Don't ask, just do: The American Spirit

  • December 12, 2012

NOTE: This article has been translated into English from its original German. It was written by an international student of CSUEB.

By Dennis Draber

At my new university next to San Francisco, the relationship between professor and student is different from what I'm used to from Germany. "Your German students are the best! Please visit my course," speaks me Professor Glen Taylor on the first day on campus, as he snaps a conversation between me and a German fellow student. The warm welcome at the State University East Bay could not have been better.

While most teachers have a professional distance to their students in Germany, many American professors behave here as if you could drink a beer with them at all times. Less authoritarian, much buddy-like.Also my first course in "Establishing And Managing A Small Business" starts with a surprise: "I hate exams," Brian McKenzie begins his lecture. "I have developed some other forms of examination." He shares a list with several options to tick. "And don’t use this formal salutation. I'm Brian."

While we were surprised to read his suggestions ("Implement a business idea with $ 50 starting capital"), Brian begins to tell of his life. "Seven years ago, when I was seriously ill, I looked back and I realized: Everything I wanted, I have done," he says. "I have built boats, opened a teashop, become a successful entrepreneur. And with 60 years I have taught for the first time at the university." The small Canadian bounces happily on his toes up and down.

"Did you know that most business owners have never written a business plan? Don’t ask, just do! Live your dreams!”

I've never seen a professor who puts in each of his words so much childlike joy and enthusiasm as he did. This course, we all realize during the first hour, gives us life experience instead of bulimic learning.

Before the lecture ends, Brian turns to us international students:

"Moves through the streets of this fantastic city. Breathe in the American Spirit!"

In Haight Ashbury, the hippie district of San Francisco, I breathe not only the American Spirit: The distinctive, sweet and pungent odor of marijuana is in the air. The rock legends Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison have lived here, the atmosphere has hardly changed for decades. In front of the former home of Janis Joplin sits a group of young men, they smoke marihuana. A police patrol passes - and lets them continue to breathe their smoke rings.

Back from my trip to the hippie world, there is loud excitement on campus. Police officers entered the dorms, there was an unannounced raid on the lookout for suspicious behavior. A 20-year-old fellow student from Australia was caught with an open beer in his hand. "Underage drinking": That’s how the legislature calls it. Consequently, she has to do five hours of community service - and an essay on criminal illegal alcohol consumption. Also this is America.

Moreover, apart from the cramped dealing with alcohol, I will remember California as a land of coolness. Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook, and publisher of the magazine "The New Republic", held at my university a presentation on social media and the associated opportunities and prospects for journalism.

But instead of big words about Facebook, Hughes went turned after his lecture ("The movie 'The Social Network' is a gross exaggeration: we did not luxury apartments have sex in the bathroom.") to us students with the microphone in the hand. "I will not hold monologues," he says, "I'm more interested what moves you."

I ask him if the printed newspaper has a future. "I do not know though whether in five or ten years, but in the U.S. print will soon play no role anymore," replied Hughes. "It’s different in the European market: Good paid-content models are missing, the development will last for decades," he says, winking at me.

A fellow student stands up: "I have developed a business idea, we can talk about it?" Hughes laughs. "Sure, come up to me after." And indeed, I followed to see how the two, on a few pages bent paper, discussed 15 minutes with each other.

The next hour Brian McKenzie is on the lecture schedule. Along with other fellow students from the dorms I chose the inspection form "Implement a business idea with $ 50 starting capital." Our professor had underlined in the last lecture: "If you're looking for interesting ideas, do not think about what people find good in the moment. Look what bothers people, what they lack."

After the last party in the dorms, we found out that the most important thing was nowhere to be found: a vacuum cleaner! The gap in the market was found, our business idea born: Rent-A Vacuum Cleaner, a vacuum cleaner rental for international dorm.

After we had taken the next steps (bought vacuum cleaner, discussed offer forms, designed flyers), the students can finally look forward to clean apartments. The break-even point at which the revenue offsets the costs was achieved quickly. Millionaires we will not be so, but rarely was a single class as practical as this.

My highlight during this semester was without any debt an interview with John Kay, lead singer and songwriter of the legendary rock band Steppenwolf (“Born to be wild”, “magic carpet ride”). Kay lived his childhood in Hanover, like me, and in a 3 hours lasting interview he stated clearly, that you can reach everything you want – but only if you are ready to leave your former life behind you. “Status quo is never the best. It can always be better. Feel the fire in your chest. The wildest thing you can do is to change your life completely. That is the true message of ‘Born to be wild’.”

It is also worth to go to Silicon Valley. On the campus of Google you can see how a modern enterprise of the future looks like. This is real stakeholder value: Google employees can play beach volleyball on the premises or bath in their private pool. Theme parks with ancient Roman statues invite for a relaxing stroll. And who must cross the big campus more quickly, just one of the bikes in the company’s look. What I then just tried once. I had no official permission, but well, no one has prevented me. And if now still Larry Page complained to me, I would refer to my professor Brian McKenzie, who has taught us the most important in the semester: "Don’t  ask, just do”!

SEE ACCOMPANYING PHOTOGRAPHS AND ARTICLE IN ITS ORGINAL GERMAN ON THE SPIEGEL NEWS WEB SITE

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