With just 22 years, Niccolo Viviani decided to move from Italy to South America and work for Exosphere, an international “problem-solving and learning community”, started in Chile. He fell in love with their philosophy and vision, and is now coming back to Europe with their Exobase tour. We had the great chance to talk to him about the happy prison of millennials, the start-up bubble, and of course Exobase itself.
CE: You recently wrote an article titled “They Happy Prison of Millennials”, where you claim that our generation is happy but enslaved at the same time. Is this also something you see as related to your work with exobase, in the sense that you are showing young people how to break out?
NV: When I wrote that, it was more of a general generational observation I would say, not as something directly related to Exosphere. But of course a link to a certain degree exists, yes.
In the end this issue is mainly related to the idea of stability. During the last 60 years or so, we have been living in an exceptionally stable world – at least in the developed countries. People don’t wake up in the morning being afraid of what to eat, and are used to the comforts of society. Something breaks? Well, its not a problem, we will just buy it again. And this mindset is the problem in my eyes.
That’s why I say happy prison, because this stability is really fragilizing you. If you find yourself in the streets without food, what do you do? You have no idea. If you don’t have your monthly salary, what do you do? You have no idea. You live in a crystal ball, and you are safe in it – but only until it breaks. And once it does so, the consequences are mostly pretty bad. Plus, it is obviously not too much of an exciting life, if everything is already figured out for you and everything you want is on demand. I realized I was fragilizing myself and now I’m trying to do something about it. So well, I guess its related (laughs).
CE: But is that whole happy prison principle not limited to very few countries, and certain social classes? If you look at developed countries such as Greece, you could doubt that their youth is still living in a happy prison. Even though they are a developed country.
NV: Yes, I agree. This is why to embrace the approach I’m talking about is no more a choice. The economic crisis has already broken this crystal ball in some countries, and people have no clue what to do. They think that this crisis is just a short disruption, and that the way it was before is the way it is supposed to be. They are just waiting for things to go back to how they were. They want to come back to that. But its not going to happen. Instead you should think of what to do now, and how your context is changing. Because if you just wait for the politicians to solve your problems, for everything to go back to start, and to get your jobs back – then you are wrong.
CE: Many young people today already try to adapt to the changing world they are living in, often through becoming entrepreneurs and launching their own start-ups. Do you think that this is a sustainable trend, and a way to adapt to the new social and economic contexts of today? Or is it rather a bubble which will end soon?
NV: I believe that there is a bubble. It seems there is a lot of money going into these startup ecosystems. Many of the startups don’t even have a business model!
I am not involved in this circle directly, and have never been in Silicon Valley or these startup hubs. For even if Exosphere is for startups, we believe that we are there for the real ones. I mean the concept of a startup itself is wonderful, it is always about creating something new. But there are differences between us and the new wave of startups elsewhere.
The first thing we say to people for example, is – don’t take any money from investors. You have at least to create a tiny little service or product by yourself first, and you have to sell it to your first customers. And then you start from there. Some start-ups get millions in investment, and they feel good and relaxed because of that. So they stop to work their asses off.
So back to your question – yes, I believe that there is a startup bubble. And it’s not only the easy money, but also the media. All this tabloids and blogs, showing you the winners of the “who-got-bought-by-Facebook”-lottery. Everyone wants to be on that list. Everyone wants to build the next Facebook or whatever. But if you take a step back and look at the pure facts, its the same chance as winning the lottery in the end.
CE: So what would be your advice instead?
NV: I would advise a different approach. You want to solve a problem? Find one you really care about. Because on your way to solve it and build a sustainable business around it, you will find so many problems that, if you don’t care enough, you will most likely quit. And when you fail, try again. And again. The process is what matters. Fail until you win.
So identify a problem you want to solve, and build something around it that you can sell. Thats all you need, two things: something to sell, and someone who buys.
And this is what the world needs, this is how people can get out of their happy prison. With the technology replacing more and more traditional jobs, the only thing that we will keep doing better than machines – at least for now – is being creative. We have creativity and imagination, we are able to connect different dots and invent something it didn’t exist before. Let’s use this ability. So in this sense everyone has to be entrepreneurial.
And that’s why our approach is so different from startup hipsters. We really don’t like startup hipsters (laughs).
CE: In the summer 2015 you will tour around Europe with Exobase, and offer workshops in 10 different countries. Tell us, what is it that Exosphere is about?
