“It’s Impossible”, is not an expression heard in Israel or penned in Inbal Arieli’s new book, CHUTZPAH (Harper, August 20, 2019). Israel, a country the size of New Jersey, enjoys the highest density of start-ups per capita in the world. What is it about that tiny, resourceful and creative country that explains its astounding success in technology, medicine, and the military? According to Arieli it unpredictably starts in pre-school playing with junk.
In clear and interesting detail, Arieli explains the unorthodox approach to child rearing in Israel; an approach which is shunned in most Western countries. For example, in the West when children are given a new shiny toy such as a spaceship, xylophone, or what-have-you, it is not long before they turn them into junk. In Israel pre-school children are given discarded household items – junk – with which they are given free rein to transform that junk into whatever things they conjure up in their imagination. A couple of instances of that are when a discarded microwave might be converted into the control panel of an imaginary spacecraft or the broken keys of a keyboard, disassembled and turned into whatever strikes a chord, in the child’s mind.
In addition to playing with junk a second factor for innovation emerges, it is what Arieli refers to as balagan; it simply means chaos. Ironically, she claims from chaos comes order, from unusableness comes use, whose application is restricted only by the limits of one’s creativity and imagination.
Granted, playing with junk in a chaotic environment is a recipe for potentially hazardous outcomes. Not only do Israeli children engage in, what we in the West call, ‘playing with fire’, they exult in it. There is a holiday, called Lag B’Omer, which is celebrated in part by Israeli children being left alone to build bonfires. Obviously, there is substantial risk in engaging in such an activity, but for Israeli children it is just one of the ways they learn early in life how to deal safely with the dangerous environment within which they live. That activity encourages risk taking, an essential element in fostering successful entrepreneurship.
Arieli asserts that although it is counter-intuitive, measuring success through students’ failures, serves as a steppingstone to learning and growth. The ‘everyone-gets-a-trophy’ craze, which has infected Western thinking, confuses participation with excellence. Failure is inevitable for those willing to step out of their comfort zone and take risks. For the Israeli, there is no shame in failure; it is not taken personally. In the Israeli mindset, when things go awry their response is, I didn’t fail – my project did.
And that type of thinking, along with grit, determination and a can-do attitude, has resulted in the development of: the PillCam for endoscopies, Cpoaxone for the treatment of Multiple Sclerosis, ReWalk a bionic system that enables paraplegics to stand upright and walk, Ineyl 8088 – the first PC CPU from IBM, WINDOWS NT operating system, USB Flash Drive, Pentium MMX Chip, WAZE a GPS system, Mobileye a diver-assistance system warning for collision, and the list is increasing daily.
Finally, Arieli notes that systemic to the Israeli culture is a sense of optimism. There is a common expression in Israel, Yiheye Beseder, which means, ‘it’ll be OK’. It’s the mantra of the optimist. Chemi Peres, son of former prime minister, Shimon Peres, said that his father used to say, “he never heard of a pessimist who discovered a new star”. What becomes clear in Arieli’s excellent rendering of why Israel is a hub of innovation is this: Israelis believe the stars have been placed in the sky – to be discovered.