A short trip to Merano, Italy

Castle Tirol near Meran. Great hike, good food and fun for the kids.

Castle Tirol near Meran. Great hike, good food and fun for the kids.

Four days off, the weather in Munich disgusting, and Woodpecker families holiday budget 2013 yet untouched?

Three reasons to pack the bags and head out for a quick surprise trip to Northern Italy – Merano it is.

A really beautiful small town surrounded by impressive mountains but deep down in a valley at only 300m height. Making for on of the most spectacular climates in Central Europe. Palm trees and cactuses wherever you look, but surrounded and shielded against the clouds by snow-covered peaks of 2500+ meters.

Shielded against all clouds?

Well, unfortunately not. Though promising more than 300 days of lush sunshine per year, we saw only one of those, plus two days of grey and one day of downright terrible weather. However, temperature was well around 12 degrees C. These days you have to be thankful even for this, with wide parts of Europe still in the icy grip of winter and fresh snow in Munich right now as I gaze out of the window.

White mountain peaks in the mist over the roofs of Meran.

White mountain peaks in the mist over the roofs of Meran.

Anyway, Merano is highly recommended, especially for those living e.g. in southern Germany. Only 3,5 hrs drive from Munich, a beautiful and relaxed city, good food, and fantastic surroundings. With loads of old castles, perfect hiking, walking and mountain-biking paths, wine plantations, great gardens, cable cars, clear streams and rough mountain tops, you name it!

We did one walking tour to some nearby old castles with little Woodpecker on his little bike and very little Woodpecker carried. The rainy day we spent in the local thermal bath – a great spot to idle away bad weather.

And costs were low, mainly due to the local youth hostel – a great accommodation for only 44 EUR per night, all four of us. Private bath, clean, calm, central and good breakfast. This is how it should be always!

All in all, the plan is to dramatically increase this kind of low effort, low-cost short trips in 2013 – given Woodpecker families preferences of curiosity and sense of adventure, they simply add a lot of life quality an easy way and on low-budget.

Move away from the sofa, head out and explore your surroundings as well!



Anyone fears a Crisis? Woodpecker not, and tell you why…

You'd better look at some beatiful landscape like this, instead of the news ticker these days...

You’d better look at some beautiful landscape like this, instead of the news ticker these days…(seen in NW Sicily, Italy)

For those of you that live in Europe, I don’t have to mention that the EURO-Crisis is creating more than a few waves these days. And to my knowledge the “financial crisis” does the same in other western economies as well, like the UK or US.

In Germany a new Anti-Euro party is forming, online comments in online newspapers are full of angry and polemic posts and when I was in London for business last week, an elder american client told me how deeply feared he and all his peers are these days about the breakup of the USD and how he’d buy guns and food to be prepared. Strange.

Fun thing was:
I had a couple of nice and free beers there in this nice London pub, took a look at the girls around and it was an interesting debate, but I myself was absolutely free  from any fear or worries while this guy was talking about his horrors, his guns and all the horrible things to come (or not too come…)!

Coming back to Munich, I pondered a few days about why I am so relaxed on all this stuff and others aren’t.
And more than that, most of my peers (friends, colleagues my age etc.) are not too worried either.

Why the hell is this?

And today it struck me that this question is about age and attitude towards life in general.

I don’t know how old you are, but probably the target group of this blog is the guys in the earlier half of their careers and work-life, so chances are that most of you will understand the following:

When you are under 40 and grew up in a western economy, decline, uncertainty, new threats and a general tough ride on the roller-coaster of life were probably a constant companion since you left school or so.

And more so it was in (West)Germany.

In Germany, the “good old times” ended shortly after the wall came down. Until 1992 or so everybody was still enthusiastic about the reunification, end of cold war etc.
But the rest of the 90s the bills piled up, unemployment rose, the economy suffered from high costs to re-vitalize the east german economy and wages for the broad population came under pressure by cheap labor from eastern Europe. East German countrymen had a tough time as well, as the new shiny capitalism also had quite a few hard edges that were not expected.

On top it became clear that the pension system would not survive until my generation would benefit from it (while we still had to pay more on more to fund the Caribbean trips of the current generations of retirees). Then there was the climate change, a bunch of threatening new diseases, ozone holes, Y2K error and god knows what.

