André van Hall: Blindness, Cancer, and Tenacious Curiosity
Being the CEO of the prestigious Denver Athletic Club suited André van Hall. His storied career in the hospitality industry spanned three continents and the world's finest hotels. He was at the peak of his game. Until the day tragedy struck.
Resting at the top of the mountain, after beating his riding companions to the top, André's optic nerve suffered an irrecoverable injury. Blindness was only two weeks away and was followed shortly by a diagnosis of cancer that was metastasizing. Losing his prestigious job and battling for his life, André made a discovery and is now sharing it with the world.
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Shea Oliver: Hi, I'm Shea Oliver. Welcome to The Priority Paradigm. These are stories of amazing people who have made radical changes in their life for something more important. Today I'm joined by André van Hall and he's got an absolutely fascinating, moving story to tell us. So without further ado, Andre, please tell us your story.
André van Hall: Shea, thank you very much for including me. Well, it's a, it's a long story, but let's share it. I was born in Buenos Aires in Argentina, and I grew up both in the city and in the country. We had a ranch, and so I had the duality of being exposed to lifestyles and I stayed there through my military service. And, when I did my military service I ended up being a waiter for the officers, and it was a very scary time in Argentina with the dirty war going on and a lot of my friends and colleagues had been killed or there was, well, it was turmoil.
André van Hall: It was the early seventies and I ended up being waiter for the officers, that I had said. And I fell in love with the idea of working in the hospitality industry, so I ended up going to Germany, to Hamburg, Germany to work at a the Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten in Hamburg that is one of the 10 best hotels in the world. And I started as a pot washer, and so way at the bottom as the totem pole. And then I was promoted dishwasher. I went all through the kitchen and I've worked in all places for two and a half years, and I was going to go to a hotel school in Lausanne in Switzerland. And my general manager says, no, no, no. The future is in America. André go to an American hotel school. And he was a graduate of the Lausanne Hotel School. He was clairvoyant, but then one day while I was applying to universities in the United States, he told me, "André, my friend, the general manager of the Ritz in Paris needs someone with your language skills."
André van Hall: So the next day I was moving to Paris to go and work at another one of the 10 top hotels in the world. And I was a telex operator, which was the instant messaging of the sixties and seventies and eighties and then I was a front desk clerk and it was fun, you know, I got to meet the celebrities and get to really live in another country, and I got admitted to Cornell University. I came to the states and I graduated from school in 1980 and I worked in New York at two hotels, in Miami at two hotels, in Washington DC. Then in Burlington, Vermont, I was general manager for the first time with the Radisson hotel in Burlington. And then I moved to Atlanta to run the Hyatt Regency in Atlanta and the Hyatt in Louisville. And I came to Denver to run the Adams Mark Hotel, a big 1200 room hotel.
André van Hall: And when they put it up for sale, we didn't want to move. The kids were doing great in school. So we decided to stay and I became the CEO of a historic Denver Athletic Club, a very old traditional city club. And I was there for 10 years. And then I suddenly lost my eyesight. I was a avid, avid cyclist. I would do 5,000 miles a year on my bike, and I went on a bike ride and got to the top of the mountain before my friends and I laid down to rest, and I did adult that those actions were going to precipitate the most dramatic change in my life. And, my optic nerve stopped getting blood because I stopped working out. I had low blood pressure. The opening through which my optic nerve goes into the eye is very small for me and it tricks the optic nerve and I ended up being diagnosed with something they call nonarteritic anterior ischemic optic neuropathy.
André van Hall: So rushing to the hospital. They, after many, many tests, they determined that in two weeks I will be blind.
Shea Oliver: Oh my gosh.
André van Hall: Yes. And, so there was significant change that precipitated other changes that came after that because a year after that I lost my job as CEO of the Denver Athletic Club, and we sold our house and we moved closer to town so that I would be closer to transportation. Then, I got diagnosed with a nasty cancer and that it metastasized the year later.
Shea Oliver: Oh my God.
André van Hall: And so I went through a lot of treatment and I was on an experimental drug. I've got the same cancer that President Carter has. I don't know if you remember, but a couple of years ago he went to the hospital to die, and they tried an experimental drug on him. And so I have the same cancer, the same treatment and right now the doctors are confident that... I am a cancer free for a year.
André van Hall: So, things are looking good, but I had to reinvent myself and I started becoming a professional speaker, and I thought that I had a message to share because what happened is that when I became blind, I was deep, deep in despair, right? And I was judging my situation based on my ignorance about blindness and I was using my prejudices and my preconceived ideas about blindness rather than assessing what is my potential, what, what can a blind person do? And that is so that by friends and my family woke up my curiosity on transitioning into blindness. And one of the past presidents of the Denver Athletic Club, the very next day of my diagnosis, showed up in my office and he says, "André, do you realize how fortunate we are that Colorado, we have one of the very few centers for the blind where the train blind people how to live in blindness."
André van Hall: And I went to see them and hear their brochures and all the information, and we also have the very rare thing that there is a store here that sells supplies to the blind, and why don't we go there right now and go into it and see what tools are available so we can give you the tools before your blinds. You can start to use them. It was at that moment that I realized that blindness was something I had to transition into and not wait for and that I had to take action. I couldn't wait. So interesting thing is in my Bible Study Group, we had been talking about what is humility, and a definition I liked the best is the one that said it's the ability to accept help. And I was not a humble man, I did not know how to accept help.
André van Hall: And so it made that transition extra difficult, right? Because I did not want help. I could do it on my own. And as the days went by, I realized that I needed help, and one of the most difficult positions was finding out that to learn to use a cane for the blind, I needed to go to the division of vocational rehabilitation and it would get a caseworker who gave me a trainer. And I was too proud the idea that maybe it was again judging what a caseworker is and the idea that I would have a caseworker humiliated me, you know, and, I did not want to go down that road. But I realized that I could not do a solo and that, if I was going to be a humble man, I needed to accept the idea that people are out there willing to help an organization set up to help people become and remain active members of society.
