Originally published as my column in the Delta in April 2012 (Issue 12/2012)

World-famous entrepreneur Richard Branson named his first company ‘Virgin Records’ because he and his team at the time were ‘virgins in business’: inexperienced, hopelessly naive young men and women who started out working for the company out of sheer enthusiasm rather than for profit. Since then, the Virgin franchise has grown into a 400+-company behemoth of a conglomerate, with businesses in everything from cosmetics to space travel, yet still employs the key principles that helped the company succeed some 40 years ago, principles that it shares with most young companies. Virgin invests a great deal of effort in staying virgin.

Young scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers have a universal advantage in common: they don’t know they’re able to fail, and so they’re willing to try out nearly everything. This fresh outlook on life allows them to create things that were never thought possible before. It’s no coincidence that the majority of the great, history-altering breakthroughs were made by people in their 20s. That doesn’t mean that once we pass the 30-year-old mark, we stop getting good ideas. It means that past a certain level of experience, we tend to start shaping our ideas in their infancy, so that when they’re fully-formed, they resemble projects from our past. In engineering, just like in art, each individual has a certain style. Just like an art lover can tell a Monet from a Van Gogh, an airplane enthusiast can easily distinguish one of Burt Rutan’s creations from a Fokker, for example, even if she had never seen that particular model before. A signature engineering style is built up over years of experience, and it helps us progress and improve our designs as we learn from previous successes and failures. However, it also can leave us prisoners of the dreaded ‘box’ that project managers are so enthusiastic about avoiding.

So how do you start thinking outside the box when you’ve spent years reinforcing its walls? Virgin does it so: instead of building up any one company to gargantuan proportions, it usually breaks up the larger ventures into smaller ones, thus helping maintain a fresh start-up business atmosphere. Furthermore, the people at Virgin like to venture into areas where they have absolutely no experience. These businesses tend to turn the industry upside-down, coming up with solutions no one in the industry had previously thought of. This is because technology often comes out ahead of its time, and is often written off in favor of proven technology.

Maintaining an open mind with science and engineering is as difficult as it is crucial for producing great discoveries, but not everyone can afford to keep venturing into new fields to stay fresh. One way of regaining your entrepreneurial virginity is to work with new people from very different fields and backgrounds; their creative energy will influence your own creativity. Another way is to humble yourself, forget that you’re an experienced and respected engineer and pretend that you’re a child looking for a solution without fear of embarrassment or failure. Ask younger, inexperienced engineers for their opinion and really listen to what they have to say. Get ideas from books, articles, movies, artwork completely unrelated to your field of expertise. You’ll only be able to think outside the box once you’ve stepped outside of it and looked around.


Originally published as my column in the Delta in March 2012 (Issue 08/2012)

If you’ve ever been to a rocket launch, you’ve probably witnessed the tense preparations leading to the final moment, and experienced the dramatic silence during the countdown. Three, two, one, ignition, hopefully followed by liftoff, the fine line between a fizz and a bang. You might not have realized at the time exactly how fine of a line that was, or how many test countdowns have led to fizzes and bangs in preparation to this launch.

Rocketry is exciting, enticing, addictive. The excitement of a successful launch leaves you ecstatic, yet there’s another side to rocketry, the bulk of the iceberg, which you typically wouldn’t associate with the fast and mighty liftoff. Rocketry teaches you about patience and failure, lots and lots of it. While most other engineering projects also require tedious preparations and numerous tests before a successful “launch”, the difference in rocketry is, if your test isn’t successful, in most cases you can’t just stop running it, fix what’s wrong, and then test it again. When a rocket launch fails, it tends to fail rather spectacularly, which means back to the drawing board, starting from scratch. Watching your hard work fail can be crushing and painful, but it motivates you to pick up the pieces, learn your lesson about what caused it to fail, and move on.
If you haven’t failed, you haven’t lived. There are countless tweets, social media groups, blog posts on the subject, and even tear-jerking Youtube videos depicting how famous people overcame countless failures and finally succeeded in life. Yet failure is something we tend to avoid like the plague, and naturally so. It’s in our genes to stay out of harm’s way. We believe that failure in school or the workplace shows us in a bad light, therefore we tend to stigmatize teachers and bosses that ‘lead us’ to fail. Teachers that give out good grades are seldom harassed by parents, students or school administrations in the same way that stricter, demanding teachers are. This urge to always be right, always succeed, always avoid failure, begins at an early age and stays with us throughout our lives. When you get to the real world, though, you suddenly realize that having spent most of your childhood learning how to succeed, as an adult you need to learn to fail, to fall flat on your face and then get up, dust yourself off, and keep moving.
I’ve met people in my life who rarely fail. Those are the people that steer clear of danger, walking away from problems instead of facing them head-on. I do believe you can actually solve a problem by avoiding it, leaving it for somebody else to solve. By doing this, though, you learn nothing yourself, and worse, you become a prisoner in your own comfort zone, staying in place while the world moves forward. Tasks you avoided grow more daunting, until you reach a point where you’d rather walk in the opposite direction than trying to overcome the mental barrier you’ve put up for yourself. Innovation is about exiting your comfort zone, and you’re sure to fail along the way. But don’t be afraid of it: the worst kind of failure is failing to try.

