The landscape of my life

Nicolas Dolenc
23 min readApr 15, 2021


This article is a self-reflection of a self-reflection exercise done during my studies at Aalto University in honor of the recently retired professor Esa Saarinen. The level of recursiveness and structure in this article is inspired by the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter who won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An eternal Golden Braid” and the revisitation that works in the book “I am a strange loop.” recently referred to me by my new found friend Lars Lydersen.

picture source:

The self-reflection exercise reflected upon in this article was done for the legendary “Philosophy and systems thinking” course hosted by E. Saarinen, who recently retired. Without reciting his bio, I want to say it feels like many who have remotely been touched by Aalto University or entrepreneurship in Finland the past couple of decades has somehow, to some extent, been influenced by Esa’s work. He received his Doctoral degree at the age of 24 on his thesis “Backwards-Looking Operators in Tense Logic and in Natural Language,” which may shed some light on his original theoretical thinking.

Summary & key take-aways:

1. Revisit past experiences to gain new insights.
2. Document past experiences to be able to revisit them for new insights.
3. Start with the end in mind. Work yourself backward from your death bed and reflect your way forward, but don’t lose sight of the moment you're in.
4. With enough practice, your greatest weakness may become your greatest strengths. The question is, just what do you want to do?

Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple, and it is also that difficult. — Warren G. Bennis

The exercise required us to self-evaluate our work, and I gave myself a 4/5, saying, “it’s good, but there is always room to improve.” The 32-year-old me is looking at this work done by the 26-year-old me, and it makes me think of Kendrick Lamar's lyrics on his song Humble, “Hold up B*tch… sit down… be humble”. The work is barely a 2/5, and the number of spelling mistakes is ridiculous, so I had to edit the original for readability so it could see the light of day.

However, I, of course, had to use Grammarly because I have a moderate case of dyslexia. I don’t see my own spelling mistakes. The dead giveaway is by how I choose to spell my nickname, “Niki,” with a “K” instead of “C” in my given name, “Nicolas.” My dyslexia is likely why I avoided publishing or sharing any of my writing for a very long time, even if wielding the English language is my chosen form of art, as I feel it’s my truest form of self-expression. I’m doing so now so that others may find the use of my thoughts and hold myself accountable to myself.

Regardless, what the 37-year-old me will think about my writing today, I’m happy to see improvement in my thinking from what it was roughly five years ago, and that is all that matters today. I hope you enjoy this read, and you get some insights that you may or may not make you take action. Regardless of what you choose to do, don’t stop learning because if it takes a lifetime to become yourself, and to become yourself, you continuously need to learn. Thus, not learning means you stop becoming all that you can be.

The landscape of my life: A discussion between the 26–and 32-year-old-me.

In the following section, I discuss my self-reflection essay, “The landscape of my life — Leading my passion and the passion of others.” which is tagged with “26-year-old-me” and is largely unchanged from the original text, but improved for readability, with my thoughts along the way to what they are today.

picture credits: M.C. Escher

26-year-old-me: During this past spring, the courses I have attended have been a resonating theme I have been reflecting on: Passion and how to lead it. What has induced my reflections is probably my new position in my professional life, being an executive with a global structure. To discuss leadership as a social phenomenon, I think it is important to let others know what your perception of leadership stems from because your perception and norms, or “lenses,” if you will, from which you interpret situations to affect how you understand them. I recently attended a course in leadership where I managed to formalize my leadership philosophy, citing myself;

“To keep it short, every interaction I see, everything I do, all the people I interact with, everything I learn, I try to see it from a leadership perspective and the framework I have for leadership. Thus it makes sense for me to discuss my view on leadership rather than discussing my view of the world. My view on leadership affects how I see the world and not the other way around … my view on leadership comes from a very practical standpoint and my own experiences. It consists of three notions, or let us call them lenses; Leadership is the spawn of evolution, leadership is about social influence, and leadership process is conducting a certain type of behavior, along with the usage of the right words.”

