#4 Letter of Inspiration - A Good Life

A good life was long considered fulfilled when we had an array of material things (including a house, cars, and certain vacation). These goods are now “democratized”: 'a good life' is redefining itself. In an affluent society, a simple lifestyle becomes luxury. The imperfect moment becomes what we are longing for and suddenly the desire to be oneself triggers the courage to indulge one's own character traits again. In a time of unlimited availability, this is a force that makes differentiation possible again, because character traits cannot be authentically imitated. And, when put in the right context, they create relevance for ourselves and our work.

A good life

In the past, life was considered good if you could afford everything. Everything usually meant at least one summer and winter holiday a year, two cars, a house, maybe even a weekend house in the countryside or somewhere near the beach. New generations neither have a driver's license, nor do they learn to ski in school anymore. Intercontinental flights are also being questioned in the times of Greta and climate change discussions. What about going out for dinner? Yes, but vegan please, preferably with local ingredients. A good life: what does it mean today?

Goodbye luxury, goodbye consumption

Consumption is similar to the monthly salary: up to a certain level, we are still happy about a promotion, until the marginal utility of any further increase becomes zero. After this point we do not care anymore because the next promotion would have to be immense to fundamentally change our lifestyle. In the Western world, the last 40 years have been good years. What do I mean by that? We didn't urgently miss anything, as everything was available. “If” has never been a question; only whether “there's more”. However, constant availability simply leads to boredom. Something similar happens with consumption. As it has become vulgar, as a response, we don't want to test the next Michelin Star restaurant, or buy another car, nor buy a new house in Spain, and our children don't fly anymore anyway, because of their CO2 footprint.

The end of consumption leads to a redefinition of luxury. A minimalist lifestyle seems to be the natural consequence of prosperity.

A simple lifestyle

Luxury always had an exclusive effect, which has been represented by the limited availability or the high price of certain products or services. Now platform models such as booking.com or UBER, but also flight providers such as easyJet, are trivialising a commodity that was reserved for those who had privileged access to a 'good life'. Today everyone has access to a top deal in a 5* hotel, and your private driver (UBER) picks you up from the airport, while your flight costs only 39.00 CHF. The sudden “democratization” of luxury signals a turning point. .

Furthermore, there are brand new ways of communication, which are more visual than verbal. The perfect Instagram image replaces the postcard from the vacation and WhatsApp allows us to be constantly connected with our friends despite thousands of kilometers of distance. In the end, we are longing for a break: break from the availability, to find that imperfect moment you will remember because it doesn't look like something from an ad of a lifestyle magazine.

A strong character

It takes courage to admit imperfection. We have been trained for decades on what a good life should look like - and now we are supposed to just forget about it? The admission is difficult and yet opens up a new perspective. I would like to emphasize the thesis that the new luxury is strongly connected to personality and that the more we develop our character, the stronger our 'feeling for a new luxury' will be. The way to a good life in the new 20s year heralds the era of artists.

If you are interested in this thought, you can read my article "The Era of Artists".

What has inspired me recently?

A recipe for success?

My passion is to curate moments of inspiration for natural leaders. This has the wonderful side effect of allowing me to have conversations with many fascinating people. But the real beauty emerges through connecting and condensing my observations to the essence. After a few inspiring meetings recently, I believe I have discovered a “recipe for success”.

Go your own way: I had an inspiring encounter with an antique dealer and restorer in Zurich. He told me about the beginnings of his profession; all his colleagues started to study and he has decided to learn craftsmanship. He was often mocked for choosing this path. Today, he says with pride: "Yes, only very few people can do what I do today. Nowadays, I would say that I am successful." The gentleman I'm talking about is now over 70 years old. He says he is doing very well, especially when he is working, because he does not notice the passing of time or the little pains that come with age.

Experience is crucial: recently, at a dinner with artists who can be considered as “successful”, I was wondering whether they could see a “recipe” for their success in retrospect. Independently of each other, both artists mentioned their decision to go and work abroad as one reason. Without working in Chicago or Berlin, the recognition of their work would not be at the level where it is today. The experience and change of perspective gained in a foreign country have widened the perspective of their work and strengthened certain character traits in them. Indeed, strong characters have something magically attractive.

