‘Appetite for Ambition’, speech at the Opening of the Academic Year 2013-2014 at Eindhoven University of Technology

Ladies – fortunately once again I see more of you than the previous year – and gentlemen, students and staff, I want to thank you very much for your invitation. I received your invitation as many as six months ago, which goes to show the high ambitions and careful preparation for this very special day, showing in every facet of its organisation. This calls for nothing less than my profound compliments.

Appetite for ambition is an excellent choice of subject, excellently chosen by the students of the organising committee and the many more who have no doubt contributed to the formation of this theme. An excellent choice, but also a tricky one.

Both appetite and ambition are concepts that are subordinate to something else; you can’t be ambitious without a goal, without some specific thing that you want to achieve. And only if you really want to achieve that goal, you will generate this insatiable appetite that keeps going on like a heartbeat. And it doesn’t stop until that goal is achieved.

But first you need to know what it is that you want to achieve. What do you want to achieve?

You can look for the answer to that question in the world around us. But it’s not easy to find good goals to pursue in a world that changes so rapidly and that is becoming exponentially more complex, and meanwhile, the prospects of increasing retirement ages and retreating governmental support put more pressure than ever on finding that goal. The many, rapidly changing and more and more numerous options before us now often cause our grey matter to experience not decisiveness but option paralysis.

And before you can embark on a quest like this, don’t you need to really know yourself? And isn’t discovering oneself what gives life meaning?

In a labyrinth that keeps becoming more and more complex, a labyrinth with corridors that rearrange constantly, you can only expect to get lost. Maybe then we need to stop looking for our ambitions in the world outside, and instead look for it within ourselves.

Maybe what we need is a different take on today’s subject: maybe appetite for ambition should mean appetite for the sake of ambition. Maybe the ambition will come once you manage to spend your days on something you know you want to do, something you can work on with passion and that has you go to bed not to end the day, but as a necessary break, to get some rest and do some thinking, so you can pick up again tomorrow where you left off today.

It never was my ambition to be an entrepreneur, or to concern myself with technology every day. To become a teacher at a university or to get to advise CEO’s and ministers. Everything I do and everything I’ve done up until now has been the result of two events in my life. They were that kind of event that can shape the rest of your life. Do you know what events have had that effect on you?

One was in the nineties, during the Balkan wars in former Yugoslavia. My father had been passionate about radio telecommunication from a very early age on, and he had obtained a license for radio broadcasting. At the time we lived in a high rise building in Amsterdam that was four stories tall, to which he had attached a 20 metre radio tower. This enabled him to communicate via radio with his college friends in Yugoslavia. We found out this way that my grandfather had been imprisoned, but was otherwise unharmed.

Over the years, we got countless families and Amnesty International representatives who all came to my father just to get in touch with that war-torn country. Week after week, month after month, for years on end, I saw just how important technology was to the lives of those people sitting in the living room of our small three room apartment, while my father tried to find ways to contact their loved ones. I watched technology bring tears to their eyes and smiles onto their faces. I was deeply impressed by how invaluable technology was to their lives. That impression would never wear off again.

It really struck a chord with me. This interaction between technologies and people — I wanted to get more involved with that.

But like anyone who knows something interests them, that wasn’t enough. You can’t just turn something you think is fun into your goal; it takes more than just an interest to follow your ambitions about that subject.

I’ve had a number of very emotional conversations with my grandfather about his time in captivity, and he taught me there’s only one question you need to be concerned about when it comes to ambition and pursuing happiness: How do you spend your time NOW?

The other event happened when I was twelve. I decided to take up volunteer work with Het Net, one of the first commercial internet providers in the Netherlands. Not with any goals or ambitions in mind; just following my curiosity and my appetite for more.

Everyone thought I was crazy: who wants to do unpaid work for a commercial company? But when it comes down to it, it wasn’t really unpaid.