32-year-old-me: Well, you certainly have an issue with trying to keep things short. The next generation has an attention span of 5 sec. and you lost their attention when you said, “To keep it short…”. For anyone that paid attention further than that, it seems you weren’t familiar with the notion of “Leadership being equal to becoming of self.” just yet. You’re recursive without you even knowing it, as “leadership” is synonymous with “self,” not mutually exclusive. Trying to be some self-ratios wise-ass, but I guess this is human, and we’ve all been hit by the Dunning-Kruger effect.

I agree with the good practice for those new to leadership: writing your own leadership philosophy. Simpler still for especially new managers; there is a tool for this called and refine it over time. I’m not in disagreement with the source of our “lenses,” as you’ve chosen to name them, but I would re-phrase saying, “Leadership is the spawn of evolution, leadership is about social influence, and a process involving at least two people where the on sparks a feeling in the other by conducting a certain type of behavior, along with maybe the usage of some means of communication.” We’ve covered this argument's source in a previous article; Leadership cannot be defined, or can it?

26-year-old-me: One should know that my experiences came from sports and threw all youth national basketball teams. Basketball was my passion until I was 21 years old and decided to start studying computer science which I had little interest in. I just thought I should get an education that is likely to be universally needed in future job markets. In other words, what happened then was that I realized I no longer had the passion to practice as much as it would take to become a pro, and even if I tried, I would most likely need to get another profession at some point in life. So here I am 5 years later, reflecting upon my past and how I got here, realizing that I have led myself both through passion and through logic. I truly know what it feels like to have passion. I know that once passion can shift, I know what it feels like to make decisions because society deems them more rational than others. I am probably exercising a case of positive illusions (Pronin, 2008), but it is beside the point. Whether these decisions are conscious or unconscious, a follow of intuitive automatic thinking or rational process thinking doesn’t really matter, nor do I benefit from it. Interestingly, I utilize my spiritual experiences in this regard in my leadership, so I have chosen a given topic.

32-year-old-me: Firstly, “Positive illusions”? Please explain. Do you think the reader is going to know what that refers to without elaborating? Even I can’t remember what the f*CK was that about without looking it up, and why bring it up if it’s beside the point? (Positive illusions: People see themselves differently from how they see others; consequently, they judge others differently than they judge themselves.) Secondly, you use “what” in your “what”!? Do you mean you use your own spiritual experience when being you? Good for you, son, so cute. Thirdly: Lucky, we found this concept called Ikigai, and we found Simon Sinek with his concept of “why,” which made it possible for us to distinguish between our passion and our purpose. We covered the better version of this story in our first piece here on Medium: Finding balance and purpose.

26-year-old-me: A collection of articles I have come across this past spring that has had content I really connected with, one of these was Druckers (HBR, 2005). I have to cite him here because I used this sentence at the office, which has impacted our operations this year:

“Knowledge workers outlive organizations, and they are mobile. The need to manage oneself is creating a revolution in human affairs”.

Druckers discusses today’s generation of workers who no longer are factory workers a part of a well-oiled machine that is operated by human hands, today's workers are knowledge workers where the “machine,” if you will, is the human, thus when the human moves on the machine leave the organization and then outlives the organization. I want to build on this and say that the coming generation of workers will have a whole new set of values and expectations driven by passion. I am not saying that this has not existed before referring to what is perceived as professional life's social norms. This is already being seen and discussed in today's society. For example, in Daniel Pinks's famous TED talk (2009), his key message being motivation is inspired and facilitated by offering purpose, mastery, and autonomy. All of these attributes are at the core of managing oneself (Drucker, 2005), highlighting the fact that one could argue that what the next generation of workers is going to value is what is the possibilities are for being able to manage oneself and grow as a person by doing work within a topic one is passionate about. Again I am not saying this has not existed before, but it is becoming the social norm in professional life.

32-year-old-me: Ok, this is a good section. Refer and align your thoughts with well-known experts, explain the cited content clearly, connect the dots and be a bit humble with your own statements next to these big names. The reader can go deep dive for their own insights, and I don’t have to remember what the h*ll the cited content is about. However, looking back, you do use Drucker way too often, but then again, we’ve read all his work by now, and that took some time.

