Jul 29th, 2021 | Dreamers Gonna Dream. On Personal Goals Baked During the Pandemic
Personal Goals Take Time To Maturate
July was peaceful and cozy. After deploying the project I had been building for the past two years, The ODYSSEY Test, in mid-June, I could finally rest a bit. There is literally nothing going on around. No meetups, no events. Nothing. The whole city is quiet now, and instead of partying like crazy like we used to every year at 4Daagse, I enjoy strolling in the park, excursions to the sauna, and tiny barbecues on the porch of my house. But that gave me a chance to finally daydream a little bit more and think about my long term personal goals for real.
Well, technically, I have always been a dreamer as I don’t have any sleep phases other than REM. I first found out because I was using one of these apps that are supposed to wake you up from light sleep – and for many days the app couldn’t do the job properly as I don’t have any light sleep at all. I have tried with many apps since then. Always the same result. Friends who do sleep research for a living say it’s impossible, unless I was a war victim or a survivor from a catastrophe wit a PTSD and massive sleep deprivation. Yet it’s true.
The Pendulum Scheme
Anyways, I finally had time to daydream and think about what I really want to do with my life. Of course, I already thought about this before, and I had a vision, yet, it was not crystalized up to this point. As I mentioned in the podcast episode for the PhD Career Stories, I had a vision of working and living in a “pendulum” scheme of sorts. Namely, spending the first two weeks at home, resting, chilling, and creating new content, and the last two weeks away: giving workshops, attending meetups and conferences, and traveling. I imagined home as some wooden house at the end of a forest in some quiet place. And everything would be fine if not the thing that was missing from the picture. People.
Personal Goals That Our Culture Conditions
And then, one thought hit me hard. I was culturally conditioned to think that a semi-detached house with a husband, two kids, a dog, and a decent car in the garage is what I should be building my life around. Just because it is what everybody else does. In our culture, even multi-millionaires like Mark Cuban who have all the resources to do with their lives whatever they want, choose to lock themselves behind the doors of their mansions and cultivate this lifestyle. It is such a default that no one really questions if this choice is even optimal for them.
So, at some point it became obvious to me that I have to break out from this thought scheme and ask myself what I really want to do about my life. If the outcome is the usual path that people take, fine. If not, fine too. And after a long deliberation, it came to my mind that for some reason, I don’t seem to age the way most people do. Namely, I’m not looking for comfort at all. Rather the opposite. I’m looking for inspiration, namely for people who can teach me something, and preferably people in large amounts. And then, my vision for what I actually want to achieve, started to finally clarify.
The Memories From Grad School
I started thinking of creating a place where creativity can foster in an unlimited way. I remember a summer school I have been to in the summer of 2012. It took place in the small village of Będlewo close to Poznań. We were locked there for four weeks in a group of thirty students, together with about ten faculty members. For the whole month, we attended lectures, enjoyed group sports, and late night conversations about life. And, we worked on our individual projects in computational neuroscience. We had all meals together and despite the fact that we had access to internet, we didn’t need to worry about anything happening in the other world.
It felt a bit like Hogwarts of today. You just lock yourself with other passionates like you, dive into our work, and enjoy the adventure. No wonder that man projects that started at this summer school, later developed into full-fledged publications. And, many of the faculty members present at the school hired some of the students in their labs. Well, there were some downsides as well… According to my calculations, more than 1/3 of the summer school participants split from their partners during these four weeks. But that’s another story.
How Creativity Happens
Anyways, this concept of stimulating creativity by putting creative people together and limiting the influence of all the worries from the outer world, sticked to my mind. And especially today, when all business and social life are moving online, people become isolated more than ever. And even when they meet in person, they lurk into their phones every two minutes anyway and consume news (well, mostly with trashy snippets of news in fact) all day long.
The Distance That Blocks Creativity
Plus, the distance works against creativity. In 2017, I visited my sister in Silicon Valley and I spent a month there. Instead of going to museums or to the beach, I was going to startup meetups and observing the working culture in the Bay Area. One thing that stroke me was that the distances between the towns were cruel. I couldn’t even get to more than one meetup a day. To get from one meetup in Palo Alto to another one in Sunnyvale or Mountain View, I had to spend an hour (or more) in transit.
For the same reason, people could not work hand in hand; every startup had an office in yet another “garage” or a startup accelerator in another town. Founders were mostly bumping into each other at meetups and conferences. How much creativity and collaboration can you foster if you have to make so much active effort every time you want to meet?
It also became obvious to me that creativity needs silence, at least to a certain extent. In the past few years, almost all creative ideas I’ve got, happened at a sauna in a secluded place in the woods. I was going there to rest and to completely disconnect myself from the outer world for a few hours. To spend time in the green and switch off my brain. Paradoxically, this is where my brain worked best, and that’s not an accident. It was proven by many studies that disconnecting from the outer world and practices such as mindfulness, significantly increase the capacity of your working memory and your overall brain power after just a few days of practice.
