Life Scenarios: a group exercise to envision your professional future

 “It isn’t where you came from; it’s where you’re going that counts.”

― Ella Fitzgerald

It is said that Bill Clinton had set his eyes on becoming president of the United States before he finished high school. More often, our dreams and aspirations change based on individual development and changing reality. If you want to help a friend find her next professional step, or if your own future deserves some creative thought, try this short exercise. (I call it Life Scenarios.)

Inspired by improv-comedy, Life Scenarios taps into the creativity of someone else to describe paths for your future. Not limited by previous thinking or value judgment, your partner(s) in this exercise can spark new ideas and uncover what makes you tick.

This exercise is best done in trios, but can be done in pairs. (I’ll use Person 1, Person 2, and Person 3 to name the different participants.)

Estimated duration: 15–20 minutes per participant.

Tools: Pen and paper, voice recorder, stopwatch.

 

Step 1: your long-term vision

Duration: 60 seconds

Person 1 describes what his life will look like 15–20 years from now.

The goal of this step is to provide Person 2 (and Person 3) with a long-term basis to build their scenarios on.

Example: “In twenty years I will have started and grown multiple organizations providing education to people who have insufficient access today. In twenty years, I will be an adviser to different young entrepreneurs and I’ll be involved in government. I will have traveled much, and be happily married to my husband, caring for our two children.”

 

Step 2: rapid fire life scenario

Duration: 60 seconds

Based on Person 1’s long-term vision, Person 2 imagines and pitches a scenario for the next 3–5 years. Example: “A newly-started accelerator focused on technology start-ups that focus on education, recruits you to lead scouting (i.e., finding companies to join the accelerator) and fundraising for the inaugural year. You travel around the United States to tell start-ups about your program, mostly traveling to college campuses, and to raise money from investors and sponsors to finance the accelerator program. After the inaugural program, you decide to stay on for a few more years as part of the 4-person leadership team, fulfilling the same role.”

 

Step 3: scenario evaluation

Duration: 60 seconds

Person 1 provides feedback on the scenario sketched by Person 2, using the following framework:

  • Pro’s (What do I like about the future described?)
  • Con’s (What do I dislike about the future described?)
  • Grade on scale of 1–10

Example: “I like traveling, and I like to speak to audiences when I’m campaigning for a cause. I love the focus on education. But I’d rather start my own initiative; and I don’t like fundraising. I’d give this a 6 out of 10.”

 

Go through several iterations

Based on the feedback on the first scenario provided by Person 1, steps 2 and 3 are repeated. If you do this exercise with three people, Person 3 is the next to sketch a scenario. If you work in a pair, Person 2 sketches a second scenario. The goal of Person 2 (and Person 3) is to get to a scenario which is graded 8 or above by Person 1. You can stop the exercise once that grade is reached, or continue to explore more opportunities. I typically try to sketch out at least six scenarios.

 

End of exercise

Once you have reached one or more attractive scenarios for Person 1, take a moment to reflect on the exercise.

Ask Person 1: “What insights did you gain? What was surprising?”More often than not, Person 1 will be delighted to see a different future path and/or have gained clarity on what characteristics are important in future work. Person 2 (and Person 3) can share too what was surprising for them in the answers of Person 1.

 

Final remarks

The best way to find what you enjoy doing is by trying things. The fact that you think you will not like an activity does not mean you wont, or that your preference will stay static in the future. (Do you ever notice how many children complain about hiking to their parents and love walking years later?) If you notice internal excitement listening to one of the scenarios, why not give it a try?

A beautiful vision is not enough; hard (and/or smart) work is required to build your future.  The point of this exercise is to expand your view on your future, it’s no guarantee that you will realize these views. (Although there are plenty of quotes along the lines of “what you can imagine, can be done.”)

One goal of this exercise is to explore what characteristics you value in future work, reasoning through concrete examples. Example: you may think “freedom”is most important to you in your work, but realize that you consistently give the highest rating to scenarios in which you’re speaking on stage. This may mean that being the center of attention is more important to you (now) than freedom is! Once you realize this preference, you can change your decisions.

A side-benefit of this exercise, when you do it with friends, is that you can deepen your friendship because each party is by definition open and vulnerable by sharing their future dreams and how they respond to different scenarios.

Finally, please see this blog as an inspiration to pick parts from and blend with other ideas. Try to change things! Let me know what works.