André van Hall: So I go in and I had to use blinders because I could still see at that time when they were training me to use a cane. But so imagine your whole life, you rely on your eyes to guide you through the world, and now you have to transition to using your and your cane. So your cane is a probe that you use in front of you to find obstacles. Okay? And you use your ears to enhance your perception of the world around you. So we started at a small street and they, they, they call it the minor-minor intersection and they tell me and say, okay, stand here and listen, listen to any kind of activity. And if you think you can hear a car and it's within 100 yards, don't go into the street. But listen, can you hear a skateboarder? Can you hear a bicycle? Okay? And it is stressful, when you're in that corner and you want to put that cane and your foot on the street, blinded, and then you, it, it was terrifying. Yes. And then you progress through a minor-intermediate intersection and then you go into a intermediate, then an intermediate-major and then a major-major. The migration was having to cross a major intersection in Denver. That is a Broadway and Colfax downtown Denver.
Shea Oliver: Oh my gosh. That's just not a fun intersection to cross in any situation.
André van Hall: It's true. And, but now what you have to do is stand there and you're not familiar with the pattern of the lights. Okay. So you have to stand there and listen maybe for a whole cycle, maybe two cycles of the light. Because is there a left turn Arrow? Is there a right turn moment? Okay. How long is the pattern for people to go east, west and north, south. So once you think you've got the pattern down and you'd say, okay, now I think I can cross. You put that gain in your foot on the street and you've got to be sure you can be guessing. And it's a learning process for me, you know, on how to trust your senses and to trust the training and to trust the people that are helping you move on.
André van Hall: The transition was so much more like for instance, once you're blind, how do you know how much toothpaste on your toothbrush, and you learn to put the toothpaste on your finger first and then transitioned it from your finger onto the tip of your toothbrush and, you know, this all happened in August and my wife's birthday was coming up and I wanted to bake a cake. And I needed to get a teaspoon of Vanilla extract, not of vanilla, of almond extract. And I'm going like, how do I measure a teaspoon of almond extract and have it come out of a little bottle onto little spoon and how do you measure it? And I finally figured out, you know, pour the extract into a glass, dip the spoon into the glass, and then put that mixture.
André van Hall: And since you know, my son has given me a scale that talks to me. So I have a scale that tells me how much stuff weighs, and microwaves, you know, our flat, where you push buttons, but you can put little dots. So like where the five is put a little dot, like a Braille dot and then you can feel for it. Then you know that diagonally up is one diagonally down is a nine and so forth. So you can orient yourself different ways and you start to learn the tricks of operating in the blind world. One of my other difficult transitions was a good friend of mine, Tim Wolf, another hotel operator in town had done 23 Boston Marathons and he knew how much I like to bike. And he said, André, what do you get a tandom? And you and I do the Elephant Rock 100 mile bike rides together.
André van Hall: And I'm like, no way! I have to be in charge, right? I have to switch gears, I have to do the brakes. And yes, I went to ring the bell. And the last thing I like to do is be the back of your bike on the bike looking at your butt all day long. And he says, why you worry, you won't see it And well, you've got a point, but no, I did not want to do it. And I again realized that I was not being humble, I was being prideful and I could be proud on my couch, or I could be a little bit humble and get on the back of the bike and feel the burn in my legs again and feel the wind in my face, feel the sweat going down my back. So I bought the tandom and I called Tim and I said, alright, come on or let's do this. So he came over and I got on the bike on the back and I say, let's go.
André van Hall: I said, well, wait a minute, you could explain the bike mister, but you've got this brake, you've got how many gears, and how are we going to communicate? And I'm going like, oh lord, let's, let's figure it out as we go. But with different management styles, right? So Tim is very deliberate. I'm more intuitive. And I realized that if I don't give up some of my CEO style, he's not coming back. I have to be open. And that transition was difficult for me. And I incorporate that into my speech when I am a keynoter that I tell people and I say, you know, even when you're in charge, if a change comes that you willing to give up your position of being in charge so we can listen to other people. And I had to learn to listen to Tim, but then we've got riding and I go to Tim, Tim, you're in the wrong gear. You're killing me, right? He, this unbelievable athlete. And he likes high revolution and low resistance, and I liked it the other way around. So I had to tell him, Hey Tim, you need to slow down revolution. So now even if you are in charge in a situation, are you willing to listen to your team? So Tim has a captain, I'm the stoker, but if he doesn't listen to me and he sets a pace that, that doesn't work for us, we're walking the bike in five miles. Right? So those were the learning things that, that came out of these things. And while we finally worked out the pace and whatever, we got to Chatfield dam, which is a climb and a short one, but we argued all the way to the top. So I've learned that always in life, just as things are going well, there's going to be a Chatfield Damn.
André van Hall: There's always going to be a wrench thrown into things as they going smoothly How do you communicate to adapt and are you willing to listen to each other and to learn from each other. It's okay for him to challenge me and say André, why don't you try this? But in a team you need to be able to go both ways and he might be the captain, but he needs to be listening to me. So it's those sorts of little lessons that I picked up that have encouraged me to become a professional speaker. But now I started, I found out that there's a group in Colorado called Eyecycle and we own 22 tandems and we take blind people on bike rides to get them out of the house and get them active.
Shea Oliver: Awesome. Awesome.
André van Hall: And I got, I started to get involved in other blind community things and many of my blind friends I realized have guide dogs and I'm like, I got my cane, my cane is awesome. I don't have to walk the cane, I don't have to poop the cane, right? So I'm going like I don't want a cane. But I realized that my friends with dogs were a lot more agile and able to get places. And then somebody made a essentially a revelation or something so simple, you know, like when I went to buy my cane and I found out you used your cane to find obstacles. My friends that have guide dogs used them to avoid the obstacles, and that gets a lot faster because they're not looking for obstacles that a dissipating through their dogs and avoiding them. So I decided to find I'm going to go and get a dog, and I got mine from Guide Dogs for the Blind, an unbelievable outfit in San Rafael, California. And they trained. These magnificent animals have cost hundred thousand dollars per graduating dog walk. And they give them to as completely free of charge - the dog harness the trip to California, the lodging that dream eating everything. So it's just unbelievable the organizations and the humanity that is out there to help other people remain active members of society and the things that they do. So Guide Dogs for the Blind or the blind doesn't take up single penny from government or agencies. It's all donations, volunteers, and people that help out.
Shea Oliver: That's fantastic.
