Giancarlo Ibárgüen (1963–2016): An Appreciation

I have been fortunate enough to know Giancarlo Ibárgüen over the last several years. He was an incomparable friend and mentor.

The scope of Giancarlo’s influence is enormous, but deceptive.

He rarely took credit for what was his. He never wanted recognition or fame. I secretly nominated him for an award a few years ago and, when chosen as the obvious winner, he was deeply embarrassed. He worked hard to hide news of his successes and awards so that no one would come around to make a fuss.

Giancarlo was a gentle radical — full of heretical ideas but kind and quiet. He was never forceful, yet always making things happen. He was a connector who brought people together for their mutual benefit and rarely asked anything in return.

His brilliance was not to shout and rally from a stage, but to find the right person for the right job and help them overcome the limits we all impose on ourselves. You could feel his perceptiveness when you spoke with him. It never judged. He saw in others the good and the possible.

People often talk about how great entrepreneurs have a ‘reality-distortion field’. Giancarlo did too, though he didn’t sell you anything. When you spoke with him, he would help you see the world as it could be and should be. It wasn’t so much that he distorted reality. A few words would strip away life’s many distractions, leaving you only with what must be done.

Giancarlo had all the greatness of a visionary leader but none of the arrogance or delusion. He loved big ideas, but his actions betrayed clarity of mind and spirit. He did not float on airy promises, but took care of the things within his control. He was a dedicated steward of his tiny corner of the universe. Thousands of people are better off for it.

His leadership was world-class. He was a member of too many organizations to mention. And his effect on them is incalculable, particularly those groups who had the privilege of seeing him each day.

Giancarlo inspired trust. People would just get along and do stuff for no other reason than his nurturing presence. Each meeting with Giancarlo was like a masterclass in ethical leadership. You could count on him to tell you the truth, as best he saw it. Things were always complicated, but he rarely was.

Above all, Giancarlo was an educator. He had read everything and, somehow, knew everyone. I’m afraid to use the term ‘educator’. It sounds controlling: like your grumpy middle school teacher or a narcissistic college professor. Giancarlo understood that the best way to ‘teach’ was to lead by example. And he did.

Giancarlo had a teacher’s patience to let people struggle and fail. He let me make more errors than I can remember. “Why did this happen!?” I’d ask, seeing that he knew all along that I was blundering. “You had to go and see it for yourself,” he’d say, “you had to test the limits of that relationship,” “you had to struggle with them and survive,” “you had to get some ‘no’s before you found your ‘yes’”. I’ll forever be in his debt.

Everyone should read Giancarlo’s speech Noncoercive Teaching. It’s a statement that channels the centuries-old tradition of humanism. Giancarlo was a liberal in the original sense of the word but also a humanist who stood for free inquiry, the rights of oppressed groups, an end to the War on Drugs, and as an advocate for the central role of science in human progress. He always brimmed with possibilities.

Giancarlo saw that the role of education is to help us escape our animal ignorance. A good education is not to make people into mindless consumers, ideologues, or docile employees. It’s to help us evolve beyond our bestial past so that, some day, we’ll actually reach the peaceful world that’s possible.

For an American, some of Noncoercive Teaching may seem like platitudes. Political propaganda in support of the U.S. education system has so debased the substance of this noble view. But it takes bravery to publicly hold views like these in a conservative place like Guatemala. Plus, Giancarlo actually meant what he said. He was not afraid to take ideas to their conclusions and run the seemingly ‘crazy’ experiments necessary to learn and to grow.

It’s one of life’s great cruelties that, as his condition worsened, Giancarlo found it difficult to communicate. We all desperately wanted to hear what he had to say. He often wrote instead and amassed a sizable audience for his weekly letters.

As time passed, Giancarlo’s letters seemed to become more sad or, at least, more despairing for the future. It seemed that he feared for the years ahead, which we all dearly hoped he would be around to see. Many of our final conversations were about the promise and peril of technologies like Bitcoin. “It’s a race for liberty”, he would say, between those who would use technology to control others and those who would set it in service of human uplift.

Giancarlo loved Don Quijote, statues and references filled his office and home. In a way, he was like Quijote: never broken, a true idealist in a world of cynical realities. “No permitamos que los nihilistas ni los inescrupulosos ensucien nuestro porvenir” he wrote last year. He was the keeper of an ancient flame. I will miss him.