America’s Big Time Problem

I spent my first full day in Berlin today and one thing struck me big time: things are smaller here than they are in America. The portion sizes are smaller, the living quarters are smaller, the coffee and tea cups are smaller, the plates are smaller, the cars are smaller. Everything here seems smaller. This somehow strikes me as better than what we have in America, where bigger is still not enough.

I’m reminded of Peter Gabriel’s 1986 hit “Big Time”, with the lyrics:

Hi there

I’m on my way, I’m making it
I’ve got to make it show, yeah
So much larger than life
I’m going to watch it growing

The place where I come from is a small town
They think so small
They use small words
But not me
I’m smarter than that
I worked it out
I’ve been stretching my mouth
To let those big words come right out

I’ve had enough, I’m getting out
To the city, the big big city
I’ll be a big noise with all the big boys
There’s so much stuff I will own
And I will pray to a big god
As I kneel in the big church

Big time
I’m on my way-I’m making it
Big time big time
I’ve got to make it show yeah
Big time big time
So much larger than life
Big time
I’m going to watch it growing
Big time

My parties all have big names
And I greet them with the widest smile
Tell them how my life is one big adventure
And always they’re amazed
When I show them round my house, to my bed
I had it made like a mountain range
With a snow-white pillow for my big fat head
And my heaven will be a big heaven
And I will walk through the front door

Big time
I’m on my way-I’m making it
Big time big time
I’ve got to make it show-yeah
Big time big time
So much larger than life
I’m going to watch it growing
Big time big time
My car is getting bigger
Big time
My house is getting bigger
Big time
My eyes are getting bigger
Big time
And my mouth
Big time
My belly is getting bigger
Big time
And my bank account
Big time
Look at my circumstance
Big time
And the bulge in my big big big big big big big

You can see the video and hear the song here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PBAl9cchQac

Big houses. Big cars. Big heads. Big everything. Yes, America is the land of the big everything. Oddly enough, I actually performed this song at a talent show in college:

That’s me performing “Big Time” with Jennifer Dickinson Skaggs. Her face cracks me up!

I don’t recall why I picked that particular song at the time; I guess it was easier to bring to the stage than “Sledgehammer”, off the same Peter Gabriel “So” album.

In America, we have everything we want. Here, it seems they have everything they need. Life seems a lot simpler. Granted, I’ve only been here one day, but at first glance it seems that Europeans seem to focus on the quality of life vs the quantity of life. There is less stuff but more things of substance. There seems to be less technology as well. I went on a long walk just after lunch and observed hundreds of people walking, talking, and biking. Hardly anyone was on their phone. And I certainly didn’t see tons of people walking down the street glaring at their phones and ignoring everyone and everything else. Quite the opposite. People were polite and engaged.

I stopped in a grocery store and the sizes of the boxes of items was all smaller as well. The only things that seemed a bit larger than at home was the beer, pop and water bottles. All of them were 1 liter to 1.5 liter in size, which is larger than at home. Everything else was smaller. There was no music playing, and people were engaged in conversation. The lady at the checkout counter even attempted some small talk with me. She said something in German and I just nodded my head yes. I’m not sure what I agreed to. Perhaps she asked if I had skipped showing for the past month. “Yes”. Not sure what it was she said, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t complaining about something.

Last night after dinner, Konstantin and Lena (my hosts) were talking about their jobs. They work 32-hour weeks and get 6 weeks off a year. I asked Kon if he was happy with his job and he said he’s not planning on ever leaving it. Why would he? With good benefits, ample time off, flexible hours and work weeks capped at 32 hours, what reason would he have for looking elsewhere? Perhaps if he simply didn’t like his job or what he was doing… that’s one thing – but he certainly wouldn’t be leaving for being overworked, underpaid or not having enough time off. This seems right to me. Perhaps job retention in America would be better if we didn’t work people too much and be so demanding?

