The wise man is…

The wise man is free from all those disturbances of the soul which I describe as passions: his heart is full of tranquil calm for ever. And anyone who is self-controlled, unwavering, fearless, undistressed, the victim of no cravings or desires, must inevitably be happy.

from Cicero’s Discussions at Tusculum.

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Finite vs. Infinite games

Finite games follow a fixed set of rules that can not be altered during the play of the game. The purpose of a finite game is to win. Chess and football are two typical examples of finite games.

In stead, the purpose of an infinite game is to continue playing. Infinite games transcend time and invite anyone who is willing to play to join in. Infinite games I used to play were keeping a ball up in the air as long as possible, or building tree houses.

Too often we approach life as a finite game: we believe success to be of a scarce nature; you must follow a fixed set of rules to get there and there can only be a limited number of winners. The world becomes much richer when we approach life as an infinite game: the rules become ours to (re)invent, and the goal is to continue the game together. 

On Venezuela

Imagine a poor family living in the swamps of Latin America. The family owns hundreds of acres of land, but fails to farm the land effectively (if at all). Thus, the padre familias has difficulties feeding his children, let alone providing them with education, healthcare and access to information. As a government official, how would you support your citizens? 

During my two week visit to Venezuela, I met such a family. Six months ago, Chavez’ government gave a big truck to the family, for use on their farmland. With a truck, the number of cows could be increased, more meat could be produced and sold, which would lead to increased budget for the family’s basic needs. The truck was given to the family without either constraints or explanation. Within weeks, the family had completely stripped the truck, selling different parts – bodywork, cylinders, wheels – to locals who would use the parts for other purposes. 

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Handing out free equipment is clearly an ineffective (or worse, counter-effective) method to develop a nation, but much used by Chavez to win the favor of voters in his country. As Chavez is expected to leave his position as Venezuela’s president for health reasons, maybe it’s time to find other strategies to further develop the country.

Another regular harmful government action is to socialize private companies. During our stayin Venezuela, we heard stories about shipping companies, telecom companies and expensive hotels whose ownership had been claimed by Chavez’ government. If there is a significant chance that your company will be “taken” from you once it grows, you will surely think twice before starting in Venezuela. 

Design in entrepreneurship: essential or a luxury? A report from A Better World By Design.

This blog was originally written for MIT Entrepreneurship Review

What is the role of design in improving the world we live in? This was the central question at the annual “A Better World by Design” (ABWxD) conference, hosted by Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) last weekend. While some may associate design with beautiful buildings or intuitive software interfaces, conversations at ABWxD extended far beyond this realm. The key take-away from two days in Providence, RI: design plays a fundamental role in the success of any project, extending its influence from technology development to product sales.

In technology development, design is too often an after-thought. Noel Wilson shared the process of redesigning a rollable water vessel for developing countries. Previously, a product had been developed to eliminate the need for people to carry heavy water containers on top of their heads. As Wilson and his team were testing a prior version of the product in the field, Wilson observed that people had difficulties using the sealing mechanism. By involving the end-users, and setting up a prototype facility in a local village, Wilson was able to rapidly iterate through design features, and find those design elements that were most appreciated by users.

It is specifically the interface between user and technology that requires careful design. In a personal conversation, Steve Daniels – who founded ABWxD in 2008 – shared his experience working with IBM Research, by most standards an advanced technology company. For IBM’s Smarter Cities initiative, engineers have been avidly developing technologies that can communicate energy and water consumption to residents. Despite excellent engineering functionality, the researchers realized that analytics alone aren’t enough to change consumer behavior. To create such behavioral change, beautification is not enough: design must be grounded in cognitive psychology and sociology to influence behavior.

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Besides technology and product-interface development, the importance of design extends into marketing and communication. A well-visited workshop on Saturday focused entirely on persuasive communication. To make a message stick, good design is essential. Design does not only relate to the form and quality of the communication (e.g. a YouTube video), but also on the source of communication.

Giles Holt, architecture student at RISD University, is one of the co-founders of Consignd. In place of brick-and-mortar stores, Consignd allows users to buy from an influential expert, changing the way we find the products we love. Fundamental to the stickiness of the system is the design, and judging by their website, these guys have a lot up their sleeves. Beyond their product, Consignd has brought a design approach to their business development by applying the same sequence of steps employed by Noel Wilson throughout as they go to market.

If design is fundamental to development and diffusion of innovative products and services, how can it be further integrated into university education? A good example is the annual course Product Design and Development. Taught by MIT professor Steven Eppinger in collaboration with RISD professors, this project-based course stimulates small teams of students to develop a physical product. Beth Soucy, an industrial design student and part of this year’s ABWxD organizing team, was positive about her experience taking the class, collaborating with MIT engineers and business students to develop a tangible product.

Beyond MIT, startup accelerators are picking up on the importance of design too. GreenStart, a San Francisco based accelerator, focuses on giving renewable energy companies a redesign of business, branding and communication.

Having highlighted the importance of design in many different stages of a company’s value chain, it must be noted that design is not a cure-all medicine. Beyond excellent design, transformational companies require an element of technological or business model innovation. In the energy space, this is highlighted by the “energy dashboard delusion”: the idea that visualization of energy consumption would automatically engage home owners to hugely reduce their utility bills.

How do you integrate design into your work? Is design a core element of your business, or do you see it as an extra? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!

 

Success

On my flight to NYC, I saw the movie Moneyball. Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, the coach of the Oakland Athletics — a small-budget baseball team from the mayor league — who faces the problem that his best players are acquired by wealthier teams. He wants to show that great teams can be built without great budgets, and applies a radically different strategy. The core theme of the movie is fighting against the resistance that appears when you set out to change business-as-usual.

