An open letter to announce retirement at De Universiteit
Dear beautiful learning junkies!
It’s been 4 years (almost to the date) that we launched De Universiteit. 4 years. That’s a big chunk of time. It’s been quite a ride. And for me, that ride is coming to an end.
In this “open letter”, I want to share my thought process. My intention is to share how this decision has come about and what my reasoning was for retiring my role in De Universiteit. To share my experience and view on what we’ve created. And how it is to let something go that you’ve build. Hopefully, reading this is helpful to you and De Universiteit in some way.
But, before I do that, I want to mention the following. Me stepping out isn’t the end of De Universiteit!
We’re a self-empowered community after all. That I step out merely means that new space is created. Space where for you guys can create the things you want to see in the world. Things to empower learning in ways that fit you! So there will be change. The people who are most involved now, the Uniters, are rethinking what they want to be creating for their learning. You are of course very much invited to join in. They’ll shortly send out a date for that.
When we started 4 years ago, the dream was to create a new type of university. A place that enabled everyone to create their way of learning. A place to inspire curiosity. A library for modern times. A place to empower you in learning and striving for excellence. A place as rich and dynamic as the people that make it. And as varied as there are ways to learn.
14 November of 2011, Marien and I invited people to join this crazy idea to create a new kind of university with us. A place where we would be able to create our own learning. Or rather we invited people to a prototype of that university.
In no way a full-fledged university, but simply a workshop series to test if the way we wanted to empower learning would work. Learning based on creation and interaction. Mixing theory with experience. Learning where nobody is a spectator and everyone participates. We needed a topic. We chose “Het Ideale Werken” (which loosely translates "Working Ideally”). Remember that?
It turned out to be a pretty good prototype. Because since then, we’ve co-created 165 workshops in Utrecht and Amsterdam (yes, I’ve kept track). From the get-go, people took charge in taking ownership of their learning. Workshops being hosted by your peers about topics they wanted to know more about themselves. Or in which they maybe had something to give, but always had something to learn as well.
So many people have participated in workshops at De Universiteit. Around a thousand. Almost to no exception, everyone who got introduced to it left with inspiration, learning, insights. But the effect that I always liked most was that they left with a large sense of wtf. "What just happened? This is just so…, so chill! Everybody just lets each finish a sentence. Everybody is curious to what I have to say. And my contribution is valued! I can even create something here myself?”
Looking back, De Universiteit has been a place where people have been able to ask questions about who they are and what they want to do. A place where, even when not enrolled to a regular university, they can keep learning. It’s been a place where - in a world that goes faster and faster and increasingly digital - genuine contact and attention is the norm. Where everyone is welcome and valued. A place that challenges people in a good way to create something. A safe place to experiment.
And it’s so cool to see what people, who came to De Universiteit a few years ago, are up to now. It has been very fulfilling to me that we've been a part of the foundation of people’s lives that has enabled them to do great things.
Like I said, 165 workshops. And 17 community-events. Holy crap. I’m a bit awestruck by the sheer volume of it. Such a richness. It will take me a while to digest all the learning from it. Even writing about it brings back so much already.
I can honestly say that I’ve learned more these last 4 years than I learned during the time at my regular old university. Sorry, just had to knock formal education ;). But I’ve really learned so much. I’ve learned to host workshops / conversations. I’ve learned how to organize events and create something out of nothing. I’ve learned how to be a leader.
For me, De Universiteit has been the starting point of a whole new world that has opened up for me. A world of personal development, group dynamics, community building and participatory leadership. Which has all led to me starting my own business as a coach, host and trainer: Studio George. For which, it is now time to really focus on.
So what happened? It’s not been a sudden decision. Even though it was suddenly clear, it’s been a long and slow transition. Slowly the newness of the many, many workshops - while all different and unique - started to wear off.
Slowly my creativity within the boundaries in De Universiteit started fading. Somewhere along the way, I got lost in the weeds. Lost in the details. I need to take a step back.
But maybe mostly, slowly the volume of work started to weigh on me. I started not looking forward to workshops as much. Not meeting new participants with the same enthusiasm. Wanting the evenings back for myself.
The weight of carrying (or my perception of carrying) the responsibility for De Universiteit requires energy. While we’ve always shared the work, I’ve always somewhat kept the end-responsibility close to my chest. Partly because of my perfectionism and caring. Partly because it makes me feel important. But this has taken a toll on me.
