Alpbach… What did you say? Probably you have never heard about this place before. Alpbach, in the Austrian region of Tyrol, looks like a typical mountain village. In winter, it is all about skiing. In summer, most of the visitors are there for hiking. However, for about three weeks every August, this inconspicuous village turns into one of the biggest forums for business and politics. Whenever I go back to Vienna in summer, most of my friends tell me they go to the European Forum Alpbach for at least two days. It is all about the discussions, the celebrities – and the networking … 😉
I had never been to Alpbach and one of my friends recommended Alpbach in Motion, a programme for young professionals. I applied because I thought I finally needed to see what it was all about. I have to admit, I did not have big expectations – because of all my travels and work, I did not have to much time to really think about it. I just jumped into the car on a Saturday afternoon and off I went from Vienna towards Austria’s West.
I did not have the best start into the seminar getaway though. It was the last week of holidays in Austria and Germany and a lot of people were on the road back home from the beaches in Italy and Croatia. Therefore, I decided to do a detour over the mountains. Unfortunately, I got stuck in a massive thunderstorm. I decided to take a break on the side of the road and waited. And waited … for about an hour. Have you been in a thunderstorm in the mountains? It is completely dark, you cannot see anything and when a lightning strikes, all the mountains are lit up and you realize where you are.
I planned five hours for the trip and ended up in Alpbach after seven. I immediately got a sneak peak of what was going to happen the next couple of days. I stayed in a “Gaestehaus”, which is comparable to B&B places. As I had already anticipated that there would be no 24 hour reception, I had called them at lunch time to inform them about my arrival. I heard really loud background music and people talking and the person on the other hand started laughing and said: “We are here the whole night.” Well, I soon realized why he was laughing. My B&B was associated with Jakober Gasthaus, which is one of “the” nightlife hot spots during the forum. To be able to check in, I had to make my way through the party crowd at Jakober’s. It took me quite a while to find a waiter and finally I was able to check in – I already met quite some people while waiting for my keys. 🙂 This is actually something that is special about the Forum Alpbach – everybody is very open and you meet new people easily.
Before my seminar started, I had half a day to explore the village. I had breakfast at a “Konditorei”, which is a typical Austrian coffee place serving homemade pastries. I then went into the church and explored the cemetery.
And then it all started officially for me. I was about to meet over 40 other participants of Alpbach in Motion and Bernhard Roth, a Stanford professor who would introduce us into Design Thinking – and much more than that. I did not really know what to expect. We were told that part of the seminar will be held while hiking. I was wondering if it would be a reunion of a lot of people from Vienna I would know anyhow… But I was proven wrong, it ended up to be great three days with an inspiring and international crowd.
Bernie’s attitude to teaching was what we would call “very American” in Europe. It was a very open discussion, there was a red thread but not too much structure. It really polarized. He made us step out of our comfort zones very early on into the seminar by making us talk about rather uncomfortable topics (such as suicidal thoughts or sex) in smaller groups. I think for most of us, it was a real challenge to open up to people we had just met. The seminar was a mix of being in a seminar room and walking up to some huts in the vicinity of Alpbach. It was a great way to connect and get to talk to as many participants as possible. To close the seminar, we were split into smaller groups and had to choose one conflict of a fellow participant which we solved applying the strategies we acquired during the seminar.
“There are only bullshit reasons”
One fundamental thing that I learned from the seminar was to stop giving reasons. I interview a lot of women and also write and reflect on my own work life. One recurring topic about daily struggles of career women is that we tend to give reasons for our actions. One example: I am invited to a friend’s party but I am not in the mood to go because I have so many things to do. You know this situation? Tempting to say, ‘I cannot make it, because of XYZ.’. But Bernie told us to NOT give any reasons, because according to him, reasons are bullshit (sic!). Just say, ‘I am sorry, I cannot make it.’. Full stop.
Hearing this from a man was quite interesting – it showed me that it is not solely a mistake women tend to make. We as a group soon encountered so many occasions where we could test Bernie’s wisdom. I have already applied it several times since the seminar and it actually works. I used to give reasons because I did not want to come across as rude. However, not giving any reason does not automatically mean that you are not polite. It always depends HOW you say it. And if somebody really asks why, you can give a reason anyways. But you would be surprised how few people really ask for it.
“Do not argue with crazy people. It is a waste of time”
My other big takeaway was to stop arguing with crazy people. You will probably laugh when you read this because it seems so obvious. However, I catch myself so often in situations arguing with people who cannot or do not want to be convinced of another person’s view. Bernie told us about his experience with rude drivers in San Francisco – that he does not bother screaming at them or showing them the finger. They are crazy people, you cannot do anything against this.
I got to test this second lesson on my flight this week from Vienna to Bangkok: I was sitting in the middle section with four seats and as the plane was not fully booked, people started to move around after boarding was completed. A French guy saw that I was sitting on my own in the row, came over, just occupied 3 (!) of the 4 seats and just casually saying in French, ‘Oh, nobody is sitting here, right?’. I decided to ignore him until we reached our cruising altitude. When he continued to occupy the whole area, I politely asked him to split the 4 seats in 2, because this would be a fair solution. He started pretending he does not understanding English. When I talked in French he pretended not to understand either. And suddenly he started harassing me with questions like, ‘Vous avez quel age?’ (How old are you?). Before Alpbach, I would probably have started arguing with this guy. But I thought about Bernie and his car incident. I just said, ‘OK, if you want to play games…’ and called the stewardess. When he saw me complaining, he immediately removed his stuff and stayed on his two seats. I actually saw that he was sleeping really badly or not at all – well, Karma I guess… But I was really proud of myself by not getting into an unnecessary discussion.
Apart from these learnings, my three days in Alpbach were great – I got to meet so many interesting and inspiring people from the corporate world, working for NGOs or in politics, entrepreneurs or people working in arts and culture. It actually made me remember why it is so important to go out there, travel and meet new people. After these couple of days, my battery was fully recharged and I was full of new ideas and energy – thanks to a great group in Alpbach!