In Croatia, it’s possible to do less and achieve more. It’s even possible to do nothing and achieve everything. You need to grasp this concept. Because this alone can shed light even on the weirdest acts of Croatian behaviour.
Remember the Taoist concept of Wu Wei? It literally means ‘doing without doing’. Most of us know the theory but we struggle with practice.
You know when you strive so much to achieve something… When you give it all you have. When you push until your last atom. But no. You’re still not there. Then comes some brainy jerk to tell you ‘you’re trying too hard’.
And in a way, it’s true.
For example, this year I planted broccoli in my garden. I got so excited when the first leaves sprouted. But weeks and months in, all I got were the leaves. There was no flower to eat.
My neighbour said the broccoli ‘was too hot’ so I installed a shade to protect it from the sun and the heat. Still nothing.
The lesson? I planted the damn thing at the wrong time of the year. If I knew the reality of the situation, I could have used nature’s energy. Bam – Wu Wei.
Without doing anything, just planting my broccoli later in the year, I could have enjoyed those green fruits of my non-labour.
So, you see, it’s much easier to flaunt these foreign phrases than to put them to good use.
Wu Wei Croatian style
While ancient China did conceive the Wu Wei theory, we in Croatia… Oh, we are its most proficient practitioners, my failed broccoli aside.
To illustrate this point we’ll use a spatial metaphor. While you in the West are always climbing some ladders or getting ahead, we in Croatia love to stand still.
While you are racing to reach your goals, we are happy just where we are. Especially when that coincides with the afternoon time-out called fjaka.
You live to work and we work (as little as we can get away with) to live.
Here’s a story that’ll hit the nail on its head. A short version, as I have my fjaka to attend.
American work-life balance
A striving American businessman once met a chilled-out Dalmatian man: Dalmoš for short. This Dalmoš has just caught 4 beautiful sea breams and was leaving his favourite fishing spot. The American asked:
– Why don’t you stay longer and catch more fish?
– What for? This is exactly how much my family needs.
– But you could sell the rest and make extra money.
– What would I do with the money?
– You could save for a fishing boat.
– But I don’t need a fishing boat – said Dalmoš.
– If you had a fishing boat you could earn a lot more extra money.
– And then what?
– You could buy another fishing boat, and another.
There was no stopping the American.
– Then with all this extra money, you could start a fish canning factory.
– Why the heck would I do that? – Dalmoš finally spoke.
– To make tons of money. Then you could retire early.
– And do what?
– Get a little house in Dalmatia, find a quiet spot and go fishing every day.
– But this is exactly what I do now.
Croatian work-life balance
There are two reasons why Croats have an almost perfect work-life balance. First, they are not hugely ambitious. At least not in the same sense as an American would be.
And second, their country spoils them rotten. At least a section of the population (but this inequality is a topic of another post).
Just like the Westerners, Croatians too aspire to have a good job. But what is a good job for a Croat? It’s a job in a state-run institution.
a) A state-run job pays by the hour not by the work done.
This means you can be care-free outside your working hours. Not a single worry seeps through that work-life boundary.
You get to rest and recover during your bountiful holidays. And you also enjoy the famous phenomenon of ‘connecting days’.
So for example… If a national holiday falls on a Wednesday, your state-run job enables you to ‘connect’ it with the weekend. The two working days count towards your annual leave, but they get you a five-day holiday.
Croatia has 13 national holidays a year. Imagine how many tiny breaks that is!
b) A state-run job is like unconditional love.
Once you get it, it’s yours for life (mostly). You don’t have to tip-toe around it. You can quite often take it for granted. And you can even goof off and still be OK. Bottom line? There is very little you can do to get sacked.
A state-run job is not the best-paid job. But, as those who have it know, money is not the only measure of wealth.
Faced with a choice between a high-powered, high-paying job and a meh-paying, state-run job, where do you think a Croat’s heart lies?
You guessed. Our professional ambition is to find a good-enough-paying job which doesn’t even feel like a job.
c) A state-run job has no accountability (in most cases).
This does not mean that people don’t do their jobs. It means that when something gets done badly or not done at all, there is no one in particular to point your finger at. Apart from the state, of course.
So while most people perform their state-run jobs mostly well on most days, they are not under pressure to do so.
For example, if you ever had to do any kind of paperwork during the summer, you will have encountered huge delays. A head officer was on holiday, then their deputy, then their secretary… Then there were two national holidays in August.
Did you know who to call to inquire about your case? Hm, I thought so. Somehow they all blend together into a state. And speaking of the state…
State pampering and state patronizing
It’s hard to decide what kind of state to wish for. A hands-off one like in the USA or a more involved, parental type that we have here.
