As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Erdin Beshimov, an entrepreneur and educator at MIT. He believes that the mission of education is to help humanity escape the Paradox of Progress. He also predicts that the best universities of the 22nd century will be different from the best universities today.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
I was born and grew up in a country that no longer exists — the Soviet Union. When the country fell part, I was taught an important lesson: things change, sometimes dramatically. Imagine the United States breaking up into fifty different countries, Massachusetts and Connecticut having two different currencies, and one needing a visa to go from Boston to New York. What’s written in stone could, in fact, be written in sand.
I am very grateful for that experience. It educated me about one powerful force — uncertainty. This is some very useful education indeed. Here’s what it comes down to: no one can predict the future. Sounds simplistically obvious, but let’s follow this logic one step further. If no one can predict the future, this means that no one can predict your future.
Allow your mind for a moment to accept this idea. Strangely, this experience can be surprising. But if you allow it, your mind will arrive at another unexpected but liberating realization: the best predictor of your own future is you. You are in charge of your destiny. The world can know everything about your past and still know nothing about your future.
I know that I am giving you a backstory that’s neither literal nor linear. But I wanted to give you the backstory that truly matters.
At any rate, I am an entrepreneur and educator. I have co-founded a number of companies and organizations such as Ubiquitous Energy, MIT Bootcamps, and MITx MicroMasters and I now teach entrepreneurship at MIT. It’s a very interesting thing to be both an entrepreneur and educator. These domains are symbiotic. Entrepreneurship is a process of learning, and education in general, I believe, should teach people to be entrepreneurial.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
I believe we all are on the same journey. This is the journey to grow the power of the human spirit. In this sense, my journey is your journey and the journey of everyone around us. This is our common road of many paths.
One of my earliest and most enduring inspirations comes from my time living with my grandparents in the countryside of Kyrgyzstan. We had a neighbor, Jambai-Ake. He was an old man and lived by himself. His wife had passed away long before that. His house was a tiny hut that he built by himself with mudbricks, wood branches and hay. It had only one window.
Jambai-Ake had a cow and some chickens. His plot of land was so small that it hadn’t space for a roofed shelter for his animals. On cold winter nights Jambai-Ake would bring his animals under his roof. They would hide from the winds of winter together.
Now and then I would see Jambai-Ake going up our road toward the hills to collect firewood and hay. He would return carrying a large sack on his back. I remember vividly how he smiled, his head barely peering from under the sack, his skin dark brown from all day in the sun.
My granddad and Jambai-Ake loved talking to each other. They laughed at the little things, at the way two sparrows would fight over a wheat seed or the way a toddler tried to climb on a donkey. And I remember their wide, genuine smiles, giving off loud, old-man laughs. They were happy. Not from possessions, achievements, or exciting experiences. Their joy was simple, inherent, free. And in that it was pure.
I believe very deeply that humanity needs this kind of joy. That we must free ourselves from the shackles of possessions and the mirage of experience-based happiness. Pure joy is within us, but when it is suppressed or shunted for the superficial, we find ourselves disconnected from who we are.
We cannot restore pure joy by escaping modern society. We can only do that by building a better one, globally. This means creating global educational communities that could wrest people from archaic institutions, oppressive traditions, and local prejudices. This is the path I’m on.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I started my professional career in the United States at a small software company in Boston. On my first day I went from department to department meeting the team. In the sales department someone asked me, “Erdin, how do you like the Red Sox?” I half-jokingly answered, “Couldn’t care less. Silly sport.”
So right there and then, with one off-hand comment, I boxed myself in as a cocky foreigner from Harvard. Not a great start. It took me six months to earn back respect.
And I don’t mean to say that one has to love baseball. Nor do I recommend that one feigns interest. But when in Rome, take interest in what Romans love. Be keen to know more. Appreciate someone’s love, even if you do not understand it. We treat curiosity as a spontaneous inclination. Rather, it’s a learned habit.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
His name is Bill Hansen. He was a professor at a school where I began my higher education, the American University in Central Asia. The school was a remarkable and very positive experiment. It was an American-style liberal arts college for former Soviet kids. Bill was one of several Americans teaching there.
I met him on a walk through the corridors of the school. I heard a loud voice from one of the classrooms. It was Bill. I poked my head in. I don’t remember exactly what transpired, but next thing I knew I was taking his course on political philosophy.
Hobbes, Rousseau and Fanon all came alive for us students in Bill’s class. He made us feel like we were having conversations with these great philosophers. And he instilled in us that the purpose of great thinking is great deeds. He gave us sociological imagination, the ability to connect our personal lives to the big events on the world stage. He believed in us.
Bill had a way to treat you as a peer, but to keep you accountable too. He encouraged me to apply to Harvard. And he persisted in the encouragement. For a kid growing up on the outskirts of a broken empire that meant something.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
The hardest part in the beginning of a new journey is loneliness. But loneliness is also the crucible of character. It takes loneliness to realize that you are not alone, that there is a guiding force and there is meaning.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
My mother. She is an amazing person. She worries about everything, but fears nothing.
