Things my students taught me for 2021

Here’s what I learned as an educator-entrepreneur working on issues of economic and social inclusion across emerging markets, with my students at Harvard College (think young adults, 18-22 years old), senior professionals (C-suite execs, investors, policymakers, think folks in their 40s and 50s), and my fellow entrepreneurs from Chile, Brazil, Nigeria, Kenya, India, Indonesia and indeed across the developing world.

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Things that hinder us:

  • People are reluctant to get out of their comfort zones.  Even smart ones.  Or maybe especially smart ones! Science phobia is especially real. I’m amazed at science being (usually implicitly) dismissed as being for the ‘nerds’ or ‘geeks.’  You don’t have to be a scientist to appreciate how it can be a force for good and the more so, the more we engage with it. Some science is costly, it’s true, and so out of reach for developing countries, but a scientific mindset is an attitude, it’s free!

  • Suspicion of differences is real. Even in a ‘safe’ classroom environment, introducing super-competent outsiders with noticeably different backgrounds is met with almost-visible skepticism. And then we all look for evidence to confirm our pre-existing biases. 

  • Groupthink is a thing, no question. If everyone wears masks in your milieu, you’re more likely to do so. If they don’t, you probably won’t.  Enough said.

  • Teaching the same material to 20 year olds and 50 year olds was a revelation. There is *far* more skepticism among the latter group, far more imagination in the former. How do I, in my 50s, guard against this? Can I?

Things that propel us forward:

  • When compelled by COVID-change, we’ve all re-imagined our daily routines.  My students learned to collaboratively work on ideas remotely. We all did. Not perfect, but workable.  Adaptation helps reinvention.

  • Judicious risk-taking abounded, it surprised me, pleasantly.  People recognized the necessity for it, even the opportunity for it.  It’s risky not to take risks, often and especially in the most unsettling times.

  • The most disadvantaged evinced real hunger to get on with it. They always do, but these folks were especially attuned to opportunities amidst the chaos. The multiplier on small investments to help this along is very, very high.

  • Resilience. Lebanon serves as an example. Amidst economic collapse, near failed-state status, and clobbered by COVID, and an August 2020 disastrous bomb blast, our students were up-and-running within a day or two. I’m humbled and awed.

So, where does that leave us?

On balance, my students and colleagues served to illustrate structures that hew towards fault tolerance and self-renewal.  Not always, not perfectly, but generally in that direction.  That’s my optimistic note to look forward to 2021!

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