One day this year in Qatar I found myself in the odd position of explaining aspects of our host country to a group of expats–explaining things I’d only recently figured out myself. I had decided to try dragon boating and afterwards I went with the crew to a gelateria at Katara.
None of these expats had jobs that provided interaction with Qataris. So they turned to me for answers.
A Chinese guy asked me, “Is it true many of them marry their cousins?”
A young American guys leaned in and asked, “Is it true they resent us? Resent that we make their country run?”
“But they’re not capable of organizing a modern society!” A Canadian woman jumped in.
“But why?” someone else asked.
“Because,” I replied, “They have no hereditary memory of how to organize a society on this scale. With how to survive in the desert, they’re in graduate school. But with how to organize and operate a modern society, they are in middle school.”
They murmured interest in what I was saying.
I continued, “My experience of my students, and what they confirm to me, is that they’ve had zero exposure to critical thinking. Their k-12 education sounds like it was mostly abominable, and all rote memorization. Some of them could be capable of being engineers and professors if they were raised with a different educational system. Plus all the modern changes only came about in the 90s. It was only in the 90s when women started driving and when the western colleges and universities came here. Their society is being thrust at sudden high speed into the modern world and many of them aren’t organizationally and academically ready for it.”
“I didn’t know.”
The comments sprouted from the table.
“But their salaries are so much larger than ours when they’re so less educated.” The Canadian said.
I hesitated. I don’t like it when chatter with expats turns into a Qatar-bashing session.
Its true, from what I’ve seen, that Qataris with only an Associates degree and very little work experience make far more than expats who have twenty years of experience and MA degrees, and we have to accept this, even if it stings.
Later, as I pondered the conversation I felt envy that the Qataris will not go into debt in order to get an education and in fact will be paid to get a higher degree. I envy that their health care and their utilities are free. I envy not only their salaries but the fact they know with certainty that a job awaits them.
But I don’t envy that they’ve got people to do to everything for them. The idea of a maid or a cook or even a driver might be nice at times when one is exhausted. But too much help and too much coddling contributes to sloth, and to lack of innovative thinking.
If this continues Qatar will never produce a Steve Jobs and a Steve Wozniak.
It’s only now, from the vantage point of Qatar, that I understand why it was not just my country, but my state, that produced these guys.
I think of those who took the overland trail to California during the Gold Rush. They were risk takers, willing to strike out into the unknown for a dream. The journey was fraught with danger. Those with the strongest will are the ones who survived. And they are the ones who created my state.
During the gold rush people were willing to fail, and to keep trying. This is at the core of California’s psyche: a willingness to fail, to risk, and a drive to dream big and to achieve.
It does not seem a coincidence that Apple computer was birthed in California. The state’s social climate that encourages out of the box thinking and risk-taking is epitomized in Steve Jobs. “Be curious, experiment, take risks.” He told a graduating class at Stanford. While his biological father was Syrian; Steve knew nothing of his Arab roots, and I would argue that had he grown up in Syria, as lovely of a country as it is, he would not have started Apple. I would argue that there was a necessary convergence of his genius with the big bold out of the box creative spirit of California.
When I teach my Qatari students about the Gold Rush I bring it right up to the two Steves in their garage in Mountain View. I point to the Bay Area on the map of California and I tell them, “And that’s where I was born and raised.”
I recall seeing “Think Different” signs all up and down the freeways of Silicon Valley and we all knew what that meant. Here I tell my students to think creatively and critically and most don’t know what I mean.