How intolerant is demanding tolerance?

I don’t like to see myself as a Social Justice Warrior, but I have to admit that I do take chances to point out intolerant or non-differentiated nonsense people utter or post on Social Media. Simply because I think change starts small, and if everyone who sees or notices something in their inner circle (yes, I count my 1000+ facebook-friends to my inner circle) speaks out, maybe people will start listening, and, more importantly, start thinking. Towards a more tolerant and kind society.

Fact is, however, that human beings are selfish little scumbags. Since, like, ever, we need institutions like religion or the government to tell us what’s right and what’s wrong, simply because we don’t seem to be able to internalize something like moral values, and act accordingly. Discussing about ethics and moral is thus as constructive as Sisyphus keeping on rolling that stone. Because, here comes a fun fact, there will always be counter arguments as to why the person that in someone’s eyes acted intolerant is actually very right in what they are doing, has reasons that can be related to, and anyway, there’s no law that would keep them from doing whatever disgusting little selfish act they are living out right now. And then you stand there with all your good intentions to make it right, to bring someone onto “the right path”, and you start questioning yourself: How do I even know the path I want them to take is “the right one”?

If we were all super tolerant, nothing could ever bother us, right? The most intolerant behaviour, which, according to my established hypothetical parallel reality would now need a different adjective, would just be an “alternative” way of doing things, and we should be absolutely fine with it. If an acquaintance offers you to lend you their vehicle when you’re in need, to conditions that would let the most nefarious business man turn green with envy, and then calls it an act of friendship, while you are one of those people that are used to helping out even random strangers on the street at your own expense – well, then that’s just the way they roll! You do it your way, they do it theirs, and because we’re all so tolerant, there’s absolutely no problem with that!

Since I came to the US, I compare and rant and complain about all the little nasty things that come with this strongly individualistic, capitalist system that leaves so many people behind and seems to benefit only the few that are in power to change it (which, of course, they won’t). I’m sure you noticed. So the other day, I was starting another rant about how on social events, people seem to need to hop from person to person to make small-talk about uninteresting things for two minutes. I went on how I, of course, totally boycott this, and refuse to play this game. How I rather have conversations with a deeper meaning and a real value, and maybe even some entertainment factor, instead of trying to “invest” in the future in which this random two-minutes-person might be of help to me some day. And then, suddenly, I caught myself in my own head as being very judgemental.

Who am I to decide which way is the better one – having conversations to invest in the future, or for mere entertainment? Yes, I do advocate the YOLO approach to a certain extent, but why would that be the one right one? Everyone is on this planet only once, and only for a limited amount of time. If some people want to make the most out of it by enjoying every second, it’s their choice, but if some people want to try thriving for being remembered way beyond their existence, and they thus need to “invest” in their future and career at any possible point in time, shouldn’t that be their own choice then, as well?

You can carry this thought forward. Who are we to decide that socialism is better than capitalism? Sure, it’s unfair if people are left behind merely because they were born in the wrong place at the wrong time, and others are given a head start because they are privileged. Sure, no one on this planet, I claim, is able to sustain their high living standards without living off of other people’s poor living standards – but does that mean they owe being fair to anyone? That life is unfair and random becomes most evident when natural catastrophes kill people. When a spider ends up in your house instead of your yard and this might be the last thing the little creature ever saw. When you want to get in shape and all the weight you lose leaves from your boobs.

The other day, someone shared a very true comic about having ideals, in the context of inheritance and true equality in opportunities. The bottom line was that everyone seems to have an ideal opinion as to how fair society should work – until they are affected themselves, and something they think they earned or deserved is suddenly at stake. This is usually the upper limit of people’s kindness and generosity. And these upper limits are defined very subjectively and per individual. For some people, money is the thickest boundary, for others it might be time. As soon as we have to sacrifice something we value in order to give it to someone else who might need it more, we take a decision about where to set those boundaries. We might be willing to sacrifice a little bit, but not too much, and the threshold of this sacrifice is again very subjective. So while you (or I, in that matter) might be thinking we are super altruistic people because we are willing to lend our car to a friend for a weekend and drive around by bus ourselves, because the friend needs to go 500 kms and we only 10, this is actually just defined by our own constraints. For someone else, the constraint might be at the fact that even though it’s just 10 kms, it’s still their own car, so why the heck would they even need to lend it to anyone in the first place?

This was just an excursion into what-would-be-land for me, and I will of course continue to regard our society as a whole, and our goods and assets more as a shared basket where everyone randomly happened to be in control over a certain part; if nothing else then because of the unfairness and randomness of being born into the ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ family, which I mentioned earlier (I hate unfairness). In this ‘basket’, I weigh 500 kms against 10 kms, and I disregard the my-car-aspect versus their no-car-aspect, because there might be so many reasons why someone does not own a car but I do. And also, it really doesn’t hurt me to take the bus.

I just wanna make sure you *know* you’re living in an ivory tower – ok, thanks.

I will, however, try to be more tolerant towards those that set their constraints lower than I do. Those that think they earned every penny they own by themselves, with their own hard work alone, while randomness has nothing to do with it. Who think it is thus OK to not tolerate anyone who works less than they do, or earns less than they do (which apparently implies someone worked less, according to these people’s belief system), and dares to live off social welfare. I will try to not judge them. After all, I have to tolerate their intolerance. But I won’t shut up, either. And while I will still explain to them why I see things very differently, expecting my view to be tolerated, I do admit that this might be a discussion to which there is no ending: it might as well be that the world will change to the worse instead of the better, benchmarked by my own, socialist beliefs. Tolerating each others tolerance and intolerance will lead to a vicious circle of confusing nothingness, where any opinion is to be accepted, even those that might generally be considered morally and ethically wrong.

