It stands to reason then that establishing a sadaqah jariyah for yourself will also be extremely difficult, unless you somehow find a magical shortcut.
Like, maybe the internet.Read More
The Prophet (s) said, "When a man dies, his deeds come to an end except for three things: Sadaqah Jariyah (ceaseless charity); a knowledge which is beneficial, or a virtuous descendant who prays for him (for the deceased)." (Muslim) This is a hadith about legacy and leadership. What is the impact that you leave on the world? What change did you affect that will carry on well after your death? And how do you live your life in such a way that you accumulate good deeds after your death?
I often think about my family heritage. Some great grandfather or grandmother up the chain had to make the life altering decision to become Muslim, and then have it pass down for multiple generations. I don't know the names of those relatives, or even what century they lived in, but they made this impact on the faith of multiple generations.
Does leaving a sadaqah jariyah require a major life event like that? Or some huge project like building a masjid?
As much as this is a hadith about legacy and leadership, it's a hadith about effort.
The hadith itself teaches us what the dent looks like.
Leaving behind a charity requires significant sacrifice of time and money. That's actually the easy part. For a charity to outlast your life, you must also pay attention to sustainability. Many people are able to commit time and money, but very few are able to build something and then remove themselves from it to allow it to grow.
Leaving behind beneficial knowledge means you attained a high level of proficiency such that you're in a position to impart knowledge to others. Doing this requires a person to persist and excel in a field of study. It requires formulating a unique perspective. The knowledge you leave behind must be something that people value and are influenced by. This is a core tenet of developing your leadership capacity.
The righteous descendant who supplicates for you is perhaps the most challenging. One of the toughest leadership challenges a person faces is leading their family. How do you raise children in such a way that they have the God-consciousness to supplicate regularly throughout their lives? And what type of relationship must you have with your children such that they fondly remember you and miss you after your death? Those are not easy tasks by any stretch of the imagination.
An everlasting reward will not come without hard work. The real question to me is not what type of knowledge to leave behind, or how to set up a charity, or what the best parenting techniques are. Rather, the question is how do I build up the capacity within myself to be in a position to make those contributions?
Beyond cultivating characteristics like persistence and focus, there are three specific investments each person should be making.
First is education. Knowledge is a foundation of our faith. Education is less about the letters after your name, and more about your mindset and commitment. Is learning a habit for you? How often are you learning? What types of things are you learning? The more you learn, the more dots you connect, and the more insights you're able to develop that others won't see.
Second is experiences. Every experience we have shapes us in some way. The last time we taught in Sunday school, or worked a minimum wage job at the mall might have been over a decade ago - but the experience still affects us and plays a role in shaping who we are today. Find ways to try different jobs and projects. Volunteer for different activities. Go into things with an open mind and seek to find the benefit in different experiences.
Third is relationships. Family is emphasized heavily in our religion, as is good brotherhood and sisterhood. Relationships also require time and effort. Spend time with your family. Cultivate good friendships. Meet people with genuine curiosity and seek to learn from the experiences of others.
The intersection of these three - your education, experiences, and relationships - will always be unique to you. No one else on earth will have the same combination of these. These are what inform your perspective and build your capacity to lead and influence others.
This is how you leave your dent on the universe. It's not by people remembering your name. It is the small contributions you make that add value to the lives of others. This is the work that puts you on the path to leaving a legacy such that your actions continue to earn reward long after death.
This article is the 3rd in a series about Masjid leadership in the digital age and draws from the book Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World. To stay up to date on all new articles published here, please join our email list.
“Why in the world would you still have an Urdu khutbah in Toronto? You’re going to lose the next generation” was my question/argument to an Imam I was having dinner with from Canada.
“We have a large percentage of people who don’t speak English that attend the masjid, someone has to serve them” was the reply.
It was at this moment that the light bulb went off. Attracting the crowd that doesn’t come to the masjid, and serving the people who do come to the masjid aren’t at odds with one another - both are important. This may seem simple and obvious, but it is difficult to implement strategically for most communities.
That strategy depends on where your community is in its growth stage.
A new masjid will focus on outreach by default. It has to put effort into attracting new congregants and establishing a base.
Once established, there needs to be a hand-in-hand strategy of deepening the engagement of existing members, while also doing the outreach to increase the number of members.
That in-reach must be intentional. While it will involve things like weekly classes - these programs are a means, and not the goal. Whoever is tasked with the spiritual leadership, or shepherding, of the community must develop a vision for what that development (tarbiyyyah) process looks like over time and how to achieve it. Success for this must be measured on continued incremental progress, and not numbers. We tend to discount activities that don’t draw a large number of people and label them unsuccessful. These smaller, focused, and longer-term efforts are needed to develop new khateebs, teachers, and community leaders from within the masjid itself.
Outreach efforts will be at a larger scale and involve activities that may be less about ‘learning’. This includes more social events, family get togethers, and family night types of programs. These will favor things like enrichment and relationship building more heavily than learning or academics.
