Everyday I’m hustlin’: The ultimate guide to staying motivated in Berlin
No responsibilities, being creative. Stop. Sure, Berlin is an easy place. But there is a flip side. Our guide to staying motivated in Berlin helps.
Berlin’s unstructured and easy-going ethos
Some say Berlin is a place to escape adult responsibilities. Others say it’s a place that creatives flock to in the name of Work …but then get sucked into a vortex of distractions, produce nothing and eventually return home overwhelmed by overindulgence. Most of the time, Berlin’s unstructured and easy-going ethos is to blame for thwarted creative plans and diminished drive. But it’s this very ethos that also makes the German city fertile ground for people who are relentlessly pursuing unconventional career paths, many of which would be nearly impossible in more structured and stringent urban environments.
I was born in Canada, so notan EU citizen. Because of this fate, I’ve always felt an extra pressure to do things that are considered good not only to me, but to my chances of staying in Germany. Sometimes this means smiling at everyone (because you never know who’ll end up being the Beamter/in at your next appointment with the Ausländerbehörde). Other times this means not jaywalking even when the only thing in sight is a leaf fluttering on the road (because what if I get deported for jaywalking?). But every time I begin to feel unmotivated, an image would creep into my mind of someone saying I have “no economic value to Berlin” and then they would rip me away from my cherished personal and professional freedom here.
Thankfully, I recently got the big ‘OK’ to extend my freelance work permit for at least two more years. I like to think it has something to do with the hustling tactics I’ve picked up along the way. If you’re having trouble concentrating or going through a motivational slump at the moment, perhaps these things I’ve learned about staying driven in this city might help:
1) Eat a rainbow. Not LSD.
No, that’s not a code phrase for taking LSD. I know I’m not your doctor, nor your McFit Trainer, but something tells me if the last vegetable you ate in the past week was an olive from a glass jar, your brain is probably using more energy to fight scurvy, than to come up with new ideas. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, one of the best-known theories of motivation, a person must first satisfy fundamental needs like hunger and thirst before progressing to higher-level needs like achievement and creative fulfillment. After all, like they say, you are what you eat. Eating healthy is already difficult in a daily routine, but throw some apathy in there and it’s easy to slide down a slippery slope that ends in falafels for dinner and Milchreis for breakfast. I’ve tried many strategies to maintain a healthy diet during times of listlessness, but this one seems to be most effective and easiest to remember: Fill your plate with a vibrant mix of colours and you’ll be covered.
In case you’re new to Berlin and confused about the array of supermarkets available, here’s a poem I wrote when I first moved here that might help you navigate options and spend within your budget. Note: It starts with fancy and ends with no frills.
Delineating German Supermarkets
No plastic bags allowed at
LPG, BIO COMPANY, Alnatura.
Dim lights and deli counters
EDEKA, REWE, Kaiser’s.
Fluorescent tubes and sterile walls
Angebot, Angebot, Angebot aus
ALDI, Lidl, Netto, Norma.
2) Learn to say ‘no’.
Yes, it’s true, Berlin offers a lot of distractions. It’s filled with quaint cafes, quirky shops, queer bars and Qualudes. Every (summer) day is an opportunity to loaf along the Spree, lay in a park and go for a drink. Every night is an exhibition opening, foreign film festival and excuse to drink. Every weekend is a perfect time to brunch, go for a stroll and not do anything but drink. But if you moved to Berlin with a particular goal and being hungover 85% of the time doesn’t let you pursue it successfully… Then learn to say ‘no’ once in a while.
It’s not easy, but go deep into yourself and in the most silent hour of the afternoon ask yourself: Must I go to Burgers & Hip Hop tonight for the seventh month in a row even though I have an important deadline on Monday that I’m not prepared for? If the answer is a difficult, but obvious, ‘no’ then plan your night accordingly, i.e. treat yourself to a 20-minute hip hop dance party in your bedroom and then, in the words of Iggy Azalea, get working on your shit.
3) Make and keep good friends.
Meeting new people isn’t very hard here. Most people are open, come from diverse backgrounds and generally like to talk. Not only that, there are plenty of events, meet-ups, bars, lectures, co-working spaces and workshops where you can broaden your social circle regardless of your interests. The hard part, though, can be cultivating meaningful relationships with people you really trust, connect to on a deeper level and can be yourself with. Everyday, I’m grateful for the lovely human beings who accept me for who I am and still respond to me after I message them with: “hey gangstazzz, what’s poppin’ yo : )”.
As a freelancer working from home, I truly enjoy having my own space. However, when my ambition begins to wane and I feel lackadaisical at best, one of the most helpful things is to confide in a close friend. More often then not, these conversations are the keys to a new perspective on a problem or the extra encouragement needed to move forward. Sometimes a simple coffee catch-up is enough to get you back up and running towards your goal again. Although it takes a while to form deep, meaningful relationships, they are worth it and crucial to staying grounded in this hectic city.
4) Come to terms with rejection.
I hate to say it, but no matter how nice, funny, smart, educated or beautiful you are, rejection is going to slap you in the face unexpectedly at one point or another. Getting turned down is a reality in Berlin as it is anywhere else, perhaps even more so here when it comes to finding a job or a flat. It’s not fun, but from my experience the best way to deal with rejection is not to take it too personally, accept it for what it is and then move on.
