The status ladder versus leadership

We as a society have created a very narrow definition of success – it’s all about status. In many parts of society, you are supposed to get high scores on your standardized test (CITO in the Netherlands; IQ tests), follow the highest possible secondary education, followed by a university degree from a renowned institute, then work for a renowned company or organization and continue the path to reach the highest position in this hierarchy. Every group in society has it’s own status ladder – when you live on the streets, being member of a certain gang may give the highest status. Often, status is related to material possessions, such as the latest smartphones, a cool car, the right brand of clothes or a large house. In this article however I’m talking about status related to what people do in life – usually work.

Every step away from the status ladder (lower scores on standardized tests, quitting a career with a renowned institute) is generally considered a failure by society. Very many people ultimately find themselves living a life which is not driven by themselves, by their own talents and motivations, but by some kind of ‘ideal image’ of success.

I have walked many steps on the status ladder – and worked hard to get up and up and up. With every step I took, I expected that ‘up there’, I would finally find more professional people and of course more recognition. It took me a while to realize that what I was really looking for is in fact true leadership. I even got access to the highest of the highest in leadership – the World Economic Forum in Davos. I was looking forward to this so intensely: finally, after all these years, I would be able to experience true leadership, all around me!

But I did not find what I was looking for. In fact, I was really disappointed.

I realized that “it” is not to be found ‘up there’ or ‘out there’, but in here. True leadership can be found when people use themselves as a tool to make things better – for themselves, for their families, or for society as a whole. I nowadays often find true leadership and value in people with much lower ‘status’, but who inspire me deeply – simply by how they live life and by how they use themselves as a tool to make things better.


A Manifesto for change in Education

Note: this manifesto was written in November 2012. My thinking has developed a lot ever since – and my thoughts, ideas and visions are still deepening and being sharpened. If you can read Dutch, I highly recommend you to continue reading on to learn about our most recent thinking.

If you prefer English, I recommend you to read the transcript of my latest TEDx talk, in which I share my latest thoughts. 

If you are still interested in my early thoughts, please read on… 🙂

From Status & System to Value & Variety

In the summer of 2012, two good things happened in parallel. First: I realized that Layar, the company that I co-founded in 2009, had reached an important next stage and is in great hands with its new leadership. Second: I found my calling – in education. On September 27th, 2012, I announced on stage at TEDxAmsterdamED that I want to help change society by changing our education systems. We need to better prepare the next generations for the reality of today and tomorrow, so they are well equipped to make this world a better place. I am now ramping down daily activities at Layar towards the end of 2012 and started to explore my value in this field.

In the manifesto below I want to share with you my vision on why changing the way we educate our children is key to changing the system our society is imprisoned in. A system that keeps our society from solving the bigger problems we are facing today, such as our financial crisis, energy supply, overpopulation and healthcare.

I want to contribute to these changes and use myself as a tool to make things better. Continue reading A Manifesto for change in Education

The problem with standardized tests

Just take a look at 10 average job postings and you will see many ‘wanted’ qualities listed. Skills we need to be happy and valuable in society go beyond what we currently learn at school: we need fantastic teamplayers, entrepreneurial attitudes, creative thinkers and doers, fast-paced flexibility, interpersonal sensitivity and cross-cultural awareness in today’s global society – just to name a few. Humans are more complex and have more talent and value than what we currently measure in standardized tests.

Instead, schools are more and more focused on standardized tests, whether or not forced by legislation or other external pressure – for example because schools are ranked “good” or “bad” according to their student’s standardized test results.

Let’s look at a couple of examples from standardized tests that my cousin and several of my friends children were confronted with.

Test 1: Vocabulary test for 5 year old Dutch children, from an official ‘CITO’ standardized test.

The right answer according to CITO is Blue – Cold. But Casper, my cousin, told his mother: “An eskimo builds an iglo because it’s cold outside, but inside it’s relatively warm. That’s why I picked red”.

Test 2:

The right answer according to the test is D, the airplane. But the child of a friend of mine said C (truck): “because it’s the only mode of transport which was not intended to transport passengers”.

Two weeks later, a colleague of mine sent an almost similar one from her child. In Dutch, it says:

Which word does not belong here?

1: train – car – truck – airplane

Source: Marjolein Stromeier via a tweet

Her 8 year old child answered ‘truck’: “it’s the only one which you can’t use to go on holiday.”

In each case, the child gave the ‘wrong’ answer – while everybody can only acknowledge that his or her answer is ‘also good’, even much smarter than what the test sought to be assessing. However, the system tells them they are wrong and are not supposed to think this way. And worse: give them a low score which may even cause smart children to get to the wrong level of education.

After the TED talk, some people suggested that the children should be able to find a suitable reasoning for each answer…

Standardized tests (including IQ tests) only assess a very limited set of skills or qualities. To put it bluntly, they mostly assess your ability to take standardized tests and to give the answer that is expected by the testing authority. They rarely assess your deeper understanding of the subject, or your ability to use the insights for reflection on what this would mean for the future.

Another set of very interesting examples were given by Tanya Khovanova in this blog post, where she described the array of potential answers for the Mensa (IQ) test:

[box] This test is similar to continuing a sequence. How would you continue the sequence 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9? The online database of integer sequences has 1479 different sequences containing this pattern. The next number might be:

  • 10, if this is the sequence of natural numbers;
  • 1, if this is the sequence of the digital sums of natural numbers;
  • 11, if this the sequence of palindromes;
  • 0, if this is the sequence of digital products of natural numbers;
  • 13, if this is the sequence of numbers such that 2 to their powers doesn’t contain 0;
  • 153, if this is the sequence of numbers that are sums of fixed powers of their digits;
  • 22, if this is the sequence of numbers for which the sum of digits equals the product of digits;
  • or any number you want.[/box]

[box] She also describes another sequence: What is the odd object out in this list?

