Nicholas Mandelbaum

Gustavo da Cunha Pimenta
Jan 19 · 7 min read
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Whenever I think about Nicholas I immediately “label” him in my head as my happy French friend. Every time we are together, I feel good about life.

Nicholas flows through life with kindness and an open heart in a very particular way. There is always something new to learn from him, both at the rational and emotional level.

Being the “experience guy” for many of my friends, some of them ask me about the best experiences I’ve had in life. I say, “the ones that stopped time”. Nicholas is a wizard who spontaneously “creates” those moments, like the one below.

Once I was having lunch with Nicholas, and he suddenly stopped talking and just had a big smile on his face. I asked him why. And his answer was something like this — “I’m loving the food, the wine and the company of a good friend, isn’t that enough to be happy?” Time stopped.

And time it is to let Nicholas’ words flow.

Bird’s Eye View

Can you give us a glimpse of your life story?
I was born in Cannes, from a French mother and an American dad. I grew up in Paris, or near it, where I had a very classic 80’s childhood, made of VHS movies and the first computer video games. I was all over the place, trying all kinds of sports and activities until I settled on photography as a professional path. But I didn’t stop there — after a couple of years in the fashion industry in Paris, I switched to the more promising digital design (in my sense anyway). I learned how to design websites and apps to answer a need I saw in the photo business, had a couple of failed startups, then moved to Bordeaux. There I met my wife, we had a son and we moved to Lisbon, where my career evolved to a digital product consultant. Recently I learned how to code to complete the digital journey. All of this while playing some music, and most importantly, in my eyes, while writing as much as a busy dad and business owner life can let me.

You have a unique concept of “flowing through life”. Can you elaborate on that?
I believe it is mostly about seizing opportunities and letting them shape us instead of painfully trying to shape everything in our environment to fit what we think we need. Will is important, once the ball is in our court, but it could be that flexibility might be more suited for a happy life in general. Some people find me lucky, and surely I am, but I also know that I am taking a lot of what happens to me as the starters to transform my life. I think photography taught me this, you don’t control the reality that you shoot, but if you look at your subject with patience and empathy, you will find the beauty in anything you encounter. Sometimes you need tons of patience, but eventually you will find it.

What does diversity mean for you?
It means trying not to be a monolithic believer and letting things sink in. When I was in high school, I was afraid of loving both mathematics and literature. Afraid of not finding a path for my multi-faceted love of so many subjects. Diversity is the art of letting these falsely incompatible subjects mix into what makes you unique.

Today, it is quite the opposite, I get suspicious of people who are too specialized. People of similar cultures and generations tend to think and act the same, that is why I believe diversity is a key to innovation and progress. It’s the key to being an adaptive team, which is truly useful nowadays because everything seems to be changing so fast. Einstein said, “We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”. Was it encouragement to embrace diversity? I think so.

How is the experience of living in a different country?
I feel much more aligned with myself being officially a stranger. In France, I felt like a stranger without the label; being constantly an outsider is a feeling that keeps me observing life critically. At the same time, I love the distance that I can afford to keep with public subjects, especially politics. Not that I don’t want to take part in the community, on the contrary, but it removes a lot of noise in everyday life. For example, my understanding of Portuguese doesn’t let me pick up any random conversation on the street, and I cannot get really caught up by the always-on television in cafes for example. I also need the distance with my country. I feel it is very necessary to become more than what comes shipped with our citizenship and culture. I feel I can easily recognize someone who traveled a lot, by how they don’t fit into any cultural box.

Learning and Reinvention

What does learning mean to you? And how do you learn?
Learning means everything. I live for it. A day without learning feels like an empty day. Learning means being alive, and full of hope. I cannot praise it more. I value it above many things!

I used to learn a lot by myself through reading, practicing on my own, and watching tutorials online. But I felt the limit of it, and I now try to learn more directly from people. My father-in-law taught me how to plant trees last week, and it felt that this direct transmission of knowledge was the most beautiful thing.

How many times did you reinvent yourself?
About once a year I would say! More seriously, from a professional point-of-view, I am currently in my fourth career path I would say. But I don’t know if it is really a re-invention or simply further exploration, as it seems that the dots keep connecting as I move forward. Learning code brings back my scientific background, and I am still learning music, which is a continuous thing I have been doing in the last 30 years already.

Generalist “vs” Specialist

You are a photographer, a designer, a developer, a writer, and many other things. Where do you see yourself in the generalization/specialization spectrum?
I think it is difficult to call myself a generalist. I think I am more of a multi-almost-specialist. I get very focused on one subject for a period of time that can span from a few weeks to many years. I love learning enough to get the hang of a subject, but at some point, I can get bored and move to another area. The areas you mentioned are the ones that keep coming back, by cycle. I can spend years without really writing, or months without taking a photograph, and then suddenly I get drawn to it and I spend a whole month just doing that! It is a weird pattern, but it allows me to get inspired and transpose some ideas from one subject to another.

How do you cross-pollinate knowledge from one field to the other?
I don’t do it very consciously, it goes back to your earlier question about flowing through life. The pollination comes naturally. I often feel though that the final purpose of this learning is to give me the ability to write about it. It gives me material for novels or short stories. In the digital space, it is more obvious. Moving from design and project management to code gave me a view from the “other side of the mirror”, and I can take many shortcuts when developing an interface for a product.

Past and Future

Can you share some of the major lessons you’ve learned in life?
The first is that it doesn’t need to always make sense — our consciousness is not capable of connecting all the dots, but with hindsight, things get clearer as long as, and this is the second point, you always do what feels right. One of my partners in digital product consulting, Natalia Terlecka came up with this motto. Always do what feels right. Follow the pleasure to work and interact with the people around you, it is the key to growing and making people grow around you. I wish more people would apply this simple concept.

Lastly, I think that almost nothing is impossible, and the greatest learning challenges bring the greatest joys. For me, it started when I took on the challenge of learning how to develop black and white photographs in my basement, with very little guidance. After the painful trials and errors, I think I acquired that taste for more challenges.

Which big questions do you have on your mind currently?
The global pandemic gave us a new perspective on what we truly need to be happy. Many, including my wife and I, realized how little we need the city and how much nature and outdoor activity we really need. So my big question is how to take action on this realization.

How do you face the future? Do you make plans for it?
With confidence. I am of the optimistic kind. I make plans, and shamelessly change them all the time. In the next few years, we will be moving to the south of Portugal and building a house. I don’t know exactly what it will look like, but we are working with amazing people to make it happen. I hope that this next big step will be the opportunity to share more of my vision with others, and to learn more about nature and construction.

What should I have asked, but didn’t?
My eternal question to myself is how to make sense of it all. It is more of a philosophical question that will never get a definitive answer, but it is the question that keeps us changing forever. Recently I experienced that meditation is a good way to calm the urge to answer it with words. Words can do so much, but understanding without words is even more powerful and I am afraid that the best answers are silent! So how to silently make sense of life is my latest question I think. And I would answer it by saying with photography, with good wine, with good tea, with nature observations, and spending time with animals. Cooking, playing chess with a friend, finding sounds on a synthesizer. That would be my way to answer this unasked question!

REINVENTION.SPACE

A live experiment aimed at helping people to reinvent…

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