Because, after all, human beings are nasty, selfish scumbags, and with moving more and more away from religion, we seemingly managed to eliminate the one good thing the Bible had to offer: Love thy neighbour as thyself. Breaking news: now tolerance is the new next-love!

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American Dream or Blatant Scam? More on how to make money in the US.

People who have ever traveled as tourists through Asia know that in most parts, haggling is a big part of the culture there. On markets, no prices are on display. Instead, you ask for one and then start haggling, or you initiate the bargaining by offering a price yourself. If you were to pay the first price mentioned, some vendors might even be disappointed or offended. Then there’s another reason for the lack of publicly visible prices: If you are a tourist, you usually end up paying the ‘tourist price’ when buying things on local markets. Obviously, vendors cannot easily display two different prices; that would cause too much discontent. And maybe you might say it’s just a rumour. But anecdotal evidence of a wife angrily whispering into her husband’s ear after he has made an offer to a backpacker, which resulted in the price suddenly rising, is just one of many stories to prove this unofficial rumor.

Since I came to the US, I noticed many parallels to the parts of Asia I have seen so far. I am not referring to the working culture, which strangely resembles the Chinese one, with 10 days of vacation a year being a blessing, or to the deliberate withholding and tunneling of public information. Well, at least not in this blog entry. Here, I actually am talking about the culture of setting prices completely at random, and trying to deceive and confuse consumers to an extent that leaves me in shock almost every day again.

I admit that I might come from a very protected environment. In the European countries I am familiar with, we have consumer protection, we have tenant protection, and we have employee protection. As a result of a more socialist culture on the continuum of capitalism, those people without power (so basically those who have at most an average income and no connections to any Mafia bosses or other politicians) are taken care of fairly well, contrary to what they actually might believe themselves. In the US, a country that strongly believes in capitalism, the rights of the individual are valued most. This basically means that theoretically, everyone could do what they need to be well off – but reality looks a bit different. Few people who have all the power make all the rules, and everyone else just has to follow. The consequences are an exploitative employee-employer-relationship, an imbalanced tenant-landlord-bond, and a consumer market where not supply and demand find an equilibrium, but instead the suppliers play consumers like little puppets and squeeze every cent out of them until they stop moving.

There is no governmental regulation, there are hardly any upper limits to what can be charged from people, and the only players seem to be competitors who randomly rise prices as they please, which results in a higher and higher overall price. Housing is expensive and so badly maintained that people have pest-problems all over the country, food is either literally toxic or unaffordable, when an employee falls sick they have to take unpaid leave or vacation, and reproducing is a financial disaster from the moment you get pregnant till you have to put your kid to college. If you ever wondered why the majority of the poorer people here seems to be overweight – contrary to Asian cultures by the way, where a big belly is a sign of a wealthy lifestyle: It’s because the food you can afford to buy here has so much added corn syrup and is run through so many additional processes that there is basically zero nutrition left. And what happens if you keep cramming empty calories into your stomach? Right, it still feels empty, so you naturally keep cramming. But if you can buy a kilo of sugared crap for a dollar, and a single apple for two, the story is quite straightforward.

Confused what to pay?

Despite the prices randomly being set at the will of sellers, they also are almost impossible to know from the start. Probably this is due to the fact that you can confuse people better by deceiving them, and because you can alter the prices daily without having to alter your information out there, and because you can drag people till the check-out and then reveal the price, and going back and changing whatever it is they wanted to buy would be too much of an effort by now, and… well, there are numerous reasons, really. None of them aids the customer, though. If you want to know how much to pay for a car repair service, you have to call. It is bad enough that they charge you for visiting any random tree stump, but putting a sign at the bottom of a mountain that says “Tickets at the gate uphill”, and letting you drive all the way up first before you even find out that now you gotta pay 15 bucks per person to climb up a mountain, that’s just pure evil. Who would turn around again now? And what on earth is so difficult about giving the actual price when already making the effort of asking you personally if the additional fee for the extra driver for the rental car is OK? You literally find out about it when signing the credit card receipt 20 seconds later, and you probably do notice that it is 30 dollars more than what was just said.

It’s like riding a taxi and anxiously observing the running meter accumulating to your last salary.

Also in Germany retailers make use of the psychological effect of displaying a seemingly lower price. However, this is a psychological effect, and not an actual attempt to scam you into buying by withholding additional information! Instead of displaying 5 euros, a sign would read 4.99, or 4.95 euros, for example. Your eyes see the big 4 and your brain suggests it’s super cheap. Still, with a minimum conscious control over your idiot brain, you could at least know what the real deal here is. In the US, I have already given up on trying to convert dollars into euros in my mind. What’s the point? The mere fact that one dollar is about 80% of a euro doesn’t mean anything. Actually, 80% of a euro is what you can see, and the remaining 20% are random sales taxes, fees, and I-don’t-like-your-face-add-ons, so in the end it’s really more like a 1:1 relation. You do save some money at the check-out though when you sign-up for yet another customer-card, and your toilet paper is suddenly cut in half. Literally already in production, and now also monetarily! But, as always, you gotta work for that, and you gotta sell your soul and email address to them.

