Semesterly Report: Fall 2015
The first semester is in the books.
After so many years of looking forward to attending Babson, it's difficult to imagine how it possibly could have lived up to the completely unrealistic and idealistic expectations I had for it.
And yet, with few exceptions, it managed to do just that.
I've experienced more personal and professional growth in the past few months than in any other period of my life, and I'm going to share publicly how it all played out for two main reasons.
First and foremost, if even one person gets any value out of these stories, writing this will have been worth it. Second, I owe it to the many people who have supported me on my journey thus far to show them some of the fruits of their labors.
Whether you're a loyal blog subscriber, a generous scholarship donor, a loving friend or family member, or just some random internet-goer who somehow found your way to this page, thank you for taking the time out of your busy life to help me along my journey. I will be forever grateful for your support.
And now, without any further ado, let's get to it.
Part Zero: Plans, Disappointment, and Some Dude Named Mark Zuckerberg
We begin with the story before the story.
Long-time readers will remember my post back in April 2015 about Scholars Weekend.
To summarize, I'd wanted to attend Babson College for half a decade, and my goal was to win the prestigious Weissman Scholarship to bolster my ability to pursue my mission of improving people's lives through technology entrepreneurship and unconventional problem solving. I was not awarded the Weissman Scholarship, but I was conferred a Presidential Scholarship. In conjunction with oodles of financial aid and external scholarships, this meant I would be able to afford the college of my dreams.
Even though I had multiple merit-based full ride offers from other schools, I felt Babson would offer me the greatest opportunity to grow as an entrepreneur and as a person.
I couldn't wait to start contributing to the Babson community. And, as luck would have it, I quickly found my chance.
In the months leading up to orientation, the Class of 2019 Facebook group was abuzz with activity.
When classes were released, several people began posting blurry, poorly-taken pictures of their course schedules. Getting to know some of the people who'll be in your classes is a great way to relieve some of the anxiety that comes with attending a new institution, but having to sift through hundreds of pictures is probably not the most efficient way to do so. So, I did this:
I was surprised by how many of my future classmates ended up using the site, and I was even more surprised when people wanted me to open it up to other colleges. When I build something, I'm never really confident that people will like it or find it useful; I'm more interested in the practice of making something and putting it out into the world. When people actually like and use what I've built, that's just icing on the cake.
After a couple posts in various Facebook groups, over 800 students ended up joining the site, and I'm excited to actually promote it for real next year when a new round of first-year students is eager to find out who else is in their classes.
After sharing what I'd built with the class Facebook group, a bunch of people began reaching out to me with questions about how they could learn to code or how they could build this or that idea they had. It was an honor to be able to help some of these people along their journeys, and this actually came back later in the semester in an incredibly valuable and rewarding way. But, I'll save that story for Part Three...
Meanwhile, I was still counting down the days until I'd be able to finally fulfill my dream of moving into Babson College and starting classes. When there was one day left on the clock, I felt inspired to write a little "'Twas the Night" poem just for funsies. I wasn't actually intending on sharing it with anyone, but I eventually said "screw it, who cares?" and mustered up the chutzpah to share it with the Class of 2019 Facebook group. Here's what it looked like:
This is another instance where a small action would end up having a broader, long-term impact. Because of SameClasses and the poem, people actually somehow recognized me when we got to campus.
Statements like "Hey, you're that kid who made the website and wrote the poem!" and "Woah, you're that Jared Silver kid from the Facebook group!" were fairly common refrains for my first couple weeks, and it was seriously weird. These interactions were one of the main reasons I was able to overcome my shyness and introversion (discussed more in Part One), and without them I'm not sure how much I would have been able to accomplish in my time here.
If my time at Babson would prove nearly as valuable as my time leading up to it, I was in for one hell of a semester. And I was. I was.
Part One: Not Another Brick in the Wall
Throughout my high school career, I was incredibly isolated. Most high school organizations seemed to be designed with the sole purpose of building a student's resume to look more appealing to colleges, and I wanted no part of that.
Quite frankly, it was sickening to me to consider how many bright and talented young men and women were being encouraged to spend their time improving their resumes instead of improving themselves and those around them.
There's a big debate around the economics of education, and one key factor is whether education is valuable because it provides people with useful skills (human capital) or merely because it provides them with a label that signals certain traits (obedience, competence, etc.).
It seemed clear to me that most of high school was designed around signaling value for the sake of getting into the most famous college possible, and I instead decided to focus on teaching myself entrepreneurship, web development, behavioral economics, and more through a rigorous curriculum of self-education.
My goal during high school, as it is now, was to optimize my ability to make an impact in the world; and you don't make an impact in the world by memorizing SAT vocabulary words. (As an aside, despite not studying for the SAT, I still managed to pull a perfect score in both the reading and writing sections on my first try. As it turns out, spending hundreds (thousands?) of hours reading business books is apparently a pretty solid substitute for trying to memorize Latin word roots.)
Fast forward to day one at Babson College.
