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My 2016 experiment

For the past eight years, I’ve taken on a new experiment every year. I do them for three reasons: to learn something new, meet new people and get outside my comfort zone. My experiments vary – in previous years I’ve been a polyphasic sleeper, read a book per week, gone to the gym every day or trained my memory with a world memory champion.

This year, I will volunteer for a day every two weeks in a hospital or charity caring for cancer patients. I have been fortunate not to have any friends or family touched by cancer, but through my involvement with Hospices of Hope, I have seen first hand how much of a toll cancer takes on people’s lives. In whichever way I can, I want to help the charities, doctors, nurses and patients dealing with cancer.

In order to make as big of an impact as possible given my time constraints, I will choose three charities or hospitals to volunteer for, one for each location where I spend most of my time (London, New York, and Bucharest).

In terms of the actual volunteering work, I will do anything that’s required of me, but focus on three areas where I think I can add the most value:

  • advise charities & hospitals regarding their technology, digital marketing & data strategies;
  • help with fundraising and
  • offer patient care, with a focus on helping patients with sports and physical activities

Given I am already on the Honorary Patrons Committee for Hospices of Hope, I will volunteer in their palliative care centre whenever I am in Bucharest. I’m still researching which hospitals or charities in London and New York to get involved with, so if you have any recommendations please email me (emi@brainient.com) or leave a comment below.

The #elderproject – what I learned

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For the past 10 years I’ve always spent the first few quiet days of the year thinking about the past 365 days and planning for the next. This year, my introspection also turned out to be a good opportunity go through all my #elderproject interviews and gather the learnings.

My experiment succeeded and failed at the same time. It succeeded because I found answers to a number of questions I’ve been ruminating over, but it failed because I interviewed substantially less people than planned. However, I am happy with the outcome and would like to share the results with you. Here are the #elderproject questions and my summary for each question.

What makes you happy?

Three things surfaced as the main drivers for happiness: a happy family, close friends, and achieving one’s career goals. Not a single person from the ones I interviewed mentioned money as a driver for happiness. This doesn’t mean money is not important (as you will see in a question below), but it is not a prerequisite for happiness.

If you could go back in time, what would you change?

The answers to this question varied a lot and when grouping them into buckets, I discovered three different themes of “regret”: love (either not pursuing one’s true love, or not being careful enough in choosing one’s partner), education (mainly wishing they had spent more time on their education) and balance (mainly finding balance between the time spent at work vs. time with their families).

What was the most important thing for you when you were young?

No surprises here. Making money & building a career was perceived as the top priority for most of my interviewees. For a small number of people, however, the desire to build a career was only a way to achieve the level of financial stability necessary to sustain a family.

What’s the most important thing for you now?

Health, balance between work & family (or friends), and recognition from one’s peers. Dave Moore from Xaxis had one of my favourite quotes from all the interviews: “Family is very, very important in my life. To succeed in business and fail at home is to fail completely.”

Work & Family, what is more important?

Not a single person said they wish they had spent more time at work. With one exception, all of them said that work & family are equally important but that if they were to choose between them, they would choose family. Dave Moore had a wonderful quote, again: “The most important thing is to leave a family legacy so strong that generations within your family will remember you.”

How important has money been in your life?

Everyone said money is very important because it offers independence and stability. Among all the people I interviewed, I noticed a love-hate attitude towards money because they acknowledge that it can sometimes change people for the worse. My dad said: “Money is important, but not the most important. One should rather have no money if it changes his character.” And I feel the need to quote Dave Moore again, because as a proper ad-man, he gave an insanely quotable interview: “Money is a materialistic ambition, and the only way to make it immaterial is to make so much of it that it doesn’t matter.”

Is there a moment that has completely changed your life?

Out of the ones that could identify a seminal moment, two threads emerged: either moving to another country, or the death / illness of a close one (friend or family). No one mentioned a work-related event. Work is work and as it turns out changes in one’s career, losing their job, etc does not influence people long-term.

Have you had any role models in your life?

The biggest surprise for me was that almost all the people I spoke with said that their parents or partner were their role models. For those who named public figures, the most prevalent were heads of state or entrepreneurs.

What do you want to leave behind?

