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Why are we even doing any of this, anyway? Thoughts on working and self worth

on the way to work on a German ICE train

People wake up early every weekday morning and under normal circumstances they immediately think about family members or whether they slept well. Soon after achieving consciousness, often only after introducing caffeine into their system, the working person is naturally going to start thinking of the coming workday. Many people spend a tremendous amount of their waking hours focused on these work issues.

One of the advantages of a long commute for my dad was that he rarely brought his work home with him. If you do the vast majority of your work at home like I do, then your commute might be from the bed to the desk, or even the bed to the couch. How do you keep your work in its proper perspective when you work where you also do your recreation?

More importantly, is our whole relationship to work and a ‘normal’ working life a completely ridiculous construct? Might we be happier, no matter what form our employment takes, if we observe and analyse this construction? If something happens and I lose my position, for whatever reason, have I lost my self worth?

Please, don’t let any of these questions discourage you. Many people have a healthy and constructive relationship with what they do professionally. Our political leaders are aiming for full employment, so if you’ve simply got a job? Then you’re taking care of not only yourself but simultaneously fulfilling your civic duty.

However, if you happen to be dealing with issues of mortality, whether yours or that of someone you love, then you’re naturally going to start having existential questions. Why are we here? What’s the point of all of this anyway?

Right?

Hopefully, you didn’t come here looking for answers from me. I’m headed off to work as soon as I finish writing this. No rest for the wicked, as they say.

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Austria isn’t only for cows

Austrian cows in their element

A week and a half in Austria on holiday, and it’s taken me this long to get round to sharing my meditations on cows with you? What’s wrong with this picture?

We’re staying at a Hütte (cabin) behind a dairy farm about half an hour south of Kitzbühel, and I assure you:

I prefer the cows here to the people.

Nothing against Austrians, though. They’re a curious but sturdy folk.

Their cows, on the other hand, have a certain Austrian way of looking at the world. We can all learn something from our Austrian bovine brethren. Or sisters, I suppose would be more appropriate.

What is Austria, anyway? A landlocked nation that at one point was the centre of European politics, and as a result those of the Western world. Go to Vienna and you’ll see remnants of when Austria was in charge of everything hereabouts.

They’ve been making Blutwurst and Leberwurst for centuries, and the cows have patiently watched as the herd has been culled and some of them got to live to see a new day. As it were.

When I sit in a café in Salzburg or Innsbruck, I remind myself that those Austrians away from the political halls of power are knowledgable about the rest of the world and not all that bothered by it.

That sort of stoicism is one of the many reasons I love reading Austrian philosophers or eating Austrian cheese. It’s a nice life here. They’re okay and the rest of us would be even more okay if we could sit back and let all of this happen without feeling like we need to have any influence whatsoever.

That’s my mediation on this curious country and its cows. If you’re so inclined, leave your musings in the comments. Otherwise, I won’t even know who was here.

Tell me an Austrian tale, won’t you?

give me your worst service stories of all time…please

Me taming a stuffed animal eagle back when I was the worst employee

My daughter needs space to play, and playmates are always a plus, and I need somewhere to write and work. More often than not we’re at a boring, grown up café. She entertains herself admirably, and I try to be understanding when she’s reached her limit and wants a change of scenery. It does eventually happen.

However, if I want to please her and NEED to finish something on deadline, we go to a chain fast food place, whose name I won’t mention. We go there, and I don’t feel remotely guilty. It’s the best bad option to get work done when we’re on the road. To their credit, they’ve not run out of coffee. Not yet, anyway.

All of this is a prelude to my story of possibly the worst employee I’ve ever encountered. It was at said fast food chain, but to be fair? She could’ve been working anywhere. I’m a difficult employee, so you’ll immediately see why this exchange was so humorous to me. The more I replay our conversation in my head, the more admiration I have for dear Maria.

My point, though? If you’re miserable in your job, just leave. Truly. This woman was doing neither herself nor her employer any favours. To be fair, she might’ve been simply having a bad day or week. I try to give people room if they’re going through a rough patch, but this woman appears to have been going through a bad life. Hold onto your hats, dear readers. This one’s a doozy:

Maria might be working in food service here, but I’d argue with her bad attitude she’s unquestionably management material. After arriving and ordering our food, we sat down at the table nearest the electricity outlets. As I plugged in all my devices, I noticed full trays of leftover food scattered round us. My daughter went to play with her newly acquired friends, and I worked while waiting for our food.