Conflict arises when people aren’t able to differentiate the two. People who are more inclined to formal study or academics will inevitably discount outreach efforts as not serious, or “edutainment.” We belittle them, not realizing that outreach efforts are the funnel that produce the people who end up attending the in-reach programs. Likewise, people who are more involved in activism or interfaith efforts will tend to discount in-reach efforts as ineffective because they don’t see immediate numbers or impact. Those in-reach efforts are the long game that is needed to continue community development.
We need to stop looking at these activities as "either/or", and more of a "both/and".
The modern mistake being made with both in-reach and outreach efforts is the over-reliance on social media. These activities, when done correctly, rely heavily on consistent personal interactions and building of relationships. When the modern masjid is expected to serve as a community center, or hub, people must meet to build community.
Social media is taken as a shortcut to achieve this. Some organizations feel that by live-streaming, podcasting, uploading, and being ever present on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter/Snapchat that they are automatically relevant, and doing their part to be accessible. These are great tools when used to serve a larger vision. They are an ineffective and a waste of effort if they only serve the end goal of “being on social media”.
Being on social media doesn’t automatically mean your impact is multiplied. There must be an actual vision and goal of the work being promoted. The pre-requisite to that is high capacity leadership already in place - meaning not everyone is going to be able to do this. An online presence must be strategic and not a dumping ground. What is the purpose of posting every khutbah? Or live streaming every class?
For many communities, social media is a great tool to do in-reach (NOT outreach) by letting community members stay up to date on local activities. And for a few, this online presence will translate into national or international impact because the work being done is already of such high quality that it attracts that regular audience from other locations.
Recognize what stage your community is in, develop a vision to grow it, and execute strategically on that vision.
This article is the 2nd in a series about Masjid leadership in the digital age and draws from the book Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World. To stay up to date on all new articles published here, please join our email list.
John Maxwell’s Law of the Lid states than an organization will never outgrow the capacity of its leadership. If you have low capacity leaders, you’ll be stuck with a low capacity organization (and talented members stuck there will eventually leave). If you have high capacity leaders, you'll have a high capacity organization (and attract talented members).
“Leadership ability is always the lid on personal and organizational effectiveness. If a person’s leadership is strong, the organization’s lid is high. But if it’s not, then the organization is limited. That’s why in times of trouble, organizations naturally look for new leadership. … When a church is floundering, it searches for a new senior pastor. … The relationship between leadership and effectiveness is perhaps most evident in sports where results are immediate and obvious. Within professional sports organizations, the talent not he team is rarely the issue. Just about every team has highly talented players. Leadership is the issue. It starts with a team’s owner and continues with the coaches and some key players. When talented teams don’t win, examine the leadership.” -John Maxwell
It is common to see communities go through an establishment phase with the building of infrastructure and institutions. Once built though, many struggle to attract new congregation members. Maxwell says, "a stagnant church leader stunts the growth of the church."
Sports provides a unique insight into this phenomenon. A head coach of a team can develop young players and take them from a losing record to a deep playoff run. The first time this happens, it is a huge accomplishment. If this happens 2 or 3 times in a row without breaking through to a championship or conference title, then it starts to feel like the team has hit a wall. The coach took the team from bad to good, but someone else with a different skill-set is needed to take the team from good to great. For NBA nerds, look at the Warriors transition from Mark Jackson to Steve Kerr, and what the Raptors are now attempting after firing Coach of the Year Dwayne Casey.
Expectations change at different stages of an organizations life-cycle. As the title of the famous Marshall Goldsmith book says - what got you here won’t get you there.
The leadership challenge for the masjid is figuring out how to articulate a vision for the future while also getting new community members engaged with that vision.
At a basic level, this starts with open conversations. Dialogue is required to understand what people are looking for from the institution of the masjid. Yes, the ultimate purpose of a providing a place to pray will never change. When funds are raised under the banner of building a community, however, then a different set of expectations will come. What does community building look like? What does being part of a community feel like in practice? What worked to build the community in the past won't work to build the community of the future.
Without this open dialogue and connection, organizations will become progressively insular and lose their vitality. Bridging the generational divide (as outlined in the previous post) will mean changing approach on how things may have traditionally been done. Ultimately, it boils down to adaptability.
Is our organizational structure flexible enough to bypass some of the bureaucratic red tape that has accumulated over time? Are project specific ad hoc groups more successful than standing committees? Are we willing to experiment and find out via trial and error? How do we involve people in ways that fit their personal interests and skills?
When things have been done a certain way for a long time, or the same group of people have been in leadership for a long time, a particular culture embeds itself. Maintaining status quo will often take precedence over engaging newcomers. It becomes harder for people to get involved and thus develop relationships with community members.
Leadership will always say they want to grow, but the actions indicate wanting to keep things the way they are. This is natural, as sometimes there is a loss of intimacy in community relationships. People will be nostalgic for the good old days when it was a small group of families praying in an apartment. That's natural. Keeping an organization alive and thriving requires a shift in mindset to stewardship for the future.
Growth requires accepting a new phase in the life of a community. The vision must progress from a small group of leaders to being distributed amongst a larger group of members. This engages people, increases diversity, and introduces new talents to the organization. That increase in leadership capacity, in turn, raises the lid on what the institution can achieve.
