I was reprogrammed in Europe

Those of you that know me will know that my day-job with Startup Catalyst is to organise and design group missions to international startup hotspots.

These are not trade missions, nor study tours. Instead, they are designed with the purpose of re-programming how the participants see the world — to blow minds, change perceptions, bust myths, build confidence, redefine scale, and generally pour fuel on any existing spark of a passion that may reside hidden within the participants. It is the best job in the world.

But what does it mean to re-program someone??

One of our recent participants, Peta Ellis, described it well in her blog:

It is designed to be a sensory overload for the Aussies and to smack them in the face with the reality that they have everything they need to create or be part of a globally scalable tech company, their skills are THAT good. They just need to start and believe in themselves. It’s a mindset play, think big, then bigger again, then start. We don’t quite get it here (in Oz) so we need to take them to a place where you simply can’t escape it.

Meanwhile Joshua Wulf of Just Digital People recently did an analysis on our Catalyst youth alumni in Brisbane, and described the re-programming in this way:

The Startup Catalyst alumni come back with a clear awareness of what actually is possible for human beings, for technology organisations, for creation and innovation. And they raise the expectation and awareness of the other people that they come into contact with. … They invariably have a dissatisfaction about them. They can’t be satisfied settling into a 9–5 job maintaining the status quo. … They are no longer capable of being satisfied by the high-paying job that we can get them — the kind of thing that the 80 percenters would love to have. They yearn for the unknown, for discovery, for something that expands the boundaries of what’s possible.

Most of our participants, particularly on our youth mission (techs under 30), describe the experience as life-changing. Not just in a professional or career sense, but in a deep personal sense. One of our recent youth mission participants described it as “the single most life changing event I have ever experienced.”

[And there is a lot that goes into the design of our missions to consciously try and achieve this effect, including the cohort composition, mixing intellectual and physical activity, sleep deprivation, exhaustive schedules, breaking bread, and jamming the brain with exponential thoughts via meetings with exceptionally talented individuals.]

But here is the thing: it dawned on me today that on the last trip I took to Europe, I was significantly reprogrammed myself. I see the world differently now to how I did a month ago. And I can’t go back to how I was before, even if I wanted to (and I don’t want to).

This re-programming process continues for weeks after the mission ends. It can be confused for jet lag, or just exhaustion. But it is actually new neural pathways being built as the brain runs like an overclocked CPU, processing hundreds of simultaneous thought-threads, trying to process everything that was experienced during the intensive mission.

You feel exhausted, tired, allergic to reality, and easily irritated by the mundane. You feel dissatisfied, yet driven to “go next level”. You long for time with your mission buddies, who you realise now understand the new you better than your lifelong friends at home. But you also feel like you are on the verge of an epiphany, like something great is about to happen, but you have no idea what that is.

It’s been dubbed the Startup Catalyst Hangover.

Two weeks after being back from Europe, I’m coming out of my mission hangover. I feel like I’ve woken up from a long sleep. Like for the past xx years I have been so busy executing without being fully conscious; like I’ve been so busy with doing stuff, but not really living; like I’ve been sitting on the bench waiting for the game to start, or perhaps more accurately, like I’ve been building and training for something unknown.

One of the big impacts of each Catalyst mission is redefining the participants’ sense of scale. In a startup sense, this covers the obvious takeaways from visiting any major startup hub— i.e. bigger scale meaning bigger problems, bigger markets, bigger ambitions, bigger numbers, bigger startup spaces, bigger startup programs, and a faster pace (much faster).

But redefining scale also means the changing our scale of thoughts and emotions. I call it the Paper-cut Theory: some people will cry at the agonising pain of a paper-cut because they have never experienced anything worse. It’s really just a different way of telling Helen Keller’s quote: “I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet”.

But it isn’t just about recalibrating our sense or scale of pain. The same recalibration happens on our missions with every other range of human emotion and perception, particularly our sense of happiness and satisfaction.

It’s why so many of our alumni return to be completely dissatisfied to continue working in a career they previously found satisfying before the mission. They change jobs, form new startups, change social circles, and move cities. Their definition of happiness now has a new scale because they have been exposed to a new paradigm of what is possible.

My personal reprogramming experience from the last mission was mostly due to the cohort. My reprogramming is significant. It’s already manifesting in new behavioural patterns, and it is really only just starting to take effect.

After I got back from this trip I caught up with one of the other participants, and we spoke about methods to maintain this new mentality long-term, so that we avoid our mental software update-patch from being rolled-back by reality or re-re-programmed by our environment here. It’s a commitment to keep each other accountable to our new scale of what we know is possible.

Today is my first day back in the office after 8 days away camping, and I consider it day one of operating with my new wet-ware update to my brain.

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