# 318: Reentry from Error
Story behind the Passage
For 318 days, I have been blogging about a book passage or text excerpt now. Every single one of these books stayed in my memory because it had taught me something. Yet, since the reading had mostly taken place a long time ago, the insights were not new at the time of writing. What was new was my self-set challenge to share the wisdom hidden in these texts with the public. Two days ago, however, something happened that really changed my life. A book brought a revelation to me that made me turn this post into a part of the Medium Writers Challenge. The two things — my epiphany and the writing challenge — are related. Without my errors of the past, I would not be writing from the heart today. I would be writing to win a competition.
Today, I am writing to be read.
To be heard.
Because I want to help people on their journey — with knowledge and truth.
I watched a YouTube video about al-Ghazali two days ago. Ghazali was one of the greatest thinkers of all time. But the content of his work is not even the reason why thunder struck. The magical moment occurred when the speaker in the video (actually a really great science communicator) talked about al-Ghazali’s life journey. This is the passage you see above. These moments of awakening by reading happen whenever your recognize yourself in the author or the protagonist of a book. This happened as I listened to the quotes in the video. This was my journey, these were my learnigs. And this man had gone through this almost 1,000 years ago. The question then was, what did he do with his learnings? How did he move on? Did he return — “re-enter”?
What I mean by re-entry is very simple: al-Ghazali left his work as a scholar in Baghdad after he had found that he would not find what he was looking for in university: true knowledge. So, he started his “Wanderjahre” and turned towards Sufism. As far as I know with my limited knowledge, nobody knows what exactly al-Ghazali did and where he stayed during these years. What is for sure is that he left everything behind, including his family, to devote himself to Sufi practices. I would not be surprised to learn that he also did some practical work — maybe charity or entrepreneurship? But that is a different matter. What mattered to me was: What did he do thereafter?
I held my breath and followed the words of the guy in the video. The answer to the question knocked me off because I had expected it: al-Ghazali returned to his post in college, even though, he had sworn before, he would not do that. He resumed teaching. He wrote some of the most brilliant works in the history of philosophy. But he wrote as a different person, a changed person. You might wonder now why all this wandering was necessary? Could he not have been even more “productive,” even more “successful,” had he not wandered off to find himself in finding God? These questions can only be asked from the perspective of someone who has not been to the place of truth that al-Ghazali described afterwards. What mattered to me even more, however, was and still is that al-Ghazali was brutally honest about his journey.
And that is what I am going to be as well in today’s confessions.
Yes, some of my posts have been self-revealing.
None of them has told you the true reasons why I left university to become a writer and entrepreneur.
Before I share my learnings, I want to make sure that I am not evoking the impression that I see myself as an al-Ghazali. I am not a maniac. By the time he left university, he had already become one of the most celebrated scholars of his time. That is, by far, not the case with me. My story is very simple: I was driven by ambition, narcissism, and selfishness. This gave me good grades and lots of scholarships. Outside I was successful. Inside I was seeking. The seeking allowed me the first steps towards finding truth. Still, it could not prevent the misery. Ambition allowed me to write two scholarly books rather quickly. This happened because my Wanderjahre had already started while I worked on these projects — the Ph.D. and the second book. My wandering around, my years of seeking, had started in 2010 already. Nobody knew this. I did not know it at the time. But the scholarly work was more or less a game afterwards. And all this had to end when I finally realized in 2018 that it would not take me anywhere. But I could not voice it like this back then.
So, here are my “deliverances from error.”
1. I could not represent my field.
As a scholar you earn your teaching “permit” in a particular field. In my case, this was American Studies. The error was, by the time I had achieved the so-called venia legendi, the permission to teach, I knew I could not represent the field in the lecture hall. It would have been a lie. Yes, this field was what made my university career kick off. But really, it was a pragmatic decision. I had chosen to switch to American Studies because it would allow me more freedom than my original major — Media Studies. To be even more bloody honest: I knew that I would not be as successful in Media Studies. That was it.
The reason why I am saying I could not represent the field is rooted in my definition of what a professor in American Studies should be and do. And this, to me, means that he/she is totally absorbed in making a contribution to this field. I can honestly say that this had maybe been a motivation back when I started my Ph.D. ten years ago. But by the time I had finished my second book, I simply hated my field. I know “hate” is a nasty big word but that is what it felt like. I had no relationship to the scholars around me. And intellectually, I was interested in so many things that had nothing to do with my field. All of these things led to the fact that even aspiring to become a professor in American Studies would be an opportunistic lie. And I could not do it.