I have a theory that their weird units are also just another way to deceive people. Having a metric system with 10s and 100s of the whole piece certainly makes comparing easier. Comparing olive oil in a 100-ml-bottle for 1.50 euros to a 200-ml-bottle for 2 euros directly reveals which is the cheaper one. But if stuff is sold in random sizes like 15.8 oz, 3/7th of a gallon, or 36 handful of Donald Drumpf’s tiny hands, there’s no way you know how to save money at one glance. Only with an excel spreadsheet and a lot of time you may find out. As tempting as that sounds to me as an accountant, I don’t usually have the time to do that in a supermarket, unfortunately.

One mile is fivethousandtwohundredandeighty feet. Easy.

Sometimes they don’t even try to deceive you, and just yell right in your face how stupid they think you are: Yesterday on the State fair a seller advertised his “Ice-cold pepsi!” with a bargain-price of “Fifty cents only, two for a dollar!” – I believe people who are used to quantity discounts might just buy two without even thinking about it. Trust me. I am the one who signed up for a 4-months gym membership for the price of 6 months. Or maybe they punished me with an extra fee for laziness because I don’t wanna go to their office every month again and again. I still think I let this adverse quantity discount happen only because they managed to confuse me extremely beforehand. That’s why I insist on claiming the US doesn’t keep their measures in “turn right in one MILLION feet” because it would be costly to change everything, or because they wanna remain special, no, they do it solely in order to keep everyone confused. You can sell confused people more.

The advertising sometimes crosses limits that no one would even think of approaching in other countries. By the highway, you see huge ugly signs with commercials of all kinds. The weirdest though are hotels promoting themselves with printing FREE BREKFAST in house-sized letters. Now probably what it means is that by paying an adjusted room rate that has already considered charging a fortune for cardboard waffles and plasticky pancakes, you don’t need to pay for those another time. What it does suggest, however, is that you can just pop by that hotel and ask for some free food. How likely is it that the latter is true? In America? Right, chances are like the p-value I wish to see in all my results: smaller than the fraction of a percent. So why the heck do you even write such a stupid thing on your stupid ugly billboard? Who knows, maybe a small number of confused people actually shows up and then ends up paying for it anyways because they already made it all the way there, just like with the mountain-visit-fee.

I think the award for the brashest scam goes to the management of my rental agency though, who were so clever to praise themselves for not having to increase the rent last year: They sent out an email that opened with the words “We are very pleased to tell you that this year, there will be no rent increase!”, and then they continued telling the tenants that, in case they wished to keep unnecessary luxury goods such as internet, TV, maintenance and pest control, and one of their so far included two parking spots, they would need to pay 125 dollars extra from now on. I have no clue what the second tenant of the shared apartments does with their car nowadays, to be honest. Maybe they sold it. Though, how do you go all the 2 kms (I think that’s about 4500 feet in size 5.5) to Trader Joe’s if you sold your Hummer?

The missing or confusing and misleading display of prices is not the only thing that resembles a proper street market like the ones I loved so much in Asia. Also the fact that you get constantly bombarded with advertisements and screamed at with misleading offers reminds of vendors trying to drag your attention towards them. Maybe that’s just how it is on a “real” free market. Maybe it is better if prices are set at the market and government cannot interfere. What is just very confusing is to find it in literally every instance of your daily life in a developed country that claims to be the number one of the Western world. Because, despite the fact that the buyer-side seems to have hardly any negotiation power in the US “street” market, while it might not be very hurtful to decide against buying the certainly really real RayBans from the street market if you don’t like their price, can you really decide against buying food or paying rent because you find it too expensive?

The rental agency increased the rent again this year, by the way. In Germany, you can increase rents only up to maximum 15-20% of the rent, distributed over three years, with very valid and clearly stated reasons. The house I currently live in here has raised rents by roughly 30% over three years with reasons varying from “We don’t increase the rent, we just offer you some things outside of your normal rent now” over not mentioning any reason at all to “We have to because everyone else does, too”.

But this is really material for yet another blog entry about the many USO-ddities.

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Haters gonna hate- but here is why they should stop already

Sometimes I feel like Milla Jovovich in The 5th Element, speed-watching human history and starting to cry because all that humankind seems to do is basically destroying each other. I think Bruce Willis tells her something about love being the motivator to carry on nevertheless. Or maybe I just want to remember this because it makes so much sense. However, wouldn’t it be awesome if we actually lived up to this?

On Sunday, we had elections in Germany, and, unfortunately not very surprisingly when following the developments over the past years, we now have a populist right-extremist party with more than 90 seats in the parliament. I wrote something about the possible reasons for people choosing such politics already when Trump got elected, but what worries me even more at the moment are the reactions of my non-AfD-electing friends and acquaintances. Yes, this outcome is bad. The AfD openly campaigns racism, homophobia, anti-women-rights, and a lot of other stuff that is detrimental for a progressing and forward-looking democratic society. Given our history, it might be even worse than if it had happened in a different country. It was, however, foreseeable, and I do claim that it is not just the politicians’ duty to prevent this from happening. We all have this duty as a society.

Everyone can vote in a democracy. You don’t need an election-license, even though some might half-jokingly suggest it could benefit the outcome. The problem here is threefold: For once, politics is a complex process, and complex things require thorough understanding in order to take an educated decision. That’s one thing. The other thing is that, even though there are many parties out there, the tendency goes towards a moderate mean with little change and more or less the same politics over time. That’s how our political system is shaped, and how our political parties have changed over time. If you’re not happy with that mean, you have to go to the extremes to suggest a change. That’s what the AfD took advantage of. Just like Trump, they listened to the dissatisfied, and promised them to solve all their problems. This is when the third problem enters the equation: In order to understand fully the complexity of an economy, and how to solve its problems, you need not only constant discourse, a diversified view on media, and formal education, you also need to be able to push past your basic human instincts. Otherwise, scammers like Trump and the AfD have an easy game at promising you exactly what you want to hear, without any logical grounds, and you’ll buy it. And once they got you, they even may utter the most outrageous, racist, human-rights-violating statements, you don’t hear them anymore. You stopped at “I hear you, I know your problem, I have a solution”, and give them your vote.