Though it’s clear our confidence peaked and was at an all-time high in the fall of 2017 that made us construct this speech about the future, we later consolidated into an article: The scarcest resource in today’s business world is human capital, but for how long? Then again, that is what Slush did to everyone; it created a bloated sense of self-importance. When you’re riding at the peak of the wave of the biggest brands in the country, reality tends to smack you in the face when you’re no longer riding the wave, and it hurts like h*ll. However, if you got onto that wave for the right reasons, you get up and try again and not cower in fear of having to go through something like that again, but hopefully, you’re a bit wiser on how to ride it out.

26-year-old-me: To become an expert, one must practice rigorous hours, have a supporting family and have a devoted teacher or mentor (Ericsson, 2007, The making of an expert). Thus, to lead my passion and that of others, I need to practice, support my family, and find myself a mentor. However, this sounds way easier than it actually is, starting with the question, what is passion? To answer this question, I would like to further connect with articles I have come across: the dualistic view of passion (Vallerand, 2008, On the psychology of Passion: In search of what makes people’s lives most worth living), where two different kinds of passion for an activity are introduced; harmonious and obsessive, obsessive being of a self-destructive kind as the word might suggest. I related strongly to this article because it picked examples of cases where athletes refused to stop practicing or competing when faced with an injury even though it could cause chronic damages. This could be argued as an obsessive form of passion, though where do you draw the line? During our lecture of this course, we also discussed this form of doing, that one should not do too much and too much of anything is not good. I want to argue against both cases since I have burned out both physically and mentally several times in my life, even though I am 26 years old. For someone who can be categorized as an achiever, I will always look for the next challenge, the next milestone, never to feel truly satisfied with the most recent achievement. It is a gift and a curse. However, both of the above says one should not do too much of anything and avoid burning out. I say it is inevitable, and each time you go over, your tolerance increases, especially when it comes to the mental side of burnouts. The trick is not how to hold back. The trick is to use the same passion to recover faster. The nature of passion is such that extraordinary feats come from people who have taken their passion above boundaries perceived possible. Why should one thus teach a sense of holding back? The essence of my learning of experience is not to try to work against your hard-working nature; it is to harness the same essence of being once you have taken it too far to recover fast. Easier said than done? All I can say it works for me. However, this brings me back to the topic at hand how do you lead this next generation who will work because of their passion for their subject.

32-year-old-me: Pause right here …………………… that worked well for you, didn’t it……. living in denial much? Also, I don’t think you realized you said, “to lead my passion and that of others… I need to practice, support my family…”. Who’s going to support you, or rather who was supporting you? No wonder we pushed all of that unspoken, hidden energy we couldn’t put into words out into the world through Slush by later saying;

“Even if you leave Slush, Slush never leaves you. Even if I couldn’t articulate it at the time, I always hoped that anyone who interacted with the organization would feel, not just the people who worked for it. That is, whatever your quest might be in terms of a better future, you wouldn’t feel alone.”A letter to my people: I.

Essentially, you didn’t want anyone else in the world to feel like you did, and when you left home and your childhood family, like all kids who become adults should, you didn’t want your family to leave you like I guess you felt they did. This, of course, had to do with our own behavior at the time as much as it had to do with our childhood family, as well as the new family unit you were trying to construct. We’ve, of course, come closer to a remedy, as covered in our previously referenced article “Finding balance and purpose” by creating habits of deliberate self-reflection.

26-year-old-me: My perception of leadership is that to be a good leader, you also need to know how to follow, so I have tried to follow passionate people. At first, I did not do this as a conscious decision. I guess I was drawn to it. Maybe it was because these passionate people were like-minded, or maybe I felt they had something to teach me. When playing basketball, I wanted to move teams because there were better players than in my previous teams or better coaches. I also got heavily involved in a good friend who is very passionate about what he does, being a DJ. Regardless of my past reasons, I now try to surround myself with passionate people. I also like to see myself as a passionate person and set and approach every goal on a passionate basis. Hoping to induce a self-fulfilling prophecy (Watzlawick, 1984, The Invented reality — how do we know what we believe to know?), believing in a positive outcome, thus affecting the reality of the outcome. These two methods are my tools for growing as a passionate people leader and harnessing my own passion towards higher goals. A new tool I have yet to discover the true potential of but was introduced by the lecturer of this course was “revisiting” past experiences and watching a movie one has watched before or rereading a book. I experienced a revelation when I watched a movie for a second time, which I rarely do, following the lecturer's inspiration. However, the content of this revelation is subject to a whole other essay.

