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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Bustling Bangalore

Sunset in Bangalore

Last week I arrived in Bangalore. After a thrilling week in India, I am glad I had the courage to book a last-minute flight to Bangalore once I was told that I had to wait for two more months for my U.S. working visa.

Adjusting to life in Bangalore is easy. Many speak English and tasty food is available on every street corner. Several great groups of people invited me to work with them, bringing meaning to my days in India from the moment I arrived. I stay with wonderful friends who double as great hosts. I go to sleep every night having learnt at least three new things.

Buildings, infrastructure and transportation

Buildings shoot from the ground everywhere, although access to a proper home is unevenly distributed. The picture below shows a tent community in front of a newly erected building.

Building and slum

Bangalore’s streets are surprisingly clean, but waste’s final destination may be nearer than you think. I was surprised to discover this garden with integrated garbage dump one morning as I woke up to watch the sun rise from my roof terrace in Indira Nagar.

IMG_5967 

Transport in Bangalore is hectic. The first days I traveled by riksha (called “autos”, I actually drove one an auto last Sunday evening), but I quickly decided to test the public bus system. Boarding the bus on my first ride, I was surprised to see only women sitting! When I turned my head to look towards the rear of the bus, I realized that all men were sitting in the back. This is an unspoken rule I’ve observed on buses since, so that women have a place to sit. I wonder how it was first implemented.

Women in bus

Providing access to electricity to the poor

On Wednesday and Sunday I went out into Bangalore’s tent-communities (slums) with the wonderful fellows and interns of Pollinate Energy. Pollinate provides access to electricity to people who do not have access to the grid. They do this by recruiting entrepreneurial twenty-year-olds from local urban communities – called Pollinators – to sell products that people want: solar panels, lights integrated with mobile-phone chargers, cookstoves and possibly soon modular homes; tablets and low-voltage TVs.

I quickly learned that it is essential to work with local entrepreneurs if you are to sell products. When I enter a community – a European with blonde hair and white skin who speaks not a word of Kannada – it stirs up many reactions, yet these do not necessarily lead to an interest in the service we are trying to provide. The real value is created by someone the community can trust – a boy like Madu in the picture below, who gently explains the benefits of not using kerosene. What is important is that the community can trust the storyteller.

I also learned that people’s dis-interest in an electricity-providing product can have many more reasons than poor product design. In two days, I have heard people explain that they fear that the solar panel will be stolen; that neighbors will destroy the solar lantern; or that they simply do not want to be the first of their friends to buy the product.

Madu in tent camp

A little running

After Wednesday’s visit to the slum, Monique and Jamie from Pollinate invited me to participate in Bangalore’s midnight marathon run – the 10km version, not the original Greek length – on Saturday night. Dressed up as light-emitting bees (yellow shirts, black tights, LED-light strapped to our chest) more than twenty of completed the track in Whitefields – cheering and screaming to one another as we passed.

Bengaluru midnight marathon

I spent the last two days with Infosys’ Green Initiatives team. Under the leadership of Rohan Parikh, this group of 15 very competent engineers are committed to realizing the world’s most energy-efficient buildings. Since 2008 the team has reduced energy consumption in new buildings by almost 50%. My goal is to work with part of the team to realize a bold project in the next five weeks.

Sunset from the roof

How to make the most of SET?

Two days ago I had the pleasure to speak to 150 new students of the masters I started 3 years ago (Sustainable Energy Technologies in Delft). This post contains tips & tricks of former SET-students reflecting on their experience. Thanks to Bert van Dorp, Ewoud de Kok, Diego Acevedo, Manuel Vargas Evans and Gaurav Durasamy for their contributions. 

1. Ask yourself: who do you want to become? Do you want to invent a new photovoltaic panel or help your government build a wind turbine park? You have much freedom to choose. Create the experience that lines you up for success after you finish in Delft.

If you do not know who you want to become, ask yourself: Which possible scenarios do I see for myself? Many students wrote this down on their slips of paper. Test different scenarios by joining side-projects or doing research with a professor in your evening hours.

2. Explore courses offered outside SET. Delft has much to offer at different faculties. Are you interested in water desalination? Approach a professor at civil engineering. Do you want to learn about electric vehicles? Speak to researchers at 3ME (Mechanical, Materials and Marine engineering). Look at the curricula of the energy masters in Delft and all masters in Delft.

3. Work with professors who inspire you. Find the professors whose research fascinates you and who you admire as human beings. A good way to start is to print the Energy Initiative’s list of professors and look at all their personal research pages. Make appointments with those professors who you find interesting. Write a reflection after each meeting, and see which meetings make you excited for future collaboration.

4. Sign up for email lists. You want to be at the center of information flows. Start with The (Delft) Energy Club, MIT Energy Club and MIT Energy Initiative. Through these lists you will learn about events, interesting people, books and competitions to take part in. Also take a look at YES!Delft students. You want to set up an environment in which information flows to you.

