Nienke Meijer in 2019, © Fontys
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If the Corona crisis makes something clear to us, it is that the solutions of the past no longer work for today’s problems. But in order to achieve those new solutions and create real innovations that benefit society, something has to change in the way we look at the world. Curiosity, the basis for everything we do at Innovation Origins, is crucial, as the research of Danae Bodewes shows. In a series of interviews, she talks to curious types who each in their own way provide the building blocks for a life filled with curiosity. Here’s the complete series so far.

Curious types: Nienke Meijer (54), former chairman of the Board at Fontys Hogescholen, a passionate advocate for social inclusion

Nienke Meijer was a member of the Executive Board of Fontys University of Applied Sciences for ten years; Fontys is one of the largest universities of applied sciences in the Netherlands with almost 44,000 students and over 4,800 employees. Nienke created space within Fontys for educational innovation and attention to the individual and inclusive society. In 2014 she was the Dutch leading woman of the year. The jury praised her drive and her unifying and convincing leadership style. At the end of November 2019, she resigned as Chairman of the Board of Governors to further promote social inclusion and the digital skills of young people.

“Rather Lifelong Curious than Lifelong Learning”

Nienke’s statement during the opening of the academic year 2018-2019: “Rather Lifelong Curious than Lifelong Learning” inspired me to explore the theme of curiosity and to enjoy my curiosity much more. So I was particularly looking forward to this interview and Nienke’s insights into the diversity and power of curiosity.

What does being curious mean to you personally?

New energy, in the sense that if you allow curiosity you can really discover new things. For example, by asking yourself what can give you energy. Where it sometimes seems that you are stuck, you can discover new things by being curious. For me, it is one of the basic things that you don’t know you have or aren’t aware of, but which is very decisive for what you do.

Where does the slogan Lifelong Curious come from?

It was a spontaneous thought because everyone was fed up with Lifelong Learning. With Lifelong Development, you also noticed that there was a kind of weariness to it. I was preparing a speech when I thought, ‘maybe a lifetime of curiosity sounds better’. This statement then began to take on a life of its own. There wasn’t a lot of ‘research’ or extensive substantiation behind it, but I noticed that it says a lot more about what we find important.

What did you hope to achieve with this motto?

That we would emerge from the almost entirely infrastructural discussion about lifelong learning and development. I think we often approach the discussion very instrumentally. From the question: what kind of modules do we have or how can people continue to learn? In addition, the discussion is often conducted from a negative angle. You have to keep learning, you have to keep developing, because otherwise … It is a kind of sword of Damocles that just hangs there. Lifelong Curious has a more positive connotation.

I hope it touches people personally because I am convinced that, if you want to do something with it, it can only be done when you feel it and live by it. With Lifelong Curious I reach a lot more lecturers and students and employees of companies who think: Oh, but that also has something to do with me. Then you get out of the me-vs-they relationship. As in, it’s not about me, but they need to learn more. It’s about what we all do. I think you can take more powerful steps then.

Passion and purpose are often mentioned as important motives for personal and professional development. How do you see the relationship between passion, purpose, and curiosity?

For me, passion and purpose are the basis for looking through reflection at what really touches me. Or what would I really like to do? Discovering that can only be done through an enormous dose of curiosity: curiosity about yourself, about the other, and about what is going on in society. Then at some point, you will discover: this is where my passion and purpose lie. That’s not something that you discover only once, it’s an ongoing process. That’s why you have to stay curious all your life.

Did you become more or less curious over the course of your life?

At least I’ve become more aware of my curiosity. I guess I always was, but not so consciously. I think I’m more conscious about it now and allow it more. That means you can be vulnerable to things you don’t know. That’s a great good instead of always having an opinion or showing what you don’t know. That awareness happens in phases throughout your life.

Why have you become more aware of your curiosity?

There is no single cause for this. My time at Fontys taught me to verbalize it concretely. In the time I worked for the newspapers, I had no words for it. Since I’ve been working in education, I’ve noticed that you can name it and that it’s part of learning.

