vrijdag 8 februari 2013

Join The Club, Part III: Build what you need, share what you build, be awesome

[This is part III of a presentation I gave at Open Space Aarhus  about why expats/foreigners have a lot to gain from joining a hackerspace - see part I and part II]

 Build what you need, share what you build, be awesome

That is the motto of Open Space Aarhus. Now I am going to tell you how the things I said about hobbies, as described above, dovetail nicely with what OSAA is about.

First of all, and this may sound contradictory, but most Danes in a hackerspace speak excellent English, because it is their working language – most of them working in the computer business. This is great when you are a newcomer, and provides a nicely cushioned comfort zone.

Build what you need: it is all about doing or making things. Language comes in the second place. By showing and pointing, your message will be understood, and you will understand theirs.

Share what you build: hackers are very much attached to the idea of Open Source: knowledge is free, and everyone is free to add to it in order to improve the final (or latest) version. This is a very practical, or pragmatic, approach, and that attitude helps in creating an atmosphere where you feel welcome as a foreigner

From this follows that being unconventional is rather an asset than a drawback in OSAA, or in any hackerspace, and from this follows that the social codes there are not very strict.

This creates a breathing space for non-technical persons, too. You are welcome to contribute in your own way! Since a hackerspace is about sharing, and sharing knowledge, it is good to know that you do your part by accepting the knowledge others want to share with you. People will like your curiosity, because that will make them feel knowledgeable. People in general like their strong points to be appealed to, and in OSAA you can provide just that. 'Be awesome', is part of OSAA's motto. You can start by doing the admiring part.

'Can you help me?' These are the most powerful words in any language, together with the words yes, no, thank you and where is the toilet. I don't know why, but it works more often than not to appeal to people's capacity to help. The same goes for a hackspace. And, even better: in OSAA they'll help you by showing you how to do it AND handing you the screwdriver in order to have a go at it yourself. Talk about empowering :-)

So be patient with yourself. You don't have to share your knowledge if you think you don't have it, but you can also share by bringing a cake, sharing work in cleaning up, or joining in social events, because those are part of The Great Hobby Experience, too.

All then, of a sudden, you may find out that you can contribute in a way hackers themselves would never have thought of. To give an example: I thought it would be nice to make Christmas decorations from computer parts, and to my great surprise lots of hackers joined in the fun – both in harvesting parts and in making decorations.

And now we are entering the realm of soft values – and I may sound a bit like a convert to a religious sect here: there is lifehacking:  Lifehacking is about chasing The Good Life, with or without the help of technology. What is the best way to make a sauce béarnaise? At OSAA they found out by organising a Béarnaise Battle. How to preserve your iceberg lettuce in the fridge? Another mundane question that begs to be answered. Not life-saving, but life-hacking: using knowledge and computers to make everyday life easier. You don't need to be conversing in five different computer languages in order to join in here.

Finally, don't forget the fun part of being member of a hackspace. It is fun to admire and to be admired, it is fun to blow things up, set fire to things, make loud noises, do silly things. Just try it. You can always stop and start doing something else. But please, do get a hobby and join the club. Any club :-)

Join The Club, Part II: Hobbies as comfort zones?

[I gave a talk in Open Space Aarhus about why expats or foreigners have a lot to gain from joining a hackerspace. See Part I of this blog - it's about hobbies and joining a club]

You may consider to pick up an old hobby of yours, and that is actually a very good idea!

First of all: it is nice to do something familiar amidst all the new and foreign things, sounds and smells. Don't hesitate to do feel-good things, and indulge in enjoying your comfort zone.

In the second place, it is nice to do something you are good at. It is nice to organise that kind of self-affirmation for yourself, because as a foreigner you feel so often stupid or ignorant (and often both!).

In the third place, it is nice to have shared interests, a common ground, which makes it easier to talk with people. ('Yes, but in Danish!' I hear you whine. I'll get back to that.)

