I became intrigued with the Unreasonable Institute in Boulder, Colorado, the moment I learned about it, not only for its provocative name but also because its work echoes ours at Vista Caballo, the personal-evolution grad school for the leadership elite. The Unreasonable Institute is focused on helping to solve the world's most pressing problems by arming what it calls "high-impact entrepreneurs" who are activists for progressive positive change with the tools to make that change happen. I met with Teju Ravilochan, co-founder and CEO of the Institute, to learn more about his work and why, as Teju says, entrepreneurs should have the courage to be "unreasonable" and do things that conventional reason tells us we shouldn't do.
Lisa: What distinguishes the type of entrepreneurs who want to or can take on the world's biggest problems?
Teju: They have a deep intimacy with the problem they are trying to solve, a deep connection to the people they want to help, a deep sense of values, an ethical or moral compass that guides their behavior. They are willing to be fair and recognize they won't learn without experimentation. They are willing to persist through failure. They are willing to ignore skeptics. They are willing to try what few others have had the courage, or maybe the craziness to attempt.
Lisa: Why did you decide to start the Unreasonable Institute?
Teju: The vision for the Unreasonable Institute comes from my teammate Daniel Epstein, who found his own education to be too theoretical and too abstract to learn much about how to tackle the world's greatest challenges. His own training left him feeling as though he still didn't have the concrete skills he needed to have a real impact. So he created the Unreasonable Institute, realizing that it wasn't only leadership that mattered but also solutions that had a financial engine for growth.
I got involved because I shared his passion. It was born when I was just a boy of 10. We would frequently travel to India to visit extended family. On one trip, my father and I went to a market. A child came up to my dad and asked him for money. I was struck by this all-too-common event in India, because this kid seemed to be about my age. I asked my dad why the kid was begging and I was not, what the difference was between us. My dad explained the concept of poverty for the first time.
My dad solves impossible problems for a living as a doctor. He cures people of diseases that no one else knows how to cure. I asked him how he learned how to save people's lives when no one else knew. He said, "I went to medical school. And I had very good teachers." So I asked him, "Is there a medical school for people who want to become doctors for [those in] poverty? People who want to solve this problem?" He said, "I have never heard of anything like that."
When Dan told me what he was thinking of, it resonated with me as a kind of medical school for people keen to solve the greatest challenges of our time.
Lisa: How do you keep yourself challenged, and out of your own box of thinking and doing?
Teju: Albert Einstein, even in his own time, was thought of as one of the most brilliant people on the planet. He explained that he never thought much of his own intellect because he was trying to understand the universe, and against that benchmark, he could only be humble.
The Unreasonable team wants to solve the world's greatest challenges. Taking that on keeps you ever humble. The sheer scale of need, the complexity of these things is tremendous. It's imposssible not to feel challenged all the time. We invite the question: "So what? How is the world better because of this?"
Lisa: What do you feel is the biggest challenge for the people who want to ask themselves, "So what?" but don't?
Teju: People want something to believe in; they want hope for problems that seem hopeless, unsolvable. I think that sometimes when people encounter something that is deeply inspiring, they don't want to ask "So what?" because they don't want to be disillusioned.
Lisa: What would you share with them about disillusionment?
Teju: Progress is a consequence of experimentation. It's never clean or simple. So few of us ever land upon an answer, and even if we do, it's not complete. But we need to look at problem solving as a long-term game and see the layers of the problems and acknowledge that such problems take generations to change. And if you understand that it takes all of us together to solve a problem, perhaps that's when you see quick fixes and easy answers as illusions and you gain patience. If you don't want to be disillusioned, recognize that reality and your place in it. Find where your heart lights up and pursue that. That's why people are inspired by those who succeed when they follow their passion and their purpose. Once you see reality, you can fully pursue your passion. And that reality may scare you (it certainly scares me). But when you can see it clearly, you can lean into your fear and confront it.
Lisa: "Leaning into fear"--what's your best advice for doing this?
Teju: When you know why you are doing something, even if you are afraid, the fear stops mattering.
Lisa: What do you say to those who are considering being "unreasonable", those who are considering tackling their greatest challenges but have not yet done so?
Teju: I would ask them: Why not? What are you waiting for?
Take a look at your life right now. What is the most audacious challenge you could give yourself right now that would have a significant, positive impact in your own life and that of others? What's the illusion that has to be shattered for this audacity to become reality?