Yesterday I got a tour of Jerusalem which was absolutely fantastic. My tour guide Arava was a local to Jerusalem and since it was 1-1, she was able to show me parts of the old city that regular tour groups just don't get to see. I sat in a market alley drinking Turkish Coffee, eating truly local Hummus in a tiny cafe that only fit about 10 people (so good), and visited a photographer with an incredible story. So, thank you Arava!
On the ride up to Jerusalem I got chatting with the driver Ben (who was brilliant). I began asking about the Israeli success and asking for his thoughts. From his view, if you don't have a big failure behind you then you've not done enough. There is something missing in your resume. I'm hearing this a lot, and where the British employers want to see a spotless and perfect CV, Israeli's want to see that prior failure. They want to see effort expended and lessons learned. I'm not sure right now how you would convince British HR teams to understand that a short failure story on a CV is a good thing, but I'll figure something out.
Going back to the photographer in Jerusalem. Eli Kahvedjian, owner of Elia Photo Servicem, had an incredible story (photo of him here). From my memory, it goes something like this...
When photography was first brought to Jerusalem, Kahvedjian's grandfather got involved very early on - we're talking about the early 1900's. He was curious about photography and learnt about it as soon as the first school for photography was opened in Jerusalem. He took many hundreds of negatives on plates, and decided to keep the original negative plates for posterity and in case he ever wanted to re-develop them. On a side note, that alone gives you an appreciation of how much effort was involved in photography back then. You didn't just 'print another copy' on a printer, you went back into the darkroom and got working with chemicals every time.
Anyway, when conflict came (around) 1948, his British military friends who were stationed in Jerusalem saw the trouble coming ahead of time and decided to help the poor photographer. The friends sent for trucks and men to move out all of the photography equipment from the small shop he'd established in Jerusalem and hid the archive of negative plates so they would not be destroyed.
After the conflict eventually came to an end, the grandfather re-opened his photography store in the same small shop that it is today, and began selling (then) modern prints and photography equipment.
Fast-forward many years towards the present time and the store has now had three generations of Kahvedjian men tending it. As modern photographic techniques such as 35mm film and eventually digital photography came into play the shop began to fall in popularity. With things not looking too bright, the son of the original owner (the father of today's owner) made a miraculous discovery in the basement. All of the original negative plates taken throughout the 1900's by his father were perfectly preserved in the cool, dry air of the basement - completely forgotten about. The sons re-developed all of the photographs and so what follows, and what the photography shop sells today, is an amazing archive of photos capturing Jerusalem through the ages. The shop survives well today by selling these prints en-mass either as single frames or in a book, (I was tempted to buy some but couldn't guarantee their safety flying home).
For me, the best part of the story was that the grandfather left his son and grandson a gift and a way to sustain themselves in the modern world without even realising he'd done it. His family thanks him, historians thank him, and visitors to Jerusalem today still enjoy and purchase his work. Today's owner of the shop Eli explained that by working with Epson, he's also now scanned the original plates and backed them up sufficiently so that they'll never be lost!
On the ride back to Tel Aviv, the driver Ben offered a chat with his Dad on the phone. Ben Snr. had held many jobs over the years with companies such as Sun and Avalon. Given his time in these roles and the international nature of his work (U.S., UK, Canada, Israel), he was an ideal person to speak with to understand whether the Israeli mentality can be 'bottled' and taken home with me. I was making notes as we spoke and here are the key points and remarks I appreciated. It is paraphrased a little, but the message is the same.
You, (the British) have nothing to prove. Ever since 1066 you've more or less had a democracy and in today's world there is nothing to prove. You're complacent, but in the best way. Strict, stubborn and willing to take on foreign ideas and products provided they fit within the ideals and constraints which have been established over centuries. There is very much the air of the 'Old Boys Club'. That's the way business has been done over many years, and its the way business will be done. Israel is a 60 year old country with everything to prove. There is no water, not much vegetation, we had to work hard to succeed. We are surrounded by enemies and without hard work and original thinking we would have perished. You're protected by 20 miles of ocean, but our enemies are next door. We can't afford to lose anything. The reason our fighter pilots are amongst the best in the world is that because one plane costs millions of dollars we still don't have to spare - we cannot afford to lose that plane given our situation. If the UK lost a plane in the grand scheme its not that big of a deal, but to Israel it's everything.
The nation had to produce something from nothing. So we constructed and sold ideas and intellect to be successful. (When working in Canada) they regarded us with awe because we worked 8 hours on and 8 hours off, constantly, 7 days a week. It was because we had the mentality and yes, some of it came from life in the military, but it was also that burning need for success. I don't know if a nation can just 'pick that up', its something that grows up with you and comes from necessity and not 'wanting' it.
For Israeli's, if we think we're on to something we will push for it, and push hard. There is a classless structure in Israel (allowing for easy idea sharing and adoption), but the UK is so classful. How you speak and your accents immediately determine class but in Israel there is no class. Everyone is essentially equal. Maybe the UK could cook up its own Israeli-like mentality if you had to, but its very unlikely.
All of Ben Snr's points were extremely valid, made sense to me and rang true on many levels. They made me re-evaluate and realise again how difficult it would always be to bring such a new mentality to the UK, but one of his last points got me thinking. The mentality comes from necessity and not 'wanting' it. So, if a situation comes along that forces the UK to rethink its innovative strategy then there may be an easy solution. Historically, forced innovation tends to be fallout from hard times and hopefully we will avoid that. Still, it means the innovation mentality isn't impossible to bring back and adopt in the UK, the right situation may be what's required instead.