Article featured image showing a collage of three images

A Homeless Family and a Kebab: this is how Xmas happened to me for the first time

May this personal story inspire you.

It was December 24th, 2017, and I was alone in Brussels for Xmas. Brought up in a Jewish home, I had never really celebrated any of the year-end rituals. So I thought I should change that. That's why on that night, I went out hoping to have my very first owned Xmas evening experience.

I wanted to start it right. So I went to church. I was curious. It turned out I found myself deeply involved in meditation while following the mass and listening to the heart-warming Xmas carols.

Without any plans, after leaving the church, I went for a walk. While I made my way to the city center, I noticed families, couples and friends all in festive mood. It was so contagious. I remember it made me walk around smiling at the world for no reason. Looking back, it might have seemed a bit weird for observers, I must say. At that point in time, little did I know I was making my way to the turning point of that evening.

Random Acts of Kindness generate Kindness

I took a turn near the city's main square and there I saw a lady handing a wrapped gift over to her two sons and instructing them to go give the package to a young girl who was laying in the arms of her father who was sitting covered in a blanket with his arms out begging for money on the streets. What a moment! I stopped and watched the scene unfold. I was so inspired with what I witnessed that I immediately stretched out for my phone in my pocket and snapped a picture of the moment when the act of giving actually happened.

After that, I ran after the lady and her children to tell them I had taken a picture. They were all in awe! That beautiful moment was memorialized in an image for them. They were extremely grateful. I sent them the picture, we talked about their gesture - how beautiful it was - and we ended up finding out the mother and I had social welfare as a common interest. What a great family! They were also Jewish by the way. After some minutes talking, we exchanged best wishes and waved goodbye (not before we took a selfie of course!)

After they left, I stood around with a smile on my face feeling like my role in that story had not yet ended. That's when I decided to approach the man and his daughter on the street. I asked for permission to kneel down next to them and introduced myself. Their names were Mario and Maria.

They were homeless foreigners living in Belgium. The father could speak good French. With the daughter, I spoke only "PLAYish" as we both enjoyed her brand new toy.

As we talked, their background story immediately surfaced: the father had been promised a job he never got and the money he had saved to start his life in Belgium was already gone. This was the reason he was begging - hoping to be able to make his way back home.

I was touched and I wanted to hear more. No! I wanted to do more! So I thought: if standing in the corner in the cold was all that family had as a plan for their Xmas evening, why not invite them to be my guests for my very first Xmas dinner? Wow! I will never forget the joy in that man's face when I brought up the invitation and the reaction of his daughter who nodded her head and opened up her eyes in happiness as her father translated to her that they were being invited.

I helped them get up from the floor and we started to take a walk. The girl was happy to hold hands between her father and myself. As we made our way, I realized Brussels had now one more family in festive mood walking around and making others smile. I felt blessed.

A simple random act of kindness that inspired me: a family gives a homeless girl a wrapped gift on Xmas evening.
The family who inspired me 🙂

A Kebab for Xmas

My invitation followed by me giving Mario the choice to choose a place for us to eat. He said all he wanted was a simple thing. When he asked Maria, the only thing she wanted was French fries and a Coke. My heart was softened. I told them they could choose anything they wanted. They insisted on something simple. So at the end, Mario asked if it would be OK for us to have a Kebab, fries and a coke.

And this was how I celebrated Xmas in 2017: I had the B.E.S.T company I could wish for at the table with me. And that was the B.E.S.T. Kebab I've ever had.

I have no words to describe how much joy there was around that table as we set and enjoyed our meal! Mario’s stories, Maria’s smile. Oh my!

You know? I may not have followed any Xmas tradition, but I know for sure that I lived the ultimate experience of the Xmas spirit - I experienced L.O.V.E. in its most human form.

After dinner, I waved goodbye to Mario and Maria and handed over an additional donation to help them get safely back home.

On that night, I felt like the happiest man on the planet. The lonely Jew who lived his very own Xmas miracle. May these lines partially copied from my writings inspire you this year for Xmas and all year round.

Happy holidays, world! I belong to you!

My 2017 Xmas dinner will forever be a special one: Kebab, fries and coke with my special guests, Mario and Maria.
Article featured image showing the word NO being completed with the letter W forming the word NOW

I didn’t win! And I don’t think I’ve ever felt so good in losing like I do now!

Yesterday was the semi-final round of a 4-month-long journey, which started when the company I work for, Boehringer Ingelheim, launched an innovation accelerator campaign called #FastForward, driven by the desire to facilitate the promotion and deployment of the most promising ideas from every single level from the company's network of more than 50,000+ employees and to help these ideas drive the company's overall innovation strategy into the future.

Out of the 509 submitted ideas, mine was among the top 15 semi-finalists, who were given the opportunity to undergo a very thorough idea maturation phase supported by an innovation manager. After ideation workshops, feedback sessions, market scouting, customer interviews and intense days of work invested in preparing a 5-minute idea pitch, I had the honour to present the results of the hard work in front of the company's Digital Portfolio Team, who had the task of evaluating the 15 semi-finalists and choosing the 5 winners that get the chance to pitch their ideas to the company's CEO next month.

