Don’t Let What Went Wrong with Islam Go Wrong with You

Bernard Lewis, the Western World’s foremost Islamic historian (whose new book “What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response” is scheduled to be published this month), has an interesting view of Islamic history that provides a lesson to anyone interested in success. Lewis says, “For many, many centuries, the Islamic world was the world’s greatest, most open, most enlightened, most creative, and most powerful civilization. And then within a relatively short period of time everything went wrong.” This produced frustration and humiliation — especially for the literate Islamic people who saw history as an arena where God’s will was worked out.

The problems that beset Islam provoked two very different responses. One was to ask, “What did we do wrong?” This, Lewis says, is what the Turks have been asking. The other was to ask, “Who did this to us?” This, Lewis suggests, is what the fundamentalists have done. The Turks, Lewis points out, have benefited greatly from their approach. They have modernized and prospered. The fundamentalist countries have experienced a different result.

Despite (in some cases) great natural riches, they have seen their economies crumble, their freedoms disintegrate, and their culture harden. That has created a political climate that nurtures “conspiracy theories and neurotic fantasies of every kind” and, eventually, jihads. Reading this reminded me of GR, a friend and colleague of mine. I met GR four years ago. He had just opened a new business, and it was doing well. He had a unique product, and he was an expert at providing it. He charged a lot of money for it, but his customers paid it — happy to have his personal attention and the benefit of his knowledge.

Everything was going well for him, and his business probably would have been an amazing success were it not for one fundamental problem: Somewhere along the line, he started seeing his business problems as a “Who did this to me?” rather than a “What have I done wrong?” situation. If a customer questioned the price of one of his services, he became defensive and sometimes angry. “He’s trying to take advantage of me,” he’d tell me. When I suggested that the pricing might have been a little high, he looked at me as if I were trying to steal from him. When he discovered that one of his customers had gone to a competitor for a service, he cut him off and would do no further business with him. He was distrustful even of his employees, often accusing them of being disloyal to him if they asked for a day off or made some mistake in their duties. Naturally, he created a lot of bad feelings — not just with his employees and customers but also within himself.

As time went on, things gradually went from bad to worse (as you would expect). Lucrative business deals with competitors fell apart. Key employees quit. Good customers left him. Eventually, the business became unprofitable. It’s actually a credit to the quality of his product that he was able to stay in business for as long as he did. His ultimate failure was a shame, because he is, at heart, a good man who had a very good business idea. He provided a valued service, and he knew how to sell it. If only his response to problems could have been “What am I doing wrong?” instead of “Why is this being done to me?” Once or twice during the years I knew him — when he was, perhaps, feeling worn out and vulnerable — he turned to me and asked, “Do you think it’s something I’ve done?” “Aha!” I thought. “He’s ready to change.”

But when I gave him the candy-coated version of “Yes, you have made a mistake. You are blaming others instead of taking the responsibility of making changes yourself,” he would not listen to more than a few words. He didn’t listen, and I’m sure he’s wondering today why the world is against him. He (along with his assistant, who had the same penchant for blaming others) has gone on to make another attempt at yet another business. I wish him the best. But I can’t be hopeful any longer — not until he stops looking to blame others for the problems that are part of life.

When you play the blame game, your problems get worse. Instead of recognizing your responsibility and making quick improvements that will improve your life, you ignore the problems, and — guess what — they continue! Worse, perhaps, you alienate and offend those you blame, some of whom become your enemies and begin treating you the way you believed they did. GR could have easily overcome the problems he encountered. He could have gradually built a strong and successful business. Instead, he broke off all relations with competitors, fired loyal employees, and even ended up firing good customers for perceived disloyalty. He subjected those who remained to tirades on how he was being abused and mistreated by others. He spent less and less time providing the product people were paying for. And so, when his business failed and he relocated to another state — where “everyone” and “everything” wasn’t “against him” — I bought the remains of his business from him.

At a very high price, I bought one key employee, a handful of new (and as yet unabused) customers, and the rights to sell his product — which was still good. I immediately set about to fix what had been broken. I negotiated a new and more favorable deal with the employee, invited cooperative deals with some competitors, and started treating the customers like lovers rather than enemies. We lost money in month one, broke even in month two, and began being profitable in month three. The atmosphere of the business is greatly improved. Employees are happy, customers are happy, and our competitors are happy to work with us. I’m happy because I get to enjoy this product without paying for it anymore.

And GR should be happy too — because I’m paying him a very generous royalty for using his name and product. Will he be happy? I don’t know. That depends on whether he can desist from seeing business as war and stop blaming his problems on other people. If he can be man enough to own up to the mistakes he has made and start making love and not war with his new employees, competitors, and customers, he’ll succeed. If he continues to listen to his personal assistant and wage war against every real and imaginary enemy, he’ll tire himself out and fail.

What you can do: Take a frank look at the work you do. Identify the three largest problems. For each of those problems, list the three major causes. Then examine your list. Have you identified causes that are within your control? Or have you blamed your difficulties on forces you can’t possibly control? Has your thinking pointed you toward deficiencies in your approach to business (“I am not doing the hard work,” “I am neglecting the marketing,” “I am not talking to customers enough,” etc.) — or toward deficiencies of others (“My boss is an idiot,” “My customers don’t appreciate a good thing,” “My vendors are screwing me,” etc.)? When it comes to wondering about problems, the questions you ask determine your future. Be strong enough to fix yourself and the rest of the world will eventually take care of itself too.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]