In this episode
As the world faces an ever growing list of global problems that require innovative solutions, we might ask, who are the future leaders that will tackle these challenging tasks? On today's episode, we welcome Navid Nathoo, the co-founder of The Knowledge Society, who, in his own words, says that his passion is to “develop young people to solve really big problems”. Navid dives deep into explaining why passion isn’t something we're born with but something to be developed through self-awareness and experience, and how technology may be a unifying force towards change for people from all backgrounds.
Tune into this inspiring conversation with Navid by clicking PLAY above.
On this episode, you'll learn:
- Why passion matters and why it's something we can develop
- How a strong level of self-awareness and data acquired through experiences... creates leaders
- Why traditional education needs to evolve
- If a new approach to education can unlock hidden potential
- If passion correlates with wealth
- Why companies must share values with their employees
. . .
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In this episode
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Transcript of episode
Cassy: All right, hello Navid and welcome to The Culture Builders podcast. Thanks so much for joining me today. So just to start, I'd love to hear more about you and for you to share your story with our listeners.
Navid: So I'm Navid. I am the co-founder of the Knowledge Society, which is an organization that my brother and I started to try to solve the world's most important problems. And it sounds, I got first clients, it's like one of those cheesy statements, but we actually thought about it from first principles and really thought about like, how do you actually solve the world's most important problems?
And it's not through one company, but it is through people. And when you think about what are the gaps and limitations in the world right now, it is capacity and specifically like people capacity. And it's because we don't believe that were actually developing people to actually go solve important problems. When you look at the education system, I think most people would agree that there are a lot of gaps in it, especially when it comes to developing people to be activators of society. So not just the people who get a job, which is kind of what the governments incentivized to do, I guess.
Like help people just be employable. But that's not necessarily the people that are going to change the world like solve really big problems. And there's lots of pieces are missing. For example, things like passion is kind of like this buzzword that we throw around, but it's not a buzzword, it's like a thing that matters a lot, and we don't ever talk about it. There are so many other different mindsets and things that I think we need to know to grow that.Anyways, so I run the Knowledge Society.
Before that, I ran a company called Air Post, which was a cloud security company in Silicon Valley. I grew that and sold it to box.com, ran different product teams there like AI, big data, consumer security, things like that. Also done a lot of cool stuff around the world, so worked in places like Tadjikistan, Bangladesh, East Africa, Uzbekistan, I did stuff with early childhood development, micro finance and just general social development, teaching and things like that. So yeah, my big passion is to develop young people to solve really big problems. That's what I'm doing now.
Cassy: And you touched on passion a little bit. What does passion really mean?
Navid: I think passion is not a meaning, it's more like a feeling. I would put it into two separate categories. The first is what I've believed to be true is that you don't find passion, you develop it, and I use the analogy of, like, your best friend. So you don't meet someone to go like, “You're my best friend. That's my best friend. Let's like, do everything together.” That's not how it works.
You got to hang out with them, have experiences, struggle with them, accomplish things with them, laugh with them, cry with them. And the more of those experiences you have, the more you realize that that person is your best friend and your best friend can change over time. You can have different best friends in your life, and I think that's really what passion feels like. You don't just see it and know that's the thing. I think you have to develop it. You have to experience it more, you have to go through failures with it and ups with it.
And I think you have to have, like, a strong emotional connection to that thing, and it could come at multiple angles. And I think when people know what they're passionate about, they just know because they don't need to fit it into a definition. But I think the reason why it's important to understand it is how do you help other people find passion or develop passion? Because that's not something that I don't think most people are focused on, especially in the capitalistic society with a lot of societal expectations, to like get a nice job as a doctor or a lawyer or engineer or go to this university, but we don't really value when someone's found their passion. You don't throw a celebration like a graduation when someone's found a passion, which I think is like, I mean, it makes sense, but also it doesn't really make sense because it's way more important than any piece of paper.
Cassy: Do you have any examples of for you personally, different passions that you've had and how you found them?
