Shaking Trees: Changing the World, in the Face of Death

My friend Niels is dying and is celebrating life. Today he gave his ‘Last Lecture’ (viewable here in Dutch, Niels’ lecture starts at 42:00), following the example of Randy Pausch in 2008, in front of 400 people. He made us laugh, he made us think. He made us connect. So we can continue on after he’s no longer here. He turned us into his torch bearers, fakkeldragers in Dutch. That #fakkeldragers was the number 1 trending topic on Twitter in the Netherlands this morning, even as a major storm passed over and we like nothing more than discussing the weather, tells you a little something about Niels.

'Last Lecture' Deluxe @shakingtree #fakkeldragers
400 people in the audience

I met Niels 10 years ago. He reached out to me online to ask me a question. Today he said to realize your dreams you have to start by asking a question. He asked me about learning online. He was a student then, and despite assurances to the contrary he could not access the univ’s buildings with his electric wheelchair and fully participate in the curriculum (Niels has spasticity and requires daily care). Undeterred he set out to arrange his own education online. We explored Second Life together, and we hung out in knowledge management fora, on blogs and social media. Only some 3 years later we finally met face to face, on a Mobile Monday meet-up in Amsterdam. Later we were both active in the topic of complexity management, and worked together to help build up a new company around participatory narrative inquiry. He married, and became a father, and despite every Kafkaesk requirement the ‘system’ threw at him he cut out his own path and became an entrepreneur. “He does not think it is impossible he’ll hold a regular job” someone wrote in his case file once. Another that he was a difficult patient to work with as “he keeps insisting on creating his own plans”.

His sense of humor not only keeps him sane, but also is his primary ‘weapon’ to create a space to be heard in health care and social care discussions and systems that are mostly accustomed to deciding or talking over him. “My case file never mentions the happinness of our family or the joy I find in my work” as key to personal wellbeing. That also drives him as an entrepreneur, where ever he goes he brings together those stakeholders that normally don’t enter into a proper conversation, and in those conversations plants the seeds to make the social and health care system work better. To replace faceless bureaucracy with a human face. To align the sometimes bewildering logic of the system with the logic of actual life. To make the system more efficient as well as more effective that way. Niels his last name roughly translates into English as Shaking Tree, and that became his brand. Shakingtree Interventions shakes things up. All trees in the Netherlands shook today, because of the mentioned storm, and it seems a fitting tribute.

A testament to him shaking things up is that the Secretary General of the Ministry of Health Care was an opening speaker today. He launched the annual ‘Shakingtree Award’ and presented the first one to Niels himself. At the same time he asked Niels, as he is wont to do anyway, to set the criteria for the Shaking Tree Award. Those criteria center around having experience with the health care system, being able to shake things up, and having a sense of humor.

'Last Lecture' Deluxe @shakingtree #fakkeldragers
The Shakingtree Award Statue, a tree of touching hands

Even if this maybe, hopefully, isn’t his real last lecture, “I hope I will have cancer for a very long time”, it was a great day to call upon 400 friends, colleagues and strangers to step up and be a torch bearer, a #fakkeldrager. That message, even without his personal shout-out to me to ‘fix this already’ (to use maker spaces to create cheaper tools and adptations), was loud and clear to all I think. Niels wants us to learn how to “dance with the system“, that was his lesson for us today. He is launching a ‘social domain lab’ to continue teaching that.

Today was a good and a fun day, despite the reason why it was organized. Or as Niels quoted Pema Chödrön “We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.” Over the past 18 months in my personal life I’ve learned (again) that to me beauty resides in that room where such layeredness is allowed to exist. Today reinforced it once more. Thank you Niels.

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5 thoughts on “Shaking Trees: Changing the World, in the Face of Death

  1. Tera Dean- Schuddeboom

    thank you for the translation, I am Niels aunt and although I can easily understand Dutch, after fifty years living abroad I sometimes miss the nuances . I have watched the Last Lecture and was moved to tears. My nephew is a very special human being who is an example to many.

    Reply
    1. Ton Zijlstra Post author

      Thank you Tera for your response. Glad that sharing the story in English is valuable. Yes, Niels is a special guy!

      Reply
  2. Maaike Schnabel

    Thanks Ton for your brilliant summary of this exceptional day. Food for thought it is. All about connecting us as #fakkeldragers to this one goal. My torch is lighted for some years and with much love for Niels I will for sure keep it burning!

    Reply

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