Alumni – Cecil-Francis Brenninkmeijer

Cecil-Francis Brenninkmeijer is a Dutch-American senior at Georgetown University, where he majors in Economics. Upon graduating in 2021, he will join Vanguard as an investment analyst, having spent a summer in the investment manager’s fixed income group. Cecil-Francis is keen on the environment and sustainability, and interned for two years at Rare, a conservation NGO. You can probably find him with his trumpet, or, like everyone else, discovering baking during quarantine.

Potolicchio: What PGLF school did you do and what was your most memorable moment or takeaway? 

Brenninkmeijer: I attended PGLF Bulgaria in the summer of 2018. My most memorable takeaway was some advice Professor Potolicchio gave us (apologies if I’m revealing any PGLF spoilers!). The advice was as following: those feelings of intense mental discomfort that crop up in stressful, cognitively demanding situations (for instance, a PGLF debate) are actually a good sign. As the analogy goes, much like our body’s muscles grow stronger after being torn apart, so it is with our brains. And it’s so true. This has given me the means to endure quite a few situations outside of my comfort zone.

Potolicchio: What is something that you are confident about, but most people would dismiss?

Brenninkmeijer: We cannot take all that much responsibility for our own successes or failures. I cannot take much credit for this idea (if you’re interested, read Free Will by Sam Harris). But it’s worth restating here, since most people do seem to find this idea hard to stomach, whereas to me it seems quite self-evident. So, let’s unpack it. Consider any big achievement or strength of yours. Now, I don’t intend to downplay it (you should be proud of it!), but to where or whom should we attribute credit for it? Let’s say, for instance, you’re a math whizz (as an economics student, I envy you). Have you ever wondered why might this be the case?

Broadly speaking, I can conceive of three possible reasons. Firstly, you were endowed with natural talent. Through little effort, you could already solve eigenvector problems by high school. In this scenario, I trust my point is relatively easy to accept. We cannot take credit for our natural traits since we have no control over them. Secondly, your parents reared you in a manner conducive to speedy mathematical progress. They are either themselves mathematically inclined and could impart useful wisdom, or they invested significant time. Can you take credit for your parents? And thirdly (this is the tough one to digest), you were not always mathematically gifted, but you had to work and possibly struggle immensely to get to where you are. Surely now you can take the credit, no? 

Well, even in this instance, not really, I would wager. How did you happen upon this instinct to work so hard, when many others lack it? Really think about that. If work ethic is simply some switch that we can all flick on - like a light - why hasn’t everyone else done so? And if it’s a switch only you have access to, how can you take credit for it? How did you get access? The realistic answer: you don’t really know. It’s as much a function of chance as your biology and parents.

So, in no scenario could you take responsibility for your strengths. The good news? The same goes for your weaknesses!

Potolicchio: What is a book we need to read to prepare for the future?

Brenninkmeijer: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist. The phrase, “the world is becoming so polarized” is now said with such regularity, it’s almost becoming trite. Yet it’s one of those rare cases where the commotion is more than deserved. Our political and ideological adversaries are increasingly seen as mortal enemies, while those who share our priors can do no harm. This, we tell ourselves, is not an issue, since we have dispassionately reasoned our way to a belief system that adheres to the values society should care about, while our opponents have either selfishly or ignorantly conspired to stand in the way.

As Haidt shows, this style of thinking does not rest on solid foundations. Human reasoning is far too motivated and subject to bias for us to give ourselves that much credit. And in any case, this isn’t a good starting place for conversations. Instead, we should concede that different people may have different conceptions of ‘the good state’, and work from there. 

Don’t get me wrong, I still have my politics. But the book has helped me to operate from a place of more good faith, and I’m better for it.

Potolicchio: When international travel opens back up, what's the spot you'd most recommend we try out?

Brenninkmeijer: I will suggest one close to home. When international travel is possible, make your way to Washington DC, and specifically to K Street. There you’ll find a gem of a restaurant founded by Pakistani immigrants. Their buffet is to die for, and they have a no-questions asked free meal policy for nearby homeless people. You need to do yourself a favor and order the palak paneer and lamb chops.

(This is not a paid endorsement, but if the restaurant somehow sees this and wants to compensate me in meals, I would not be averse).

Potolicchio: What's a signature productivity hack that has worked well for you during your career?

Brenninkmeijer: Not trying to multitask. This one has really done wonders for me. Instead of dividing my cognitive bandwidth across multiple tasks (or switching really quickly between them), I am now exceedingly intentional about devoting my attention to one task. I have become far more satisfied with my work as a result.

Heed the warning of my old teacher, Bilbo Baggins, who once remarked, “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

Potolicchio: What advice would you go back and give yourself at 18?

Brenninkmeijer: Relax! Take a deep breath. You don’t have to spend so much time hypothesizing what all could go wrong. And you don’t have to be nervous about what other students or colleagues think. Everyone is rooting for you, and if they’re not, you probably shouldn’t pay them much attention.

Actually, come to think of it, I could still probably benefit from this advice.