The process for doing this is not clear cut. It starts with dialogue - actually listening to what people want. Once that is identified, the organizational structure that exists must be rethought in a manner that will enable more engagement. In some cases this means existing leadership may have to accept that they helped make the masjid good, but someone else may be needed to make it great. Find a way to usher them in and help the community reach a new stage of growth.
The next post in this series will discuss how a masjid should focus its inreach and outreach efforts in the social media age. Please make sure to subscribe to the email list so you don’t miss any updates.
This article is the 1st in a series about Masjid leadership in the digital age and draws from the book Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World. To stay up to date on all new articles published here, please join our email list.
Who is the masjid president? Who is chairman of the board? How many board members? How do we stagger terms? What about a board of trustees, or executive committee? Should we hire an imam? This is what we tend to focus on in our communities.
While these questions may be important, they ignore a much more important one. How does the structure help or hurt the vision and mission of the masjid?
Many communities were established with specific objectives in mind. The physical structure was established as a place to build community through Friday prayer, Sunday school, and other activities. This vision is reflected even in the physical layouts of purpose-built Islamic centers.
The combination of these vital activities and close physical proximity were the ingredients of community building. Through this, people developed an affinity for their "local masjid". The local masjid was the platform through which all community events happened and bonds were built.
Governance structures to protect this model were introduced. Constitutions were carefully crafted to ensure no outside party could come in and take over or disrupt the local community that had been built.
Instead, the iPhone has now done that job. It was a major domino in a series of events that resulted in the socially networked age we live in - with all of its positive and negative consequences.
Over the past few years, we have seen things change dramatically. More specifically, our expectations of what the masjid provides the community have changed.
With this, our religious experiences are no longer connected to the physical community. We can connect ourselves to seemingly any community in the world. If the local masjid is not catering to our needs, we can find viable alternatives online.
At a deeper level, the technology empowered people to be active participants - to have their voices be heard. Prior to this, if there was friction in the local masjid, you had to tough it out and fight it. This is the attitude we see with elders. They lionize the idea of toughing it out and fighting no matter what. This makes sense, because they had no other option.
Now, however, we have options - and new expectations.
If we're free to participate in online communities, why does the local community shut us out?
I'm free to pursue education, activism, or other projects with people I'm digitally connected to. Why am I not able to do the same in the local masjid?
I'm connected now to new causes and issues affecting Muslims around the globe. Why is my local Muslim community oblivious to them?
The intersection of these points is where we see a generational divide. The "irrelevant uncles" versus the "inexperienced youth". The masjid is an ideal and unique forum for multi-generational interaction that essentially gets wasted due to this conflict.
And when conflict happens, people double down and get defensive. For the youth, that means leaving the local community and going to other communities (whether online or offline) where they can freely participate and contribute meaningfully. For the elders, it means doubling down on preserving the institutions they built.
Preservation mode is a death knell. Preservation is not the purpose of a masjid or of building a community. Preservation mode does not allow an organization to adapt and react to the changes happening in society (and it's changing ever more rapidly than before).
Commitment to the local community has been replaced with a commitment to purpose.
This premise creates a completely different set of questions the masjid must focus on than the ones at the top of this post.
How can the masjid create a community in which diverse points of view are expressed without fear of reprisal? What work is the masjid doing to improve society, the community, and the individual lives of congregation members? How does the masjid foster the building of relationships? How does the masjid balance the needs of the local community while still being connected to national and global causes? How can individual congregation members be empowered to contribute meaningfully?
When the focus is on achieving these goals, then the structure can be corrected. What kind of physical space should be designed to enable these outcomes? What is the best governance structure to enable these outcomes?
These things must be changed. When people come to volunteer, but are stuck in a framework of preservation, they are made to feel as if they have no voice. The elders, although saying they welcome change and involvement, are signaling (whether intentionally or not) that they want to continue things the way they are.
Major changes are needed quickly. Preserving the 'way things are' at this stage will render the local masjid completely irrelevant.
The next post in this series will explore strategies communities can use to adapt to this new landscape. Please make sure to subscribe to the email list so you don't miss any updates.
When Ibrahim (as) famously left Hajar (as) with their baby son in the desert, she asked him if Allah commanded him to leave them. He said yes, so she said that she trusted Allah would take care of them. Her response to the situation illuminated a middle path between two extremes we commonly see.
One extreme is pessimism. A person may simply give up and lose hope. After scanning the horizon and seeing no food, water, or any sign of civilization, it would be easy to sit down and do nothing. People with a negative mindset will focus on all the things wrong in this situation - there's no food, we'll probably die here - and overwhelm themselves with hopelessness.
The other extreme is naive optimism. It is sitting there doing nothing while telling yourself everything will work out. Or perhaps to simply "envision" a better situation and hope it will arrive.
Hajar demonstrated what optimism looks like.
The action of her heart was to trust Allah and have faith that He would make a way out. The action of her limbs was to do everything in her control to remedy the situation. No food? Then she will run back and forth between mountains looking for something to give her child.
She set a precedent that embodies the prophetic tradition, "tie your camel, and then trust in Allah."
When it comes to the sunnah of the Prophet (s) we rarely talk about mindsets. The sunnah of optimism provides a playbook for dealing with the major and minor difficulties in our lives.