I still applied to open positions a few times. This was when I was completely lost. The only reason that made me do it was that I still felt a calling to be a scholar. But I did not know when, how, and why this should materialize. The only things that still made me feel emotionally attached, even glued, to the university, were my memories. And these memories are intertwined with the U.S. Not intellectually or scholarly — purely experientially. The U.S. shaped my being. I would not be who I am without this country. I lost everything there that had once been dear to me. And I found my new self there as well. Still, this did not suffice to become a professor in this academic field — at least not for me.
2. I cannot work inside the university system
This one is a moral problem as well but one that is related tightly to my personal philosophy. Everyone working in university knows the status quo of this institution. To mention enslavement and humiliation is probably the most concise summary. Because of my philosophical rootedness in classical pragmatism, action is intimately linked with insight. I do not want to get into the matter of “truth” as a philosophical concept here. What matters basically boils down to two things: 1) deeds have more impact than words, whereby words, of course, are variants of deeds. 2) a personal insight that is not followed by deeds has no value in the world.
The two assumptions together made me overcome all the talking about the miserable state of the university system. My conclusion was very clear: If I work in an institution whose practices run counter to my rational and ethical roots and thus hurt the public good, I implicitly consent to these practices. Hence, I had to leave. There was no other way. And this is still true up to the present day. The only issue that is new, and I will follow up on this as I read more about al-Ghazali, is that there is another level of evaluation; of weighing up the pros of contributing to the public good versus the cons of me acting against my personal value set. I have been thinking a lot about this question. For years I have been struggling with it. Still, I have not come to a satisfactory conclusion. But I have come to make a decision that implies an answer, as you might guess already when thinking of al-Ghazali’s example.
Another reason, and that will sound even more arrogant than everything else I am saying here, is that I could not grow more. At the point when I realized that I would not find any truth, even knowledge, in university — there was no point to stay. The only reason would have been to find people there who would help me grow further. Sadly, I hardly found them anywhere near. I found ambitious, narcissistic, obedient assholes. And I found kind-hearted and devoted teachers who had given up their dignity to obey to bureaucratic rules. I saw all this, of course, because I had been one of them before — I still was one of this kind. But I did not see any way to ignore this or deal with it. I knew, I was not doing them justice. I was in the transition phase towards loving them again despite what I was seeing. But that required loving me and my own evil side first. I was not there yet.
3. I had to DO something
There are many stereotypes about scholars. There are many of these sterotypes that are true. One is that scholars sit there, read books, write articles, give sophisticated speeches and HELP — nobody! Yes, intellectual property and ideas do help society in the long run. But I am talking about ACTION in the here and now. A baker who bakes bread in the morning and feeds people makes an immediate and tangible contribution. A CEO who leads thousands of people and makes sure they get a salary at the end of the month makes an immediate contribution. A soldier in Afghanistan helps save the lives of thousands of civilians and protects humanitarian values on the global scale — oooops, the “West” decided that the latter is not relevant anymore…
What I am saying: I always had the inner longing to help on the ground and to create impact in society. This is why all my wandering started. I wanted to find the place where I could do that. I went to Africa, to Yemen, to Cuba and so many other places where there is war and misery to find this place. I was not successful in that quest. But I knew one thing: Sitting in university among people who, at least many of them, have not seen, not experienced, REAL life out there, who have never seen death and destruction, never worked with their hands, never looked in the eyes of children with no future — this was not my place. The Ivory Tower broke me. And the encouragement “but you help educate the future generation” did not feel satisfying to me. Neither did “publish or perish,” which is why I never really started publishing.
This is the truth why I became an entrepreneur. And I think, this connection is one that is quite popular now, i.e., entrepreneurship as a way out, as a means of living a meaningful life. I do not think it is helpful because, in the end, many businesses or what some pseudo-startup founders consider business, creates zero impact in society. Still, I understand them. They see no other way out. Business is the place of DOING, of making things happen. Hardly anybody from the academic world understands that better than I do. But one thing that I have also come to understand is that un- or undereducated action is harmful as well. It leads nowhere. In the end, politicians make the decisions, not entrepreneurs. And entrepreneurs do not want to be politicians. And who wants to be a professor?