I remember walking with her from school in first grade. She picked me up and we walked home through a beautiful park in our neighborhood. She asked me about school and I told her how happy I was that I got a “5.” (This was the highest grade that one could get. The lowest was 1 and the grades escalated from 1 to 5.) I expected her to praise me.
“You cannot be happy with a 5,” she said instead. I asked why.
“People like us do not have the privilege to be content with 5s,” she answered. (And what she meant by “people like us” was that we lived in a country where, if you weren’t members of a leading ethnicity or an influential regional clan, you had a glass ceiling.)
“People like us can only be content with a 6.”
“But there is no 6,” I said.
“There is, there always is,” she answered.
This kind of conversation affects you as a child. It takes your focus away from what’s hard or what’s easy. The focus is only on what’s necessary.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
I am grateful and blessed. Grit and resilience always lead to success. First and foremost, they lead to the success of one’s spirit. All other successes are secondary.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
MIT Bootcamps is an amazing organization. Our mission is to nurture becoming and belonging for entrepreneurs worldwide. As people, when we improve, we change. And that’s a good thing. But often, the process of becoming (or improving) severs our bonds of belonging. When we change, who we belong to, what we belong to, how we belong also change. This is what makes personal growth so difficult. There is a sacrifice.
Becoming creates a void. We become ships at sea yearning for shore. But belonging has a flip side too–it’s comfortable and comfort is a barrier to change. There is a real tension between becoming and belonging. We often only have one or the other, whereas we truly need both. This is what we strive to achieve.
We tell our entrepreneurs, “We want you to become the New You and that New You will have a home.”
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Whenever I have a bad day, I find that it always gets better after I call a friend. It’s simple, but so powerful.
For those of you who may know about our entrepreneurship bootcamps, you know that they are intense. Today, due to the pandemic, we run our bootcamps virtually. But, historically, our bootcamps have been in person. We’ve had them all over the world, in countries such Australia, Brazil, Germany, Japan, Jordan, Korea, Mexico, Taiwan, and Turkey. My teammates and I sometimes would go a full week on less than 3 hours of sleep per day, while teaching, coaching, actively engaging with partners. The reason that this is possible is that people draw energy from each other. Burnout can be a product of emotional isolation. So stay connected, be involved, give others your positive energy, and it’ll come back and grow.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
By 2040 there will be 800 million people in the world aspiring to higher education. Our current infrastructure is completely unprepared for this challenge. And 20 years is not a long time. It may seem long on the time scale of an individual. But on the time scale of society, it’s a speckle in a sand clock.
If we approach this problem conventionally, we’ll need to build 100,000 new universities over the next 20 years. That’s 13 new universities per day. Do we think this is realistic?
So, we need technology. But technology is not enough on its own. We need pedagogical and organizational innovations to make quality education scalable. This is my focus.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
Let me as an entrepreneurship educator look at leading through the lens of what I study and teach. The ideas here may be particularly relevant for up-and-coming entrepreneurs.
- Good management is essential for entrepreneurship. But this is not a common observation. Entrepreneurship is such a dynamic process; perhaps management only stifles it. But, ultimately, entrepreneurship survives because of good management. And what’s important to understand here is that management is a full-time job. It is all-consuming and there are no shortcuts. One needs to be ready to accept that.
- Fundraising is a full-time job. It seems that bootstrapping takes longer than raising money. But what’s often not considered is the time consumed by the fundraising process. Nothing happens when you’re fundraising until that moment that you succeed. Counterintuitively, bootstrapping can be the fastest path.
- Save, save, save. Do not live above your means. It’s hard to think of a successful startup that hasn’t had payroll issues. Not being able to fall back on one’s savings and weather the storm knocks you out of the entrepreneurial game. It makes it hard to lead too.
- You’ve got to be solving a real problem. Very few up-and-coming entrepreneurs think thoroughly about whether they are solving a real problem. Pursuing a business without a problem is like sailing without a rudder.
- At the same time, your solution does not have to be (or seem) breakthrough or disruptive. That’s a red herring. Few successful companies have been patently breakthrough or disruptive in the beginning. Most start small, in a highly specialized way, and then rapidly adapt, iterate, and grow from there.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
Yes, definitely. These experiences and knowledge gave me patient urgency. This is the ability to think long-term but be urgent about making small steps toward the goal every day. Ask yourself, “What do I want to accomplish in 30 years? And what do I need to do today toward the goal?” This is patient urgency.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
I do not think we learn from experience alone. We have far too much knowledge for our experience to account for all of it. We all come with some in-built programming, which is our emotional makeup. Because of it, different knowledge doesn’t necessarily lead to different decisions. We learn with our brains, but act with our hearts.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
As a humanity we have to escape the paradox of progress. Throughout history giant leaps are mirrored by grave tragedies. Empowerment of one kind brings exploitation of another. Joy for some, sorrow for others. It’s a vexing conundrum of human existence.
Our mission as humanity is to escape this paradox. Without it we’ll just be going in circles, bound to repeat history. This escape, I feel, begins with kindness. Kindness onto others and kindness onto thyself. And this is where my movement would begin.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Try my online courses. They are free, you can enroll whenever you like, and they are available 24/7. Here’s a link to find them: https://www.edx.org/bio/erdin-beshimov.