Reflections from Singularity University
Finding My Tribe, Positive Self-Talk, and Other Insights from Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Mutants
I’m little over 5 weeks into Singularity University’s 2016 Global Solutions Program and I’ve finally found some time to pen a few words. And quite honestly, I don’t know where to start… I can go on for days about the rich content we’re learning and what we think the future holds for the world, but would rather focus on the experience of the first few days. Before delving deeper, let me tell you what brought me here.
My Path to SU
Over the past few years, I’ve worked with impact entrepreneurs, foundations, and companies to design programs and business models that create positive and irreversible social and environmental progress. I’ve covered issues from access to water and finance, reforestation, venture philanthropy, orphan reintegration, and poverty eradication. Over the past three years, I’ve also been teaching what I’ve learned to Masters students in Business, Finance, and Engineering in Paris and Abu Dhabi. I’ve seen a wide range of approaches and interventions, and despite the undeniably positive intentions of many, I’ve become more aware of limitations than models that have the potential to solve problems at their roots.
Last year, this changed.
While reviewing hundreds of applications and business plans from 30 countries for Chivas Regal’s The Venture program (a $1M social venture competition providing audacious social entrepreneurs non-dilutive finance to scale their companies), I was again inspired by a few businesses backing up their grand visions with interventions that could scale and make a difference. These included Beesmart Technologies and Miroculus, to name a few.
In both cases the teams…
A) Understood the magnitude of the challenge they were trying to address
B) Designed inventions that directly impacted individuals exposed to the challenge, and
C) Built their models on scalable technologies — from machine learning and AI to sensors and bioengineering — that were becoming faster and cheaper to access over time, allowing them to reduce the marginal costs of providing the service to new clients, disproportionately working in their favor.
Most importantly, these teams inherently understood that giving away a pair of shoes for every one purchased, however many zillions that might amount to one day, would never meaningfully change the conditions of why poverty exists in certain communities or eradicate them at their roots.
Both companies were formed through and graduated out of SU’s Global Solutions Program. So, I started doing my research and came across Peter Diamandis’s book Abundance. After reading it, I understood how this was possible.
The primary premise of the book, and of Singularity University, is that because of Moore’s Law, overall processing power for computers doubles every two years. Certain technologies — such as artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotech, biotech, computing networks, etc. — will become faster in computational capabilities and cheaper to access.
Consequently, the rapid and exponential growth of these technologies will become a resource-liberating force throughout society, allowing us to experiment with their applications to solve large-scale global challenges. SU calls these Global Grand Challenges, and they include access to energy, water, health, and education, driving poverty eradication, and environmental health.
Use exponential technologies to upend broken systems and solve global challenges? This was music to my ears.
What I Intend To Do At Singularity University
Over the past few years, I’ve become quite passionate about transforming governance models for our day and age.
How might the organisations we work for, the communities we live in, and government institutions that represent us give us more voice and agency in shaping the policies and systems that influence and manage our lives? How could we turn disgruntled agitation into constructive and positive solutions for companies or communities from the ground up?
Imagine governance Uber-ized. So, I applied with my crazy idea to develop software that helps individuals and groups participate more directly in policy making and corporate strategy formulation, using AI and big data, from the ground up.
Fortunately, I was accepted.
The Culture of Unconditional Acceptance
It’s quite hard to describe, but since arriving I’ve never felt the need to really explain myself. This is a new feeling for me.
Coming from Abu Dhabi or really any other city, I’ve found that people don’t really understand or appreciate what drives me or why I care about the things that interest me. Perhaps I need to do a better job of articulating or framing. Though we’ve had so little time to really “meet” one another, to understand what drives us, why we’re here and what we intend to do, there is an inexplicable and deep sense of acceptance for one another. I’ve certainly found my tribe.
In the first few days, my wife Aubrey asked, “What’s it like being there?” Only one response came to mind: “It’s like being at Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Mutants in X-Men. You are welcome from day one and are trained to use your time, skills, and endowments to improve the state of the world.”
In our case, the bonding agent and unspoken elements that bind us are not genetic mutations or superpowers but our worldviews, values, and aspirations. The majority of my classmates share an unshakable commitment to do as much good with our talents and time in the world as possible. They are unimaginably curious and generous, strongly independent thinkers and doers — real boundary pushers with major successes and failures to boast about — not talkers. I feel right at home here.
Our Facilities — Dorms, the “Classroom”, and Schedule
We live, work, and play within a 300-foot radius. We have roommates and live in 1960’s dorm rooms. It’s not a luxurious affair; things are quite basic and personal space is limited so one has no choice but to become quite intimate, quite quickly. Thankfully I have a really cool and considerate roommate named Edwin who I get on with quite well. More about him in the next post.
Most of our daily lives revolve around “the classroom,” our 24/7 dedicated area for learning, exercising, wifi-ing, ping-ponging, eating, and drinking.
Our daily schedule is jam packed with lectures, workshops, daily meditation and wellness, and either a lab after dinner or a fireside chat with an accomplished entrepreneur or panel. We are in the classroom from 8:45am-10pm (often much, much later!) with approximately three hours of breaks for coffee, walks, lunch, exercise, and dinner each day.