After such an exciting and time/effort-consuming journey, it's absolutely normal to want to win, to want to feel good and proud about oneself and one's idea, right? Well, that's how we're programmed to think and feel, after all. And here's the bottom-line of my story that I want to share with you: I didn't win! And I don't think I've ever felt so good in losing like I do now. I feel a huge sense of accomplishment.

Winning and losing: time-bound distinctions (!?)

You know moments like when your team is losing and the referee sounds the whistle? Or when the winner is announced among the nominees? These are literally split-of-a-second moments in time that define who will step on the stage and deliver a speech, who will step on that podium and raise a trophy or simply who will get a chance to move forward versus those who won't - like in my case. "Damn! It's tough!" Let's not underestimate the pain that this split second carries with it. It's dull. It's a silent punch in the stomach. And it's a demon so bad that it may even make us forget the whole journey of wins that led us to that moment. And this is why learning the time-value of winning can do wonders.

You see? Most of us grow up trained to follow the winning path. And it's hard to keep focused on what lies beyond that path. There are so many distractions around telling us how our life should look like, and sometimes we forget that our paths are unique. There is only one ME and one YOU. Why should winning and losing look the same for us both, after all?

Besides, there are many lessons in losing! It is what we do with the result of winning or losing that defines the true champions. It is nothing else than the good old "learning to lose" recipe I'm talking about. And this is what this recipe looks like to me: I choose to see the wins behind losing!

Well, winning feels awesome - no doubt about it! However, there is a lot more than just winning and losing in a competition. And this is where the time-value of winning plays an important role. It is not the YES/NO split second telling apart the winner(s) from the loser(s) that define my success story, it is the aggregated value of NOW moments of success that led me there, and most importantly, the NOW moments that follow that define what winning looks like to me. And trust me, with this in mind and at heart, there's never too little to celebrate - no matter the outcome!

The many wins in my story of losing

Back to my story, when I pitched my semi-finalist idea yesterday, of course I hoped to make it to the finals. I didn't, but you know what? Never has it felt so easy to go through that "NO" split second when I realized I didn't make it. And the reason is: I already felt like a winner!

  • In fact, months ago, I felt like a winner because I was one of the 509 out of 50.000+ employees in the company who had the initiative and courage to submit an idea to this program.
  • I felt like a winner when my idea qualified as "HOT!" because it received support from many colleagues who liked, commented and engaged with the idea online.
  • Following, I felt like a winner when I received a message saying my idea had made to the evaluation phase.
  • Shortly after, I felt like a winner when I got the call saying my idea was shortlisted as one of the semi-finalists and I even got a message from the CEO's office thanking me for taking part in the campaign.
  • A whole month of idea-maturation went by and every single day I felt like a winner because I was given the chance to undergo a very intense idea and personal development phase with the support of a coach and a board of professionals.
  • Throughout the whole journey, I felt like a winner because I'm lucky to work for a company that gives me a voice to lead innovation and exposes me to a multi-cultural and cross-functional team of experts from whom I learned so much and who inspired me.
  • Yesterday when I stood in front of that audience as an idea owner seeking support to bring this idea to life, I felt like a winner because I know I delivered the best of myself, with not a single thought of "I could have done better" whatsoever.
  • Now I sit on the airplane flying back home, and I feel like a winner because I was able to acknowledge that split second "NO" moment with a smile on my face, for I learned to see beyond it. I learned to value the 4 months' worth of NOW winning moments that counterweight the punch of that split second by far.

And you know? It's all a matter of perspective as well. The underlying goals of my presentation yesterday were two-fold: first, I wanted people to believe in the idea and secondly, I wanted help to translate the idea into reality. Did I make it to the competition finals? No, I didn't! But guess what? No questions that goal #1 was achieved! And to a large extent, the noise it created already made goal #2 find its means of realization elsewhere. Power of positivity, anyone? 🙂

I never felt so much in sync with my talents and aspirations like I do now. What a sense of accomplishment! Thank you, @Boehringer Ingelheim and the whole #FastForward Team for instilling in me a sense of fulfilment and achievement. Even if my idea did not fast-forward as I wished, this experience has fast-forwarded me into the next best version of myself! I'm truly thankful!

And hey! Let's not forget! To all the finalists, congratulations! Thank you for the winning spirit all along! And thank you for taking us all as a company one step closer into the future. Now go ahead and get us all fast-forwarded, guys! Cheers! 🙂

Article featured image showing my mother at the Walt Disney Parks in Paris

KPIs in Life – Why “taking my mom to Disneyland” was one of mine

I took my mom to Disneyland yesterday - what a magical day! I would not be exaggerating if I said it was one of the most amazing days of my life! And this is not really because we were in Disneyland, but rather because this experience allowed me to deliver best-in-class “customer” satisfaction to my one and only “key account”, my most loyal “client” and my single life-long “investor”: MY MOTHER!

Here’s the thing: I was born to a middle class single mom in the Amazon region in Brazil. Growing up, I witnessed her  struggle financially to conciliate the hardships of Brazil’s economic instability and the costs of investing in my future in an society where quality education was a luxury (...and sadly still is!)

In February this year, I spent my birthday in Disneyland with my partner. When we were there, in one of the phone calls with my mom, she said to me: “I am so happy you could give yourself this one thing I could not give you as a child.” - and she meant taking me to Disneyland, of course.

