Intelligent, with a biting yet witty take on life, Maz Karimian is about one of the most international people I know. Half Iranian and half English, he spent his childhood in the southeast of England living ‘a very English lifestyle’, before heading to America for a year of eating Fruit Loops and donuts. He then spent his teenage years in Spain, where he found himself completely liberated, free to his heart’s content to experiment and learn what life was about, before returning to England to study economics, politics and philosophy, which gave him an insight of how the world worked.
“Economics asks you to put parameters on human behavior, and that seems unnatural at first, insofar they are quantifiable parameters about preferences and goods, and the idea of utility and happiness.”
“It sounds like a very pretentious set of motivations, but I was curious to understand what went on in the news each day. What were the structures or patterns that could or should be identified? It was a very stimulating three years, as I majored in Economics, which I found very interesting. I had always been a very passionate kind of literary teenager. I absorbed a lot of books, I loved reading and debating, quite Socratic, I suppose you’d say. Economics asks you to put parameters on human behavior, and that seems unnatural at first, insofar they are quantifiable parameters about preferences and goods, and the idea of utility and happiness. All those things were quite alien to me. I found it quite fascinating, and it presented a new mode of thinking. That’s essentially what led me into advertising, because advertising, being what I do now, is very much about trying to understand and influence, for better or worse. In many ways, it applies many of the principles you find in politics. It also meant I had the opportunity to do cool things with cool brands, or do photo shoots to try on new skin creams or whatnot, but also the opportunity to essentially put into practice some of the stuff I had learned, to try and understand a little bit more about culture for the sake of culture.”
When Maz told me he had a very liberating time in Spain, all kinds of alarm bells went off in my head. I asked him to expound a little on his years in Spain.
“There’s nothing that’s bolder and more open-minded than a drunken teenager!”
“I don’t want to incriminate myself, but there was an awful lot! I lived in a very rural area. There were obviously villages and towns, but you had to make your own fun at a lot of times, and that meant a lot of exploration. Oftentimes, it meant meeting different social groups as you walked around different villages, trying to interact with them. There’s nothing that’s bolder and more open-minded than a drunken teenager! That was the spirit in which I would approach new people and try to get to know them. Some ended up becoming friends for a week, and some for months and years. It was just a very open-minded place because there wasn’t a set style of fun to be had. Because it was rural and desolate, there wasn’t an automatic club or bar that you could go to.”
After studying in England, Maz then moved to Singapore for a year, and has now recently moved to New York. With so much moving in his life, I wondered if it was something in moving that he sought out.
“I’ve tried to integrate, and I think I’ve done a good job.”
“The process of moving is torture, but the motivation behind moving is to essentially challenge myself to adapt to a different cultural environment. People in different cultures have different expectations of how one should behave, and have different ways of making friends and appreciating culture and art, and so on and so forth. I guess my chief motivation for moving would be trying to give myself different challenges as far as absorbing a new way of thinking or a new way of living. That’s been something I’ve been lucky enough to live out. I don’t think I’m doing a terrible job so far. I think I’ve made a serious effort at integrating and understanding the cultures that are local to the places I’ve been in, rather than just floating around in my bubble, which is very easy to do, particularly in today’s highly digitized world. I’ve tried to integrate, and I think I’ve done a good job.”
With all that moving, what did he know now, that he didn’t realize prior to moving?
“I think what I’ve found out about moving is that people are very curious the world over.”
“I think it’s a cheesy one, but it’s become very apparent to me that people are very similar the world over. I think a lot of things are clichéd because they are true. There are a lot of people who like to do things the way they’ve always done them, which is absolutely fine. And there are a lot of people, wherever you are, who are very hungry for new experiences. Oftentimes, as a foreigner, I’ll be potentially a conduit for sharing knowledge about the UK, like what kind of crumpets people are buying at home! All these sort of insights are what I can offer in exchange for insights of people in the places I’m in, and I want to know about. I think what I’ve found out about moving is that people are really curious the world over. Playing into that mutual curiosity and trying to satisfy it is in a two-way kind of way has been deeply, deeply rewarding for me as a person.”
