How Arab Parents Annihilate Their Children’s Entrepreneurial Future

School and society heavily impact how our kids behave and what they think, but the home environment totally takes the lead on what our kids value, believe and do.

The messages we constantly receive as kids get ingrained in us, and depending on our personalities, resilience, experiences and outcomes of our efforts, we translate these messages into behaviors that either support our success as adults, or hinder it.

Here are some of the things I’ve often heard in my society and how I’ve seen them interpreted by adults.

1. I told you so

You hear this when you insist on trying something that a parent, caretaker or someone you look up to doesn’t want you to. As a kid, you are stubborn and curious and full of hope that things might turn out differently for you – but maybe they don’t.

You are told, “See? I told you so!” When this is repeated often enough you stop trying. Why? Because you’ve learnt that there’s always someone who’s right, and it’s never you.

As an adult, if you hear yourself saying, it will never work; my idea is stupid; what’s the point; or any self-defeatist commentary like that, know that it probably comes from some kind of message you kept hearing as a kid.

This attitude completely obliterates your willingness to experiment and test out new ideas. Nothing will work so why bother trying? Find yourself a cushy desk job, take orders from those that are right and stay within the boundaries of what works. 

If you never experiment, make mistakes and fail, nobody can tell you, “I told you so”, but do throw out any hope of entrepreneurship too.

2. Stop playing and do your homework

Your schedule is so packed that there’s no down time. You’re either getting ready for school, rushing to school, ingesting information, doing your homework, or rushing off to activities. Play time always appears like a plague to a functional, approved-of life.

“Stop playing and ________,” fill in the blanks, That’s the mantra that is repeated over and over. The implicit message you carry with you into adulthood is this: play is pointless and a waste of resources, it is an obstacle to productivity and a barrier to adulthood.

What we don’t realize is that downtime and play are so essential to creativity and innovation that top executives at multinationals are getting training in how to play again.

“With very few exceptions the truly sustainable organizations are ones that Play. They have fun. They make life fun for their customers and suppliers.” Marty Anderson in Forbes

In his book Play: How It Saves the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Stuart Brown says that “play seems to be one of the most advanced methods nature has invented to allow a complex brain to create itself.”

Grown ups that don’t play are simply less likely to be innovative, have good relationships, and feel fulfillment in life.

3. Shame, that’s shameful, or shame on you

I don’t know where you live and how it works in your country but in Lebanon, and especially with the older generation, we have this big concept of shame. Everything is shameful, from wearing a slightly too revealing shirt to asking for seconds at a dinner to saying something that you honestly mean. You hear it so much (the word ‘3ayb’ translated as, ‘that’s shameful’) that you reconsider your every action and become inhibited in all that you do.

You become embarrassed by who you are and what you feel and desire. The sense of inadequacy, of ‘not enoughness’ settles deep into your bones, and you feel that everything you are and do doesn’t measure up to what is acceptable. Translation: it is not okay to be you.

This feeling sets you up for a lifetime of managing insecurities rather than putting all that energy into more productive, more personally fulfilling endeavors. If you don’t have the self-confidence and self-belief to stand behind your ideas, you will never have the conviction to weather the entrepreneurial storm and push through obstacles. 

4. What will the neighbors say/think?

Very much like number 3, this comment is designed to build conformity. “What will the neighbors say/think?” or “Look people are staring!” This one makes you feel that anything you do outside of socially accepted norms is weird, strange or subject to scrutiny and critique.

Hearing this over and over again tells you that if you are different, or do something different you will not be socially accepted and therefore it is best to file down your sharp edges and conform to what is seen as ok.

The sad two-fold outcome of this on us as adults is that 1- We are always working on dampening our differences so that we fit into society, and 2- any kind of change or ‘uprising’ we chose to go ahead with that is counter to socially accepted norms leaves us feeling isolated and alone. This only hinders our ability to succeed, because connection and social support are key factors to living a fulfilling life.

If you conform, you will never have the courage to go for that whacky idea that’s been brewing in your mind. And if you do go for it, you’ll most likely struggle with networking and/or avoiding the feeling of isolation and aloneness entrepreneurs often find themselves mired in. 

5. Art doesn’t feed bread

Adults secretly envy artists and creatives because they are alive and vibrant and original. But none of them think that they or their offspring are capable of being remarkable or successful through their art. Successful artistry seems to be reserved for the few lucky people blessed by the gods.

And so artistic endeavors are only encouraged as extracurricular activities and amusing pastimes, soon to be traded for private tutoring and long study hours once passing Government exams takes priority. They are never to be considered as a serious pursuit for a prosperous or lucrative future, because “Art doesn’t feed bread.”

Engineering does. Medicine does. Finance does. So don’t even consider a serious future as an artist (graphic design is the best option), a musician (maybe get into film production) or a writer (copywriting or teaching might be more suitable).

While their concerns for your ability to make money are totally legitimate, if you are discouraged before you even get started you will never know how far you could have gone, what other ways you could have transformed your skills into money and how good you could have really gotten.

You settle for a watered-down next best option and learn that life is about settling for what you can get rather than going for what you really want. And of course that means forget about stepping into your own entrepreneurial spaceship, just take the corporate bus.   

6. Focus on yourself right now

This is often said in reference to kids making ‘foolish’ suggestions like wanting to create centers for the disabled, change regulations in the local village, solve the problems of the homeless or feed the needy. They’re often told to ‘focus on themselves for now’ or to ‘worry about their own problems’ until they are in positions of greater power and/or influence.

I really don’t expect parents to rally behind the potentially naive approaches to problem solving their kids are suggesting but the difference between support and discouragement is enormous. Instead of finding small ways to still have in impact on the problems kids see as important, what they learn from the ‘focus on yourself right now’ mantra is that they are not meant for solving big problems and should only focus on themselves. This inhibits big thinking, community orientation and solutions that affect the greater good rather than only furthering the causes of the individual.

You learn that big problems are for other people to solve and that you are powerless against the powers that be.

And so you are discouraged from trying to solve any problems at all, including your own. So longs you’re making it, life is working out.

Fight Back

Experimentation, play, confidence and resilience in the face of disapproval, connection, creativity and social awareness are critical for successful entrepreneurship. But even if you never plan to become an entrepreneur, developing an entrepreneurial mindset will completely set you apart from the crowd vying for your job. 

It takes effort and self awareness and the willingness to acknowledge and change your conditioning to break free from many of these influences. But it is worth it.

Don’t let the well-intentioned influence of your parents hold you back from being the most confidence and courageous version of yourself.

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