Learning life’s single happiness criterion

The below is from my recent talk at TEDxAUEB. Until the video comes online, I felt like sharing a few parts of it. I would love to hear your thoughts.


There is a great essay about traveling and self-discovery by Pico Iyer that starts with this phrase: we travel initially to lose ourselves.  We travel next to find ourselves.

 One of my favorite travels was when I visited India, back in 2005 and 2007. If I now close my eyes I can still hear its busy streets, see its extreme colours and vibrant cities, taste its spicy dishes and remember the beautiful saris. I remember wanting to be lost in the crowd and even though my looks did not really help, I did my best to be a part of them. I did not want to be a “firang” as they said, or foreigner. A few days later, I remember speaking a few Hindi words, trying to use my hand gestures correctly and naturally, trying to bargain with the locals on the best pashminas and sandal offers I could get. With no luck of course. And I noticed this. Another side of myself had emerged, one that was not defined by origin, studies, work or past, but one that was redefined just there, at that moment in time, a self that was present, open and possible to be shaped by thoughts, decisions and actions of that single moment.  A few months forward I am standing at the Siwa Oracle in the oasis of Siwa in Egypt and then at the sand dunes of Nida in Lithuania, thinking the exact same thing  “What am I here to lose? What am I here to find? How do I define what is real and true for me?”

As Andreas Schleicher from OECD mentioned a few weeks back at his TED talk, he said: the truth and success in life does not count on the basis of what we remember from the things we learned at school, but on the way we were able to adapt to change.

Most of our Schools and Universities unfortunately, do not give us the skills and character to be able to adapt to change. The current education system is not built upon the base of empowering each one of us to succeed in life. Cause life is not split into subjects, 45-minute sessions, 15-minute breaks and definitely life does not lie in textbooks. The current system serves one thing: efficiency. How can we produce more like-minded people in the most efficient way possible? That is the overarching question.

As a result, there is a lot of discussion around what education is for, is it here to serve the person, the market, the community, a greater good? There are a lot of theories, philosophical views that naturally depend on the context; the location, the culture, the speaker, the time in history. So, there is probably not ONE answer, across time around the world. Or is there?

Along with the discussion around the purpose of education, there is also a lot of talk about how our Schools and classrooms should be. What is the role of the teacher nowadays? Is the teacher meant to be a mentor? A coach? A facilitator in the classroom or a theme expert? Technology, gaming, experiential learning are a few very important trends that are shaking education as we speak. At the same time, we are witnessing a competition in the area: which School is the best in the rankings, which have the best reputation amongst employers, which School has the best Professors? We have Schools in the “cloud”, we have countries aiming to become regional or topic-based education hubs, and we have technology connecting and enabling knowledge so much that nowadays, learning takes place everywhere. It does not start at School and it definitely does not finish there. The school and the family are not the sole sources of information anymore. They are the places though, where characters are built. And this is where education is more relevant today than any other time.

All these discussions and trends are currently disrupting education significantly. Is that enough though? Is it enough to amend, to improve what is already broken?

I feel, we need to start from scratch. We, adults, have made a world for adults. We have not created a world for children. We ask our children “what do you want to become when you grow up?” and we make them anxious, worried about the future and not teaching them to enjoy their childhood. We decorate our kids’ rooms, we choose their clothes, we choose the school they will go to, we influence and decide for them what is best for them. Now, I believe, that this needs to change, if we are serious about really changing and improving things. And if we want to change education, then we need to start from this simple thing: ASK them. Why is it that for something that is so important to all of us, we have forgotten to ask our children and our students: What is it that you love about your school? How would you want to see your classroom? How would you prefer learning chemistry, for example? How do you see your University professor supporting you?

I have this theory that I have been sharing with a few friends here and there these years: The crisis, the economic, social, cultural crisis that we have been experiencing over the past years globally, is not because we don’t have knowledgeable or experienced people in key-decision making positions. All international organizations, big corporates and governments are staffed with people from the best Universities in the world. Then what is wrong? How did we end up in this situation? Corruption, scandals and the list goes on and on…

In its attempt to measure itself, I think education has limited itself to just a medium of transferring information. Because with tests and examinations we can measure whether the learning objective has been reached. What happens though with the intangible, the immeasurable and unspecific as many people say, what happens with that initial goal of education, which was: reaching a state of wisdom, what the ancient Greeks named as the ideal of “kalos kagathos”, or leading a life with knowledge and values.

