A Matter Of Age?

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I’m relatively young. Yesterday, I turned 45, and that’s one year younger than the average German in the year 2014. Statistics say that my life expectancy is 79 years; most probably I’ll die on the 13th of April, 2048 – another 34 years to go. And yet, game could be over tomorrow. Who knows?

A Meaningful Life
However, my personal plan is to say good-bye much later – I love life, I want to experience as much as I can and I would like to play with my (prospective) grand kids. And to achieve a maximum of well-being right now as well as being able to live a decent life even as an octogenarian, I try a healthy lifestyle: I run, I do pilates (could be more often), I prefer healthy food to junk, I meditate. I don’t smoke, don’t drink too much, and I don’t watch TV. All this not to prepare myself for a brighter future only, but to optimize my well-being here and now: I live now and I want to do meaningful things instead of wasting time.

The aspect of “now” has become more and more important for me in the last years. I think the main reason is age itself: the older you get, the more you think about the meaning of life and what is still in for you. Another reason for focusing on the actual moment is your own offspring: if you see your kids growing and if you realize how fast they become young adults, then you don’t want to waste your time with some irrelevant stuff. For example, I try not to worry about things in general. If something goes wrong, I don’t offer resistance, but I’ll search for a way out – and there always is a solution. Not to worry means a daily challenge, and certainly I lose my temper regularly. But I try not to. And I’m getting better from day to day. Ultimately, every second of resentment is wasted time. A situation is as the the situation is – it’s up to me to make the most out of it.

Feeling old?
Do I feel old, then? No, definitely not – although everybody younger than 40 years would gently disagree. In fact, I feel quite young when it comes to all work-related aspects: since I work in the app economy and – together with my great partners - I run my own quantified self app, we’re active in a quite innovative and fast-moving area: you can’t really grow old here.

A couple of times during the year I give some lectures at universities. Working with students is a lot of fun and it’s a challenge, too: I want to teach the things I earn money with in a playful way that – at the same time – guarantees a knowledge transfer. And, guess what? There’s absolutely no problem at all to provide the students with interesting and state-of-the-art content, in most cases our daily work offers enough innovative aspects to surprise master students. I know I could be my student’s father, but…hey – when it comes to learning and innovation, I’m quite competitive at 45.

Wanna be younger?
Do I want to be younger? No, definetely not. I really loved being a student in Bayreuth, a small town characterized much more by its university than the Festival Theatre. But I would not want to be that student again. From time to time I envy those guys in their twenties, when they discuss their daily party plans – compared with me and my mostly business- or family-driven schedule. But, being an entrepreneur, I can quite easily arrange my days as I want to have them arranged. So – no need for being 25 again.

To be clear, if a 25 year-old tennis player comes along, he’ll destroy me on the court. And 20 years ago I did not have to do any additional exercise to keep my figure. All that has changed. But I can compensate many deficiencies with some wit and life experience.

Life Achievements
And – during the years I have adjusted some of my goals: whereas I wanted to be the best in some aspects of life, I don’t compare myself with others any more. If it comes to money, social status, or just gaining the upper hand in discussions – all that was important to me before, but isn’t today. Psychologists would argue that people lower their expectations as they get older because they have learned not being able to achieve more. My feeling is, that this isn’t crucial in my case: I just stopped to care about those things. And this is the most adorable aspect of getting older for me personally: to learn and to know what really is of importance in my life.

Important Aspects Of My Life

to be in good health
to live with a loving and caring family
to build companies with great partners
to live in the now.

Everything else is a bonus.

That’s why I don’t think I’m specifically old or young. I just don’t care at all. Not any more. And I strongly recommend that attitude. Just do it!

After all:

Happiness is not a goal; it’s the by-product of a life well lived. (Eleanor Roosevelt)

The photo was shot at Castiglioncello, Tuscany.

How I started smiling and what it changed for me

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Today is the last day of our very interesting SMILE! program. Over a period of 5 days, participants receive tasks in the explore app. The tasks are simple, but not easy: each day I have to make five people smile.