Navid: When I was younger, I was lucky enough to travel a lot, and my parents wouldn't take us to like beach vacations all the time. They would take us to, like Africa and India and Europe in places in Europe that weren't well off, not like nice hotels or anything. And we would have to take public transit. And my mom made us, like, visit a school in Greece and just, like, sit there for, like, a day with the kids and experience what it was like. And my passion at that time was to understand the world. And I was just really passionate about learning new things and learning new people and cultures and things like that. And then eventually, when I felt like I had a decent understanding of outside my bubble, that my passion was how to build things to influence it.
So eventually that passion for building things' kind of got derailed with university, because in university I went to business school and everybody cares so much about investing, banking and consulting. And, so I was like, oh, I could build things in the finance world and make a lot of money, and it was just like a lot of group think and cognitive bias that was impacting me, but shortly after, kind of reposition how to build things, how do I actually develop this skill to build things? And that's when the startup world really got excited. So I got to learn how to just build things from scratch, design, code, understand customers, understand people better.
And then that was kind of that start of experience. And then after that, it was kind of at the state where I didn't need to chase anything. I didn't need to chase money or I didn't need to chase credentials or anything. I was living in Silicon Valley. We just had our company acquired. I was like, 25 it was kind of like now what? So if you have all the time in the world like I'm 25 years old, I have the rest of my life in front of me, I'm not really chasing a salary or anything, What do you want to do? And my brother asked me, he was actually McKinsey at the time in Australia, and he flew back to San Francisco. I was living in Mountain View at the time. He was staying in my place for a bit, and we would just have these discussions. And one day he asked me, he's like, what would we do if we had $10 billion in the bank? 10 billion?
And I thought it was an interesting question because I think most people are constantly chasing like the next 1,000,000. Like as soon as you make your first 1,000,000, you're like all right, now how do I make 10 million, assume you make your first 10 million, alright, alright, make 20 million. And it just kind of keeps going up this endless cycle. And that also happens of founders like you start a company for 100 million. But you're like oh my friend sold his for 250 million and that person's like we'll look at Mark Zuckerberg with, like, hundreds of billions, you know, and it's just like this constant rat race. So we're just like all right, let's just skip to the end. What if we had 10 billion in the bank, what would we do? And after kind of thinking about it, we realized it's not really about like, how would you make money or how would you spend your money because 10 billion is more than enough. You could spend $200 million and then not know what to do with your money. 10 billion, like you're not really thinking about what you would spend. What you're really thinking about is how you would spend your time, not your money. It's really about time. And so that question really helped us think about.
Okay, we go past societal expectations. We go past money or anything, you just get straight to time. And the answer at that point was, what would we do with our time? What would we dedicate our time to solving the world's biggest problems and the world's most important problems that are being not as focused on right now. And you see people like Bill Gates do that and I mean he does have the 10 billion thing, and I guess he went to the same conclusion. And so that's kind of how TKS started because we made a list of all these problems and realized there's way too many problems for one person to solve, and the gap, the delta between these problems being solved or not being solved, there's really people tackling them.
Cassy: It's interesting. Have you ever heard of the staff that says that if you earn greater than $70,000 a year, then you're not that much happier, depending on how much you earn, right, that's like the point of diminishing returns for wages. Because I think when you have money, it's easy to chase passion, right? But what do you think when you don't necessarily, does your passion need to be your work or your way of earning a living?
Navid: One of the things that I've come to understand is I don't think there are any silver bullets and I think people have to understand themselves and one of the things we talk a lot about at The Knowledge Society or TKS, is how do you develop self-awareness? Because I think those types of answers like, let's say, I said yes, you have to, your work has to be a passion. Okay, so now you're gonna be, like, focused on that. Whereas I think at a root level, if you're just focused on self-awareness, you'll come to the conclusion, if work needs to be your passion.
And, so I think what I would say is like if you develop a strong level of self-awareness, along with unique experiences to give you more data sets to be able to make decisions, I think people would be able to figure out themselves. Now, the problem is, people are not developing either. Do you think about our days? They're so freaking busy, like look at our calendars. You open up your phone, you look at the calendar. It's so busy. When do you have time for self-awareness? And it's really just thinking, when you have time to think about your thoughts, right?
