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: Yvo Kouwenhoven (38), speaker, storyteller, traumatic brain injury experience expert, punk rocker and biological horticulturist
Yvo Kouwenhoven survived three cases of meningitis. Three times he managed to wake up from a coma and rebuild his life. He contracted his first meningitis at the age of 16. After that his life continued, and he developed into a punk rocker, vegan and organic horticulturist. Together with his wife Suzette and three children (now 13, 11, and 6 years old) they moved to a farm in 2016 and worked on setting up their own organic horticulture: Bietenrood. Just when the horticulture started to run well and was ready for the next step, fate struck again. Yvo, then 36 years old, unexpectedly developed meningitis for the second time in his life. Doctors, his family, and loved ones feared for his life, but Yvo recovered. The horticulture also seemed to survive. Xinix films made a documentary about this with the title: ‘Life after 36‘.
Life after 36
‘Life after 36’ refers to Yvo’s mother who died at the age of 36. The documentary was intended as a positive story about, among other things, making dreams come true, setbacks, and yet continuing again. Yvo was 37, had recently survived meningitis, and spring was coming. He saw the future positively.
However, during the editing process of the documentary Yvo was hit by meningitis for the third time. He was hoeing when he realized it was wrong again. He felt the blood pulling out of his hands, the next moment he woke up on the ventilator in the hospital. For the third time in his life he had barely survived meningitis. And for the third time he had to rehabilitate.
Yvo and Suzette, unfortunately, had to close the Bietenrood horticultural business. But Yvo didn’t shut down. He worked hard on himself, his health, and his future. He learned storytelling and started sharing his experiences on stage. On 1 November 2019, I was on the stage of a Stand-up Storytelling Show right after Yvo. An almost impossible task because Yvo had a great performance and the audience listened to his story with a restrained breath.
Two and a half months after this Stand-up Storytelling we are in a coffee bar in Den Bosch. Fortunately, Yvo is doing well – above all expectations. A cycling accident at the age of fifteen turned out to be the cause of the three cases of meningitis. This accident had left a large tear in his skull. Although he was operated on this skull fracture at the time, it apparently hadn’t healed completely. After twenty years, Yvo was treated again, to prevent a new infection. The research into the cognitive effect was also above expectations. The doctors think it is a miracle. And Yvo himself still seems to be surprised that he got rid of it so well. But it remains exciting.
While we order our drinks and a cake I realize how special it is that Yvo and I are sitting opposite each other. I’m curious about his stories, but I also find it exciting to ask questions. Because a lot has happened in Yvo’s life. I share this with him and we agree that I can ask anything and that Yvo will tell me if he doesn’t feel like answering. After this introduction, the interview goes by itself and I am glad that I have dared to invite Yvo for this.
We are going to talk about your curiosity and how you experience this. What does curiosity mean to you personally?
For me, it’s like wanting to be amazed and being open to it. That can be rational, but it’s also about feeling. I decide rationally: this is what I want to marvel at. For example, new food dishes and sports. But I can also be surprised by curiosity. My senses influence that. For example, I can easily be overwhelmed by a new kind of music.
I was talking to Suzette about this interview. According to her, I’m not that curious by nature. That’s partly true. I like routines and regularity, although the course of my life might suggest something else. I force myself into all kinds of schedules, in a disciplined way. Curiosity is often experienced as meddling, and negative. I don’t care what they do, I value them for who they are. At least, that’s what I’m trying to. I do like to be inspired. That’s easy. But, how curious am I really? I haven’t traveled the world. I did do a lot of hitchhiking.
I think there is a fixed idea about what curiosity is. For example, you travel around the world or have an innovative profession. This generally requires a healthy body and mind and preferably some money. In my opinion, it only becomes really interesting when you become more limited in your humanity. Curiosity can be in the smallest things. Even if you are very limited, a new world can open up for you.
“It is a conscious choice of mine to become curious about new experiences. At least that’s how I like to see it. My time here is far from self-evident.”
My limitations have enriched me on many fronts; I need to be more creative. It is a conscious choice of mine to become curious about new experiences. At least that’s how I like to see it. My time here is far from self-evident. I am forced to give a different interpretation to the question: where do I get my satisfaction from? I was forced to be curious about new possibilities. New insights stimulate curiosity. I am happy to see it that way.
I recently read an article on how a period of crisis can temporarily reduce the feeling of authenticity, but can actually stimulate curiosity about yourself. Is this recognizable to you?