My favorite band Crowded House also paid homage to America’s excessive lifestyle in their 1987 hit Chocolate Cake: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M699TqhO06k. The lyrics go like this:

Not everyone in New York would pay to see Andrew Lloyd Webber
May his trousers fall down as he bows to the queen and the crown
I don’t know what tune that the orchestra played
But it went by me sickly and sentimental

Can I have another piece of chocolate cake
Tammy Baker’s got a lot on her plate
Can I buy another cheap Picasso fake
Andy Warhol must be laughing in his grave

The band of the night take you to ethereal heights over dinner
And you wander the streets never reaching the heights that you seek
And the sugar that dripped from the violins bow
Made the children go crazy, put a hole in the tooth of a hag

Can I have another piece of chocolate cake
Tammy Baker must be losing her faith
Can I buy another cheap Picasso fake
Andy Warhol must be laughing in his grave

And the dogs are on the road
They’re all tempting fate
Cars are shooting by
With no number plates
And here comes Mrs. Hairy Legs

I saw Elvis Presley walk out of a Seven Eleven
And a woman gave birth to a baby and then bowled .257
The excess of fat on your American bones
Will cushion the impact as you sink like a stone

Can I have another piece of chocolate cake
Tammy Baker, Tammy Baker
Can I buy another cheap Picasso fake
Cheap Picasso, cheap Picasso fake
Can I have another piece of chocolate cake
Kathy Straker, boy could she lose some weight
Can I buy another slice of real estate
Liberace must be laughing in his grave

Can I have another piece of chocolate cake 
Can I have another piece of chocolate cake 
Can I have another piece of chocolate cake 
(Piece of that thing on the plate)

Last year, I watched a documentary called “Minimalism”, which was very interesting. People are realizing that bigger doesn’t mean better; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Stripping away clutter and all the things we don’t need tends to have very positive effects like lowering our anxiety and increasing our happiness. Could it be that less is more? Based on my experience, I’d have to say yes.

I struggled with this many years ago. There was a time in my life that I had an insatiable appetite for bigger and better things. I wanted a bigger house. A better car. A new, higher-paying job. Everything I had was not enough. If I bought something, it was only a stepping stone to the next best thing. Instead of appreciating what I had, I was always chasing the next best thing. It was as if I had a carrot attached to a stick which was attached to my forehead. I kept chasing the carrot but would never get there. I am glad I “woke up” before ruining my life and trading everything in. I learned a powerful lesson back then: contentment is something to be accepted, not achieved. The longer I chased it, the more frustrated I got that I wasn’t content.

As I mentioned in a blog post a few months ago (“Fooling Yourself”), I recently downsized my career. Instead of climbing the corporate ladder, I went the other way. I’m so happy I did. My anxiety and blood pressure are way down, which is good. So, what about you? Are you still pursing bigger and better things? Or do you find yourself thinking that you’re still not happy, even though you have bigger and better things? Some questions:

  • Do you really need the 400-channel cable package? What would happen if you cut the cable and started having conversations with those around you?
  • Do you really need a bigger house? Could you find a way to make what you have work? We still live in the same 1700 square-foot house that we bought in 1995. I’m glad we do. We recently renovated it and made what we have better, not bigger. In fact, we opened up the main floor so everyone could see and converse with each other whether they were in the kitchen area or outside of that area.
  • Do you really need a bigger / better car, or will the one you have suffice? I remember upgrading at one point from a Chevy Lumina to an Olds Aurora. While the Aurora was nice, I remember thinking: the Lumina had all that I wanted. Why did I not see that at the time? I eventually sold the Aurora and went back to the Lumina.
  • Do you really need that job promotion where you’ll be spending more time at the office and away from family?
  • Do you really think that new (insert thing here) is going to bring you happiness?
  • Are you chasing contentment or accepting it?

I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts! For now, I’m going to close the laptop and have some conversation with real people! 🙂

About Lloyd Work

Writer. Actor. Comedian. Nerd.
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3 Responses to America’s Big Time Problem

  1. annkroeker says:

    When I visit family in Belgium, I often come away with the same observations–convictions, even–that they have figured out a lot of values that make everyday life richer and more meaningful. Your questions are excellent for discussion or even simply personal reflection. I’m glad you’re challenging us with this message–even modeling the choice we can make to walk away from the computer long enough to engage in real interaction with real people.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sara Alvey says:

    The best way to spend my money is on activities and events, not stuff. The memories of the time spent are more valuable than the things. I’m also working to re-frame success in my mind. Being successful is NOT about having money for me. I am not trying to measure success in other ways, like health, time with friends, experiences… Thanks for the continued inspiration Lloyd.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jennifer Dickinson Skaggs says:

    This is so true Lloyd – living overseas and having to schlep stuff across the ocean every few years also cuts down on the clutter. Living smaller (with less stuff), but increasing one’s world (with more travel and experiences) is what has made my life richer. (Thanks for the memories too! What fun that was!0

    Liked by 1 person

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