It’s true that I didn’t get any money for the work I did, but I did get to meet the best programmers, concept developers, graphic designers, communication specialists, copywriters and other internet specialists in the country. They told me about the ins and outs of their field, and together we worked on one of the coolest media projects in the Netherlands: building the internet platform for the TV show Big Brother. They inspired me immensely, they shared their biggest secrets and tricks with me, and they let me do small assignments. That’s how I got to familiarise myself with, and become engaged with the field. And you wouldn’t believe just how much I learned.

I saw the intersection of technology and society come alive.

Also, I discovered that money is a bad incentive for doing work; the best reason to do work is the work itself. The money you are paid to do the work should reflect the added value you contribute — no less and no more — but it should not be the reason why you do what you do.

Money is only a medium of exchange in the form of coins, banknotes and zeroes and ones – but it has no value as such.

This isn’t about me, though. My story only serves to illustrate the search for answers to the big questions that can help bring your passion to life, that can help you discover what fascinates you and what your ambitions will be.

What makes you happy?

What intrigues you?

What subject, phenomenon or field do you want to spend your life working on?

What thrills and inspires you so much that you might even dedicate the rest your life to it?

You can’t answer these questions with conviction until you’ve seen enough of the world. Until you’ve had the chance to become acquainted with various different subjects and to experience what it’s like to be and work in various different environments.

Maybe appetite for ambition does not start at setting goals — maybe it’s appetite that leads to finding your ambitions.

Hopefully you’ll come to think of university — and better yet, life in general — as one gigantic candy store, and hopefully you’ll come to think of your time as a student as an opportunity to browse around.

The people you will meet in university — not just your fellow students, but also teachers, other academic and support staff, and even guests — can help you to feed your appetite and refine your ambitions. Listen to each other, and take your time to give each other thorough and well-founded feedback.

But we are naturally limited beings. We’ve all been given particular features and capacities at birth and through our upbringing, and while on the corner of every street there’s a gym that promises a better, healthier body, there’s not much money to be made in running a ‘brain gym’, even if our brains too are definitely capable of learning so much more.

And not just up until age 24, while your brains are still naturally developing, but long after as well. If your memory, your thinking speed, your reading speed, your analytical skills, your general world knowledge or your knowledge of very specific developments in the world, or a lack of any of those things — if any of that gets in the way of your ambitions, you don’t have to just accept that.

There are whole libraries’ worth of information written on the subject of the ways our brains work, and it would be such a shame not to put any of that knowledge to good use.

And there’s another thing: on countless occasions, you’ll run into limitations set by the system we live in. When something like that happens, don’t be discouraged, but look for alternatives.

When I was 17, I decided to drop out of high school in order to work on expanding my first company. When I was 20, I realised I had less and less energy for all the things I wanted to do. I missed the externally imposed challenge and structuring that comes with being a student. I wanted to get that back.

However, the Colloquium Doctum exam, which is the entrance exam into university for people who haven’t been to or finished high school, can only be considered valid if you’re 21 and up. I was 20.

Rules are for the masses, exceptions are for you, I found out.

And besides the fact that actively developing your soft skills and trying to circumvent the limitations of the system is just fun, and that it’s satisfying when it works out and that it’ll help you to realise your ambitions more quickly and with less effort, there’s another reason why these things are important, and why they are more important now than they have ever been.

I started out this speech with the observation that ‘appetite for ambition’ is a tricky choice of subject, and that this is not only a result of using two wonderful, profound words that relate to the future in complex ways, but that it’s also tricky because it’s a very optimistic outlook in an age where the word ‘crisis’ has been the trending topic in the media in recent years. Is it even a good idea to hunger for ambition in a time that seems to be characterised by shortage, decline and political-economic depression at all?

The word ‘crisis’ derives from the ancient Greek ‘krinō’ meaning ‘to decide’ or ‘to judge’, and was once a medical term describing the most grave stage of a disease, the stage that determined whether the patient was going to live.

