Bend, Not Break
by Ping Fu
5 stars - highly recommend
Let's get some things out of the way right up front.
Following the publication of this book, there was no small amount of controversy surrounding suspicion of the accuracy of all the stories Ping Fu tells of her childhood through young adulthood and, finally, entry into the US (curiously, no controversy around what happened to her once she arrived in America). Be that as it may, one can make allowances for faded or distorted childhood memories, discount the extremity of some of the scenes described and still get a lot out of reading the book.
Bend, Not Break is an autobiography which follows Ping Fu's life, starting with growing up in China during the cultural revolution and ending with her success at founding Geomagic, Inc.
What was important for me was the overall philosophy of the story (summarized by the title). The philosophy that the strong will bend during hardship, but not break, and that treating others with kindness and love brings success and peace, even in the business world.
In particular, Ms. Fu characterizes the journey of life, not as the relentless pursuit of an elusive summit of happiness, but a journey through a mountain range where there will be peaks and valleys.
"Your ability to thrive depends, in the end, on your attitude to your life circumstances. When you are like the three friends of winter, you take everything in stride with grace, putting forth energy when it is needed, yet always staying calm inwards."
Nobody disputes that Ms. Fu was taken from her family as a child and moved into a dorm to live with and care for her younger sister. There she is housed among others who are enemies of the Cultural Revolution. That circumstance alone, even without the abuse she suffers, is certainly enough to make any reader cringe. How, one wonders, can anybody survive such a childhood and prosper? Indeed. This is especially thought provoking given how the U.S. seems to have swung the pendulum the other way to forgive any adult misbehavior if somebody's childhood was at all rocky and to teach people that they needn't suffer and overcome, but rather to wallow in self-pity.
The way overcoming the hardships of life is described (as opposed to in a typical American "triumph over life circumstances" book is written) resonated with me. It isn't about pointing a finger at your past and saying "Look at what life handed me and how far I have come! I am amazing!" At least it shouldn't be. How much better to say "This is what my life is now, the past is the past, and I will enjoy the good times and learn from the bad."
I'd love to see this book as part of the MBA curriculum, warts and all. Ping Fu's approach to the business world is to treat everybody as a human being, to admit mistakes, seek help and guidance.
When she has to let go employees due to financial issues in her company, one of them hits her with a lawsuit. Instead of starting a battle of lawyers, she contacts the employee, meets with him privately, and seeks to understand what led to the lawsuit and how she can help. Her operating theory for her company is not to be powerful and make money, it is to bring an important product to market.
How I wish corporate executives could talk about doing the right thing instead of bringing all their tired sports analogies into their speeches and puffing up about market share. Blech. I don't attend the quarterly meetings for employees where I work. I want to spit when I hear about how we're going to "pull together as a team" and "score a touchdown" and "WIN WIN WIN!" I don't want to hear about gaining market share or how much revenue is rolling in. I'd much rather hear how our product is helping people. About how it is more important to do the job right than to meet some deadline. How if anybody sees that there is a dangerous flaw, that the production line will be stopped and all forces brought to bear on fixing the flaw.
"As I dealt with various employee issues during those dark hours, I kept reminding myself: it's all about love. Blaming others, being fearful and angry, acting vengefully, building resentment, destroying trust - these negative responses to trying situations suck us into a downward spiral and sap our energy, like water spinning down a drain."
Even though the exact circumstances and timing of Ping Fu's immigration to the U.S. has been questioned, there is no question that she came here with $80 in her pocket, no English language skills, and only the name of a fellow Chinese immigrant at the University of New Mexico.
How is it that such a person can rise to running her own company when so many U.S. citizens seem unable to pull themselves out of poverty? I look around at the large immigrant community in our town. Yes, there are many here illegally, but those that are here with proper paperwork often seem to build something from nothing. I suspect it is because they are willing to work hard and suffer in order to move forward. That they have little or no expectations that somebody else will bail them out. I also believe that strong family and community ties are the cornerstone to success.
I live in a very affluent part of town, in an affluent state. One of the reasons I love where I live is that despite the large houses and properties, we are a neighborhood. We bring each other baked goods and food from our gardens. We watch out for neighbors, tell each other when we won't be home. We know when one of ours is ill or has had a major life event. So many of the people I work with have not even shared a word with the neighbors (and they have often built resentments towards these people whom they don't know).
But I digress.
Bottom line is, read the book. The writing is, for the most part, good. The story is compelling. The philosophy important.