How Can I Improve My Cooking Skills?

How Can I Improve My Cooking Skills?

I’ve failed at a lot of things over the years, especially in the kitchen. For most of my twenties, I asked myself the question: how can I improve my cooking skills?

Answering this didn’t require memorising recipes or inventing clever food hacks. What it took was time, experimentation, and coming up with simple systems that made food preparation healthy and enjoyable.

This is the story of how I learned to improve my cooking skills by creating and improving upon meal prep systems.

No Kids in the Kitchen

I grew up in a rather traditional family. My mother was an excellent cook, and the kitchen was her domain. I would occasionally poke my head in and stir a pot or two, but whenever I did she would run me out. I was supposed to be focusing on my domain: learning, studying, and acing my exams.

Once I hit age 12, the kitchen was like a foreign country to me. But as long as the food appeared, there was no need to understand how it was created. 

I’m not proud to admit that it never occurred to me that one day I would need to make food for myself, that I would be clueless in my own kitchen, or what I would even care about learning how to improve my cooking skills.

Canteens, Cafeterias, and Calories

Many universities encourage students to focus on their studies. Basic life skills are pushed to the back of the plate (pun intended), which means we have to rely on the university to provide our meals. The canteen at Cambridge had an impressive rotating menu, so I never really thought about food. I just showed up, ate, then went back to studying.

When I was 20 I embarked on an Erasmus year in Germany, which was essentially an exchange program for studying abroad. This immediately changed my relationship with food. Now I paid for my own food out of pocket; no more ready-made meals at the canteen. 

Finding filling and nutritious food was too much of a hassle, so I stuck with the cheap and tasty stuff instead: pizza, pastries, sweets, crisps, and my all-time favourite: sweetened smoothies. I even started pouring fruit juice onto my sugary breakfast cereal. Not exactly a healthy diet.

My diet was abysmal, and my health suffered as a result. There was a perpetual brain fog that dominated my mental world, and I gained pound after pound from the excess calories.

The funny thing was: I had no idea this was due to my dieting habits.

How Can I Improve My Cooking Skills Today?

It took a few years, but eventually, I came to my senses. If I wanted to think better and feel better, I needed to eat better. My kitchen skills were non-existent, so I started my journey to culinary success one awkward attempt at a time.

My first forays into cooking were simple meals of lentils, cheese, and tomatoes. Served cold or hot, they were filling, healthy, and economical. More importantly, these experiments helped me learn basic kitchen skills and develop my confidence in the kitchen.

What most people don’t tell you is that cooking doesn’t come naturally to everyone. It’s easy to burn a meal, over-spice a soup, botch a boil, or leave out an ingredient and ruin an entire dinner. I did all of these things ten times over, but I kept moving forward. On one occasion in Berlin, I actually nearly burned my kitchen down after leaving sweet potatoes in the oven for too long!

After about 5 years of trial and error, I realised that meal prepping was the solution I was looking for.

Meal Prep to the Rescue

By focusing on creating a system of buying, preparing, and storing healthy meals for the week, I could save both time and money. I would also be able to improve my cooking skills incrementally without the pressure of having to cook every day.

Some of my first meal prep successes were simple proteins like pork or chicken with two sides of vegetables. I could make them on Sunday afternoon, put them in the freezer, and reheat them on busy days during the week.

Fajitas were also a win for me, as was Shepherd’s Pie and a fragrant pork and apricot stew with mixed vegetables. I still make that one to this day, and I still enjoy it.

By coming up with a prep system and experimenting with simple meals in the kitchen, I gradually answered my question from years before:

How can I improve my cooking skills?

By trying to cook, learning from my mistakes, and continuing to try again.

Better Food, Better Health

Eventually, my brain fog lifted, and physically; I felt like I was myself again. The more healthy meals I prepared the more I wanted to eat them. I gradually cut down on junk food and eventually stopped craving sweets. I even replaced the fruit juice in my cereal with coconut milk!

All of this was because I had healthy food sitting in the refrigerator, ready to eat whenever I was hungry. And the better my cooking skills became, the more confident I became in trying out new healthy recipes.

Using shopping lists and a blocked-off time for prepping, cooking, and storing freed me up to spend my mental energy on other pursuits. I also came to the realisation that I enjoyed preparing meals, which meant I spent more time in the kitchen improving my cooking skills.

