I recently completed the biographical book “Infidel” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a young Somali woman escaping from an arranged marriage. I would not normally read a book of this nature except that it was suggested to me by Caroline Older, director of the Grand Rapids Arts Council. Older traveled throughout the world as a child due to her mother’s position with The World Bank.
The book was exceptional on many levels and contained several scenarios that I believe exhibit why small business works in our culture. Hirsi Ali’s plainspoken dialogue about her awakening to the difficulties created by the culture she grew up in is an eye-opener as to why our community works and many communities don’t.
The author describes her life’s journey, from herding goats in Somalia’s desert to living in the Netherlands as a successful translator, attaining an advanced degree in political science and becoming a member of the Netherlands parliament. She now resides in southern California.
Her observations often are what I like to call a BFO: a blinding flash of the obvious. The author’s success with the book is related to her relationship with Theo van Gogh, who was murdered because of a movie he made with the author illustrating the plight of Moslem women. The murderer expressed his determination to also assassinate Hirsi Ali.
My primary interest in the book dealt with why people’s lives turn out the way they do. I have come to realize over my business career that culture often is destiny. The author points out many absurd examples of why the culture of Somalia causes it to be a failed nation. As she moves to the Netherlands, she is astounded by the wealth and quality of life. She begins to break down the differences between Somali culture and Dutch culture, and the impact of those cultures on quality of life.
There are many stereotypes about ethnic background. Like most stereotypes, there’s an element of truth in generalities. My father was German. I grew up being told that if you worked less than 60 hours a week, you were loafing. There is a positive and negative to that message. The positive is that hard work, on average, pays off. The negative is that a person working 60 hours a week will most likely neglect the personal side of their life.
Hirsi Ali tells of a flood in the Netherlands. She was astounded to see men and machinery brought with great urgency to work at reinforcing the dikes that surround the Low Countries. Her observation was that, had such a flood occurred in Somalia, the residents would have done nothing but pray to Allah to stop the rain. While the Dutch routinely save the country from devastating floods, in Somalia nature is allowed to take its devastating course.
The book has many messages for those striving to succeed in this difficult economy. How much of what you absolutely believe to be rules to live by are actually cultural messages that may have lost practicality in a modern economy?
For example, consider my father’s 60-hour work week mantra. In the work world today, productivity is paramount. The hours worked are not as relevant as what is produced. People told by their parents to get a government job for the guaranteed lifetime security may no longer benefit from that concept. You can no longer cling to a big business or government job without risk. What at one time was a sure thing is now a gamble.
Your cultural directives may come from your ethnicity, religion, education or community. I grew up in Flint. Flint’s culture is to find security through union contracts and big government jobs. The culture of Grand Rapids is to succeed through effort and ability. Security is obtained by capacity to produce.
We can question the value of our beliefs regardless of their origin. The author’s difficulty with her religion was its disrespect for and mistreatment of women, but there is a lot more to the book than religion and women’s issues. She illustrates many of the attitudes and beliefs that cause people to succeed or fail. This is not only about personal success and failure. It is also about local and national success and failure.
In Somalia, clans define who you are. Here, we have political parties that at times exhibit the same loyalty to policy by party affiliation, as opposed to clan affiliation. Irrational decisions based on party or clan affiliation have the same impact whether in Mogadishu or Detroit. As the author explained how bad decisions were based on the blind following of clan leadership, I thought of some of the decisions made by our politicians blindly following the party line.
The policy is good or bad, true or untrue, effective or ineffective based on its inherent worth — not its clan or party support.
Turkey provides an example of breaking traditions to succeed. It was transformed from a backward Middle Eastern, tribal, dysfunctional country into a modern democracy by Kemal Ataturk. He had to break with the cultural and religious beliefs he had grown up with in order to accomplish this. We all carry with us some cultural baggage of which we may not be aware. You too can look at yourself and at your company and transform destructive cultural baggage into something that works.
I suggest “Infidel” as an inspiring life story and an insight into a world far beyond our capacity to comprehend. Secondly, the book will challenge your own beliefs as they apply to the well-being of yourself and those who surround you.
It is difficult to confront your own cultural biases and misconceptions. The capacity to look inward and see the reality of thought processes and their application in your life and the lives of those around you can change your world for the better.
Paul A. Hense, CPA, is president of Hense & Associates, a local accounting firm. He also is past chairman of the National Business Association and the Small Business Association of Michigan.