André van Hall: It is is fantastic. So it is truly unbelievable what happens out there. So now Pelham. That is his name. Pelham is seven and a half years old, but Pelham and I traveled the country speaking on change and being curious. So to me, curiosity is what helped me transition from sighted that into blindness. And as I say in my talk, you know when, when, when a change comes and it's a difficult change, you can go down the darkness of despair or you can light a candle. And my friends and family have taught me the importance of lighting a candle, seeing the positive, seeing what you can do, not what you can't do, seeing, you know, I ski and with guides. And No, I don't do the trees anymore and all the bumps have very difficult and I've been doing them, but I'm skiing. And so what do I want to do? Do I want to cry that I can't do the trees anymore? Oh, what do I want to rejoice that I'm still out there and doing it. Same thing with cycling. I just completed Ride the Rockies.
Shea Oliver: That's fantastic.
André van Hall: But yes, it's my seventh time. And we did it as a fundraiser for the homeless and the 58 of us raised $170,000 for the homeless by doing this six-day, 450 mile bike ride in Colorado. So again, you know, we're all "temporarily abled"
Shea Oliver: Say that again?
André van Hall: We're all temporarily abled is so there's always something that disables us in one way or another, sometimes it is stress, and sometimes it is mental illness, and sometimes it's something physical, but at different stages of our lives. We go in and out of being disabled and what is the disability, you know? And, so I'm blind and I can use a cane, i can use a dog. And I use my iphone, reads everything to me, so Apple will has been at the forefront of things. So, you know, it's, it's, I can listen to my emails, I connected us on my computer because I can zoom and makes things huge on my big, big, big screen here. But my computer talks to me. So a moment ago we got interrupted because my computer as things come up, my computer reads them to me.
André van Hall: But technology is out there to help me overcome the, this ability to the, the detractors if you want the things that make life hard for my disability. So now the question is, once you've learned to exist, Are you still disabled?
Shea Oliver: What a good question.
André van Hall: And, so yes, I need help when it get to an airport and it's hard to find a gate and but we found ways of accommodating the needs and bring us back into society. So, you know, we put cutouts on the sidewalk so that people in wheelchairs or families with strollers and can use those. So as society progresses, I think that we've become a lot more, not just tolerant but accepting of people that are different, and that is one of the great joys of being in this country. You know, I remember going back to Argentina to visit my mother when I was in college, and she had moved since from our home into an apartment, and she had become, she was on a wheelchair and I said, mom, let's go out for a walk, and I go down with the elevator to the lobby and there's no way to get from the lobby to the street steps.
André van Hall: So the doormen and I picked up the wheelchair and got up to the sidewalk and it's a very old town where she moved to a, very beautiful. But the sidewalks are all torn up by tree roots and the streets were cobblestones. So you knowl it was impossible. So after quarter block it turned around and I realized I couldn't take my mom out for a walk or a roll. So we have blessed, you know, that we live in a country where we care and where we learned, we have to learn then to be humbled to accept the help that is out there to help us transition. So that is the core of my story.
André van Hall: And so I, I don't know if you want me to open it up, do the questions and we'll have a dialogue.
Shea Oliver: André, your story is absolutely fascinating. I mean, there is a sense that I just feel radiating off of you that, you were going to probably get through this challenge one way or the other. Even if life was beating you down, you were going to stand up and continue to fight, which is a, I think a lot of people struggle with that whole idea that if life has thrown me a curve ball that I can't react, that I'm subject to what life has given me and I have no control, which, you know, I'm just as I've listened to you talk, it's, it's very obvious to me you have a spark in you that is very bright and very strong that you were going to fight even if life kept pounding you down, which is, I think a lot of people struggle with finding that spark inside themselves.
André van Hall: You know, Shea. So to that point, and it, we all have, we all have it because you will be amazed at the people that I meet as I do my talks and I travel and people that have been beat down by life. And, but as I said, you have the choice. When you get to that point, you choose to curse the darkness or do you want to like the candles? Right? And what I tell people and they see that the world don't take the world the way it is. Take the world the way you are going to choose to make it and you can make the world around as something that is your vision of the world and not... So if you are blind, you want to sit inside of the apartment feeling sorry for yourself, or go out and brave the world? It's scary. It's again out there people that have to overcome mental illness to get out into the world and there are people that have to overcome the other physical limitations and go out into the world. So I believe that we all have that spark. And Einstein was asked once, you know, how come you're so smart? And he says, oh no, I'm not smart. I am curious. And so I used to say that thing that it's about attitude, but I do know how to now go in and say, Shea, I went to wake up your attitude, but I think that I know how to wake up your curiosity in how to challenge you, to be curious about getting out of the darkness and coming into the light.
Shea Oliver: Tell me how you do that. How is it if you're that person who's either wanting to make a change and don't know how to do it, our life is throwing something at you. How do you spark your own curiosity?
André van Hall: Well, in my case, other people did it right, like my friend Jack Barker, that brought the Colorado Center for the Blind information and took me physically took me to the store and the people that showed me what guide dogs do, you have to have an open mind. You, you know, you can't close yourself completely in, but the thing is, it's just challenging yourself and seeing what would happen if I walked from here to the door again, and realizing you're going to bump your head, you're gonna bump our Shin and that it's going to be easy, but understanding that those difficulties can be overcome, and just take them one little step, one little bit of curiosity at a time and sometimes it takes other people to do it, to drag you into it, right? And to say, come on , let's try this. And just like with your child who's like over abundant curiosity and you know, why is the sky blue? Why is this and why is that okay? So, so forth.
André van Hall: And I'm afraid that we have throughout our lives and being told to be less curious and an organization writes a book of Standard Operating Procedures, Right? And then the employees have looking at this, the same old process because you can't change it. It's in the book. It's the way it is. This is how we do it. And in today's world, if you always do what you always did, you're out of business. And, there was a time that if you always did what if you always do what you always did. You always get what you've always got. And that, that worked for centuries, right? If you were the saddle maker to the king and you continue to make great saddles and you just made small improvements every year, okay, you, you always would be the saddlemaker to the king.
André van Hall: Then the horseless carriage comes out and it totally disrupts you. So being curious about just a little bit. It's not enough anymore. You've got to expand that curiosity. But I'm saying begin small, begin by exploring something small. And you know, when Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone from the stage and that was 11 years ago, it's only 11 years ago. Okay. Research and Motion, owners of Blackberry. Then King of the mountain is the one we all had. Right. And they became curious about the iphone and they took it apart and the fund focus groups. But what did we all say? What did we like about our Blackberries? It was the keyboard. Right?