All Systems Go!

There is inherent value in creating and adhering to systems that streamline your life. More often than not, these systems are not taught in conventional schools, which I think is a mistake.

Basic things like cooking skills are useful to us every day of our lives. They don’t just allow us to make fancy breakfast plates, they help us think more clearly and feel better physically. That adds up to improvements in all areas of life, not just in the kitchen.

I launched Universal Owl with the intention of ensuring that young people can obtain the skills they need to be happy, self-sufficient, and socially useful. This can begin in the kitchen with a simple pork and apricot stew.

Geoff Walters is a six-time entrepreneur and founder of Universal Owl. He has been fascinated by the subject of personal development for ten years, and enjoys passing lessons from his own life experience to younger people.

Areas of interest include wealth creation, nutrition, chess, classical music, psychology, communication and languages.

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Why The Achievement Mindset You Learned In School is Toxic

Why The Achievement Mindset You Learned In School is Toxic

If your school was anything like mine, you sat through countless lectures on the importance of achievement. I heard the same speeches again and again from parents, teachers, chaplains and headteachers.

Whether it’s grades, playing a musical instrument, or competing on the sports field, young people are told over and over that they must focus on goals and success for the sake of their future careers. After all, what could be more important than achievement?

Would it surprise you to learn that I think this obsession with achievement is a toxic attitude that does more harm than good?

What’s Wrong with the Achievement Mindset?

I was raised by two teachers in a goal-oriented family in which academic achievement was everything. My parents stressed not only that I had to do well at school, but I had to do better than other people as well. 

When I studied something, it wasn’t because I was curious about the world. If I’m really honest with myself, I studied hard because I wanted to shore up my ego. To put it another way, I just wanted to feel worthy. I remember being ashamed around age 12 when I got 90% on a Geography exam. I felt I should be doing better than that. My peers noticed that I took failure personally and, in the way only children can, bullied me mercilessly as a result.

It wasn’t only me who felt this way. In fact, the school system encourages us to equate our worth as people with our academic results

Think about it for a moment. Someone who gets good grades is called a “good student,” implying that they are hardworking, morally upright, and a good person. Someone who struggles or does poorly in any subject is called a “bad student,” implying that they are lazy or stupid, and even that they are a bad person.

Even for us “good students,” equating self-worth with achievement is a terribly dysfunctional way of thinking. I actually know a number of people from my time at Cambridge University who are still traumatised by their school experience years later. For me, it took a lot of self-reflection and a memorable talk with an ex-girlfriend to learn that I am more than just my work.

The Achievement Mindset Infects Everything

It’s bad enough that this mindset sucks the joy out of learning and puts pressure on students academically. But that wasn’t enough masochism for me! I also applied the same toxic mindset to my hobbies.

People who know me know that I played the French horn for years, most recently as principal horn in my local orchestra in Berlin. It might surprise you to learn that I have always hated practising my instrument. I only wanted to get the notes right so as to feel like I had played well after a concert, not struggle and fail as I worked out how to play.

If my aim had been to achieve proficiency at the French horn, then practising wouldn’t have been an issue. I would probably have enjoyed it. Instead, I was focused on the results of playing well rather than the process of getting to that point. It wasn’t about getting good at the instrument; it was about executing a perfect performance and earning praise from others. As my horn teacher put it:

“You’re only as good as your last concert.”

I am sad to say that this attitude led me to miss out on much of the joy of practising my craft for its own sake. Even today, I am so easily sucked into the achievement mindset that I no longer wish to play my horn in orchestras.

Real Motivation Comes from Within

Having shared my struggles with the achievement mindset leads to the following question: why do so many people think that focusing on achievement is a good thing?

One reason is that getting good results is motivating. If you want to get good grades, you’ll push yourself to work harder, right? That’s somewhat true, but it’s only half the story.

Psychologists distinguish between two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. The achievement mindset is an example of extrinsic motivation. You want to do well so that you can get validation from outside of yourself, such as winning a prize, getting a good grade, or receiving praise from other people.

Extrinsic motivation isn’t good for you in the long term. It leaves you dependent on others to shore up your ego. If you ever stop getting this validation from others, your motivation crumbles.