Originally published as my column in the Delta, in January 2012 (Issue 03/2012)

‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ goes the classic saying, but let’s be honest, how many times have you ever bought a book in your life partly because you liked how it looked? Ok, in principle, you didn’t only buy it because of its appearance, and at the time of purchase you weren’t judging its contents either, but let’s face it: unless you were specifically looking for it, you would have never even picked up the book in the first place, had the cover not caught your attention. We like to think of ourselves as well-rounded, deep individuals, but we’re all guilty of shallowly judging contents by their outer appearance, and not only when it comes to books.

Image source

If you go on youtube and watch ‘unboxing’ or ‘haul’ videos, in which people show what they bought or ordered, you’ll probably notice how much attention is paid to the product’s packaging, and not just the ‘functional’ packaging like the PC casing or lipstick tube, but everything down to the cardboard box and bubblewrap it came in. These things seem trivial at first, something the company that made the product would never even think to advertise. However, they reveal the nature of our true being — that we form first impressions of something in first moment we come into contact with it.

Further, the charm of good packaging works past the moment of unboxing. Think of other products you use every day: what is it about them that makes them great to use, aside from fulfilling their intended purpose? The chair you’re sitting on, the lamp illuminating the room, your fancy android phone…all of these things were designed not only to fulfill a specific purpose but to be aesthetically pleasing as well. A chair wouldn’t be any less of a chair if it was ugly, but you probably still wouldn’t want to sit in it. That’s because the aesthetics of the chair adds to the general user experience.
The user experience – not just the functionality – is important to us as consumers, and companies are picking up on this quickly. I recently placed an order for some cosmetics, which arrived beautifully packaged in a lacquered box, complete with a ribbon and thank you note from the manufacturer. Though I don’t normally get too excited by these sorts of things, I was very impressed by this presentation. It was a small gesture, but it immediately formed a positive image of the company in my mind, even before I tried its products.

The same philosophy can of course be applied to people. We like to say that we don’t want to be judged based on our appearance: a potential employer should hire us for our brains and capabilities, and a potential love interest should like our great personality (damn the good looks), so ‘packaging’ shouldn’t matter, right? To a certain extent, yes, but consider the people you’re meeting for the first time: they don’t have much to judge you by except your outermost layer, and if that can immediately put you in a positive perspective in their eyes, then why not give it that extra bit of effort? Changing your habits to improve your overall appearance is a small gesture that can make a big difference: it won’t automatically guarantee that everyone will like you, but it will definitely improve your user experience.

Originally published as my column in the Delta, in December 2011 (Issue 35/2011)

’It’s the most wonderful time of the year’…that song is already on replay in my head, even though I haven’t yet heard it this holiday season. Guess I’m excited that Christmas and the winter holidays are coming, that time for cozy warm socks, big cups of hot cocoa and untangling the bundles of Christmas lights to put in the window. Christmas shopping is already in full swing though, with its charms and annoyances, like the stern-looking Grinch’s who always seem to be late for something as they push through the crowd. ‘This Christmastime is shit,’ I overhear a foreign student complaining to a friend as she attempts to navigate her bike through a Friday koopavond crowd. I just sigh – some people find the negative in everything.

People love complaining that Christmas has become too commercialized, yet I bet that doesn’t diminish their excitement when opening their presents on Christmas morning. Me, I love Christmas shopping: selecting that special something for that special someone, meticulously wrapping gifts in shiny paper, and then hiding them away in the secret gift stash deep in my closet until its time to give them.
One of the best things about Christmas time is getting together with family and friends – something you don’t really appreciate until you go study abroad. Partying with mates is one thing, but sitting down to a home-cooked meal with the people closest to you is an entirely different dimension of social interaction. Suddenly it’s ok that as a child you were forced to sit through boring dinners with your distant cousins, because as an adult you now perfectly understand their importance—older generations are always much more curious about the younger generation than vice versa. Younger generations tend to be curious only about themselves, or, that is, they are until they end up in a foreign country with no family or close friends. Then every opportunity to get together with family is eagerly anticipated.