NV: Modern institutions are failing, either because they are built on the wrong assumptions or because they are unable to adapt to the current changes. Exosphere is all about filling this gap, and building an educational institution that enables people to learn, grow and solve problems on both a personal and global level. This is the best definition we could find for Exosphere – a learning and problem-solving community.
Life can be a very long learning process, and solving the problems you encounter on your way is how you get meaning out of it. We know that this is a very long term mission and vision, but we have have started building it over the last 18 month, and so far it is growing really well.
CE: So if you talk about education, what is it exactly that you do? How do you reach people?
NV: So far we have offered an entrepreneurship and life boot camp taking place in Chile, which lasts for two months and is supposed to help you redirect your life to the better. But for those who cannot travel that far or spend that much time, we travel around the world with Exobase. Its a very short (1 day) and intense program, and is organized in different cities and countries.
In all our programs we introduce our participants to an integrated framework of different ideas, concepts and practical philosophies. This framework is very useful and can be applied by everyone to their personal or professional life, depending on what they need and want. In Exobase we concentrate all this together in an intense process.
We are also currently expanding our activity, trying to be in more places and offering more program with different focus in order to meet more and more people. We recently launched a new boot camp specifically for women aspiring to become more independent and entrepreneurial, as well as a summer program for high school students, and a space science project in Hungary.
CE: So what can people expect at Exobase?
NV: Its an intense mental journey. It gives you the opportunity to shield the pressure of your daily life, from your family, friends, study and work, and allows you to ask yourself questions about yourself, your own situation and the world around you. With a clear mind, and together with mentors and like-minded people.
You have time to think about how you got to this point in life where you are right now. Which were the decisive decisions you took in life, and where did they come from? Did take decisions in order to fulfill the expectations of your parents or family? Were they maybe driven by your social context? Or really by your very own motivation?
We like to quote a little poem, which says – “Man is his own star”. With this little introspective journey we start Exobase. Helping you to find out whether until now your life was based on following your own star, or rather the stars that other people put there for you.
So we try to help you understand yourself better, and then drive you to discover more about the changes in the world, the opportunities, and introduce you to practical tools to better make decisions and solve problems in order to achieve your aspirations.
CE: Why do you think that this is so important today?
NV: Because it is important to open our eyes to a broader perspective of the world and its changing dynamics. Traditional institutions change, old narratives change, the role of school, university and family changes. If people continue to base their decisions on old and obsolete narratives, they are going to be disappointed at a certain point. You need to understand the world we live in today, and how to make your place in it.
The stability of the system during the last 6 or 5 decades has been exceptional. But now social, economic and technological conditions have set an end to that. We do not live in the same world as our parents anymore, things have become radically different and changing even faster. And while we cannot predict what will disrupt a specific industry and when, we know that it’s going to happen.
So we should stop basing decisions about our future on ideas of the past. “I need to find a job, I need to do this and that” – it does not work like this anymore. You need to become an entrepreneur. It doesn’t mean you necessarily need to found a company. I’m talking about being an entrepreneur in your mindset. You need to be anti-fragile, ready to face uncertainty, and willing to learn all the time. You need an entrepreneurial approach to your life.
CE: Would you say that this is a problem specifically young people are facing?
NV: Everybody is facing the same problem, in different ways. Our framework is a template that can be applied by everyone to all situations in life. And this is why our programs has been so successful in the last eighteen months, with more than 560 participants, ranging from fourteen to 58 years in age. Academics, startuppers, engineering students, electricians, philosophers, it does not make a difference.
But there are actually special discounts for students, because we think that they are in most need of a program like this than anyone. They are in a special phase because they have to take the many critical decision for their lives, they are young enough to be much more flexible than others, and can probably make the most out of our program.
We all grow up with parents, professors, everybody essentially telling us that life is like a movie and you have to choose which part to act. And that you better choose the right one, because to change part is really bad! Haven’t you asked yourself who is the director? Where is the director who forces us to be actors of his own movie? Why is nobody telling us that we can write our own script? Why is nobody telling us that we can create our own wonderful story? Once you get rid of this notion that your life has to fit into someone else’s script, you’ll live much better. But Steve Jobs can explain it much better than me: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kYfNvmF0Bqw
I really hope to meet many of you in person at an Exobase around Europe soon!
Otherwise, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can talk!