I had the privilege to attend a seminar in Paphos, Cyprus, headlined “The Torchbearers” and run by Esa Saarinen, Professor of Applied Philosophy from the Aalto University. I would like to thank the Technology Industries of Finland Centennial Foundation for providing me, and two dozen other students who received their travel grant, with this amazing opportunity!
So what is this seminar, which is known by many by its nearly mythical reputation? What would engineering students possibly have to learn from a philosopher? We all experienced the seminar differently, and we all have our unique way of developing or not developing our thinking, depending on how we are wired. Therefore, I can only describe what I personally gained and took home from the seminar and how I hope this will help me become a better summer employee.
Perhaps the most important lesson was that, having attended Saarinen’s lectures, I now believe in the power of positive thinking. This is not a given in the workplace, because the immediate returns of negativity are more obvious than those of positivity. It is much easier to say “This is not really my job” rather than accept the challenge and do what needs to be done. Of course, this way you may end up working a little less than if you were to take on challenges, but it is also a surefire way of avoiding learning anything new and growing from it.
For a negatively thinking summer employee, the line might go something like “I really don’t think I can”, which is an easy way of staying within your limits without the risk of failure. True, pessimists are never disappointed, but at the same time they also miss many opportunities where they could actually improve their abilities. A real life example from last summer: I was working at a factory as the only representative of my employer, when a situation came up where I had to/had the opportunity to change a pump stator following my boss’s instructions over the phone. I could have easily said “I can’t do this”, as the truth was I had never done this before. However, I decided to think positively and take on the challenge and in the end, changing that stator was one of the most rewarding moments of that summer. Wow, I did it! Unfortunately, I don’t always manage to think positively in the face of a challenge and can step back without trying. “I’m just a summer employee, let the others take care of it.” After taking this seminar, I will (again, at least for a while!) make use of the power of positive thinking and curiosity.
Another aspect of positive thinking that Esa Saarinen talked about was the belief that every human being has good qualities that do not show on the outside. This is an idea that helps me deal with people in the control room, who after decades in the job seem to have lost their motivation. They genuinely couldn’t care less about a young guy showing up in the chemical supplier’s uniform. And yet they hold an enormous amount of knowledge about the process. Knowledge that would be really valuable to any summer worker if only they could tap into it. Not every piece of information is needed every day, and yet even a morsel of new knowledge might prove invaluable in exceptional circumstances. So, would it be worth the risk and ask them about the process? On one occasion, I picked up all my courage, and the next thing I knew was that I was listening to a half-hour lecture on the process of mechanical pulp production, delivered with great enthusiasm. This was not directly relevant to my job (I was collecting samples), but it made me more motivated and keen to work more effectively. “Oh I get it, so this is why I have to take the samples here and not there”. That’s why I urge you never to shy away from asking questions!
The same applies when dealing with managers. Some managers may not be that popular among the organization or nice and sociable, but they, too, will possess a wealth of information about the different jobs and processes that you don’t. I’m sure that most managers really value their summer recruits’ willingness to learn and ask questions, even if this reveals a yawning gap in their knowledge. At least that missing link is now found.
The Torchbearers seminar gave me a great set of tools for situations in all areas of life: work, studies, family and relationships. Overall, the seminar gave me joy and increased my positivity in a way that will be felt by everyone around me. The only frustrating thing is that I cannot really put into words just how much this experience meant to me. But, surprise, surprise, the seminar gave me the keys to solving this problem, too!
In one of his lectures, Esa Saarinen showed a clip from the movie Invictus, which is about Nelson Mandela. In that clip, Mandela says that exceeding oneself is possible by benefitting from others. In Esa Saarinen’s words, it is about “standing on the shoulders of a giant”. So thank you, Topi Jokinen, a five-time Torchbearers seminar goer, for those shoulders. I will use your wise words to describe my experience.
“Paphos operates like an acceleration lane into your own thinking. It is an environment where you can spend a whole week focusing on your deepest, most important thoughts, which remain hidden when ploughing through your to-do lists in your normal daily life. Paphos is a setting where it is easy to think the thoughts you really have without caring what others might think of them. On the contrary, the others are there to support and soundboard your thinking.
So, why is thinking about thinking so difficult? Because it is not always pleasant and can make you a little uncomfortable. This time around, I came face to face with my own thoughts. It was painful to have to admit that some of my thinking is limiting and harmful. In the every day, I tend to escape these thoughts to other routines. There is always something seemingly more important to do.
While on Paphos, encountering your own thoughts becomes possible. The support given by your peers, which you can witness on their faces when they listen to you, helps you think clearly. The catalyst for this process is Esa Saarinen, whose way of working after all this time remains simply absorbing. And there is nothing more rewarding than realizing that you have developed as a thinker and that the limitations you used to feel have turned into opportunities. Naturally, one trip to Paphos is not going to stop all your limiting thoughts from appearing, as this is a learning path that lasts a lifetime. You are never ready, but that’s the great thing about it!
Better thinking creates better life! I can genuinely say that thanks to the Paphos seminars, my life has become better and I am so happy and grateful for the good fortune that once led me to Paphos. Thanks again, Esa Saarinen and all Torchbearers, for an amazing journey!”
Couldn’t have said it better. Thanks Esa Saarinen and the awesome Torchbearers!
Take care, dear friends!
– Paavo Vallas, Super Techie