Although the new strategy leads the Oakland Athletics to achieve an unprecedented number of wins-in-a-row, Billy Beane is ultimately unsuccessful – the Oakland A’s do not win the championship. The movie triggered me to raise an important question: What is it that makes people accomplish their goals?

The first obvious part is “What is it you want to accomplish?”. It’s the basis for Stephen Covey’s second principle of highly effective people: “Start with the end in mind”. He phrases the quote “all things are created twice”. There is a first, conceptual creation, which is sometimes followed by a second, real-world creation – execution. If we want to be effective in our lives, it is fundamental to fully understand that we are the designers, and it’s up to us sketch our lives before we play them out.

But given there is a small percentage of people who know where they want to go, what is it that separates those who succeed from those who do not? Some of my thoughts below.

Be focused on what you want to accomplish.

Know where you’re going. Really, this is another way of phrasing Covey’s second habit. Bill Clinton was attributed to know from a young age that his goal was to become a governor. If you’re so focused, you can be very effective in implementing. Focusing on what you want to accomplish, however, does not mean you need to work in one field to succeed. Clayton Christensen shows in the Innovator’s DNA that innovation comes from relational thinking – being able to combine many fields.

If you do not know exactly where you want to go, focus fully on one of the possible fields that has your interest. Diverging your energy into many different activities often leads to mediocre performance in all. By putting all you energy into one direction, you will create significant process, and through reflection will be able to find whether you enjoy the field or not. The future holds many different paths.

Set audacious goals.

Setting audacious goals does not mean only big or difficult, but it means setting your mind on goals you define as truly meaningful. Picking mediocre goals is a barrier to greatness. It’s very hard to mobilize yourself, let alone others, by aspiring insignificant things.

Do the hard things; eliminate the easy things.

This is another way of saying: do the important things (which you might fear) and eliminating insignificant activities. This is an important reason why few people are successful: it is difficult to feel the fear and do it anyway. Rather, we succumb to the fear and check our email (seldom important) in stead of making that call. Worth noting, accomplishing things you fear is one of the biggest intrinsic rewards you can experience. This rule is very much applicable to everyday life. Try to reflect each day by asking yourself “what was the most important thing I did today?”.

Learn to think for yourself.

This is difficult because in the current educational system we have been un-trained to do so. A habit to think for yourself, questioning others’ opinions and using your own observational skills leads you to form new ideas and approaches to solve problems and make decisions. Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater, states this is the most important reason for his success in his investment career. Read his article on Principles here. Joi Ito, director of the MIT Medialab, phrased it eloquently in a lecture yesterday “you won’t win a Nobel prize by doing what others tell you to do”.


Eliminate pride. It’s not about you – but about your work.

Many people want to get famous. It’s flattering if you’re invited to speak, you’re asked for an interview, or if people want to meet you. But does it really matter? In the end, it’s all about the difference you make in other’s peoples lives. If you do this by meeting others, than that’s fine, because it’s your work. But be critical: if you’re a healthcare-entrepreneur, you should probably be speaking to potential customers or testing your product in stead of having coffee with people who go after your fame.

Silicon Valley’s TED for entrepreneurs – CEO conference by Vinod Khosla

When looking at Vinod Khosla’s portfolio recently – I’m selecting my MSc thesis topic in Sustainable Energy, trying to identify research areas with commercial application – I came across a tab on his site named “entrepreneurial resources”. Right there was a bunch of video’s of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, investors and designers that would make TED’s global homepage look rather bleak. Apparently, mr. Khosla organizes a private conference for the CEO’s of his portfolio companies.

The video of John Hennessy (president of Stanford) on the Innovation Ecosystem is particularly interesting – check out all others here: http://www.khoslaventures.com/khosla/entrepreneurial_2011.html

 

 

It’s not about finding yourself – it’s about losing yourself

Many of the US commencement address videos, such as the famous Steve Jobs speech at Stanford, offer me a strong dose of inspiration. Many of these movies (hundreds can be found online) express the same essential message: find your passion and pursue your dreams. David Brooks, an NYTimes columnist, has written a powerful critique on this preachment in a recent article. His mantra: it’s not about finding yourself – it’s about losing yourself.

Speaking from my personal experience, it’s pretty hard at age 22 to define clearly who you are, what your calling is and what your future life is going to look like. More importantly, even if you manage to take a long summer day to define your passions and your calling, it’s very uncertain that these will remain the same over the next months, not to speak about the rest of your life. Maybe we should embrace that we don’t know exactly who we are, and rather summon ourselves to causes we can lose ourselves in. Happiness does not come from finding yourself, it comes from losing yourself – in a company you believe in, a cause worth fighting for or a commitment to solve an “unsolvable” problem.

As Bill Taylor puts it boldly in his HBR article: “The trouble with always looking for yourself … is that you spend too much time looking in the mirror rather than at the world”. And, as Pixar University’s former dean Randy Nelson says it: “It’s not trick for talented people to be interesting, but it’s a gift to be interested”.

Here’s to losing ourselves in the endeavours that form the journey of life!

Articles: “We is Bigger Than Me” and “It’s not about you”

What are your habits – and why?

Meet Warren Buffet, one of the richest guys in the world. Through his investment fund, Berkshire Hathaway, he has been able to generate billions of US dollars by investing in ventures that have a clear value proposition.

But did you know he’s also a great life coach? In a YouTube video that was sent to me by Eiso Vaandrager, Warren Buffet gives the electoral speech to a class of MBA graduates. In his speech, he tries to convince the MBA graduates of the importance of integrity, next to intelligence and energy.

He explains the importance of integrity by a very simple thought experiment. The experiment is so simple yet so true, that I’d love to share it with you. Check out this video, and do the experiment yourself!