Why We Should All Live Like Icelanders Live

“I know what I forgot.”

Those words from my wife Sami set off a chain of events that ended with a new friend, a returned pair of boots, and a life-changing philosophy. 

It was 2017. We were in southern Iceland, on our second trip to the country in as many years, driving from the small town of Kirkjubæjarklaustur toward the capital of Reykjavík. Sami had left her brand-new hiking boots at the guesthouse where we stayed for the last few days. It was about a five-hour drive and we were halfway into it already—too late to turn back. 

We found a place with wi-fi and sent a message to Valur Blomsterberg, the owner of the guesthouse.

Valur was a successful businessman in his late 50s who opened the guesthouse because he loved interacting with visitors. He was extremely friendly to us for the few days we stayed with him, but we had no idea just how kind he was. 

We were hoping that someone else from the guesthouse might be heading to Reykjavík and could meet us in the city somewhere with the hiking boots. After arriving in the capital, we received a message from Valur saying he was actually traveling to Reykjavík himself the next day and would bring the shoes. This was perfect.

Except, that was the only detail he gave us. Our follow up messages about times or places were met with very laid-back responses with no details. We had a full day of sightseeing planned away from the city and didn’t know what to do, so without the information, we decided to continue with our sightseeing the next day and figure it out later. 

We spent an amazing day experiencing the best of Iceland and got back to our farmhouse outside the city about 9 p.m., having long ago given up on ever getting the boots. We were preparing for bed when a message popped up on Sami’s phone. “I am in downtown RVK. Where are you guys?”

We told him we were outside town and he said, “Meet me in Hafnarfjörður, N1 station.”

With that, we grabbed our coats, threw on our shoes and started driving. When we pulled up to the suburban gas station, there was Valur waiting on us with a big smile on his face and the boots in his hand. 

I said, “I can’t believe this worked out.”

And he replied, “Everything works out in Iceland!” and wrapped up both of us in a big hug. 

Valur wasn’t parroting some slogan of the Northern Atlantic island nation’s tourism bureau. He was expressing in English an Icelandic phrase, idea, and philosophy that marks the way Icelanders live. This idea has had a profound impact on my life ever since. 

* * *

The phrase þetta reddast (pronounced “thet-ta red-ust”) has become synonymous with the Icelandic way of life. In one way or another, every Icelandic person lives by this creed. Costa Rica has “Pura Vida,” Iceland has þetta reddast.

The direct translation is difficult. Some say it means “everything will work out” or “it will all be OK,” but both of those could be deployed cynically or flippantly when said in English. A more full definition is needed for the nuances of the phrase. 

Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson is a professor of Icelandic at the University of Iceland and one of the world’s leading experts on the language. His definition of the phrase is more all-encompassing. 

“It’s sort of a combination of being careless and being optimistic,” says Eiríkur. “It can mean ‘maybe we don’t have to do so much to make this work’, or ‘maybe it’s impossible to do something about it, but it will be fine in the end.’ ”

A quick flyover of Icelandic history reveals why people live this way. For a thousand years Icelanders, descendants of the Vikings who inhabited this unforgiving island in the North Atlantic, have fought harsh weather, volcanoes, earthquakes, famines, disease, and each other. Multiple times in their history the entire population was nearly wiped out by plagues or volcanic eruption. 

Isolation prevented Iceland from joining the rest of the modern world unil the second half of the 20th century. The 1980s were a decade of major growing pains as the island began to rapidly change.

It was then that, according to Eiríkur’s research, the phrase þetta reddast began appearing in newspapers and other media. It’s no surprise that a turbulent decade that resulted in positive changes was when people could begin looking at circumstances in life with a more positive view. 

Even modern Icelandic history is marked by extreme highs and lows. Amid the global financial crisis in 2008, all three of the major private banks in the country defaulted. It wasn’t just Icelanders who lost money and experienced inflation; Iceland’s reputation as a banking capital meant that the reverberations were far reaching. 

Perhaps even more significant than the financial crisis was the eruption of the volcano Eyjafjallajökull in southern Iceland in 2010. The giant plume of ash and smoke that was launched into the atmosphere disrupted air traffic for most of Europe, grounding flights for six days and affecting 10 million travelers. It was the largest air traffic shutdown since World War II. Suddenly, the entire world was either angry with or fascinated by the island.

Many credit the publicity from the eruption with the subsequent tourism explosion as people began learning about Iceland. The tourism industry is now the most important sector of the country‘s economy. More than 2 million visitors travel there each year and 10 percent of Iceland’s GDP comes from tourism. Suddenly, tons of foreign cash was being pumped into the economy. Infrastructure improved across the country.

The idea of þetta reddast isn’t that you just assume things will work out based on no evidence. It’s a philosophy steeped in experience. Icelanders started to realize things would work out once they’d had the experiences that confirmed this philosophy. In the same way, applying this philosophy to your own life only works when you can look back at similar circumstances and realize how they’ve shaped your life in both positive and negative ways. 

* * *

I was unemployed when we were on that 2017 trip. The company I worked for closed up shop the week before we left. It was totally out of the blue and the flights and lodging for our trip were already paid for, so we decided to go ahead and take the vacation. It was a great time to get my mind off of the panic of having to search for a job.

I had basically no leads on new jobs because I loved what I was doing and naively thought I didn’t need to keep tabs on new opportunities. There was a lot that I could have been worrying about, but chasing Icelandic waterfalls kept my mind occupied. Little did I know that I was learning a lesson that would sustain me through this period of unknown and the many that would follow in the next few years. 