After scarfing down our food, my daughter went back to the playground and I collected all of the empty wrapping and detritus and took my tray to the rack where conscientious customers do what’s required. It was at this point I noticed two equally baffling things. First of all, the rack was full of similarly full trays and secondly, there was our hero Maria. I took a deep breath and smiled before asking politely where I should deposit our tray filled with wrappers and empty drink cups.

She let out the biggest sigh, exasperatedly tried to shove trays out of the way and then gruffly took mine and growled, ‘Give it to me,’ in heavily accented German. Poor lady, right?

Well, I never let such a curious situation pass me by without engaging, so I had to ask her. Perhaps my first mistake, I know.

You seem both miserable and equally bad at your job. What’s the deal?

Having assumed she might be offended at my question, I steeled myself for her wrath. However, I got nothing of the sort. She asked me point blank, ‘Would you be happy about doing this job?

Nope. I certainly wouldn’t. It got me thinking and I kept badgering her with my questions. To her credit? She kept answering.

Why don’t you go work somewhere else?’ I queried.

She sighed again, and answered with the ennui of a dock worker, ‘Where else can I do so little and still get paid?’ Good point, Maria. I see you and respect your moxie. Doesn’t make me want to go there anymore, which is somehow the point of good service or management. Right?

You’ve probably got more questions than I did, at this point. I’ll turn it around to my readers and ask you for your worst service experience.

Airlines? Restaurants or bars? Hotels? Courtrooms or police departments?

Give me your sob stories and don’t be surprised if they end up in an article I’m working on. It’s crowd sourcing my content, please and thank you.

this photo of my lunch on Insta isn’t narcissistic, I promise…really

Narcissus is the symbol of our age

Every time I hear someone say, ‘He’s such a narcissist,’ I cringe. Might it be because I’m, in fact, more self-involved than I like to admit? Of course. It’s possible, or even probable.

No matter the person, I believe that’s simply one danger of being human.

However, it’s a word that’s so overused that it no longer has much, or any, meaning. When someone’s deemed narcissistic, I wonder how different he could be from the next narcissist at the bar.

What helps me in these situations, to get a bit of context, is to imagine how my grandparents would see our world. My Nana, for example, would not give much thought to social media, I assure you.

What exactly is Instagram?‘ I can hear her voice as she might ask.

It’s where we share the photos from our daily life, Nana,’ I’d respond. ‘Such as, my wife and her weekly visit to the café or when our family takes the time to sit down in a restaurant.’

You take a photo of the family, sure,‘ my hypothetical conversation with my mother’s mother continues. I’d respond, ‘Well, not exactly. We photograph our food. Whatever pastry she ordered at the café or whatever meal was eaten at the Italian place we’d finally visited.’

Here’s where I’m sure this woman who had been born in the 1920s would be completely baffled. At this point, she’d finally ask the most obvious question in the world:

‘Why?’

This self-evident question has been weirdly forgotten in our daily rush here and there. What’re people even doing on social media to begin with? What possible purpose could there be for posting my Penne Arrabiata onto these various platforms?

For the average bear with a private Instagram account, I’m going to fall back on the narcissism answer and politely recuse myself from that discussion. Really, it’s not my business why Aunt Gladys thinks we care about her lunch. Her social media use just isn’t my concern.

My clients, though? They’ve heard they should be doing Pinterest, or YouTube, or even the dreaded Feckbook/Insta. Why? For what purpose?

Say what you like, but it’s about building a brand and these platforms do allow you to do so. How? When? Which platform?

And most importantly:

Why?

Write or call me and we’ll talk about your situation at mail@kenmacbethknowles.com. Why you need/want to acquire new clients or customers. Why, indeed?

I will go out on a limb and say few people have thought more about these questions than people who work in this field. My colleagues and I have answered these questions as long as social media has existed.

Don’t be a narcissist.

Let me help you understand it better.

Get in touch.