Like actually that's self-awareness. And so we don't make time to think about our thought. It's not like we schedule that in, like all right, from this time going to think about my thoughts. We spend time to meditate, but often times most meditations are kind of removal of thoughts, which I think is great for stress, but not really great from mindfulness.
And I think if we focus more on understanding ourselves and getting more data sets, we'll be able to figure that out. And so how do you make more time to understand yourself and more time to get unique experiences to try new things. And I know if you've heard of, like, the T model, right, it's like a breath of get a breath of knowledge and adaptive expertise. We have, like, a depth of expertise, and that's like the job that we're in and that's what we do. But we don't try to take different courses or read different books or talk to different types of people outside our networks.
And so we kind of limit ourselves on the breath. And I was kind of in the same boat before TKS relatively because I was never forced to learn about a lot of things, I just did out of curiosity. But now, with TKS, it's like a multiplier. So I have to learn about gene editing and quantum computing and nanotech and longevity and AI and blockchain. And like I could have a conversation with you about all these exponential technologies as well as philosophers like Nietzsche and Socrates and Plato and Hulme and Hobbs and all of these things. I got lucky because I just built the environment I wanted for my life. And so it forces me and develop that T.
And I think if people are intentional about it, they'll be able to find those answers for themselves. And that's kind of what we trained the students to do a TKS, like be independent, develop those foundations, so they could make their own decisions.
Cassy: It reminds me, I read the biography on the Wright Brothers recently, they were self-trained engineers, and they had a bike store. And then, in order to learn they were interested in flight they studied biology and the flight of birds and animals, you know. And I think that's interesting. It's like, especially today, there's no such thing as a traditional education, right? Or let's say there's no I think that traditional education, maybe to rephrase that is it needs to evolve.
Navid: Yeah, I think most people would agree with that, and what's interesting is it's different in every part of the world. In the developed world in the Western world, like Canada and the U. S., we've reached a level where we don't need to teach English because we just know English. What we need to teach are things like communication. English and communication are two completely different things.
And that's kind of where this field of copyrighting comes from in public speaking and knowing how to write emails and networking like that's all part of communication, not English. Writing an essay is not communication. It's not going to do much for you, whereas you look at other parts of the world in the developed world, they don't even know English.
And so the probability of them being able to understand this podcast is zero and so anything we talk about that might hold any value to them, they'll never get because they just don't even know the language. And, so I think when we think about things, it's like, how do you understand the situation in the context and then understand where the gaps are to the next level? We don't have to all be learning the same thing, because depending on where we're born, we win certain geographic lotteries and genetic lotteries, and I think it's foolish to just accept another kind of system now is in place decades ago and not try to optimize for unlocking potential of people, especially given everything that we have.
Cassy: Yeah, it's interesting. Is that a challenge for TKS? Because I know that you tweeted a few weeks ago that you had 5000+ sign-ups and you've got people from Beirut to Islamabad to Mumbai to Bogota to Pune all over the world, right?
Navid: Yeah, it's funny because when our team is looking at those numbers initially we're like, whoa, this is nuts like 5000, 6000, 7000 people that want to hear someone from Space-X, Tesla talk, the head of machine learning at Uber and Google and stuff. But then you actually put it into context and you realize like that is nothing that's like this tiny speck and you go to Kim Kardashian's Instagram account and it's millions of people. And here we are trying to educate people on ways to solve really big problems using emerging technologies. And we have, like, low thousands.
Then you look at someone who just post pictures of themselves doing makeup, and they have millions. And I think that's to me one of the most interesting things about society that I'm trying to understand right now, because I do think like, yes, people are attracted to different things, and we have our monkey minds, and we have our dopamine snacks that we constantly look for. But at the same time, we're those people that are super driven and curious because it's not 5000. I was one of those kids when I was younger.