After deciding that I wanted to move to Berlin, I started saving money from my last job in Toronto to allow for a three-month buffer when I arrived. The plan was to find a marketing position or paid internship at a startup during that timeframe so I could sustain myself the rest of the way. Before even setting foot on German soil, I had already received rejections from three Berlin startups. When I arrived, I landed a small freelance writing gig, but then received two more rejections for full-time positions. It was hard. I questioned myself and my abilities daily, but I was determined to make it in Berlin because it seemed the only place I felt I could untangle how I imagined people wanted me to be from how I wanted to be. Finally, there was an offer, but then I rejected it because I wasn’t convinced about the company. The last offer was an editorial internship at VentureVillage, a digital publication that covered the startup scene across Europe at the time. I happily accepted the internship, which eventually turned into a full-time position with the opportunity to study journalism in London.
Looking back, even though it was incredibly difficult to receive rejection upon rejection upon rejection, I’m glad it didn’t happen any other way. I’ve met lovely people through VentureVillage who have taught me so much and impacted my life in countless ways. After an interesting twist of events, three of the startups that rejected me early on no longer exist. It was often hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but things unraveled at their own pace. I cannot think of a more beautiful and easier path.
5) Learn German.
It was my second week in Berlin. I don’t remember how long I was standing in line grasping a slip paper when a grey-haired woman sitting on the other side of the teller counter at Sparkasse looked at me and said something that wasn’t in any of my ‘Learning German’ books. I smiled naively and slid the paper under the glass barrier hoping I’d be able to withdraw money from my newly opened bank account. She took it and said something quickly. I caught ‘nicht’ and ‘kein’. Before I knew it, she was ripping the paper into pieces and shaking her head. Then she looked up at me, irritated and pointed towards the customer service area “DA!”. I was confused and my face was hot from embarrassment. The only response I could muster up was a bleak “d-da-anke”.
Since this unforgettable experience, I’ve become a firm believer that a fundamental knowledge of German is necessary to stay motivated in Berlin. Many would certainly disagree with me and say the motivation required to learn German would eat away at the motivation to create and work. Perhaps. But even if you get a job at a place where English is the working language and hang out exclusively with expats, isn’t it draining to constantly dodge communication with residents or – even worse – impose English onto locals who may not feel comfortable speaking it? And if you’re here for the long haul, surely it would skew and limit your experience.
One Saturday afternoon, around when my German abilities had developed to the stage of confidently ordering food, I dropped off a silk dress at my local chemisiche Reinigung. I had a full 4-minute conversation with the lady working there and she didn’t once try to switch to English. Afterwards, I was so happy I felt like skipping home. I’m by no means fluent, but am getting better at oberflächlich conversations and talking in front of more than two people without breaking into sweats. It isn’t an easy language, but I’ve found that a combination of taking classes every so often, using apps (Babbel, Duolingo and Memrise) and actually talking in real life works… slowly but surely. Having patient flatmates who are willing to speak only German to you also helps. Upon arriving at a new flat last year, I wanted to say weg schmeißen but instead ended up saying weg scheißen without realizing it. My flatmates burst out laughing. I was confused. Throwing out a receipt isn’t *that* funny, I thought. Needless to say, I’ll never make that mistake again.
6) Embrace uncertainty.
Some people come to Berlin to find themselves, but most people love to lose themselves here. Sometimes the feeling of uncertainty seems to be amplified in this city because things are changing so quickly and people are constantly entering, then leaving, your life. I’ve learned not to cling onto any particular dream anymore, because each dream seems to be followed by another. I try to remind myself that the feeling of uncertainty never goes away. I try to be mindful. I try to be open. And when that’s not enough, I turn to Rilke’s timeless wisdom from “Letters to a Young Poet”, which is not only for writers but for everyone, I think.
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer… but take whatever comes with great trust, and if only it comes out of your own will, out of some need of your inmost being.”
When I arrived in Berlin in August 2012, I was jobless and knew exactly two people. My German was confined to numbers and greetings, while my soon-to-be-opened German bank account would consist of modest savings from my last job.
Like a stereotypical Millennial, I wasn’t ready to settle for a position, which I believe squandered my ambition and potential, at a company I couldn’t identify with (something that became clear to me only after starting full-time). Despite a safety net of certainty that came with being employed immediately after university, my dread for the future intensified as the weeks trudged along. My friends, some who had graduated a year earlier and were still on the job hunt, said I should be happy that I landed something so secure, so soon. I truly wanted to be, but I wasn’t. I was distressed, despondent and prone to weeping uncontrollably in public. It felt entirely selfish, but I couldn’t rid myself of the anxiety. Not alone, at least, so I called the psychologist my doctor referred me to, but there was no answer. I left a voicemail, but they never called back. One night afterwards, I woke up in sobs, shaken to the core, from a nightmare that ended with a bird’s eye view of my limp body floating in a bathtub of blood. The next day, I bought a one-way ticket to Berlin. Even though everything seemed more uncertain and precarious, there was a seed of hope and the colours around me began to return.
Never would I have imagined myself, a little more than two-and-a-half years after arriving in Berlin, still here, sitting in my Arbeitszimmer on a Saturday, working to muffled sounds of one of my closest friends – and flatmate – cook lunch. One might ask: ‘Well, why did you choose Berlin?’ And to answer the #2-most-asked-question in this city, I’d say, it’s because I couldn’t stop thinking about the sense of freedom I felt while studying here one summer. It was the only place I knew where I felt I could be in the world in my own way.
And that’s why, everyday I’m hustling and trying to channel my inner Rick Ross.
Read more in our International Voices section
How to host speakers who also happen to be parents. Read More.