It's amazing to think that he was tested more than anyone else, and yet, his default demeanor was always smiling.
True optimism provides the resolve to deal with difficulty.
When we look back at the most difficult moments of our lives, we actually cherish them. Those hardships, failures, and scars are what made us into who we are today. They made us stronger and provided lessons so invaluable we'd never trade them for anything.
This is easy in hindsight, but harder to do in the moment - "Patience is at the first strike of calamity."
The prophetic example shows us how to cultivate a mindset of optimism.
He (saw) warned against giving up on people. "Whoever says the people are destroyed, he is the most destroyed amongst them (Muslim)." And Allah (swt) says in the Qur'an, "Do not lose heart or despair, and you will be superior if you are [true] believers (3:139)."
Despair is easy to feel almost by default. Every time we turn on our phones we are bombarded with headlines, photos, and videos of injustices that make it seem as if the world is going down the tubes. The lens of the believer necessitates understanding that our faith in Allah means knowing Allah is the source of all that is good, and He will never decree something in which the evil outweighs the good - even if that good is reserved for the akhirah.
The Prophet (s), even in the most dire circumstances, would look for excuses to be optimistic. When the Muslims set out for umrah, and were blocked by the Quraysh, the situation was tense. Negotiators kept coming but no agreement could be reached. Finally, the Quraysh sent Suhayl b. Amr, and the Prophet (s) took this as a good sign. The name Suhayl has a connotation of ease, and so the Prophet (s) announced to his companions that this was a good sign. Eventually, the treaty of Hudaybiyah was agreed upon - a victory in and of itself, even if it was unclear at the time as to how.
He even engineered the environment around him to be one that instills optimism. When he met someone from a place called the 'Valley of Misguidance', he renamed it the 'Valley of Guidance'. This shows us that the way we refer to things even has a subconscious effect on us. What is the subconscious effect, for example, of referring to one's spouse as "the old ball and chain" over and over again? When his (saw) grandson was born, Ali (ra) named him Harb (war). The Prophet (s) changed his name to Hasan (good).
He encouraged his companions to always be of those spreading good to others. He instructed them, "give glad tidings, and do not scare people away. Make things easy, do not make things difficult."
The most important optimism is the optimism in Allah. The Prophet (s) relates to us that Allah said, "I am as my servant expects me and I am with him as he remembers me." If you believe that Allah intends to make your life difficult, or that He is vengeful toward you (audhubillah), then that is what you will get. If you believe that Allah loves His creation, and intends what is best for them, and wants to forgive them - then you will find Allah (swt) as such.
When we inevitably encounter difficulty in our lives, we must tackle those problems head on and work our hardest to deal with them. We remind ourselves in those moments, that ultimately things will work out for the best, because we know that what Allah decrees for us is good and He will give us the strength and ability to make it through what we are dealing with.
"Our Lord, and burden us not with that which we have no ability to bear. And pardon us; and forgive us; and have mercy upon us (2:186)."
The contrarian question asks, "What important truth do few people agree with you on?" This is my attempt at answering this question. The short answer is that I do not believe social media is progressing in a straight line as most people expect. Instead, it's going to 'rebound' such that mastering pre-social media norms will be vital in the future.
In other words, i don't think that video killed the radio star. It did for a while, but radio will make a comeback (shout out to podcasts and audiobooks).
I'm going to break down my response in three key areas: Building a following, always-on messaging, and online Islamic Iearning.
The follower count is the ultimate vanity metric. As tools like Facebook and Twitter rose in prominence, the goal was to develop as large of a platform as possible. That meant doing whatever you could to increase your number of followers on each channel. Til today, this is the goal for most people. A person's, or organization's, influence is quickly judged by the number of followers they have. 25k followers on Facebook? Must be the real deal.
This brought its own set of unintended consequences. People grew up leaving public breadcrumbs of their lives online. Troublesome privacy concerns were raised (and appear to be getting worse). A large platform brought with it unprecedented expectations and influence in a short time-frame, making it difficult to adjust.
We are now observing a rebound effect. The public Twitter conversations amongst friends have more or less vanished. Public Facebook accounts are associated with "influencers" (and 'micro-influencers') more than the average person. The conversation has rebounded to more private mediums. Snapchat became instantly popular (until Rihanna and Kylie Jenner killed it) due to its private conversations and disappearing videos. Kids could be kids again.
Discussions that happened on Facebook and Twitter shifted to group chats such as WhatsApp and Telegram. They went from public for everyone's consumption to private within a smaller group. This also seems to indicate that our social media will become more of a complement to our "in-person" friends as opposed to a means of cultivating predominantly online friendships.
Algorithm changes with Facebook and Instagram have forced organizations to rethink what social media marketing means. Platforms were built on rented real estate. A page with 1 million followers would post something only to have it seen by less than 2% of their supposed audience. The most reliable means of building a platform through today remains the aptly titled email newsletter.
The vanity of the follower count is too difficult to overcome. This is why I believe most people will still focus on that as a metric of success. In my view however, the focus should be spent cultivating a smaller but more dedicated following (the idea of 1,000 true fans).
