A few years ago, I was sent by the company that I worked for to a provincial city in my home country to lead a team of about 70 people. It was not a “must do” kind of assignment but I was a good trouper and I said yes without asking too many questions. Let’s do it. The feeling in my gut was telling me – this is not good decision, but my rational side was already packing things and looking for an apartment.
From today’s perspective, it was the biggest mistake I ever made. And it’s 100% my mistake. But it’s also what I learned that might have helped me in a strange way to find a better place for me a couple of years later.
Being alone in a small and unfortunately quite devastated city, doing a hard but intellectually not very demanding job, and living in a pretty big apartment I decided to cut through the boring days and meet some new people. I had many nice, decent and friendly people at work, but I was hungry for different topics and different kinds of people. So, I joined couchsurfing as a host. (if you don’t know the concept click here).
More than 20 people couchsurfed my home during a time span of 3 or 4 months. Most of them were on their trips around the world. With $100 or less in their pockets, hitchhiking and couchsurfing. One guy was from Mexico. He was surfing through Europe for a year by then and he decided to spend that winter in Serbia. Some nice people from Novi Sad arranged for him to live in their grandmother’s house and help her during winter with all kinds of chores you have to do in the village during the winter. He was making his money by selling photos in white paper frames on the street. Can you imagine how much money you can earn like that? But, for him it was enough to survive. He told me it was more then what he had in Mexico.
He touched my deepest fears and my brightest hopes. My fears that I might be broke again and my hopes that the world can be a nice place where people help you by giving you accommodation and food while you are helping their old grandmother.
He stayed with me for 2 or 3 days and I gave him a ride to the village where he was about to spend the winter. He gave me a photo with a short thank you note and a big Mexican smile. I gave him a worried look of a father. He was not young enough to be my son of course, but I was already a father at the time. So, I stared handing out those worried stares to almost everyone younger then myself.
A year and a half later the same company sent me to Switzerland for an expensive and useless training. Also, I had some meetings there about whether I should move to Switzerland and work in the company’s HQ. I had a bad feeling about that one. And by that time I was less of a trouper. I learned something about myself in the meantime and many things about companies. So, I decided to sabotage those talks and I took a walk through this beautiful, rich and boring Swiss village. OK, not a village, but a small town.
And instead of taking a walk on the lake front like I usually do, I went to the old town part. I was walking and looking around and at one point I noticed down on the street some photos on white paper frames.
The same company sent me to two totally different locations. Destiny sent the Mexican guy to see both of those places. The coincidence of this encounter was so amazing for me. If I were a paranoid type of person, I’d be sure that he is working for the CIA and that he was sent to recruit me! Since I’m not I was just excited in a strange way that I was not able to define and recognize.
In the meantime, the Mexican guy spent one summer in Croatia where he worked on a beach, but later he was robbed in Montenegro where someone took everything he had (which was not a lot but it was everything), including his photo camera. Those same great people from Novi Sad bought him everything new. Including a new camera. He continued his travels around Europe. Without losing his faith in people and without losing his smile.
I lost my smile in the meantime. Mostly due to the fact that I compromised too much, so I lost myself.
What I learned from this strange story and those years spent in the poor south of Serbia and rich Swiss mountains?
First thing is that I don’t want to be a trouper. I was proud before that I was one. Loyal, fighter, the man for every task… Today I think you should be a trouper only if you are exceptionally greedy or stupid. In the first case, you will simply manage to get more money and in the second case – well, there’s no point in explaining.
Just to be clear – I still believe in loyalty and hard work but my filters for when and why I should be loyal and hardworking are connected only to people, not to companies and money.
The second important thing was the revelation that even if you go to the very bottom of anything or everything there is a way up. The Mexican guy didn’t have much. But someone took even that from him. But some good people helped him. I was in the darkest places for a year or so regarding my professional integrity, having a feeling that I’m heavily wasting my time, knowledge and dignity. Out of that my theater play came to light. Published and in production as we speak. As a wake-up call. As proof that I can still be a person, not a trouper.
And third, the most important is that I never ever want to work with people that I don’t trust. I know that trust is precious and rare in the 21st century and in business, but if I can trust someone to let them in my house to spend a night while he/she is traveling around the world, then I should be able to trust people I’m working with. If not, I should change them or leave them. Because, lack of trust and respect for people you are spending your day with, is acceptable only for the greedy and stupid.
Cheers to the brave Mexican photographer! I hope he is still enjoying Europe. At the same time, I hope that he will be able to go back home one day. Because, all travelers should go back home at least once. Cheers to great people from Novi Sad. We can’t survive as a civilization if people like them do not exist. Cheers to my new post after almost 2 months.