Archive for December, 2010

During the summer of 1983 I lived in a small town in rural Finland.  It was just a summer but there I met friends that I’d know for a lifetime.  I also encountered a rich simplicity that made me want to stay.  Practicality.  Modesty.  Balance.  But most of all, simplicity.  Little was wasted, there was little want and people were happy.

Fourteen years later, in 1997, I found myself working in Finland.  The world had changed and so had Finland.   Despite the changes that had taken place in politics and economics I returned to find the Finland that I had remembered.  A place of practicality, modesty, balance and simplicity.

December 6th was Finland’s 93rd year of independence.  In 1917 Finland declared it’s independence from Russian control.  It had been ruled by Russia as a Grand Duchy beginning in 1809.  Prior to Russian rule, Finland had been controlled by the Swedes.  Swedish occupation lasted for roughly 560 years.  Throughout both occupations the Finns held tight to their native traditions, beliefs and values – essentially, their cultural mythology.

As a visitor I had always felt that the Finns were similar enough to Americans.  I didn’t see any glaring cultural differences but my friends said that I would never truly understand the differences until I lived there.  And then that happened, essentially, as my weekly life transitioned to living and working in Helsinki.

What I always enjoyed about Finland was it’s predictability.  Things just worked.  For example, buying a train ticket required certain steps and these steps were always the same.  Speaking to a clerk in a shop or market followed certain expected (yet bare bones) pleasantries.

What later drove me absolutely crazy about Finland was it’s predictability.  Every store clerk asks the same question and responds with a similar response.  Buying a train ticket can now be done on line, but one can still go into the central station, take a number and wait for the little “bing-bong” sound that signals that it’s now your time to be served at a specific window.  This same series of events takes place in banks.

In my twenty-five years of dealing with life in Finland I’ve seen the country go from near poverty – when in the 1980’s the government spent wildly on facilities and infrastructure to the 1990’s when the nation was repaying it’s own debt, to the roaring millennium years as part of the European Union when cash was pouring into the country and every spare centimeter of land was being built upon.  And now again, to a period of reduced spending and conservation.

Despite relative recent events of poverty and wealth, and over centuries of foreign rule, Finland now commands one of the best standards of living in the Western world.  Nearly free, life-long educational opportunities, one of the best public school systems in the world as well as the world’s highest rate of Internet connectivity.  Finland’s population is one of the best educated and most competitive in the world.

And this is what I have learned from Finland – While outside influences may change, a value system of practicality, modesty, balance and simplicity brings about long-term prosperity and keeps one’s cultural identity in tact.

Over the past decade I’ve led a life focused on these values.  I chose to live in a house that was practical.  Leaving consumerism behind I shopped very modestly at thrift stores forgoing “fashion” for warmth and costly for inexpensive.  When I left a long-standing career I made the decision to choose balance in my life over income. Later, that balance created even greater income.  Whether it was growing my own food, collecting rain water or living without air conditioning and foregoing the use of an automobile, my choice was always simplicity over complex.  Practical rather than expected.

Despite cultural norms or political expectations I simply lived my life by practical and modest methods.  While others complained about the high cost of driving, I transitioned to public transit.  While a political battle ensues over the acceptance of train travel in Ohio, I’ve been traveling by train (as an Ohioan) and also avoiding the cultural debate taking place at airports.  As our country battles with job loss, I’ve been buying American made products.

When I decided in 2006 to postpone moving until 2010 so as to increase the equity in my house, I knew I was embarking upon a plan that would work.  I knew it would work despite what everyone said was possible because, and solely because I had made modest and simple choice in previous years.

And because I held true to my beliefs, dreams and goals, I have been able to create a new standard of living for myself that goes against the current cultural, political and financial expectations.  When everyone said that it couldn’t be done, I believed that it could.

I can’t help but think that my time in Finland helped create this personal paradigm.  The cultural stability and long-term success of the Finns despite outside influence is likely due to the maintenance of practical, modest, balanced and simple ideals, values and beliefs.  Live a simple life and you will be rewarded.

Thank you Finland.

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