the world.
Over the next 20 years, I have four overriding promises I have made to myself:

1. Provide the opportunity for five million (yes, 5 million) individuals to transform their lives in the way mine has been transformed.

2. Consult to 20 non-profits in order to help them make huge leaps in their goals, and fulfill their missions even better.

3. Make annual charitable contributions of at least 25% of profits.

4. Continue my personal transformation (in health and fitness, spirituality, emotions, mental outlook, personal attributes, generosity, volunteerism and relationships).

Why did I pick the 5 million person goal, and why such an ambitious number?

Firstly, it is a small way to repay the incredible generosity that compelled my uncle to drive a taxi at nights and weekends to pay for my education, and that compelled so many to help me recover my health, climb my mountains, regain my lost spirituality, and turn around my business. How could I not reciprocate the generosity I have been blessed to receive all my life, especially when I was most in need of help?

Secondly, as five million people set about making huge changes in their lives, I am convinced that many of these changes will result in countless acts of selfless giving to make the world a better place for many. That would constitute true happiness for me.

Thirdly, I know that change is not easy. A complete life makeover on the other hand is even more difficult. I had to struggle to piece together the answers that helped my personal transformation over the last five years. I attributed my progress to the simple, comprehensive, and ongoing system I had developed through my complex project management roles, and the thinking of many other inspirational gurus. I hope I can help others not have to go through the same struggle.

But why five million and not another number? Well, my original promise was to help a million people. Then when I started thinking about a 20-year time frame, I realized that I could achieve much, much more than helping one million people achieve huge goals. So I thought: why not make an audacious promise, especially one that I had no way of knowing how I would achieve? I raised my goal to five million, with the sure knowledge that the Universe will respond in its own way, at the right time, to help me keep my huge promise.

Karim H. Ismail