I have to agree to this statement, where people are similar the world over. What I’ve found is that humans generally have the same emotions, but it’s the culture that we’re in that shapes the response we give the world. An angry Japanese vs an angry Chinese are probably equally angry, but are going to be react in very different ways due to social norms and how they grew up.
When it comes to moving, there are people who would like to make that leap but are afraid and find it something terribly difficult. What was the hardest thing for Maz, when it came to moving?
“Forming new relationships with people, making new friends and starting over. It definitely gets easier with practice, but there is a certain inertia, insofar if you’ve essentially kind of left behind folks that you used to see every day, and you used to hang out with every day. There’s a pang of immediate nostalgia as soon as you touch down in a new place. It makes you want to turn inward and just scroll through Facebook, and try, in an artificial way, to maintain that really close connection. There’s a face-to-face component to friendship, and moving doesn’t mean the connection is devalued or destroyed in any way, but it just means that it’s not possible to keep it up in the form you’ve previously kept it in. I remember my first week in Singapore, before I began work, where I would have the imperative distraction of meeting people. I spent a week wandering around malls, searching for WiFi, trying to make sure nobody back home was having fun! And they were all having fun! There’s a sort of tendency to have that kind of nostalgia. But I think it’s something that everybody gets over, and realizes the need to build new friendships. It just takes some people a little longer than others.”
“I think the more people know people, the more potential to have deep and fun connections.”
“One of the things I’ve been fortunate enough to try to do in New York is to try and expedite that process and be assistive in that if I know a new person who’s just moved into that city, I’ll try to invite them along to gatherings of friends that I have now. I think it’s good for everyone. I think the more people know people, the more potential to have deep and fun connections. Yeah, that’s been something I enjoy, trying to help people. I’ve become more proactive when it comes to social interactions as I’ve gotten older.”
I have moved a few times, and I have always found that you will always find people were strangely negative about it. When I said I was moving to Singapore, people tut-tutted about how expensive it was and how my salary wouldn’t be enough. When I moved to Japan, people advised me to get used to living in a tiny, cramped apartment. (Actually, ‘advised’ is an euphemism. A lot of them pulled long faces and asked why I would really want to stay in a super tiny place.) I wanted to know if he had similar experiences to people being negative about an upcoming move.
“For the most part, people are honest and direct about their own experiences, and I certainly wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“I’m British, so my default mode is complaining. I’m pretty thick skinned when it comes to people expressing their reservations about a place. I think maybe it’s just an element of them trying to prepare you and give you the real situation that goes beyond the touristy Big Apple, or Singapore the shining city. I guess it’s a desire on their part to show you what life is really like there, and everything has its positives and negatives. But in terms of things that they choose to pick out, whether it’s Singapore or New York, I appreciate the perspective either way. I think ultimately what you have to do is try and talk to a bunch of people, ideally from different vantage points in the society you’re going to be in, whether they’re younger or older, male or female, high paid or low paid, and try and compare and cross reference what life is really like. For the most part, people are honest and direct about their own experiences, and I certainly wouldn’t have it any other way.”
I found his response very, very refreshing. It was also pretty inspiring to me that he had such a positive perspective on what I had perceived as annoying and irritating!
He’d spent a year living and working in Singapore, which is where I had met him. What did he find surprising and different about Singapore?
“I found myself pleasantly surprised in that Singaporeans have a lot of warmth and are very passionate about many things.”
“Before I moved to Singapore, a few people had told me that I should brace for impact, as I was going to a place where people were very reserved and socially quite conservative, not necessarily in terms of thoughts and issues, but in the way they would welcome newcomers. So I went in, with I think, I guess I didn’t quite believe it, but there was an element of pessimism because of the folks who had told me about the element of being reserved in Singaporeans. They had lived in Singapore before themselves, so I was a little nervous in that regard. I found myself pleasantly surprised in that Singaporeans have a lot of warmth and are very passionate about many things. I found there’s quite a big misconception in Singapore insofar that people think all of them just kind of float around in a sort of consumeristic way, and certainly, there are some people like that, but at the same time, there’s an increasingly rebellious side, particularly to young Singaporeans, who take the traditional kind of Asian set of principles and apply them in an unorthodox way. I found myself in conversations with people and they would make certain statements that shed new light on a certain issue. So I was impressed by that. I didn’t know if I just lucked out, but I joined a local football team that my colleague Jaryll was in, and the guys there were really welcoming. I guess the gateway drug was football and a shared passion for that, but that was the basis of getting into good conversations about all sorts of topics. After all, young guys are young guys the world over, so there are plenty of similarities.”
