people & society

‘Give away
what you have most

of ’

Commit yourself to others, use your talent as your compass and don’t be afraid to give before you receive. That’s how you can help build a new economy, says ‘committer’ and ideas wizard Martijn Aslander. “The possibilities are unprecedented; all we have to do is learn how to use them.”

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mens & maatschappij

Ideas wizard
Martijn Aslander (37) is a speaker,


thinker and adviser. He gives lectures and seminars on the network and information society, writes columns and does a ‘standup inspiration’ performance in Toomler (Amsterdam). His websites, and offer tips on inspiration and simple methods to work and live more efficiently, better and more sustainably.

Talk to Martijn Aslander for ten minutes and he’ll have your head spinning. He talks fast and enthusiastically about many things at once. His whirlwind of words, ideas and unexpected links seems to open up all sorts of drawers inside your head. The basic drift of his account is that the current information society and knowledge economy offer way more opportunities than we realise. We have come to regard old habits and fixed ideas as incontestable patterns; that the economy is always about shortages, for example, or that time is money. Aslander states that the knowledge economy has new rules. Smart players are flexible, commit themselves to many people and pour their talents out onto the world in a confident manner. It’s about daring to give rather than just wan-

‘It’s not what you possessed but what you experienced that will count on your deathbed. Did you develop your talents? And did someone else benefit from that?’
ting to receive; about sharing what you have and being generous to others. “I’ve always loved working with other people to get things done, even as a child. There was a playground a couple of blocks from my house, but our street didn’t have one. I remember cycling over to the town hall with some friends and asking to speak to the mayor. We were given lemonade and a few weeks later the municipality built a playground in our street.” to do on this planet? My boyhood dream of becoming a millionaire had lost its lustre by then. I wanted to develop my talents and do fun things with fun people.” On his website he calls himself connector and resourcerer, a wizard with resources. You can call him a philosopher al-though he never finished college; he was too busy starting his companies. You can call him a born entrepreneur, but it’s not his mission to make a profit. He calls himself a boy scout more than anything, still abiding by the scouting rules from his childhood: ‘A Boy Scout goes out into the world together with others to discover it and make it a better place.’ One day he decided he was no longer for rent and stopped sending tenders and invoices. From now on he would share his knowledge, ideas and networks with the world and let others decide afterwards how they valued his contribution. He still makes a decent living regardless. “It’s a mistake to think that you have to ask before you are given. I learnt to have faith that I would get what I need and it works miraculously: giving results in more.” Talent is an important compass in a knowledge economy, says Martijn, and social capital is the currency. In a nutshell, social capital is the sum of your network, your reputation, your visibility and your capacity to bring people together. Martijn moves like a juggler. He is involved in dozens of projects every year, he founded the Elvenstone network and works anywhere and everywhere. “I link up

people, ideas and information. That’s my passion: to get people thinking and get things moving.” His lectures are sometimes rewarded with a sum of money, other times with a book token, some office space, an airline ticket or a subscription to a magazine. “But what I really get out of it is a freer contact with people instead of the classic customer-supplier relationship. I don’t work for a person, but with a person. Clear communication results in a short feedback loop. If I’m of little value to someone, I want to know about it. That way I can learn what I have to offer and to whom I can offer it. I don’t ask myself: what will I get out of this? Instead I get to the real question: do I make people happy?”

From profits to values
The rock band Radiohead uploaded its CD In Rainbows and told people to decide for themselves what they wanted to pay for downloading it. This playful approach to payment is part of a much bigger change, according to Martijn. A shift from profits to values, from possess to access, from shortage to abundance. “Our economy is going through a transition phase. Technology, lower communication costs and greater awareness are fundamentally changing our way of discovering, playing, cooperating and organising. Our economy used to be based on shortages: anything not available goes up in value. The current network and information society has different rules. By giving knowledge away, you don’t lose out; on the contrary, you get feedback and that makes you grow. In a knowledge economy you compete on content, so learning and being open to others is very important. The reason Obama found so many people prepared to help him was that he used modern technology to reach them. The

possibilities are unprecedented; all we have to do is learn how to use them. Give away what you can give easily, what you have and know in abundance. It makes you a better person. People have been deriving their status from possessions and how many nice things they acquired. In a network society, your status will be based on having access, having something to offer. Having access to a boat may make you feel wealthier than actually possessing the boat. There’s no maintenance and insurance and all that to worry about. People are discovering that it’s not how many houses you possessed but what you experienced that will count on your deathbed. Did I seize the chances and opportunities I was given? Did I develop my talents? And did someone else benefit from that?”