If you want to be happy, cultivate intrinsic motivation. Here, your motivation comes from within your own life, not from someone else. You work at something because it interests you and you want to learn more. You want to master a new skill and are eager to pursue it no matter how much work you have to put into learning it. 

Intrinsic motivation is motivation no-one can take away from you. And it’s the complete opposite of the achievement mindset.

How I Broke Free

So we’ve learned that an achievement mindset pushes you to seek your reward from the end goal, not the process itself. It also sets that reward outside of yourself, making you dependent on external sources to feel good about the things you have done.

How can you break the pattern and focus on utilising intrinsic motivation instead?

There’s no perfect answer to this question, but I can speak to my own experience. The key for me has been to focus on systems and habits instead of results. Let me explain.

Through life experience, I’ve learned what I value. Here’s a (non-exhaustive) list:

  • Eating healthily
  • Sleeping deeply
  • Having time at the end of the day to rest
  • Avoiding toxic relationships
  • Being my own boss

Let’s take the first item on that list: eating healthily. Ok, so I’ve identified that this is a value of mine, and that it’s important to me. The next step is to create a series of habits and systems that makes eating well easy and predictable. 

Note: my attention is not on eating perfectly every day (= achievement mindset), but rather on creating the dietary habits that align with my values (= intrinsic motivation).

Stage 1 of this journey for me was to cut out processed foods as far as possible. I started reading labels and taking pride in avoiding buying foods with added sugar. I learned that if I don’t buy them, I don’t eat them. This was easy to do and felt good. But I still missed meals some of the time and even still ate junk food occasionally.

Stage 2 was copying a system I learned from an ex-girlfriend. She had a habit of cooking food the night before and taking leftovers to school or work the next day. I noticed that I lacked the willpower to cook every day, and started copying her system. It was easier to take those leftovers and eat them instead of junk or snacks. But I was still sometimes too tired after work to cook every day.

Stage 3 was to learn about meal prep. These days, I go shopping on Saturday mornings and prepare a huge batch of food on Sunday evenings. I then eat this food over the next 7 days. I find that I save time, money and energy this way — all while eating better more of the time. 

I am sure that I will continue to refine my dietary system over time. But if I were to try to abstract some general principles of breaking free from achievement mindset out of my personal experience, they would look something like this:

  1. Know yourself well enough to know what you value.
  2. Establish a regular system or habit that helps you get what you value. It doesn’t have to be perfect; just start somewhere.
  3. Test your system against reality. Inevitably, you’ll fail a few times and learn from those experiences.
  4. Make a better system on the basis of your learning. Take pride in making your habits as functional and aligned with the real world as possible.
  5. Repeat and improve your system over time. This will help you acquire a feeling of competence, or self-efficacy as psychologists would say.

Rid Yourself of the Achievement Mindset

It is my contention that everybody learns the achievement mindset in school, and those who deny this are probably the ones who suffer from it the most. The achievement mindset is so ingrained into our culture that it’s hard to even become aware of it, let alone rid yourself of it.

Learning to motivate yourself with systems which reflect your values will help you infinitely more than trying to impress other people with your performance. But before you establish habits or systems, the key to starting this journey is to become aware of how the achievement mindset manifests itself in your life:

  • Are there areas in your life where you focus too much on the goal, ignoring the steps you’ll take to get there? 
  • Do you beat yourself up for being a “bad student” in any area of your life?
  • Are you addicted to the high of “achievement” in any area of your life?

Consider if there are areas in which your focus on achievement is holding you back. If you do that, you’ll be one step closer to ridding yourself of this toxic mindset.

Geoff Walters is a six-time entrepreneur and founder of Universal Owl. He has been fascinated by the subject of personal development for ten years, and enjoys passing lessons from his own life experience to younger people.

Areas of interest include wealth creation, nutrition, chess, classical music, psychology, communication and languages.

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Why Young People Should Reject Moral Relativism To Lead a Better Life

Why Young People Should Reject Moral Relativism To Lead a Better Life

What makes something good or bad? How do we determine right from wrong when there are so many different opinions on the topic? Philosophers, religious leaders, and everyone in between have been trying to figure this out for thousands of years. 

One attempt at answering this question is moral relativism. The theory goes a bit like this:

“There is no such thing as universal right or wrong. People and cultures are free to form their own moral truths, and those truths are always correct, as there are no objective truths to compare them to.”