I do not want to be a professor, but I have to. Otherwise, I do not take responsibility. I would just be like one of the current politicians — no clue, no actual achievements, no stamina.
4. I had no mission
I was always driven by goals. That was the actual problem that made me see myself in al-Ghazali. I am sure that, when he found out that he had been an egoistic prick, he also saw that his achievements had been motivated by goal-setting only — selfish and stupid goals. These include: “I am gonna be the best scholar in my field… I am gonna publish more than anybody else… I am gonna leave behind shelves of books.” When I realized that these had been the drivers why I had achieved things, I left. Since then, I have been looking for the magic formula to achieve outstanding results in a short period of time without this hyper-ambitionist and egoistic goal setting. And the frustraing finding is: There is no finding. Creativity, as I first thought, is not an alternative.
Yes, as an artist and/or entrepreneur, you live in the moment and you do things for the things themselves — because you lose yourself in them, you identify with them to some extent. But you also live in this nice comfort zone where you always observe, where you can always claim to “create impact” if other people just happen to realize what you are showing them and what the genius behind this might be. Guess what, it is not changing the here and now of suffering and political decline either. Yes, you are making a contribution by reaching people’s awareness. So, I am not judging this. I remain part of this club of people whose weapon is the pen/keyboard. Still, I do not feel like this is the ultimate solution for me personally. It does not satisfy one inner need I have which I was not aware of before: taking responsibility.
With this realization that I have been fighting for a while, it is also clear why my return from error will most likely lead me back to where I started — just like al-Ghazali. But I am a changed person. No detour is ever in vain. Every detour in life is necessary, no matter how much you hate yourself for it at first. Now I am coming back with a clear mission. This mission is twofold and honest: Yes, I know where exactly I want to make a genuine contribution in research because I feel the longing to learn more about this particular topic of how entrepreneurship has partly replaced the traditional education system and how this corresponds to philosophy and metaphysics. In addition, scholarsihp is not the ultimate end. It is a tool to bring me to a place where I can have even more impact.
“Knowledge without action is wastefulness and action without knowledge is foolishness.” (Al-Ghazali)
5. I am not a true scholar
This is something that has probably changed the most — at least my notion of it. I do think I am moving closer to being a real scholar now. I am not there yet, maybe I never will be. But the more I move there according to my definition, the less I am a scholar in the present system. I simply live in the wrong century. A scholar for me is a person who lives for knowledge seeking and teaching. A person who has tasted truth and wants to pass on all the combined knowledge and insight he/she has gathered. Many years ago, I had the ambition to become such a person.
Then, I found that I would never get there, so why even try?
Then, I learned that it is not wanted in universities.
Then, I understood that my definition of knowledge does not fit into disciplinary boundaries.
Then, I tried to convince myself that I am completely insane to think that deep knowledge is possible in several fields nowadays. Above all, I had found out that I was an arrogant asshole before. So, why would I be right about thinking that I could learn more than is considered profound “expertise” by others?
Then I stopped learning altogether.
Then life experiences made me see the truth; it made me find what I had always been looking for. And it was beautiful. And funnily enough, it awakened my interest in learning again. I mean true learning — learning for the sake of learning, learning as a God-given life purpose. Teaching as the motivation to give back.
Maybe that was al-Ghazali’s motivation to return to college as well?
In my recently published book I put the following sentence in the acknowledgements, already when I wrote the original draft:
“These are the people who helped me become the scholar I can become…”
In the meantime, during my Wanderjahre, I did not believe in this anymore because becoming a scholar had become an idea of the past. Now I see that this was not my egoistic self writing. There was truth in this. And now al-Ghazali is certainly one of the people I would include in my thanks. The same applies to RW and WM. I will forever be grateful to them for entrusting this project to me. Without this research, I would not have rediscovered the truth about myself. And I would not have found al-Ghazali. Consequently, I would have no reason to re-enter. With the images reaching us from Afghanistan, I definitely know why devoting my life to education and politics is worth all errors that make me come back — to scholarship and to myself.
1) What does responsibility mean to you?
2) What is your mission in life?
3) What did you learn from your greatest error?