Laurens Knoop, The School of Life, op Lowlands
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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: Laurens Knoop (48), creative director and founder of The School of Life Amsterdam, trainer, speaker, and investor

Laurens Knoop went to the Vrije School, studied economics, did an MBA, worked as a researcher and consultant, and decided to change his track 10 years ago. He started ‘Brandstof’ (‘Fuel‘), to inspire people through the value of philosophy and culture. Brandstof’s successor, The School of Life Amsterdam, became a success with now more than 40,000 visitors a year. High time for Laurens to change his path again.

Laurens told in a Brainwash Talk how we can hold on to the childlike curiosity that we so often lose in the course of our lives. He shares how, as a generalist, he has let go of his dream of achieving the degree of grandmaster in a specific field. His striving for mastery has given way to something stronger and which has brought him much greater happiness: the intention to live according to his imagination and to follow his curiosity, following Goethe’s example.

View Laurens’ complete Brainwash Talk for the three lessons he learned from Goethe about maintaining a youthful curiosity.

As a researcher of curiosity, I am of course very curious about how Laurens deals with following his natural curiosity, how he likes it, what it has yielded him, and what it has cost him. I meet Laurens at The School of Life Amsterdam. I’m allowed to ask him questions about his curiosity for an hour. I start with the question that almost everyone answers differently.

What does curiosity mean to you personally?

Tracking where your natural interest is going. That’s not so much what you think, but what happens. Where you notice that you find something interesting or fascinating, there is something that you need to investigate. That can be something positive, but certainly also something negative.

You have to ruthlessly follow this interest. In my opinion, you have to put almost everything aside for that, well not your family and friends. But when you follow your curiosity, it certainly has consequences for your social life. It’s not free.

Mastership used to be your fascination, then you decided to follow your curiosity. How does that work and how do you like it?

The small ‘bon ton’ version of curiosity is when you use it to give a little twist to your work: another computer, another study. That’s possible. My inspiration is Goethe. He was driven by his curiosity and every few years he pulled out all the plugs and then started again somewhere else. That’s very rigorous. If you want to do something with curiosity and give it space, you have to choose and to choose is to lose.

I recently made a switch myself, which in a way is very bold. I now work part-time at an investment company for startups. After 10 years, my time at The School has come to an end. I’m still involved and co-owner, but I want to experience entrepreneurship a lot more.

We started 10 years ago with Brandstof, the predecessor of The School of Life Amsterdam. That was completely insane at the time because it was a mission without a chance. We managed to keep it going though. Five years ago we opened The School of Life, which was less of a risk even then because we knew it would work. Now The School of Life Amsterdam is an established company with 40,000 visitors a year. That’s huge!

That offers the luxury of being able to look further and that happens now ‘as we speak’. I’m in a sort of probationary period so I can see if it fits; if this is what my real curiosity is about. So I can honestly say that I do almost everything I can to follow my curiosity. Even though this has consequences that can be very scary, such as loss of certainties. But certainties are an illusion in my eyes. I always think: here in the Netherlands, you can’t die of hunger. So ‘what the fuck, let’s go!’

Does this mean that investing in start-ups is your new fascination?

It’s more in the business itself. I want to experience that real world of entrepreneurship from the inside. My curiosity lies in how that world really works. It’s a different world than where I’m active now. After all, The School of Life is a soft company; we are all very kind to each other and to our clients. At a certain point, you think: There is another world and I want to (re)discover it. Otherwise, you are too much in a bubble and that bubble is not good for you. Then you start believing too many things that just aren’t true. Or let me put it this way: they are not true everywhere.

You’re a very curious person. How can other people recognize the moment when you’re curious?

You can see that right away. I immediately wander off if it’s not so and I immediately jump up if it is, there’s no misunderstanding about that. You can see that in everything: in my movements, raising my voice, eyes, and of course, by asking questions, that’s the most important thing.

How does being curious feel to you?

I always feel it in my lower abdomen, an increased heartbeat, forgetting myself, and in a total focus. It’s excitement.

Does that excitement always feel good?

Yes, it feels very nice, but I have experienced it so many times that I know when I enter that mode. It’s like using drugs; if you’ve taken a pill a couple of times, at some point you recognize what’s happening. Then you oversee it and look at it on a meta-level. Sometimes I can see meta what happens when excitement and curiosity enter my body. Then I think: Here we go again.

© The School of Life

Your life at the School of Life is one big flow or maybe even an overload of new information, experiences, and inspiration. What does this do to your curiosity?

It’s very simple: if you’re open to curiosity, you’ll only be curious more often. Then a world opens up for you in which you can come across things that interest you at almost any moment.

That reminds me of a wonderful quote by Michelangelo: Most people are not afraid to set too high goals and not achieve them but they are much more afraid to set their goals too low and achieve them. I have been puzzling for a long time what this statement means. I think it means that you are afraid of boredom. That when you reach your goal, you find out there’s nothing left. But that’s not true. As is very often the case with fear, it is not based on reality. When you achieve a goal, you want to achieve new goals. It’s like a Wikipedia on which you can click indefinitely to the next sheet. Where you discover something again, which raises new questions.

When you are curious, your brain is in a state of alert. You are constantly curious, what does it do to you to be constantly in such a state?

Of course, I’ve already had a huge burn-out, so you’ve got your answer. That happened in my college days. Fortunately, I’ve recovered well, but I couldn’t do anything for three years, literally nothing. That was due to an overkill of excitement.