“Use everything you come across for growth and development”

I once drew an ‘angel card’ when I was in my early thirties, I always kept that card. The card says, “Use everything you come across for growth and development.” That always helped me. If you use everything you encounter, whether positive or negative, then nothing is meaningless that you experience.

That insight has fueled my curiosity. Why am I sitting here at the table with this person? Why does this happen to me in this situation? What do I learn from this? It’s not to see that everything happens for a reason, but that you can learn from everything that happens and do something with it. And that it’s a choice to think like that.

What dampens your curiosity?

When I’m in a company where there’s a lot of negativity or where people shout a lot of ‘yes, but…’. If I don’t watch out, I notice that I shut myself down and I am no longer open to new things. I just think: how can I get out of this situation as quickly as possible? That kind of thinking dampens your natural curiosity.

How can someone who doesn’t know you well recognize those moments when you are curious?

I ask a lot more questions than I answer. This happens when you’re really talking to each other. What we do now, an interview is not really an interview. This triggers me because I think about the questions you ask and what does that actually say? But real curiosity comes from a conversation that takes you one step further every time, discovering new things and getting new ideas.

You have a background in marketing. What is your favorite way to stimulate people’s curiosity?

My original background is in psychology. I’m really interested in people: why they do certain things, where their motives are, and where something comes from. I then translated that into marketing. How can you reach people and how can you ensure that your message reaches people? In the end, the bottom line is always: how do you make it so personal that someone always recognizes themselves in it? Marketing is all about the question: how do you reach people?

My preference is that this happens in a positive way. You can reach and inspire people from the negative. My style is to sketch something positive that affects people. What makes someone think: I can contribute to this, I can do something with this.

“Being curious has brought me closer to my passion and purpose, I hope this also applies to others.”

What I love to see or hope will happen is not so much that I inspire others, but that they think, due to something that I say or write: this is something that is about me and I can get my own inspiration from it. So, not so much following what I say, but being able to translate it into what it means to them. Because what curiosity is for me does not have to be the same for others.

You came from the media world before you started at Fontys. Can you remember what surprised you the most when you joined Fontys? And what did you do with this amazement?

The first thing that amazed me was the incredibly nice contact with students. I came from the newspaper world and the average reader there is 57 years old. I didn’t have much contact with people in their twenties. It’s nice to see how you can really have contact. The fact that students participate in projects and brainstorm in student groups, so that you do more than just hear their stories, but also really work together.

What also amazed me was the enormous passion among teachers, but also how little contact I had with them. We talked about teachers more often than with them. Over the past ten years, I have tried to improve this for myself. In the end, I have the feeling that I had more contact with students, but I would certainly have liked to have more contact with teachers and staff members. If I would stay another ten years I would want to do that much more intensively.

What do you see as the biggest obstacle that stands in the way or dampens the curiosity of students and teachers?

The feeling that you have to do everything right the first time, you can’t make mistakes and you will be judged on your mistakes. This applies to everyone; students and professionals. Being curious means stepping out of your comfort zone and doing things you haven’t done before. In today’s society, this is not always appreciated. And you know: have two negative experiences and you stop being curious.

What really worries me is that about 30% of our students have burnout symptoms due to too much pressure in all kinds of ways. You can see that in children in secondary education. If you want to reduce that pressure or deal with it in a better way, you have to give everyone room to make mistakes. And don’t keep saying: you can make mistakes, but I prefer that you only get ten out of ten. Then you give out two messages. I think that in the Netherlands we really have to make a big step and that’s only possible if you do that yourself as a person.

That implies that everyone should pay attention to that.

Yes, it’s ‘practice what you teach‘. How do you make sure that you lead by example? What gets me going, of course, that it’s always about our Technology Entrepreneurship and Creativity (TEC) skills in one way or another.