I would do this section no justice if I summarized it, so I’m just going to share some of their responses. They are all beautiful. “Leave a happy memory.” “A good name.”  “Be remembered by a lot of people that I’ve done something for that they’ll never forget.” “Happiness to all my family. That’s it.” “My only modest goal is that the people around me will have good things to say about me.” “I hope they would say I was a kind person. I would like for someone to say that I really made a difference for some people. That I righted some wrongs.” As you can see, all the responses are about people. All about being kind & generous. All about family.

Do you have any fears in growing old?

Without exception, health. Elderly people are afraid, for good reason, to become physically or intellectually incapacitated. Their fear springs from a desire to be able to enjoy time with their families without being “a bloody nuisance”, as Jeff Hutchinson said.

If you could live forever but keep just one of the things you currently have, what would you want to keep (work, family, health, money)?

Family & health were winners on this front. A few people said they wouldn’t be able to make this decision and would rather not live forever than having to choose.

If I were your grandchild, what would be the once piece of advice you would give me?

Be generous, kind and respectful. Go to school, educate yourself, never stop learning. And never give up.

What’s the meaning of life?

Graham Perolls summarized the views of pretty much everyone who answered this question: “Life is a struggle. There are no easy answers. I have an anchor in my faith, and feel that we are all on this earth for a purpose, and we need to find what that purpose is.” I also really liked what Princess Marina Sturdza said: “[the meaning of life is all about] living life with a certain amount of humility. Staying humble. Finding balance.” And lastly, Ewan summarized everything, for me, on this topic, by saying “What’s the meaning of life? I don’t know – perhaps, love.”

Happy New Year and I hope you enjoyed listening to my interviews and reading this summary as much as I enjoyed making these wonderful new friends and learning from them.

The #elderproject #10 – Princess Marina Sturdza

A week ago in New York, I had the great pleasure to interview Princess Marina Sturdza. She is a member of the old, aristocratic Sturdza family, who were exiled by the communist regime in Romania when she was just three years old.

Princess Marina is best known for the charitable work she has done in Romania over the past two decades, but aside from the #elderproject questions the interview covers much more: her journey to Canada when she was three years old, her brief stint as Vice President of Oscar De La Renta and her work at the UN. It was wonderful interviewing her because she truly embodies all the qualities I’ve ever thought a princess would. And then some. 

The #elderproject #9 – Andrew

Smart, modest and wise are the first attributes that spring to mind when I think of Andrew, my 9th interviewee for the #elderproject.

A Romanian 71 year old that fled to the US during the communist regime, he lived in the US for 20 years and is now living in the UK. This was one of my favourite interviews so far, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 

The #elderproject #8: Aida

My next interview is in a combination of Italian & Spanish because Aida, the first woman I interviewed as part of the #elderproject, was not comfortable in doing the interview in English. She works for Franco, whom I hope you’ve already listened to as he’s an amazing human being. 

Albeit somewhat expectedly, what struck me the most about my first interview with a woman was how sharp and clear the importance of family was to her compared to anything else. As you’ll see from a few more interviews with women her age, life is clearly mostly about family. Which is nice to see. 

Try not to become a man of success but rather try to become a man of value.

A few weeks ago I randomly came across the quote in the title and it stuck with me. Every single day since then, it’s been popping up in my head and for brief moments it makes me contemplate upon its meaning. I’m a sucker for wise quotes, and I became particularly fascinated with this one because it’s attributed to Albert Einstein, one of my favourite scientists of all time.

Yesterday evening I had a bit of time to kill as I was waiting to board a delayed flight, so I started digging into google to see if the wise words were, indeed, Mr. Einstein’s, or if they were wrongly attributed to him as many, many others on the internet. Luckily, after about an hour of investigation I stumbled upon the quote in an incredible memoir on Albert Einstein in LIFE magazine. Written by one of LIFE’s editors, William Miller, and published in their May 2 1955 issue, shortly after he died, it’s an incredible piece of literary history. If you have a few minutes you should go read it now (p. 61, 64). Have a look at the ads while you’re at it (they’re hilarious).

The memoir mainly describes a trip that Mr. Miller took together with his son and an old friend of Einstein’s, Dr. Hermanns, to the scientist’s house, unannounced, a short while before his sudden death. My favourite part of the whole thing is a conversation they have about one’s reason and purpose in life, with Einstein concluding (while addressing Pat, Mr Miller’s young son) that:

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day. Never lose a holy curiosity. Try not to become a man of success but rather try to become a man of value. He is considered successful in our day who gets more out of life than he puts in. But a man of value will give more than he receives.