Needing to be accessible has been a status symbol. When I was growing up, it was the pager. You had to be really important (usually a physician or a drug dealer) to carry a pager with you. Then there was the car-phone. It was extremely expensive, but the cost was justifiable if you were important enough that your phone calls couldn't wait until you got home.
The beep, vibrate, and red badge give us this undue feeling of importance hundreds of times a day. There is virtue in being the person that replies to every email, text message, tweet, DM, comment, and snap within 30 minutes. That virtue is slowly disappearing as people become more and more overwhelmed. As someone who has always prided myself on being 'that guy' who replied to emails immediately and maintained an inbox zero, I simply can't anymore. Most emails are responded to in 1-2 weeks, if at all.
The constant barrage of messages makes it difficult to focus or accomplish much else other than being engaged with others back and forth. This is especially the case as we shift more and more toward wearable technologies such as smart watches. Apple, interestingly enough, positioned the Apple Watch as an alternative to having to use your phone all the time. This is an intriguing concept, but there is still a long way to go.
The mobile phone has gone from a luxury item to a digital leash within the span of a few short years. It's not that I can choose to respond to my emails from my phone at my own leisure and convenience - rather, I'm expected to respond immediately precisely because I have access at all times.
Although technology is pushing us in the direction of being always on, I believe we will see a rebound effect where the opposite happens. More and more people will turn off notifications and delete social media apps from their mobile devices. Always-on accessibility will be carefully customized for family and close friends only.
Everything is going virtual. Classroom learning is now online. The weekly halaqahs and Friday khutbahs are now live-streamed. It makes sense then to put everything online, right? Most people would say so, and their actions definitely show as much.
I believe the glut of online information and content will create a rebound effect such that in-person learning will become more valuable. Whatever you want to learn is available online for free already. The only thing missing is the experience.
There might be 10 different weekly tafseer classes in my community, but I'm probably going to go to the one that my friends attend. This is because I'm considering variables beyond just learning. Many seminars have started incorporating larger amounts of workshop style and interactive activities. The Muslim community is a step behind right now in the sense that the experience of watching an online video, listening to a podcast, or sitting in a classroom are nearly indistinguishable. The next big success story will be the one who figures out a way to reinvent the in-person experience in such a way that less than 20% of it is replicable online.
Why does a dog wag its tail? Because a dog is smarter than its tail.
If the tail were smarter, the tail would wag the dog.
Three days after admitting to an inappropriate relationship with Monica Lewinsky, President Bill Clinton commenced Operation Infinite Reach, bombing Khost, Afghanistan and a
chemical weapons factory pharmacy in Sudan.
The official narrative will always be that there was actionable intelligence justifying the attack. The timing of it, however, will always generate suspicion. Is it possible that a bombing was carried out with the ulterior motive of distracting the public?
Coincidentally, a movie by the name of 'Wag the Dog' was released right at the same time. The movie is about a Hollywood film director who helps produce a fake war to distract from a president's sex scandal.
The Roman poet Juvenal coined the term panem et circenses, 'bread and circuses', to describe the phenomenon of a public too distracted by entertainment to be civically engaged.
I recently finished reading Conspiracy by Ryan Holiday. It chronicles the story of how billionaire Peter Thiel plotted for years to bring down Gawker after it published an article outing him as gay. He hired a secret operative to scour complaints against Gawker until they could find a potential lawsuit they could push through. They eventually found one with Hulk Hogan suing Gawker for releasing a private tape without consent. Gawker fought back by trying to bury Hogan with legal fees and delays. The conspiracy on the part of Thiel succeeded because Gawker never knew that a billionaire had been collecting dirt on them for years and was privately funding the lawsuit (millions of dollars) against them. Gawker was never even fighting the right battle.
To wag the dog is to let something of secondary importance become the primary one. It is to distract and preoccupy.
The difficultly is in identifying where we are distracted and missing the bigger picture without even realizing it.
It could be something big and complex - things traditionally termed conspiracy theories. More likely though, in our day to day lives the distractions are more innocuous. It's the passive aggressive shame grenade. It's the Facebook post that starts out about one topic, but quickly turns into a debate over an unrelated topic by the 3rd comment. What about major community issues that can never get discussed because a tertiary debate always seems to sideline the actual discussion?
Professionally, we wag the dog by shifting responsibility to others instead of taking ownership ourselves (as John Miller explains in his classic book QBQ: Question Behind the Question).
Spiritually, it can be as deep as the entire life of this world. Every soul will taste death, and you will only be given your [full] compensation on the Day of Resurrection. So he who is drawn away from the Fire and admitted to Paradise has attained [his desire]. And what is the life of this world except the enjoyment of delusion (3:185).
Our daily grind is overwhelmed with all that we keep up with online. Without taking a break, we'll never be able to rise up and see the big picture to reflect:
What am I doing that I think is important, but might actually be a distraction?
First, they sell you the dream. Work from anywhere. Break the shackles of the 9-5. Stop making money for the man. Give yourself financial independence while working 4 hours a week. Passive income. Imagine all the things you could do with massive amounts of wealth.
Second, they make you believe it's possible.
