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A couple of years ago I spent one year living in Copenhagen, Denmark. It was in equal parts an exhilarating and challenging opportunity. This experience forced me to learn and grow, and become a different (hopefully better) person. In this article, I’ll share with you what lessons I took home from Copenhagen.
Please note this is my experience only. If you decide to live abroad in Copenhagen, you may experience things differently.
Not to sound dramatic, but I was a little “brainwashed” by the Canadian society and education system. My whole adolescence and youth I studied so much I had become a shell of what I used to be, in order to go to a good university and graduate with good grades in hopes of finding a good job. After sacrificing years of my life, taking on massive loans, and spending months on sending out hundreds of job applications… nothing. Then I, and everyone around me, decided the solution for this problem was even more education.
Since I didn’t get accepted into graduate programs at home, I went abroad, only to find out that more education was not the solution. What I saw in Copenhagen was that people of all ages (even full-time students) take the initiative to start a business. Coming from Canada I used to think that you’d have to be very wealthy with a lot of resources to start a business. No one around me ever owned a business or considered starting one.
My whole perspective in life changed after living in Denmark and seeing how casually people just start business all the time. In fact, while doing some research for my recent article, I was shocked by how many businesses originate from Denmark. A tiny country, with a tiny population, and a very entrepreneurial spirit. My eyes have been opened.
So my biggest lesson from living in Copenhagen, Denmark is that if you cannot find a job, create it! It is in fact easier than you’d think and, depending on the type of business, you don’t need a lot of startup money.
And since creating your own job is an option, school isn’t as big of a deal. At least not in Denmark.
I come from a family where everyone went to university and not attending a post secondary institution is just not acceptable. Those without a university degree are looked down upon, at times even ridiculed. You must, at all costs, attend the best university and get the highest grades possible. Even if you have to sacrifice your health in doing so. And my family isn’t an anomaly. Having attended a pretty competitive university, I saw other students in the same position as me, with the same fears I had.
I grew up, I had it installed in me that not having the best grades from the best university equals a life of misery and suffering. This misconception doesn’t seem to exist in Denmark. It is perfectly acceptable to not attend university, regardless if you are the first in your family to do choose such a path. It is also perfectly acceptable to drop out of university if you find it’s not the best route for you. No one will judge you or think you are a failure.
Not working yourself to exhaustion increases your productivity. It may sound logical, but I had to live it to believe it.
Most of my exams in Copenhagen were open book, meaning I could use all my notes during the exam. In Canada I had to memorize everything! Interestingly, I actually learned more in Copenhagen since I didn’t have the pressure to remember the exact spelling of some random bacteria with two long latin names plus other useless things.
I really didn’t study too much for my exams in Denmark. I prepared my notes, got plenty of sleep, lived a fairly relaxed life, and somehow I learned more. And so I’ve come to realize that in the absence of pressure you achieve more!
Yes I said it, and I mean it! Despite all the positives I have mentioned so far, there are also downsides to living in Denmark.
I disagree with all those articles you see online from all the “experts” at all the large publications. I think that Danish people are just more fulfilled in the their lives, and not necessarily happier than other nationals. There is no shortage of grumpy expats living in Denmark, expressing their misery in the online forums. Which shows it’s not the place you live in that brings you happiness, but your mindset. Given that Danish people have a more optimistic view of entrepreneurship, they are more likely to start a business and fulfill their dreams, compared to people from other countries. As a result, Danes feel more content with their lives, which I think it’s what foreigners mistake for happiness.
As for Copenhagen in particular, there are lots of frustrating things about living in this city that none of the international fan boys and girls ever mention. The process of finding an apartment to rent is absolutely horrendous. I haven’t experienced anything like it and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. Grocery stores are small, crammed, and very messy. One day you find the product you’re looking for, the next day they don’t carry it anymore. You never know whether you’ll find what you need. Sometimes cyclists won’t stop for pedestrians to let them cross at the marked pedestrian crossing. And the list goes on.
When starting this blog I went through my phone in search for pictures, and I came across so many that I had forgotten about. Many memories came back just by seeing some pictures I took years ago. Looking back, I’m not embarrassed for taking so many pictures in public and looking like a tourists. I’m sad I didn’t take more pictures and that I didn’t start taking pictures sooner. I have almost no pictures from my high school and undergraduate years. Being foreigner in Copenhagen made me realize that it’s important to take pictures and document your life, regardless if it seems boring at the moment. There will come a day when you’ll really cherish them. So going forward, I’m prioritizing taking more pictures, even if it’s just a meal at a restaurant or the same building I walk past everyday.
Having lived in Alberta for over a decade, I thought I can handle the worst of winter. After all, not many places get colder than Alberta. But what Alberta has during winter that other places don’t have is sunshine. Yes it’s extremely cold, but it’s sunny. Plus the snow reflects the light and makes everything extra bright. And that’s just not the case in other places, especially humid coastal regions like Copenhagen.
I had not realized how difficult months of cloudy weather can become on your psyche. However, it made my appreciate the sun more. I used to hide indoors out of fear of a sunburn or heatstroke, but now I try to spend as much time as I can outside in sunshine. Even on the coldest or hottest of days.
I realize it can be difficult to find other like-minded people when you are young and everyone your age wants to go to a bar or an indoor concert. But sometimes you need to step away from that and enjoy a solitary walk in sunshine. It’s better for your mental health in the long term. So go outside and spend some time in the sun.
As I said earlier, my one and only plan was to get a high paying job after my undergraduate studies and that was it. It was never part of my plan to do a masters degree, but when I couldn’t get a job, I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t plan on studying abroad, but when I got rejected at home I applied to universities overseas. I also didn’t plan on starting businesses, but after living abroad and seeing different ways to live life, I had a change of heart.
The older I get the more I realize that nothing goes to plan for anyone. So if you’re young, take comfort in knowing that life has other plans for you. You’re unlikely to accomplish those things you want to accomplish so badly, and that’s ok. Learn and pivot. You should also take comfort in knowing that everyone is experiencing different variations of the same thing you’re going through. No one has it figured out and you are not behind in life.
Now that you’ve read my lessons, perhaps you may be wondering whether studying/ living abroad is right for you. I’d say yes, it is. And the main reason is that it forces you to grow up faster than you would staying in your comfort zone. And the sooner you grow up, the sooner you discover yourself, what is right for you, what you really want out of life, and what types of people you wish to surround yourself with.
Don’t be shocked if living overseas causes you to completely overhaul your entire life and rethink every decision you were planning on making. I’ve done that. It didn’t happen right away, it was a slow process that spanned a few years following my return from Copenhagen. At the time it felt like I was confused and directionless, but now I realize I was just going through the messy process of choosing the best life for me.
In summary, my biggest lessons after living in Copenhagen, Denmark are: don’t be afraid to try entrepreneurship if you can’t find a job, work less to increase productivity, and remember that other places have problems too. I hope you found this article useful.