A word that can be translated as ‘turning point’ has been used for the past seven years to describe the status quo.

A crisis cannot last for seven years.

What’s more is that in this middle of these economically hard times, numerous new companies have started up that are doing remarkably well, and have been doing well for a long time. Apple. Google. Facebook. YouTube.

These are all companies that had people in their twenties at the wheel when they started up; people from your generation, dear students — people from the generation of your students, dear staff members.

People from that generation who established technology-based organisations that have been doing remarkably well and continue to do well from the point of view of the eminence grise.

And what’s more: they are organisations that have managed to enter their market and introduce new, disrupting innovations and business models. They’ve been outdoing well-established older companies that have proved unable to adequately cater to the modern world, companies that cannot adapt quickly enough because of the complex, unwieldy structure of their system. They changed the rules of the game. Could it be that we’ve been through a turning point seven years ago, and that in the years since, we’ve been slowly transitioning into a new reality?

There’s one company, and it’s founder in particular, that deserves our attention. I’m talking about Apple.

Apple is a company that now has twice as much money in the bank as the American government does, and a company that has disrupted or reinvented the market for MP3 players, cellphones, computers, the music industry, the film industry, the market for literature and the market for tablet PCs. It’s a company that set a new standard for product packaging and has given a new meaning to ‘lean and mean’ marketing.

The late Steve Jobs, who has unfortunately passed away now, has shown us that ambition starts with appetite: all his life he was a curious, critical-thinking person who had his own ideas about many things. The goals he strived for, were always goals of the here-and-now, and all those here-and-nows taken together are what made him one of the most ambitious entrepreneurs and engineers in the world. Down to every last button on every device Apple ever developed.

He also exemplified that it’s more important than ever for an engineer to work together with experts from different fields, or better still, to gain knowledge and experience outside the technical field — which has now become easier than ever with the new curriculum offered by your university. Things like business models, marketing, entrepreneurship, law — all things that are tied to the craft of the engineer more inextricably now than they have ever been before.

And even if you won’t be an entrepreneur, if instead of working for an innovative little speedboat you will join one of the bulky oil tankers that don’t change course very easily: either way, you are indispensable in our transition into the new world. The next generation of engineers.

What are you waiting for?

It is now that engineering and technology play a more crucial role than ever.

Not to supplement analogue processes. Not to replace analogue processes, like replacing a paper file cabinet with a digital database. Not to communicate with, like entering a math problem and getting the answer; not to communicate through, like with cell phones or Facebook.

But as the ultimate answer to a society that is become more complex than ever, in which humankind has expanded from 1 to 7 billion people during the past 150 years, in which the language barrier is being dealt with by means of glasses with microphones and cameras, in which the demand for food will be increasing by 100%, in which the job market will present greater challenges, moving from unemployment to job shortage, and where government cuts from our government and other governments aren’t going to blow over for a long time.

Population ageing, growing challenges in the areas of health care and resource shortage — the list goes on. Society’s issues are becoming more complex and their answers will become more complex too, while affecting more and more lives.

We live in a time where you can be more valuable than ever, while simultaneously it’s more challenging than ever to be so; you need more knowledge than ever and it’s become more important than ever not to let obstacles slow you down. Today is the day you rev up your engines, the day to populate the classrooms with an open mind and a headful of curiosity.

What will you be doing? Will you do what’s expected of you, during your college years and after, or will you try to use your college years to their full potential? Will you go by the pre-existing escalator or build your own vehicle?

Throughout life, there will always be two ways that lead to your goal.

The first way is easy: it’ll be flat, easy to travel, there will be many other people walking it, it will be well lit and there will be signs saying “go this way”. That’s the way of the masses. Which is fine.

The second way will be a dark road, not many people will be travelling it, not much will be known about it, there will be no signs saying “go this way”, and it will not show up on any map.

Which way do you choose?