I still am, and I know I'm not this crazy minority because I also see it across TKS. And I think there's a couple of limiting factors. The first one is there's no channel to those people. So if we think about it, where would we go in the world, where is like the one place we would go to just reach the most driven, ambitious young people in the world? There's no place like that. Those people are likely looking at Ted, that's probably one place that they're attracted to. But again, the English language is crazy limiting. So I think when it comes to the global level, I think you have to get to a certain standard, and then we have to build a place to house those people and bring them together.
Cassy: And you did a talk on Ted on human potential and mining human potential. How do you think organizations can create a blueprint for human potential?
Navid: When you say organizations, do you mean companies?
Cassy: I think today, especially for our listeners, we've got people that work in large organizations, sometimes organizations that might be 100 years old, and they're looking at ways to change and to foster a culture of learning and learn about even new technologies, right? So how could they contribute to the improvement of human potential?
Navid: So I've been thinking about recently what's going on with Floyd and everything that's happening in the media. And if we break it down for kind of like a mental level, let's actually look at what influences people in general. And right now, I think there's a lot of pressure on the government which there should be because I do think it is their onus to do something about this, and I don't know if they're doing enough. I don't think they are doing enough objectively. And when you think about that problem, we're talking a lot about government, but it's actually just one piece of it. I think there are other pieces of it that are given less attention and again going back to influence. Do you think racism is innate or is it taught? And what I would say is I think it's taught and who's it taught by?
You don't just get randomly taught, who is it taught by. And I think there's a few institutions. One of them is your family institution. So your parents And when we think about that one for a second. Well, for these organizations, I would actually think about the individual people in these organizations. How are you kind of teaching your kids? What values are you instilling in them? What are you saying or not saying, like right now with this whole campaign, people are saying like if you stay silent, then you're part of the problem, like you can't stay silent. You have to say something and I do align with that, like if you're a parent and you'd never talk about racism and maybe you're not racist, then I don't think that's a good thing.
Like, I think you want to actively teach the positive, and similarly, I think that holds true when you think about the parents who work at these companies and the company themselves. So if you do believe in something, I think it's really easy for a founder or an executive team to just think it's obvious. So why should we talk about it? And I really resonate with this like, it's obvious to me that we should be kind to people like It's so obvious. But the sad reality is that it's not obvious to the people who it's not obvious to. I mean, and when you think about the second party, whose kind of, I think responsible, that doesn't take enough responsibility. Is the school system because we just expect parents and families to develop people a certain way? But I would actually shift more and more of the onus on school systems as parents.
These companies are working a lot like the people listening to this podcast that you guys probably work so long, and if you think about the amount of meaningful minutes you spend with your kids daily, it's a tiny amount of meaningful minutes you spend with your kids daily and then what are you doing in those minutes? You're probably like eating dinner or playing games or something, or asking how a school. But are you understanding who they are and how much are you teaching them? One of my good friends is an executive at a really large AI company, and we're having dinner. It was like a bunch of like, angel investors. We're still having dinner together, and he was talking about his kids and how he's, like, very proud that his hands off, he's like my kids will find their journey and their values and what they care about. And I was like, you're an idiot that you're actually stupid because if you're not influencing your kids, someone else will. People don't naturally find out what their values are like. That's not something that I don't think that something that humans are just born with. I think society and people influence a lot of those things. Depending on the context you're in and as parents, I think you have to have a strong input and it is like your responsibility to develop those things, and when we think about it, a company level now it's a bit different because companies aren't parents like you can't force your employees to think a certain way. But I do think there's this balance. I do think we could take stuff away from it.
The first one is you have to speak up about your beliefs, so the things that are the most obvious to you should be your core values. It shouldn't be your core values, should not be the things that are kind of in the back of your head that you think people don't really know and you want to instil. That's not core values. That's like training. Core values are the obvious things. When you think about what's obvious to you and your organization, that's the thing you put on the wall. That's not the thing you expect people to just know. So, for example, respect. If respect is like, just obvious to you, put that on the freaking wall. Don't just expect people to respect each other. The second thing there is, I think the biggest difference between a corporation and a parent is I think it's a parent's responsibility to develop their child and help guide them in the direction, to grow, to be a great person. Now the company can't do that because, one, I don't think it's their responsibility because I think it's the parents and education systems.
