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Five Lifestyle Changes We Could Learn From Europeans to Improve Our Lives -- At Home and at Work

03/26/2013 04:39 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2013

I took my family to London and Paris over the winter holidays this year. It wasn't my first trip and it won't be my last, but there's something about getting away from your day-to-day that makes you observe with a fresh lens. I found myself identifying lessons from the European lifestyles I saw around me. If we applied these lifestyle changes to our daily lives, what kind of improvements might we see? Might our way of life become a bit more sustainable on the personal, professional and community-relationship fronts?

1. Think Small
Yes, that was an advertising campaign for the Volkswagen Beetle back in the 1950s. All over Europe that little idea has matured into a cultural shift. People drive small cars, live in small homes, and generally conserve space as a way to conserve other resources. Why do we Americans drive SUVs big enough to pull a house? How often do we need the space, power, and fuel consumption we pay for day in and day out? Could we live a more sustainable life if we just "think small"? How might that change our business models? Which leads me to...

2. Rent or Borrow What You Don't Need to Own
The bike rental stations I saw at train stations, bus stops, and public squares throughout Paris and London delighted me. People are using publicly available transportation to get to work and back, to run errands or just to enjoy some healthy activity on an afternoon off. Whatever their purpose, when they are through using a bicycle, they leave it for someone else to use. Neat! No storage; no maintenance; no cost of ownership. Too often we buy something we may only need once because that's just what we do. Take the drill I bought because I wanted to hang a picture. I didn't want a drill -- I wanted a hole. Now what happens to my drill? I store it for years and maybe use it two-three times a year! Meanwhile what does the guy down the street do when he wants to hang a picture? He buys a drill. There are communities in the U.S. where bike-rental programs are taking off. Tool sharing, too -- for gardening, woodwork, you name it. Not only do these initiatives save resources -- they build communal relationships. Sharing is a great way to explore your common bonds with others. Who knows what new strategic relationships may blossom from it. Could new business innovations rise from this mentality? Just ask Zipcar.

3. Experiential Brands Are Enormously Powerful
Car showrooms line Champs Elysees. This is some of the most expensive real estate in the world. On my recent visit, I became obsessed with watching the traffic in these stores. They're packed. But nobody's buying a car. What's going on? Peugeot is showing a 2020 car prototype. BMW is showing a 2015 model. Mercedes is selling branded luggage and kit-cars. These global brands don't expect to sell cars on the Champs Elysees -- that's not the point. They're building enormously powerful brand engagement experiences. It's Disney World for drivers and riders. Think of all the brands you interact with that could benefit from the same approach. You can find Harley Davidson stores at airports. Believe me, nobody's buying a Harley during a layover in St. Louis or Philadelphia. It's about brand experiences. If your work involves promoting a consumer brand, what could you learn from the Peugeot showroom on the Champs Elysees in Paris?

4. The Old Economy Didn't Suck
Sure, the "New Economy" (by which I mean an economic infrastructure characterized by services and technology) has become business-as-usual. We deal in intangible assets, experiencing virtual transactions via computers and electronic commerce. But we don't need to throw the Old Economy baby out with the bathwater. An economy of tangible assets, physically manufactured and sold person-to-person has its appeal. It builds relationship economics. I visited several Christmas markets in Paris and it was a highlight of my trip. In these clusters of wooden sheds set up in public spaces, I found for-sale products, mostly traditional, mostly handmade, from different regions of France. Real people were selling them; other real people were meeting as they shopped, interacted, even haggled. I spoke to one French woman who, in broken English, told me she had met her husband, fallen in love and married him -- at the Christmas market. Participating in an economy of tangible assets puts the human touch back in commerce. It may not be "supply chain optimized" but it builds real relationships. Think of it as fighting back against the ascendancy of the virtual over the real. It does a body good. If you buy and sell primarily in a virtual business model, think about how you could add a little more Christmas market magic into your interactions with customers and colleagues. And finally...

5. Use Only What You Need
As a motorcycle enthusiast, I loved seeing all the varieties of two-wheeled transit the Brits and Europeans use. It's not because they're motorcycle fans. It's because they get the etiquette of using only the space they need. I saw a huge aftermarket in luggage racks, messenger bags and other gear that allowed people to use their two-wheelers as transportation and recreation. Nobody's chaining up their scooters against thieves, and everybody's parking as tight to the pack of other scooters as possible. They're using only what they need.

A few days spent watching how other people live can give you some fresh ideas for how to live your own life.

Nour Takeaways:

The European lifestyle is healthy for individuals and their communities.
The European lifestyle emphasizes sustainability.
The European lifestyle is relationship-centric.