32-year-old-me: Young Padawan, I think only Master E. Saarinen could judge whether or not we’ve successfully mastered the potential of revisiting past experiences. Also, I’m inquisitive about what the 37-year-old version of ourselves will have to say about our discussion in this article. We should’ve likely written the subject of the revelation from watching that movie a second time because I have no clue what that may have been or what the movie was.

26-year-old-me: Maybe the most valuable teaching for me out of this course is realizing what leading passion requires; being there for someone when they are achieving new heights. Reinforcing their performance by being there with them when they get in that mode. I know this because I have been there many times before, on the court during a game screaming to the guy holding the ball to take the shoot. Telling him to keep shooting and giving the ball to him, calling plays that serve situations that he knows to score from. When the DJ is pulling a set in front of thousands of people, encouraging him to pull off the drop, he has not dared to try in a live set before, and he does so perfectly, making the crowd go crazy. Running through ideas with the coder to solve a problem he has had, finally, after hours of trying to find a unique solution that solves more than just one problem. Seeing a designer goes into a flow over a design when you explain what you are looking for, but they produce something you actually need instead of what you thought you needed. These are examples of passionate people getting into their mode and then just watching what happens. That feeling is remarkable, and that is what I believe is another practice of leading passion, daring, and challenging to inspire a need to prove oneself or solve a hurdle. Then it just about experiencing that moment together with them, share it, because humans are social beings people love to share their achievements with others. If one does not, I guess it is as if the moment never existed.

32-year-old-me: You got that right, and we have tried, haven’t we? However, what if we just quit trying to share our own achievements with others, as we got one another? Let’s do things because we want to, not because we need to share that with others? I think from here on out, I’ll be there for others, but less worried about if others are there for me or not… wait, we didn’t say this before already. At the time you wrote your part of this discussion?

26-year-old-me: However, when it comes to leading my own passion and understanding where it lies in my current situation in life, I have realized that maybe it lies in leading others' passion, or maybe it is passionate about whatever I choose to do. Maybe being passionate about leading others' passion is a follow of being passionate about whatever I choose to do. I had a passion for basketball, and others knew me for giving 110% at all times all the time. When I was in the nightlife scene, I was always out. Everyone knew me, known for always being there when something bigger was going on. When I was active in my student organization, others knew me for having to do everything that was going on, sitting in multiple committees handling multiple tasks. I am known for having a ruthless work ethic, pushing through more tasks than is expected of me while having multiple projects outside of my working environment. All these phases of my life seem to have something in common, and trying to remember what I have felt through these experiences is that I have lost myself in whatever I have been doing. Being in the zone and all of these, I have had someone with me with the same excitement as myself. The only aspect of my life I never have felt passion for or felt excitement about is school. The only time I lose myself in school work is when I work on a group assignment. I guess because the work is mostly independent, I really have to force myself to do it. However, the next step in leading my own passion and the energy it brings could be utilizing it on tasks I have to do, such as the ones from school. A good start could be just starting and continuing until I fall in the zone, not allowing my passion for straying me from the task at hand.

I have covered the important topics and drew from all my courses this spring, not just this course's concerns. My ideas come from where my ideas' origin is hard to perceive since I constantly reflect on my thoughts. However, I hope to form my own leadership theory through my own experience and how I walk through l. The coming generation of employees can relate to, reflecting their way of approaching their professional life. This approach's social norm will be one of passion and highlighting the management of oneself.