5. Build friendships with students from different backgrounds. The easy path is to connect with people who speak your language and eat your food. Don’t limit yourself – you will miss out on learning the stories and insights from many of the cool people in this room!

Back Camera

6. Work on side projects. The best way to learn is by doing. Participate in the Solar Decathlon, the Nuon Solar team or one of the many projects The Energy Club offers. Or: start your own team. Diego Acevedo joined the BlueRise team during SET, now a steady source for Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) projects.

7. Look for internships that make you uncomfortable. Just like side-projects, internships are a great way to learn. You will understand what skills you need to build a solar panel or change the heating and cooling controls, in stead of theorizing about these skills in a classroom. Find companies that inspire you; go after them. Resist the temptation to do an internship within the TUDelft.

8. Go abroad. Travel to international energy conferences. Consider the ATHENS program, the Cleantech Forums; ARPA-e and the Renewable Energy World Conference. You can pull the student card: this often means free or cheap access. If that does not work, find a newspaper to write for (start with Delta or a newspaper from your country) and apply for free conference-tickets as press. A third option is to offer your help as a volunteer. If you

Do you want to study in a different country? Hunt for the opportunity! It will take dedication and effort to study abroad. Approach professors at different universities directly (attach your previous research papers) or ask professors in Delft whether they have connections at other universities.

9. For thesis: find a research group that works together closely. Big ideas do not form in a vacuum (this book tells the story of Bell Labs, one of the most innovative research centers of all times). Sitting in a small room for 6 months will unlikely yield novel technology ideas. In successful research groups, PhD’s, post-docs and master students have lunch together and share their findings on a weekly basis. Look for groups where it is normal to walk into the office of your colleagues every day to ask them questions. To learn whether the research group you are interested in works this way, sit in their office for a week!

10. Do you want to prototype a big idea? Ask the university for support. Do not hesitate to approach the dean and other faculty members for (financial) support: they want to help you, and typically do not know what’s going on inside the classrooms. Delft Energy Initiative supports student projects with funding to build a prototype.

11. Participate in challenges and competitions. This is the best way to make your side-project fly. Look at the Cleantech Challenge, the Cleantech Open and  the Sustainability Challenge.

12. Join a startup. YES!Delft has lots of startups. If you feel entrepreneurship is your thing, just go there and join one! The atmosphere is fantastic.

13. Build long-lasting relationships with fellow students, professors and partners. Being a student gives you the opportunity to build relationships with other students, with the people you work with on projects and with the people in your research group. Make sure the relationships are long-lasting: who knows what you will be doing when you graduate?

When you leave Delft – for work abroad or for good – do not hesitate to send updates to your friends from SET. Send an email once every 3 or 6 months with the questions you’ve thought about; the way your life has changed; and  ideas you would like to work on.

Final advice: be proactive. This is so important that we have to repeat it. SET is a broad program, flexible enough to suit your own specific needs. Do not feel comfortable with “just the coursework”. Shape your agenda in your own way. If you need advice, contact fellow students and alumni.

Book Review: Natural Capitalism

Natural Capitalism suggests practical methods to improve the performance of your company or the quality of life in your country by accounting for natural capital. If you want to read success stories of better cities, more profitable businesses and more productive factories that reduce flows of energy, materials and waste, this book is for you. Below are some of my most important take-aways:

“What might be called “industrial capitalism” does not fully conform to its own accounting principles. It liquidates its capital and calls it income. It neglects to assign any value to the largest stocks of capital it employs – the natural resources and living systems, as well as the social and cultural systems that are the basis of human capital.”

The book introduces four strategies that enable countries, companies, and communities to operate by behaving as if all forms of capital were valued.

  1. Radical resource productivity. Using resources more effectively has three significant benefits: it slows resource depletion, it lowers pollution, and it provides a basis to increase employment. Companies and designers are developing ways to make natural resources – energy, metals, water, and forests – work five, ten, even one hundred times harder than they do today.
  2. Biomimicry: redesigning industrial systems on biological lines that change the nature of industrial processes and materials, enabling the constant reuse of materials in continuous closed cycles. Spiders make silk, strong as Kevlar but much tougher, from digested crickets and flies, without needing boiling sulfuric acid and high-temperature extruders.
  3. Service and flow economy: a shift to an economy wherein consumers obtain services by leasing or renting goods rather than buying them outright. This will entail a shift from the acquisition of goods as a measure of affluence to an economy where the continuous receipt of quality, utility, and performance promotes well-being.
  4. Investing in natural capital: reinvestments in sustaining, restoring, and expanding stocks of natural capital.

Resource productivity in industry

According to Natural Capitalism, the methods to increase industry’s energy and material productivity can be classified into (1) design; (2) new technologies; (3) controls; (4) corporate culture; (5) new processes; and (6) saving materials. An example of improved productivity through controls is found in distillation columns:

“Distillation columns use 3 percent of total U.S. energy to separate chemical and oil products, but most operators instead of continuously monitoring the purity of product as it emerges, test only occasionally to make sure samples meet specification. Between tests the operators, flying blind, often feed the same material back through the column more times than necessary to be really sure the products will pass the test – using 30-50 percent excess energy. Better controls that measure the purity actually coming out and keep fine-tuning the process for the desired results could cut waste in about half.”