It's the Instagram photos from a private jet. There are screenshots of income statements. Then income statements from others who have been through this proven system. You too, can take a private jet to Hawaii and earn $57,983 a week working on the beach doing some kind of SEO/Facebook Ads/Amazon/Ebay/Affiliate/Social Media/eCommerce/Etsy/Information Product/Coaching/Shopify/Mastermind/Digital Business thingamajig like a real entrepreneur.
Quick side note: When you see people posting pics of themselves with a Lambo, the car is usually RENTED. That's just one of the ways Instagram is ruining your life without you realizing it.
Third, they make it sound easy.
Well of course it's not easy. They'll say it's only for *serious* people willing to put in the work to realize their full potential. And that it's a lot easier to do that if you learn the secrets they're selling you to avoid the 5 deadly mistakes everyone else makes without realizing it. Or pay a little extra for the group coaching mastermind to give you accountability and help you follow through. It's fail-safe.
Fourth, they play on your insecurities.
How can you live with yourself working a soul sucking 9-5 job in a CUBICLE? Your life would be so much richer and full of meaning if you were hustling to sell white-labeled kitchen timers from alibaba.com! You're not building anything for yourself. You're living paycheck to paycheck. You can't follow your dreams. You can't travel. You have no freedom, you're in a corporate version of indentured servitude. You're trading time for money. You're so busy working that you don't have time to watch Ertugrul.
This gets compounded when these things get Islamified. Imagine having enough money to go on umrah every year! Think about how many masjids you could build! If you only work 4 hours a week, you can memorize the Qur'an! You're going to change the world and fix the ummah!
The only thing holding you back is your fears! Your real problem is you need to dream bigger. And after you do that, dream bigger again!
Fifth, they take your money and make you feel good about it.
By this point you're screaming take my money!
They'll ask you to consider what all this means. What is it worth to you to be able to live the life of your dreams? How much are you willing to pay for the lifestyle you never thought was possible until reading this really long sales page with testimonials from people just like you? It's priceless.
So they'll throw out a number. $20k? It's easily worth 20k to never set foot in a cubicle again. But we're not going to charge you $20k. Nope, you can live your dreams for the low low price of $497/month for 12 months (or save $967 if you pay in full).
*This is called price confusion by the way. They won't tell you it costs $5,000 because that's a number you can easily relate to in your head. Instead they force you to deal with more abstract amounts, increasing your propensity to buy.
And once you get ready to put in your credit card information, there's going to be a ONCE IN A LIFETIME OFFER. There will be a clock counting down to zero to reinforce it. See, most people don't have the discipline to go through the course, and they want to guarantee you'll be successful. So for a measly $199/month (or save $391 if paid in full) extra you can get access to monthly coaching calls, and the ability to actually talk to an instructor over email.
Obviously, a lot of this is hyperbole and tongue-in-cheek. At the same time, a lot of it isn't. We see some form of this coming across our email, Facebook, or Instagram feeds every so often. The promises are always alluring. They appear to really be solving a major problem I have, so why wouldn't it be worth it?
I've taken a number of online courses. This includes ones that cost $20 up into the thousands. Some of these were well worth the money in the sense of actual ROI. Some courses I didn't finish. There are some I signed up for and never took. There are others I took excitedly, only to get disappointed and have to ask for a refund. This includes courses on everything from SEO, copywriting, freelancing, fitness, productivity, leadership, personal development, job interviewing, and even how to create/sell online courses.
How do you ultimately decide if a course is actually worth it or not? To answer this question we're going to walk through something called the WRAPS framework. If you'd like to understand the theory behind this framework, please check out this video/resource page on decision making I've compiled.
The marketing around the course is designed to make you feel this one course is the only thing that can solve your problem. This is why so much of the sales pages and promotional webinars are geared toward making you imagine what your life would be like if money was not a concern.
What is the problem you are trying to solve, and what are the different ways you can solve it? As they say, there's more than one way to skin a cat.
Let's say you're trying to write a book and you need to pitch it to a publishing company. Now you come across a course that's delivered by someone who used to work in the publishing industry for 20 years, and has laid out a step by step plan for first time authors to get book deals. In this case, yes, it seems like you've found a course that solves a specific problem. Now you can assess further whether it is the right course or not, but at least the first step is correct.
The problem with lifestyle entrepreneurship courses is they are not solving a specific problem. They're geared toward making you feel like your life sucks (because you have a 9-5 job), and then promising you an abstract dream of living how you want.
If the problem is that you need to make more money, then start smaller. Can you freelance and earn $500/month extra? Can you set up something as simple as an Amazon affiliate that generates $100/month? If you can't, then you probably don't need to spend $5k on a course that's going to teach you to be an "entrepreneur". Remember, entrepreneurship is a skill. See if you actually have the aptitude for it first before putting all your eggs in that basket.
Many would benefit greatly by adopting the mindset and studying the examples from $100 startup (yes, that's an Amazon affiliate link to try and generate passive income). If you want to learn photography, you can start with basic tutorials. You don't need to dive right into a $12k course on advanced videography and cinematics. First master the free tutorials on YouTube, chart your progress, then find the material (whether it's an article, free videos, book, or paid course) that best fits the next level you need to get to. The same goes for any other topic like learning SEO, advertising, or cooking.