32-year-old-me: We might have to do a round of appreciation, show admiration, and thank Esa for hosting this course. What did we do at school after this? We weaved more of ourselves into it by creating a leadership framework that we made into our Master’s thesis, summarized in the article: The difference between leadership and management, and we got it done. We actually got it done, even if every ounce of us told us it makes no sense to finish school. It felt impossible until you got it done. This, I believe, would’ve never happened if not for Esa and this course.

Summary and key takeaways

  1. Revisit past experiences to gain new insights. Experiences can be many things you don’t need to have text like these. They can be movies, books, trips, music, places. You name it. Don’t avoid the past. Embrace it. Don’t avoid something just because it’s not “novel.” You never know what you learn. I like my newfound thing of discussing with my younger self. I found flow in minutes.
  2. Document past experiences to be able to revisit them for new insights. My habits are writing and revisiting what I’ve written. Creating Spotify playlists for two half (credits I believe go to Jenny Gyllander for introducing this back in the day) and looking at old pictures. Additionally, my running routes are always the same. Pretty regular things. Others may have regular trips they do or places they go. If I hadn’t stored this somewhere where I know where to find it, this wouldn’t be possible.
  3. Start with the end in mind. Work yourself backward from your death bed and reflect your way forward, but don’t lose sight of the moment you’re in. Not covered in the discussion, but I’ve done this exercise a couple of times to write my own eulogy. My greatest sources of inspiration of what life well-lived look like are my Grandfather and that of Bill Campbell, but their stories are for another time. Not losing sight of the moment you’re in means remembering you shouldn’t be haunted by your past or worry about your future because the only thing you can control is what you do at any given moment.
  4. With enough practice, your greatest weakness may become your greatest strengths. The question is, just what do you want to do?

If you don’t like the system, either change it or play the game by your rules. Any system invented by man can be hacked and is also inherently flawed because of it. However, to break the rules like an artist, you first need to learn the rules like a pro.

My Master thesis topic was one I invented and basically told the faculty what it was going to be. I took the courses I thought made sense for me and pieced together a degree. The courses I couldn’t change and had to do, I invented ways to get it done, by being creative, regardless of the endless workload I had simultaneously, as school never was the only thing I was “fully” invested in. For example, I passed a physics exam by challenging the overconfident physics professor to a 3-point shootout competition by putting the exam answers at stake if I won.

Did I get stellar 5/5 results out of school? No, but I didn’t really give a sh*t, the job was done or not done. Tasks were binary.

Ratings are always subjective anyway, and beauty is always in the eyes of the beholder. Excellence in the tasks is achieved by aligning yourself with the work that needs to be done, with a rigorous focus on what you want to be good at, and leadership is just about becoming yourself.

What do I want to be good at? In my article, I covered what the 15-year-old me already knew and what the 30+-year-old me has learned since writing, but not to be a writer, rather just using it more creatively to get things to need to be done.

What do I really need to learn? Having compassion for myself. As you can see, the 32-year-old-me is pretty harsh on the 26-year-old-me. How I judge others is not how I judge myself, and nobody can criticize me harder than I can in the long run. Even if I know how to practice compassion for others, as described in my article: When to play the game of life as if it’s a 2nd-person game. I don’t yet know how to practice this with myself.

Don’t try to change the world, find something you love, do that every day, and eventually the world will change — Macklemore

In the habit of expressing gratitude, admiration, and appreciation for those who’ve influenced me over the years, this article deserves a few, alongside Esa, so bear with me.

My mother — I love and hate you for keeping a lot of old stuff. Without you asking me about what I wrote in Esa’s course, I wouldn’t have looked into it. You also have what seems to find what seems to be an endless stream of my old stuff. Regardless of you enabling my recursive habits when I rather forget my past, you raised me in a carefree childhood with nothing more to ask for. You made a career in a male dominant industry and a household with three men. I can appreciate that you don’t survive if you don’t develop iron skin, but underneath cold skin, I know you have a golden heart.