André van Hall: And so they were curious. So I'm saying curiosity can get you so far and I know that I'm Monday morning quarterbacking here. But the problem is, is you remember I talked earlier about judging and assessing and they judged the iPhone based on their prejudices about preferring the buttons in thinking that it wasn't for enterprise friendly, but that was the first generation. Now are you curious enough to assess what the future of it is? So do you judge your child based on their past performance or do you assess them based on their potential by being curious about where they can go? So it's a long answer to your question, but I think that wake up your curiosity, we begin with small steps, but clearly understanding that you have, you always do what you always did, you're out of business, in your personal life or your professional life to be curious, be curious about. So set up an environment of curiosity in your workplace, in your home, and in yourself, against so that your employees challenge what you're doing, that you challenge what you're doing. You challenge the bank on how they want to do business with you. You challenge the people you interview like me and being curious about us.
Shea Oliver: That's exactly what I'm doing. It was fascinating listening to people like you who have done this right are who are on a path. So what I hear, in many ways is challenge your own personal assumptions about everything. Am I on the mark of what you believe?
André van Hall: Yes.
Shea Oliver: How do we get to what we assume? Because I think a lot of people go through, I don't want to say life as a Zombie, but I think a lot of people march. They were conditioned, we go this way, we do this thing, we'd behave this way. There's a narrative, there's a story of how you should live your life. How do you shake that? How do you get people to not just become curious but bang on their own assumptions so that they can see that they have these assumptions.
André van Hall: Yeah, you know, and, and that is the difficult part. And, you know, you go to a workplace and your tongue, we got to put a hole in your computer system in every going to change and they're going like, what's wrong with the current system? Why do we have to learn a new system? And then you implement a new system and they, instead of seeing the improvements, they only see how this system is different from the old system.
André van Hall: And so, and that's why they hired people like me to come speak about change. Okay. To open up the eyes of people to understand that... Okay. So I talk about incremental change. Okay. So incremental change is, is when everyday you do something a little bit better, you're curious about, you know, it's, you change something a little bit. And there's environmental change, environmental changes to what that happens. Okay. It's your age, you go blind Okay, climate change, whatever you want to call it, but that stuff that happens out there and then disruptive change. Now environmental change and incremental change can of course become disruptive.
Shea Oliver: Sure. Absolutely.
André van Hall: And so disruptive change belongs in all the categories of change. The thing is that in life. So let's say that you're in a marriage and the couple begins to change at different rates. Mom stays at home with the kids and her language stagnates. She was in business. She was successful and those, so forth. But now she's not growing in the business world. And, her business language and savvy is stagnating and she meets with other moms and is talking about kids and schools and diapers and so forth. But the husband continues to grow in the organization and develops a whole different language and culture and if they, the two of them don't discuss things and don't to openly exchange information, they begin to change apart, and they stuck to like different things, and I'm not saying that one is better than the other, but they, they start. So what I talk about is become curious about each other and share and be open to the new ideas, and be open to what wife has to say about the child upbringing, and the will be open to hearing about what is happening in the business world and vice versa, you know.
André van Hall: And I said, man, woman roles, reverse them, you know, the guy's the one stays at home and the wife is the one that goes to work. It's the same sort of thing, you know. And I remember I was working at the Vier Jahreszeiten in Hamburg and my roommate was Ricard and he and I worked in room service and he had taken English and passed the test for English. And when human resources find out or whatever, they promoted him to floor supervisor for the first two floors. So he was so ecstatic. He invited his girlfriend and myself. We went out to dinner, and he asked her to marry him. Here I am a third wheel in this thing with my disposable income of three months or whatever. I bought a bottle of champagne and we were toasting and I say, well, here's to French.
André van Hall: And he's going like, what do you mean? You know? And I'm like, wow. I said, English got you the supervisor, okay, French will get you manager. And he's not... no, I'm done. I'm done. I've got the girl, I've got the job. I'm done. And it took me three decades to understand that Ricard is maybe as happy or happier than I am with having stagnated at that level. Right? His lack of curiosity. I could not understand. I could not grasp, but how can you say this is enough? How can you start your 21 years old? Okay. And for decades, I was like, how do people do this? But I understand that we have to have all kinds of people, but we cannot all be curious about everything in taking us to different levels. So for some people, curiosity about progression in career stopped. But who knows?
André van Hall: He might be curious about carpentry, and he may have become a tinker toy maker in his free time or he's curious about other things and we have to understand that curiosity is not something that it's always about improving ourselves in financial ways or something like that. It could be the curiosity of a doctor on researching, on how to find a cure for something or it could be the curiosity of my dishwasher who comes to me and tells me, you know, in my last place of work, our glasses didn't come out spotted, but here they do and we use this detergent in our dishwasher. Do you mind if we try it. Okay. So allowing him to be curious about that, but me being curious enough to hear him out and again, long, long answer and it's difficult. So we're not all equally curious. Okay. That sort of like my wife told me, you'll never make me curious about computers. and I love technology.
Shea Oliver: And that's okay
André van Hall: And that's okay. Right? We can't make everybody curious about everything. So much to learn in the world. Where do you take ... Where you let your curiosity take you?
Shea Oliver: So as I hear your story, you had, you were surrounded by some very supportive people for some very difficult times in life. What do you do or what do you tell people who are in a situation where either they want to change or change coming and they need to change, but they're surrounded by people who won't be supportive of who, like who they are and want them to stay who they are, but they want to change.
André van Hall: You know, I'm going to digress a little bit and get it taken a little bit different direction. So I am an avid Uberer. And 40 years ago when Uber was in its nascent stages here, I called an Uber and I had Hameed who came and picked me up. That beautiful black car and how do you like this uber thing? And he's like, "I hated it." He says, "you know, when it came, I have a small Limo Company, I've got a couple of stretches and three town cars, and I was terrified. And then one of my drivers told me, why don't you join uber? And I nearly fired him. He says, I was so angry. How can, how dare he suggests I joined Uber in totally indignant. I told my wife, you know, what this idiot told me? He told me I should get it and the wife still be, why don't you? And so now I'm surrounded by people that are forcing me to be curious and explore this again and kicking and screaming. I opened an account and he says, now I'm a lot busier. My margins are smaller, but we are a lot busier now."