A lot of people today subscribe to moral relativism, but I believe it’s a dangerous concept that encourages individuals and entire societies to abandon the quest for betterment. Let me explain.

Adding Relativism to Morality

The concept of relativism stretches back thousands of years. 

A classic example of moral relativism comes to us from the ancient historian Herodotus. He describes an encounter between the Callatians, a tribe who ate their dead, and the ancient Greeks, who practised cremation. Each group thought their own practice was “right” and the other’s was “wrong.”

A moral relativist would say that both the ancient Greeks and the Callatians were in the right. There is no universally correct way to dispose of the dead, no rules dealt out by the universe that dictate what we’re supposed to do. And besides, who are we to judge what another culture does?

This sounds like a harmonious outlook towards life, especially in our modern society with its emphasis on tolerating others. The reality is that it’s a fundamentally broken theory. 

Moral Relativism is Logically Inconsistent

Consider the core statement of moral relativism, that all truths are relative. 

The problem is this: “all truths are relative” is itself a universal claim about moral truths. You can’t simultaneously claim there’s no such thing as universal truth AND then make a universal statement like that about all truths

This is logically self-contradictory and serves as the first sign that the theory is broken.

Moral Relativism Ignores Reality

There is a real world out there and we can use that to inform many of the moral decisions we make. Consider this nice picture of the Eiffel Tower:

Let’s say that Sally believes the Eiffel Tower is made of cheese. Roger believes it’s made of soap. Should we conclude that because these two disagree there is no universally correct answer to the question? Of course not. There are ways to objectively determine what the Eiffel Tower is composed of (it’s iron, by the way). This remains true no matter what Sally or Roger believe.

Morals are less tangible than towers, but there are still cases when they can be informed by objective data. To return to the ancient Greek example from earlier, we now know there are health hazards associated with cannibalism. Practising cannibalism carries those risks, no matter what our beliefs are.

By studying the real world, we can find information about what our morals point to and make well-reasoned decisions that are good for both ourselves and for society.

Moral Relativism as an Excuse for Evil

Still think moral relativism is okay? Sure, it’s logically inconsistent, but who cares? Let me challenge you a bit further.

Here’s a sobering fact: moral relativism requires us to accept the worst parts of human nature as morally permissible

  • Thomas enjoys raping babies in his spare time. But who are we to judge whether this is good or bad?
  • David keeps a slave who he forces to work for 20 hours a day without stopping. If the slave wants a break, David beats him with a stick. Oh well, David is entitled to his own beliefs.
  • Elizabeth burns her husband with a lighter whenever she is angry. After all, it’s what her mum did to her, so it’s fine. To each their own, right?

It doesn’t take much empathy to realise that the behaviour in these examples is morally unacceptable. Regardless of the moral standards of the time, behaviour like this has been objectively wrong across all cultures for all of human history, and will continue to be so in the future. 

But here’s the problem: if you believe in moral relativism, you have no logical basis for calling out behaviour like this. Morality is relative, so everything is fine. It’s just a matter of opinion.

Frankly, this is lazy reasoning that is used to justify cowardly behaviour — like not calling examples like these evil.

Moral Relativism Leads to Individual and Cultural Stagnation

To be clear, I don’t think that most of the people who believe in moral relativism would support the sort of sociopathic behaviour described above. 

Rather, my main reason for speaking out against moral relativism is that it discourages reflection and self-improvement. If everything is relative, there is nothing to strive for. 

If a moral relativist were to live consistently with their theory, they would do nothing but sit around in bed all day watching Netflix. After all, what’s the point in taking action to live a better life if everything is relative anyway? 

Starting an exercise routine, going to therapy, or founding a business are all a waste of time, because someone who’s doing those things is neither better nor worse off than someone who is not. 

Even science itself and the pursuit of objective knowledge would become pointless. It’s just a matter of opinion, say the relativists. Who are we to judge? Why bother forging our own path if everything we believe is already correct? 

This is a cowardly way to live and a terrible way to set up a society. 