And when you're young, you have certain neural plasticity, you have a bigger personality. But when you're in a company, I think it's your job to build a strong corporate culture by trying to find people that align with that culture. I don't think that you could hire someone and mold them to your culture and when I was living in Silicon Valley, there was like this no asshole policy in a lot of companies and that no asshole policy basically tells you that you cannot hire smart people and expect them to bend to your values and bend to your culture. And that's kind of what happened. You had a lot of companies just hiring smart people that could get the job done. That was impressive with their resume, and answered all the great questions.
But when they started working with teams or when they started interfacing with people, the organization, they didn't fit, and if you don't fit with the values in a personality, since you're basically an asshole because you're not like respecting other people, right? You're going against it. And, so I don't think you can change people. I think you need a higher salary for people that are already aligned to what you care about.
Cassy: So was that hard when your company Airpost was acquired by Box? Because I think it probably took time to understand whether there really was that fit between the two organizations.
Navid: For Airpost my specific experience, one of the biggest reasons why we chose to go to we had other offers on the table we were talking to other large organizations that everyone would know but the one reason why I ultimately made the decision to go to Box is because of Aaron, the CEO, and I just felt like I aligned really strongly with him and what he cared about, and in that sense there wasn't like a huge misalignment there.
But I think where there was a little bit of a misalignment for me is generally with speed and innovation, and I don't think that's a Box issue. I think that's just a general size issue and at the time when you're 25 years old and never worked at a company like that. I just didn't know that there were all these things that were in place. I didn't know how important communication was and buy-in and cross-team collaboration and all of those things. But again, it also was part of the values. When you look at the wall at Box, it said GSD, right, get shit done or think 10x that was another big one that we had.
And I'm looking at these thinking, all right, let's do that like let's think big, let's break shit, let's get stuff done. And, so I'm trying to move as fast as I can. But again, it's why I talked about the most obvious things that weren't on the wall. And, so I wasn't prioritizing those things like collaboration. And until I learned later about how important it was through failing through, trying to just move fast and get stuff done and realizing like, oh, people make stuff happen and I really think that if over 50% of your values your culture are not people-focused, then you're probably doing something wrong. Again, I'm not an expert at this. This is something I'm learning.
Right now, I'm even looking at our values, our culture, and it's very like efficiency-based. It's very task-based, but it's less people-based. And I think focusing on the people stuff will just solve all the other problems, because if two people like each other, and they're smart, you're fine, like you don't need to overthink things. But if you could help facilitate that, then you win as an organization, if you can facilitate people in the organization, liking each other and being smart, I think that's like the main thing to optimize for. And I find a lot of organizations optimized for other things like, what are our four values or eight values, or what is our manifesto, or what is our guide book or whatever the case is that nobody is going to read that like even ours.
We have, like this relatively long document, and nobody is going to memorize any of it like you might remember one or two things. But that's not why we wrote it. Why we wrote it was really to set expectations, knowing that it might be a reference point. But I think where culture matters most is in the interview stage.
Cassy: And you talk about that shared value system. This kind of ties into the importance of that shared value system and why it's important, right? In your LinkedIn bio, you have this line and it's developing unicorn people to solve the world's most important problems through exponential technologies and sciences. So, first, what is a unicorn first?
Navid: So in the Bay Area, you talk about unicorn companies and these companies are in less than 10 years and they are worth over a billion dollars. And so for unicorn people, how we define it is people who impact billions and ideally, in less than 10 years. That's kind of what we try to do. We try to help people make an impact on billions, and if those people are the ones that go and start the unicorn companies great, and so we just try to optimize for the person and the impact. And that's kind of what drives our organization forward.
