This personal interview introduces Imran Rashid, a member of our board of directors. We learn where he comes from, get an inside to his background, and hear why he decided to join Millennial Mental Wellbeing. Imran, who is a medical doctor that became fascinated with technology, is a well-known speaker and author of the books Offline and Sluk.
Born in Copenhagen in 1977, Imran Rashid is the fourth and youngest child of parents who had immigrated from Pakistan a few years earlier.
“My father wanted to pursue the best possibilities for his family. Life in Pakistan was difficult and the future possibilities weren’t many,” Imran says and explains that his father originally left Pakistan heading to the UK: “On his way there, he met another young Pakistani man in Germany who told him about this beautiful garden up North that he had to see before going to England."
So, my father thought ‘why not’ and made a stop to visit what turned out to be Tivoli, the amusement park in Copenhagen. However, when he arrived, Tivoli was closed for the season and he spent his first night on a bench at the central station with a 5 kroner’s coin and a half-liter of milk. That was his entrance to Denmark.
Instead of continuing the journey to England, Imran’s father decided to look for a job in Copenhagen which eventually became a new home for the family. “He actually got a job in Copenhagen pretty easily and the rest is more or less history. He stayed and soon after my mom, who at the time was pregnant with my older brother, moved there too. Moving around is often associated with uncertainty so I think it’s very humane to try and create roots and by following him here I think my mother kind of brought his roots to Copenhagen,” Imran explains and adds: “So, I’ve lived here all my life with my two older brothers and one older sister. During the first years after I was born, we lived in the city of Copenhagen before moving out to the suburbs where I grew up in a small and safe neighborhood in a villa with a garden. I think the life I had then, and also now, wouldn’t have been possible if my father had stayed in Pakistan.”
Imran says that most of his childhood was spent with his older brothers in the local Taekwondo club: "We got really caught up with Taekwondo, actually we became pretty good at it and all three of us were on the national team for a while."
Being active in sports is something Imran views as one of the biggest factors in forming his mentality. "I quickly discovered that this was something I was good at and learned that I could become even better at it the more time, effort, and focus I put into it."
There I had role models I could mirror myself in and got to do things together with other people for a purpose that was bigger than myself. And actually, most of my best friends to this day are from this time of my life.
Twelve years ago, Imran got married to his wife and today they live in Frederiksberg, an independent municipality in central Copenhagen, with their two kids.
From a medical doctor to tech entrepreneur
After high school Imran studied medicine at Copenhagen University and in 2005, he graduated as a medical doctor. When asked if becoming a doctor was a childhood dream, Imran laughs and says: “It’s difficult to say when something is a childhood dream and when it’s your parents’ dreams being placed there.”
Imran's parents have always had great ambitions for their children, something that Imran explains is connected with the mindset back in Pakistan: “My parents were always very interested that at least one of us would become a doctor, pilot, an engineer or something like that because in Pakistan these degrees are associated with high status.”
Early on, Imran had an interest in humans. “So, I decided to study medicine, but I didn’t really know what it would be like to become a doctor. If I had known, maybe I would have studied something else,” he says and explains that his work as a doctor, after specializing in family medicine, has been more related to psychology, consciousness, and mental health. “I realized that these things are what makes me really curious and interested in humans. What drives our behavior? What do we think of when we wake up in the morning and why? What makes us do different things and maybe especially why we make bad decisions and do stupid things."
The key driver in my carrier is basically to understand humans, what kind of creatures we are, and how we can become better at being humans.
After working as a family doctor for a while, Imran became more and more interested in medical technology or MedTech. “I did work as a doctor but later I also became an IT entrepreneur. I became very interested in how we can use technology to improve health care but also how the misuse of technology can harm people’s mental health,” Imran explains but his official gate into the MedTech world was through the creation of a video consultancy platform. “I created this video consultancy service in order for doctors to offer their services out of office hours. The solution was later sold to one of the biggest private hospital chains in Denmark and is still running. At the same time, I also became the head of innovation for the same hospital chain where I started looking into how technology works, how we create it but also how it impacts on our behavior.”
Imran says that his medical background and later knowledge within technology and innovation has made it possible for him to merge those two aspects and start looking at how technology affects humans. To explain his view, Imran compares technology and the pharmaceutical business. “You can’t open a pill store, tell people to start ordering pills of any kind and just wish them good luck. Instead, you would have to make sure that your pills have been thoroughly tested and approved by the authorities. We don’t see an unregulated pill business, and if we do, we call it narcotics or drug dealing, which is illegal,” Imran says.
However, what we do see everywhere is unregulated use of apps and digital platforms that do affect humans. The app stores are basically full of digital pharmaceutical products that have a proven impact on mental health which can be good but also very bad.