One of the basic human instincts, besides the one of wanting to be heard and not ignored, is fear. The majority of the votes for the AfD came from regions with low immigration rates. Humans are xenophobe by nature, I reckon – it’s what kept us alive back in the cave-days. Traveling, interaction with strangeness, reading about it, getting to know other cultures and people, is what opens the mind towards otherness. Experiencing it and seeing that it is not a threat. Thus, I find it only logical that in those regions where people are very homogenic, the fear of otherness is bigger. It’s the fear of the unknown. It cannot be discussed away easily, and certainly it won’t disappear by being judged for having it.

Now let’s add some other factors. High unemployment rates. It’s the same regions, by the way – in East Germany, unemployment rates are higher than in West Germany. Not to forget that for roughly 40 years, this part of the country was completely isolated from the rest of Europe – that’s a bunch to catch up with, anyways. Unemployment and job insecurity leads to less financial security, less security in general. People feel ignored, they get frustrated. They fear for their own future. Fear leads to anger, and anger leads to hate – Yoda already told us. It’s the path to the dark side.

This is one side of it. People sliding onto the dark path unknowingly, while on the other side the ones that are still on solid ground could help them. So, how are they gonna stop the sliders? I would now expect the open-minded, tolerant, formally educated non-AfD-voters to act reasonable and rational. But they don’t. They also react with anger. They try to fight fire with fire, hate with hate. They, prior to the elections, already lashed out on everyone who dared to even mention they could maybe vote for the AfD – and now that it has happened, they (thousands of Germans, including leading newspapers) brag about how they are the smarter, the better, the wiser “87%” that did not vote for the Nazis to enter our parliament again.

Fact is, the voters of the AfD are the ones with the highest percentage of disappointment-driven votes. While other party-supporters elect ‘their’ parties out of belief, or maybe because it was the best they could get, 60% of the AfD-voters gave their votes because they felt left behind from the rest of the political system. Let’s look at this in the big picture: roughly 72% of the voting-eligible people actually did participate in the elections. Now I might be completely off, but I do think at least a part of this 28% that did not vote is demonstrating frustration and disappointment over the political system by refraining to make use of their democratic rights, too. Less than 6% of the eligible voters were so disappointed that they decided to give their vote to the AfD. Only 3.7% of all eligible voters actually believe in the concepts of this party. Around 62% voted for the other parties. Now it might not be impossible, but definitely very hard to change someone’s beliefs about the world, so let’s forget about the 3.7% for a minute here: These 6% plus whatever is left in the 28% non-voters are the ones we have to pick up again and start listening to. In numbers, it means that of 62 million eligible voters, more than 20 million feel overrun. 3.5 million so much that they saw the AfD as the only way out of this desperation. Isn’t that sad?

A well-functioning society only works as a whole, not as a power-play with the strongest making the rules for everybody. Power can change, easily, it just takes the right people to come along, promise whatever one wants to hear, and harvest disappointed voters. And if we keep on splitting our society into “them” and “us”, logically, there will always be disappointed ones. And “we” keep on driving “them” towards the vote-harvesters. Just like in any human relationship we need to find compromises where everyone is listened to and heard.

We have to stop insulting each other. If we call all the AfD voters a bunch of idiots and racist pigs, we are doing exactly the same the representatives of the AfD are doing, when they call all foreigners criminals and rapists and job-stealers because of some outliers which exist in every society. Sure, you might argue that the voters still gave their vote to a racist party, but re-read the part I wrote about hearing only what you want to hear. Plus, you cannot tell me anyone is 100% satisfied with the entire program of the party they voted for. If you now take into consideration the individual frustration- or desperation-level, you might, in a real hypothetical thought, far away from everything you yourself believe in, understand that it could eventually lead to giving the vote to a party that promises improvement. Maybe they are even anticipating a split from the far right, much like it happened in Finland, resulting in more of an ‘alternative’ without all the extremist, discriminatory thinking.

Whatever the motivations of those supposedly secretly voting for AfD are, generalization is the dangerous tool these populists use, and we ought to be better than that. If we insult someone for voting a destructive party out of desperation, with allegories like throwing a Molotov-cocktail into your own house if you have a water damage (or something), we can just as well go to people who injure themselves because they are depressive, and start laughing at them. Yes, human reaction does not always make sense, especially not when emotions are involved. The boundaries for what one is willing to sacrifice for their own well-being are set individually. Banning those that don’t conform to what we would do, what we would say, if we were in their situation, is not only wrong and destructive, it also is very irrational. We cannot possibly know what we would do.

I understand the frustration over the election results. I understand the anger. But fact is: This happened. This is our country today. There are more than 30% among us that feel left out – what are we gonna do about it? We can call them stupid and stop talking to them – where does that lead to? How can that possibly change anything into something better?