This is where in my view, another intervention is needed, not just shaking the system, not amending it. This is where technology, games, experiential learning, volunteering, anything innovative that comes up should ultimately be directed. What is the point of giving more and more people the power that comes with knowledge, if at the same time, we do not provide them what Ghandi said “an education with character”. Not an easy task of course. And many would ask, so, how do you measure that? And when? And are there standards? And how do you teach ethics, without making it a moral lecture. And the truth is, you don’t. You don’t teach ethics, you don’t lecture it. You embody it and you live it. You apply it to your everyday life and you become a role model, from the time we fill in our tax report to the time that we will need to answer some tough dilemmas: do I report that my company “cooks the books” or in other words cheats and probably lose my job and remain unemployed for a few months, or do I keep quiet, stay at my job and continue being able to feed my children?

Now, I believe that the question is not about knowing what is right and what is wrong. I believe that deep inside we all know it. We always have, since we were small and we were playing football or hide and seek with our friends. We knew that cheating was wrong and we were able to yell it out whenever we felt it. Didn’t we? So, we definitely know it. And I think, we haven’t forgotten it either. It is just that we are not empowered to raise our voice and express it, under the fear of losing something that we value as even or more important, like our jobs, our money that support our families and our life styles.


So, here is another idea: what if we would create an education system that would measure its success based on the ethical or value-driven leaders it would create, its social footprint. Not based on how many CEOs or how many politicians it would “create” but on the basis of the positive change its people would bring and inspire. What if the School’s objective was to empower youth  to be able to think critically on their choices and be strong enough to take the one, which is the best for the common good. What if we would share such examples of character, what if we would discuss and reflect with our friends and families and just create the habit of pointing out that what some are doing, for their personal or just organizational benefit in expense of the overall good, it is not cool. Simple.


Giving voice to Values is not an easy thing of course. I watched Sugata Mitra’s TED talk the other day at the global event, you know him, the “Hole in the Wall” guy, that put computers in remote villages in India, left them there and came back to find kids knowing how to operate them after already teaching themselves English for that purpose. So, he was saying that one of the factors that helped these kids advance in their learning so much that they passed the level of knowledge of pupils in private schools in Mumbai and New Delhi, is…the granny. Yes, you heard right. The grandma. Or you know, a teacher, an older friend that was just standing there, next to the kids and was doing exactly what grandmas do. They were telling them “yes, you are right. You are absolutely right. Oh you are doing so well! You will do great things”. Empowerment in its most simple and effective way. Something that has nothing to do with systems, funding and rankings, it has to do with that one2one relationship that the teacher has the absolute possibility to have with the pupils in the classroom.

Empowering in my view, sets one free. It sets him free to go out, travel, lose and find himself, redefine his/her reality, try and do the things that loves, raise his/her voice when values are shaken, without the fear of failure or judgement.

It is a matter of life stand you see; whether we allow ourselves to be defined by fear or not. Whether we lead a life and make decisions because we are afraid the risk, the consequences, being unemployed, starting from scratch or getting hurt.

Fear is normal, it is a way of defense, too. Our body expresses fear automatically and needs to reject it fast, otherwise it goes into a defense mode. But, this defense mode is when the part of our brain that learns, that is imaginative, creative and positive, shuts down. When that part shuts down, is when we let go of our dreams and hopes for the future. This is when we say that the dream we had when we were small to wear a red cape and save the world, to conquer the universe and be the best teacher in the world, was just ridiculous. Cause super heroes don’t exist, Santa is fake and one person cannot change anything.

This spiral we put ourselves in unfortunately leads to one thing: living a life without purpose. Living a life in defense, without really liking what we do and as a result, without loving ourselves. It has been proven that people that are happy with what they do, they are much more efficient and invested in any workspace. Some people say, “I don’t know what I love”. I don’t agree. I believe that we all know that. We have known it since we were small, but we have on the way somehow forgotten it. So something needs to happen for us to remember it again. In my view, this is a role that education needs to come and play: there is no point in educating someone with the best technology and teachers to be a doctor, if that person does not want to offer help. There is simply no reason to teach someone how to be a teacher, when he/she just simply does not believe in the potential and care authentically about kids and youth. It would be pointless. All educators, we need to be supporting and helping our pupils and students to find their “Element”, as Sir Ken Robinson said, meaning find the area, where their talents and passion meet. Once that is found, we should be supporting them to find a way on how they will keep their passion alive for their entire lives, work for that purpose and ultimately be proud with themselves.


I would like to leave you now with a final thought and question: how would the world be if each one of us was empowered, educated and supported to lead a life with purpose with just one simple happiness criterion: sleeping peacefully at night, knowing that we did the best we could that day for ourselves and the community and that our kids and generations to come would be grateful. Thank you.

What do you think?

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