No, let’s keep working…I can take more of this

Hours with a client this morning and once again, I’m reminded of why I enjoy what I do. Wasn’t in the mood to figure out my own strategy, much less hers, but within ten minutes my brain was cooking with ideas and the right questions. Before I knew it, a few hours were gone the client had clarity which she’d not known was lacking.

Always leave ‘em wanting more’ is something I learned on stage as a child, and this situation was no different. That’s enough for today’s session and think about what we’ve talked about. We’ll keep working on this after all of the new information has been digested.

Would I have kept working had she insisted? Yes, today I’d have gladly kept at it because I can’t so easily shut off my brain. However, I could tell she was done. Her brain, unlike mine, was overwhelmed. I could see it and I think she was somehow relieved that I anticipated her limits without her having to say anything. When I said, ‘Okay, that’s more than enough for now…more next time,’ she sighed and smiled broadly.

One of the best qualities to possess is to know one’s limits. When I’m working with someone, I appreciate it immensely when my counterpart sees I’m exhausted and suggests we pack it in for the day. Or until after lunch. Or even for the next twenty minutes.

I’ve learned that it’s nearly always better work when it comes flowing out effortlessly. Working like salt miners, rarely results in good outcomes. Like with most things, the other crucial thing to remember is to stay flexible. Some people have to power through such situations, which I recognise and respect.

If she’d said, ‘No, let’s keep working…I can take more of this,’ I’d have gone back down in the mine.

It’s what I do.

Doing business in DACH (Deutschland, Austria, Switzerland) on the fly

St. Paul’s in Munich (near the Wies’n

While writing about my clients’ needs branching out and doing business outside of Germany, I realised it might be easier to explain German business to the Germans themselves. As an Ausländer (foreigner).

Why?

Many small and medium sized companies in Germany, Austria and even Switzerland (the DACH Region) still do more business at home or nearby than out in the world. Don’t get me wrong, the European Union has been a boon to the German economy like few other developments in modern history.

Knowing they can easily sell their products in Greece or Portugal and everywhere in between is a huge advantage for Germany and France and the other ‘big boys’ in Europe.

Nevertheless, look at successful German companies and click on the English translations of their websites, and they are truly awful. The opposite of good.

Some are clearly machine translated, and more important? They give the impression that the company spent little, if any, time developing their international page on their site. Because they didn’t.

And it shows.

When I’m helping a company that does decent sales in Germany (or the DACH Region in general), they often have international sales, as well. They spent little time on their English translation, and the orders keep coming in. So, what’s the problem.

It’s a weird truth about doing business in Germany, considering their quality of craftsmanship is otherwise so high. If it’s an engineering company or silicon chip manufacturer, you can’t fault them on having a good product. More often than not their marketing and the German content of their site is attractive and professional.

Yet the English page on their website? Atrocious.

Embarrassing.

Not going to name the company, because I don’t do that in such situations, but they are a public relations firm here in Munich. One of the more successful ones, I might add. The website is slick and their business is booming. Maybe they only want to have an English page that one could click on.

If you do, though, hold onto your pearls. These guys might have paid a consulting firm a fortune for their site and the German content, but the English on their English site makes this native English speaker blush. It’s that bad.

Doing English here in the DACH Region on the fly? Not advisable. Perhaps your older clients and colleagues don’t realise it, but you’re cutting corners and the younger generation can tell immediately.

Call or write me an email (mail@kenmacbethknowles.com) for a consultation. I’d be happy to help you out!

You want to do business hereabouts in August? No, thanks…maybe see you in September

holidays? yes, please…call me a lazy European. I’m enjoying myself

Was driving the wrong way on the Autobahn on Tuesday, because my wife made a silly mistake, and I was completely okay with it. Although it was eight kilometres out of the way, for a grand total of 16 altogether, I didn’t care.

We laughed, she felt terrible and then I jokingly pretended to be really disappointed. We called my Schwiegervater (father-in-law), because I knew he’d have more sympathy for his daughter than I was able to muster at the time.

How was I staying calm?

Easy:

It’s our holidays, and I didn’t need to be anywhere. Literally.