People with a traumatic brain injury often talk about version 1.0 of themselves before and a 2.0 after the injury. I have come much closer to myself now. When I was in the hospital and woke up from a coma, there was no room for masks for a long time. I could not show socially adapted behavior. At that moment, you’re just who you are. You’re in the now. The person who was there before isn’t there anymore.
Mindfulness has helped me. It’s about now. Other thoughts are real as well, but they don’t have to be true. In a crisis, you let it happen. When I woke up I could only say ahhh. The authenticity was hard to find. At first, I was indifferent, because there simply was no room for authenticity. Breath after breath, there was more room for it.
We had to move from our farm and garden to an ordinary house. The move more or less passed me by unnoticed. I thought it was all fine. Later I got my desires, preferences, and disapproval again. Now there is also more room for curiosity. I consciously started to work on myself. I am now more self-centered, more egocentric. I want to understand myself and my new situation and how I relate to it.
Do you recognize this in other people with traumatic brain injury?
It mainly depends on how they deal with their injury as a person and what phase they are in. I have more recognition with people who have experienced difficult situations. In the early phase you are often not yet open to help and tips from others. So I like to let it rest. You should only offer help if someone is open to it. My lectures about my experiences can open the door and are mainly for inspiration. I keep it to myself in my lectures; how I experience it and how I deal with it. I do not make any further statements about others.
When you are open to new developments and events, both positive and negative, you develop the skills to deal with them. Then you develop resilience. I used to live in Arnhem and skate a lot. In Nijmegen, 20 kilometers from where I lived, you could skate well, but I was 14 and had no money. I started hitchhiking then. That can be dangerous, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t really aware of it either. I was aware that I could rely on my intuition. I have an open attitude: I am curious how this is going to go. My choices won’t always be safe and something can happen that can make your life miserable. What has happened to me is serious. And what doesn’t seem serious can also be experienced as serious.
Did you become more or less curious during the course of your life?
Less curious. I can’t control it. My curiosity has shifted. I can’t be as reckless as I was when I was 14. The knowledge you’ve gained will be taken into account in the decisions you make. I have more peace now. I used to find restlessness attractive. Now I look for it in other things; in myself.
I’m reading more now, too. I didn’t have room for that before. Now I love to lose myself in, for example, a fantasy book. I didn’t use to be open to that kind of books, but now I like it a lot. Maybe it’s a kind of escape from reality. Just like with veganism. I can experience the reality of animal suffering as intense when I focus too much on it. Disappointment, cynicism, and sadness then lurk. I don’t want that. I do embrace reality and I don’t look away from it. But sometimes I have to protect myself. I look for refuge. In books I can escape reality. Just like board games, you create another reality.
You and your family are vegans. This is a conscious choice that often has a story behind it. Can you tell us a little more about this?
I’ve been a vegan for 20 years now, before that I was a vegetarian. I started because I was very touched by animal suffering. I found it hard to imagine that anyone could shut themselves off from that. Later I started to see that my image and perception don’t go beyond me. I am curious and surprised about the motives of others, both positive and negative. But now I can let that slip away from me. My energy and time are limited, I have to make choices.
“You have to be curious to take new paths. You need amazement and emotions and you need to be able to deal with new ideas.”
When I have the choice, I focus on people and events that inspire me. So I don’t get disappointed anymore, that’s over. You can’t change people, they have to change themselves. I can only change myself in relation to others. Veganism is something I had to discover for myself. I never thought about it like that at home. You have to be curious to explore new paths. You need amazement and emotions and you need to be able to deal with new ideas. To take veganism as an example; if someone is not curious about a day without meat, then it stops. If someone is indifferent to the suffering of animals, then it stops. If someone is curious and emotionally involved, but he or she doesn’t see any possibilities to deal with these ideas; then it stops. I’m not going to convince that person how to do it. I can only inspire through my own behavior. What someone else does with that is up to them.
You told me that the results of a study around the cognitive damage caused by your brain injury, above expectations, were good. How far along are you in your recovery and will you be able to go back to work in the long run?
I don’t just see labor as paid labor. I see it as making a contribution to yourself and the world you care about. That can be either paid or not. It surprises me how paid labor is arranged. I look for interesting permanent work that offers sufficient rest, regularity, and money. But I also like to be a speaker. So I’m going to do both.
[box] Update: When I had Yvo read this interview, he sent me the following news. “I have just signed a contract that I am going to work as an assistant manager of a nature store. It feels crazy because now I will be experiencing more ‘certainty’ and ‘tranquillity’ than I did in years, while there’s enormous uncertainty on a global level… as if I’m making the opposite movement.”[/box]
The world of speakers is new to me. I looked at the large and much sought-after speakers and thought: how bad is this, I can’t do anything with this. Until I realized I made a lot of music. I did that well and with a lot of pleasure, but I never listened to the top 40. I’m not mainstream, I’m from the obscure music and now I’m from an alternative way of being a speaker.