A special thanks to Franziska Becker and Ted Gonder for going through this exercise and reviewing this post. 

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What do you think about—and why?

Canada Goose

Do you pay attention to the sounds of geese swerving overhead? I never did, but that recently changed, as I saw the documentary Winged Migration: a beautifully filmed narrative, portraying the extensive journeys of migratory birds*. Since seeing Winged Migration I notice that I pay more attention to songs and appearances of birds.

Do you ever think about what keeps buildings cool? I had thought about building cooling principles, but never observed the devices that created the cooling. That changed in 2012, when I spent one week categorizing rooftop-installed cooling equipment on office buildings in Massachusetts. Spending several hours per day studying rooftops on satellite images, I started to notice cooling units on buildings everywhere: from the window of my morning bus-ride; during walks around Harvard square; even as I landed in Florida for a connecting flight to Costa Rica. My attention was triggered.

When your brain is made aware of something—be it migratory patterns of birds or rooftop-cooling units—it pays more attention to this object of phenomenon. Our awareness is influenced by what our brain has been processing. In other words: what we notice is influenced by previous mental exposure; there is a relationship between past, present and future. If you want to control what you think about, your task is to feed relevant and sticky input to your brain. Relevant because the input must relate to what you want to think about (if you want to learn about databases, reading Hamlet is unlikely to be the most effective way); sticky because the brain responds differently to different types of information (compare the mental impact of reading about the salty flavor of an oyster to the mental impact of tasting an oyster).

Time for a question: What do you think about?

Look away from your computer screen for a minute. Meditate upon your thoughts in the last hours, slowly expanding the scope to your thoughts the last days. Write down the types of mental activity you were engaged in, such as technical (how do I code this loop?), logistics (what groceries should I buy?), planning (what do I want to do today?), relationships (who do I want to see this week?), reading, or marketing (how do we get people to buy this?).

I asked this question to several friends on my visit to San Francisco last week. Pieter Verhoeven and I created a short list, sitting in Steve Jobs’ favorite Japanese restaurant in Palo Alto.

  • Technical / calculations (work)
  • Technical / problem-solving approach (work)
  • Conversations with people
  • Sleep
  • Relationships (who to call, who to spend time with etc.)
  • Logistics (shopping, rent, tax etc.)
  • Personal future
  • Non-personal future (sensors and actuators, artificial intelligence, energy systems etc.)
  • Technical / creating (drawing, programming, making physical objects etc.)
  • Nothing (meditation?)
  • Sleep
  • Dance or music
  • (Surprisingly, eating as a mental activity was not one of them—Pieter and I both noticed that we are normally engaged in conversation or work during meals. To be changed.)

I noticed that I think much about people. I spend at least one hour per day asking myself questions as “Who do I want to speak to in the office?” “Who can help me realize this idea?” “To whom have I not spoken in a long time?” Until last week, I had not questioned that type of thought—I just accepted that I thought about people. By comparing my categorized thoughts to those of friends, I realized I spent more time thinking about people than most.

Returning to the hypothesis that your thinking is influenced by the things you feed your brain, my thoughts about people are likely induced first by the fact that I make lists of people I want to collaborate with—a stimulus for the brain; second by the fact that I have enforced that mental activity; and third because I actively spend time learning about people’s stories: reading people’s blogs, calling friends, reading biographies—another stimulus for the brain. In addition, people’s stories are sticky (at least to my brain)—I find it fairly easy to remember the experiences friends tell me about, even years after their telling.

I want to improve my technical mind by deeply understanding models from chemistry, physics and biology. I do this today by picking up science books, by watching documentaries, and by visiting research labs of friends who have decided to pursue a PhD. Interestingly; I notice that some activities are much stickier than others. Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces led to many new ideas; and so did spending two hours peaking at fruitflies through a microscope with Didem Sarikaya at Harvard’s Department of Biology. The book I picked up about chemistry did not have that same stickiness.

What do you think about? What is the cause of this? What do you want to think more, or more actively, about? What stimuli can you use to foster that thinking?

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My dear friend Jan Overgoor shared with me a vivid example of an experience triggering the mind. Lately, Jan has worked on different projects with wood, including the construction of a beautiful elliptical tabletop for his home in Berkeley. Jan informed me that he is much more aware of the touch of different surfaces since working actively wood, automatically comparing surface he touches to the smoothness and softness of wood.