We usually rush to the expensive course because there is a feeling that the premium price will bring premium service. It instills a trust that the experts did all the work to synthesize and filter all the information, and now I can quickly plow through it and get results. This could be entirely true. But is the price worth it, and can you easily afford it? Is it worth the sacrifice? And is it actually what you need at this moment in time?
The marketing will always make you feel like it is. You have to fight the cognitive biases and emotion pushing you in that direction.
What are you assuming when you're signing up for a course?
When I've pulled the trigger and bought an expensive course online, it was never random. Each time, it was from someone whose work I had been following for literally years. This meant that I had a thorough understanding of what they teach, how they teach it, what value they provide, and how that benefits me.
The best credibility marker is a body of work. In the information product space (which is where most online courses fall), there should be an abundant amount of free and valuable material put out by the person or company. Why would you buy information from someone if you don't know what kind of information they provide? At the least you should be able to find blog posts, podcast interviews, maybe even a book. Go through these materials carefully and see if you actually get actionable value from it. If you don't, then their paid material probably won't give you much either. If you find that all a person can talk about is general benefits or selling a lifestyle without telling you how the sausage is actually made, it's probably not going to be a successful course.
If I want to study SEO, and I find someone who has YouTube tutorials I can follow, I will do that and see what results I get. Then I might subscribe to their email list where I get more information. I apply that information and see results. Now when this person sells a course, I can be fairly confident the course will be worthwhile.
A huge red flag is when people refuse to discuss the details of what they do. So they want to teach online entrepreneurship, but they won't actually tell you what they sell online, or what their previous businesses were. This means they've got a severe scarcity mindset, or what they're selling isn't as unique as they make it out to be (and probably a bit of both). So is the person really an entrepreneur? Think about any successful businessperson you've met. They tell you clearly what they do. They own a fast food restaurant, or laundromat, or a car wash, or they write books, or they sell clothes online, or any number of other things. The bottom line is, they don't hide what they do because there's no reason to.
When someone's business is so secret that they can't tell you, this should be a sign to run. They will play to your emotions and convince you that it has to be a secret precisely because it's so successful. When a business doesn't have a unique value add in the marketplace, then it often means the person doesn't have a business at all. They simply own their own job. Here's a simple way to figure out which is which: Could this person pitch their business on Shark Tank?
Another assumption that needs to be looked at is why is this person selling a course. For some, an online course is a natural extension of their overall company or brand. This makes the most sense for successful online courses. Be careful with 'how-to' courses. There's a saying that during the gold rush, the people who made the most money were the ones selling the treasure maps. If someone has a 7 figure business and they work less than 20 hours a week, why are they hawking a $5k course online teaching you "how" when they could easily make significantly more money by working to double their business? It's probably because the business isn't that successful, and the course is more lucrative. And if their reasoning is altruistic, or community service, then the price should be substantially lower.
Have you talked to students who have been through the course? What was their experience? Are there any hidden costs? Some courses that teach eCommerce fail to disclose that you'll need an additional few thousand dollars in capital to source and buy product to sell.Do you know how to account for product refunds and defective inventory? What about shipping and customs?
Testimonials can be misleading. I have seen one course that has dozens of people's photos and testimonials. At first glance, it looks credible. If you read the testimonials however, they are all talking about previous ventures, or excitement about taking this course. That is marketing hype, not proven results. And even the proven results need scrutiny. Someone may say they made $100k from taking a course. They usually will not specify what the actual profit on it was (if it's not mentioned, it is because it's so small that they'd lose credibility).
What are the realistic results from the course? What is the time commitment required to attain the promised results? Have you read reviews about courses similar to this one? I've seen one course that was advertised as a follow up to a previous one with additional materials to help students because 90% of their previous students hadn't "followed through and finished" the previous course. That's certainly one way to respond to a 90% failure rate.
How likely are the results? Remember, you're not going to be a statistical anomaly. Eventually, things regress to the mean. The top 1% (yes, that 1%) of people in the US earn over $400,00 a year. How realistic is it to expect to earn millions? Yes, you might invest $10k, and make $100k - but have appropriate expectations of the results and workload before signing up.
What are people doing 1 year after taking this course? 2 years after taking this course?
How accurate are the testimonials? I personally know a Muslim business owner whose testimonial is being utilized by someone selling such courses to the Muslim community. When I asked him about it, he told me he wished they would take it down, that the testimonial was rushed, and that they would never again work with this individual/organization. Do your research.
In short - look for everything you can to disprove what the course is selling before committing such a large amount of money.
Pretend you buy the course, how does this affect your life 6 months down the road? If a course cost $2k, and in 6 months you have an emergency, are you going to be in financial distress? If you are, you need to reconsider. If not, then you have more freedom to take risks.
This one is tough because online courses are designed to create a false sense of urgency. Limited seats!! Really? Since when is there a limit on how many people can watch a video course? What would happen if you utilized free resources around the problem you are trying to solve, and then took this course next year?
But wait, what if it's not offered next year?!? Then that is a sign that this course is a fad not intended for long-term results. Reputable courses are there year after year (yes, even if the price might go up - so be it).