“I started looking for a place where I would feel at home. For this I needed curiosity.”
That does bring uncertainty. When 10,000 people are dancing on the Toppers, I wonder, why don’t I feel that? How can everyone be so crazy about this? You don’t have to belong to a crowd. The masses don’t have to be right. I’ve been looking for a place where I would feel at home. I needed curiosity for this.
That’s how I got to the Punk scene. At first, I saw everyone there as a potential friend. But that’s not true. The truth is much more complex and colorful, even in such a small scene. The punk scene gives me a lot of satisfaction and also has its limitations. How do I relate to that? I go for the music. If I connect with people it’s crazy, if not it’s also good. The punk scene, veganism, anarchism; I strive for small islands and free states, but they are never going to be there. In the end, I always have to deal with myself.
One of my favorite questions to get to know people better is: What’s the most curious thing you’ve done in your life?
Parenthood. This was a big leap into the deep end. I was 24 when I became a father. This was very conscious. I’ve cherished the desire to be a father for as long as I can remember. Suzette didn’t necessarily want to be a mother, but that changed. Suzette and I talked about it for a long time, but we couldn’t agree. You’re not in control of your own life, you’re even less in control of children. I was so curious as to what it would be like. We didn’t know. So in the end, we thought, let’s just go for it.
Life with children is less controllable on all fronts. When they get older you have more time for yourself, but it gets more complex. You keep in mind where they are. Jippe is 13 and already travels by train. At the age of ten he traveled to Malaga by plane for a skate camp. On his own. The trip was completely accompanied by the airline, but still… Raaf (11 years old) goes to piano lessons alone. The end is lost, I love it.
“I create curiosity, then a world opens up you didn’t know about.”
It is important to listen to children and give them the space they need. This requires taking a step back in your ego, your own interests, and time. I want to give my children values and experience. That sometimes clashes. For example with gaming. A lot of parents struggle with it. With the boys I see how important it is for them. For me, it’s nothing. But I do my best to be sincerely curious. I create curiosity, then a world opens up that you didn’t know about. My kids never play online alone. By forbidding it, you throw away the good parts of it as well. Then you might as well create a physical divide. I wanted kids. They never asked for them to be born. I see it in that sense.
How much room do you have for yourself and your own curiosity?
That’s searching, especially when they’re very small. My solution is to combine things. I have to stay with myself. With older children, it’s easier to meet your own preferences. For example, I took Jippe and Raaf to a punk concert at the age of eight and eleven, and they enjoyed the stage diving.
What do you think everyone needs to know about curiosity?
It’s already going wrong in the questioning. Nobody needs anything. I find that very awkward. I get a lot of satisfaction from discovering new things. I give everyone moments of satisfaction and happiness.
When you ask someone a question, you have to be open to any answer. I’ve learned not to ask questions I don’t want to know the answer to. I got this wisdom from agent K, from the movie Men in Black III. That’s why I don’t ask my children what do you want to eat? I ask now: do you want to eat cauliflower or broccoli?
A fantastic, stupid and unfortunate coincidence
At the end of the documentary about Yvo and the organic horticulture, the interviewer asks Yvo: This film is about life after 36. What is it like? His answer: “Yes, I just don’t know. And nobody wants to know. Everyone wants a finished answer. They don’t want an open ending at all, but that’s it. I haven’t the faintest idea. I just don’t know where I’m gonna be in a month’s time, what I’m doing.”
These words stick with me. I interviewed Yvo in mid-February 2020. At the moment I work from home because of the coronavirus. I realize that everyone can suddenly feel a little better about the uncertainty, limitations, and changes that someone with traumatic brain injury, chronic or even life-threatening disease experiences.
Fantastic coincidence, but also stupid and unfortunate coincidences can change your life from one day to the next. A cycling accident at the age of fifteen can put you on the verge of death and force you to let go of your dreams. The fantastic coincidence that a surgeon unexpectedly has a spot left over for a risky operation that could save your life suddenly opens up new perspectives. Keeping hope and investigating every time how you relate to your new reality helps you to keep thinking in terms of opportunities and Yvo is an expert for that.
How do you deal with uncertainty and unexpected limitations?
I would like to hear from you via the comments below or via e-mail: [email protected].