*Since seeing Winged Migration, I have a new favorite animal: the Arctic Tern. Why? This little bird travels on average 95,000 kilometers per year. That is more than double the circumference of the earth. If we assume an Arctic Tern flies 300 days per year, the average daily travel is more than 300 kilometers—all by muscle power, no oil needed, nor snacks. What a globetrotter!

Arctic Tern

6 lessons from Churchill’s biography

Churchill

Churchill is widely admired for his courage and leadership. Would you not want to read about a man who is described by a biographer (Paul Johnson) as follows: 

Of all the towering figures of the twentieth century, both good and evil, Winston Churchill was the most valuable to humanity, and also the most likable. […] None hold more lessons, […] How to seize eagerly on all opportunities, physical, moral and intellectual. How to dare greatly, to reinforce success, and to put the inevitable failures behind you. And how, while pursuing vaulting ambition with energy and relish, to cultivate also friendship, generosity, compassion and decency.

Here are 6 lessons on life from Churchill’s biography:

Dedicate yourself fully to an activity. As a teenager Churchill discovered that he had a love for words. Attracted by the adventure of joining battles, Churchill decided to try to report on a war in India. Spending most of his twenties traveling all around the world reporting from the front lines, war-reporting became Churchill’s obsession (paraphrasing Drew Houston, Churchill found his tennis ball). Later Churchill would throw himself with comparable vigour into other activities.

Build different ways to express yourself. “Politics never occupied his whole attention and energies. He had an astonishing range of activities to provide him with relief, exercise, thrills, fun and money.”

Churchill was dismissed from his position as Admiral in the British navy by prime minister Asquith at the start of WW1. Churchill found himself suddenly with no daily responsibilities, which had a disastrous effect on his mental state (his wife thought “he would die of grief”). Inspired by a friend, Churchill picked up painting. Painting became a deep passion, since “while you are painting you can think of nothing else.” I think it is critical to develop activities that you enjoy outside your work – all the more so in a future where fewer people have jobs. In what ways do you express yourself? 

Go where the action is. “Churchill began his plan of campaign to make himself famous, or at least conspicuous. But if you sat still, expecting wars to come to you, you might be starved of action. You had to go to the wars. That became Churchill’s policy.”

Churchill built up a reputation by fighting in the front lines – he did not stay in the UK. After returning from his war journeys, he quickly built a network in London with people in the House of Commons, as his aspirations were to become a politician.  “All his life he refused to be bound to a desk. He insisted on seeing for himself.”

Rise after you fall. Churchill was fired from his official position more than three times and lost many personal battles (he lost all his money on multiple occasions). Yet he never let his head hang (for too long). After he was dismissed as Admiral of the Navy, he found a way to participate in a battle on land. He was humiliated badly in the House of Commons but fought his way back into politics.

Do not take yourself to seriously. “We are all worms. But I really think I am a glow worm.”

Share your work. “This was his first book, and he sent a copy to the Prince of Wales, who wrote him a delightful letter of thanks, praised it to the skies, and recommended it to all his friends.”

What is your steady state?

I wrote this article in March 2013 after visiting friends in San Francisco. Over lunch in Bangalore, I had a discussion with friends about the things they do in moments of free time. I remembered my idea of “steady state activities”, and wanted to share my reflections at the time. 

Imagine that next week miraculously has 8 days in stead of 7. How will you spend your extra day?

In our free time we tend to default to a limited set of activities. When a day of work is cancelled we pick up a book, invite friends for dinner, or jam on our guitar. I call the set of activities we resort to in times of tranquility – our side projects, our hobbies – our steady state. 

Why is it important to know our steady-state? Because our precious “free” moments are perfect opportunities to do things we love. If you are not conscious of your free time, it is easy to default to “urgent”, unimportant activities: answering email, glancing at newspaper headlines.

“We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.”

– Kurt Vonnegut

Your steady state can bring you new perspectives. My friend and great designer Carson regularly visits museums, to study how human organizations have evolved in recent millennia. Maricarmen, entrepreneur and yoga teacher, finds herself dancing to powerful music in her mornings, to energize her body for studying and writing. Eric runs out of the building whenever he has moments to spare on his Kauffman trip, to capture the world from a different perspective through his camera, improving his skill as a photographer.

These are beautiful and constructive steady state activities. They bring joy and inspiration to my friends. They allow them to be more productive in their work. And, over time, these steady-state activities work like compound interest: by spending a bit of time every week, these side projects may one day form the basis of their next big thing.

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What do you do on a free afternoon? Can you share an example of a skill you built up incrementally on the side over the years? 

Achieve your dreams by studying failure

Even when you understand reality, things can go wrong.

Even when you understand reality, things can go wrong.

“Truth-more precisely, an accurate understanding of reality-is the essential foundation for producing good outcomes.”

Have you ever wondered with hindsight why a project failed, despite all your effort?

In “Principles”, Ray Dalio outlines how he thinks people can be more successful. The goal of his essay is to make a reader think (1) what she wants, (2) what is true and (3) what to do about this. As explained in the essay’s introduction, principles are ways of successfully dealing with the laws of nature or the laws of life. People who understand more principles well can take action more effectively.

This argument – by better understanding reality we can improve our performance – compels me. We let what we wish to be true stand in the way of what is true. In the last two months, I built a team for a summer program of a new higher education institute in Amsterdam, assuming that the institute would happily work with us. If the institute turns out not to want any external help, my misunderstanding of reality led to an unsuccessful project.

 “I believe that the way we make our dreams reality is by constantly engaging with reality in pursuit of our dreams and by using these encounters to learn more about reality itself and how to interact with it in order to get what we want.”

To improve my understanding of reality, I have used two methods. The first method aims to identify shortcomings and failures in past projects; the second aims to reduce failure in the future by writing down expected problems.

Method 1: learning from the past

Take time to reflect on your three most recent work experiences. Why did you start those projects, jobs or companies? In what sense were you successful? Where did you fail? Why did you fail?

I keep a “Learning Journal” on all projects I have started or joined. Below is one entry of my Learning Journal that reflects on Cool Schools. Read it to understand the questions I ask myself.

Learning Journal

How do you reflect on past failures or shortcomings in work? How do you keep “lessons” in sight, to avoid making a mistake multiple times? 

Method 2: anticipating the future

To reduce chances of future failure, anticipate your problems today. Ray Dalio suggests a 5-step process: write down your biggest goals; identify the problems that stand in the way of your goals; accurately diagnose the problem; design an action plan that gets you around the problem; execute.

Below are the first 3 steps for one of my dreams for the next year: to organize a leadership program for my dearest friends in the Rocky Mountains. I put it here not because the content is interesting, but so you have an idea of the first steps.

5 step process

What are your dreams? Do you have ways to keep in sight the potential deal-breakers? 

What do you think of these methods? Do you consider it a waste of time to think about problems ahead of time? Do you understand “reality” through intuition? Do you have ways of better understanding reality?

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Like Ray Dalio’s style? Want to learn more about the economy? See this 31-minute video.

Friendships as a calibrator for life

From Apple’s dictionary:

calibrate |ˈkaləˌbrāt|

• carefully assess, set, or adjust (something abstract): the regulators cannot properly calibrate the risks involved | (as adj.calibrated) : their carefully calibrated economic policies.

Earlier this week I was in Berlin. I had two wonderful conversations: one with a dear friend who I hadn’t seen for a year; the other with a woman I had never met before.

When you meet a friend you have not seen in a long time, it seems easier to talk about deep topics than with friends you see very regularly. Time together is perceived as more precious, because rarer, hence you want to use every minute to speak about stuff that matters.

There’s a second reason why long-distance friendships hold much value. Friends who see you only once every so often naturally maintain a distant perspective on your life. They don’t know about the details of every project you undertake. When these friends listen carefully and ask critical questions, such occasional conversations are a reality check: are your actions aligned with what you say your values and dreams are? These friendships serve as a calibrator for life.

How can you guarantee you have these conversations, these check-ins, to make sure you’re living a life you’re proud of?

One answer, I think, is to set time apart with friends – close-by or far-away – in which you start by discussing the very basics (your principles, your beliefs) to the very acute (what are you doing today?).

7 Paths For Guaranteed Misery in Life

You can not tell people how to be happy, but you can tell them how they will become miserable. If we avoid paths to misery, we increase our chances of a happy life. “I wish I knew where I was going to die, and then I’d never go there.”

Below are 7 paths for guaranteed misery in life, from Charles Munger’s 1986 Harvard Commencement speech, from the book “Seeking Wisdom” by Peter Bevelin. What surefire paths to misery would you add?