We only need to look at chickens for improved productivity through new processes:

“There are three ways to turn limestone into a structural material. You can cut in into blocks, grind it up and calcine it at about 1500 Celsius into Portland cement, or feed it to a chicken and get it back hours later as even stronger eggshell. If we were as smart as chickens, we might master this elegant near-ambient-temperature technology and expand its scale and speed.”

The next time you design a manufacturing process or building, limit yourself using this framework:

“If a company knew that nothing that came into its factory could be thrown away, and that everything it produced would eventually return, how would it design its components and products?”

Eggs

Elimination of Muda

Muda is Japanese for “waste”, “futility” or “purposelessness”.

A central thesis of the book is that large-scale centralized production is not more efficient than localized small-scale production. The benefits of decentralized production – lower capital investment, greater flexibility, higher reliability, lower inventory cost and lower shipping costs – often far outweigh the benefit of centralized production – a lower price per pound of material or cubic foot of machinery. In decentralized production, all the different processing steps can be carried out immediately adjacent to one  another with the product kept in continuous flow.

“From a whole-system perspective, the giant cola-canning machine may well cost more per delivered can than a small, slow, unsophisticated machine that produces the cans of cola locally and immediately on receiving an order from the retailer.”

“The whole system comprises classical central sewage-treatment plants and their farflung collection sewers – each piece optimized in isolation – is far costlier than such local or even on-site solutions as biological treatment. That is the case because even if the smaller plants cost more per unit of capacity (which they generally don’t), they’d need far less investment in pipes and pumps – often 90 percent of system investment – to collect sewage from a greater area to serve the larger plant.”

WasteWater

Water treatment centrally or in your garden?

Business models for a service economy

Together resource productivity and elimination of muda (lean thinking) offer the foundation for a powerful new business logic: Instead of selling the customer a product that you hope she’ll be able to use to derive the service she really wants, provide her that service directly at the rate and in the manner in which she desires it, deliver it as efficiently as possible, share as much of the resulting savings as you must to compete, and pocket the rest. 

An example of this “new business logic” are Energy Service Companies (ESCo’s). ESCo’s privately finance and install energy saving measures (insulation, energy-saving LED lighting, solar panels) in a client’s building, and charge a monthly fee to the client that is typically less than the energy saved. In a not-so-distant past, engineering firms would charge for the product (insulation materials, solar panels and labor costs for installation) upfront, because of which many potential clients did not become clients because they could not afford the capital expense.

SpaceX_Dragon

Another not-so-earthly example is Elon Musk’s SpaceX. In stead of selling NASA a rocket, SpaceX charges NASA for the service to bring weight into the stratosphere. Through a different design perspective – building reusable in stead of disposable rockets – SpaceX is able to deliver NASA their service for one-tenth of the cost, winning a $1.6B contract.

Other examples are Schindler, a Swiss elevator-manufacturer that makes 70 percent of its earnings by leasing vertical transportation services, and Amazon Web Services. In stead of selling server-racks, AWS provide the service of storing bits. With this new business logic, Amazon created the industry of cloud storage (for which no server-manufacturing-expertise was needed!).

“At first glance it is tempting to regard a company crazy for striving to sell less of its product. If you sell a service, however, you have the opportunity to develop relationships, not just conduct a one-time transaction. The business logic of offering continuous, customized, decreasing-cost solutions to an individual customer’s problems is compelling because the provider and the customer both make money in the same way – by increasing resource productivity. Service providers would have an incentive to keep their assets productive for as long as possible, rather than prematurely scrapping them in order to sell replacements.”

A “service economy” has important macroeconomic implications. In a “goods economy”, purchasing and thereby orders fluctuate vigorously depending on the economy. In a “solutions economy” this volatility is dampened, because access to a solution does not require large investments, only annual service-fees. This would lead to an enormous reduction in the cycle of jobs being created and destroyed.

The shared economy is one incarnation of the service economy. The shared economy – an economy in which people receive service from the unused capital of other individuals – has started to take shape in recent years because technology has enabled fast and efficient distribution of goods and connection between individuals. With smart door-locks and iPhones with internet access, you can reply to a tenant on airbnb, approve her stay and give her digital, 24-hour access to your front door all in a matter of minutes. Before, this was not possible.

Important questions:

  • Why is the idea of “centralized production leads to maximum efficiency” deeply rooted in our minds if it is incorrect?
  • Why has the “service economy” or “solutions economy” – the concept to sell access to a product in stead of the product itself – been adopted by companies only in the last 20 years?
  • Why do product companies – Apple, Philips, Dyson – choose to sell a product in stead of access to a service, if selling a service allows them to build long-term customer relationships?