Recently I sat down with a friend who was very excited. She had applied to the MIT Media Lab and couldn’t wait to hear back if she had been accepted. An accomplished professional, she already had a masters degree under her belt, and could namedrop more famous institutions she had studied at than most of us ever get to visit, so understandably we spent most of our time talking about what she would do once she got in, simply because it seemed pretty certain she would. Listening to her I was getting worried that she didn’t quite appreciate how far she had already got. And that while academic qualifications are great, I wasn’t sure that a PHD would do any more for her than what she had already managed to do. It turned out that her passion is around entrepreneurship, and somehow combining her experience around management consultancy, children’s technology and entertainment, with science and research around the emerging field of health monitoring. All topics that are highly interesting, but what struck me talking to her, was this sense of looking for permission. I find it hard to explain, but as we talked about it in the meeting, it seemed that the Media Lab step was one about finding like minds and seeking permission to enter this field, as enabled by the contacts and qualifications that studying at the Media Lab could give. Some weeks later, we did find out that she had not got accepted. She was understandably very disappointed, but I reminded her again that looking for permission to do something is not nearly as effective as just doing it. Another degree or PHD will not bring her closer to her dream, only pursuing her dream directly will. And there are many ways to do that, this being only one of them. Most importantly though, if this door closes, remember all the other doors that are still open.
What drives you is not obvious
What led you to where you are now, she then asked me. What if you don’t know what your dream is? And chances are you don’t, not when you start out. You might think you do, but that could be the dream others have for you, not the one that makes uniquely sense to you. And also, it’s hard to discover your dream without doing something, because when you do, you gain experience and that experience helps you see opportunities you didn’t understand before, but it also helps you get closer to understanding what drives you. Unless you expose yourself to many things, situations and people and do your best, you will never discover what you are prepared to work hard at to get better at, what gives you energy and what you are willing to give up. When graduating from high school I didn’t know what to do. Having spent 12 years in school the least attractive idea was to go to university, so I got this job at a children’s charity, sponsored by UNICEF and UNESCO. Not quite knowing what I threw myself into, I moved to the UK and dived into the task I had, which was to pull together this book written by children from all over the world about what the United Nations had meant to them. This was a book to be published in time for the UN’s 50th anniversary in 1995. The project involved working with 21 young people, volunteering from the over 500 groups from all over the world, that had sent some of the best contributions to the book. This project put me in the middle of a massive project, relying on volunteers to finish it, walking the diplomatic tightrope of explaining the history of the United Nations, without offending any member states, while still telling a story capable of inspiring and explaining why collaboration across borders is the only way to resolve conflicts, and challenges facing humanity. Nevertheless we found a way, finished the book and this led me to take on much more project management with the organisation, fundraising and eventually I became a co-director of the organisation. Yet, I didn’t know then what drove me, but I had learned that I had a knack for leadership, communication, pulling many different kinds of people together and bringing the best out in them.
Finding a match for your values
Working some more years, I eventually left and set up my own little company, still doing consultancy to them and other clients in London. My parents were insisting that I had to go to college and get some kind of degree, because it wasn’t sustainable for me to just keep working without any further qualifications. They were right and reluctantly I started looking around for what I would want to study. Working with the charity I had got deeply involved in Sustainable Development, developed learning material for schools and wrote a contribution to a book about how to measure progress towards sustainable development in local communities. I figured that the profession that could contribute the most to our transition into sustainable development was product design, so I enrolled at Central Saint Martins in London to study this, while keeping my little business still running, helping me put food on the table. While at Saint Martins I realised that my values and passion for making things that last, that have a transformational effect on their owners, meant that there weren’t many places I wanted to work. I couldn’t get excited by so many consumer products, because in most cases there wasn’t a bigger idea behind them. There was a problem that needed solving, usually as cheaply as possible, and with the assumption that with some inbuilt obsolescence the problem could be solved all over again in a year or so’s time, with a new version that did more or less the same thing. Then I had the good fortune of discovering an opportunity to join the LEGO Group. Their values are my own, bricks made over 30 years ago still fit with the ones made today and most importantly, what drives people in this company is making something that inspires children to explore and develop their creativity and help them realise their full potential. I was hooked.
Finding what sparks your creativity
While I then worked some more years to develop many different products that helped put smiles on children’s faces, I also realised that expressing my creativity this way was not what ultimately drove me. Here I was operating primarily as a specialist, I had lots of skills and know-how I brought to projects and I took business and consumer needs, and turned them into ideas and products with a capacity to inspire and delight. It was a form of problem-solving. A different variety than the one I had encountered at the Children’s charity, and it also involved leadership, communication, pulling many different kinds of people together and bringing the best out of them. I did however, through this experience get closer to what drives me so I moved into people leadership and worked with consumer insights, experience design and also set up academic collaboration for the company. What was rewarding here was understanding more about what influences and challenges innovation and leadership, and how to set up infrastructure, processes, support and individual development to realise large scale change, whether it was building business strategy based on consumer insights, trends and stategic scenario planning, or working with consumers to identify what value propositions made sense to them, or developing an organisation and individuals to innovate the experiences they provide to our consumers. I then did the TRIUM executive MBA and moved over to head up LEGO.com and consumer experiences, not because I’m an online guru or IT expert, but because I have a deep passion for unlocking the potential this area has for us as a company, and the potential of the people involved in it and I’m determined to find ways for technology and the digital space to further supercharge creativity, collaboration, communities and co-creation.
How you best combine your experience, values and creativity gives you a clue what drives you
Most importantly though, all this makes sense (only) in hindsight. I’ve explored the work of NGOs, intergovernmental organisations, policy-and decision makers, the role of designers and creatives in catalysing ideas and solutions bringing together the needs of disparate groups into something that makes a difference, the role of research and insight in helping individuals and organisations learn and stay attuned to the world around them and now looking into how technology and the online space can add another level of connectivity, speed, collaboration and transparency to all of the above. Each step has been about exploring different sides of leadership, communication and getting the best out of people, and while this is my passion and skill, why I have persisted at it is because what drives me: inspiring and developing people to realise their full human potential through creativity. I know this now, not because it was clear to me at the outset, but because over time I could see a pattern emerging around what inspires me and what doesn’t, and what I want to keep learning more about.
So my advice: seek to learn and grow your experience and use it to uncover what you have a knack for and what drives you. Remember that what you have a knack for is not the same thing as what drives you, and finding how you can apply what you have a knack for to support what drives you is key to both success and happiness. You don’t need permission to pursue what drives you, but you might need qualifications to help you sharpen what you have a knack for on your way. Don’t forget what you have already accomplished and what that has taught you about what drives you and what you can do today to bring you closer to it.