Not Yet Another House in the Suburbs
So, eventually, it came to my mind that living in a semi-detached house in a good quarter of the city, behind a tall fence, is not what I could really call home. If I could choose any way of living, I would rather build a huge house, or rather, a facility, where there is enough room for 40-50 people to stay around so that startups can come over and crush for a few weeks in the early phases of their development, and where individuals can come to launch their careers.
A place where the startup culture of Silicon Valley meets the East, and the self-development meets business development. Some green place, where you’ve got anything that you need, including the garden, and the wood, a sports pitch, a sauna, a gym, a movie lounge, a catering. And, where you can focus on what you actually do. And, on the people around you. And, build, build, build new solutions.
And, I see this house as the most chilled but at the same time, the most vibrant [private] house of all time. A house with glass walls and a lot of sunshine. And, people who want to do something with their lives, and build projects that kick ass (whatever that means). I gave this house the working name “The Evergreen” as I would like it to be green, both in terms of the surroundings and the functionalities.
I actually wanted to be an architect as a kid; as a 14-year-old I learned how to create architectonic projects of buildings for one of the classes at school, and I was quite good at that. I was helping out by construction work when my parents were building a house in 1996. Plus, I did a lot of construction work around my own house in the recent years. It was a ruin when I bought it a few years ago. Since then, every summer I have been spending a week or two on working around it ever since to make it livable. So, the thought that I could design and build some facility like this, and do it all on budget, didn’t scare me at all. If someone can pull this off, it is me.
How To Build a Successful Accelerator
To put it bluntly: I don’t know! Of course, you want to see other people’s success, but I think my priority would be to foster success without putting pressure on projects. If I had freedom to do it my way, I would do the following.
I’d choose the right projects proposed by people who think big and who know what they are doing (rather than just talking) and why they are doing it – so that they will make things happen. Then, I’d like for the attendees to forget about everyday stresses and enjoy the experience of working in a group on something they believe in, hand in hand with other startups in more of a hackathon-style rather than scrum-style fashion. After all, it’s always about finding the right people with ideas that hold water, and giving them the ground to grow. And sometimes, the best you can do is to let them do what they are best at.
Ans, I’d like them to remember these few weeks spent in the Evergreen as crazy yet great time that they will vividly remember 10 or 20, or even 30 years later just as I remember my summer school from 2012.
To stimulate collaboration between projects and limit the pressure of getting the MVP on day one. To make them feel like home rather than at work or in a competition. Arrange a bonfire sometimes. Or go to a Tiësto’s concert in a group. Or even jump on a plane to Ibiza for a weekend (it is literally 20 Eur per seat). I’d like the participants to still call each other after many years and call each other a friend.
To use some tricks that I learned while doing neuroscience for 8 years and teaching people about careers for 4 years to help them better determine what they are (individually) good at on the team, and stimulate their creativity. To pull the very best out of them.
To support them. To invite smart people from various disciplines to help build projects, build brands and communities, and promote them (for this reason, a driving distance to a large city like Amsterdam and to the Schiphol airport would be a plus).
To start a Youtube channel shot/streamed from the very place. To show the progress and the teams – with their struggles, mutual support, wins, losses, laughter, tears. To inspire other fresh founders overseas.
I feel that altogether, this might lead to really groundbreaking results. I have a gut feeling that such an accelerator would sustain itself even if it was only based on voluntary donations (in company shares) from the participating startups.
Mum Will Always Be a Mum
Of course, I didn’t hesitate to talk to my Mum about all this. She first yelled at me and said that I was outrageous, especially given my age. She laughed and scoffed at me. She asked, “Why aren’t you just normal? Why don’t you want to settle somewhere, establish a family, and just be happy?” I said, “I didn’t say I don’t want to. But I can only plan what I have influence on.” I don’t have any influence on whether someone loves me or not. I can only influence how I live and what type of infrastructure I build around myself.
And frankly speaking, building such an infrastructure is a win-win. I cannot even imagine a better environment to raise a kid than a place where everyone builds something night and day. And if I have no family, then I won’t even have time to worry about it, as there will be way too many things to take care of on a daily basis, and too many people around to ever feel alone. So, I will sort of win my life regardless of the circumstances. What to even worry about?
My Mum sounded shocked and disgruntled. But the very next day, she called me saying, “You know that you will need to hire a chef and a cleaning person, right?” Now we are talking.
Why To Even Talk About Your Personal Development Plans?
I was wondering what would be the consequences of openly speaking about my personal development and my goals for the future. We are conditioned to think that other people are evil wolves who will steal or squash our dreams. And yet, as it turns out, it works quite the opposite way. When you tell people what your purpose is, instead of throwing logs to your feet, they will push you forward. They will be more inclined to buy into your products and services as they can see a tangible goal that they would like to support. They start thinking with you, and share contacts and solutions. Things start happening.
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