I met with a friend at the best coffee shop in town while I was in Baia Mare, visiting my family. She had just returned from Indonesia after years of traveling and living abroad. We both shared stories about how alien we felt in this town and how travelers always feel like this when surrounded by less traveled people. She told me about the people in Indonesia and the beauty of their culture, and then she asked me about the US, about life in California.
After delivering the classic picture of a tech manager in Silicon Valley, along with a few observations about the cultural differences between Eastern Europeans and Californians, I shared something that I found remarkable about people in San Francisco that I had encountered both professionally and in a friendly setting.
But first, a little context – I grew up in Northern Transylvania, attending public schools and being brought up in a very Romanian fashion. You were supposed to be great in school, get top grades, not get overtaken by your neighbor. Sports was secondary, but I still took up competitive basketball for awhile. The coach was tough, the team was demanding and there was little pleasure in playing, except for the winning moments and training with the girls’ high school team.
I dropped out of the competitive part of the sport mainly to pursue random teenage things like partying, smoking, drinking and being rebellious — for the duration of my high school years. It was only in London that I picked up basketball again, playing with startup co-workers and investment bankers at Canary Wharf’s Reebok gym every week. When I eventually left London for the US, I tried to find the same thing in San Francisco. A few months in, through friends, I found the basketball group that plays in the Presidio every weekend and I’ve been going there ever since.
You’re probably wondering why all this context, what’s the catch? It’s about basketball.
You see, I am not a professional player, nor am I a great amateur. I’m average, even considering my 6ft 6in advantage over others. When I was back in Romania, or even in the UK, playing and missing or failing to pass resulted in disappointment comments and bad looks from fellow players. You were expected to punish yourself with some down talk, too. That diminished the fun of the game, but supposedly kept your competitive spirit up and in the game. In San Francisco, I started playing, but something was missing. I would miss shots, fail to pass, but the only person talking down or frowning was me. Everyone else was trying to encourage me to go again, “good try”, “great shot”, “good look” – even though I knew and they knew I was way off. That made the game more enjoyable. Slowly, I started getting rid of the self talk that put me down on the basketball court.
But it’s not just in basketball. I’ve seen this type of behavior all over, where your peers, your bosses and your employees give you positive reinforcement and encouragement, even if things are going south. That, too, was a cultural shift from the mostly negative, sullen offices I had grew up in as a professional. This type of attitude not only makes things more fun and enjoyable all around, but push you to do more things, take more risks and ultimately grow — ironically the same goal of the other type of behavior I was used to, but significantly more effective.
This reflected in my writing too, because when I started doing it, it was more of a rebellious spout, a manifestation of my personality, in Romanian and very stream-of-consciousness, even with the more trade pieces.
I lost that when I moved to the UK, and then to the US, and it took me a long time to get it back, since I felt I had to “impress” my past readers in English and held back from publishing due to fear of looking like a fool. I forgot the fun in blogging. And it was this observation of how people react to mistakes in pickup weekend games that showed me I have a different public this time.
My friend asked me if I like America. I said yes, and used this basketball story. She understood why.