In the end, the big decisions are up to the politicians, that’s right (you can, by the way, become one of those yourself. Just join a party if you really want to change something). But we cannot give up on conversation now. Even if it might not lead to anything – what’s there to lose? You won’t make it worse by arguing. You will most likely make it worse by banning the people that you disagree with – or then you won’t change anything, in the best case. Neither will you change your own well-being, by the way, because the anger will also bring you closer to the dark side. Yes, there are dark sides both left and right of the way. It’s time to fight hate with love and live up to Bruce Willis’ promises.

 

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Chicken or egg? Or: What comes first, solution or problem?

Sometimes it might not be obvious which event comes before another one. Sometimes, however, it is very very clear. If you want to ride in a horse carriage, you put the horse in front of the carriage and go.

Then there are people who ‘put the cart before the horse’. That’s commonly an expression for someone approaching the solution to a problem from the wrong way. Now, of course there might be many right ways to solve a problem – but there is indeed usually (at least) one way that clearly is wrong. In German, the idiom goes a bit different – we talk about ‘putting the headgear of the horse on its head, but starting from its butt’ (I swear it sounds more smoothly in German). Go ahead and picture that in your mind. Are you ever gonna ride in that horse carriage, with the carriage in front of the horse and the headgear somewhere stuck on the huge butt of the same?

Probably not too soon. However, in real life, people blinded by the fast success and exponential growth of businesses, people who also want a piece of the cake and think they deserve it, increasingly seem to try exactly this approach. They don’t care that it sounds insensible, they want the outcome so much that they believe if they just try hard enough, they will manage to squeeze the horse’s butt through its headgear some day.

Take “entrepreneurship”, for example. Pronouncing the term correctly is the first step on the ladder of success towards your own shiny business. The next step is taking as many courses on how to become a successful entrepreneur as possible. And then you’re basically there. Wait, except for this one tiny detail… ah right – what are you going to provide the world with?

When listening to people planning their start-ups, this seems to be a neglectable redundancy. It seems way more important to know exactly how many employees one would need for a hypothetical business in *something*, and which office chairs to use for the first own office. When googling “how to become an entrepreneur”, Forbes magazine suggests that there’s nothing more to it than simply “starting a profitable business”. And if the first one fails, starting another one. When I read such things, the big question mark forming in my head is usually preceded by thoughts like “why would anyone want to start a business if they don’t even have an idea in what” and “how is there an entire business of its own trying to encourage people to proceed with such nonsense”, amongst others. It reminds me of the talk you have in elementary school, when your world is simple and you have no clue of anything, but you do know that for sure you want to be famous one day.

Now here’s the thing: People who end up being famous usually just did the things they wanted to do, and found enough appreciation. Yes, even the Kardashians, if you think about it. And I reckon it is the same with starting your own business: If you have a good idea, if you noticed there’s something missing in this world, and no one seems to be taking care of it, you start doing it yourself. And if people like it, they’ll want a piece of it. For me, being an entrepreneur, just like being a researcher, is more about engineering a solution, trying to fix a problem, and answering questions. Like, please come up with the research question first, before you think about your publishable paper with a sophisticated approach and really fancy data. There are so many “results” out there that no one manages to tell a story about, because some significant correlation in a random regression just happened to pop up. Not only do I morally disagree with the backwards-approach of “finding a good answer” and then trying to force-fit it on a random problem, I also really doubt it works. It’s like playing jeopardy in real life – here’s your answer, now try to find a question.

If your idea is actually the solution to a problem, chances that it might be of use to others are pretty high.

Of course, people who start up their own business, after having decided to generate value not only for themselves but also for others, are benefitting from courses on how to get funding, how to structure sales and production and distribution, how to employ people if it grows. But nowadays, these courses don’t seem to be taken by people who already have an idea and now need to find a way to bring it to the world – no, these courses are usually full of those who simply ‘dream of having their own business’. Not long ago, I read a post by someone revelling in the idea of having a start-up, or many, because they were caught by the so-called ‘start-up-fever’ (comparable to ‘baby-fever’). They don’t want a business to generate value for the world, they want something nice and warm that’s their own and that they can love, and it loves them back. Also kinda the wrong motivation for reproducing, one would think.

No, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel to create a business and generate value. It might be that you saw some businesses doing a horrible job, and you are of the opinion you can do it better. Or you saw something in a different country, and you would like to see it in your own, too. Or really you just wanna hop on the profit train and bring it to your own country, before someone else does. There are many reasons for coming up with the idea. But no matter what, I bluntly claim that the idea must be first. There really is no such thing as the chicken-egg-problem in entrepreneurship – if you have chicken, sell the eggs on the farmer’s market. If you have eggs, hatch them, and then make more and sell them on the farmer’s market. If you have neither, don’t rent a booth on the farmer’s market.

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USOddities – and some explanations.

The biggest thing I had with me when coming to the US for the very first time some weeks ago was probably my curiosity, which luckily fit very well in my three luggages. We all “know” this place, even without having been here ever – after all, no other country is this present in the news, TV series, and movies. We know how college life works, how working life works, and that the American dream means if you just slog away, you can become super rich, extremely successful and smoking hot. This, plus the fact that the US labels itself not seldom as the number one country of the Western world, or in general just the entire world, in terms of innovation, opportunities, and development, had my expectations sky rocket. I imagined something similar to Europe, just bigger, better, faster – and more efficient.