Cow, hen, pig, sheep.

The standard answer is supposed to be hen, as it is the only bird. But that is not the only possible correct answer. For example, pig is the only one whose meat is not kosher. And, look, sheep has five letters while the rest have three. In the comments on her blog post, contributors have been indicating a ‘right’ answer for every word in the sequence. Worthwhile reading![/box]

In the end of her post, Tanya writes: “it bugs me that I might not have been creative enough to fail their test”…

With our society putting more and more emphasis on standardized tests (because a high score brings you to a higher level on the status ladder), many children now spend a lot of time rehearsing tests. Valuable time which could also be spent on developing skills which may be much more useful in later life.

Do you have more crazy and funny examples of standardized tests? Please share them underneath in the comments!

Moulding people into a system

The school system assumes that everybody learns in the same way, in the same rhythm, everything at the same moment in time.

We find it completely normal that every child learns to walk at a different age – my daughter needed almost double (!!) the time to learn to walk compared to my son. We also know that the age on which they learn to walk (9 or 18 months) doesn’t say anything about their performance (in for example sports) in later life. But at school, we still ask children to all learn at the same speed in classes which are horizontally organized, even if we know for a fact that everybody has their own rhythm and learning style.

I’m deeply concerned by the amount of children who are diagnosed as having a ‘problem’: ADHD, autism, dyslexia, etcetera. It is a good thing that there is greater interest in the fact that every child is ‘unique’ and deserves its own learning trajectory. But diagnosing 10-25% of children with a “problem” is deeply worrying, especially if children receive medication like Ritalin to make them perform better at school – e.g. be more calm, quiet and concentrated during lessons. Read more about this concern and an example in this blog post.

Schools kill creativity. This is the punchline of the most watched (and highly recommended if you haven’t seen it yet) TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson. Children are born with a lot of creativity but our school system moulds all the creativity out of them. Watch his talk over here:


A popular diagram shows that at age 40, all creativity is knocked out of an average human being. Where are you on this diagram?

Source: George Land and Beth Jarman


The moulding continues after school

Also in after-school life, we continue to mould people into something they are not. In my TED talk, I shared my experience with the ‘personal development plan’ at Unilever. In order to get higher up into the management hierarchy (the only way to achieve more status), you have to develop your management skills. These have been defined as a set of skills on which you are supposed to score ‘good’, but not ‘too extreme’.

My profile instead was pretty extreme – my ‘passion and energy’ (A) went way beyond all boundaries, causing me to act like a ‘jumping puppy’. What I was lacking was (E) control and structure. Instead of focusing on my strengths and how Unilever could benefit from these, I had to cut back on what I was really good at and work hard on my so-called ‘development points’. So basically I had to try to become somebody else. And despite all the talk about diversity, the corporate system basically creates average people.

A worrying amount of people around me confess that they are not really happy. They have a high level on the status ladder: a “good” job (eg high up in the management hierarchy), partner plus well-behaved children, big car, beautiful house. Despite all this, they are finding they are lacking ‘something’ – I think it might be ‘value’. But they don’t dare to get out anymore: “I have a high mortgage, all my life is set up according to my high salary; I can’t just quit”…

Do you have similar experiences? Did you also find yourself, or people around you, trapped on the status ladder? What did you/ they do? Please share in the comments!

CONNECT: part 1 of the Action Plan

The massive amount of reactions on my TED talk showed me three things:

  • Wow, so much is already happening/ done/ figured out – this needs to be shared.
  • I can’t be the only one who is interested but unaware of all these initiatives.
  • To really make an impact, we need to join forces. A very big movement is necessary.

We need to get together, share what works and discuss how to overcome barriers. Each one of us can create a ripple effect, all of us together create a Tsunami.

I would like to propose three form factors:

  1. Offline (face to face, events)
  2. Online (web environment)
  3. Informal – (bi-)weekly gatherings

Please click the links to find more details about the plans.

SHAPE: part 2 of the Action Plan

I firmly believe that we should look at value, defined by how happy you are (because you do things that matter to you) and how much you contribute to society (including your own family or friends) – making use of your own strengths and talents.

What if we could let go of everything education is about right now, if we could start anew:

  • What are the skills and knowledge needed in the world of today and tomorrow? What would children need to learn (until age 18)? [Is it ‘advanced maths’, or rather ‘learn to develop your own path’, ‘learn to become valuable – economically & socially, and get more out of yourself than you’d ever imagine’?]
  • How can they best learn [based on their specific needs, talents, learning styles]?
  • What is needed to facilitate this? [what technology, what kind of facilitators or teachers, buildings etc]
  • How can this be scaled, so that everybody has access to (this new type of) Education?
  • How can it be financed? [Are subsidies needed, or can it be viable on its own? Can 3rd parties provide a solution?]
  • How can it be quickly implemented/ rolled out? [Do national governments need to approve, which can take years, or can it be done differently?]
  • How can quality be assured? [Do we need standardized tests, can you assess differently? Is this still necessary, do the results speak for itself?]

I want to create a ‘charter’ from this, a 1- or 2-pager with starting points. These will become my ‘stick in the ground’, my compass direction for the coming years. It will also help to concentrate all the energy and initiatives – if we all look at the same thing and are not distracted by semantics, we can make this bigger and bigger. It also helps to spread the message if it is clear, compact and achievable.

I will ask the questions above to several people and groups around me, curious to see if these views will differ or not.

Please also share your own thoughts, in the comments below, by mail, through Facebook, Twitter or any other channel that suits you.