On the first day, it was easy: I could “choose” five people I would meet during the day and try to bring a smile on their facec by simply smiling at them first. That worked. Easy. Tuesday, the task became more difficult – I had to find five children and make them smile. You would say “Not a problem at all!” – but: although I managed to get re-smiles from several moms pushing their strollers (unintended, but not unpleasant at all) their offspring was too busy to join me in my SMILE! competition. And the older kids – phew – try to make a 12-year-old cool cat smile – nothing harder than that. So after I finished my first day successfully, I failed on the second. And on the third, the fourth and the last one, as well! I did not manage to make five kids, pensioners or suits smile.

By the way, although I could not make my specific target group smile, I was successful with many other people who either watched my continuous smiling or who thought being smiled at themselves.

Being a contestant in a typical competition, I would have failed in the sense of not having reached my goal. But the SMILE! program is different: After five days of consecutive attempts to make people smile, I realized several things which changed my attitude towards life in general:

  • Many people behave in an overly sober, if not downright grim and obstinate way when not being in conversation with others. Most people sit, stand or walk with pained expressions. Why?
  • Interestingly, most people immediately react to being smiled at in a positively surprised and friendly way. They seem to be relieved being freed from a certain power which forced them into some state of negativity.
  • If I had not been reminded by the explore app to smile and to target different people actively, I myself would have forgotten to smile, as well. Each time, explore notified me to smile, I realized how far away fro a smile my state of mind was. I never would have thought that.

I have reached my personal goal of the SMILE! program: I have started to smile at people – proactively, i.e. I don’t wait for people looking friendly or smiling at me. I start the “being-friendly-process”. And that’s cool – it’s a lot of fun since people around me become open, friendly, positive! There are more nice encounters with unknown people, and life feels lighter, better.

And that is what the SMILE! program in particular, and all explore app programs in general are about: explore learns about your behavior and encourages you to change it – day by day, in small steps. Bonus: explore is personalized: it knows whether I attain my goals and the app then sends its recommendations based on my individual behavior.

Behaviour change is one of the toughest topics in psychology. Scientific knowledge is scant. But one finding seems to be safe: the quality of a person’s well-being is better the more often this person gains positive experiences. And with specific programs based on apps like explore these small experiences can be triggered. I think that this can help people to change their behavior – something many of us are dreaming of.

The photo of this friendly chap was shot at a farm near Weilheim.

A very simple post-privacy manifesto

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In our daily work, we are regularly confronted with privacy issues: since our company Datarella provides data analytics based on external third party data and internal behavioral data gathered via our app explore, we know what it means to comply with national data protection regulations. And since we are based in Munich and most of our projects are executed in Germany, we naturally comply with Germany’s Datenschutzbestimmungen.

However, the basic motivation for our work originates with an intrinsic need of human beings: people want to know themselves, they want to learn who they are, why they behave the way they do and whether there are ways to improve their lives. For a long time, this noble task of exploring humanity was an exclusive exercise of philosophers, clergy, scientists and other intellectuals. John Doe didn’t have the means, time and leisure to go on this journey of his own discovery.

Today, since we may fly around the world with airplanes, use the internet to look up virtually anything and are always-on(line) thanks to mobile and other wearable devices, we don’t have to study sciences or be some brainy superhero to know the world in general and ourselves in particular. We are able to know ourselves not by visiting Freudian evening classes, but by collecting data about our own behavior. We weigh ourselves, we track our movements, or food intake and our somatic functions.

We quantify ourselves. In the United States, 70% of adults have tracked at least one specific data set regarding their somatic functions. And – let’s be honest – don’t you know your personal bodyweight? There you go – we all quantify ourselves. Not later than you reach your forties, you will start to care more about your body: you see the first signs of age and you ask yourself how to stay “young” a little longer.

That’s at least for the lucky ones, the healthy people who want to optimize their well-being. And then think of sick people, people with chronic diseases such as diabetes, osteoporosis, depression, etc. For them, any improvement of their lives quality is more than nice-to-have, but in most cases the only way to live a decent life without the sternest deprivations. People with chronic diseases are on long-term medication, often suffer from side-effects and depend on support from their physicians and the latest medical professional knowledge. The more they have to rely on others, the less they feel self-empowered. Or – vice versa- the more they can contribute to their convalescence themselves, the more dynamic that process will be.