When I heard that, I immediately replied: “No, mom! This is not just me giving myself a gift. This is me enjoying the fruits of YOUR visionary leadership, YOUR right decisions and YOUR investments in OUR future. If anything, this is OUR merit, not just mine! I should be thankful to YOU for being here now!”

Shortly after, I decided to book this trip I am enjoying today and take my mom to Disneyland with me to make this childhood dream come true exactly the way we both wanted it to happen back in the days: together as mother and son!

My mother's Lesson on Success KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) in Life

You know!? Like in many other families, my mom turned out to be my role model of leadership. She taught me a myriad of lessons I use every day in both my personal and professional lives. Among these lessons, there is a particularly valuable one I thought a lot about today: a lesson on how making people happy is a measurement of success. 

At the age of 34, I am very grateful for being where I am in life. I consider myself to be a successful man. And when I reflect on what my mom’s values on the subject are, I realise that my success is not really because of achievements collected, but rather because of this “success performance indicator” she taught me. In other words, because of the people I’ve been making happy along my journey. - What a fulfilling journey it’s been!

After this trip to Disneyland, I can say with utmost confidence that I have singled out my most valuable KPI to measure my (!) success at this point in life. This KPI is called “Making my Mother Happy”. And trust me! Seeing my mom’s smile yesterday felt like the 10th star in a 5-star happiness-level rating system.

What a day! Thanks, mom! Love you, mom!

PS: if you are reading this, and are lucky enough to have your mother and/or father still in your life today, I encourage you to give him/her/them a hug, a call or at least send a message saying how much you care. Like in business, delivering satisfaction is a “journey” that requires constant care.

Thanks for reading,

Love, Thyago

Article featured image metaphorically showing a woman talking to a robot as if having conversations with data

Active listening to data: Disrupting the way we look at disruption

Some time ago I attended a business conference where the company brought together their top leadership team, their best-in-class middle-management, a panel of external experts and some guest customers. What a wonderful couple of days those were! After the event, I felt empowered by the words of the leaders, I felt inspired by the best-practices presented by the management, I felt energized by the external key-note speeches and I felt disrupted by the insights from my interactions with the customers! – Yes, disrupted!

Some days passed and there I found myself again in a meeting room where people were turning their heads to me every time a tech-buzzword popped up: digital activities, social media, virtual reality, artificial intelligence and disruption. Hold on a second! – I thought to myself. The moment the weight of the accountability for disruption fell upon me, I couldn’t help but think of the discussions I had had with customers some days earlier. And just like that, I realized that there was scope for me to shape the way people perceive the role of a digital manager in a context where disruption is not just a trend, but a surviving mechanism to strive in business.

The Disruptors and the Agents of Disruption

Here’s the thing: whereas digital and IT guys like me do deploy technology aiming at redefining businesses and creating competitive advantage in a disruptive manner, the fact is that the real disruptive element out there is called the customer. They are the ones demanding change. They are the ones who decide whether or not to adopt the technologies chosen for their journeys. They are the ones evolving and adapting quickly to fast-paced digital landscapes. They are the ones who will either not react or stop reacting if their customer experience is not delivered the way they want it, when and where they want it. Customers – they are the ones! They are the disruptors!

So what does that imply for us digital strategists? We use technology as a steering tool to drive our customers through journeys we design towards behaviors we define – But this is not all! Our role also encompasses customer behavior management, for we must deep-dive on how our target groups react and respond to every aspect of their experience. And we do so by listening to them and making sure that every touchpoint in the journeys we defined are powered by content, channels and experiences they have chosen. Once again, it is customers who create disruption and it is up to us marketers to deliver the transformation that follows by reacting to it.

And this the differential principle between successful disruptive marketing and failed attempts of going disruptive. While the former reacts to the disruption sparkled by the demand from customers, the latter stumbles on the pitfall I like to call “disruption in a box”, which is nothing else but attempts to be disruptive by going window shopping for innovation before assessing customers’ needs first. Markets have shown that even the most skilled digital experts and the most advanced IT infrastructures are in for big trouble if teams fail to deliver what their customers really want. But then here’s where technology enables disruption at its best: it provides the toolbox to help companies listen. This toolbox is called data, analytics and insights. And this is how the path from disruption to transformation is paved: with data-driven decision making.

The Emotional Component of Data

Now back to the beginning of this article, if asked why I felt disrupted by the customers at that conference I mentioned, the answer is the “cherry on top” of this matter, and what I call the emotional component of data. During one-on-one interactions with the guest customers, I asked them about some of the touchpoints they have in their customer journeys with the company. Their body language and facial expressions, an emotional and very granular customer behavior type of data, disagreed with the insights I had at hand based on the data we had available. This made me raise a flag about a possible pain point.

And this is the beauty of going the extra mile and being out there in the field actually listening to customers and putting ourselves in their shoes. This allows us marketers to generate a type of qualitative data which includes an emotional component that technology is not yet fully able to interpret. The insights gathered from those interactions disrupted my status-quo. Again I repeat, it all started with the customers.