“You will make mistakes, but by being curious you will make progress and give a good example”

How beautiful it is when you, as a teacher or parent, show that you are experimenting with programming, robotics, and 3D printing yourself. You will make mistakes, but by being curious you will make progress and give a good example. In fact, you are learning together. The moment you, as a parent or teacher, become vulnerable in this way, you give others room to experiment and make mistakes.

Curiosity is about being open to and absorbing new knowledge and experiences. You meet an enormous number of people and are involved in a wide variety of subjects and activities on a daily basis. How do you organize your information so that you actually remember it and can make optimal use of it?

Sighing: If I only had an answer to that … Occasionally it’s really chaos with me. It’s easy for me to have ten books on my shelf that I really want to read because I’m very curious about them. I try to make my notes in my notebooks about things I want to remember from conversations or from special moments. The only way is to take a break once in a while and read back what you have written and think back to what you have heard. Create silence in order to reflect on what you have been given.

“Have compassion with yourself, that you can’t read everything, can’t know everything and don’t need to know everything.”

But also have compassion with yourself because you can’t read everything, can’t know everything and don’t have to know everything. You can still be very curious, but you don’t have to do everything at the same time. I also see this in students who are so eager to absorb everything; new information and new experiences. That’s why you can just freeze sometimes. Because it’s too much, it’s just too much. But when you find moments of rest by walking in nature or emptying your head in another way, then the information you need will come up as soon as you are open to it.

Do you also use tools for organizing your information?

I don’t really use tools, I have 30 years of notebooks, it’s a whole closet full and I read them back every now and then and then I see my own development.

I know people who have created a personal management system for themselves in which they store all the information they find relevant. When they think of a theme, they type in a keyword and plop; everything related to this theme coming from different media appears on their screen.

I do have folders on my computer where I collect things by subject, but not with such a handy Wiki-like tool that you plop it in and then pop it back up again.

But if I’m really honest, I get more inspiration from beautiful books I read and conversations I have. Capturing that inspiration is something I do manually. I underline things in books with a pencil and then write the most beautiful quotes and pieces down in my little book. I also share these insights with friends and that is my real inspiration, more than, for example, articles that I tend to use to substantiate something. And I love the fact that these days, with WhatsApp, you can take a picture of these insights and share it with others.

You are co-founder of De BuitenBoord Motor, (The Outboard Motor). July 2019 you published an essay called: “Wanted: People with new solutions, m/f”. I assume these are the type of people you work with at the Outboard Motor. Can you tell me more about this initiative?

The Outboard Motor has commissioners, people from startups, publicists, and scientists. It is a very diverse club and we are concerned about social cohesion in the Netherlands. We want to be a do-tank and not just another think-tank that does a lot of talking. We deal with how people, who have to leave companies because of technological developments, can move to companies in another sector in a good way. And which system modifications are needed for this.

If you work at a bank nowadays, it’s incredibly difficult to end up in healthcare, technology, or education, even though there are tens of thousands of vacancies there. You run into the fact that we focus on CVs instead of competencies, that there are salary gaps when you move from one sector to another and that our education is actually very rigid and conservative with few opportunities to organize things differently. We are working on that, but slowly.

How does curiosity play a role in the ambitions of The Outboard Motor?

It is important to be curious about the other person and not to think too much in an instrumental sense, such as: if we enter this rule or procedure, and then it should work anyway. If it were that simple, it would have been like this a long time ago. That is why it is important to be curious about what is really going on in the other person and ask more questions in order to be able to understand. Wanting to understand what’s behind it and take a look together at what’s needed to inspire people to take such steps.

“Curious about what is really going on in the other person and ask more questions in order to be able to understand”

Digital skills linked to passion and purpose

I want to discover what is needed so that all children in the Netherlands can acquire digital skills with a sense of passion and purpose within two to three years. It shouldn’t be a gimmick, but an awareness of how digital skills can help you to function better in society or to help shape that society. Then you are talking about: how to create the openness to talk about curiosity with children with the help of technology.