There is also a lot to say in favour of embarking on a new hobby, however. It gives me a kind of piraty, swashbuckling, empowering feeling of utter awesomeness to step out of my comfort zone, to do something new, or unexpected, or sometimes even downright ludicrous. 'You think emigrating would stop me from doing something new and daring? No way!' To me, it is the grown-up equivalent of walking up to a puddle and deliberately jump into it. Or smashing things. Enjoy some transgressing. If that works for you, don't feel restrained and go ahead.

Another advantage is that you are at the same level as your Danish fellow-starters. You have to learn things, and you get a chance to be stupid and ignorant together with Danes. That is a great one for creating a common ground! It also reduces the lonely expat experience in a considerable way.

But let's talk about the language. Danish is so difficult, many people say, and that may be true, especially because it is so mumbly and often sounds like throwing up at an advanced level. But you should never forget that it is hard to learn any other language than your mother tongue beyond school level (which is mostly passive knowledge anyway).

Having a hobby and joining a club actually helps your Danish in the following ways:
  1. the vocabulary and subject matter is limited, and there will be lots of repetitions of words and expressions. That really helps!
  2. the people you are with have an interest in understanding you – as you have in understanding them. This basic good will is tremendously important!
  3. You are doing things. Show and tell. Point and ask. Language is not the only carrier of information.
  4. Space is limited. You are sitting in a room together, for a limited amount of time. You simply have to communicate. Let me give you an example of my own: I have been taking sailing lessons, and when you are sitting with four other people in a boat together, there is no way you can escape talking to each other. Believe me. [Actually, I have written an article about that (in Danish) and you can find it here, as soon I have scanned it]

Finally: you can't join too soon. The language will be a stumbling block for a loooooooong time to come, and do you really want to wait until you are ready? But when is that? And do you want to live in a social vacuum for several years? No you don't! So resign to the fact that you will be stupid, ignorant and that on top of that you'll sound ridiculous. The upside is: you'll be interesting to know :-D

See Join the Club, part III for more!

Join The Club, Part I

This week I gave a talk at Tech Talk Tuesday, the monthly get-together of Open Space Aarhus (osaa.dk) where people give presentations about all things nerdy. My subject: what do expats/foreigners, especially those who are not technically or nerdily inclined, have to gain from joining a hackerspace?

[For those of you who do not know what a hackerspace is, click here ]

In order to explain that, however, let me make a couple of general remarks about having a hobby.

I think it is important to have a hobby. It is good for the soul to be able to focus totally on something you do for pleasure, even if it is just two hours a week, half a day per month or whatever the frequency may be. It recharges your batteries. I remember how happy it made me to play squash on Friday night – even though I sucked big time at playing squash. Or, come to think of it, the joy of reading, even if it is just ten minutes before you go to sleep.

It also happens to be a very Danish thing, to appreciate a hobby for those reasons, I found out (the Tech Talk audience grunted their approval here :-)

Being a foreigner though, is a tiring job. It is unbelievable how exhausted you can get from digesting all the little new things that happen to you in your first year abroad. Finding a new place to live, 'nesting' there, but also finding places to shop, adjusting your eating habits to what's available in Denmark. Or power sockets. The first month here I was just baffled by the power sockets. But I digress.

Why would you, as a tired expat with so much to do, indulge some extra time in a hobby? There is another reason for that: it is to make friends. Many expats complain that it is almost impossible to make friends with Danes in the workplace. I scould say many things about this but the short story is: it is the wrong place.

I encountered the friend-problem, too, and happened to talk about this with a Danish woman. She told me the secret: Danes make friends in school, so very early on in life. Basically, the window of opportunity to make friends shuts down when they end their education.

That made me very sad.

But there is a way to sneak around that, she said. Join a club, get a hobby. You will meet Danes there, and that is where you make friends, eventually.

So the message is: Get a life, get a hobby, JOIN THE CLUB!

(read more in Part II)