André van Hall: I liked the story of the, the guy, the guy that does the plumber as I. So how much do I owe you? The plumber says, well, it's $300. It's going on 10 minutes of work, you know, $300. Says, I'm a brain surgeon. I can't get that for 10, for 10 minutes of work, let alone in cash and the plumber says, I feel your pain as well as the same for me when I was a heart surgeon.
André van Hall: Sometimes sometimes we have to face change. That is difficult. And I mean as a matter of fact, the day before yesterday I took an Uber and the guy told me he's a dentist, so that's my plumber. That was a heart surgeon and I'm like what gives that? He says, look, I was going to in a few years, but the Comfort Dental as needed, so difficult in billing is so complicated and the insurance is so expensive. It says I wasn't enjoying it anymore and I loved this. I love it. It says I'm making a living. And, so how do people like that decide I'm going to go from being a dentist to being an Uber driver. You know,
Shea Oliver: You can only imagine. The people around him are saying, are you insane?
André van Hall: Are you insane? Right. How does a successful hotel operator become a professional speaker? So sometimes change is imposed on us by Comfort Dental, sometimes change is imposed of us by illness. Okay. Other times changes and most of us by significant changes in the things that are happening around us, a divorce, okay. What is a divorce? A divorce is a is a couple that has grown up part for whatever series of reasons, but they have failed to see the changes that were happening in each other over time and address them as they happened and they allowed them to get to a point where they became unsurmountable and difficult. So now they're faced with a change of separation that so change again, they could have changed the way that they do things and enter in and rescue the marriage, but sometimes the healthy thing is to get the divorce, right and get out of a toxic situation. That the trick is in it being curious. You know what I do with my talk?
André van Hall: The first thing that I say is that when our forefathers spend the declaration of independence and they said that we have the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that they condemned us to the pursuit of happiness. And I say happiness is not something you pursue, Happiness is something you choose to be, because if that is something I've pursued and I would say, well, I'll be happy when somebody invents a stem cell that can regenerate my optic nerve and restore my eyesight, that mean that I'm deprived of happiness because I'm blind or is happiness in the process of doing, getting things done is happiness, in knowing that I can ski? Too many times in life we expect or allowing change to be the catalyst for happiness or unhappiness. Right? I married, Yay. I'm happy and I'm divorced and I'm happier.
André van Hall: So Why is it that we feel that happiness in something we pursue rather than something we adopt and we choose to be happy regardless. So yes, I lost my eyesight, I lost my job, I got cancer, it metastasized, okay, whatever. Does that mean I have to be unhappy?
Shea Oliver: Absolutely not.
André van Hall: Absolutely not. So it's change right now. So do you then choose it when, when they tell you you've got cancer and you're, you know, and, but the doctor told me, he says, if I, if this happened five years ago, I would have been telling you to get your affairs in order, but today I tell you that if we can get you on this, on this test, and we use this experimental drug, my goal is to cure you, not extend your life.
Shea Oliver: Awesome. Awesome attitude from the doctor.
André van Hall: Awesome attitude from the doctor. Right? So are you curious enough to hear those things or do you want to choose to filter out and to hear you got cancer? It's a death sentence. My uncle that happened to my uncle, he got a diagnosis of cancer. He went up to his room. He had them put black curtains and on his, in his room and just waited for death. Okay. And six months later he was dead. And it to me, is there a time in life where you say, you know what, okay. Diagnosis is, there's, there's nothing else we can do again. So, so forth. But do you choose those six months to just live them in darkness? Or do you choose to still be happy, you know. So what I'm seeing is regardless of the diagnosis is regardless of what happens, regardless of what the change is. Okay, you can choose to be curious about exploring things and finding things that bring joy into your life and that, you know, my granddaughter was born four months ago and I'd go, thank you. I don't see her face. So do I want to be in the pain of not seeing her face or do I want to be in the joy of feeling her and hear her gurgle and whatever. And my daughter got married two weeks ago and I gave her away. And then no, I didn't see the gorgeous bride, but I can make out the outline this and so forth. And the joy of walking her down the aisle and crying at the alter when I give it away. So that the life is so full of wonderful opportunities, if we're open to see them instead of seeing the darkness.
Shea Oliver: Absolutely. That's way to bring it home. Absolutely. I can see you have embraced so much of this and I love that you're out trying to help other people change how they think about either change imposed on them. I want to bring you back to that same question I asked just a little bit a go, what, what do you encourage people to do if they're surrounded by people who are trying to force them not to change? What do you have a strategies or you know, because I think a lot of us, we live in the script and part of that script comes from outside of us and the people reinforce, hey, this is who you are and how you live. How do you help people break out of that when they're stuck with those voices and those people around them?
André van Hall: You know? So I worked for a hotel company, That touted themselves as being highly entrepreneurial and they put Marriott down because Marriott is all by the book is all by the SOP manuals, and we are entrepreneurial. But then when you come down to the department head and the division head level of go the supervisor, so, so forth, they still have SOP and they still died by procedures and stuff. And so within your department, within your division, within my hotel, I can choose to say, you know what the organization says we have to do it this way, but I am choosing to stay within the guidelines. Okay. But to operate with more freedom and to give you more. And we all have the choice to do that. So if we have a supervisor that won't let us be curious. Okay. It doesn't mean that we can't make small improvements on our own and, and get things done in, in, in my small area. Okay. So if I can improve flow by doing my small things without bothering my supervisor. And it happened to me. I was at the Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten in Hamburg and I was a busboy and I had this idea and I go running to the Matrie De and I go, "I just, I just was thinking, is that." He said "Hold it. I don't pay it to think I pay you to do." The classic, the classic line, right? So does that mean that I let him beat me down and that I stopped or do I let my innate nature say no, I want to bring a change about and I'm going to change this. And yes, it can be risky and sometimes you're a heart surgeon, you become a plumber because you're fed up of all the naysayers around you. You change companies, okay? You hate the company that you, that you're in and you feel that you can do more. You become an entrepreneur, you do your own thing. You get out of the marriage of the naysayers. Okay? You have to take action, you know, to move forward in life and to let curiosity, lead you, you have to take risk. And many times curiosity, you know, I mean, the curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought him back. Right? So, so be curious.
André van Hall: Another story. So I was working at the Hotel Internacional Iguazu, I don't know if you've ever heard of Iguazu Falls. The falls are in the border where Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina, and they are phenomenal. They have 286 towering feet tall.
Shea Oliver: They're my bucket list now.
André van Hall: What's that?