Would I have chosen to lose my job and say goodbye to coworkers? No way. But I did make the most of the situation. With about two months of free time between jobs, I finished writing my first book, a personal side project that has opened many doors since, allowed me to make money on the side, and let me meet some of my heroes. 

That’s the heart of þetta reddast. Things aren’t going to work out exactly the way you thought, but if you keep going and work hard, most of the time they will work out. 

* * *

“Volcanic activity may be around the corner, maybe this or that will happen, but þetta reddast. However the outcome, whether we have to evacuate or not, whatever way the lava will flow, things will have their way and sooner or later, life will be back to normal,” says Dagmar Jóhanna Eiríksdóttir.

I reached out to Dagmar, a friend we made on our travels, to ask her about þetta reddast, and she greeted me with the news that the volcano only a few miles from her house was trembling. She didn’t know if there would be evacuations or not. 

So it turned out to be a good time to talk about þetta reddast. Her response couldn’t have been more quintessentially Icelandic. Will this volcano erupt for the first time in 800 years and envelope our house in lava? Maybe, but we will just have to evacuate and life will go on.

Such is a life lived in the shadows of volcanoes. It’s not just a fanciful idea or trite mantra about “the journey. ” Sometimes þetta reddast literally means that you don’t know which way the lava will flow. 

* * *

In 2019, Sami decided to quit her job to go full time with her cookie decorating business. It was a tough decision to take a risk like that, but she was regularly working until 2 or 3 a.m., then getting up just a few hours later to go to her day job.

We were nervous, but it helped to remember that things will likely work out fine in the end. Maybe the business would be a smashing success, or maybe it wouldn’t. Either way it was worth a shot. 

Auður Ösp Olafsdottir runs a tour guide company called I Heart Reykjavík. What began as a blog about her love of her hometown has spun into a full-time business as she shows foreigners her favorite spots in the city. 

I asked her how she’s applied this philosophy to her life and she pointed out that she is often a pragmatic person that loves having a plan. However, when she started her business, she did so with much less planning than she should have. 

“Now that I actually know what I’m doing, I’m not sure I’d recommend this approach,” says Auður. “On the flip side of that, if I had done my homework and realized how much work this would be, I probably would never have made the leap, which is maybe the magic of þetta reddast.” 

One of the reasons we felt comfortable with Sami starting her own business was that I had finally taken what I thought was a stable, corporate job. It was with a solid company that wouldn’t be going out of business any time soon (a welcome departure for me) and we thought it was a good time to not only start a business but to eventually start a family.

You’ve read this far, so you can probably guess that isn’t how it all went down. We found out we were pregnant last July, but by the end of 2019 things were again unstable with my job situation. Suddenly instead of the stability we craved, we were deep in uncertainty. 

And then, as I began to plot a risky career leap into full-time freelance writing, I received an offer to work part time at a place I’ve been trying to get into since I graduated college nearly a decade ago. It was an exciting opportunity that would allow for a little bit of a safety net for me as I transitioned into full-time freelancing. So, I left my corporate job two weeks before our first child was due. 

As this issue hits newsstands, the baby is now several months old. By now we surely know if I made the dumbest or best decision ever. Judging from our life experiences, it will likely be somewhere in between.

There will be ups and downs, and we may not know which way the lava will flow, but we do know it’s going to work out one way or another. 

* * *

We went back to Iceland in 2018 to make it three trips in the span of three years. What can I say? We love everything about the place. This time we brought along my wife’s brother and his wife to show them the country. 

When we reached out to Valur to see if we could stay at his guesthouse, he told us that he sold it. The guest interactions were great, but he was tired of cooking and cleaning every day.

Instead, Valur offered to let us stay at his personal home for free.

We took up his offer quickly, even changing our original driving schedule to make it work. After seven days of staying in cramped and quaint farmhouses or hostels it was a breath of fresh air to walk into Valur’s modern mansion. The house was everything you’d imagine a Scandanavian millionaire might have.

And, of course, it had a beautiful view of a volcano that Valur told us was 10 years overdue for an eruption. I asked if that worried him and he said, “No, I will have the perfect view of it!”

We each got a room with a large bed, nice soft sheets and big comforters to keep us warm. Valur offered us all kinds of food and drinks. He had a massive liquor cabinet and said we could have whatever we wanted from it.

Honestly, at a certain point we all started thinking this guy might be just a little… too nice. No one is this friendly to relative strangers. We were really beginning to question his motives. When we looked at the massive liquor cabinet and said we didn’t even know what might be good he got a twinkle in his eye.

“Wait, I have a special drink for you.”

Alarm bells began going off in everyone’s heads, but no one said anything. He reached into the freezer and pulled out an unlabeled glass bottle with a murky purple liquid in it. He then grabbed four Viking-themed shot glasses. When we asked what it was he refused to answer. He poured the shots and passed one to each of us.

Now, this was the time to say something if anyone had concerns. Later we would all admit that we had the same thoughts and worries, but no one was brave enough to say anything. I had never done a shot in my life before, or after, this moment. 

But, when in Iceland…

Skál! 

It turned out to be just vodka mixed with crushed up black pepper licorice candies. I don’t know if it was good or if we were overcome with happiness that we hadn’t been poisoned, but we all had big smiles on our faces afterwards. 

We spent the rest of the night in the hot tub under the Icelandic sky reminiscing on another great trip. 

See, it all works out in the end. 


This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Photo by Asiatravel/Shutterstock.com

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