What inspired me? Success is something individual: there is no algorithm for success. It seems much more important to follow the intuitive and personal path, no matter whether it leads to craftsmanship or to distant cities. Our good life is something only we can define for ourselves.

Last but not least...

Due to the current situation regarding COVID-19 I had to postpone the Zero Senses Retreat.

I am happy that the wonderful Hotel Paradies as well as each of the fantastic speakers understood due to the given situation we had to postpone the Retreat. The new date for autumn will be announced soon and one more thing: We make two extra seats available. Interested? Sign up here.

And for those of you, who are curious, you can find the program here:

Review: My Circle of Inspiration in St.Moritz

We have to know the source to understand its consequences. The question of how leaders create relevance in this new era was the main topic of my last Circle of Inspiration (click for details). Together with an exclusive group of guests, we discussed the art of context creation during a dinner in the midst of the inspiring environment of the Hauser & Wirth Gallery in St.Moritz. By using the current exhibition as an example, the gallery’s director, Stefano Rabolli Pansera, captivated us with his stories and motivated a stimulating table discussion amongst the guests. It was clear: the more we understand the source, the better we are able to create a context. Why is that necessary? To create relevance and thus meaning in times when everything is available.

So much for this issue of the Letter of Inspiration - thank you for following my impulses! Feel free to share this letter with colleagues and friends.

#3 Letter Of Inspiration - Compassionate Machines: Humans.

Don’t we find the people who break out of a certain framework and who are 'different' very intriguing? We can discover this uniqueness in each of us. The more artificial the intelligence around us becomes, the more the inherent potential of our own character increases. It is time to develop and use the potential that will determine our future. Utility items, described by Alibaba founder Jack Ma as “things created by humans”, should give us the opportunity to indulge in individual thinking. With the Zero Senses Retreat 'Cultivating Presence' in March 2020, I will offer time and space for such contemplation.

Compassionate Machines: Humans.

I realized that reducing sleep, optimizing my body through morning sports, having a healthy diet, and improving my memory through learning foreign languages do not make me a “better machine”. However, this banal realization raises the question: what does it mean to be a human? Recently had a fruitful discussion with a Swiss philosopher about the difference between humans and machines. He summarized his opinion in a wonderful image:

A loaf of bread:

When I send a machine to the bakery to buy a loaf of bread, I will get a loaf of bread. When I send a child to the bakery, who smells the freshly baked chocolate croissants, there is a good chance that I will not get any bread...

Situational, impulsive, and individual actions distinguish us from the accuracy and perfection, in which machines are multiple times better than we are. In a debate with Elon Musk about artificial intelligence, Jack Ma (the founder of Alibaba) said: "Chess is meant to be a game between humans and humans”. He doesn't care if a machine defeats him, nor does he try to run faster than a car. According to Ma, the time we gain from the creation of “utility items” shall be invested in self-development.

Individual Thinking

Serendipity is a surprising and positive discovery made by people when they originally wanted to buy a loaf of bread. One of the most famous examples is probably the accidental discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. Such a phenomenon would never occur in a world optimized by machines, where individual thinking would not exist. But isn’t exactly our open mind is what differentiates humans, the ‘compassionate machines’, from machines? And if so: is it possible to cultivate this basic human strength after years of trying to become a better machine?

Leaders need time and space in which such accidental discoveries can happen. The Zero Senses Retreat for “Cultivating Presence” will take place in October 2021 for a limited number of leaders. In a 2 1⁄2 days program, I curated five key impulses with a focus on sensory experiences of the art and culinary scene. Focusing on the senses creates a different level of awareness. Impulses include profound conversations with international thought leaders, who will speak about economics, philosophy and research. The impact is intensified by the venue itself: located in the middle of the Swiss Alps, Hotel Paradies offers a unique atmosphere. The retreat guarantees time and space for reflection.

What Inspired Me Recently? The Formative Years.

I read the autobiography of Marina Abramovic, who is a very inspiring character for me, and is most likely one of the most successful performance artists of our time.