Being curious is also described as being open to new information and experiences. Sensitive people seem to be more open to outside and inside stimuli. Would you describe yourself as sensitive?

Yeah. Extremely, very annoying.

I think if you’re sensitive, this will stimulate your curiosity even more. What do you think about that?

Of course, you perceive a lot more and therefore you see a lot more opportunities. If someone with autism is curious then maybe one or two things are explored into the absurd, or so I imagine. I don’t know what it’s like to be someone with autism.

It is often a challenge for curious people to limit their curiosity in a positive way. What are your insights in this area?

I like to quote other people who have thought about it much better. Achieving a work-life balance is a totally pointless illusion. Because if you are interested in something and want to go for it, you always get out of balance. So just accept that. It’s nonsense to always want to be in balance. That only happens to people who sit all day meditating with incense sticks and shut themselves off from the world. You should do it when you feel like it, but don’t think that’s real life.

For me, it means that I’m always struggling with this: with energy, who does, who doesn’t, what works, what doesn’t? I always struggle with my emotions that interfere with all the relationships I have with people. Emotions that are not always controllable, which sometimes make me fly out of turn, say stupid things, and cause a lot of shit that I have to fix again. Of course, sometimes that also results in very good things, otherwise I wouldn’t function as a person.

It’s ‘the bumpy road’ you move over. You’re always distracted and hit in the flanks. It’s an enormously complicated and energy-demanding process that is called maturing. I always have great admiration for people who can do that in a good way. But when you continue asking questions, usually something comes up that makes you think: Oh, luckily, you too.

The predecessor of The School of Life Amsterdam was called Fuel; a great name. How do you make sure you refuel on time and keep your energy level up?

I did learn certain lessons in that respect. I’ve become quite rigorous in wiping my diary clean when it’s really necessary. I get irritated on all sides when I’m too busy. I then notice that I have no energy, that I sleep badly and end up in a negative spiral that derails so quickly that I am now anticipating it.

I have had a couple of very busy weeks now. So I take the whole weekend off. I’m not going to do anything and just stay together with my girlfriend; a little cooking, a little hanging out and a little reading. That’ll help.

The most rigorous off-period was last summer when I took a sort of sabbatical. So I’ve been free all summer and that’s really great for curiosity! I think it’s blasé to say: I took a sabbatical. There are a lot of people who can’t afford it. I said to my colleagues that I wouldn’t be there for a while. I had a lot of time to walk our dog, get away in the afternoons, in the woods on the Veluwe and on beaches, that’s really wonderful. I now have at least ten things ready with which I would like to get started.

“Curiosity is a verb”

Curiosity is not something that just blows at you when you sit in a beach hut. It is a verb, curiosity only comes when you are doing something. At least, with me, it only arises when I’m doing something. Then it pops up, it never just comes up. It’s always triggered by something that touches it; when you think hey, that’s interesting, I have to do something with it.

Interesting, there are also people who say: only if you take away all the pressure, you’re going to see what’s needed.

That’s something else; that’s pressure. It does come when the pressure is gone, because under pressure very little happens. My point is that you have to take rest to let it come to you, but you don’t just have to take rest.

Two well-known stories of the emergence of an idea in genius people are the stories of Einstein and Wagner. Einstein came up with the theory of relativity after 10 years of uninterrupted work on this problem. When he had decided to stop, he walked around a lake with a friend, he told his friend: I’m gonna quit, I can’t seem to find the solution. He woke up the next morning and that’s when he had finally found it.

Wagner had a similar experience. He was writing the opera Lohengrin, but it didn’t work out the way he wanted. Wagner, a temperamental man, was furious. Totally frustrated and tired, he fell asleep at a waterfall on his estate. He woke up and then he knew. The sounds of the waterfall had triggered it. He then effortlessly wrote a beautiful overture.

Through your curiosity you constantly open yourself up, besides that you indicate to be extremely sensitive. Yet you work in Amsterdam and attract a lot of people and activity. Can you explain that?

Laughing: And I even live right on the Rembrandtplein. That’s inexplicable.

Does that work for you?

My parents and I have a holiday home in the Veluwe, I am there very regularly. I would really go crazy if I have to be here too often. That’s really a paradox, but if you want to achieve something you have the best chance when you start in Amsterdam. With all due respect to Eindhoven and Rotterdam: a lot really happens there, but with these kinds of creative concepts it often applies: if you don’t get it done here in Amsterdam, you won’t succeed anywhere.

I’ve always dreamed of living in Amsterdam and setting up something beautiful here from the inside out. There has been talk of setting up The School of Life in other cities, such as Singapore or New York. I didn’t do that. That’s ‘too much’, I’d run completely empty. After a visit to New York, I was on oxygen for two weeks. I liked it a lot.

Following your curiosity isn’t free

If something becomes clear to me from Laurens’s story, it is that following your curiosity gives a lot of fun, but also takes a lot of energy. Managing your curiosity can be a ‘bumpy road’. On the one hand, it brings a continuous stream of inspiration, ideas, interesting people; the perfect fuel for an interesting life. On the other hand, curiosity can also cause exhaustion through continuous alertness and perception of the possibilities you want to use.

Laurens had a lot more to say about following your curiosity. In part two of this interview (in Dutch), I talk to Laurens about his search for the core of his life, his worst nightmare, the black hole, and how the lives of Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh touched him enormously.

Do you experience your curiosity as a curse or a blessing?

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