The Quantified Self movement and with it, wearable tech, has turned the old hierarchical model of exclusive scientific knowledge – some (scientists, doctors) have the means (money, medical devices) to generate knowledge (physical examination) and to execute accordingly (prescribe drugs) – upside-down: now, the patient (everybody) has the means (e.g. $50 for a hemodynamometer) to generate knowledge (the blood pressure app) and to execute accordingly (e.g. change her behavior).

This is nothing less than the democratization of healthcare.

If you personally know people with chronic diseases and you look at the tremendously positive effects they achieve by quantifying themselves, you will never again doubt the meaningfulness and relevance of the Quantified Self. Besides collecting data about their own health, most people share their data with others. Sharing health data means providing a sound basis for research which is essential for exploring illnesses and developing innovative therapies. By sharing their data, people don’t give something away. They rather provide life-saving data to their peers, and therefore the bemefits to society clearly outweigh costs. (For privavy experts: sharing data means sharing data anonymously.)

Whether in healthcare or in other areas of life: in a post-privacy world, privacy is no longer guaranteed or even expected. Let’s face it: privacy has already been eroding on all levels. And do you know why? Privacy has reached its final stage because transparency and sharing are purely beneficial – they facilitate awareness, exploration, innovation, learning, collaboration and, finally, evolution. That’s why there’s no need to fear the loss of privacy – the benefits of transparency and sharing clearly overcompensate any negative effects.

I’m confidently looking forward to very dynamic processes in different areas of life – initiated by the Quantified Self. And I encourage you to participate in that movement! If you’re sceptically, just give it a try: start tracking some of your body functions and you will learn more about yourself. You might wonder about the consequences. And …. please stop mourning privacy – it’s over.

Practical, socially relevant technology

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People use the word  technology for  “everything that doesn’t work yet.” Danny Hillis, a computer scientist and entrepreneur, pointed out that the best technology is unseen: once technologies works, they simply become computers, telephones. cars, etc. People accept technologies, when they regard them as providers of reliable routine solutions of problems, most of them belonging to one if the the “3Ds” categories: dull, dangerous and dirty.

Take robots: as long as we talk about “robots” we imagine some fascinating man-like machines, trying to mimick human behavior as muc as possible. But just “trying”. We don’t see those robots as equivalents to our own race and we don’t expect them to live with us as other humans do. But if you think of robotech vacuum cleaners, a trolley moving beds around hospital corridors, or industrial workhorses used for automated processes in manufactural plants worldwide, they cease being seen as robots. They are simply named after their functionalities. How would you name the CoBot of Carnegie Mellon, which – standing by the lift door – displays a little sign asking passers-by to press the appropriate button for it (Arms are expensive and fallible – so self-navigating robots don’t have them).

Every technology is as good as its practical – or social – relevance. This is, what Neelie Kroes, European Commissioner for Digital Agenda, refers to in her contribution to a discussion about digital privacy. And this is -in my opinion – the biggest challenge of technology startups all over the world. In the aftermath of the dotcom bust more than ten years ago, a new generation of entrepreneurs has been leveraging mobile technologies to all sorts of more or less useful applications. As seen in the last ten years, the crash of the internet boom has not exactly brought an end to the internet, e-commerce or any other online business. If anything, the key players of those times are stronger than ever, with amazon as the poster child of a company having read its own obituary several times, but still being alive and well. In this light, the recent discussion of a bubble (in the technology business) should be assessed carefully. Most probably, many of the actual tech startups won’t survive their first liquidity droughts, and many will fail just because nobody needs their products or services.

And that’s where the above mentioned practicability comes in: if a product or service is practical and has social relevance, it will be used. If it only provides a nice-to-have feature but is nicely designed, it will only be used by the fans of that special feature. If it’s neither well designed nor does it provide a practical benefit, your startup presumably won’t survive.