This woman, who used her body as canvas and took her personal experiences (family, partners, friends) as 'color' and inspiration to express herself across a variety of settings, concluded after nearly 500 pages that during all these years she was actually looking for attention and affection, especially from her partners. Why?

Abramovic grew up in a very well-situated family under the communist regime in Belgrade, in former Yugoslavia. She never experienced the love and attention she always longed for, especially not from her mother. The memory of emotional coldness endured at a young age drives her to perform even more passionately. This is why she has chosen the title “Walk Through Walls” for her autobiography.

I do not want to venture into the depth of psychology, but I find it interesting how profoundly our formative years influence our adult behavior (which is still the case for Abramovic, who is now 72). TrendsActive, a trend agency from Holland, observes formative years on a meta-level. Based on the environmental influences (such as crises, financial instability or economic development) between the ages of 4 and 14, the TrendsActive team identifies behavioral patterns, and provides companies with advice on how to approach different generations.

It is fascinating to observe the influence of the formative years in the biography of a well-known artist, as well as a business approach to better understand target groups.

Thank you for staying with me. I hope you received fruitful impulses. Please feel free to share the content with colleagues and friends.

#2 Letter of Inspiration - Luxury: admired, desired, and declared dead

The understanding of luxury is changing, which triggers a decline of inflationary consumption. Modern consumerism is shifting toward a luxury of connoisseurship. This puts a new emphasis on you: on individual knowledge, on personal relations, on network and, ultimately, on the creation of your own context. Taking a look at the book of Hans-Ulrich Obris titled 'Ways of curating' might give you a first impulse on this new perspective. I also invite you to read my blog posts!

Luxury: admired, desired, and declared dead

The luxury industry for a long time was considered a seismograph for the mass market. A big statement, starting with the question of what luxury actually means and ending with the question mark of what that means for my business.

The next generations (known in the media as Millennials and Gen Z), have been fortunate enough to grow up in an environment, in which nothing has ever been missing. They did not experience neither financial crises, no war. In fact, they have lived their formative years (between 10 and 25) in a globalized world, without geographical boundaries or limited access to products. When there is access to everything, the quest for meaning becomes even stronger. However, it would be very naive to assume that the latter has no impact on an industry dominated by consumption and material things.

One example is the airline industry: what was once a symbol for luxury and only accessible to a select group of people, has filtered down to the mass market. Nowadays flying is even perceived by many as a burden. Although, concepts such as NetJets, a private-flight provider, are steadily gaining ground. Why? This company does not sell flights anymore, but safety and independence for an exclusive clientele. These values describe the new luxury.

Knowledge creates conscious awareness, therefore meaning. The quest for meaning has made materialism replaceable. The understanding of luxury evolves from status to connoisseurship. Ultimately, the depth of knowledge about the product dictates the level of enjoyment. For example the menu presentations of Michelin-Star restaurants mention not only the local farmers, but even the dairy cows, creating a deeper understanding of the product.

How does this trend affect your business? Success will manifest itself for those who create meaning and place this new value in the right context.

The age of connoisseurs

I see a new chapter opening up: suddenly people gain attraction over big brands. Our current era values individual thinking and a certain level of depth over the superficial results of an average Google search. An upcoming revival of the appreciation for craftsmanship signals the shift of values: from the growing popularity of baristas who are experts in roasting temperatures and grinding, to the increasing willingness of customers to wait up to three months for a handmade pair of leather shoes.

The age of connoisseurs suddenly brings our attention to a profession that has only been found in the art world: the curator. This group cleverly combines individual works into an exhibition by creating a higher context, based on their connections with connoisseurs (artists). Sooner than later the skill of curating will be more and more prevalent in other industries as well, laying the foundation for a new form of recognition. The search for meaning no longer puts consumers in front of boutiques to wait in queues, but prompts them to seek access to connoisseurs.

I recently published an article about ‘curating inspiration’, which you can find here.