As big as my curiosity was, as huge grew my confusion when I discovered everything to be very different. From basically anything. The first US-impressions were still nailing it in terms of media-created expectations and stories my friends told me about the food-hunt, but then it was also so different from any other daily cultural aspect that I knew from Europe. It’s odd: Europeans once went to conquer this country, not even that long ago; they built their own little version of Europe over here, and then things must just have gone crazy. Isn’t it surprising how the seemingly same people come up with completely different solutions to the same problems, only because they are put in a different spot on earth? I heard Spanish people say that about Latin-America and the language development there – I think now I kind of get it. Trying to understand how to fit into this country, survive here, find my way around and especially, find out what I can eat here, will still take a while, I reckon. But still, I can’t stop pondering and speculating why on earth everything is so extremely different here.

For starters, capitalism might be an explanation. Sure, that doesn’t account for the Americans having decided to invent a weird string running through the entire bus that one can pull, instead of simple stop-buttons. A string that you can only reach when you manage to reach the windows. Try reaching the windows in a crammed 8-am-school-bus, good luck (but I don’t wanna complain, it is a nice and probably city-borne feature that the buses are for free)! Or for the green light being actually white and not green. Or explain what is going on with the toilet flush: Why is there a little swimming pool in the basin? I now know things about myself that I wasn’t even interested in and I desperately wish I could unsee again.

While these things might remain a mystery forever*, capitalism can help explain many other oddities. For example, that everything here is so extremely complicated. Of some things I know only through media and second-hand-reports, like how difficult it is to find a proper school for your kids, or how bureaucratic the voting process is; and other things I experienced first-hand. Finding food, for instance – it’s a challenge to get any non-processed food. While you do find restaurants at every corner, it is immensely hard to find grocery shops. The closest one to my house is about 1.5 kms uphill, and close means usually super expensive. I am talking Norway-and-beyond-expensive. Not even Finnish prices can reach up to the US ones, and that’s not just food, but also soap, washing detergent, bike-locks – anything one might need in their daily lives. If you really want to do some grocery shopping, you need to travel further – 3, 4 kms at least, it might be more around 6 to the next Walmart, which has ‘cheaper’ prices. Cheaper still means Finnish standards and slightly more – which is odd given the fact that Finnish prices bear a 24% VAT that is not implied in the prices here, and yet they are even higher.

You might wanna win the lottery first if you plan on buying some vegetables.

This means whenever you are in need of a pack of butter, but you don’t feel like making a day-excursion to a Walmart because you also need to eat, sleep, and work, you go and buy the butter for 4 dollars in the “closer” shop. Or then you just stop preparing food altogether and instead buy a hamburger meal at the nearest fast food location. Those are everywhere. And it’s like 3 dollars. Yes, you can get an entire meal for less than a pack of butter. That’s another weird thing: Products that seem to have undergone additional processes are cheaper than the raw version. My ground coffee is more expensive than the same sized package of the same ground coffee with chocolate or vanilla flavour. How, I am asking? Does the coffee actually come naturally with a sweet flavour, and in order to make it neutral, little coffee elves need to manually pick all the chocolate- and vanilla-pieces out, and get paid for it?

Right, why I wanna blame capitalism for this: Let me tell you about that one time a friend of mine asked me to help him with his homework. He does not study business, but had some finance-related classes to take. We had an argument about what the ultimate goal of a business is – my suggestion was to increase shareholder value and maximize the profit. His was to satisfy customers. You see, there is exactly the problem. Contrary to common beliefs and wishful thinking, the purpose of a for-profit business is ultimately to make money. Satisfying customers is just one of many tools to achieve that. Caring about the environment and how employees feel are just investments into making more profit due to better reputation. Yes, unhappy customers leave and buy their stuff at a different business, sure – but how about if they didn’t have any other option? Do you still need to care about their satisfaction as a successful business? Probably not. Making others happy is lots of work, right? Everyone who has ever been in a healthy relationship knows that painfully.

So here’s the thing: The population of the USA simply and firstly seems to be its own customers. The people being inhabitants, citizens, members of a society, comes second or third. Primarily, this country built its entire system on capitalism, a successful business with its population as one of the input factors and a few powerful institutions being the shareholders that collect the harvest. Healthcare? You can buy it, feel free to choose whichever provider you want. Education? Same thing. Private schools, chartered schools, home-schooling for the ones who prefer that – an equal quality of education seems to be rather secondary, the main purpose is to make profit with students and pupils. So, let’s see, what else do humans need? Food. But if they want it, they have to buy a car first in order to reach the supermarkets. So now you can also sell them car insurance, gas, drivers licenses. It’s a perfect system – for the profit-makers. And the customers won’t even leave, because where would they go? To a different country?

If the focus is on generating quick profit instead of satisfying the customer in the long-run, you as a consumer end up with huge ads trying to mislead you, a system that is mainly designed to take care of profit and not so much your well-being, and, in the end, a very shitty buying-experience.

I know I said after my Rome holiday that I have never been in a place where so many people so obviously wanted my money, no matter how much they would have to scam me for it. I take it back. It’s way worse here. You constantly need to be on edge to not make a mistake and accidentally pay more than you should. And it’s everywhere, in every daily situation. When you order something online, there are promotion codes which pop up to be used at check-out – you feel like you save money, but in fact they just earn money with inattentive customers. Because if the code is available for anyone, why not make the product cheaper in the first place? Right, because you gotta earn it! This is America, you have to earn everything here. If you want to buy stuff in a supermarket, you should know approximately four different types of sales taxes. Per state, or even per county. They are not included in the prices displayed, they come extra at check-out. You never really know how much money you are gonna pay until you actually pay it, and if you want to bring your friend something, good luck figuring out how much they essentially owe you now.

