Life without performance is meaningless

Originally Published in German

Life without performance is meaningless

Summer is a time for reflection—looking back on the past months and anticipating what’s to come, like the release of my next book.

“Why we must not only feel life, but above all fill it in order to be able to enjoy a fulfilling life.”

The year 2006 holds symbolic significance for this epiphany in my journey. That year, Linde’s then-CEO Wolfgang Reitzle was honored as Manager of the Year in Germany. Coincidentally, this accolade came just as our agency secured Linde as a client. My daily life oscillated between elite team-handball and entrepreneurship—a challenging blend, but one I passionately embraced, immersing myself in the evolution.

In Germany, we witnessed the ‘Summer Fairytale’—a football event where the national team showcased exhilarating plays. They may have fallen to Italy in the semi-finals, but they triumphed to claim third place. Moreover, in basketball, Germany boasted Dirk Nowitzki, a paramount talent who secured the MVP title and spearheaded the Dallas Mavericks to the NBA finals.

Recently, amidst debates on topics like the feasibility of a 20-hour workweek or the ideal retirement age, I came across Wolfgang Reitzle’s assertion: “Prosperity without performance is an illusion.” His words resonated deeply, touching on a longstanding concern of mine—Where does Germany truly excel today? Where is the reminiscent magic of the summer fairy tale, the communal euphoria, and the shared belief in collective triumph?”

A NEW CULTURE OF ACHIEVEMENT: SEEKING ACTORS, NOT SPECTATORS

In today’s era, where Neil Postman’s dire prediction that “We are amusing ourselves to death” seems more accurate than ever, headlines are dominated by social media- and porn-addiction and likeability: #attentioneconomy. The media attention that Reitzle has generated gives the impression that he has reinvented the wheel.

I moved from Norway to Germany in 2000, drawn to a place where the mantra of ‘Quality Made in Germany’ was alive and revered. Whether it was frying pans, dog leashes, aircraft-grade superglues, or micro drills, Germany’s hidden champions fascinated me. Their quiet mastery was a lesson in itself. The success stories continued: in 2002, the German men’s football team reached the World Cup final against Brazil, and the women’s team clinched the European title in 2001, followed by the World Championship in 2003. Germany seemed unbeatable.

Fast forward to today, and headlines scream, “We are getting fatter and fatter.”, and the alarming number of reported cases of obesity in children have risen by 1/3 over the past ten years. Digitalization seems to be understood by many primarily as a way into the comfort zone. Nanny iPad and home office for all?!

But now it’s “all of a sudden” – Wait. What? We have to do something?

Yet it should be no surprise, the signs have been there for years. From “Shit-In-Shit-Out”, or “You are what you eat” to the perennial bestsellers on the Spiegel bestseller lists. Self-help books and nutritional advisors are a boom industry – and influencer millionaires are now the new epitome of this. However, it fails when it comes to action.

Sigmar Gabriel’s recent speech at The Pioneer highlighted this shift, coining it the ‘75% society’ in Germany: 75% performance, 75% punctuality, and 75% voter turnout. Contrast this with China’s 966 work ethic—9 a.m. to 6 p.m., six days a week. While such a model, and its political underpinnings, is not without flaws, it showcases a significant difference in work ethos between the East and Germany’s modern “New Work” mentality.

This isn’t just about the economy—it’s about life. We need a renewed emphasis on achievement.

Recently, I made a call on LinkedIn championing this new culture of achievement for Germany. The response was overwhelming. But how do we ignite this fire? Is personal adversity the only catalyst? It’s sobering to think that a week of persistent summer rain might resonate more with people about climate change than decades of research and activists like Greta Thunberg. Perhaps we need to be personally jolted to awaken from our complacent consumerist trance and realize there’s a more fulfilling way to live.

WHAT DOES A CULTURE OF ACHIEVEMENT AND PROSPERITY MEAN? 

To me, prosperity isn’t merely about maintaining affluence or maximizing performance. I believe in broadening the very definition of prosperity.