Shea Oliver: I think that goes on mine and probably a lot of people's bucket list.
André van Hall: Yes it is. It's the middle of the jungle in a pristine setting. Okay. Not like Niagara with all the stores and stuff and commerce around it. And I opened a hotel, there is front office manager and the hotel, as I said, is in the jungle and it's connected to the world through a copper wire. Okay. That brought in telex and telephone. This is back in the seventies, but the line was down more than it was up. So our connection to Buenos Aires is very tenuous. And July 9th is beginning of winter holiday in Argentina. And, so reservations should be pouring in because we were asked to go north to escape the cold. Okay. Everyone has to come around. So remember Argentina, the south, the south side of the world. It's reverse, right? So the phone is not ringing. So I go to my boss and I'm going like again, you know, I've been thinking and saying why don't we let Buenos Aires control part of our inventory and they can then sell rooms for us. So when the lines are up they can send burst transmissions to us and catch us up and it's been like, you're crazy, you're crazy. He grabbed his sideways because that were gray hair, he says, this is wisdom says you, you, you need understand. Okay. That if, if they, if they oversell us, okay. And we end up overbooked here in the middle of the jungle. What do we do with guests, but then on hammocks, between the mosquitoes and the monkeys. He says, no way, we're not doing it. So there the reservations were not coming in and we get close to the day and I run into the general manager and I say, hey, how's it going? And I told him my idea and says, let's implement it. So I did. So my boss games comes running in spitting in my face. I mean, he is so angry, right? He is feeling. Is that gang grabbing is to see this as wisdom. Okay, and you don't go with your stupid ideas and override me. You're fired. He fired me and I was living in the hotel because we were the, you know, I was there just for three months for a summer vacation from Cornell, from school when I went down to do this and so I was wrapping things up and the next day he comes in, he says André, the manager told me to un-fire you. So it the story has a good ending, but I feel that if I could not sit there quiet. Was I arrogant and did I say it the wrong way and was I cocky? Maybe! Okay. We need to learn to discern between the message and the delivery. it is so many times we get so hung up on the delivery rather than listening to the message and not being curious, but I felt that I could not hold my peace. I was not going to sit there. I would rather get fired and implement a good idea then sit back and I was. I was, I was talking with a friend of mine and, he grew up, he's from Spain and he grew up in Puerto Rico and there is a saying there and that's it. It's, and it is like, oh eh.. Let them get screwed. Okay. Kind of thing. And it's that mentality of, Hey, I don't want to do anymore okay Let them get screwed because they're doing it to me are doing it to them. Isn't it sad that we get into those mentalities and what happened then to our culture or to our organization or to our family when our attitude is about letting that negativity around us but don't change. Okay. Pervasive and permeate and in and dictate the way that you conduct your life. So my goal is to get you out of that mode and to get you to be curious, to challenge what is happening around you. Even if it means going from heart surgeon to plumber.
André van Hall: So it's difficult. I know that it is difficult and that when you're surrounded in organization that doesn't want to change. Well, let me tell you what change is going to bring the corporation down. Okay? And so go and do something else. Go and in today's world, whereas unemployment at two point nine percent, to me it is ludicrous for you to be unhappy at work, because there are people looking for jobs. So my son got a degree in marketing from CU, got a couple of jobs and hated it and then quit. And to my chagrin and despair, here's the curious guy, right? He decides to go and be a line cook at Sweet Tomatoes, making minimum wage. Okay? And I was going crazy. I was going crazy. And then one day he says, Dad, I want to be an electrician. And now he's a year into his apprenticeship and a loving it. And the joy in his face is just so rewarding to see him happy. It took him awhile and I thought he was not being curious and that he had given up. But no.
André van Hall: And, so it takes some of us are longer and difficult, but I talked a lot about, dealing with change. But the thing is, if you're not being curious, then you're not anticipating and creating change. Okay? So I've been looking backwards. Now let's turn around and look forward. Okay? Let's see how do we make changes? So I talked about incremental change. Okay? So you're an organization, you're a London cab driver and every month you do something a little bit different to make it better. Okay? You put air conditioning in your car and you give a bottle of water to your clients and you put a television in the back and you put leather seats, whatever. Okay? But every month you do incremental improvements. All of a sudden you read in the paper that this strange thing called Uber is coming into town. And any kid with an iPhone and a car is going to compete with you in London. It takes two years, in three months to become a licensed cab driver. Going to school, you have to learn. London is a very complex city is not set up in a grid. Okay?
Shea Oliver: Yes, I have driven and been lost there.
André van Hall: You have been lost there, you have to learn how to get from here to here at 3:00 in the afternoon and but how do you get from here to here at 8:00 in the morning? What is different? Okay. You have to know basic mechanics of your car and you have to learn customer service and all of these things, nearly two and a half years and now anybody with an iPhone can come and compete with you. So my thing is, do you. You say, well, I'm going to fight that. Fight them, fight them, fight them. You say, well, maybe I need to join with them. Like Hammend many did or you say, is it time right now that I'm still making a good income as a cab driver, do I see the writing on the wall and do I need to go learn something different, something new? Do I want to go in a different direction? Is this the sign that it was waiting for to choose a different career? Like my son Evan did. Okay. So making change. You know, it's a, I am an admirer of Steve Jobs, and Steve Jobs was a disruptor. He disrupted the telephone industry. You know, Steve Balmer, the CEO of Microsoft when the iPhone was announced the next day, he famously said, the iPhone is an expensive bottle. Apple does not know telephony, is he eating his words today? What about the movie industry was okay with Pixar in how he revolutionized how animation happens, what about the ipad and how he has revolutionized how we read books and how we consume the Internet. So he was a disruptor. There are very few of us that can get to that level. I also think he was, as a human being, nonfunctional again, was very difficult to deal with and surrounded him, said he lived in an altered reality world.
André van Hall: So we could not, I'm not talking about that kind of disruption that just happens once in a lifetime. It may happen more often now with technology, but your life can be disrupted by your wife saying, I'm leaving. Your life can be disrupted by you're losing your job. Okay? Et Cetera, et cetera. And how'd you prepare for that, and how do you anticipate that, and I'm saying it is through being curious and having it in your department, your division and your organization - a thing where curiosity is such that you can anticipate what is happening around you.
André van Hall: And so, case in point when they say that the Henry Ford said this, but it's not true, but the allegedly Henry Ford said, if I had asked people what they wanted, they would've told me a faster horse.