My Father — You may think I don’t admire you, but I do more than you know. I know you know my summary of leadership and management is the one you developed for your people at Nokia. I have never told you this, but I’ve come across many who worked for you during those days, and everyone has said they never had a better boss than you. I aspire to have Noa & Vivi hear the same someday about me when they grow up. The reason I chose to help other ex-pats is so they wouldn’t see the same sort of hardship you did when you came to Finland, and I’m forever grateful for raising me in a safe & loving home, even if you’re own childhood was very different.

My Brother — We’re not close, but the real reason I quit basketball was I knew you were going to better than me no matter how hard I tried. I admire your resilience for sticking with what you know regardless of all the injuries, and it’s a real joy watching you play today as one can see you’ve stopped playing for any other than for the love of the game. I aspire the practice the level of gratitude you have for just being able to step one more time onto the court because you never know when it’s going to be your last time and the passion that comes with it.

Rony Vartio-- DJ Rony Rex, the DJ in this story. We’ve come a long way from that one day we skipped school in 7th grade to buy you an MP3 player, haven’t we? You are proof that whatever you want to do in life, you can make that happen. The question is, do you want to or not? Don’t forget that your success as a DJ never measured you as a person; I enjoyed hanging out with you before you even found music. Thank you for letting me leech on your passion when I lost mine.

Moaffak Ahmed — Board member at Slush, Angel investor, entrepreneur, and mentor to many. Thank you for listening and sharing a reflective thought in times of need. In our entrepreneurial scene, you’re the only one who ever asked me if I would like to be a writer without making me feel that wouldn’t be enough or that would be a waste of my talent.

Ilkka Kivimäki — Former Chairman of the Slush, Partner at Maki.VC. Thank you for believing in me in times of need, and thank you for all the sacrifices you made for us. No one has had as much skin in the game as you did. I will never forget you sleeping on the kitchen floor with us in Japan for 5 days. That is all I need to ever know about your character's nature, and no amount of meetings you run late to will ever change that.

Fellow Chebbas — I love and hate you, anarchists who are so addicted to changing the world there is always someone who thinks it’s not ok that having a beer together is all we could have on the agenda for a day. Several million investment rounds are just another day with this random bunch of bandits. Let’s not forget we know how to create impact with much less, and if we don’t like the world we see, we have the means to change it if we just get over what messaging platform we should use to coordinate our efforts. Also, I got the lowkey memo on “ChEcK YoUr f*CkiNg SpELLiNg.”

Last but not least, my wife Heidi — I love you more than life. Thank you for pushing to make my writing useful for others, not just myself. We’ve been through a lot and managed to pack what feels like three decades' worth of life into a decade. We’ve gone from friends to lovers and almost back again, but I am forever grateful for standing by my side through it all. You make life look easy being an entrepreneur, doctor, gym instructor, wonderful mother, and supporting wife. I apologize for being the biggest risk you’ve ever taken. You’re probably wondering why I haven’t shown my admiration & appreciation earlier in my articles, but that is because I will dedicate my book to you and our kids called Love, Life, and Leadership.

Those wondering when that will see the light of day, please don’t hold your breath as it’s going to be a story of one life that takes a lifetime to write.

Finally, this feels like the best single piece of work I’ve produced during my life so far. I don’t care if it is or if it isn’t. At this moment, that is what it feels like, and that’s how I know I found true flow.

The 37-yeard-old me is likely to return and rate it slightly below average, but what I really think is important to note is; it took me less than 5 hours to put this piece together on a Wednesday afternoon. However, it has taken me a decade to have the context to put something like this together. What does that tell us about trying to stick to a 9–5 hour workday from Monday to Sunday? What was the key resource I needed to put this together?… Time. Time to gather the knowledge, time to produce the desired skill, and the right amount, of the right people to give me the right inspiration at the right time.

Thank you for your time if you manage to get this far. Time is the most valuable thing you can give, and having your attention is something I don’t take for granted. I hope it was worth your time, and let me know what you found interesting.

Where do I go from here? I don’t know, but I really like how Eminem thinks about his past self. Maybe with enough practice, they’ll list me among the grates.



Nicolas Dolenc

Curing loneliness by making you feel you don’t walk alone. The heroes I never met were Bill Campbell and Tony Hseih (R.I.P).