In follow-up, all I did was get back to my data and rephrase the questions I asked. In doing so, the disruption became an opportunity for transformation, for it was the emotional component of data that forced me to trigger an analytical skill I did not even know I had: active listening to data, whereby I paraphrase and reflect back on what my insights tell me.

For instance: If my data reveals that ‘the click-through-rate (CTR) of a particular email campaign is 3%, and 40% out of these are first-time clickers (1.2% out of the total)’, I rephrase and re-query my data as follows: ‘Approximately 2 in 5  people who reacted to my email campaign have done so for the first time. By asking the data even further, I discover that 15% of the total campaign population had never reacted to any campaigns at all. Thus, had I sent out this message only to this segment of the total, I would have reached a CTR of 8% instead (meaning 1.2%  out of the 15% of the total).’ And the conversation with my data continues. This leads to further questions: “The content of my campaign may be of particular interest for those who had never interacted with us before” which also means that “the content may not be relevant for people with whom we had already started our virtual conversation with and we should split these campaigns in two”. – From customer behavior through satisfaction towards content performance. Active listening to data can take us all the way to digital marketing excellence.

There you go! Once the questions asked changed, the answers shined new light on some possible customer satisfaction metrics. That’s when I began to find agreement between what my data says and the frown I had observed on my customers’ face when I met them in person. It almost felt like being able to see data frown at me this time. 🙂 So that’s it! The bottom-line here is clear: listen actively to your customer. . . and to your data. And remember that sometimes it is easy to overlook the fact that customers are people with emotions just like us – so let’s not take these cues for granted!

Thanks for reading! Feel free to comment and/or share! Cheers!

Article featured image metaphorically showing a super hero of the digital age

The key to digital transformation is people, not technology – this is why

In its simplest definition, digital transformation is nothing more than change by technology. It is the exercise of improving existing business processes and supporting the emergence of new ones by making use of (new) advanced hardware and software technologies, tools, platforms and applications.

Name an industry and anyone can find a job description or job title that entails digital transformation as a role or responsibility. After all, it is easy to agree that businesses in virtually every field understand the importance of advancing with technology in order to meet their evolving market realities and continue to operate and deliver value to customers.

However wide-spread digital as a topic within business strategy is, it is still a challenging matter within organizations. And the reason why highly skilled digital transformation teams with advanced technologies fail to bring about change is more often than not the same: the varying degrees of digital literacy outside the boundaries of their teams’ silos.

Digital capability building is, therefore, the exercise of bringing people into the digital transformation equation and sending out a message that it is not all about changes in technology, but also about enabling and empowering people to carry on the change while focusing on outcomes and consistently delivering value.

Therefore, in a wider-scope definition, digital transformation can also be seen as change by capability, for only a mix of skills, knowledge and understanding of the role of technology in supporting business functions can establish an organization-wide digital culture, where people are empowered to continuously get comfortable in digital spaces.

 

Digital Capabilities Fundamentals: as long as we all know it, it is OK if only some of us understand it and even fewer of us can do it

Knowledge, understanding and skills. We might have seen these capability words being used interchangeably because they are intrinsic parts of our educational and professional lives. Sometimes they seem to work out as synonyms, but in our case, they don’t. Here’s a practical example of the difference between these within a digital business context.

DefinitionExample
Knowledge refers to the absorption of information.“I know that I must obtain an opt-in permission from my customers in order to reach out to them via email.”
Understanding is the ability of taking knowledge and make meaning out of it.“I understand that emailing customers whose opt-in I do not possess may bring legal and financial consequences to my company and that I have to use an email marketing platform to filter out those customers when sending out mailings. Moreover, I have to explicitly offer an opt-out option to customers I send messages to.”
Skills refer to the proficiency of applying acquired knowledge and the quality of being able of doing something.“I can manage my customers’ opt-in & out via our email marketing platform and I am able to create and send out mailings to opt-in customers only, as well as include an opt-out link in the body of the message.”

While these three capability words differ in concept, they all have one thing in common: they can be obtained through learning, training and experience – and this is exactly where the magic happens. The higher the degree of digital literacy of a company, the faster and more efficient its migration into digital spaces will be. And this is why digital capability building is key to digital transformation.

Having said this, it is important to highlight that it does not mean that everyone should possess the same level of skills, the same degree of understanding or even the same amount of knowledge. Not at all!

 

A Customer-centric approach to Digital Capability Planning

Customer-centricity has become the buzz word of every marketing plan for a reason – it is the only way to survive in an ever-more demanding and competitive ecosystem. So if external customers are at the center of every marketing plan, digital transformation leads should also put the internal customers first too. Here’s a possible approach:

  • Start with mapping the stakeholders, profiling the audience and creating personas with different needs and roles within the bigger digital transformation picture of the organization. Make sure to include people at all levels and go for the key influencers and the most likely ambassadors and advocates first.
  • Different personas take different amounts of time and resources in developing understanding and skills. This is why capability building is not a one-time event, but rather a customer journey with multiple touchpoints that give the target group a regular opportunity to think, start conversations and most importantly, build up a community.
  • Keep in mind that touchpoints do not imply training or coaching. To explain that, a quote from the Nobel Prize winner in Literature Bernard Shaw is brought forward: “If you teach a man anything, he will never learn”. That is to say, learning is an active process. People learn by doing. Thus, to empower people with digital knowledge, understanding and skills, let them think and do digital.