Even if we’d broken down on the road between Bavaria and Austria, it might’ve been a hassle. Not such a big deal, though.

After a quick search, I found plenty of articles about how an American or international company can manage doing business with such a ‘vacation mentality‘, as it’s apparently now called. Here’s how I read about it in Inc. magazine:

‘But, in my experience, Europe embraces vacation–sometimes in ways that make no sense. I’ve frequently found restaurants that close for two weeks during peak tourist season–because the owners want to take their own vacation time. I’d think they would close in the offseason and make money while they could, but the vacation culture is strong’ (source: Inc. magazine).

Nearly every visitor to Europe during this time of year marvels at how all of France seems to shut down for the entire month of August. Our neighbourhoods in Munich, away from the tourist centres, seem almost like ghost towns. No-one’s home.

To be candid, I love staying in Munich in August when the locals are gone, because you can enjoy the lack of traffic to the Freibad (municipal pool) or the many free tables at your favourite Lokal (watering hole). I call it August all to ourselves.

However, I’ve been that traveler waiting at the gates of France or Italy, where they might as well hang a closed for August‘ sign across the country. Losing business? Don’t they care?

Actually, I’ve spoken to various executives about this over the years, and their perspective seems to be:

If I miss my holidays with my family just to make more sales, what’s the point of success anyway?

Others, who sell products people need throughout the year, rationalise that they’re not even losing business. At that time of year, few expect to be sold to anyway.

Perhaps it’s simply a change in mentality, because judging only by the sour dispositions of the shop keepers in Paris or Nice on a hot August afternoon? Quality of life, for me, is truly not shopping there.

Ever.

But especially not in summer.

You want to do business hereabouts in August? No, thanks…maybe see you in September.

No need to share our every thought…or argue with strangers online? Yes, please

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our neighbours for the next week or so

We’re going off the grid, baby!

My wife and I met, while she was living in an Italian mediaeval village, and she assured me it wasn’t the glamorous chic Italy I knew from Venice or Florence.

Liguria along the coast is actually quite sophisticated. You’ve got San Remo and Genoa nearby, with Cinque Terre even further down the coast. It’s not the Côte d’Azur like across the border in France, but it’s somehow equally beautiful without the snobbery.

Which is to say, we were in a beautiful place, but nearly an hour up in the hills and unlike those coastal elites (heh heh), up in our village, it was rustic and wild…not what you see on postcards from people’s Italian holidays.

Somehow, it was the perfect way to fall in love, though. Without Wi-Fi or even decent heating, we kept each other warm. Miriam sang along to songs I was working on for a show that was coming up, and we watched episodes of Faulty Towers and Moonstruck…and other movies, some well-known and some obscure, that she’d previously downloaded onto her laptop.

And even though we barely knew each other, we knew we weren’t the youngest people to make babies, so we got to work making at least one. The result of our endeavours? It’s who I refer to as the progeny here and online – our daughter who we were lucky enough to conceive that first trip to Liguria when we were still newly together.

We can’t make it ‘back home‘ this summer, though, for a myriad of reasons. Instead, we’re headed to a little Hütte (cabin) in the Austrian Alps, and I couldn’t be more excited. Not only is there no online connectivity, but this place has neither electricity nor hot water…and I couldn’t be more excited.

Time with the people I love most, mental space to read and write with no need to ‘share it with all my friends and “followers“‘, and maybe I’ll even get round to working on that book my friend Nick and I have been writing for ages.

We’ll see.

Nowadays, people call it a digital detox. I’ve heard of executives back in the US who pay a pretty penny to go to the woods, or some desert, and have their mobile phone taken away, where they can reconnect with nature and themselves.

However, we’re doing it old school. Putting our devices away on our own accord and see what happens. Perhaps going back to civilisation when it’s too much, but even the thought of needing to do such a thing disappoints me.

Here’s what I’m hoping:

We don’t miss it. None of it. The noise, the distractions, the Sturm und Drang of modern life. What if it’s not so bad to just be human, without all the pressure to share our thoughts and whatnot, for a little while?

It might feel weird for a few hours or even half a day, but I’m confident we’ll be more present for each other and the progeny. I’m even rather optimistic the dog will be happier.

