The 5 Life Lessons that Berlin Kept Slapping Into My Face

Because so much of my time in Berlin was spent on long walks with my iPod, please press play on the playlist below to really give you a sense of my experience in Berlin while you read:

Okay.  Now, the mood’s been set.

So, Berlin kept b***h-slapping me in the face with life lessons, and I thought I’d share these pro tips with you.

1. Technology will screw you over any chance it gets.

Now, on my first day in Finland, the power adapter for my computer fried and became a finicky jerk that would make me gently jiggle it in the socket 30 times before it was satisfied and decided to work.  Then, my last week in Finland, I spilled coffee on my laptop, shorting out the “Enter” button.  Then, five days into my Berlin trip, the power cord for my computer snapped in half, which was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  No longer would I be able to write super long blog posts or endlessly rearrange my iCal schedule (my favorite method of procrastination) or even use my scanner to give sneak peeks into my sketchbook.  So why is this important?  Well, apparently technology knew what I didn’t — I needed to put the kibosh on my digital “connections” to wander and soak in Berlin with my eyes.

2. Go with the flow.

This new failing of technology meant that I would also be, for all practical purposes, out of contact with all the artists and folks I had come to Berlin to see.  Well, now what?  I began going on 2-3 hour long walks around the city to find street art and just let the connections come as they may.  And the connections came.  They just weren’t with street artists.

Instead, I found myself having intense conversations for hours with young entrepreneurs about collaborative economies, how to build trust, how to create a tribe, how to build an infrastructure, how to strike a balance between freedom and control.  These conversations would leave my brain buzzing with motivation.  So what if this wealth of information didn’t come from exactly who I expected?  The influence was as palpable and inspiring as anything I could have hoped for.

3. Just quit hoping you’ll be cool.

These women are cool.

Screenshot from 2013-02-14 16:39:37

I am not cool.

Yep, that's a red cape.

Red capes aren’t cool.

Most of you would not be shocked by this.  I smile too often at strangers; I am physically awkward; I don’t have a great sense of fashion.  But deep in my heart I thought I might be cool one day.

Berlin is “cool” to the nth degree.  Women walk around in black combat boots and fur coats.  Everyone carries themselves with a perfect balance of rumpled-yet-tailored nonchalance.  And the looks that I got walking through Kreuzberg and Berghaim and James Franco’s gallery opening let me know that I did not belong.  You guys, I’m just not cool.  I can’t pull off aloof detachment.  I must accept this and move on.

4. Trust your instincts, dummy.

I like to believe that I listen to my gut, and I do sometimes.  But I also often rationalize myself out of a lot of instinctual decisions.  My first weekend in Berlin, I went out with a group of people from Agora and partied in true Berlin style, i.e. until 10 am the next morning.  As a reminder that letting go is a good thing, one of these new friends sent me this video the next day (he starts speaking in English about 50 seconds in):

This lesson about thinking with your gut and not letting your brain control everything crystallized for me one evening several days later.  After a long day of missed appointments and walking around in the cold and being ignored, I was feeling a bit cranky.  Under my breath, I pined for the solace of a Finnish sauna – the warmth, the silent camaraderie, the breathing.  Deep in the pit of my stomach, I felt a tug to take a shortcut down a weird side street.  So, trusting that gut feeling, I wandered down a random street.  At the end was a sauna.  That was open and in my price range.  And I spent three hours there, cleansing my body and brain and brimming with gratitude to that really really smart gut.

5. Simple is best.

Of all the graffiti tags and street art that I saw, I genuinely connected with work that was simple — a single bold color, a clear message.  Similarly, in the discussions with folks at Agora, we found that the best way to create an effective and productive group of creative people was the keep the infrastructure simple.  It’s so easy to over-complicate our lives, our writing, our relationships, our systems for completing tasks.  For the last week, I have been taking a hatchet to my (often overly-rigid) ways of doing things and asking myself, “How can this be simpler?”  Simple is best.

Mural by ROA in Kreuzberg, Berlin (Image courtesy of Unurth Street Art and ROA)

So.  Those were my big lessons from Berlin, but I am sure there are plenty more to come, as there are still 11 countries coming up in the 13/13/13 Sketchbook Project.  What face-slapping life lessons have you received while traveling?

More posts from Berlin:


6 responses to “The 5 Life Lessons that Berlin Kept Slapping Into My Face

  1. Pingback: Peeling off layers with a cheese-grater | 13/13/13 Sketchbook Project·

  2. Ugh, all those tech problems would have made me learn to swear in many languages. Nasty bad!! And you are ADORBS in that red cape I love it so much and anyone who sez you aren’t cool is insane. Maybe you have other geeky awkward dopey clothes but that cape aint it. Also I love that sauna story. You’re an amazing women, and I’m honored to be your friend.

  3. Hmm…after rereading my response, what a metaphor for life in that first sentence. There really is no ‘secure’, planned way to move forward (live) life ; )

  4. My best, most fruitful times (according to any culture but our own) have been when traveling and simply wandering without a plan in mind – just a destination and vague idea of how to get there. The only thing needed to ‘worry’ about was what was in my backpack which, if, upon consideration, was nothing at all. These are time when intense poetry flowed form seemingly nowhere and I was able to see that common thread that connects us all together – instance after instance that I experienced. It was my gut and I didn’t even know it. I just knew that I was very alive and it felt good. And so fortunate you are that you get to experience this. (I have only been able to recreate this once, back ‘at home’.)

    I, too, was once highly organized and that disappeared at some point about ten years ago. It is coming back, though in a new form that does not have so many rules and flex space for change. And it is something that can’t be forced. (I sent my taxes off in the mail today – can’t remember when I have ever done it so early!)

    That gut thing, yeah, well, I have surrendered to it. I am giving myself the space and time to listen to it, build a relationship with it, and hopefully, over the course of a year, give or take (see, there is that flex!) allow and trust it to lead me. It is just starting to feel good about 2 to 3 days/week and I can sense that increasing, though allowing for come what may.

    The song I woke up to singing its merry little self in my head on Christmas morning – the Beatles, “Let it be” I thought if left after the new year, and now I know it is still there, just coming at a pace that befits who I am now. So, dear one, may you get it stuck in your head now, too ….”Let it be”

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