Last but not the least, since digital transformation is a subject within the domain of change management, I close this article with a personal and holistic comment from my own experience. Having worked with start-ups, SMEs, governments and corporations, I have navigated through a variety of organizational (digital) cultures, all of which taught me several lessons on managing change from the bottom to senior levels of a company. Out of all lessons learned, I cannot think of a more precise and indisputable truth about change management other than consistency.

To illustrate that, imagine an eyedropper filled with red ink. When we let a drop of ink fall into a large glass of water, the red color will dissolve and we would see no change in the color of the water in the glass. But if we do the same thing continuously over time, however, the water would slowly turn pink until it fully embodies the tones of red. And this is how change happens – one drop at a time… consistently.

Well, having said that the key to digital transformation is people, then every person this article reaches means one more droplet of red ink in some company’s digital transformation glass.  Cheers to that!

Article featured image showing lamps in a laboratory glass to represent a lab of ideas.

Innovators turn Idea Farms into Idea Laboratories

I once got an outlook calendar invitation that came with the note "Sorry for the short notice. We hope you can make it. We need your creativity." I juggled some commitments around to find time for my client and accepted that next-day invite.

I sat through that meeting listening to the team share one idea after another for the problem they had at hand. At a certain point, it became clear to me that there was no shortage of creativity at all - the room was full of ideas! Yet, two hours later, there was no consensus (nor commitment) on the way forward.

I left that meeting quite puzzled as I once again witnessed the initially-demonstrated positive attitude towards creativity suddenly turn so weak and disintegrate in the face of the risks and uncertainties all their exciting ideas posed to their company. So I felt frustrated. I felt like I had not delivered what was expected of me. I had been called in to contribute with my creativity - my ideas. But then I felt somehow overpowered by the creative energy going on. So I asked myself: why did they invite me at all? Why do they need me here?

Later that day, almost like a sign from above, while scrolling through my LinkedIn feed, I stumbled upon an article entitled "Creativity vs. Innovation in the landscape of startups". As I read it through, I had one of those 'a-ha' moments! Quoting https://medium.com/swlh/creativity-vs-innovation-42fde2e70201:

Creativity happens in your head.

Innovation happens in the world.

That was it! I knew that creativity was abundant in that team! It was the follow-through energy needed to bring those ideas to reality that was scarce. And it suddenly became clear that I had been called into that meeting room not because they 'needed my creativity', but because they' needed my innovation energy to act as a driver to make their ideas a reality'.

Innovators as Competitive Advantage

There are many ways to define creativity and innovation as well as their overlaps and differences. No matter how we choose to do it, it is imperative that these are not treated as synonyms. While creativity is in the line of thinking and ideation, innovation concerns the implementation of ideas. Moreover, we should also not assume that creativity automatically leads to innovation. The value of an idea only exists once it is used and verified.

Therefore, creativity alone is not able to create value, whereas innovation is the process of validating creativity, making it real, tangible, measurable and hopefully valuable. That is to say, innovation may not always be successful. After all, to require that there be success in advance would render void its chance of ever getting tried at all. The bottom-line here is that the existence of a system of making creativity yield innovation is critical.

By projecting this notion onto an organization, it is pretty much like saying that any team or anyone can be creative whereas not every team nor everyone can be innovative. Innovators are the competitive advantage that tell teams within an organization and companies within an industry apart. For these scarce resources are those who have the energy, courage, expertise and will-power to turn creativity into innovation, in other words, ideas into actions.

After it all dawned on me, I went back to my client with a "Challenge accepted!" mindset and not only I played my role to drive their ideas into action, but I also felt obliged to empower them to bring an innovator into their team.

This week, more than a year after that meeting, I got a call from that company again. They just wanted to share that the motivation to hire a Digital Transformation and Innovation Manager into their team was the piece of the puzzle they were missing to - in their own words - "…make our team truly complementary. We already had an idea farm, but now we have an idea laboratory."

Article featured image showing hands typing on an old typewriter and on a modern laptop.

This is the story of a wealthy prince and a homeless woman who taught me a math lesson

I was 17 years old when I came out as a gay man to my family. I was still grieving my first heartbreak when I was struck with my first real loss – my grandma died. Shortly after, the deteriorating relationship between a gay single child and an orphan single mother, both trying to live under the same roof, made me want to leave home – and I did. I was 18 years old when this series of events led me to think for the first time that I was on the edge of a breakdown. And it was at this very same point in my life that I had my first grand awakening – a turning point driven by an avalanche of challenges. I was 19 years old when I left my home country to start again.

In facing the challenges life had posed me, I actively sought God for the first time. Born and raised Jewish, my internal pursuit for spirituality and godliness started within my own creed. I confess that when I left home seeking to find myself, I was not sure how the divine side of life would help me on my way – but I had to believe in something. It is interesting to me now that my pursuit to understand myself started with me posing questions about God. In getting closer to and deeper within myself, I concluded that God and I have something in common: we are both the result of purely uninvestigated beliefs.