As an example of this, Imran mentions Instagram: “It’s one of the biggest apps out there and it’s proven to be bad for your mental health. Among other things, it makes us feel less valued and makes our self-esteem decline.” Although we can’t solely blame the platform itself, Imran explains that the social media companies are aware of these impacts, which could be changed if they wanted to. “These companies know exactly what they are doing. They know who their users are and how they feel. So, if they wanted, they could change their product in order to improve mental health instead of taking advantage of it, which they are because the business model is basically to tell people that they suck and then sell them something so they can start feeling better about themselves.”
Realizing the impact technology has on mental health led to a change in Imran’s career. “When I was working as a head of innovation, I figure that instead of creating technology to assist the hospital it was more important for me as a doctor to address these hidden problems behind digital manipulation, which I then started to dive deeper into,” he explains.
Since then, Imran has written several books about the matter, given TED talks and lectures, which have been very well received. “I barely meet people that don’t feel like they spend too much time on the phone and wish they’d spend their time better. I do a lot of surveys on digital habits and whenever I ask my audience “Who controls your behavior the most, you or your smartphone?” - they always say themselves. But when I ask if they’d wish to reduce the time they spend on their phone, everyone says yes, which is funny. Because, if you really control your own life, then you’d simply put your phone down, right? So, there’s a lack of control,” Imran says.
This internal conflict between who we want to be and who we actually are, has today become my main interest.
In his work, Imran talks a lot about social media platforms. When asked if he has heard their views on the matter, he says: “They know I’m there. I’ve been in debates with some of their Danish representatives where I’ve been like ‘hey you guys, you are not living up to your own standards. You are exploiting human minds in order to create profits!’” But if their business models do create profit, will it ever change? “It has to change, and it will at some point. But I don’t think it will come freely without any kind of pressure from their users and from legislators. I think it will require politicians to stand up for our rights not to be exploited by digital algorithms,” Imran says before concluding: “We have to change the way technology is used and start looking at human wellbeing as the center of these business models. Otherwise, I think it won’t end well for us, especially for millennials and Gen Z who are the first generations that have grown up with uncontrolled, unregulated, and unlimited access to a digital world where you’re never good enough and where everything you do or say online, can and will be used against you for the rest of your life by the algorithms.”
Joining Millennial Mental Wellbeing
It’s clear that Imran’s views on today’s technology and how it affects humans are very much in line with Millennial Mental Wellbeing’s mission to provide millennials tools and programs to advance their mental wellbeing in the increasingly connected world we live in. But why did this experienced, and obviously busy, pioneer decide to join our board of directors?
I simply like the organization’s ideas and how it’s founded. It’s a group of people who get together to solve a problem, which is also the way I work myself. If you spot a problem, and you want to do something about it, then why not? That’s just the way things are today, you don’t have to wait for someone else to take care of the problems you see. If you want to change something, reach out and talk to other people. If they see the same problem, they might help you solve it. I mean, who wouldn’t be interested in helping to solve a big universal problem?
The organization’s focus on mental wellbeing of millennials is something that is of great importance to Imran. “I think it’s one of the most important things we have to deal with today. In my opinion, we need to focus on everyone’s ability to deal with emotions just much as we do on teaching how to read or do math,” Imran explains. “If you don’t learn how to eat, you will die and therefore we’ve created a lot of structure and rituals around food. Our ability to understand our emotions and take care of our mental health is just as important as to eat and drink. Therefore, I want this to be seen as a fundamental part of being a human, instead of seeing it as something that’s nice to have.”
We live in a fast-changing and connected world. This makes the focus on mental health of kids and young adults even more important. “We have created a digital world where you can get the illusion of having thousands of friends but at the same time become unable to feel anyone of them. To me that means we’ve done something wrong,” he says and adds: “And we can’t blame young people for this because those who created the digital world didn’t leave them with any rules. It’s like sending kids out in the traffic without teaching them the traffic laws or how to ride their bikes. We would never do that.” Which brings us back to why Imran joined the board of directors.
I could really see that Millennial Mental Wellbeing is dealing with this in the right manner. It’s the problem first, humans first, and then you can form the structure. I think that kind of work is really inspiring and that’s why I really wanted to help as much as I can.
With an impressive background and extensive experience, it’s clear that Imran will be a valuable player for the organization. When asked about his contribution he explains: “I have 16-17 years of clinical experience with humans, technology, and the intersection in between.” According to Imran, understanding people, their feelings and behavior, requires an understanding of different elements, similar to being a doctor. “We need to understand psychology, biology, sociology, behavior, and consciousness. In my mind, this is like being a family doctor, where you have to look at what people do and deal with instead of just looking at a specific organ of the human body.”
Ahead there’s a job to be done, questions to ask and answers to find, and Imran is excited to be a part of the journey: “It’s not simple. It’s not only about mental wellbeing because we also have to ask, what is the mental part? What is actual wellbeing? What does it mean to be a human being in a modern digital context and how is all of this changing?"
I think I can bring a lot of questions to the table, but luckily asking the right questions is usually just as important as trying to find the answers. I’m happy to be a part of the organization and I look forward to contributing in every way I can.
Interview by: Gunnlaugur Bragi Björnsson