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Socialism, Entrepreneurs, Nipples, and Birthdays

The Perks of Socialism

It’s been about a week since I arrived in Reykjavík, and already it’s been quite the experience.

From the very first day, I’ve had a tour guide in my housemate Stig, a Swedish/Polish designer who came to Iceland less than half a year ago with 2000 Icelandic Kroner (about $17) in his pocket and a few words of Icelandic in his vocabulary. Now, he speaks the local tongue so well that Icelanders are nearly always taken aback when they hear him.

Despite my initial jetlag (I flew in from Seattle, ten days earlier I was in Bangkok, and a week before that I was in Cambodia), I was able to stay conscious all day and enjoy a quick overview of the city, which began with a free lunch at a business where Stig is a contractor.

This company is responsible for swapping out the internals of cars so they can run on methane instead of petroleum. There seems to be quite a bit of demand for such conversions here, and I’ve heard the year 2050 tossed around as when Iceland will be completely fossil fuel-free. Not too shabby.

But back to the free breakfast.

Apparently, employees of this company are able to come in every morning and enjoy a meal with their coworkers (“Including the President of the company,” explains Stig. He points at an adjoining table “That’s him right over there.”). I shuffled together a few slices of bread, cheese, and cucumber and felt recharged for the day. “They also have free lunch, and in the afternoon they give us time to eat some cookies and have some coffee.”

My thought: “That’s a lot of time at work, but not working.”

And really, that has been the story of my time here so far.

Jaunting around town, I’ve found that the local aesthetics are right up my alley, and everything from the architecture, to the fashions people wear, to the way food is presented has a very unique look and feel that I truly appreciate.

The way of life is also very different, with health and public well-being taking top priority (whereas healthy competition and meritocracy seem to be the dominant ideals in most American cities). It was a bit disorienting at first, because in all the traveling I’ve done so far, I can’t remember seeing a pseudo-Socialist system working so well.

The Need for Entrepreneurs

But it’s not all butterflies and rainbows. The system does have some flaws.

A local entrepreneur, Haukur Guðjónsson, explained to me that there are a lot of talented people in Reykjavík, but they don’t really understand what it means to work hard the way an entrepreneur must in order to succeed.

Kids in Iceland generally start work earlier than in the States (most have jobs at age 15 or so), but they are generally service-industry positions, and they do it so they have spending money, not really as an entry point to a career.

Iceland’s economy has kicked a lot of ass since they were liberated from Denmark in 1944, so a lot of the current generation of teens and 20-somethings have grown accustomed to a system that takes care of them, provides them with plenty of what they want and need, and protects them from having to work too terribly hard.

This wouldn’t be a bad thing (it actually sounds pretty damn good to me), except that as a result of the economic crisis in 2008, the Icelandic economy is still a little wobbly, and though the Kroner has reclaimed some of its former value, investors are still looking elsewhere and tensions are still high when it comes to the future of the Icelandic infrastructure.

The solution, Haukur believes, is growing the entrepreneurial base in Iceland so they can tap into the huge stockpiles of talent the locals possess.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a very solid support system for people wishing to spend their time building businesses yet, and it remains to be seem if something innovative will rise up out of the economic ashes.

Nipples and Aiming Higher

I went out on Saturday night to meet with up an American girl named Bullet and some friends she made last time she was in the country.

The Icelandic nightlife is fairly crazy, and over the course of the evening (and into the early morning) I saw an Icelander in a clean white suit light his drink on fire and suction the cup to his nipple, saw two jackets get stolen, and had an older gentleman tell me that I need to ‘aim my cock higher.’

After arriving home at 5:30am and crashing for a few hours, I awoke to find Stig reminding me that we had a 1-year-old child’s birthday to attend.

Only slightly hungover, we popped a few Ibuprofen, stopped at the toy store, and drove to a house not far away (nothing is very far away in Reykjavik) to deliver the fake plastic mobile phone we had procured for the birthday boy.