No matter how much Croats grumble about the state, it seems everyone wants to be ‘in bed with it’.
Listen closely to the questions Croats ask you… If you found a good job (meaning a state-run job)… Are you thinking of your retirement (meaning a state pension)… Making the most of the maternity leave?
Wu Wei Example 1: no-brainer job
I remember a conversation I once had about a job I didn’t take. It was teaching English at a university, but it wasn’t a tenure track job. I only just finished my post-doctoral project.
Wide-eyed and driven, I was shocked when a colleague laid out the pro arguments:
You get the ropes in the first year. After that you rinse and repeat, you don’t even have to use your brain.
The benefits? A secure, average-paying salary, lots of carefree holidays, guaranteed state pension. What’s more to desire?
I, of course, desired to introduce a new academic course (too difficult)… To merge two academic disciplines (too much paperwork)… To teach students how to get ahead abroad (but why?). Silly me.
Wu Wei Example 2: retired from illness
Even if you don’t have a state-run job, the state pampers you in other ways.
You can be on extended sick leave if you are unable to work. Your employer will pay for the first 42 days, but from then on, the state takes care of you.
I don’t know if there is a limit to how long you can be sick before you get retired. But I know of people whose sick leave spanned years, not months.
I also know of cases when people were gravely ill for 42 days. On the 43rd day they would miraculously get better, come back to work, then get gravely ill again. This cycle would repeat, as in ‘rinse and repeat’.
Are you wondering what kind of illness presents with these symptoms? It’s a rare one. Probably confined to Croatia alone. It’s called ‘I’m sick until I have to prove to the medical board I am really sick’.
Wu Wei Example 3: baby-makers
In the last decade, Croatia has had a negative population growth: -0.5. In 2018, for example, we lost 15 761 people due to the higher death than the birth rate. 39 515 people emigrated (Croatian Bureau of Statistics) but this hot topic is worthy of a separate post!
So why aren’t we making more babies? You’d think that the state has an awful parental leave policy. But a quick comparison with English-speaking countries produces the same conclusion: the state is on our side.
While the USA has 0 weeks of paid parental leave, Croatia is laughing. Maternity leave is 56 weeks with varying pay rates. Still, this amounts to the full rate equivalent of 40.9 weeks.
But, wait, this is not all. After the birth of twins, 3rd and any subsequent child, a mother is entitled to 156 weeks maternity leave. This is the full rate equivalent of 94.5 weeks.
The USA has a population growth of 0.80, Croatia has -0.51. Why aren’t we making more babies?
For the same reason we’re not making more money. The answer is in the story I told you before: because of our work-life balance.
Before, when people lived off the land, large families were a necessity. Children were part of the workforce. So the more children a family had, the better were its chances of survival.
Today’s world carries different challenges. We don’t struggle for sustenance, we strive for happiness. And that means taking it easy and rejoicing in little things.
Here and now and some fish
I have a fantastic business idea but I’ll never make it happen. No, I don’t have a state-run job, but I’m happy with here and now and some fish.
The idea is to package Croatian work-life balance attitude and sell it as an experience. There could be workshops, courses, enhanced reality events, escape rooms… you name it. But the ultimate goal would be to retrain people so they think like us.
Everyone who has ever thought of work-life balance is a good candidate. It means you’re out of balance. If you like the minimalist movement, this retraining is for you. You won’t hear us talk ‘minimalism’ because we’ve walked it since forever.
This retraining would teach the overworked and the sleep-deprived how to get in touch with the here and now. How to be zen just like Dalmoš in our story before.
We’d curb your ambition and your desire to accumulate money. The only goal you’d be allowed to have is to live your life by the ‘good enough’ principle.
You would work to live. No more nonsense such as ‘turn your hobby into work so you won’t feel like working at all’. This is nothing but a con to make you toil non-stop.
If anything, we’d teach you how to appreciate a menial job. The one that doesn’t require much brainpower. The one which allows you to take long coffee breaks with friends. And the one during which you can even slip in a few hours of doing your hobby.
If our biggest success is the amount of happiness, then we’d make you into your most successful self. As this Harvard study proved, happy people are those who have time for their family and friends.
So you see, you’d achieve everything without doing nothing. A pure Wu Wei, Croatian style.
If you’re still focused on ambition and accumulation, feel free to steal my idea. Make a business out of it.
But just to warn you, you’d have to pile up a lot of here-and-now’s. Then sell them, reinvest them, up their worth and only later use them as retirement funds.
Last time I checked, there’s only one thing you can do with here and now. Enjoy it with some fish on the side.
Did you notice I announced a couple of hot topics for upcoming posts? Emigration, inequality, mismanagement of state funds… what do YOU want to read about? Put your ideas in the comments below.