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Kaj Löfgren is the director of The School of Life Australia
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Kaj Löfgren is the director of The School of Life Australia
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Kaj Löfgren is the director of The School of Life Australia
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"People go through life asking deep, heavy questions a lot themselves, but never really sharing them with other people"
5 December 2013

Kaj Löfgren is the director of The School of Life Australia

Interview by Edie McLennan
Photography by Edie McLennan

Kaj Löfgren is the director of strategy at Small Giants, the Australian director of The School of Life, and a table-tennis enthusiast. At Small Giants, he helps to create, support, nurture and empower businesses that are positively impacting the world. Small Giants acts as a catalyst for change, using business as a meaningful tool to create the world we want to live in. And, they’re the awesome parent company of Dumbo Feather.

If I wasn’t already in awe at the lengthy list of Kaj’s good deeds, The School of Life definitely blew my mind. It is an after-hours school where adults can learn emotional intelligence. While at first I was thinking, Hang on, why would ANYONE want to revisit the days of greasy canteen food and trig homework, I soon became intrigued by the school, which runs classes on a range of things, like ‘How to stay calm’ and ‘How to face death’. All those things school never taught you, all those conversations about life you never had out loud.

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people.

EDIE MCLELLAN: Apart from the coffee and pastries, what makes people want to go back into a school-like environment and learn? What motivates them?

KAJ LÖFGREN: I think we find that a lot of the people that come to The School of Life have a feeling that they’ve missed something in their formal education. They’ve got lots of professional skills that they’ve used in their work life, but they’ve missed a whole chunk of emotional education around philosophy, culture and wisdom. They find they can get this with The School of Life, they’ve identified a gap in their traditional education, and they’re looking for something more.

Do you almost think The School of Life teaches you more valuable lessons than you learn in high school?

I think they’re just very different lessons.

People go through life asking deep, heavy questions a lot themselves, but never really sharing them with other people.

We find that when we have that open exchange with other people, that’s when you get the real breakthroughs, that’s when you really get to the bottom of these questions. The school isn’t structured to provide answers to these questions, it is structured in a way to get people access to new resources and to get them to ask these questions of themselves and come up with the answers in the process. Even though the classes are called ‘How to find a job you love’ or ‘How to stay in a meaningful relationship,’ we’re not telling people how to do that—we’re just providing a space where people can find their own answers.

Do you think people believe social skills are a bit taboo? Are people comfortable admitting they need help with emotional intelligence?

Sometimes it takes people a little while to be comfortable. The job of the school is to try and give people permission to explore these questions, because oftentimes, although we do ask them of ourselves, it takes a significant step to start exploring them publicly. It might take half an hour or an hour to get comfortable, but by the end of it everybody in the room is very comfortable with their conversations and people have been through quite a profound experience.

How do you get people to feel comfortable in the environment and open up?

A lot of it is about sharing stories from the faculty, them opening up about their own experiences and making sure that their teaching style is very personal.

What’s your ultimate vision for The School of Life?

The ultimate vision for the school and what I’d love to see, is it becomes a school where people can come back to when they feel they need a little bit of a boost. Whether that’s when they’re looking for a new career, going through a horrible break-up, or entering the third age into retirement, all the way through to when they’re trying to deal with the idea of dying, the school can be a bit of a cornerstone in someone’s life. In order to do that we need to be in more cities. My vision is that we have a very permanent school in Melbourne opening next year, and then we have pop-up terms in other cities in Australia over the next couple of years. I hope to open more permanent schools in Sydney, Brisbane and Perth inside the next five years. It will create a nationwide community.

You were talking about how The School of Life can be your rock, a lifelong thing that you can visit. You mentioned how it’s being used in the third stage, but could it be used for the younger community, that awkward transition phase? Are you thinking of introducing it into high schools?

There are huge opportunities. A lot more schools these days are doing philosophy, which is an incredibly important tool for encouraging creative and lateral thinking, problem solving, and this idea of learning how to learn rather than learning content. Our school doesn’t play a role yet at primary and high school level, most of our content is pitched more at the professional level.

However what we often find is the majority of people that come to our school have been in a professional career for a while, they’ve been working at a bank, for say 10 years, and they’ve decided that they actually don’t want to do that anymore. They then come to the school for guidance, but what would be wonderful is if we actually had conversations with those people before they embarked on their careers, so they could deal with those questions before they’ve spent 10 years in an industry that they might not be suited to them.

The idea of working with school kids is a wonderful option, but we haven’t got there yet. What we have got is a lifelong school and that touches on various phases through life.

Yeah, because students at my school can write a 2000-word essay on Romeo and Juliet with no problem, however they struggle to get up in front of the class and talk about their weekend. In a way, do you believe the education system is flawed because we’re not incorporating School of Life type programs into the curriculum?

It is very easy to say that the school system is flawed, and it is in lots of ways. The fundamental problem is that it is so heavily assessment based, it doesn’t give teachers freedom.

Teachers set their children up for life; not just for the next exam or the next career.

The best way to do that is to give them freedom and flexibility to properly teach and guide their students and they don’t have that at the moment. However, I’d also say that we live in a very lucky country with lots of opportunities… we have a very good education system.

There’s always going to be room for improvement.

Exactly, it’s not just about studying Shakespeare, but Shakespeare’s a wonderful writer. He actually had lessons for us about how we live our lives today. We try to draw those out and apply it in a more practical way for the modern world, rather than just saying it’s a nice literature study, there are lessons there for us.

Why did you get involved with The School of Life?

I think I felt that there was a real gap between a lot of the conversations that we have in our organisations Small Giants and Dumbo Feather and our incredible passion to try and inspire other people lead meaningful and conscious lives, but we weren’t getting that conversation to the mainstream.

What attracted me to the school is that it has a real cut-through ability to get to people that otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to these kinds of conversations. There was sort of a pragmatic element.

The sort of people that most need these conversations are not the ones that are having them.

They are the people working 100-hour weeks, who don’t have a moment to spare and they’re really struggling because they’re so bogged down in their day-to-day. It’s not a difficult thing to access, that was a main thing for us.

More personally, my wife went through a career transition. She went from working in corporate finance for about seven or eight years—before which she went through a deep self-reflection about what she wanted to do in the world—and then she decided she wanted to be a primary school teacher. She then went and did her diploma in primary school teaching, and now she’s a teacher.

Being part of that experience with her showed me how incredibly important these conversations are and how completely life changing they can be if we can provide people access to them and a community to foster those kind of conversations. If we can do that, we do change lives. If people are more deeply in contact with who they really are and who they want to be and are much more conscious about their choices, then the ripple effect from that is that people will do better things in the world and the world will be better. It’s changing the world one person at a time.

If there were one thing you could change about your emotional intelligence what would it be?

There’s an element when you’re running an organisation like The School of Life or any early stage organisation of overestimating your ability to achieve things in a certain amount of time. We all run incredibly fast, and are incredibly enthusiastic and passionate about what we do and there’s always a risk in that.

You could burn out or burn others out, or you don’t fully appreciate the impact of your intensity on yourself, and your own health and wellbeing, and also the other people around you, and that’s something we can all really improve on. What about you?


It’s a difficult question.

It is a difficult question. I wish I went for things more, not to just do what’s expected, to push the boundaries a bit. I don’t want to have a life where I just go to school, go to uni, get married, settle down, have children. I want to do something different. I want to change things.

Well you’re here which is a good start.


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