Imagine trying to solve the equation x = (1+1) * 3 if we started from the assumption that 1+1 = 3. Would we be able to reach the result? Yes, we would! The answer would be 32, or simply 9. That is to say that finding the result for the equation is independent from the assumptions we made for it. If we start off assuming one plus one equals three, nine is the correct answer for this equation, which does not mean that nine is the true result for this problem. This is so because we used the right arithmetic with the wrong assumption to begin with. Therefore, the solution found depends on the used hypothesis – in other words, the beliefs.

Having this said, is it any wonder that sometimes we find it so hard to find true solutions to our problems in life? How often do we go about them using the math right, but stumbling upon the assumptions we make about them? Bingo! This is the reminder I need on my wall right now!

It has been fourteen years since I faced my first major turning point in life. Today, after having overcome minor and major crossroads, I feel on the verge again. Decisions I have made brought me here. And it is time for me to scrutinize the set of beliefs I carry along with me into the next chapter of my life.

Well, you see? I turned out to become a marketing guy. When speaking marketing, I normally say that one of my pluses is my affinity to telling stories in contrast to simply conveying messages. And this so because of my passion for the reverse engineering used to get information into the minds of people by using anecdotes, parables, folktales and allegories. As ancient as education itself and still frequently used in schools to satisfy the students’ needs for answers, storytelling is an art.

Making use of this invaluable resource, I hereby share mementos of my past, which shall guide me into this imminent new beginning.

Story #1

I was told this story by an old man while riding the NYC metro from Kingston Avenue in Brooklyn to 34 Street-Penn Station in Manhattan somewhen in the Fall of 2005:

There was once a very wise king who observed his teenage son developing a very strong feeling of superiority, arrogance and greed due to his wealth and position as heir to the throne. The king decided to summon his young prince and commanded him to go spend seven days and nights among the people in their kingdom. The young boy was scared at first thinking he would be deprived of his wealth for so long, until his father handed him a one-million-schilling coin to spend on his journey.

Carrying his one-million-schilling coin with pride, the boy crossed the walls of the castle with everything already planned in his head. He would pay some locals to provide him the best accommodation available in the kingdom, he would pay the men of the city watch to guard and protect him, he would pay the best butchers, farmers, bakers and cooks in town to provide him with the best quality food money could buy in that region and he would hire some local artists and entertainers to amuse him with their artistries. This way, those seven days and nights would pass very quickly.

He started his journey looking for lodging. He knocked at every single inn and guesthouse in the village, only to be dismissed from each one of them for the same reason: “The night costs half a schilling only. We cannot accept a one-million-schilling coin. We have no way to give you change for that amount of money”. The boy then started to get thirsty and hungry. He tried to buy water and food everywhere, only to find out that his one-million-schilling coin could not buy him even a loaf of bread and a glass of water. A whole week worth of meals would cost him a schilling only. The absurd wealth he was carrying with him was more than enough for all he needed. Yet, his inability of turning the one-million-schilling coin in one million one-schilling coins left him on the streets without water, food and safety.

The story continues. As a matter of fact, it does not really matter how it ends. The “lesson learned” part of the plot has been reached. Keep that it mind.

Story #2

I was told this story by a middle-aged homeless lady I met in Uniondale, New York, on March 26th, 2006. I spent that night on the city’s train station in her company after losing the last train back home. Her name was Virginia.

Virginia told me that when she was a teenager, she had serious issues with her self-esteem. She said she was not one of the popular girls and that she struggled to fit at least among the smart ones. Back then, her mother was a high-school teacher. And every time her mother would find her having one of her ‘moments’, she would reach out to her and tell her this story:

There was a time when classes of the same grade were divided by taking the students’ overall grades from the previous year as the only criteria to split them into different groups. The best students were grouped together in Class A whereas students with lower grades were grouped separately in so-called “special classes” named Class B and Class C.

Since this method was being met with strong criticism by parents of those students with the lowest performance, the school decided to replace it. Therefore, a new grouping method was developed. It consisted in splitting the students equality in different groups, so that each class would have a mix of top, average and below-average students. The educators’ intention in doing so was to promote mutual support and group work among the pupils. The class naming remained Class A, Class B and Class C.

After running under this new system for a while, the school was alarmed with the results. Statistics showed that students from the old-system’s Class A (the top ones), who had been moved to Class B or Class C, experienced a significant drop in their performance. The same happened to students from classes B who were moved to class C. At the same time, students from the old-system’s Class C, who were allocated to Class A under the new system, experienced significant improvement in their grades. The same happened to students from class B who were moved to class A.

Virginia told me this story as she talked about the hardships that made her become a homeless person. As of today I can still remember with much clarity when she looked at me and said:

Life fucked me up, you know? Wrong people! That’s why I ain’t got no home. These streets are my home now, boy! . . . [pause] . . . You’re sitting in my living room! . . . [laughs, sighs] . . . And you know why I ain’t got no home, boy? . . . [pause – she looks deep into my eyes] . . . The Lord knows. The good Lord knows my mother was right . . . [pause] . . . Every day of my life – every fucking day of my life I think that I should have listened to her. I was a class A student . . . [raises voice] . . . I was a class A citizen for fuck’s sake! And then came those God-dammed motherfuckers who put me in class C – not in school, boy, not in school – in life! . . . [speaking slower and quieter] . . . These God-damned motherfuckers played with me. And I was stupid . . . [pause] . . . I was put in Class C. I believed I was Class C. I became Class C . . . [I remained silent trying to find words to fill the void] . . .