Familial Festivities

The party was lovely, and during bouts of conversation with a man named Roar (who is the father of the birthday boy, and in the process of building his personal brand so that he can work on more of his own projects outside of work), I devoured soup and cake, and discussed life and Iceland with the other partygoers while watching the kids scramble around, chasing each other and their toys.

At the end of the birthday party, I felt contented. The people were wonderful, the food was fantastic, and Roar had lent me his guitar for the duration of my stay. He was happy, he said, for it to get some use.

And now here I am, preparing to start my second week in Iceland, comforted by the knowledge that I’ve already been able to fall in with enthusiastic entrepreneurs, pleasant party people, and friendly family folk.

I’m looking forward to meeting the rest of you, Iceland.

Update: February 7, 2017

It’s wild looking back at these early days of my time in Iceland, in part because I managed to learn a lot that proved to be accurate in so short a time, and in part because there’s so much more I came to learn, after.

That quote, “aim your cock higher,” ended up in a book I wrote about my time in Iceland.

I returned to in Iceland twice more after this first four-month visit, as I dated an Icelandic girl for several years, and we would periodically get together and play house in Reykjavík, when we weren’t going our separate ways for a while, or living together, elsewhere. As a result, I was able to be there during both Winter and Summer Solstices, periods during which the sun never comes up, and never goes down, respectively.

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A Time for Questioning What We Know

I’ve been doing an exercise lately that has really been valuable to me, though the results are difficult to measure.

Once a day, I question something that I know to be true, or have good reason to believe to be true.

I usually give myself about 20 minutes (not to be confused with 20 Minutes of Awesome), so that I know I have at least that long to pursue the thought, but I let myself go longer if the need arises.

And from there I just think, ‘What if?’

What if humans are the only life in the whole universe?

What if terrorists were not responsible for the attacks on 9/11?

What if everything we’ve been taught in science class is wrong?

What if some other economic strategy is better than capitalistic meritocracy?

What if I’m not doing what I should be doing with my life? What if the path I’m walking is the wrong one?

What if the life I experience is just a dream? Or a simulation? Or a game someone else is playing?

What if what if what if?

Answering these questions won’t necessarily change your mind about anything, but that’s not really the point.

The point is to put yourself outside of yourself temporarily. What we know is the sum of our personal experiences, including our educational background, and it’s rare that we find ourselves thinking from outside of that box.

I have no goal with this except to exercise my ‘what if?’ brain muscles.

Try it for a week and let me know what you think.

Or rather, let me know what you would think if it wasn’t you thinking.

Update: February 7, 2017

This is something that has worked its way into my daily sit-and-think time, alongside other ruminations. But I kind of miss the idea of focusing completely on these sorts of questions, and may bring it back, if perhaps every other day. I do recall it being insanely valuable in terms of coming up with new things to research in particular, as I would ask myself not just ‘what if,’ but what it would mean, and how I might be able to understand the consequences.

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Extreme Lifestyle Experiments: My TEDx Talk

Earlier this month, I was honored with the opportunity to speak to an audience in Cambodia, for the first ever TEDx Phnom Penh event.

There were some absolutely amazing people putting this thing together, and some really excellent speakers in attendance. Most amazing to me was that the audience was full of young Khmers, most of whom were interested in entrepreneurship in some fashion.

The theme of the conference was ‘Building the Future’: a fitting idea, what with the overwhelming potential of the Cambodian people, and the unfortunate series of events in their recent history that have held them back in many ways. My take on this topic was to explain how I approach problems by attacking them from a different angle, and how even the smallest lifestyle experiment can help you achieve the perspective you need to find that new approach.

My talk is above, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed putting it together.

Update: February 7, 2017

I cringe every time I see old talks I’ve given over the years. This was my first somewhat big one, and the first of (as of today) four TEDx talks I’ve given in as many countries. It was wonderful having the excuse to visit Cambodia, as well, which is a really interesting place that I otherwise wouldn’t have visited that early in my travels.