Shea Oliver: So I've heard that.
André van Hall: But when the horseless carriage came out, nobody was curious enough to truly understand what this was. Okay, and people. Everybody wrote it off and they're going like, it's stupid. Look how noisy it is. It has to get gas. How are you going to get gas when you're traveling? And it needs a road to travel on where the roads, okay, it's doomed. It's not going anywhere. But if people stayed with horses and the problem is that the cycle of adoption is getting, you know that book maybe 50 years or two generations for it to truly make an impact. But think today about the driverless car and how uncurious many people and they're saying it's not going anywhere. It's not going to happen. It's going to disrupt the world the way we know it, we will no longer own our cars because our cars sit idle 85 to 90 percent of the time.
André van Hall: Okay. So why have an asset that is idle? Why not having it in the shared economy where you just call through an app, call for a car that comes and picks you up and takes you somewhere for a fraction of the cost of owning the car. But it's going to disrupt the insurance industry because we want on the car. So we don't need car insurance. It is going to disrupt the entire industry because yes, those cars will need tires, but they will not be distributed through Big-O Tire anymore. And we won't be buying cars at dealerships anymore. So dealerships are going to go away and mechanics are going to go away. So think of the disruption that the autonomous parking, parking garages, garages, we won't need garages in our homes anymore. So the disruption that is coming from this is monumental, but we're not seeing it.
André van Hall: We, we're not curious enough. And, but if I wasn't one of those industries, you know, I'd be urging my team to say, okay, how are we going to adapt or how are we going to change? What are we going to do different? Kodak invented digital photography and abandoned it, you know, that, was Steve Wozniak invented the apple computer while working for HP when Steve Jobs told him and say, Hey, let's put this in a box and sell it. And was said, no, no, no, this belongs to HP. And Steve Wozniak say what so they don't know. And he says, oh no, I need to tell them. So he went and told them and showed it to them and says, we're not interested. The today, the most valuable company in the world. HP - we're not interested.
André van Hall: Okay. So, and you know, and there's things that again, I'm being a Monday morning quarterback, but it's that lack of curiosity that sometimes you say, okay, my core industry is not computers my core industry is calculators. Okay, whatever it is. So they used to know it's way onto and I understand that it's, it makes sense sometimes, but that is how you let opportunities sometimes slip through. So to move forward, my feeling is remain curious what everything that is happening around you, and when somebody comes to your office and tells you and says, I have an idea, but put stuff down even you're preparing your board report or telling us, he tell you what, can you make an appointment? Can we meet tomorrow? Can we, you know, do management by wandering around MBWA okay. Talk to your people, hear them out, hear your, your children out. And I think that it won't protect you from being disrupted, but it, it'll make you better prepared to be one of the people that is disrupting rather than being disrupted. You know, and when you see organizations and, you know, it takes something like Mcdonald's or whatever, and they understand that the market preferences are changing and the being curious about how to adapt to the changes. Okay and, or take a company like, Oh man, coffee, Starbucks, Starbucks, okay. You know, and they say, oh, we're not going to do straws anymore that are plastic because we as consumers are getting concerned about the billions of straws. So it's that level of curiosity I think, and let's do cold beverages in summer are good that we're not just a coffee company anymore. Right. And that may be a day where they no longer a coffee company because they keep morphing and reinventing themselves and changing and adapting through incremental changes and sometimes some significant change
Shea Oliver: So step out of the organizational world for a minute. Do humans function the same way? Can we be the same thing like a starbucks, where our curiosity is continually evolving and changing who we are? It's a leading question. I know.
André van Hall: Yes, yes. Know, you know, and it's what we are, right? I mean it's a, how did we get from the cave to today, You know, and, it's because in evolutionary ways we aren't curious. Without curiosity we'd be monkeys, right? We address you. We would not have the language. We would not have developed our implements and we would not have invented the wheel. And so forth.
Shea Oliver: So is being curious as a human being is that innately part of who we are, of all of us?
André van Hall: I think some of us have to wake it up.
Shea Oliver: Okay. So it gets beat out of us at some point in life, you think?
André van Hall: That's what I was saying about my maitre d' and in Hamburg and my boss at the Iguazu that, you know, it's our children in the car when we, you know, are we there yet? And you know, we beat it out of them that why is the sky blue, and that it gets to the point where we just kill that curiosity kind of thing, And in our employees and our employees in, around us. So that's why I'm saying it's so imperative for organizations to create an environment where it is safe to be curious.
André van Hall: Watson, I forget what's his first name was the founder of IBM. There's this famous anecdote, okay. Whatever that I'm being real specific because I don't know the details, but this executive vice president comes in and says, Hey, the project you gave me, we lost a million dollars and I failed you. Here's my letter of resignation, and Watson takes the letter and rips it up. He says, you're crazy. You're training just cost me a million dollars. You think I'm going to let you go to the competition? That mentality we need to have to saying it's safe to fail, you know, it is safe as long as the failure had a purpose and not being mindless and stupid like generals were in World War One just getting soldiers and feeding them to the machine guns. Okay. You're just action for action. Say Okay. It's be wise about... so one of the things when, when they talk about the wisdom of my old boss, you know, and I say, well, so what is more important organization? Is it wisdom? What is it? Curiosity.
André van Hall: And I think both play significant role because wisdom prevents us for repeating the mistakes from the past. But curiosity is what propels us forward. But too many times we say that that is that curiosity that got us in trouble, so we went to kill the curiosity through wisdom, so you need to come to a safe interplay of both, so they both curiosity and intellect come into, to play together, safety and so that you use you. So if, if I was curious at the Hotel Iguazu, and I said, hey, let's put aside this sell the thing instead of his intellect saying, oh, they're going to oversell us and they're going to get us, if he maybe had stopped and said, interesting idea, Andre. But if they oversell us, how can we prevent that and let's sit down and talk about it and how can we take this kernel of an idea and hammer it into something usable?
Shea Oliver: Absolutely.
André van Hall: Okay. So that's why I think that there is a very important interaction between the two, the intellect and the and, and, but curiosity is what propels us forward.
Shea Oliver: So, I want to ask you a hypothetical question here. And obviously there's no absolutes in this, but you have become extremely curious through the experience of becoming blind and through those months that become, you know, taking that and embracing the transition itself. What would have happened to you had you not become blind? What would have happened if, when you laid down on that mountain top, if you just stood back up later and got on your bike?