This happens for about 6 days a week.
I have obligations outside of this program and get up around 6am to get a couple solid hours of work in before the days kick off. It’s been a bit challenging to keep up with life outside of this beautifully engineered bubble and social experiment, but I’m over five weeks in and we’ve all begun acclimating and developing interesting hacks to optimize our time.
The Tribe — Class and Profiles
The content is unbelievably rich, but it’s the personalities and characters that make this place what it is. We’re a class of 79 people from 41 countries. Almost everyone is an “expert” in something.
They perfected themselves in something before getting themselves to SU. Most wear different hats simultaneously. For example, an entrepreneur and PhD researcher, an opera singer and academic, a mother and scientist. Managing the dualities strengthens their creativity and problem-solving potential. But people here have a ton of humility and are not interested in showboating.
Also, most have gone through life not asking permission to explore ideas, opportunities, and projects they care about. For example, one of my Macedonian classmates, Irena, cold called and visited NASA’s headquarters on one of her first visits to the US a few years ago. She just showed up and requested to meet a director in charge of an area of space exploration she was passionate about. After convincing the secretary to get the director on the intercom, she later convinced the director to meet her in person. A 15-minute meeting turned into a full day visit and tour of the facilities. At the end of the day, the director offered Irena a job and the opportunity to explore her project. The director told Irena that she would have never considered it if Irena hadn’t taken the initiative and risk to reach out and demonstrate her interest.
There are many other examples of shameless audacity. Below are some exposé’s of the classmates I am living, learning and growing with. In future posts, I’ll profile others to share how rich the mosaic of people curated into this experience are.
A Few of My Classmates
Meet Hla Hla (pronounced La La) — she’s a determined mother, former advisor to ministers in the public sector, and a social entrepreneur with a passion for transforming the education system in her home country of Burma/Myanmar.
Three years ago, she was diagnosed with a rare and life threatening auto-immune disease and was told by doctors that she had five years to live. Based on her calculations, her timeline is down to two years now.
This ‘inconvenience’ doesn’t inhibit her. Quite the opposite, actually. She has an unshakable determination and long term vision about the future of her country, and her role in creating that future.
In her mind, the doctors are wrong and there is no downside in believing; she’s just doing what she would have if she was never diagnosed in the first place. Her positivity, mental strength, and unreasonable determination have made an profound impact on my attitude and sense of possibility.
Meet Chief — A former lawyer and Chartered Accountant turned cartoonist and graphic artist.
In his own words, he only got his first degrees to satisfy his parents’ demands. Once he had them in hand, he then pursued his passion to agitate people’s worldviews and shift their paradigms towards more positive, collaborative, empathetic, and culturally critical ways of thinking.
Chief comes from Kenya and belongs to the Masaai tribe. He’s a cultural icon back home, always has a great metaphor to share along with a big smile on his face. Lovely energy.
Meet Laurent — A skeptical, atheistic French contrarian who is passionate about uncovering wisdom in his life.
He’s an education technology entrepreneur who built, scaled and sold a corporate MOOC platform prior to coming to SU. Laurent walks around SU barefoot, and has been doing this for years, even in the big cities he’s lived in.
He lives his values unapologetically everyday. He always has an interesting and often different perspective to offer during our Q&A sessions following lectures, and frequently challenges my thought processes and assumptions about issues and values. I’ve learned tremendously from how he lives and the questions he asks.
At our opening session, we went around the room introducing ourselves, highlighting things you wouldn’t see on our public profiles. He kicked off by sharing that he’d climbed Everest, is an avid iron man racer, and a spiritual man who has visited many Ashrams in India.
Oh, he totally neglected to mention he’s a prominent business tycoon in Latin America and in his home country, Peru. He has grown and scaled multiple businesses to become market leading entities and has a lot of wisdom to share with teams and individuals about the challenges of building companies. He has been quite generous with his time, energy and experiences, and become a close compadre and mentor to me over the past few weeks.
Jack is a high school and college dropout who became a serial entrepreneur out of necessity. Over his 50-year career, he’s built, scaled, and exited over 16 businesses in his home country of Singapore.
Jack is also a well known social entrepreneur. Most recently he founded the World Toilet Organization (WTO) which lobbies global governments to increase investment and awareness for sanitation in their home countries. Using his humour, incredible charm, and negotiating skills, he was able to lobby and convince 192 nations at the UN to create a World Toilet Day, which is celebrated each and every year on November 19th.
One of the early days in the program Jack and I were chatting about business survival and he asked me, rhetorically: “Soushiant, do you know the difference between a business man and a mother? Why does a business man fail 9 times out of 10 when a mother maybe fails maybe 1 time out of 10?”
I responded: “I don’t know, Jack…”
He said: “Ah… A mother does not have a business plan but a non-negotiable commitment to the success of her ‘venture.’ The mother will never give up on her children, regardless of how difficult things get. The business man, on the other hand, gives up all too quickly. His commitment is negotiable and contingent on certain parameters. So, when picking your next venture, make sure you treat it as a mother would, not a business man would.”