No need to share our every thought…or argue with strangers online? Yes, please.

our boy dog Louis in his element
our boy dog Louis, who passed just before the progeny’s birth…that guy lived for the mountains
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How much to share and how authentically? The more the better…

that luscious greenery smack dab in the middle of the old hood, where we used to live before moving to the edge of Munich

How do we learn to act right, whatever that means? We have a three-year-old at home who has quite a healthy, age-appropriate appetite to test our boundaries. How she protests, whether overtly or covertly, is fascinating and I find myself thinking of two things as I ponder learning how one behaves. Whether we’re talking about a child or an old, long-in-the-tooth character such as myself, the principles are the same.

Where are the boundaries, what’re the consequences if they’re crossed, and what’s the calculation of whether it’s worth it to cross them? It’d be hubris, or pride, to believe I’m different from my daughter. It’s an illusion. Don’t get me wrong, in my daily life I no longer take risks that’d get me in legal trouble – my twenties were the sort of nightmare that only a young man could create – but as an adult? The boundary testing is often emotional or even interpersonally capricious or erratic. Few places more obviously than oversharing.

My wife and I talk a lot about sharing vulnerability online, when we live in a society where being up front about weakness is bucking one of their fundamental taboos. In German culture, you might be allowed to be a flawed human within your family or in your circle of close friends, but certainly not in public. It’s literally an affront to my casual German friends to share openly about my faults and my struggles.

Here’s the rub, though, in our digital age: my message to clients, and Miriam’s as well, is that we have much more power and control over our online presence than at first we realise. I can share honestly, while never risk becoming a completely open book. It’s absolutely not my goal to show weakness and then stay stuck in that position. Instead, my goal is to help Germans, and others for that matter, overcome their aversion to being authentic.

Only showing your wins, might sound like a good strategy, and I’m sure it’ll attract a variety of readers and colleagues, or even clients, who admire your success. My plea is that you consider showing when you fell short. When you didn’t live up to someone else’s standards, even shockingly your own unrealistic expectations.

There’s freedom in that space…where one’s authenticity overrides anything else. The longer I do this thing? The more that’s where I want to reside. Someday even permanently.

We ain’t playing around…well, perhaps a bit

Musings on finding one’s purpose and a sojourn in the classroom

On my way to class prepandemic…perhaps a future student?

What have I been doing the last few months, aside from working with clients and doing music and running lines (and being a camp counselor) for this actor’s workshop down in Tuscany that my friend Katharina did annually before the pandemic and has begun again (finally!), and why have I been so distracted by it that I couldn’t blog regularly? Or do my normal social media things on LinkedIn? Pinterest?

I’ve been teaching.

My uncle David’s career was in the toilet before he died, and he decided to go teach, which was rather courageous of him considering what he’d done all those years promoting US cotton in far-flung corners of the world, wasn’t easy to sell as a teachable course or set of courses. His mother, my maternal grandmother, had studied sociology and even worked on her doctorate at a time when women didn’t necessarily do graduate work even in the social sciences. Both of his sisters, my aunt and my mother, took education seriously and both studied at graduate levels and even taught at all levels over their careers.

Teaching has been in my family, at least on my mother’s side for at least three generations, and despite the lousy pay, depending on where and what you teach I suppose, it’s one of the most honourable professions. However, because I grew up hearing my mom whinge about how poorly they’re paid, I sometimes unconsciously downplay its value and tell my wife I never want to teach again.

Then I’m offered another course, and if it’s one of many things I’m doing? I’m normally happy with it. Learned long ago that my career has been a series of starts and stops, and over time I’ve learned to accept that. Now? The classes have been taught, the exams proctored and the grades turned in.

Back to the real world, and time with young people just starting this journey? Invaluable.

Reminds me of what my dad said when I was in my early twenties and still figuring out my place in the world. He’d listen to whatever I was going through, and respond, ‘Ken, I’m glad I don’t ever have to be 22 again’.

It sounds sarcastic, but that wasn’t his point. He helped me see that my daily struggle was temporal. That we all go through rough times, and his example?

If you can take yourself a bit less seriously and smile while going through the shit? All the better.

Explaining baseball and trying to get across my love for the Cubs