André van Hall: I'd be CEO of the Denver Athletic Club or another club or something like that. Adversity sometimes forces us to take action in directions that we never expected. It showed me a strength. So when, when I was in school, I was at a private British school in Argentina as a day boarder and we went to school and I was bullied. I was severely bullied in school. And, so, you know, it was definitely a very difficult time in my life. And at one point I literally went crying to my father and I said, I need to get out of here, please, please put me somewhere else. My Dad set me down and says, you know, Andre, if I can change your school, that you will still be you, and the reasons that you're being bullied in this school will be the same reasons why you will be bullied in the next school. The one who needs to change is, you, not the school.
André van Hall: It was a difficult lesson that who's message didn't and get through to me for a long time. Okay, sure. And, you know, it's... you remember the book Unbroken, the movie Unbroken. And, so he was rigid in his determination to not let the bird tame him or break his will. And, and I applaud him and I, that was Zamperini was his name and I'm going like, wow, you know, what an example of perseverance. But on the other hand I'm going like, okay, and that's what I was doing. I was being bullied and they wanted me to, you know, to smoke. I wouldn't smoke. And, I cut my hair the way I was supposed to and I sat at the front of the class and whatever. And I didn't want to change those things and to me it was important to be who I am and I think it fits with my life, it has developed my character rather than weaken it. But in looking... what would my life have been if at that point I had flexed a little bit and rather than standing rigidly middle of the river and fighting it and resisting it, if I had just given up a little bit. Okay. And how much is important to give up some instead of us being stubborn, and if I had remained stubborn wanting, wanting to get on a tandem, I would not have had the joy of doing Ride the Rockies. So, okay. So being on top of that mountain and not going blind would not have created that, group to mention of seeing to make choices. And if Uber had not come into town, Amit would not have made the switch. Okay. So I, I think that I've always been curious because that's why all the spaces at 12 cities 3 continents companies. I built stereos and built computers. And, so I've always been, you know, I did a lot of carpentry stuff and that I've always been curious about how to fix things and do things, but that was just, again, incremental changes and not significant changes like the change that happened on the mountain top. I think that sometimes with massive change comes. Okay, you can be not curious and stop and, and we know people like that. Yes. We like that. We know people that give up, you know, and love him or hate him. Our President, either way he's doing raise enough, but one do things in a complete different way than they had been done before is achieving much. I don't know yet, but, and you know, it's, may, may, may daughter was supposed to, I had to write a article on a, a person that she admires for his or her public relations abilities. She'd got a degree in Public Relations and she chose Pablo Escobar, the cartel.. but the guy was a genius, the genius and public relations. Okay. And the thing is, you know, sometimes it, and that is what would pants me, is that once we judge a situation, we stopped being curious about have any good that the doing. So when Obama was president, there was a whole part of the population that was going late. He's selling us out and, you know, and he's terrible for the country and he's not a citizen. And then they stopped being curious about all the great things that he did. And I think the same is happening now with the current president. I'm not saying that one was better than the other. 'm staying apolitical here. I a picture of a tandem bicycle where the two writers have back to back to each other. Okay. And, and I say, okay, so this bicycle is Congress and the Republicans are the captains and the Democrats of the stokers and they're both patriots, right? They both true patriots and they've really, really, really believe that their way is there a way to take the country forward, but they're not going anywhere. They're not going to have the blocking each other and they're stopping progress because they are not allowing themselves to be curious about, oh right, you do have a good point, but how can we make it so that it works for both of us and the art of compromise?
Shea Oliver: I totally agree. It's missing.
André van Hall: It is missing. So I think that if we all put a little bit more curiosity and we allow ourselves to be curious about each other and if you and your wife are in an argument and you say, okay, so let me make sure that I understand your point, and you repeat her point. Rather than fighting for your point, you might have a better way of. Maybe I'm not saying that you've compromised, and there are things you know, if you believe that abortion is murder, you can't see one abortion happen. Because, it's one murder. So you see, how can I compromise? It's on it, but if you see giving birth to an unwanted child as destruction of two lives, okay, then you can't see a world where abortion is not permitted. Okay. Right. So there's some points where compromise is very, very hard.
Shea Oliver: Absolutely.
André van Hall: And so I'm not saying that it's a magic bullet and that his solution to everything it isn't, but curiosity is a help in a lot and I think a curious mind will take you a hell of a lot farther than a closed one.
Shea Oliver: I absolutely agree. Well, Andre, thank you so much for all this time today. I've got only a couple more questions left here. One, I want to make sure we get, if somebody wants to get ahold of you, hire you as a speaker? How do they go about doing that?
André van Hall: Well, it's got a great website and it's www.Andrevanhall.com. So just as it sounds, Andre van hall.com all together. And, my phone number is 720-339-4831.
Shea Oliver: Excellent, excellent. I always ask one last question, which is,
André van Hall: Oh, Like Columbo?
Shea Oliver: I never thought of it that way, but yes, maybe more so than I thought in some ways. But here, here's the question, what's the one question that I forgot to ask you?
André van Hall: Huh? Yes, it's, I did a lot, you know, it's, I think, am I happy?
Shea Oliver: What's the answer?
André van Hall: And the answer is absolutely, you know, and, it's, I, I have so much joy in what I'm doing, joy of being in this country at this time, joy of the support and the help of the community and the people and then the ability of me to pay it forward and to do it for others.
Shea Oliver: Awesome.
André van Hall: And, so many times we looking at the change that are happening around us and is it global warming or climate change? And the reality is it's happening, and what's causing it or not causing it. Okay. But should that rob us on the ability to just be glad that it's another day? It's warmer than it was yesterday. Again, is another glorious day in the world. So do we want to do let all that negativity bring us down and prevent us from having joy in our lives, and of the joy of this interview or the opportunity of talking with you. Its tremendous. You know, so I my answer to you is yes, I'm happy and, and I hope that with what I shared with you today that I can plant a seed or a kernel of curiosity in people out there to understand that if they just choose to be curious and choose to be happy they can make the world that they want to see.
Shea Oliver: I cannot think of a better place to stop them right there. Thank you so much for taking some time to talk to me and I am looking forward to you changing the world.
André van Hall: Thank you very much. We can do it together. I appreciate it.