…therefore, in the 90s, during university I learned: “It will not be easy for you“. And it seemed reasonable.

Then came 2000-2003.

No fun either. Stock market crash. The “end of the world” after a small interlude of hyper-hysterica around the internet v1.0. Another spike in unemployment. 9/11. Terror upon us all! Could strike whenever, wherever! Panic! And panic NOW!

…therefore, until 2003 I learned: “Not only will it not be easy for you, but you MUST fear a lot!”. And it seemed reasonable.

Then came 2004-2008.

OMG! Germany at the brink of decline! The ill man in europe! The chinese will take it all over in no time! Social security systems were chopped down, labor became much more unsafe, wages fell, social add-ons in my company and every where else were cut heavily. High unemployment and terminal decline of Germany was a certainty predicted by all the “experts”.

…therefore I learned: “Not only will it not be easy for you and you MUST fear a lot, but also you are ALONE against a billion cheap and self-exploiting workers from China!”. And it seemed reasonable.

Then came 2009-2012.

OMG again! PANIC! PAAAAANIC! The financial crisis! The world will end TODAY!! We will suffer something harder than death! (what exactly nobody was able to tell me…) We WILL lose all our money. We will all have to go to the woods and find mushrooms to survive. Buy guns and rice and fire wood because the end is soooo near! And don’t forget to PANIC!!
To spice up the situation a bit, I just had changed job, was in the middle of the probation period (easy to fire), my department got restructured, my company was due to get hit by the crisis, my investments were crushed, we just were moved to a quite expensive rental house and my wife was pregnant with our first boy. Hmm.

So belief me (and excuse the expression), I was shaking in my boots and shitting bricks 24/7.
I could not sleep, and if then I was haunted by bad dreams in the night while I was sticking to the news ticker at day, waiting for the final strike to come.

…therefore I learned: “Not only will it not be easy for you and you MUST fear a lot and you are ALONE against a billion cheap and selfexploiting workers from China, but also everything can COLLAPSE anytime!”.

And then….something strange happened.

From one day to the other, this did not sound reasonable anymore.

From one day to the other, this suddenly just sounded like a bunch of crap and empty words that cannot really harm.

From one day to the other, I suddenly was entirely beyond fear. Somehow I had dived through the wave crushing down on my, had come up the other side to see the sea is calm and the sun shining.

And belief me, I have never met fear again since then.

I still don’t know why, but it just vanished, washed away and gave room for something else. For the deep belief, that after all, this (our life) is much too robust to be affected by some crap like that.

I would fear war, and I would fear bodily violence.
But the Euro Crisis? Inflation? Haircuts? A new currency? Higher taxes?
Come on, is this all you can muster, dear gods of evil?

So, coming back to the beginning of this post – I think by now I know the meaning of “what does not kill you, makes you harder”. It is true.
And I think many of the younger guys here might feel the same.

Because we grew up in uncertain times.

Shocks were our daily milk. Bad news the butter on our bread. For a long time I was unhappy with my fate of being born in such difficult times. But now I know it was a great gift.

Because it allowed me to understand that you have to take control of your live, you have to fight back fear and you have to live your life here and now!

Do not postpone it until later!

Do not trust too much in nice things to come tomorrow! Look for them today.

I see that attitude a lot among my generation and even more among the younger guys. And I like it! Despite all, people in their 20s and 30s today seem to be a lot more confident than those in their 50s and 60s! The young increasingly seem to turn away from blind consumption, career focus, elbow mentality and greed and towards social ties, life-work balance, family, mutual trust and all of these other old fashioned things.

This is a good sign guys, the tide is turning, carry on!



Talking to a Board Member of a Global Corporate

Career is a dangerous thing: Easy to get caught and difficult to escape. (Spider net seen during a misty morning)

Career is a dangerous thing: Easy to get caught and difficult to escape. (Spider net seen during a misty morning)

When Woodpecker was younger (around 20), I had the fantastic chance to speak to a board member of an internationally operating and  well-known German DAX company (DAX is the stock index of top 30 corporates in Germany). A company who’s name most of you would know, with +100.000 employees and stuff.