With our own startup, Datarella, my business partners and I launched the app explore and we are trying to build a socially relevant service for smartphone users based on the app.

The three pillars of explore are:

  1. Everybody can use explore. The app itself is free and there is no need of using an additional gadget like a fitness band, or else. It’s in the user’s smartphone – with her all the time.
  2. It’s absolutely easy to participate: explore asks the right questions at the right time – nobody must be overly creative and fill in an empty diary – the user just answers short questionnaires in under a minute.
  3. The user gets individual personalized recommendations to change her behavior, if necessary. No standardized programs, but individual advice.

We think that with explore we match our own expectations of developing a technology which is practical and socially relevant.

Do you know other examples of socially relevant technologies? Be it an app measuring your radiation exposure, preventing wildfires or more. Please share them with me!

A Reply: You can learn something from somebody and everything from all.

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This is a guest post by Janine Pfahl, a communications and learning expert. Janine replies to my earlier post., which you might read first.

While pausing for a moment in the spring sunshine to read Michael’s text „You can learn something from everybody and everything from all“, our dog positions his snout on my keyboard and starts to communicate in his own way. It’s absolutely clear what he wants to tell me. Not only dog owners can interpret this signal: „Come on, play with me! Stop working and stroke me!“ Even a dog is not able to not communicate and, after gazing back and forth, he lies down at my feet in the sunshine – and the both of us are happy. He did not only remind me to think of him, but that he is the wiser one. I reward him (and myself) by caressing him and I’m glad not having to speak to anybody.

Communications and learning are the main aspects of my job. I have to talk all day long, sometimes without any relevant timeouts. And while thinking about the different relationship levels of the individual communication partners, my self-revelation and the appeal of what I say,it becomes apparent that not only communication is unbelievably complicated but learning is anything but self-evident. Why?

The older we get the more we experience that we learn unconsciously each day. Is there anybody who wouldn’t be thankful for that? „You can learn something from everybody..“ and everybody knows something what you don’t know (yet). So simple, so true!

After an extended and pleasant discussion with Michael about that topic I couldn’t but agree to all that. So obvious, so natural, so good are his arguments: to learn from the experiences of others, to switch perspectives, to accept different opinions, to see oneself dealing with others and to learn from all that. In a word: be tolerant and learn from others. Who would not agree with that ideal? It sounds too good, doesn’t it?

But there is something which distracts me, since I am no saint. I’m a quite normal human being with my own idiosyncrasies. I am familiar with those dark, narrow blind lanes of communication. And I prefer shaky old wooden bridges over well-paved communication highways, anyway, To learn from others, that means not only to to learn via spoken or written words. We also learn by watching, we learn from other people’s behavior – but the connecting link always is communication. Communication with others doesn’t always proceed according to plan and sometimes smaller or larger misunderstandings happen. Who has never been in a catch-22 like this?

Although I love learning and I want to learn every day and all my life – sometimes I do not want to learn from others. I don’t want learn from a colleague I don’t really respect; I don’t want to learn from a neighbor who wears her humans stains like others wear their clothes. Even if they know something wich I don’t know, from time to time I prefer to turn a blind eye to something. It happens quite often that we see something beautiful when looking away.

For me, learning means not only to discover flaws in nice things, to tolerate them and to learn from them – but most of all it means to see the light and the beauty which emanates from something which is old, rotten or broken. Nature is our reflection: after a bad start into the day, nature shows flowers with enthusiasm – even if they knew that the next storm would carry them away.

My child, smiling at me after a short and bad night, opening his tired eyes….the dog, who asks to be caressed, but who offers me his soft fur to feel good myself. From all that I love to learn.

You can learn something from somebody and everything from all.

Recently, we went to Speyer with the whole family. There were far to many people. Happy about the first sunbeams, people annoyed themselves. At the Speyer Cathedral I saw a nun who, appearing relaxed and friendly, smiled at another person and waved. A wonderful moment, teaching me humility and tolerance.

 The photo was shot by Janine at Speyer Cathedral.