There’s advertisement everywhere. When I was in China, I was amused by the constant noise level that was omnipresent, each shop playing their own music over speakers facing outward, to the street. Here, the noise level comes in the form of flyers, emails, adverts on Spotify and TV, and in the shops, covering the actual prices. They might say something like ‘only today, save 1 dollar’, or ‘50% off the second item of the same kind’ and people see only the big 1 and buy the chocolate bar for 3 dollars instead of 4, and it doesn’t even taste good because apparently there’s no cows in this entire continent, so who knows what chocolate is made of here.

Whenever you leave your email somewhere (everybody wants your email. I am expecting at least 50 greetings for the next holiday from government and administrative offices, if not more), you’ll end up on two to five new mailing lists that you then actively need to unsubscribe from. Opt-in is not a thing here, and opting out is a major challenge. Even Amazon tries to scam you – that shows how protected we must be in Europe, by freely being able to order something and not subsequently receiving tips and ads and suggestions via email three times a day. I had to actively unsubscribe from every list of every Amazon-department there is after my last order. And then they have extra items there, so-called add-on items that don’t add to the accumulated price and only are shipped when you reach a minimum accumulated price before you add this item. I tried for 45 minutes to get free shipping by even adding the entire stock of drugs I might need in the next eight months, and then gave up and just paid the shipping costs.

Advertisements on Spotify that should discourage people to drive drunk or intoxicated don’t talk about the dangers – they address your moral system by warning you from ending up a loser without a girlfriend (she’s gonna leave you) and without a job (you’re fired because you don’t have a girlfriend, or something), if you drive drunk and get caught by the police. Yes, only if you get caught. It’s a wonder they don’t also advise you to do a hit-and-run in order to avoid the getting caught part. Status, money and achievement seem to be the ultimate goals here, and the ones who are successful don’t even hesitate to walk right over other people’s feet and heads for that. And the ones left behind nod in confirmation, and think to themselves that they probably just didn’t work hard enough if they are not at the top yet. And proudly sing their national anthem before every ordinary college football game.

It doesn’t always have to be so hard to master your daily life…

I feel a bit sorry for the people living here who got used to life being so complicated, who might not even know there could be an easier way. Who think that one day, they will also make it to the top and have an easier life – while the entire system is built so that only a few can survive at the top, because they need the heads of the others to stand on. I wanna take them by the hand and show them that it is also possible to have a daily life without the system throwing obstacles in one’s way constantly. It’s possible to actually focus on the real struggles in life, like family and hobbies and career achievements, instead of how to prepare a dessert for your friends’ dinner party in three days if you don’t have a car and no time to spend half a day on buses to the next Walmart and back. For me as a European it is for now slightly incredible how people simply accept being treated like customers in a really shitty monopoly, gulping whatever gets poured on them. Why don’t you stand up for your basic rights?* Go and complain to the customer hotline!

And, I really hope I get used to it quickly myself so that it doesn’t feel so damn hard anymore.

*suggestions and explanations are welcome by email. I do not wish to subscribe to your weekly newsletter, however.
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American Friendliness meets Finnish Oho-mentality – a comparison.

So here I finally am, in the Free World, the Land of Dreams, the country where anyone can become whatever they want if they just work hard enough. So much have I heard, so many movies seen, and even though I come from a Western culture myself, it’s all different. And new. And strange.

This was three weeks ago. By now, it’s even more strange, though I slowly get used to it – but that’s material for another blog entry. For now, let me stick to the initial impression I had when setting foot on the southern grounds of the US of A. The first thing I noticed was everyone being extremely friendly. Waiting for the cover to blow to reveal the commonly known myth of American friendliness as totally superficial, I might be overly excited too early. But three weeks in, it still feels very much as if the friendliness is genuine. If it’s not, well, then the people I’ve met so far are damn good at faking it. And, to be honest, I actually don’t care much whether it’s real or not, cause it still feels nice, for now. Really.

Especially when you come from such a long period of living in Finland. Somehow I kind of got used to the fact that my friendly greetings and head-nods and smiles are mostly ignored, equally by neighbors, colleagues, and superiors at work. That it is no rare event to be run over by a shopping cart and receiving merely a half-heartedly grunted “Oho!”, if anything, while your lifeless body is lying in pain on the ground and the offender is already far away in the next aisle. That a stranger rather slams the supermarket door in your face and quickly gets out of the same one, rather than waiting, holding the door, and thus eventually risking any sort of contact with you – even if it’s just eye contact. Beware! Contact to others, an underdeveloped concept of human interaction (inter- what?) in the cold north, where a minimum of private space is defined as at least one hectare of forest around an isolated cottage, is pure evil!

OK, yes, I sort of got used to that. But sometimes, just occasionally, a little bit of compassion would perhaps be nice, just a little bit of empathy… Well, little did I know what kind of huge culture shock I should have prepared myself for, changing environment so drastically: Here in the States, people are apologizing to you even if it was you who bumped into them (I always thought that was kind of a Canadian concept)! They already excuse themselves for taking up your space when still away at least two metres, and constantly everyone wants to know how you are doing! So even if you’re from a country with less contact-avoiding and introvert people, you might be up for a positive surprise when you enter the United States.