It’s been seven years since the crisis; now it is time for us to work on creating the new world. The only way to do this will be to escape the masses sometimes, and find your own way. Be creative. Find these new answers. Innovate.

Will it be easy? No, it will not be easy.

Fear is a flawed remnant of our evolution, a relic from bygone times when we would hunt animals in the woods and serious danger could be looming anywhere and strike at any moment. Fear helped our great-great-ancestors survive, and it helped to bring us where we are today. But that doesn’t mean it’s still as useful as it once was.

Too often, our own fears hold us back from attaining our ambitions and sometimes other people that love you will make you worry, too.

Are you sure you want to start your own company? Where will you get the money at first? Are you sure it’s a good idea to quit high school? What about the risks?

I’ve heard all of these questions.

And yes, I was afraid. No, I wasn’t sure. Yes, there were great risks, and no, not everything went as planned. I didn’t even have a plan for everything.

When we experience fear and stressful feeling that keep us from attaining the things we aspire too, a physical reaction is occurring in our body. Blood supply to our brain diminishes and instead goes to our legs and feet, preparing us for a quick getaway while at the same time reducing thoughts that might prevent us from running away from whatever it is that’s causing these feelings.

Don’t give in to that. Be cautious, but don’t be afraid.

Don’t be in a big hurry, either.

Work hard, but be patient. Even when you know exactly what it is that you want to achieve, it can still take you a lifetime to actually get there.

Don’t expect to achieve your goals in one go, you’ll only set yourself up for disappointment that way. No one can go up a steep cliff edge in one giant leap. Take the gentle slope instead, and climb it one step at a time. Treat it like an endurance sport.

Divide your grand, ambitious goal into manageable chunks. Divide it into small, short term sub-goals that you can work on every day, preferably even small enough to accomplish in one day. That way, you can celebrate every day that you achieved that day’s goal, for the rest of your life.

And if you go for it and try hard, you really cannot fail. Ambition is never a carefully laid-out plan, it’s a complex collection of options and decisions in your unpredictable daily life. You can make things easier and more pleasant by doing it together, supporting one another, finding a mentor. Make use of the knowledge, the insights and the networks of the academic staff, and if needed, look for help elsewhere. The world is waiting for you with open arms.

There’s one more subject I need to briefly address, however. Unfortunately, those in control will often give in to the temptation to use technology in harmful ways. In past weeks, the Guardian and other newspapers have published major revelations, brought to the light thanks to Edward Snowden, about the unconstitutional mass surveillance carried out by the United States government, and the Dutch government just doesn’t seem to be interested in these massive human rights violations.

As a result of the evolution of technology, which has become part of our lives in very intimate ways, the ethical questions that arise with that situation have become more important than ever as well. This too present a special task for you.

The University will change your life, and only you can decide in what ways. But even more importantly, you now have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fill your backpacks with knowledge, insights, a larger network and new friends: everything you need in order to permanently become a major asset to society, and change or contribute to the lives of many, many people.

The world is at your feet, the university is at your service, if you serve them as well.

There’s the promise of an amazing meal awaiting you. I wish you all, a lot of fun, curiosity and ambition for your college years, and all years that follow, but most of all:

bon appétit!

In het openbaar uitgesproken op 2 september 2013, ter gelegenheid van de opening van het Academische Jaar 2013-2014 op de Technische Universiteit Eindhoven – negende jaar op rij de beste Technische Universiteit van Nederland volgens de Keuzegids Universiteiten 2013 –, op verzoek van de vijf studenten van het organiserende comité. Het thema ‘Appetite for Ambition’ was gegeven, en het speciale verzoek was om in de speech ook kort iets te vertellen over Apple/Steve Jobs.

One response to “‘Appetite for Ambition’, speech at the Opening of the Academic Year 2013-2014 at Eindhoven University of Technology”

  1. Thanx mr Danny Mekić, This article is amazing !

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