We are lagging behind

Teachers remain incredibly important but technology is going to help us reach much larger groups and ensure that you can develop digital skills in a different way than just through a one-on-one relationship. We need and want to reach so many people because we are lagging behind.

In the Netherlands, we are high up in the rankings but you can see that we are going down step by step on everything. So it’s all about how we are going to reach a million people within a few years. That’s only possible if you do that in a good way with digital skills and technological tools. How do we do that? I want to discover that out of my own curiosity in the next one or two years.

So you’re looking for the space to work outside the system

Yes, completely outside the system, to then see where the system calls for intervention. You start with knowledge of the system, where does it get stuck and what interventions do you need? Are those interventions possible within the system or do you need to implement them outside the system? The current system, the Dutch ‘polder model‘ of endless consensus-seeking in politics or in the institutions as we have them now, that is not where change is going to come from. In the Netherlands, we are too stuck in fixed structures and polder-style thinking. That has to be done in a different way, that is where my passion and purpose lie.

You outlined a sense of urgency to think and act differently. This requires a curious, exploratory attitude. What do you think everyone should know about being curious?

That it’s always inside you and that you can make the choice to see it as a way of life. I’m in favor of everyone trying it out and undergo the wealth of experiences and connections that will come your way. And what that means for the things you do every day.

“People can only recognize and acknowledge each other when we are curious about each other, about each other’s stories, in order to build on that basic feeling at all levels.”

My pet peeve is social cohesion and how many people no longer feel known or recognized in a group or by society. The first step is that you feel part of your community or group again. That you experience from those connections: I matter. And that you then recognize that in what the business world does, in what the media writes and politics and education do. But it starts with yourself. Recognizing and acknowledging people is only possible when we are curious about each other, about each other’s stories, in order to build on that basic feeling at all levels.

That may sound cheesy, but the longer I do this myself, the more I experience that this forms the basis of how you would like to live with everyone. For me, it is, therefore, the basis of education itself. But also for what I am now going to do with the business community and other initiatives.

You radiate a sense of tranquillity as you talk about it. Where does that peace come from?

There’s not always that kind of peace and quiet in me. It’s not: look at me being so calm in this, because the restlessness is just as great. I like that you can always go back to that semnse of calm. Yet the more curious you become, the more insecure your world becomes. The step I’m going to make now just feels very insecure. It’s all still so huge and vague. I can easily talk to you about it, but there are also times when I think: ‘What on earth am I going to do?

“It’s about finding a balance between rest and restlessness, between certainty and unpredictability and between finding answers and searching for questions”

When you talk about human development, that unrest and insecurity are part of it. It’s about finding a balance between rest and unrest, between certainty and unpredictability and between finding answers and searching for questions, because that’s actually what it is all about. I hope I always keep this curiosity.

I am very grateful for how the past ten years at Fontys have shaped me. It’s an honor to hear how others have been inspired by me, but the effect has been just as great on me. And that feels very good.

Everything for people and society

For her farewell, Nienke collected five of her own essays that appeared between 2016 and 2019. The title of this collection is revealing: ‘Everything for mankind and society’. This collection not only contains her inspiring essays but also photographs taken by Nienke. Photographs that affect you, appeal to your imagination, make you reflect on what you have just read, and above all give you the energy to search for meaning and to want and give meaning yourself.

For me, these photographs represent the coherence of everything, the need for cross-interest collaboration, the experience of free space, enjoying the present moment, and daring to look beyond what is literally happening before your eyes.

Nienke lives according to her own words: practice what you teach. She dares to connect with others and to search in a positive, constructive way for what makes others curious and move towards a more inclusive society. As far as I’m concerned, this is a beautiful state of constant curiosity that leads to a strong sense of passion and purpose and inspiring, service-minded leadership.

What’s your passion and purpose?

I would like to hear from you via the comments below or via e-mail: [email protected].