One of the best pieces of advice I ever got came from a barber who was short in stature and unknown to the world, but had an easy smile, and a son who shared my ridiculous first name.
This must have happened when I was 16 years old or so. The barber’s name was Alex. He cut my hair and my brother’s hair from childhood probably through the end of high school. Alex was raised in the country, on a farm. He joined the military after high school, then learned a trade.
He was not college educated, but he was smart and had common sense, and he became a successful businessman. He was always friendly and ever smiling.
The advice he gave me, as near as I can remember it, boiled down to this: Don’t run with the crowd. Be strong enough to trust in yourself and not let others dictate who you are and what you do.
I’m not sure why Alex laid this particular wisdom on me on this particular day. Usually, we talked about baseball or fishing or some such. Maybe it was because I was a teenage boy, full of testosterone and questionable judgement, prone to getting into mostly harmless trouble that mostly involved beer and green plants in little plastic baggies you bought for five bucks a pop. The police made an appearance. Let’s leave it at that.
My Dad gave me a stern talking to about it. He and Alex were good pals. Maybe my father spoke with Alex. I don’t know, and never asked.
“It takes more courage to follow your own path than to follow others,” Alex told me, or words to that effect, while he was clipping off more hair than I probably wanted.
I’m not sure I actually took the advice until much later. But the words stuck.
Now, all these decades later, I share similar advice with our two daughters. The one thing I try to instill in them more than anything else is that they need to be true to themselves and their own values, and not let anyone else dictate their happiness, behavior, or self-worth. Trust yourself above all others. Be wary of strangers bearing promises. Don’t follow the crowd.
I was reminded of Alex’s advice by a trio of documentaries I recently saw on TV. All of the films were released in 2021.
One is called WeWork: Or The Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn. It tells the story of a real estate and shared-workspace company that became a financial sensation, quickly rose in value, then quickly sank in value because it was built on smoke, mirrors, and promises.
The second film is The Return: Life After ISIS, which tells the story of several young women who left their comfortable lives in Western countries – the UK, Germany, Holland, Canada, and the U.S. – to travel to Syria and serve the cause of ISIS in its so-called jihad.
The third film is Assassins, about a pair of young women who were tricked into murdering the half-brother of North Korean tyrant Kim Jong-un.
There are a couple of things you come away with after looking at these films. One is that too many young people spend too much time believing in others instead of themselves. The second is that there sure are a lot of folks out there trying to con you. In their own way, they all remind me of those words of wisdom I heard several lifetimes ago.
The WeWork documentary provides a textbook example of how willing people are to be led off a cliff. I won’t recount the history of the company, or its downfall. Look online, you’ll find plenty about it. Suffice it to say that the company’s founder, Adam Neumann, was one of these tech-age/new-age business leaders who is very good at convincing people he’s a wise and benevolent guru while he’s busy lining his own pockets.
I have run into a lot of these people as a business reporter for the past 25 years. They all repeat the same mantra: I am not interested in money; I am interested in changing the world. We are a community, not a business. Our people are not employees, but family. Our business model is built on love.
In the case of WeWork, the business model was built on bullshit. It was an old-economy real-estate company posing as a new-economy innovator. Neumann wanted to conquer the world, and he had plenty of rich investors tossing billions at him believing he could. In only a few years, WeWork reached a valuation of $47 billion. To put that number in perspective, it’s bigger than the current market capitalizations of Adidas, Phillips 66, and Lloyds Banking Group.
WeWork eventually moved into shared living spaces as well as shared working spaces. Employees were encouraged to live together, play together, work together, spend all their waking hours together. They took equity in the company instead of pay raises. They bought into the pitch – we are a community, we are changing the world.
They bet their whole careers and much of their financial security on this one company, this one guy, Adam Neumann, who was as slick and charismatic as they come. Adam and his wife – equally slick – hosted company events that more closely resembled cult gatherings. They mastered the art of convincing people they were among the chosen few, there to blaze a new path to glory.
Things hit the skids when WeWork tried to go public. Suddenly its financial results had to be made public as well. This is when the financial media and others finally saw what only Neumann and a few others previously knew: WeWork was overextended and deep in debt, didn’t have nearly enough cash flow, and was hemorrhaging great big piles of money. Its IPO went ass up. Its value plummeted. Employees were laid off with nothing to show for it but worthless equity in a struggling little real estate company.
Oh, except for Adam Neumann. He got a $445 million payout for exiting the company. He kept the loot for himself instead of sharing it with others, and is a rich man today. The “community” didn’t matter anymore.
Life After ISIS is much more disturbing because of everything the women involved sacrificed to go serve a cause that turned out to be a ruse. ISIS was very adept at using social media and the internet to recruit people from around the world to take part in its little program of murder and mayhem.
Female recruits were led to believe that they were serving the cause of Islam, only to find out what anyone with half a brain knew already: ISIS was a terrorist organization that only used the Koran to justify its hate and murder. As one of the women later admitted, ISIS was just another cult – the leader of which went into hiding when it became clear that ISIS was going to be pounded into submission.