My parents were quite normal people, so we rarely had any board-members at out home, but this one they knew from their university time and he showed up on a birthday party of my mother.

He was (and probably still is) a very amiable person and a self-made man with a middle class background. And naturally at that age I was quite curious to learn anything I could about the glamorous world of international companies.

So we started to have a little chat about life, work, career, and what path to choose.
A chat that was more helpful to me than any business book or career development crap I ever encountered later.

It’s been more than 15 years since then, but I very clearly remember four core statements.
All of the absolutely worthwhile to follow, even though I am far from aspiring a CEO job or anything like that.

1) First statement:
When asked by my mother how he had managed to get so high up (from being a middle class student earlier himself), he answered absolutely frankly, without any smile or irony: “That’s because I am such an amiable person”.

And indeed he was!
Obviously he probably had other qualities as well, like being intelligent, a good observer and what not. But this statement showed me that all the tips in the books like “be always competitive”, “behave strategically”, “beware of others” etc. are total nonsense.

Take-away for us Downshifters?
Be kind to people at your workplace and you are likely to advance without any stress. Make friends wherever you can and your position will be rock-solid and your job a much more fun place to work at (although not too much I hope 😉 ).

2) The second remark was:
“When you do a really good job, you get away with almost everything”.
I think is a very valuable advise.
For us downshifter that means: You will want to get away with a lot. You will want limited hours, no over-time, a home-office, sabbaticals, parental leaves, a fair pay, no stress. No need to talk around that this is a bunch of demands that are unfortunately considered fairly non-standard in todays stressful and “high performance driven” work environment.

How do you get away with it anyway? Do a good job!
And how can you do a good job?
Do a job that is slightly below your maximum capability. This way you will always perform great without any real effort.
Needless to say that most people sadly do the opposite: They crave for promotions until they end up with a position they can barely fill and thus will have a shaky stand and a lot of stress. (This is called the “Peter-Principle”)

In Woodpeckers case, I was never seeking to advance upward on the career ladder, but I was asking for a raise quite frequently instead. “Keep your promotion, but give me a raise!” :). And it worked, I often got the raise while the title went to someone else. Fine with me and much better than the other way round!
I changed positions sideways when it got boring or annoying and now I am in a position where I can safely say I am very good and very efficient at what I do. I don’t have a leadership or management role although it was once offered to me, and that is good! So I don’t have to deal with annoying employees or boring company politics, I am not afraid of restructurings and changes and I am generally much more independent. I always deliver in time and in return my boss leaves me to have as many coffee breaks as I want – yeah, there are quite a few, but who cares as long as things run smooth?! 🙂

3) “Bit by bit you have to sell out your character while climbing up the career ladder”
You will not often get such an open statement from a board member of a huge company! Deep respect!
And there you go: Another reason not to aim for a career. At least for me, because I like my character.
The guy was quite specific on how he had to give up on political and other opinions, had to adapt to corporate consensus, was gently pushed to streamline his out-of-work social activities to match with peers etc. So additional to character he had to pay with freedom, too!
Nothing that I would strive for.

4) “For a long time I did not have so much fun as at this party tonight”
Boom! Another surprising buster!
I mean, this guy had it all and was involved in all sorts of fancy social events! And the party at my mom’s was not special at all. No villa, no fancy views, no spectacular evening dresses. But a lot of people who knew each other for a long time and had a lot of laughing, open talks, fun and relaxation.
And particularly relaxation and open talk was apparently the thing he missed in 95% of his typical social events. Not surprisingly, he said people there are extremely political, always double-thinking what to say and whom to please, and merely pretending to have fun than really having it. He said most of this social events were more like work than like free time. I can imagine very well!

And then there was another observation a few years later:

After being a board member for 10 years or so, he finally was fired during a reorganisation. He was 55 or so and had probably made a double-digit million Euros, big villa with a nice pool, private guard, huge car with driver and stuff. I mean, in conventional terms he had it all.
Yet he fell into a desperate depression for years, had to do extensive therapy etc. until he finally recovered and is running his own consultancy service now.
What does it tell you? Money and power do not make you less vulnerable to the blows live can deliver – maybe even on the contrary, because you are too little diversified.

In remembrance of an evening that changed my life,