In today’s context, prosperity needs redefinition. When I discuss growth in my work, it isn’t solely about materialistic expansion; it emphasizes personal development. It’s a call to prioritize well-being, social cohesion, community spirit, and a pervasive positivity. Moving from a static understanding of oneself (“I am this way because…”) to a dynamic self-evolution (“I am becoming this because…”) has been pivotal in my work. For years, my reflections have revolved around the ideas of ‘positive (infinite) progress’ and the quest for ‘better problems’ – all anchored in dynamic thinking, set against a backdrop of a functional economic system.

During my sports career, I cultivated a relentless drive for self-improvement. That was progress in its purest form. I assumed accountability for my life. In every run I pushed myself manically to the front in the first lap and built up a lead that felt like an insurmountable gap. And once you were in the lead, the game was simple: keep the lead, no matter what happens. It wasn’t just about winning; it was about testing and then exceeding my boundaries. To me, effort translated to progress. On bus rides to away games, I immersed myself in books by luminaries like Tom Peters and Malcolm Gladwell. I was captivated by Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule, which proposed a timeframe for mastering a skill. Evenings after grueling handball matches were about camaraderie with teammates, often over a cold beverage. Life was vibrant and fulfilling.

Admittedly, there are clearly more effective ways to achieve progress and success through the pursuit of balanced muscular ‘destruction’ and recovery. And Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule is, as Anders Ericsson later called it, “a provocative generalization,” but for me it was about ‘micro ambitions,’ I wanted to increase the quality in the next step, in the next deed – and I loved the deed, it was my meaning. Not all of us will be high fliers, and in later years my commitment and focus could certainly have been applied more methodically, yet I managed to become a better version of myself. And that’s what drives me today. I love to lose an argument with the insight that I have learned something.

Even today I love filling life with content.

This short-lived thing – what we call life – is too beautiful not to fill it with as much stuff as possible and to experience it as consciously as possible. The use – input – is the basis for any progress and any performance – output.

While there might be more systematic paths to progress and mastery—like balancing muscular exertion with recuperation—and even though Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule has been termed “a provocative generalization” by critics like Anders Ericsson, my journey was driven by ‘micro ambitions’. My purpose was in the deed, in enhancing quality at every juncture. Although not everyone aims for the stars, and while I could have approached my goals more strategically over the years, my journey was about evolving into a superior version of myself. Today, I take delight in realizing I’m wrong in a debate, for it means I’ve learned something new.

I am passionate about infusing life with substance. This fleeting existence we term life should be brimming with experiences and lived with keen awareness. Only by imbibing can we truly output, laying the foundation for genuine progress and achievement.

IN FACT. IT’S ABOUT ‘THE DEED’ – BLENDING PERFORMANCE AND PURPOSE

Last fall, I had the pleasure to deliver a speech at Schloss Bensberg near Cologne alongside former Federal President of Germany Joachim Gauck during the “Entrepreneur of the Year” awards. That evening allowed me to witness the pulse of the German economy and appreciate its storied contributions to performance. Represented in that room was an astounding 400 billion in sales.

When the Entrepreneur of the Year took the stage to accept the prestigious annual award, she announced “it was time to hand over management to the children” – a generational change. The children: 58, 60 and 62 years young! In terms of climate, technology and the future, Mrs. Busch (89) and her husband (92) had only one concern: 

When the recipient of the Entrepreneur of the Year award stepped up, she proclaimed her intention to entrust the company’s management to her children. A reference to an impending generational transition, yet the children in question were 58, 60, and 62 years old respectively! In the context of climate, technology, and future perspectives, Mrs. Busch (aged 89) and her spouse (aged 92) expressed a singular concern: That we do not do the deed – we do not put in the effort.

Reitzle’s discourse touches upon a complacent society, where a dwindling number are daring enough to think out of the box or brave the uncertainty of novel ventures. In my book, ‘Infected Thinking,’ I draw an analogy with Goethe’s Faust, where he contemplates the Gospel of John. Through his introspection of the idea “In the beginning… was the Word,” Faust infers that deeds should be at the heart of our focus.

