In 1980, my girlfriend and I were traveling on a rail pass. We left from Milan bound for Frankfurt only because that is where the train went.
A German businessman sat across from us and asked, “Where are you going?”
“Why? Frankfurt is so boring. You should go to Wiesbaden instead.”
We asked, “Why?”
“Because that is where we live and you will stay with us.”
His wife spoke English with a perfect British accent. It turned out her father had been in the Luftwaffe and had been shot down during the Battle of Britain. He became best friends with a prison guard, and after the war during the summers they would swap children. She grew up partially in England.
She said the difference between the treatment of prisoners by the British and the Germans was astonishing.
We all cried.
We were there having dinner with them because they had decided to make it a habit of being kind to strangers; which is not a bad policy even when the stranger had recently been trying to blow up your country.
Beautiful Women of the GDR
I won a British Airways contest based on my social entrepreneurship site, No Shortage of Work, and the prize was airfare to anywhere BA flies. I put a notice on my profile on Europe’s equivalent of LinkedIn called Xing. Dozens of people said they would love to meet me in person so I flew into Frankfurt, then Cologne, and flew out of Hamburg and for 11 days I spent my time meeting people in person I’d only corresponded with before on Xing.
Although my sample size is very small, I have the following observation:
The most interesting, dynamic, interesting, hard-working, fearless, and interesting people I met were:
3) From East Germany, but were now in the West.
4) Were born under Communism, but grew into adulthood after the fall of the Wall.
My sample size was small and I am partial to young beautiful women so perhaps that is why I find them more interesting than old male businessmen like me, but I still think there is something to this.
What do you think?
An Unemployed German
In 2004, in Nuremberg, I met Kai, a very talented 51-year-old programmer who had been unemployed for 2 years, so my wife and I took him to dinner. His attitudes were self-defeating and I attacked every one of his beliefs:
“The economy is terrible.” So, are you just going to wait for it to improve?
“The government is incompetent.” Are you going to run for office and fix it?
“I’ve only had 2 interviews and they both ended abruptly when they learned my age.” People are prejudiced. Do you have a plan for how you are going to change them, or are you going to take a different approach?
“I don’t have a college degree.” That hasn’t stopped you for 30 years.
“Nobody cares.” There is a whole community of programmers just like you. Are you going to continue ignoring them or are you going to start caring about them and see if they care back?
“There is no work.” There is never a shortage of work even when there is a shortage of jobs. Find some work and do it even if you aren’t paid.
“I’ve built some amazing software on my own, but can’t sell it.” Are you going to learn to sell, partner with someone who can, or give up on doing what you want and start doing what other people want?
“There are no jobs in Germany.” You’re in the EU now so you can go where there are jobs.
“My English isn’t good enough.” Sure it is; I understand you perfectly. If you don’t understand me it isn’t because of your language skills, it is because of how you are thinking.
My wife kept kicking me under the table and whispered, “He just wants your sympathy.”
I said, “Perhaps, but it isn’t what he needs.”
We were living in London at the time and he even flew over to spend a weekend with me to get more of my abuse.
Soon he got unstuck and landed a job in Copenhagen (good pay, company apartment, flight home every other weekend) and a year later he moved to England for another job.
Kai and I have become good friends and my wife and I stayed with him outside London in November 2010.
He says he hates going back to Germany because too many people there think the way he used to.
I was speaking to a group of programmers, many of whom were looking for work. I asked Kai to write a short essay explaining what he learned, and how he changed his approach to what some call “networking.” Here is what he produced: