What is Truth?

In his autobiography, titled “The Story of my Experiments with Truth”, Gandhi writes about his pursuit of Truth:

“For me, truth is the sovereign principle, which includes numerous other principles. This truth is not only truthfulness in word, but truthfulness in thought also, and not only the relative truth of our conception, but the Absolute Truth, the Eternal Principle, that is God.”

When I first read this passage, it was difficult for me to understand what Gandhi meant by absolute truth. Beyond truthfulness, what is Truth?

A short essay by MIT professor Neil Gershenfield helped me understand one answer to the question “What is Truth?”. Gershenfield writes that “scientists do not seek and find truth, they seek and find better models”. When the predictions of planetary motions by Kepler were improved by Newton, Kepler did not become wrong – Newton’s models (and later Einstein’s) were based on different assumptions and had a different accuracy, not a different truth.

By accepting that there is not one absolute truth, we can let go of dogma, and make experiments to explore how reality works (and accept that we will not find “the” answer). Truth is not absolute, but a model.

Armed with this idea, we can move closer towards personal truth. When actions lead to a different outcome than expected – for example, the job we started does not bring us fulfillment – we can write down assumptions why the outcome was different than expected. By testing those assumptions in new situations – moving towards a sales role in stead of engineering, because we assume that computer work does not make us happy – we can learn more about personal truth.

As Gershenfield writes:

“Violations of expectations are opportunities to refine them.”

experiment

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Meaning through service

Could you name three of the Nobel prize winners of the last year?

Not long ago, many men found life’s meaning in providing their families with food, shelter and clothing. It was perceived a very fulfilling task to “do your work” disciplined and without complaint, such that your family could eat and your children could go to school.

Because it is now so common to have your basic needs covered – and often much more – most young women and men do not feel fulfilled by merely “earning a living”. We are looking for something more – we want our lives to be meaningful. In conversations with friends, many have expressed the wish or desire “to have an impact in the world”. This leads many young people to pursue paths where they could one-day run foundations, build software that “reaches millions” or become CEO’s of large corporations. I think this “long-term meaning” is insufficient to bring true fulfillment.

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Now, can you name three people who have made a big difference in your life?

If you are like me, you will have difficulty to recall the names of Nobel prize winners – people who made an impact in the world. Fame and “impact” are short-lived, because the world is transient. No one should have difficulty to name the people who made a difference in their lives.

Every day we have the opportunity to give meaning to our lives by helping the people directly around us. We can be helpful through simple actions: visiting your grandmother with groceries, spending a few hours mentoring kids, assisting a friend in preparation for an important meeting. A lot of meaning is found, however, in these small activities. I am not advocating that we give up our quest to provide meaning on a “large scale”, but I urge you to realize that at least as much of a difference can be made in the way you live your life from day to day.

This post was inspired by two readings: Clayton Christensen’s blog on belonging and believing, and Albert Schweitzer’s “Essential Writings”.

Elementary School is more than 1,2,3 – The Importance of Character Development in Early Years

Can you remember an experience in your elementary or high school years that truly shaped your character?

For me, playing field hockey was a key opportunity to build my character. I was not the most skilled of athletes – far from it, in fact. As is relatively common in the Netherlands, I played field hockey. Starting at age 9, the first years of hockey offered little competition. As I grew older, kids were started to be separated into different teams. From that moment onwards, there was a (very) strong incentive to perform. I remember that often when I started the training, I committed to put in twice as much effort as the other players, just to compensate for my skill.

It was a perfect opportunity to build my character at an early age. Most of us can think of several experiences in early adulthood that taught us certain values, but very few have had the opportunity to have such experiences at an earlier age – right when they are fundamentally important.

I strongly believe that elementary schools and high schools should go beyond teaching cognitive skills – reading, writing, mathematics – and start building character. Why? Because research shows that what distinguishes “successful” students later in life is not a difference in cognitive skill at an early age, but a difference in character.

Besides sports, starting and running Projects is a perfect opportunity for learning. That is why I think every child aged 11-12 (the final two years of high-school in most European countries) should have a compulsory project as part of his or her education. The success of such project education heavily depends on the skill of the teacher and the support of parents, other kids and partners. Inherently, project education seems unscalable, because it depends on the quality of people.

My question to you: How can a “project education” module be designed for scalability?

KIPP School in the Bronx

Knowledge is Power Program

A model for rapid (uncomfortable) learning

Picture yourself sitting at a conference. One of the speakers asks the people in the audience to raise their hand if they prefer electricity from solar over electricity from coal, oil or natural gas. Chances are, you would raise your hand – of course, “greening” our energy system is important. The question is: does this rational decision lead to a change in your behavior?

Last weekend, I participated in Lean Startup Machine Rotterdam. The goal of the weekend was for participants to rapidly test possible business ideas, by relentlessly interviewing potential (i.e. hypothetical) customers. Many gifted programmers or engineers have spent months, if not years, to build beautiful, detailed websites or airplanes, only to find out that nobody wanted to buy their “solution” once it was completed. To reduce time wasted on undesired products, the “Lean Startup” methodology was created by Eric Ries, as a process to test what people want to pay for, before you start building. Following the “Lean Startup” methodology, my goal for the weekend was to identify groups of people who were willing to invest in renewable energy. I was joined in my quest by Jaap Ruoff, Raffi Balder and Daniël Muller.

Looking at your monthly expenses, how do your purchases reflect the things you say you care about? The first thing I learned this weekend was that although many people say renewable energy is important, few care enough about the topic to allocate money to it. We asked 8 parents whether they cared about the societal impact of the money they were saving for their children. Unanimously, the parents shared horror stories about their investments the past years, and that the only thing they cared about was to have a secure, very-low-risk place to store their money.

Retrieving our confidence, we went out again into a wealthy neighbourhood to ask people whether they felt engaged to invest in solar panels on a school. Only 3 out of 19 people answered positively – all three had interpreted the question as if it were the school of their children, unlike many of the other respondents.

This response provided us with a hint: the desire to contribute to sustainable energy projects may be related to a direct social connection to the location. Based on the fact that only 22% to 27% of US citizens have a roof suitable for solar, we decided to develop a solution for a new (hypothetical) customer and pain: one of the lucky quarter of Dutchies that have a solar panel-fit roof, but can’t finance a solar panel system alone. We tested our customer and problem hypothesis in two ways: we built a landing page for an early adopter (someone with his own roof and 3,000 twitter followers) and we started calling friends around a proposal to invest in a local school.

Sure enough, data started pouring in. The landing page we built attracted 255 unique visitors. None of the visitors left their information to buy a “solar share” – our name for the €50 investments visitors could make in the early adopter’s rooftop solar system. From our calls, we learned that our friends were willing to invest a small amount of money (e.g €50) in a private solar panel system, but a larger amount of money (e.g. €200) if the solar panels were installed on a school.

Most importantly, I was reminded how great it is to work with smart people on a challenging project, utilizing an unfamiliar process whilst operating far out of your comfort zone! Approaching people on the street, asking them about their needs will always instill fear initially, but it is such a rewarding experience! Thinking back of similar environments (specifically 3DayStartup in Amsterdam & Social Good Hackathon in Cambridge), these are the kind of environments that foster very rapid learning.

I noted earlier the learning that a societal need is not always equal to an individual pain or desire. If educational institutions can transform their high-level need for innovation to a burning desire, the Learn Startup Machine model can be a medicine to their pain.

The Power of Initiative

Today, it’s easier than ever to send out a message into the world or to start a new organization. Within a few phone-calls, you and I can reach almost any person in the world. 

As the barriers to create value decrease, our power (and responsibility) to write our life narratives becomes bigger. Decades ago, the story of a young man born in rural Kenya was almost fully defined by the situation into which he was born – the “starting conditions” of his life. The same young man born today has a realistic option to craft a life story much different than previously imaginable. In a world where more is possible, initiative – the power to act -is becoming one of the most important conditions for human success.  

More than ever, we have the opportunity to turn our big ideas into reality. Whether we choose a life of action or a life of passive agreement is up to us. With that, I’d like to share a quote from Bucky.

“We are blessed with technology that would be indescribable to our forefathers. We have the wherewithal, the know-it-all to feed everybody, clothe everybody, and give every human on Earth a chance. We know now what we could never have known before: that we now have the option for all humanity to make it successfully on this planet in this lifetime. Whether it is to be Utopia or Oblivion will be a touch-and-go relay race right up to the final moment.”

 

– Buckminster Fuller, Critical Path

Want to save the planet? Don’t tell your audience!

Pretend you are a wealthy European looking to buy a new car. Which of the two campaigns below would you respond to?

“Tesla Motors designs and manufactures cars that may emit as little as 5 grams CO2/km, a 95% reduction compared to typical European 5 seaters. By driving a Tesla, you will save the equivalent of 20 trees per year from destruction!”

“Tesla Motors designs and manufactures the most advanced electric vehicles and electric powertrains in the world. We do not compromise on innovation, performance, or appeal.” – http://www.teslamotors.com/about/careers

My guess is that the second advertisement will be much more effective. Why? Because it speaks directly to the customer’s desire.

Changing customer behavior is essential to tackle important global challenges as food distribution inequality or environmental disaster. But to create that change, we drastically need a strong marketing strategy. All of us – in our roles of end-users, business executives or politicians – think about the question “What’s in it for me?” when we are made an offer. To scale environmental solutions, we need to define a value proposition which appeals to the end-user’s needs. When you are a car-lover looking to buy a new vehicle, your main consideration is how enjoyable your every ride will be; not how many grams of CO2 you will emit during those trips.

Redefining value propositions is essential also to drive private enterprise to become more sustainable. In stead of using ‘trees saved from destruction’ or ‘kg of CO2 saved’ to measure the impact of an implemented product or service, metrics like ‘$ earned’ or ‘market share gained’ are supposedly much more effective.

SunRun, a US home solar power installer, totally got this. Check out their great 30 second advertisements below. Video > words.

On virtues

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”Aristotle

I believe that we have much more control over our character than we realize. We see our lives, by default, from our own perspectives. This leads us to think that much of our behavior is natural, where in fact it has been shaped over our individual history. To become the sculptors of our own persona, we need to adopt a “third-party perspective”: looking at ourselves critically as if we were a distant observer.

A great proponent of human virtuosity is the late Benjamin Franklin, one of the “Founding Fathers” of the US. He proposed a simple, yet powerful exercise, to become a more virtuous person. This exercises was one of many used in his pursuit of “moral perfection”. Franklin believed, and so do I, that the best way to serve humanity is by being good to others.

Step 1 of the exercise is to set a “gold standard” for behavior. Franklin suggested to do this by establishing a list of the virtues you hold in high regard. For each virtue, write down a short sentence for clarification. Additionally, I have added a list of vices that I wish to keep away from. This provides us with a framework upon which to evaluate ourselves critically.

Step 2 is evaluation. In a notebook, create a table with seven columns for the days of the week, and rows for each of the virtues you aspire to. Each morning, read through your list of virtues. Each evening, with your notebook in front of you, assess which virtues you were able to show and which you failed to comply with. I keep an additional page of notes to explain in more detail how I could have behaved more virtuous.

virtue table

Over the past few days, this exercise has helped me significantly. First, studying a list of virtues each morning creates a positive mindset to start the day – it sketches the potential of how good you can be. Second, I have experienced more moments in which I looked at myself from a third-person perspective, because I recognized a situation in which I could behave more virtuous. Third, reflecting at the end of the day helps you evaluate your behavior.

The goal of this exercise is not to be totally virtuous, but to be mindful of yourself, particularly when you are about to make “a mistake”.

This exercise is in its essence very similar to one proposed by Warren Buffet, which I have covered in an older post. The gold standard of virtues in that exercise is established by looking at your classmates, which is an interesting way of deriving virtue from practical behavior. Franklin’s exercise is worth a new post however, as the table-form evaluation is very helpful and practical.

Reading the classics

In a recent biography of Einstein, by Walter Isaacson, I learned about the “Olympia Academy”. During Einstein’s first year as a patent officer in Bern, Switzerland, he founded, together with two friends, what was to become the basis of a reading club. Multiple evenings a week, Einstein, Solovine and Habicht would get together for a wholesome meal to discuss their readings of the classics. They covered books from Hume’s A treatise on human nature to Spinoza’s Ethics, discussing their personal views and critically reflecting on the concepts proposed by the authors.

As I was visiting the Rocky Mountain Institute in Boulder, Colorado last week, a friend kindly showed me around the University of Colorado campus. My eye was caught by the quote on the face of the library. When you think about it, time plays the role of a very strong filter on century-old pieces of literature, art of music that are still recommended.

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As the urgency of books on best-seller lists fades with time, only the truly good, beautiful and truthful books will keep being recommended. That’s the beauty of diving into old books: it takes a lot more effort to read, but you will find very deep sentences on each page, forcing you, the reader, to think about the truth contained in them.

From that perspective, I would like to share with you an index of great books I recently stumbled upon, mentioning some of the best works of the past 2500 years. We should all take more time to actively read these. I have found that the most valuable way of reading the classics is to stop after every other sentence, to try to think of (counter-)examples of your own life that (dis-)prove the truth of the matter. It is slow, but meaningful. If you want to recommend a book, or discuss a certain topic, please do reach out to me.

Admiration vs Aspiration

Many of us express considerable admiration for individuals who by our own metrics have achieved success. In some cases, this can lead us to create in our minds a distance between the person admired and ourselves. You start to tell yourself “what he/she has accomplished, I can never be”. In that form, admiration is disastrous: rather than trying to solve meaningful challenges, you downgrade your own potential.

The thing is, the distance between the admired person and ourselves is imaginary – it is entirely created in our head. Accomplishment comes from setting big goals and acting tirelessly upon them. Change is created not by accepting naturally what others say, but by questioning all you hear and developing your own answers, based on what you truly sense is true.

Aspiration might be a healthier form of moving forward. If your aspiration is to achieve a truly meaningful goal you have chosen based on metrics you personally believe are important, aspiration is more actionable than admiration. The best and only way to make a change is to start acting!

Education For The Future

I believe education can be a fundamental solution to many of the grand challenges humanity faces today. Poverty, disease, malnourishment and climate change – these are all problems that can best be solved by educating people about the problem and training them to find and execute solutions. But education needs to change completely from what it is today.

Luckily, many bright minds are working on new ways of bringing education to people. Online lectures, gamification and peer-to-peer tutoring are great examples of new forms of learning; they are becoming more commonly applied in classrooms around the world. But not only is it important to transform how we learn, what we learn should be changed dramatically also.

I find it fascinating to think about the skills that will make a difference in the future. Much inspired by books like Daniel Pink’s A whole new mind, below is the list of the skills I want to develop further — because I think they are critical to flourish in project world.

Build and lead teams. Practice the act of convincing people to support you. Only when one learns to adopt the perspective of others can you be truly influential.

Solve complex problems. In the real world, unlike in most courses, there is no set of guidelines available. You need to invent the roadmap yourself.

Develop big ideas. To make a profound change in the world, we need to work on big dreams and audacious projects. It is too easy to adopt the opinion of others, instead try to go deep and really question beliefs and knowledge. This requires to go deeper than most into the matter, and zoom out further to place things into context.

Improvise and play. Learn how to make things up on the spot and to give project a human edge.

Tell stories. In the flat world, storytellers triumph. This is true for the ventures we start but also for our personal lives. Human beings crave stories – and we love to help and spend time with people who are good at telling them.

Tinker and prototype. It is critical to be able to transform ideas into action. This may concern building a robot or writing a book – it is about the mindset of building things which are not yet perfect.

Identify and surf trends. By seeing ahead and identifying technological and social shifts, we can increase the chances to be “at the right place at the right time”.

Try things and take action. Start things that never were. The only way to be successful is to try a lot of things that might fail. Small failures are soon forgotten, large victories are not.

The list above is non exhaustive and non perfect. Please share the skills you find significant by email [titiaan.palazi@gmail.com] or at the bottom of this post. Thank you!