But not everyone will have the chance to see their family for the winter holidays. Many international students don’t have the luxury of returning home during their years of studies in Delft. What a terribly lonesome experience that can be, especially during the holidays. All your Dutch friends go home to their parents, the European ones to their home countries, and you’re left to skulk around in an empty student house, wandering through deserted hallways and feeling sorry for the lack of holiday spirit in your life. That’s a moment when you realize the importance of family and true friends!
But even if you’re new in Delft and haven’t yet formed deep meaningful connections with others, this doesn’t mean you must spend Christmas alone in your room. There are other people in your same situation, so organize a holiday event together. ‘Build it and they will come’: announce a time and place, invite your neighbors to join your celebration. Sure, this won’t compare to a cozy family Christmas dinner, but it’s better than spending the holidays alone, and it will perhaps even start a cozy holiday tradition, so that your next Christmas in Delft will be spent in a circle of close friends.

The Tipping Point

Originally posted as my column in the Delta, in November 2011 (Issue 31/2011)

I remember a moment from childhood that changed my life forever. I was in Science 9, a high school freshman year science class, preparing for another boring, curriculum-based lesson, when suddenly the teacher said: ‘Put away your books. Today’s Space Day, so we’re going to talk about space’. He then proceeded to tell us about the Cassini-Huygens project – a mission to study Saturn – which was about to make its second Venus flyby. As the topic trailed off into all sorts of space missions, I remember my sense of awe as the teacher discussed various missions, like the space shuttle and ISS. How could science missions be so cool, I wondered. The teacher then asked who of us wanted to do our final report on a space mission. I practically jumped out of my chair, thinking mine would be one of a sea of hands, only to find mine was the only one raised.

After that day I went from being a disinterested, C+ student in science to a straight-A space freak, enrolling in more physics and math classes — subjects I’d previously hated — because they all made sense now: science was connected to a real, unbelievably interesting world out there that I absolutely had to explore. I went on to study astrophysics and aerospace engineering in university, ending up where I am now. I sometimes wonder how different my life might’ve been had my teacher decided to just teach the planned curriculum-based lesson that day?

It’s odd how little things can inspire us and change our lives in dramatic ways. People are inspired by books, speeches, deeds…things so negligently brief compared to lifetimes they affect. Every big thinker in history was inspired by a person or event that ended up shaping who they were.

Many events can be inspirational or influential over the course of a lifetime; however, most people with clearly defined goals can pinpoint a single tipping point moment when they made a decision that forever changed the course of their lives. The question is: is that tipping point an unexpected life-altering experience, or simply a culmination of preceding events?

Events like TED conferences are intended to share ideas and inspire others, and TEDxDelft, held last Monday in the Aula, was just that: 21 speakers sharing their amazing stories, experiences, and ideas, which were received with standing ovations from the packed auditorium. Some people left the auditorium literally speechless: a guy next to me was breathless as he tried to articulate one of the many ideas he’d gotten from the conference, and most people I met afterwards were enthusiastic about sharing their future plans with random strangers. Some even called the event life-changing.

But what makes an event a life-changing experience? I couldn’t help thinking that in a few weeks time the excitement will die down, along with many of the ideas born at the conference. That’s because listening to inspiring stories alone isn’t enough; rather, it’s the changing — the action the individual must take — that makes inspiring experiences life-changing. Dreams will simply continue being dreams unless you act on them.

Originally posted as my column in the Delta, in September 2011 (Issue 27/2011)

The other day I was reading an article in a magazine when a curious reference caught my attention. I found myself mentally trying to ‘click’ the reference, even though the copy was ink on paper, and not the online version. I read on but the curiosity in me grew to an urge, and the urge turned into a demand to know right then and there what the background story of the reference was. I became impatient and — absurdly — almost frustrated that the magazine could not give me the information I wanted to have at that moment. I tried to fight the urge but eventually ended up setting the magazine aside and reaching for my laptop to google the story.