My Journey From Moral Relativism to Self-Improvement

Over the last 10 years, I have observed a number of dysfunctional behaviours in myself and the people around me. Here are just a few examples:

  • I was given to manipulating people to get approval from them, especially women. I previously wrote about this here.
  • I used to eat poorly and had energy issues as a result. Now I meal prep once a week and have a great diet. 
  • I have been to therapy multiple times and identified a lot of dysfunction in my family environment.
  • I used to feel a lot of anxiety about spending money on anything that was non-essential. I needed to learn about financial abundance and rethink my mindset.

If I had no objective moral standard to compare my own behaviour against, none of this growth would have been possible. Yes, seeing my own flaws has been painful, but that pain has been so worthwhile. 

My intention for Universal Owl is to help young people embark on their own journey of self-betterment. It is my belief that this is how we improve society: by encouraging each individual to accept responsibility for their own inadequacies from a young age and work through their own issues. 

There are objectively healthy behaviours in the realms of relationships, communication, diet, sleep, finances and more. It is the mission of Universal Owl to uncover these behaviours and teach them to as many young people as possible.

Becoming a Better Person

The path to self-betterment begins with comparing ourselves against an objective moral standard and realising that we can improve ourselves. 

There are ways to objectively measure what is good, especially in the areas of life that come into direct contact with the real world. It’s a gradual process of analysing your inner world, comparing it to the external world, searching for an action you can take that would bring about change for good, then finding the best way to implement that change.

Sometimes this change is as simple as removing harmful habits or starting up new ones, like creating an exercise routine. That might sound like an insignificant move, but it’s objectively better than not exercising, and can lead to improvements across your entire life.

Other times, change for the better means learning a new skill, something that’s useful no matter where you live or what you do. Writing and speaking skills can help you better articulate your ideas to the world. That holds true no matter what you do for a living, making it an incredibly useful meta-skill to work on, one that is universally good.

But self-betterment can’t happen if we ignore objective facts. Not every idea, opinion, or moral outlook is correct, let alone good for individuals or good for the world. And that is why we must dispense with moral relativism. 

By looking at objective reality as often as possible, and by considering our actions in terms of their broader implication, we can take huge strides in the direction of living healthier, more functional, and more conscious lives.

Geoff Walters is a six-time entrepreneur and founder of Universal Owl. He has been fascinated by the subject of personal development for ten years, and enjoys passing lessons from his own life experience to younger people.

Areas of interest include wealth creation, nutrition, chess, classical music, psychology, communication and languages.

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The Pointlessness of Prestige: Why Attending Cambridge Was a Poor Decision

The Pointlessness of Prestige: Why Attending Cambridge Was a Poor Decision

When I tell people I went to Cambridge, the reaction normally goes something like this:

“Wow, you must be like a super genius or something!”

Comments like these, while a boost to the ego, always make me wince inwardly. I don’t think very highly of Cambridge, nor of any decision that is predicated on prestige. I would much rather people compliment me on my courage and resilience than on a fading piece of yellowish paper from a fading institution.

Living the middle-class dream

I enrolled in Cambridge because that’s what I was supposed to do. “Go to the most prestigious university possible,” my parents said. “Associate with the right crowd, impress the right people, then surf through life on a wave of success.”

What I didn’t realise at the time was how this encouraged me to look for validation outside of myself. It didn’t matter what I learned or how I improved as a person, only that I followed the tried and tested path from educational achievement to career prosperity. I needed the right degree certificate and the right connections. That, apparently, would lead to happiness and fulfilment.

I was actually a total misfit during my first year at Cambridge. Most of my peers engaged in a mix of studying and socialising (read: drinking). I ignored the latter and focused on doing everything my professors asked of me. I joined clubs and filled my out-of-class hours with extra-curricular activities. It was a brutal schedule, and the strain of keeping it led to more than a few sleepless nights. But because my attendance and grades earned praise, I continued thinking I was doing the right thing for my future.

My Cambridge college
My Cambridge college

The wake-up call

It wasn’t until my second year that I started to see the trap I had fallen into. Cambridge puts students on a treadmill of achievement which leads precisely nowhere. I wasn’t supposed to gain knowledge or improve myself, not really. My job was to please professors and pass exams – no matter the cost to my well-being.

I soon discovered that there were easier ways to achieve those ends without suffering the drawbacks that come with sitting in the library for 10 hours a day. It was a simple matter to read articles about assigned materials instead of crawling through dense source texts. The outcome was basically the same — good enough marks to get by and to gain the approval I craved. The only difference was that I gained very little in terms of knowledge. Nobody cared about that fact, however. Not my teachers, not my family, and certainly not Cambridge.