Women were nothing more than cattle to the men of ISIS – sold and traded, chosen for their looks (blue eyes carried a premium), discarded if they no longer served their purpose, used as human shields so the bullets would hit them before they hit the “soldiers.”
Women – many in their teens – were there to make food, make babies, raise babies, keep house, and shut up. Many of the women and babies died. One woman from the UK who left home at 15 to join ISIS has buried three young children. She’s not even 25 yet.
When ISIS finally was defeated in Syria, the women survivors were sent to camps, where they live in horrid conditions with inadequate food, water, and health care. Their homelands have revoked their citizenship and won’t allow them to return. They can’t see their parents, siblings, or friends.
During one conversation in the documentary, the women talked about what they were going to do when they return to their birth countries. One said she would eat a big Subway sub; another said she would eat cheeseburgers smothered in chili. But they’re not going home. Ever.
Many of these women came from middle class families. They were educated, with bright futures. They thought they were joining a righteous cause. But the cause turned out to be a fraud, and now they have nothing left but regret. They write letters to their younger selves advising them to stay home, not open the door, because when the door closes, it closes for good.
Assassins is similarly disturbing. The two young women at the center of the film were much like the women of Isis in the sense that they were conned and used by men, for similar purposes, but with different recruitment methods.
One of the women, Đoàn Thị Hương, was from Vietnam. The other, Siti Aisyah, was from Indonesia. Both wound up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Both were approached by men who claimed to be with entertainment shows that specialized in pranks. The women were offered decent money to take part in the prank shows – and a shot at fame, which they also valued. One of the pranks involved rubbing a liquid substance into the face and eyes of an unsuspecting man at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
The man being “pranked” was Kim Jong-nam, the eldest son of former North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il. Kim Jong-nam’s half-brother was Kim Jong-un, an ambitious little shit who wanted to ascend to Supreme Leader himself, and saw Kim Jong-nam as a threat. Kim Jong-nam had no interest in being Supreme Leader, and told his little brother that. But even after Kim Jong-un took over as Supreme Leader, he still saw Kim Jong-nam as a threat, and wanted him assassinated.
The opportunity came in Kuala Lumpur, and the two women – Doan and Siti – were the perfect foils to carry it out, because they wouldn’t even know what was happening.
The liquid they were given to “prank” the unsuspecting man in the airport was VX, a highly toxic nerve agent that can kill a human in a matter of minutes. That’s what happened after the two women rubbed the liquid into Kim Jong-nam’s face and then ran off, thinking it was just another prank. Kim Jong-nam died about 15 minutes later, right there at the airport. Everything was caught on the security cameras.
The North Korean men who set the pranks up – all with ties to the Kim Jong-un regime – flew back to North Korea soon after the incident, never to be seen in Malaysia again. They were laughing in the queue as they headed for the plane.
The two women were identified by the security cameras. They were soon arrested, put on trial, and found guilty of first-degree murder by the judge. Punishment in Malaysia is death by hanging, no exceptions.
The evidence clearly showed that Doan and Siti were pawns in an international political assassination, and had no idea that the prank they agreed to do involved deadly poison and murder. But it didn’t matter. Malaysia needed to convict somebody to protect its own image. The North Korean men who should have been charged were long gone, so Doan and Siti were convenient patsies.
It wasn’t until the governments of Indonesia and Vietnam stepped in that Doan and Siti were freed after spending two years in jail. But the damage had already been done. Their lives will never be the same. Doan said she used to see the world as pink – bright and happy, full of good and kind people. No more.
These are extreme examples of people who came under the sway of the wrong men, so I won’t try to overstate the danger of it happening to most folks. Nor will I pretend that any of these people were exactly innocent. Picking up and leaving home to join a terrorist organization is the very definition of misguided – at best. There were so many other ways they could have served their faith.
And being lured to take part in “pranks” by men you don’t know – and whom you have not properly vetted – is the very definition of ignorance. Yet I feel sympathy for Doan and Siti. They were easy targets, living in a big, strange city with little money and few connections. Maybe they wanted a feeling of belonging, or just needed the cash. I’m glad they got out of jail. I’m glad they were able to go home. I wish them all the best.
As for the WeWork folks: If you needed a job, fine. Treat it like a job and not a life mission. If you wanted to change the world, you could have become a teacher or social worker. If you wanted to be part of a community, you could have taken part in neighborhood cleanup efforts, or volunteered your time down at the community center. You’re young. There’s still plenty of time.
There are so many little choices we make, every day, that help determine who we eventually become and how our lives eventually turn out. All it takes is one wrong move, one step in the wrong direction…..
Our daughters will be making those choices. And I’ll be giving them the same advice Alex gave me long ago. Keep your own counsel. Trust in yourself. Be strong enough to follow your own path instead of the crowd.
The country barber with the eternal smile knew of what he spoke.