Cassy: And you talk about impacting billions, right? And I know that with TKS, you're helping people all over the world, right? Like we talked about before and you worked in Bangladesh Grameen Bank, right and what do you think? Do you think that there are certain parts of the world where we're going to see a greater explosion of unicorn people and the development of unicorn communities?
Navid: I think it does come down to culture and mindset, So the probability of you making an impact on a billion people, I think, is directly correlated to the exposure to making an impact on a billion people. So what do I mean by that? I think number one, it's actually I'm being told you can do it. I think most people don't think they can. And it wasn't until Steve Jobs' commencement speech where I think he really shifted the paradigm on that when he said, everything around you was built by people who are no different from you, and he talked about how once you understand that fact, you can change it, you can influence it. And when I think about that, it's insane because it's the first time in history where anyone could ever even say that in the first place, not everybody could have impacted the world in the 1940s or in the 1800s or in the 1600s or in the 1200s like it was like, impossible.
And when you think about the biggest change that's happened, it is technology. And I think technology is kind of the platform that people have equal access to for the most part, to be able to make this insane change. And so you have people like Steve Jobs who are able to impact billions. You have people like Mark Zuckerberg who were able to impact billions. None of these people were kings. None of them had this bloodline that was passed down from generation to generation. And so first, I think people need to understand that they have the ability to influence change. And the second thing is being able to build the right mindsets to do it. So, for example, we talk about grit. We talk about growth mindset. We talked about anti fragility. All of these things are very important. They're not just words.
They're not wishy-washy things like when you are trying to make a really big impact, you're going to struggle, and if you have grit, you're going to keep going. And if you don't, you're going to stop. And that's the difference which is insane. That is zero in one difference, right? It's completely different. So I think being able to understand those things that are important in the last thing I would say is I'm not sure if a lot of people realize that it takes the same amount of energy and time to make $150 000 a year and to build a billion company. Or it takes the same on a time for a single mother working three jobs, trying to support her family as it does a CEO running a huge company and probably the single mothers working way harder and longer. And so, if you're in a position of privilege, I personally feel like you owe it to the world who aren't in that position to help eliminate their suffering and help make their lives better in some way. And I think gratitude is kind of like the seat of that. I think if you really feel gratitude for your life, you're gonna be thinking about how to help other people because I don't think those people are in a position to even think about how I help the world because they're so focused on kind of their basic needs.
Cassy: That's awesome. That's a great point. I think compassion is one way of achieving true happiness. So one example of this I saw compassion, and what you talked about is two weeks ago or two weeks into Covid-19 being named a global pandemic, you had a group of students through TKS that created a master guide on Covid-19 and it's been read by tens of thousands of people. That's incredible.
Navid: Yeah, that was pretty awesome. I mean, the crazy thing is, it was all self-done. We teach them how to PM. So how did I become a project manager? And we teach them, like, best practices and managing people working in teams and all these things, and they were able to mobilize across all the TKS in the world, research the entire kind of pandemic from the science behind it. The implications.
All those things put together this insane guide on medium and share it. And for that it was like, well, one conversation we had is there, like, we want to make an impact here. How do we do it? And I was like, well, what's the best-case scenario like solving it. Yeah, that is the best case. Finding a cure. And so what some people did some students is they actually started focusing on solving it. So we do have a couple of students right now that are working with some labs on potential cures to Covid and generally vaccines to different viruses.
But that's the minority, right? That's like probably four kids, which is still crazy in general, like four kids were doing that, but the rest of the kids are like, well, I'm not gonna cure. So what's the next best thing? Well, the next thing is to educate. And so they released this guide, and I think it is pretty amazing. And I don't think they thought they could make that form of impact before, like, they're the ones usually consuming the knowledge, whereas now they're already starting to share it.
Cassy: Amazing. Well, Navid, thank you so much for joining us on The Culture Builders podcast. Is there a way that our listeners can follow you and TKS?
Navid: Yeah, so on Instagram and Twitter, TKS is the Knowledge Society and then me personally if you want I don't use it too often, but it's here and there. It's just at @navidnathoo on Twitter.