Organic collaboration
In this ‘economy of giving’, as trend watcher Justien Marseille calls it, inspiration is an important drive. Martijn noticed this in his contacts with volunteers; they can’t be motivated by obligations and duties. “Organisations with a hierarchic structure try to make a profit by using control, fear and mistrust; these days it’s much more about trust, interaction and connectedness. This type of organic collaboration, in which everyone can focus on their strengths, runs a lot more smoothly than the rigid old boys’ network. Working from nine to five and then joining the traffic jams is a thing of the post-industrial era of physical labour. John doesn’t have to get to work at nine sharp to pick up a screw so Jim can then twist the next click. John might be a lot more productive at night. Golden ideas are born in just a few minutes. Exchanging time for money is outmoded. Time is relative. Picasso once put a squiggle on can- >
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When Martijn was 30, he decided to build the largest megalith on earth, by hand. He informed his friends and family of his idea and gathered hundreds of volunteers around him. They thought up the Gathering Stones Festival and the megalith was built in two weeks using rocks brought in to Drenthe from Germany, amongst other places, with the spontaneous help of thousands of festival visitors. The project’s budget was a million guilders (about 680,000 dollars) and the preparation phase took two years. “Once we had managed it, I thought: What do I want
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When I meet other people, I ask:
> vas and charged his commissioner thousands of euros. The man said: “But you only spent five minutes making this!” Picasso replied: “No, it took me a lifetime to get to this point.”

What do you need? What will make you happy? In so doing I help myself too.

OK, but not everyone is a Picasso. And isn’t it easy for Martijn to talk compared to a mother of three on welfare? “I get that reaction a lot: I have to bring home the bacon, I have responsibilities, I have a mortgage. But here in the Netherlands you’d have to screw up royally before you end up homeless with nothing to eat. Self-fulfilment is closer than ever. Never before did mankind have such cheap access to information, has knowledge been so transparent, was connecting to so many others so easy. Thanks to the internet, even mothers on welfare can reveal all their capacities. There’s no need to turn your life upside down. Reflect on what you like to do best. Communicate, talk to ten nice people in your environment and ask them what they value in you. If no one knows about your desires, no one can help you fulfil them. The good thing is: You don’t have to wait around for a job or a vacancy – you can get started right away! Find the places where you think you can provide added value and help out. Start with one day a month, do it for six months. The basis is already there: your own network. Everyone needs someone else. The car you drive was made by someone else. Perhaps you paid for it yourself, but you used money someone else had printed for you.” A man in Estonia saw that his whole country was full of dumped garbage. He thought about it for six months and then went online and found 50,000 people who were prepared to help out. The whole of Estonia was cleaned up in one day! People prefer helping out to being helped, provided it is something they like doing and it doesn’t take too much effort. There’s a lot of questions we don’t ask for fear of looking stupid. Dare to ask. Say no if you don’t want something. When I meet other people, I ask: What do you need? What will make you happy? I want to help other people, and in so doing I help myself too. In the end, altruism is the highest form of selfishness. I’m wrong, I’d like to know about it because I want to learn and move. Evolution demands constant adaptation, innovation, trial and error. The most brilliant discoveries are often made accidentally. The only way to grow is by making mistakes, but people are terribly afraid of making them. Our whole system is based on shame and fear and trying not to lose face. But you should go as fast as you can without rushing. Embrace your insecurities, avoid safety. Make sure you do something that frightens you once a day.” When was the last time he himself did something frightening? “The other day I faced an audience of 600 coaches after I had written a critical article on coaching. I was there to do a try-out for my new theatre show and went on without having rehearsed at all. Scary! But I’ve learnt to express my fears and to say: ‘Folks, my face is red because I’m very nervous.’ During my first lecture I actually fainted because of the tension. I could have drawn a conclusion that day and think I didn’t have this in me. Fortunately I tested that assumption and it turned out to be unfounded. I get a lot of responses after every lecture. Every time I’m surprised that I apparently inspire so many people with things that are like child’s play to me.” Who or what is Martijn inspired by? “Lots of different things. The expectation that in the near future one computer will be able to think as fast as all of mankind put together. That will have enormous consequences. For example, a computer like that could work out the best medication for your personal DNA in mere minutes. Many people say they’re not very interested in technology. That’s like saying: I’m not very interested in electricity. Technological changes can have gigantic implications. I think we’ll be able to solve global problems like food and water shortages in a very short time by bringing people together in informal networks. That’s what I want to dedicate my life to. I’m a pragmatist rather than a dreamer. There’s only one way to find out whether or not an assumption is right: Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars!”

Falling and getting up again
Is Martijn a big optimist? “Optimism, pessimism, they’re just labels. I detect and formulate changes. I believe in evolution. What works and what doesn’t? I try things. People often describe me as spiritual, but I don’t formulate spiritual laws. If you put spirituality into words, you risk misunderstandings. I don’t proclaim a doctrine, I don’t claim to be right. If

On Wednesday 9 December, Martijn Aslander will hold an inspiration session for readers of Happinez. More information can be found on page 90

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