My one-off encounter with Virginia is a memorable moment in my life and I could share numerous other stories about that night. But once again, the “lesson learned”part has been reached. Time to move on.

I just stopped and read this whole post from the beginning again. I wonder how many readers will see its core message as the product of a positive or a negative state of mind. Straightforwardly speaking, this is nothing but the good and worthy of me facing challenges and reacting to these with deep dives into my web of memories. This is how I learn best.

Well, it is incredible to think that I was told these two stories more than a decade ago. Still, their value has never felt so pertinent like RIGHT (pause) NOW. As I sit here today writing these lines, I find myself in an intermediate state between the hollowness of not belonging to the past-present and not having yet reached the future either. Decisions I made brought me here and I have once again hit the crossroads. I am on the verge of a turning point and as I look in the mirror now, I see a young prince carrying a million-schilling coin in his hands. I also see a Class A student who was moved to Class C. This guy in the mirror has a lot of stories to tell the 19-year-old version of himself. And because of that, this guy in the mirror wants to make sure that this time, one plus one equals two. Cheers to new beginnings!

Article featured image showing an airplane through the mouth of a nuclear power plant.

[Warning] This article is about warnings… and insecurities.

Part 1

“Ladies and gentlemen, we would like the next few minutes of your attention as we will be showing our safety demonstration and emergency instructions.”– said one of the cabin crew members shortly before flight OS356 took off. As the announcement started, I adjusted my noise-cancelling headphones and concentrated on the chosen take-off song playing on repeat: “Zombie”by Maître Gims.

For the next two hours, my life and safety would be in the hands of the airplane crew, but if something went wrong, I (and my life) depended on the key information delivered during those few minutes I deliberately disregarded.

Wait a sec! I deliberately disregarded a safety warning, which could eventually save my life? Why?

As the flight attendants kept on performing the safety demonstrations in front of me, I heard nothing but Maître Gims playing the following words in my ears:

“Ma raison somnolait. Ma conscience me conseillait.

Mon subconscient m’déconseillait. Mais mon esprit veut s’envoler”

( “My reason was asleep. My conscience advised me.

My subconscious advised me against it. But my mind wants to fly away” )

Something bugged me. So I took my computer out of the backpack and started writing some lines. In that moment, I wondered: Do I ignore safety warnings?

 

PART 2

Four intense (really intense!)months passed since flight OS356 took off and safely landed back in Vienna. Eventful months these were and lots of thoughts have come and gone in respect to the question I asked myself. As I dwelled in the subject for a while, conclusions started to take shape.

Initially, it came to my attention that it is common sense that we, humans, have an innate instinct towards survival. However, while this instinct does exist, we are also vulnerable to a weakness in our psychological decision-making process, which consciously or not, leads us to a constant cost/benefit analysis of the decisions we take, including those involving risk-taking. That is to say, if the perceived danger is greater than the benefit, a person is more inclined to comply with the risk warnings; whereas if the benefit is perceived to be greater than the danger, a person’s compliance to these risk warnings are susceptible to decline.

Taking this concept a step further, I landed on some writings about the “Risk Homeostasis Theory”. Coined by Gerald Wilde, this concept suggests that a person’s calculation of risk is based on the so-called “target risk”, in other words, a person’s perceived acceptable level of risk. This theory states that we take into account the expected benefits and costs of both the risky as well as safe behavior and try to maximize our gain by taking additional risk in case the perceived risk is below the target risk as well as minimize our loss by behaving safely in case the perceived risk is above our acceptable level.

Taking this theory into account, we can note that a safety warning only influences us to act with care if it manages to convince us to perceive that our behavior would be more risky if we do not pay attention to it.  Likewise, a safety warning can actually lead us to behave more risky or take less precautions if the warning sign is perceived as exaggerating the danger, for our perceived level of danger is below the actual level. (Sounded complicated? Read it once or twice again slowly before you continue!)

 

PART 3

BAAAM! It kicked in! I suddenly found a parallel between the risk-taking thoughts I had been reading about and an ambivalent intimate struggle of mine: insecurity due to (a) failure and (b) perfectionism. And this is why.

  • Failure, as a negative contributor to happiness levels, ends up influencing our self-esteem and self-confidence, raising our insecurity levels. Yet it might as well serve to our advantage, once we manage to accept it as part of the process, let the frustration out and learn the lessons from our setbacks, failing forward towards success.
  • Perfectionism also makes us insecure when we end up punishing ourselves about not being good enough. However, we can still enjoy the benefit of having high standards, trying our best and working hard if we understand that there are pieces of the outcome, which are at some degree out of our control.

[Reminder to self: read the last two paragraphs 3 times before continuing.]

Well, being the product of a single-mother/only-child upbringing, I went a long and lonesome way to learn how to deal with such insecurity issues. For instance, it caused me to spend a reasonable amount of time monitoring my body and my environment for signs that suggested that something was about to go off – that failure was imminent. I struggled to be able to find the balance between allowing my mind to rest and pushing it to do more to protect myself.

