This is my friend Cosima’s advice from last Sunday when we were having a phone call full of good laughs.
Cosima and I are both studying abroad but she is doing her whole degree in the UK. We were talking about a currently relevant topic: My future. What to do next autumn, after my Bachelor’s? It’s one of these big, scary and overwhelming decisions in life. Big, because it will impact my future job, relationships, and place of living. Scary, because making the wrong big choices is suboptimal. Overwhelming, because our world offers countless opportunities. Even more for people like me who have the urge to always move one step further away from home.
In my conversation with Cosima, I was doubting my ability to make the right choice under the current time pressure. I was complaining about not knowing who to ask first, which universities to look for. A typical defense mechanism to avoid facing the big scary decision. Calling me an anxious German that day was pretty accurate.
This text is not about Germans being more anxious. It’s more about the stereotype that Germans have the tendency to be scared like I was last Sunday. The stereotype that our culture promotes complaining over taking risks. What I really want to talk about today is not Germany though. It’s the US and how I experience a country that seems to take more risks than others.
Forcing you to dare
In Europe, we have the luxury of being able to fail hard. Losing your job, going bankrupt, having no family to support you – there is always someone catching you: the state. The social security system in Germany guarantees that you can continue an almost normal life for a few months after losing your job. Firing you in the first place is generally not an easy thing to do for employers. Then, if more goes wrong, you’ll still be able to go to the hospital, be supported financially and get money for your children.
The US handle things differently. Not having health insurance or the right amount of dollar bills in your wallet could be problematic when getting sick. One’s socioeconomic status can change rapidly, not only upwards, but also down to the bottom. Employees may be fired when they’re not needed anymore, from one day to another. Life can change rapidly here and there is no strong state to make changes nice and smooth.
Citizens of this country are constantly exposed to higher risks than Germans. If you’re switching jobs and currently don’t have health insurance, what if you suddenly get sick? If you pay 70’000$ per year for university but then, for some reason, are unable to pay back all these loans?
Being exposed to this higher level of risk during their whole lives, Americans are used to it much more than I am. Imagining having to pay the immense tuition fees at Northwestern, I feel uncomfortable and scared of life-long debt. When playing volleyball here, I’m more afraid of twisting my ankle than back home, knowing that my insurance only starts paying at 250$ and that calling the ambulance is 4000$ straight up.
The paradoxical twist in this system is that the only way to ensure financial security is by taking leaps of faith in the first place. Risks may end up ruining your life but taking them enables you to have a calm mind in the long run. US-salaries after graduation can amortize student loans far quicker than European paychecks. If you drop out of college though, it could become a challenge to ever pay them back.
Those who dare make themselves vulnerable to failure but also open themselves up to success. The American Dream as I see it now is just a synonym for this system of high risk. It can lift you up and throw you down, everything at a high pace.
What makes America great?
The question I’ve asked myself a lot during the last weeks is how this country has succeeded in becoming the most powerful in the world. This reputation may be declining, but the most successful universities, tech companies, and film producers are still American. When arriving in the States though, it’s not immediately apparent, why. Seeing Wendy’s after Burger King and ending up in Taco Bell, one might ask themselves how the brightest innovators manage to even sustain a productive state of mind when filled with cheese, beef, and fries.
Taking risks is something Americans are used to while most of the remaining world is not. At least anxious Germans like me need their friends in the UK for reminders to dare more. I might be Austrian in fact, but I’m not used to being exposed to this new face of the American Dream.
A society that is encouraged to take a big leap every day in order to sustain their status in society has enormous potential. It’s no surprise that there’s a constant flow of creativity in Hollywood and smart ideas in Silicon Valley. While the world rarely hears the stories of unlucky souls that have taken the wrong risks, many countries’ best minds are attracted by the image of the US. It is stunning to many human beings what has made this country so successful and unique. I’m honestly not an exception. Experiencing college culture was the main motivation I mentioned when applying to come here a year ago. In the back of my mind, it was probably the fascination of the States that made me apply. A fascination that has been built from a risk mindset.
Learnings for anxious Germans
Before exams that really stress me out, I like to tell myself that the worst case is not to bad after all. Even if I fail horribly, the state will catch me in free fall. It’s beautiful to know that a whole society is socially safe and that I don’t have to donate in order to make my homeless fellows survive.
Still, we Austrians and Germans can learn that life needs us to take leaps of faith. Instead of complaining, worrying and then just continuing what we’ve always done, we should get moving. Facing our fears and knowing what it’s worth to overcome them is a crucial skill. It enables us to grow and to reach our goals.
I can’t avoid graduating next year unless I decide to radically chill in university from now on. So I have to make a choice and take the risk of it not being the perfect one. Also in Europe risks are unavoidable. Why not take them more often?