 #1 Ingest chemicals in an effort to alter mood or perception

 #2 Envy

 #3 Resentment

 #4 Be unreliable

 #5 Learn only from your personal experience

Avoiding to learn from the mistakes of others will surely bring you to misery.

How little originality is there in the common disasters of mankind – drunk driving deaths, […] conversion of bright college students into brainwashed zombies as members of destructive cults. […] “If at first you don’t succeed, well, so much for hang gliding.”

 #6 Stay down when life knocks you to the floor

There is so much adversity out there, even for the lucky and wise, that [staying down when life gets tough] will be permanently mired in misery.

 #7 Do not think backward

Approach the study of happiness by studying how not to be happy, in other words:

Approach “How to be X?”

By asking “How not to be X?”

This video is part of Charlie Munger’s commencement speech at USC. Find the transcript of the speech here

The universe conspires in your favour

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Forty miles south of Kansas city, on a sunny afternoon, half our Spokes team stops to refill our flasks with cold water at a small roadside restaurant. After she walks in, Claire explains to the man behind the counter that we are crossing the country to help teenagers start hands-on projects, because we believe that every child deserves to feel empowered to realize their ideas. Within minutes, free nacho’s and hamburgers are on the table (this is America…) and we are offered a place to stay for coming nights.

At such moments, I feel like a monk receiving a three-star Michelin-dinner after asking for alms.

Surprisingly, such generous offers have occurred regularly during our journey. No week passes by without a stranger reaching out to help us. How can this be explained? Is this mere coincidence?

I believe the support flows from a deep commitment to the cause we are fighting for. We put our heart into this project. People see us, recognize our commitment and a desire arises with them to contribute – to be part of our story. This speaks to the natural desire of people to do good. Better yet, I experience now the incredible power that you can unleash when you fight for something you care about. 

I am not the first to observe this. Emerson writes in the first pages of his essay on self-reliance:

“Every heart vibrates to that iron string”

Paulo Coelho puts this into words in the Alchemist:

“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

And Seth Godin has created an entire body of work around helping people to overcome fear and do what they care about. As said in the Icarus Deception -“Fly closer to the sun.”

I commit to putting my soul into my work.

Firewood for warriors

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In full battle, the warrior feels strongest. When we fight the good fight – when we work to realize causes we deeply care about – we shine light, we radiate heat, we inspire people around us.

Projects you deeply care about are like logs of firewood for your personal campfire. Without firewood, the campfire dies. Without a cause, the warrior becomes an ordinary human.

When your fire flickers or is about to die, feed it a log. Pick up a cause worth fighting for. 

“Als het vuur gedoofd is, dan komen de wolven”

 

The upside of adversity in life

Last Wednesday at Unreasonable Institute’s final presentations, Roberto Carlos Rivera shared a deeply personal story. As a child, Roberto was involved in gang fights; he created hip-hop songs; and he had been kicked out of school – twice – because he stirred up emotions in his classmates. 

Now, years later, Roberto is nominated a Top Young Change Agent. Roberto was selected as an Unreasonable Fellow and leads The Good Life Organization. In his own words: “I went from a dope-dealer to a hope-dealer”.  

Listening to Roberto, a thought came to me: challenging moments in life are necessary opportunities to become a great person.

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Looking at close friends and distant heroes, every single person I see as a leader has overcome big challenges in their life. I have friends who recovered from life-threatening accidents or convinced hundreds of people to join a cause before officially being a teenager. Gandhi was able to develop satyagraha because of his inhumane experience in South Africa; Jay-Z developed incredible perseverance because of his tough youth in the Bronx. 

This idea – that life challenges are necessary to develop character – triggers two observations. First, shielding children from pain may not be the best way to raise happy, fulfilled human beings. Brene Brown echoes this in an On Being podcast (mins 31:30-35:00). According to Brene Brown, American parents can be overprotective, a missed opportunity for their children to build character. “Hope is a function of struggle”, Brene Brown says, “I see students who have never experienced real adversity. How that shows up is hopelessness”.

Second, when children with seemingly dark futures ahead of them can break out of destructive patterns there is great hope for them. The struggle for life has given them the opportunity to build real character. These kids have the rough material to become diamonds. 

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Have you experienced adversity in your youth? Which were the moments that define you as you are? Do you know great leaders who have not struggled with adversity?