For 4 years, every week I’ve had a little stress whether or not the workshop would do well. It’s a long time to have that, and I’m looking forward to a time where I don’t worry about attracting enough participants. Whether or not participants and hosts like it. And whether or not people from the outside respect De Universiteit.
Together with a lot of people, I've willed De Universiteit into existence and I’ve spent a lot of willpower to keep it around. It’s been a lot of work. Some of it seen. A lot of it, unseen. But I can’t will it any longer. My drive has moved on. And quite simply, I’m tired.
A few things have made walking away very scary. I want to share a few switches in my thinking with you.
The idea of walking away has long been uncomfortable. I identify so much with being “that guy of De Universiteit”. Who am I without that? What will I do? I don’t know really. But I’m curious to find out. And I, of course, know I’ll still be me whether I’m involved with De Universiteit or not.
In a way, walking away would mean accepting defeat. Defeat in the sense that I’ve never been able to make it “successful". That I haven't been able to create the institution I dreamed of. (Although, does community-driven learning really require an institution?). Or that I never have been able to create a sustainable business model for it. (Although, isn't exchanging time for learning the purest business model?). And as long as I stayed around, there was still time. Time to create that success.
But, to these sentiments I now say. Fuck that. I simply haven’t created that institution. Yet. Haven’t found the business model for learning. Yet. And heck yeah we’ve been successful! The fact that it has existed and has created so much for so many people and myself is all the success I really need anyway.
Perhaps scariest of all, walking away could’ve meant it would stop to exist. Our community is as strong as it is fragile. How we operate and things that make it work are so different then what people are used to. To do it well requires careful calibration and a lot of work. Would I be ok when our beautiful house of cards just fell? That it just stopped? That the stick in the ground is gone and people left. And, even though I won’t like it, I would have peace with that. For the same reason I’m ok with everything it hasn’t become. What it has been is awesome enough.
The biggest insight I got late in the process was that the fact that I walk away means that I create space for the new. It frees people up to create things that they innately have a passion for creating.
Because, as long as I’m involved, I only want to make De Universiteit bigger and better. Stopping certain things feels like a step back. This forces me "will it" into staying. Noble as that may sound, it turns out to have a negative consequence. Because when new things can’t come at the expense of other things and the team can’t do more (given the time-constraints of a team of volunteers), the only way forward is doing the same. Stagnation.
And stagnation doesn’t give energy. Doesn’t inspire. Is the opposite of creation and learning. So it’s time for new people to fully take over and start creating from what they themselves truly want to create. The longer I stay, the more I become a brake on the new Uniters instead of a catalyst. And the funny thing is, when I’m no longer involved, I’m really happy with everything that is/will be created in my absence. As small as it may be (or as big as it may become), I’m extra proud.
What does all this mean? Firstly, I’ll stay around until the first half of December. So until then, nothing really changes. And from then on, I imagine from that moment I will have a lot more free time!
Secondly, it’s not a farewell but it is a clear break. I’ll probably still participate in the workshops when I want to (if they’ll still exist) and I’ll still be here to advise/consult with the team. But I won’t play a role in organizing things. And maybe in the future, I will join in a different capacity to create new add-ons to our community. Different De Universiteit-powered initiatives. Or not. I don’t know. And that’s important to me at the moment. Just a clear break to allow for not knowing. To allow for new ideas to creep in!
Thirdly, I invite you to rock on with De Universiteit. Join in if you haven’t yet. Take on new roles. Keep learning. I hope you take care of all the beautiful core of it. The community-driven learning. The warm and human ways we get together. The things that make De Universiteit what it is. And I hope you’ll start tinkering with (or roughly shedding) the things that hold you back. I’ll always be ready to share why we decided on doing things a certain way. To give you the confidence to decide to do, or not to do, that!
Lastly, we’ve never really had a ritual for “stepping out” at De Universiteit. We tend to go quietly towards new endeavors. But it’s still kind of a moment. I’m the "last of the firsts". Maybe I’ll create a gathering where we’ll harvest, burn and learn something. Maybe not. For now. This is enough.
Thanks everyone for everything we’ve built and learned together! I’m not gonna name names. With a community-driven initiative, that will go on forever. You know who you are ;). It’s been a ride! Onto the next rollercoaster of this theme park we call life!