Berlin, Berlin: How does your choice of home impact your life?
I’m German, and I just went to Berlin for the first time in my adult life.
“This is like traveling back in time”, I thought.
I had just landed at Berlin-Tegel (TXL) airport. It was built in 1948, and still looks that way. No nonsense, no modern stuff, not even a train that goes there. We’re in the capital of Germany, one of the most developed countries of the world! Unbelievable. That’s what Germany must have looked like 30 years ago.
Hopping onto public transport, the same comes to mind. It’s old. The buildings I see are old. But they’re also beautiful, and the trains run every three minutes (once you get to one from the airport). Hey, maybe this isn’t too bad.
The last time I had been to Berlin before was in 2004. I had only heard about it (as in, “you’re an entrepreneur, why in the world are you not in Berlin?”), but never actually seen it through the eyes of an adult.
My preconception of Berlin was as follows: it’s a huge, dirty city, where partying day and night has a very high social standing, and drugs are very common. It’s also a city full of people who say that they’re “entrepreneurs” and “freelancers” and pursuing their passion, but that is hindered very much by the excessive partying. It’s also a city in which people are brutally honest, the rent is cheap and the Döner Kebab is good. Why would I ever want to live in such a city?
Walking into the local co-working space (the Factory), I was positively surprised. It was buzzing, people were chatting, playing ping-pong, and some were even working (rather surprising in a co-working space, isn’t it?).
Everyone there was cordial, open, and up for a chat. And that’s when it hit me why all these people are here:
It’s not about the city itself — it’s about the people. Wherever you go in the startup scene in Berlin, people get straight to the point. No smalltalk, no nonsense. No “how are you”, no “what’s your business”, but more of a “hi I’m Jürgen and I recently heard about this new way of splitting equity between companies and foundations — what do you think about this?”
Everyone pursues something that they’re passionate about, or tries to figure out what that something could be. In general, my impression was that the vast majority of people there isn’t really held back by beliefs — contrary to what I frequently observe in Frankfurt, where I live.
“I can’t”, “that’s impossible”, “how could that ever work” do not exist in Berlin.
In two days, I had more meaningful conversations with strangers and acquaintances than I had in Frankfurt in the last two months. Which makes me wonder: does the choice of a city hold one back?
Considering you become the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with (and that extends to your network and random conversations), is it counterproductive to personal development to not live in a city where many like-minded people are?
Yes and no. It is definitely valuable to be in a city that potentially attracts people like you. For instance, if you’re into technology and entrepreneurship, chances are you wouldn’t be very happy living in a small country town.
On the other hand, it doesn’t necessarily need to be Berlin. If you live in any city with a couple hundred thousand people, there will be like-minded people. That’s the law of big numbers. You just have to find them — and it’s obviously a little easier in cities where these people are everywhere.
So instead of simply giving up on a city because another one seems “better” in terms of like-minded people, why not create such a network in your own city? After all, the concepts of “I can’t”, “it’s impossible” or “how could that ever work?” are also complete imagination (that’s how I see it) in other parts of the world!
Berlin reminded me of my time in Silicon Valley. The culture there is very similar: people are open about their passions and pursuit, and live their lives as they want to, and not as society dictates them to. Having found this kind of culture on two different sides of the planet, I believe that you can make that happen anywhere.
How can you create a network, a culture like this wherever you are? It starts with yourself. Only by being open and passionate about what you do, how you live, you can elicit this from other people. Lead by example, and others will give it back to you.
But here’s the catch: being around like-minded people implies talking to a lot of people. Having had all these conversations, I feel inspired to do a lot of work — but how in the world am I going to get work done if ping-pong balls fly all over the place and every conversation you have tangles you up for 30 minutes?
Which also is still a very open question: do people in Berlin actually get stuff done? Or are they just talking the talk, but not walking the walk? My completely subjective opinion is that Berlin may have the largest amount of startups in Germany, but not the highest survival rate.
Sometimes, it might be better to just be in your own world, surrounded by FinTech startups (a field that doesn’t particularly inspire me). Which is why I like our own co-working space in Frankfurt, Mindspace. It provides the perfect combination between a hustle mood and social interaction — amazing when you get to have it, but it’s not happening everywhere.
I also like Frankfurt. It’s an awesome city with awesome people of their own. They may not be as entrepreneurial as in Berlin, but they sure as hell are awesome people — honest, down to earth, and when in doubt some apple wine will solve any problem. I’ve found some of my closest friends here, and at the end of the day, what matters most is where your friends are.
And if I ever get the desire to go back to Berlin, I can just hop on a round-trip flight for 60 €. That is, if you catch it.
On my way back to the airport (traveling the route in a crazily packed bus), I get a calendar notification: “flight back to FRA at 18:40”. I look at my watch. 18:38. Well, shit. I must have confused the departure and arrival time.
Once I get to the airport, I wanted to walk over to the Lufthansa counter to see if they can help me out. I didn’t find one at first, but I saw another flight on the board one hour later.
Luckily, I wasn’t actually traveling back in time despite the airport looking that way. So I pulled out my high tech smart phone, booked the next flight to Frankfurt with my super crazy high tech smartphone, and flew back. I was very mad at myself, so I swore to never let that happen again, by implementing a highly innovative system: on the evening of the day of your flight, double check your departure time.
Who knew life could be that simple.