As a result of this condition, I unconsciously taught myself to identify warning signs of failure. Moreover, I learned to create my very own safety warnings as self-defence mechanisms. And this is, paradoxically, where I failed – for in doing so, I was too unkind to myself.

As the risk-taking theory indicated, safety warnings can lead us to behave more risky or take less precaution if the warning sign is perceived as exaggerating the danger. And this is where I failed big time – by allowing my defense mechanism to create exaggerated warning signs.

In doing so to overprotect myself, I ended up believing in the illusion that the risk was much lower than the actual danger and in terms pushed me to take even higher risks. Somewhat like a high-risk bet with high odds, the result was a substantial reward in case of success. On the other hand, I ended up maximizing my loss when failure did actually occur – which caused insecurity to take over, only getting me stuck in a vicious circle.

 

PART 4

After dwelling in this topic for some time, I wrote this text as a reminder of the self-knowledge journey I went through. I always say I am not afraid of my weaknesses. I am afraid of not being able to see them, or even worse, of ignoring them. And this is exactly the stage I was in when I boarded flight OS356 – unaware of the fact that I was dealing with safety warnings the wrong way all along. As aforementioned, warnings can desensitize us by overstating the danger, decreasing therefore our precaution and increasing the likelihood of more risk taking. And this is exactly where I was: dealing with the wrong assessments of levels of risk, danger, reward and loss.

In doing this exercise, I am expecting to allow myself to be able to improve my cognitive skills to assess these from a more rational point of view and not simply letting my unconscious ability to calculate the benefits and costs of risk-taking give me the result to the equation. Moreover, I am looking forward to lowering the bars of my very own safety warnings, allowing myself to deal with real levels of risk and not gambling for unnecessary higher winnings. After all, the stake is high. The stake is ME!

Article featured image showing a love drawing concept with rain falling on a plant vase with a red heart object on top.

Did I Ever Fall Out of Love? Thoughts on loving, heartbreaks and what comes after.

“We broke up. I was single again. But I still loved him.” This is how the story ended. Not an extraordinary finale. In fact, cliché – I know! However, this statement is WRONG! And this is why.

Two months passed by. It was a Saturday afternoon and I was paying visit to a married friend with kids. I was sitting on the couch sipping from my bottle of beer, while unenthusiastically browsing through the dating profiles of other men on my phone and silently observing the kids getting ready to play on the living room floor.

Hannah, my friend’s daughter, had just arrived hand-in-hand with the neighbour’s son David, her so-called boyfriend. They played harmoniously for a while – until the great crisis broke out and Hannah started crying. David had involuntarily dropped her Lego creation on the floor, bringing whatever it was down to pieces. In anger, Hannah shouted “I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.” while David watched her lose her temper without showing any empathy.

For a moment, I watched the scene unfold without giving much thought to it, until it unexpectedly hit me: I had just witnessed a completely extrapolated love and heartbreak story unfold in front of me. And of course, my anxious mind would not let it pass without raising more questions.

“When asked to tell stories about love, how many of these are actually stories of heartbreaks?” – I asked myself, slapping idealistic and naïve 17-year-old me right on the face.

Never mind! That day went by, weeks passed, and that food for thought started to grow in my mind:

17 years old – I loved him. And he said no.
24 years old – I loved him. And I said no.
28 years old – I loved him. And we said too much.
31 years old – I loved him. And we did not say enough.

In every single story, I remember the ecstasy of falling in love, the joy of saying these three words for the first time and the thrill of hearing him say it back to me. (Un)fortunately, I also remember the tormenting and nerve-wracking feeling of saying “I love you” as a reminder of how I should be feeling instead of an assertion of what I really felt. If falling in love was instantaneous and effortless, the end of it was time-consuming and excruciating.

And then what? Did love end for me?

Well, my relationships did! Even though they were meant to be “for better or for worse”, they all came to an end somewhere in between. I always apologized. Sometimes I said sorry for being too much. Sometimes for not being enough. And sometimes I had to learn to apologize for things I did not really understand. Like this, between gratitude and forgiveness, the silence and the moments of solitude led me to find closure and move on.

And this is it. Variances in the levels of passion, intimacy and commitment have compromised my relationships to the men my love was attached to when I was 17, 24, 28 and 31. And as these relationships ended, my love did not.

Each of my cherished partners departed and I started walking the path of life alone again. I detached my love from them, giving room for a growing feeling of respect, caring, appreciation and most and above all, thankfulness for all we lived together. At this stage, my love was still attached to the memories, just not anymore to the man standing in front of me.

Thus: No! Love did not end for me! I did not have to stop loving before learning or choosing to love again. Every time my heart broke, it broke open – it broke free. Then I realized: I never really fell out of love. I fell out of the persons my love was attached to. And in doing so, I moved on to the next chapter in life carrying along with me all the loving energy accumulated in the previous one.

But love continues. As its load gets too heavy to carry around, it eventually attaches and it stays – not because one is falling in love again, but because a choice has been deliberately made. And when this happens, all heartbreaks suddenly make sense.

So again, “We broke up. I was single again. But I still loved.” This is how the opening line truly reads. But I still loved – not him, just loved!