As I was questioning the purpose and value of my education, a wake-up call came in the most cliché way possible: I met a girl. She was captivating and pretty. There was no question I wanted to pursue her. Rejection seemed likely, as I wasn’t very experienced with relationships, but I went for it all the same. To my surprise, my efforts were successful.

Personal growth from an unlikely source

The relationship itself, such that it was, wasn’t my wake-up call. It was a single conversation we had about the manner in which I pursued her. She described me as… suave. My immediate internal reaction was complete disbelief. Suave? I wasn’t suave, I was new to all of this. How could I, the studious bookworm with excellent grades and no social life, be suave?

Like anyone my age, I turned to the internet for answers. Obviously I had done something right. I wanted to know exactly what that was, whether it was part of my personality, and what I could do to nurture it. I stumbled upon pick-up artistry (PUA) and read all about seduction systems I could use to intentionally become more successful with women.

Me as a PUA

Of course, looking back on this now, I consider it a dysfunctional way of thinking. But at the time, it gave me a framework for how I could behave in order to manipulate women into liking me. Through learning this consciously, I was later able to see in therapy how I had been unconsciously using similar techniques for years to win the approval of my professors, parents, and other authority figures. I realised that I had been searching for validation from others for all this time. In reality, trying to control what someone else thinks of you is inevitably a losing game.

It wasn’t the pick up artistry itself that inspired change. It was the act of striking out on my own and being willing to think for myself, even at the risk of failing. This was in sharp contrast to Cambridge telling me to ignore self-knowledge and work to gain the approval of others. Good grades please professors. It didn’t matter what I learned in the process, if anything at all. My strange pursuit of pick-up artistry offered insight into myself as well as tangible value to my life.

The worthlessness of prestige in real life

I continued this shift away from achievement-hunting as I finished my studies at Cambridge. I turned my attention inward, sought intrinsic validation for my pursuits and ideas and became more confident as a result.

I also faced the cold reality of the limitations of my education. Having a prestigious university’s name stamped on my degree didn’t mean I was more capable than other people. I still faced challenges and failures just like my peers, and I couldn’t overcome them by simply name-dropping my alma mater. I’ll be blunt: this was one of the hardest things I have ever had to realise. That statement alone shows you how entitled I felt at the time to a good job.

In the cases where mentioning Cambridge did open doors for me, I quickly learned that those doors were not worth stepping through. Someone who values a name over ability is not someone with an intelligent values system, nor are they someone you want to work with.

My takeaway from Cambridge is simple: prestige is a worthless currency. It’s little more than an illusion. Enabled by the youthful naivety of its students and the economic ignorance of their school teachers, the university is guilty of milking this illusion for its own financial benefit. It banks on former successes to create this bizarre name-worship situation, sacrificing the personal growth of its students in the process.

Yes, Newton developed his three laws of motion while at Trinity College, Cambridge. Watson and Crick also defined the double-helix structure of DNA at Cambridge. Such achievements cannot be imparted onto other Cambridge students, however. Those people worked and fought and failed before earning their place in history, and we must do the same.

The value of acquiring real-life knowledge

If you take nothing else away from this article, let it be the value of self-directed learning. There is real and lasting value in learning for practical purposes, and in ditching the impulse to earn praise from people around you. Instead, look for ideas that are right for your unique character. Expand your horizons until you find your interests, then hone in and specialise. Get to know your own temperament through self-analysis and you will discover the true value of learning.

I don’t regret my time at Cambridge. If I had known then what I know now, I would have probably started a business at age 18 instead of going to university; there’s no faster way to learn and grow. However, my time in mainstream education is what gave me the inspiration to start this business and the confidence to speak frankly about the constraints of a life built around prestige and the approval of others. Prestige may be desirable, but you don’t need to rely on institutions for validation. As Y-Combinator’s Paul Graham said: “Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious.”

Geoff Walters is a six-time entrepreneur and founder of Universal Owl. He has been fascinated by the subject of personal development for ten years, and enjoys passing lessons from his own life experience to younger people.

Areas of interest include wealth creation, nutrition, chess, classical music, psychology, communication and languages.

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