11 lessons from Changemaker Marcus Orlowsky

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Marcus Orlovsky is a thinker, an inspirer, an entrepreneur, Ted organizer, a status-quo challenger, and all-over changemaker. He was in Latvia last weekend speaking to a non-profit youth organization called JCI (Junior Chamber International) Latvia, who focus on implementing social entrepreneurship projects.

Marcus has built over 500 schools in the UK, organized TedX events all over Europe, has borrowed over 6 billion sterling pounds, and has recently challenged the industry of education. Here are some lessons learned from his incredible experiences through life.

1. New ideas are spreading faster than ever

We live in an incredible time. If we look at the concept of technology diffusion, the rate at which new ideas spread, it's happening at a rate never before seen. For example, it took telephone's 72 years to reach 50 million users, while it took the CD players 11 years, MP3 players 6 years, Facebook 3.5 years, Angry Birds 35 days, and Pokemon go - 10 days.

This means several things. That technology is becoming increasingly available, thereby theoretically leveling out the plane. It has the potential to do incredible good - so it's up to us to decide how and what messages we choose to spread.

2. It's not who you know, it's how you know

It doesn't do any good - neither for you nor for society -  if you're a genius and nobody knows who you are. At the same time, it's no good if everyone knows you, but you're an idiot.

Choose wisely, don't burn bridges, and be nice to people.

3. A lot of people are lying to themselves - consider the facade and don't take it at face value

Take job interviews as an example. You're making yourself seem better than you are, and the interviewer is making the job seem better than it is. And in reality we all hate sitting there day-in day-out.

Most of us are doing things that we don't like. Take a look at yourself and think - are you living the facade?

4. Rather than buying the Ferrari, buy the garage

At the age of 24, Marcus decided it was time for him to buy his first Ferrari. After hanging out a lot of race tracks, talking to mechanics, and racing cars, he decided this is something he needed to get into. But as a young guy, he felt he's probably get ripped off at the garage every time he brought the Ferrari in for repairs. So he bought the entire garage instead.

The story continues

As a student with no savings, no family money to work with, how did he end up buying a garage? As it turned out, the local Ferrari garage was being sold. The mechanics didn't exactly like who it was being sold to. So the young, entrepreneurial Marcus brought the mechanics together and convinced them to jointly buy the garage. They needed the investment, of course. But as a finance student, Marcus was able to put together a business proposal, and present it to wealthy Ferrari leisure owners. And lo and behold, Marcus became a joint owner of a Ferrari garage at the age of 24.

5. If you're going to build something new, don't make it shitty

This lesson comes in context of Marcus' experience with disrupting how schools are built. He strongly believes that the environment of school that has been the status quo for the past centuries - of a teacher writing in the front and the pupils copying it down into their notebooks - is flawed and doesn't help young people discover what they're truly good at.

6. He would not suggest his younger self to save money

Marcus says that knowing what he knows now, he never would have saved money as a young adult. You're always told to save money. As a young person fixing computers making less than minimum wage, saving money was excruciating. Had he known that later in life, one speaking gig to a major company would provide him with more than 5x his yearly salary, in 45 minutes.

Take this lesson with caution - it only works if down the road you really do have that lucrative form of income.

7. When you're down, prioritize what you need most, and forget the rest

Rather than reaching for the perfect scenario, reach your goals by using this method: define the must-have elements to reach your goal, and forget about the rest.

Marcus suffered a stroke and as a result, lost many functions: speech, dexterity, peripheral vision, ability to focus, and more. But he needed to speak at an event within 50 days. Rather than take the doctor's prognosis, that a “near-normal” recovery can be expected within a year, he hacked the system. In order to speak at the event he didn't need peripheral vision or dexterity. He needed to be able to walk onto the stage and speak. And so those were the skills he worked on.

8. People who always know best will never be the ones to make change - we have to fight against our learned experience

We've stopped thinking. We've been taught something, and rather than think about it, we regurgitate what we've been taught.

Everyone will always think they know best, and these people will resist change. It will take a lot of persuading to get people to agree to an idea that goes against everything they “know” to be true.

9. To disrupt an industry, work with people who aren't from that industry

If you want to disrupt an industry, hire people who have nothing to do with that industry. The people who have always done something one way are not going to be the people who all of a sudden will be able to do it differently.

When building a school built for the needs of children, parents and teachers, rather than going to architects who have always planned schools, Marcus went to an architect who planned businesses. And so they built a school that was business-centric, creating a space where different parts of society could come together and speak to each other.  

10. If you do the polite thing, you may regret it

People are more and more scared as life goes on. You begin to second-guess yourself. And then one time you'll have thought that you really wanted to do something, but didn't, you second-guessed yourself. Because you were either too polite or too afraid.

When Marcus was a teenager his mother died. As the only earning family member, it was up to him to choose the casket. He chose an oak casket with brass handles. But as the pallbearers brought the casket in on the day of the funeral, Marcus realized they were holding it on their shoulders, rather than from the brass handles that should have been quite sturdy. Upon further inspection, Marcus realized that it was not, in fact oak. It was a cheap wood finish with brass-coloured painted plastic handles. In the front of the church Marcus got into a disagreement with the funeral director, sent the casket containing his mother away, demanding the real thing. Though it was not the polite, socially acceptable thing to do, Marcus now says if he hadn't, he would've regretted it.

If your gut says something must be done, then go with it. There's nothing worse than regretting something for all your life.

11. It isn't difficult to disrupt an industry

All it takes is a completely different perspective and asking the question “Why not?”. Despite the widely popular belief that “it's not possible”.

By taking school-aged children from disadvantaged schools through a 4-day program, they were able to raise their average grades above those of more “privileged” schools.

On the first day, Marcus and his team lead a motivational one hour session to the whole school to set the scene for what will follow.  The school will have already selected a small (up to 12) group of students from a single year group, who have been chosen because they are seen as influential to the rest.  They might be super smart but bored, or not keeping up with school, or with personal issues. They are then built into a cohesive team who trust each other and Marcus.  The “hot seat” is an integral part of this and where anyone who agrees to sit in the Seat agrees to answer any question asked (but what is said is never repeated outside the room).  The school Principal is always one of the first, and students find the ability to ask anything truly revolutionary.  It builds real and sincere trust.

A week or so later they are taken to meet with 5 different people doing incredible things, including one running a restaurant (where they lunch).  The curation of who is visited, in their place of work, very carefully.  Students ask questions about anything and everything - no holds barred.  When returning to school and a week or so later, the group discussed what they learned, and then they have 45 minutes to prepare a presentation to be delivered to the whole of their colleagues in school.  Five weeks later, just when the memories start to subside, Marcus and his team return, work through ‘Elevator Pitches’ and then announce to the group that four local decision makers will listen and talk to each of the students one to one for no more than 3 minutes - about anything.  Of course they’ve been carefully selected so that they can actually make decisions!

The program resulted not only in dramatically increased grades, but in the understanding that the teachers work for the students. The children became hungry for knowledge, and began to demand more. They influence other students to do the same.  Real change starts to happen in their school, students and parents and teachers.  All this in 4 days. Why not?

Don't take “no” for an answer

What all of these lessons have in common is that Marcus never takes “no” or “it's impossible” for an answer. He highlights that as soon as you start doing the impossible, it changes not only your perception of things, but also others' perception of you. They start listening to your “crazy ideas”. And these ideas are what are making a difference.

These lessons go hand-in-hand with the goals of the non-profit youth organization, JCI Latvia. They're also planning on implementing some crazy ideas of their own, all based on social entrepreneurship. If you're interested in getting to know more of their ideas, check out their Facebook page, they're looking for participants and partners.