And what about New York?
“The biggest misconception is that people here are far, far friendlier than they get given credit for. That isn’t the case when they’re behind the wheel of the car, where everyone seems to turn into Lucifer, but outside a car, people are just very friendly! Often times, especially on nights out, you will have little interactions on the street with people, that are always positive. It’s like a city you go to and it’s something that you jump into, you’re like a rock at the centre of the earth, , and you’re being formed under that pressure. I think that pressure makes you understand what you value professionally, because unquestionably it’s a professional city. I feel the reason the social spirit of New York is so strong is almost a response to the professional sphere of New York, where it’s all about work, work, work, and crush it, crush it, crush it. I think it’s great, that sort of extreme part of New York, you’re always on, always looking for something fun to do, or something to grab, and that’s very much intrinsic, it’s part of the bargain. I don’t think it’s forever, like I said, it’s a professional city, and you come here to be formed. I think once you’re formed, you might move on and find a place to be in a more permanent state, but for the time being, it’s very, very stimulating, for better or worse.”
With so much moving around and being exposed to so many different cultures, I ask Maz to share with us a lesson he has learnt.
“I would say there’s no intrinsic right answer to any given problem, especially in the context of business problems. That’s become really apparent to me. What I find most exciting about being in marketing is that you can come across a new challenge, whether it’s repositioning a brand that’s targeting a new demographic or approaching a new cultural trend, and there’s no right answer to the question of the future. You actually have to forge it yourself. I think my work is most stimulating when I have the opportunity to answer questions that haven’t been asked before.”
Like everyone else, he has his bad days. How does he deal with it?
“I’m a big believer in informal talk therapy, and it might just be a side effect of my inability to ever stop talking. I find myself to be much more contented with a situation that’s negative when I have the chance to get the view of my friends or colleagues on it, and hear their take on it, whether it’s sympathetic or not. That’s always a release. I think what is very important is to have a physical component too. In your day to day, it’s really easy to sit in a chair for hours, and whether you do well or badly in that 8 hours, you build a lot of tension. I always find whether it’s doing some cycling, swimming, walking, hiking or doing some gym work is a good alternative to being in my head. Doing and moving versus being still and mulling things over. I think it’s important to strike a balance between these two, because people tend to overthink and analyze to the nth degree.”
When he thinks of success, who’s the first person that comes to mind?
“Happiness, which I classify as a state of success, comes from relating to others, putting yourself in their shoes, forming connections with them with the help of natural empathy, which I guess is humanity’s greatest asset.”
“Adam Smith. He obviously wrote ‘The Wealth Of Nations’, which you might say is almost a book on capitalism in a way. In actual fact, the book of his which I found most impactful, which is arguably a book that has been most important to me as a person is an early work of his called ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’. It basically sets out his beliefs on how humans work, in terms of our empathy, our ability to share feelings with another, and the kinds of conclusions one comes to.
Happiness, which I classify as a state of success, comes from relating to others, putting yourself in their shoes, forming connections with them with the help of natural empathy, which I guess is humanity’s greatest asset. If you look at us, we’re just a bunch of feeble apes. A gorilla would wreck us, a chimp would wreck us one on one. But together, we hang out, and we’re like, let’s build a house. So success to me is essentially relating and connecting to people. I’ve identified those personal relationships that are the most fulfilling, rewarding, surprising things. There’s nothing more surprising than other people. People will always provide you with new things. Every generation is so different from the one before it, and if you keep hanging out with people, you’ll never be lacking in support and stimulation. I think that’s a pretty strong definition of success.”