Because here, everyone seems to be content, on a general level. Grasping and believing this concept proves in difficult especially for me with my German complain-background – after all, there’s always something to improve, being content just stops evolution, right? But here, if nothing happens, the base-mood is a positive one. Passing strangers smile at you. The world is a happy place. If anything happens, and it’s bad, the rage about it doesn’t last very long. Strangers greet you, and complement you on random things while they are passing by. They ask you how you are, and yes, they expect you to give an answer (and ask them back). People constantly try to be supportive and considerate of one another. Cars wait till you cross the road, or stop to let you go first if they see you’re torturing yourself up a hill on your self-fixed seventy-years old kid’s bike. In Finland, even if you’re ON the zebra crossing, a place that should be safe for pedestrians, you better run when a car is approaching. Not only would they not stop, rumors have it they would also make you pay for the accident that might subsequently result. Because what the heck are you doing in the middle of the road? Everyone has to watch out for themselves! It’s a tough world out there!

Exaggeration aside, I admit that not all is bad in Finland, and not all is good in the States. But I’m not here to count you the numerous examples of advantages and disadvantages of each and every country. Let me instead point out the good things in one, and suggest to transfer and adopt them a little bit in the other one. It is indeed a fact that one of the things that bothered me the most in the past years in Finland was the focus on oneself and the reluctance to acknowledge those around you. I do enjoy the fact that in Finland, I can mind my own business in a supermarket, head down, not having to talk to anyone if I don’t want to. And it might be that after a while in the States, not being able to do that here will start bothering me. But as relaxing as this solitude can be, as frustrating it is when you enter the coffee kitchen at your office, and greet those that are already there, and they simply ignore your existence. It admittedly does get a bit better for a while if you’re the one who bribes them with cookies; but people forget, and not everyone likes cookies. Especially in the land of the glutenfree people.

I would wish for a Finland with a more American attitude when it comes to acknowledging the people around you. Give them a smile. Hold the door if you notice they are just two steps behind you. Oh yes, try to at least be friendly and kind when a customer asks you something, if you happen to work in the service industry (this one goes out to the flight attendants of my favourite airline – you know it’s you! Yes, I am literally scared of you!). If you don’t wanna greet strangers, at least greet back those people that greet you. Oh, and you might wanna redefine the term strangers – not everyone who has not exactly breast-fed you might be one.

This is my American Dream: When I come back to Finland, I want people to be nicer to each other. I know no one is deliberately evil and ignorant there, and I don’t expect the Finnish language to create an equivalent for the word “please” just yet. But the times of seclusion in the woods are over for most of you/us during 11 months of the year, so if you happen to live in a city, try to acknowledge the fact that there’s other humans living in the city, too. If everyone just watched out a little bit for each other, all should be taken care of easily, right?

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Walking In My Skin

whatsapp-image-2017-02-07-at-17-49-28“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

This is just one of the many brilliant philosophies inserted by Harper Lee into her classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird. And even though it’s a slightly unconventional alteration of the ‘walking-in-your-shoes’-metaphor, it should be considered frequently by us, much more frequently than we probably do. What it implies, however, is even more important: All we see, all we hear, all we perceive, is filtered by our personality, and coloured by our own bias. Someone offending us with an allegedly ego-hurting statement (let’s be honest, it doesn’t really hurt anywhere else than in this inflated construct blown up around our actual self), could not have an impact without the sting added by our individual filter. It is highly likely that the very same sentence that brings us in rage would not affect any other person ever.

whatsapp-image-2017-02-07-at-17-53-54Sure, sometimes manipulative people know about the characteristics of our filter, and they abuse those by adjusting the message they want to give us. They might specifically customise the message according to our personal weaknesses. But hey, the problem is not that they know about our weaknesses, or that they are able and willing to exploit them. No – the problem is that we let them! If we re-ran any message consciously and purposely through another, neutralising filter, one that takes away all the colours our perception had added automatically, it could not do much harm, could it?

I only lately realised that very often, when someone seems to use depreciating comments towards me, the actual depreciation is formed in my own mind. If someone assigns me to a certain group of people, the evaluation about this group being “good” or “bad” actually happens through my own bias. Naturally, I don’t see it that way, as I consider myself as the most tolerant and open-minded person there is (right?), so my first thought is “Why does this person diminish me like this?”, and based on my straight-forward personality, this is then also the first response the person gets. Only in the subsequent argument it turns out that the person in no way finds this specific group any less worthy than any other group – this was exclusively made up in my head. Only in my head, based on cultural values, past experiences, family background, or whatever, this group is worth less than any other. Yes, I know, I am working on getting rid of these prejudices, believe me.

everyone-has-a-choiceSo, by being assigned to the group I feel less respected by the person who assigned me. However, in most cases, people who “do” this to us mean neither harm nor are they aware of our prejudices. Yes, actually people tend to try to avoid conflict, and had they known about our bias, they probably would have thought twice before throwing such a mind-bomb. Especially if a reaction to such a thing is remotely comparable to my reactions to being (seemingly) treated unfairly… No, probably no one in their right mind would ever do this on purpose, unless they really like doomsdays.

We cannot change people, and we cannot constantly tip-toe around their feelings and perceptions. I am not saying we should ignore other people’s perspective – but what is even more important, is to understand our own. Because that’s where it starts. How we perceive things, positive, negative, good, bad, this is all made up in our head. Even if someone means us harm and wants to desperately hurt us with a comment, it is still our own choice how to perceive it – we can even turn the meanest comment into a compliment in our head, and live on happily. How cool is that?

So next time you find something that is said inappropriate, disrespectful, diminishing – think about your own values (I swear I’ll do the same). Why does it show little respect? You don’t know anything about the values of the other person, maybe for them it means something great, and only for you it is disrespectful because you yourself are biased and prejudiced.

And as soon as you detect a detrimental filter like that, it is about time to get rid of it, don’t you think? Happy 2017!

 

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