Think about the impact 10 months from now when you're making your 10th payment of $499. Look at the actual date on the calendar and think about how it will feel to be paying $499. If it creates major discomfort/regret, then it's a good reason to take pause and re-assess.
Look back at your own personal history. What else have you signed up for that was similar to this course? Did you complete it? Did you get results? What is different this time around that makes you think it will be different?
Pretend you've got a friend considering this course. Based on what you know, would you recommend them to take it or not?
What is the refund policy on the course? What benchmarks do you have in place to gauge whether you're getting results before that refund period ends?
If you don't refund the course, what are the results you need, and in what time-frame, to continue investing time and effort?
In other words, pretend you did everything correctly. You did your research, you exhausted free material, you found a credible course with realistic results, it solves a specific problem, and you can afford it without any issues. This is not enough to guarantee it will succeed. You must establish regular checkpoints to make sure you are progressing like you are supposed to.
How will you guarantee that you're going to put in the work required to take this course? Everyone fully intends to take the entire course and do the work, and yet more than half of the students still don't finish. What is your course of action if this happens to you (and statistically, it probably will at some point)?
The above steps are meant to help you think through the process the best you can (tie your camel). After that you have to relegate your trust to Allah (swt). Pray istikharah before committing payment to any course.
It's important to mention in closing that this is not meant to paint all online courses with the same brush. I myself have been a consumer of a number of online courses, and there are plenty that are extremely high value and worthwhile. Unfortunately, there has been a trend recently of low-quality courses being promoted to the Muslim community under an Islamified banner. My hope is that the process here helps a person make an informed decision with confidence.
tl;dr - SEASON 1 OF ERTUGRUL HAS 76 EPISODES THAT ARE 45 MINUTES EACH. SEASON ONE. AND SEASON 2 HAS 103 EPISODES!!! I haven't seen a single episode of Ertugrul or Game of Thrones.
It's not out of some faux moral superiority either [see: my article about Breaking Bad] . I've binge watched my fair share of shows. This is more about sheer utility. What is the commitment? What is the reward? And, what is the cost of avoidance?
It's a concept I came across while reading Finish, and it essentially says you decide ahead of time what you're going to be terrible at.
The author gives an example about lawn care. Obviously, we all want a perfectly maintained lawn. We've all got friends who spend hours on their garden every week. In other words, it's a priority for them. Take a family with 3 kids under the age of 5. Where would the lawn land on a list of priorities? Probably very low, even if they want it to be much higher.
One of the traps of social media is that it constantly makes you feel bad for all the things you're not doing. Spend a few minutes scrolling through Instagram, LinkedIn, or Facebook and you'll come away thinking some combination of the following-
Here's the thing. You can't focus on all of those things. Life comes in seasons. There will be a period of life where studies are top priority. There will be another period where career is top priority. None of these phases lasts forever.
We ignore the examples we have in front of our own eyes. Take your own parents. How long did it take them to get through school? Establish a career or business? Buy a house? Furnish it? Buy a nice car? Take care of their lawn?
We look at what people accomplish over a span of 30 years, and because we get bombarded with images of everyone (seemingly) easily accomplishing these things - we want it all. And we want it all now.
Back to Ertugrul. Am I in a season of life where I can set aside 135 hours to catch up on this show? Or another however many hours to reach peak pop culture literacy in Game of Thrones?
I used to travel every week for work. This meant being away from home and stuck in a hotel room 3 nights a week. In that season of life, I binge watched tons of shows.
The challenge now is FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). The real motivator to see Game of Thrones or Ertugrul is the ability to take part in the conversation. It's to understand the references people make. My intent here is not to debate the validity of that assertion (it's going to differ from person to person). The intent is more about reflection and assessment. How important is being part of that conversation for me?
Beyond that is prioritizing what's truly important. If, for example, getting your Master's degree is something you've been talking about for years but haven't done yet. Or memorize the Qur'an, or learn Arabic. You have to make a choice. Where is that 135 hours best invested?
It might not even be those things. It might be health. Health requires exercise, time set aside to walk/run, time spent cooking or meal planning. Those hours will have to come at the cost of something else.
It's analogous to the sacrifice that many people when focusing on work/business at the expense of family. There might be a time where 2 years of crazy hard work will set you up for a different lifestyle and the sacrifice ends up being worth it. There's also instances where you could take it to an extreme and lose your family altogether.
Intent rules all in these situations. I can't say playing with my kids is a priority, or reading books related to my career is a priority, or learning a second language is a priority if all my free time goes to Netflix. In this case I'm being dishonest about what the actual priorities are. We tend to complain that we don't have time to do all the things we want to do. No one does. We fall into this trap of complaining about not being able to get ahead on things while simultaneously spending our time on activities we ourselves consider lower priority.
Someone else might be in a situation where they really enjoy Ertugrul, and are able to watch it without seriously compromising other important things in their life. That is great for them - but don't let that put pressure on you to emulate it. Your situation is not the same as anyone else.
Successful people simply decide what they're going to suck at, and then intentionally let those things go. That might be your lawn for a few years. It might mean postponing that MBA. And it might mean having no idea what everyone on social media is talking about while they watch Ertugrul.