Some fifteen years ago this wouldn’t have been possible. If I wanted to know something on a whim, I’d have to go to the library, find an almanac or encyclopedia and do some thorough research. In all likelihood in the above situation I would have just not bothered and continued reading the article, making a mental note to look up the reference later if I was still curious about it. Instead, after looking the reference up, I spent about two minutes reading the piece, which lead me to more curious links, so that eventually I ended up on a website that had nothing to do with the original article that I had wanted to read in the first place.
In this digital age we have become addicted to information: we now expect to find anything we want to know quickly and effortlessly. Search engines have adapted to this need by creating filtering options to search for very specific pieces of information, and even sometimes doing simple calculations for us instead of linking to sites that could help. While this may be very convenient for saving time, it has also decreased our capacity to think for ourselves.
Additionally, as this information addiction grows, our attention span understandably decreases: when bombarded with so much information from all angles, our minds cannot process it. As our brains become more adapted to multitasking, we seem to lose a certain depth of understanding of the information we absorb. It’s like we binge on information, gobbling up every piece of news thrown at us, just to purge our minds of it seconds later. This form of information bulimia blocks the flow of actual understanding and logical processing of the material. Additionally, it turns us into sharing machines, so we perpetuate the information bombardment by sharing the items we like through social media, blogs and various news-sharing sites. News sites have also adapted to this new habit of society: online articles are often barely a few sentences long. Some online newspapers even consider it sufficient to publish just the headline, as if they were ‘tweeting’ the news. Additionally, it seems that absolutely anything is considered newsworthy these days, as sites struggle to keep up with feeding the information-hungry masses. Quantity over quality seems to be the new motto of the information industry.
That is, of course, the flip-side of the coin. In this digital age, we have the luxury of a world of information at our fingertips; we just need to learn how to use this power wisely. Children growing up in the digital age should not only be taught how to use search engines, but how to distinguish the information they need from the mass of garbage that is out there, to learn to focus on a task and to think independently of computers. The human brain is after all a much more powerful and useful tool than a computer. Let’s keep it that way.

Grandmother’s Summer

My column in the Delta, issue 23, 2011

Old woman’s summer is the term used in Russian to describe the period of post-holiday, early fall when the sun is still warm and the skies are cloudless, when the midsummer heat has moved on, ushered out by the gentle autumn breeze, when crowds of noisy children and their busy parents have moved back into their schools and offices, and the grandmas and grandpas can peacefully enjoy summer’s last sunrays on their front porches.

That’s the way I’ll always remember my grandma: squinting, her head tilted to catch the afternoon sunrays, on her front porch, watching the chickens feed, smiling at passersby. Sadly, she won’t catch this year’s warm autumn, having passed away two weeks before the end of summer. I was sad to see her go. As the last of my grandparents, her passing opened a new chapter in my life. As my father put it, from now on I’m no longer the-granddaughter-of, but the-daughter-of. Grandparents go away, leaving us grandchildren to make new grandparents of our parents. Sad as it may be, death is an everyday, beautiful part of life, just like the changing of the seasons.

As summer changes into autumn, people love to complain about the weather. It’s the type of suffering we all have in common and is impersonal enough for us to open up about. It’s also something no one has any control over, so by lamenting the weather we unite against a common enemy without putting the blame on anyone in particular.
‘Everything ok?’ I ask my dentist during my regular checkup. ‘Everything’s fine, except the awful weather!’ ‘Yeah, but it’s almost autumn, isn’t it?’ ‘Autumn? We haven’t had any summer yet!’ People tend to take for granted and omit from memory the occasional warm sunny days of summer. The truth is, irrespective of how you spent it, summer will pass and autumn will set in, bringing colder, darker days, leaving you to look back at the wasted summer warmth with regret.

The changing of seasons, however, brings more than just melancholy nostalgia; every ending is the beginning of something new. In the past week Delft has been a hub of the new and exciting: I’ve witnessed the wedding of a friend, the first-year students getting to know each other during the Owee, the fresh internationals cautiously probing new ground at the Aula, clearly recognizable by their colorful welcome-to-Delft backpacks.
Last weekend, while buying headphones, I found myself in line with half a dozen new students with their vacuum cleaners, tosti-makers and coffee machines – the electronic essentials of a student life. And old students are returning to Delft, too, meeting old flatmates and catching up over coffee.

Returning to the TU campus after my summer vacation also filled me with the hopes of a first-year student. The gargantuan wall of books towering over visitors to the TU library brought back memories of sweaty palms and ambitions, the excitement of a new school year.

For better or worse, the changing of seasons will always be part of life. If you’re still not too happy about returning to university life after your summer break, take the time to soak up the changing season’s rich flavors on a Beestenmarkt café terrace, where you can squint in the last rays of the summer sun and think of all the awesome things you’re going to do during the coming year.