But ah! I feel, in spite of resolution,
That joy no longer gushes from my breast.
Yet why, so soon, should streams run dry to us,
And we once more be thirsty?
That I have drunk enough of that, there’s no denying.
But we can compensate for this dearth:
We learn to value what’s not of the earth,
Our deep desire for revelation grows,
Which nowhere flames more beautifully, glows
More worthily than in the New Testament.
I feel an urge to turn to the first text,
And with honest fervor, once for all,
To render the Sacred Original
Into my beloved German.
(He opens a volume and prepares to write.)
It’s written: “In the beginning was the Word!”
I pause, alarmed: can I read on? This Word,
So high, I cannot see it fitting here.
Another translation must the sense make clear.
With lighted mind, I write: “In the beginning was the Mind.”
Ponder these first lines well, so you won’t blunder on so blind!
Should it be Mind that wrought and made all things?
No: it says: “In the beginning was the Force!”
Yet, while I write these words down, of course,
I’m warned: that’s not what the true sense brings.
Spirit helps me! I see now what I need
And boldly write: “In the beginning was the Deed!”

This touches on the current challenge of our knowledge society, in which freedom of opinion and freedom of speech are often confused, especially in a society shaped by opportunism.

Goethe underscored the primacy of action over mere words. Today, this is contrasted by the reality of a fatal information society: With countless-creation content tools, content production is on steroids. And tools like ChatGPT have only amplified this trend. Suddenly, expertise seems ubiquitous, with everyone presenting themselves as an authority.

But in this surge of content, the profound essence of writing is often overlooked. Writing is not just about putting words on paper; it’s an act of creation. It’s a manifestation of thought – It is thinking. As we write, we organize and deepen our understanding. However, as we edge towards a world where artificial intelligence and fabricated omniscience become commonplace, I strongly believe it would be disastrous to raise the next generation in a culture that values surface-level content and relentless optimization.

We find ourselves in a society that is vocal, yet often inactive. There’s a deluge of communication, but genuine reflection and substantive creation are conspicuously missing.

THE PATH OF POSITIVE PROGRESS

The lure of extended home office weekends and daily distractions not only hamper our productivity but also erode our sense of well-being. Reitzle’s perspective isn’t just rooted in an entrepreneurial or societal context; it dives deeper, suggesting that performance, when approached correctly, can be both fulfilling and enriching.

Otto von Bismarck once observed, “The first generation creates wealth, the second manages it, the third studies art history, and the fourth degenerates.” This notion seems to transcend the confines of individual or corporate wealth. It may, in fact, be emblematic of the broader societal or economic cycles.

We are currently at a critical turning point – the third generation after World War II and the rise of the so-called “hidden champions” is handing over to the fourth. The generation shaped by Ludwig Erhard’s idea of “prosperity for all” is handing over to the generation in pursuit of purpose.

Instead of merely seeking meaning or attempting to discover the “self,” I challenge you: Why not actively give your life meaning? Rather than just “being” something, why not strive to “become” something more? The journey of positive progress, of truly ‘filling one’s life’, can indeed lead to a fulfilled life—achieved through learning, overcoming challenges, and experiencing growth. Perhaps this is what Wolfgang Reitzle was hinting at in his appeal.

I’m captivated by the idea of harmonizing values with performance, or as is popularly phrased today, aligning ‘performance’ with ‘purpose’. This has been a topic of deep reflection for me in recent months, and I am eager to share snippets of these thoughts with you in the coming weeks, taken from my upcoming book.

I genuinely welcome your insights and feedback. As my vacation concludes, I am gearing up to dive into high performance intertwined with core values. I believe it’s possible. The historical and scientific foundation of this belief is something I delve into when I explore the “Norse Code”—and this exploration is not just fulfilling, it defines a significant part of my purpose and brings me joy. At least, that’s how I feel.

THE NORSE CODE

 

Coming early next year is my new book titled “The Norse Code”. It delves into the intriguing paradox between performance and purpose. A question that particularly captivates me is: How can we seamlessly meld values with high performance? To explore this, I draw from examples in my Norwegian homeland—a forerunner in the profitable transition to renewable energy and a sudden standout in sports like soccer, tennis, golf, and athletics. Stay tuned for more details about the book. For those keen on an early peek, you can sign up on the German page: https://vikinger-kodex.de. The English version will be available soon.

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