Let me give you an example, how the purpose of meaning can make a difference in a highly competitive market. James Freeman, the founder of the California-based coffee chain Blue Bottle had a dream: he wanted to offer the best coffee in the world. That was a huge vision back in 2004, especially because of the fierce competition among existing coffee chains. The best coffee for Freeman meant the most tasteful coffee. Many conversations, tastings and researches later, he found out that the peak of flavor decreased significantly 48 hours after roasting. After this discovery, Freeman’s goal was clear: to only offer coffee that is enjoyed within 48 hours after roasting. The result? More than 60 stores worldwide and revenue of $22.5 million.

The end of consumption

Excessive consumption is no longer chic. The luxury of connoisseurship can be distilled in radical sophistication, presenting itself in a more silent, unobtrusive enjoyment. Simply picking the most expensive red wine from the list is no longer enough. The quest for meaning breaks through the surface of price and status. The insight into wine style, winemakers, grape growing and winemaking draws the customer’s attention. The sommelier, who is actually a curator of wine, becomes the gatekeeper to knowledge. If he is not convincing, new generations will rather order water with lemon… or celleric juice.

People seek more clarity: easy access to information and domain-specific knowledge reduces our willingness to compromise. The consumer is more aware, educated and curious than probably ever before. According to a study by the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute (GDI), this trend will continue, stating that “the consumer is also a producer”. Let’s theoretically expand the circle of connoisseurship! As our own expectations are increasing and craftsmanship is celebrating a revival, could our motivation to buy one day be replaced by “doing-it-yourself” and barter?

What has inspired me recently?

The desire for lightness. I had a beautiful imagine in my mind of colorful houses, embedded among the rocks on the Tyrrhenian seashore and white, little beaches, inviting to refresh from the hot August sun. The reality of the Amalfi Coast was a different one: crowded pass roads, black, hot and rocky beaches where you had fit your towel as if playing Tetris between all the others.

Space, solitude, independence - for me attributes of new luxury - have not even come close to what I experienced. Three days at the coast in southern Italian has been nevertheless enriching: people, especially Italians, who seemed not to notice any of what I just described. These people truly enjoyed the moment being fully present, with style and pleasure, far from self-optimization or the staging of a next Instagram post. In our fast-moving society there is a huge urge to reconnect to oneself: yoga, mediation, plant-based diet, and artificial minimalism through the self-imposed reduction to only 100 items and so on. However, lightness might not come to those who spend all their energy on forcing themselves to reach a certain state, but to those who can let things go and simply... be.

Thank you for staying with me. I hope you received fruitful impulses. Please feel free to share the content with colleagues and friends.

#1 Letter of Inspiration - Embracing the VOID.

In this letter you find impulses on the magical endurance of uncertainty, on how to use cultivated intuition to make clear decisions, and on what inspired me recently on the subject of 'sustainability'. Last but not least: you can find the essential thoughts from my speech titled "From Rational to Emotional Thinking", which I gave to 250 managers in Zurich (in German).

Embracing the VOID

Building a business is certainly not an easy task, but for me it is probably the most exciting and formative experience so far:

- It is exciting, because I can do everything for the first time, without any support from a company, or the protection of a boss, or the security of a superficial senior title. I am - just myself. Even though it is a huge initial effort, it's a time when I grow almost daily. I dive deeply into topics, I learn to translate my experience into a new context, to eventually reach the moment when I can apply this experience - let it be a client meeting, a lecture or a conversation about an acquisition. I’m preparing to eventually share my 'new', transformed knowledge. What's so exciting about all this, you may wonder? The moment of uncertainty; not knowing whether my idea will be understood, acknowledged or even lead to inspiration. The brief moment of silence, the VOID, which feels like minutes even though it only lasts seconds, triggers a feeling of floating without a firm ground below.…

- It is a formative experience, because the moment of uncertainty triggers a void, which I learned to enjoy. The feeling of tightrope walking without a safety harness, which I described above, makes me rely on my own experience and forces me to use the latter in my arguments. A child who has once touched a burning candle, will not only avoid the the burning flames, but also will be careful when sitting around the campfire with friends. The art of enjoying the void is to instill what one experienced in the past into the present moment and instead of seeing the void as danger (burning campfire), enjoy the gently warming fire.