Finally, meet Marvin Ngcongo. Marvin was waitlisted for the program and didn’t hear back from the admissions team even after a few follow ups. Most people would just accept their “fate.” He didn’t.
Instead, he arranged his own housing for the next three months in Mountain View, booked a one-way flight to San Francisco, took an Uber down and showed up at the door front of Singularity University, asking to meet the head of admissions.
When he met the director he told him he was really passionate about contributing and being part of the community, that his commitment was real, and wanted to know if they would allow him to simply listen to the lectures. The admissions team was so impressed by his demonstration that they offered him a spot in the program later the next day.
His act of courage taught me to be bolder, that if I really care about something, even if past attempts at demonstrating my passion weren’t fully appreciated, I should take another leap. There is no downside in going the last mile to impress upon people my dedication about the things I care about. What’s the downside? Even if Marvin wasn’t accepted into the program after coming all the way here, the next potential employer or business partner who would hear his story will likely take him much more seriously and jump at the opportunity to work with him simply because he’s a person who takes big leaps for his convictions.
Content & Highlights of the Week
I can go on and on about the rich content but will write a separate post about that. Instead below are a few learnings that have made a huge impression and personal transformation on my thinking.
Human Performance and Exponential Personal Growth — Silence and Positive Self-Talk
Six days into our first week, we went through a full day workshop about augmenting our personal performance and mental strength. The facilitators were a former Navy SEAL, a former CIA agent, and a 7-time world record holding ocean free diver along and her trainer.
We were taught about how to train our minds to prepare for and believe in the grand ideas and visions we have. We were taught about the importance of silence, positive self-talk, and how to create agency and always leave yourself with a choice. We even learned breathing techniques and mind hacks to hold our breaths for 3 minutes at a time! I survived until 2:40.
Abundance is not a technological phenomenon and barrier, but a human (and cognitive) barrier.
The biggest takeaway for me from that day was the notion of being comfortable in silence. We learned how strong of a tool silence is for helping you hear more, to hear what really matters inside your heart and head. It’s the ticket into one’s personal ‘self,’ into the deeper self.
Those who know me know I’m as outgoing as I am a pensive person, who enjoys my time to myself. Silence and I have been friends for a long time now. But, I learned something much more about myself on this day.
This day, we spent our 2-hour lunch in complete silence, building our consciousness about our inner voice and learning how to pull ourselves away from it, to be an observer and challenger at times to that voice.
In my case, I realized my inner voice talks a shit tone! It’s always on, providing an opinion, judgement or perspective. Over the silent lunch, I was able to catch it endlessly rambling and told it to please stop so I could simply enjoy my lunch. Voila! it did!
I learned that the route to changing my thoughts comes from greater self-awareness about that voice. Once I know it’s talking, I can listen and talk back to it in a positive manner, to correct and tame it.
I also realized I can turn any thought, especially negative ones, into positive self-talk, into messages that are compassionate, optimistic, and growth-oriented. Most of the time, we speak to ourselves in a highly critical, pessimistic and negative tone. When you change that tone and present your mind with different choices — the choice to not judge, to try again, to look for the learning in any circumstance — you automatically empower yourself with agency. Consequently, you look at circumstance not as destiny but as something that’s dynamic, something that you can change.
This is especially important when you need to make decisions when things are not going to plan and you’re faced with disappointment.
Circumstance is not destiny. Remember you are just software — you can learn, grow and overcome anything.
Identity and Imposter Syndrome
We spend a lot of time explaining to others who we are. But, what does that really mean anyway? When people ask you to describe yourself, what do you usually say?
- Are you a product of where you’ve spent most your time (e.g. a profession, educational training, nationality, etc.)?
- What about your past experiences or the rationalization of those experiences? Most people gloss over and redefine missed opportunities and failures in their lives to suit their narrative.
- Are you a product of your values — the one’s you embody and have developed? Or are you the product of the values you admire, who you want to be and what you want to do?
It’s interesting to think about this because we’re faced with this question often and as soon as it comes up, people usually gravitate towards the safest ground possible; what we think feels safe to express and easiest to understand.
Think about this: what’s stopping you from going beyond a series of proud accomplishments, achievements, and a title? When you explain who you are, do you reveal your hopes and fears, a failure or some missed opportunity? Do you exclude the things that excite and captivate you and do you give up some of your inherent power, sense of possibility and agency?
Whatever you choose to be and however you choose to express yourself, I’ve learned through our personal development workshops that we are not here to outperform our fears through our skills, talents and achievements. We are here to be as real and raw as possible. To face those fears, accept and neutralize them, then use skills and talents to work around them. Facing those fears and accepting them is how we unlock our real power and sense of agency. And anyone who isn’t afraid of anything either aspires to mediocrity or is full of shit. Don’t be either.
It’s been an incredibly transformational experience for me so far and we’re only halfway through. My mind has expanded multiple times and my assumptions turned upside down. I am so optimistic about the future and have too much to try to share. Most recently we’ve started forming into teams and over the next 4–5 weeks, we will be building our ideas and prototypes. In future posts I’ll write about the content we’ve learned and applications to the real world, what’s coming in the next 5–10 years and update you on the progress of our team project.