Sharpening our sensory awareness is one way to learn transferring our experience into the now. Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba and former teacher, illustrated the importance of our soft skills in a convincing interview at the WEF 2018 in Davos. He brought up the education system as an example to illustrate how crucial it will be in the future to reactivate our soft skills, like our talent for painting or music.

The Gut Feeling - A Myth?

What a wonderful world it would be, in which I easily make decisions based on my feelings - from the weather forecast "I feel that it is going to rain today!” to business decisions "I just feel that this is the right way to go for our company". The reality, however, is different; Intuition is an unused potential that, like everything else in life, must be learned. Andrew McAfee, MIT Cambridge USA, a man who is always a great source of inspiration for me, expressed the importance to learn intuition quite drastically in his Harvard Business Review article in 2010: "Following intuition is a deeply misguided advice".

What does one of the digital thought leaders mean by this? It's not about naively following a feeling, but...
... it takes time to develop intuition
... we must train our ability to actively listen and perceive first
... to lay the foundation for intuition as awareness of ourselves, we need consistency in our own perception to be able to use its power. How can you do that? Read this article ‘ZERO is the light’

Almost 10 years later, I came across an interview in Forbes Magazine with Ryan Caldwell, the founder of a fast-growing technology company called MX. Ryan impressively describes what it entails to trust in one's own intuition. In the end, I can summarize the takeaway with the concept of clarity: Clarity of who I am; and what that means to my business = values; Clarity, in words and behavior; Clarity to make consistent decisions.

"Intuition is neither a caprice nor a sixth sense; it is a form of intelligence"
Prof. Gerd Gigerenzer."

I agree without McAfee and Caldwell: Intuition has tremendous potential that allows us to make more independent and conscious decisions. We need to reactivate and cultivate this suppressed strength in order to apply it. I like the comparison with sports. If I decided to do sports on a daily basis, I would probably stick to my decision for no more than five days, but to integrate sports as daily routine and let them become a habit, it takes consistency, stamina and a strong belief that our effort will add value. It works the same way with intuition. "Intuition is neither a caprice nor a sixth sense; it is a form of intelligence," said Prof. Gerd Gigerenzer, director of the Max Planck Institute in Berlin. For me, intuition is the ability to connect knowledge (ratio) with feeling (emotion) and to translate them into the present moment.

I had the opportunity to share my thoughts on how intuition can be cultivated as a way of thinking and life style at a conference in Zurich recently. The host set an inspiring stage for an audience of 250 managers. You can find here a teaser of my main thoughts and, only if you are curious to see more, you can also watch the 30-minute talk (in German).

What has inspired me recently?

Sustainability will probably be named as the “non-word of the year” soon. Every entrepreneur, but also almost all friends have the same opinion "Yes, we have to do something...". There are wild ideas on how to implement sustainable aspects in companies and ultimately in our life. One strives for an ISO certification for his company, the other buys only regional products, while another refrains from flying within the EU, but enjoys his avocado toast every morning (by the way, anyone wondered how avocados get from Mexico to Switzerland?). I was lucky enough to experience what sustainability means in holistic terms, when I temporarily lived in the Netherlands a few months ago.

Obviously, the consequences of climate change will directly affect cities like Amsterdam, which lie below sea level. Although I am convinced, that this is not the only reason, this country is closely connected to nature and the fate of the latter. It is apparent in their holistic approach through emobility, the generally healthy lifestyle, and an amazingly high number of impact startups and sustainable food concepts.

Jack Bean, a vegan fast food start-up: One of the founders, a star chef from Rotterdam, wanted to prove the fact that vegan food tastes good, easy to make and sustainable to produce. This young team uses only products grown in the region (i.e., no avocado or quinoa). They have a digital ordering process via tablets and tableware from renewable materials. Their target group are men who want to eat healthily, without giving up on taste. Of course, Jack Bean offers home delivery too, but only by bike or e-scooter and in recyclable boxes. A holistic concept with a great potential.

With this, my Letter of Inspiration comes to an end… Thank you for joining me on the way to more clarity. If you like this episode, please feel free to share it with like-minded colleagues and friends, encouraging them to subscribe!