Suddenly, I was in a place where people no longer had to care about getting into college. Sure, many people still focus more on improving their resumes for employers than on improving themselves for the world, but it was night and day compared to high school.
After four years of my self-imposed isolation, I now faced the challenge of having to learn in four days' time what most people had spent the previous four years learning: how to effectively work with others in pursuit of a shared vision.
To make matters worse, I'm a very shy and introverted individual, and I was suddenly thrust into this world where your worth as a person seemed to be measured by the number of meaningless surface connections you made on campus, your worth as a student calculated based on how loud you were in the classroom, and your only time away from others was when you were in the shower.
Making this adjustment was one of the most difficult experiences of my life, but I was extremely fortunate to have a tremendously supportive advisor through the scholarship program who was instrumental in helping me through it.
Another obstacle is that I don't like to drink alcohol, and the majority of socialization on any college campus consists of people sitting around drinking alcohol. Alcohol acts as a sort of relationship catalyst, and missing out on these opportunities to connect with others put me at a severe social disadvantage.
In order to combat this, I made the decision that instead of being closed, opaque, and isolated, I would be open, transparent, and connected. Thus far, this has proven to be one of the best decisions I've ever made.
Don't get me wrong: I'm still extremely shy and introverted, and I'm still not going to drinking parties. But, when it comes to expressing how I feel or sharing what I'm going through, I'm extremely upfront about it — for better and for worse. What you're reading now is a product of that decision.
This was especially important when I went through what was probably the lowest point in my life toward the end of the semester. It was crippling to the point I was unable to eat or sleep for almost a week, but I'll save that story for Part Two. Speaking of which...
Part Two: The Best Laid Plans...
Babson's flagship course is a full year experiential learning project called Foundations of Management and Entrepreneurship (FME).
In this course, students go through the process of starting, running, and liquidating an actual business in teams of around 10-15 students.
On paper (and in Babson's marketing), it sounds extraordinary. And, from a conceptual standpoint, it definitely is.
I fervently believe that experiential learning is the only effective means to learning entrepreneurship, and the intention of FME is to provide students the opportunity to learn experientially.
For most students who go through this required class, however, the program's intent tends not to be aligned with its impact.
That is, rather than look at FME as an opportunity to learn entrepreneurship through practice, most of the students with whom I've spoken end up looking at it as just another group project.
I knew going into Babson from speaking with older students that many people had poor experiences with FME, so in the years leading up to it I thought about what I could do to make the experience meaningful and rewarding for myself and those I'd be working with.
I came to the conclusion that the best way for us to get the most out of FME would be to treat it as though it were an actual startup. That is, rather than merely going through the motions of the course, we would devote ourselves to raising as much money for charity as possible and actually caring about it as a business rather than just another set of assignments.
Many FME groups seem to end up buying a cheap product in bulk off a platform like Alibaba, slapping a Babson logo onto it, and convincing their relatives to buy as many units as they can afford.
Instead, I came up with a product that people would actually want, in a proven market with proven demand, targeted to the perfect market for us to sell to (college students), which would make my classmates actually want to put in the work, and had ridiculously good margins.
I could easily have launched this on my own during high school, but I opted instead to keep it in my back pocket for FME, thinking that the value of not wasting my time during the year-long class would outweigh the monetary gain of building it myself.
I don't care about many things in life, but when I do care about something, I care about it with every fiber of my being; and I cared about making the FME experience valuable for myself and those around me. It wasn't just about me and my team; it wasn't just about the time we would be wasting if the experience wasn't valuable; it was about my vision of Babson as an institution. If the so-called flagship course didn't end up proving particularly valuable, then what would that say about this place I had wanted to attend for so long?
At first, everything was going well. I waited for the opportune time to pitch my idea to my classmates, and everyone was immediately on board.
Buzz about our product quickly spread beyond our group, and people I'd barely ever spoken to were asking when they could purchase the product. I was sending emails to professors and administrators with ideas to improve the program and testing the limits of how quickly we could get our business off the ground (there's an administrative process each business has to go through to launch).
After too many weeks of too little sleep (again, I was treating this like an actual startup) and foregoing actual opportunities to make money and pay for college, I helped deliver our final launch pitch. Out of six companies to choose from, over half the class wanted to work for ours. It was, without a doubt, the best presentation of my life. And given our margins, scalability, and inventory-free business model, there were even whispers about the potential to break the all-time profit record for the FME program.
On the line for me at this point was more than just the personal investment of wanting to learn and grow. I had now spent countless hours I could have been spending on actual projects instead working on FME. I was emotionally invested in that my perception of Babson as an institution — an institution I had wanted to attend for half a decade — was riding on having a meaningful and rewarding experience in its flagship course. And there was a tremendous social investment in that people were spending their precious time and energy working in pursuit of this vision I had constructed. Again, this was very new to me. I'd done joint ventures with my internet business in the past, but I'd never had someone say to my face that they joined my group primarily because they wanted to work with me.
It was around this time when I started to really feel the pressure of needing to execute. One of my favorite aspects of entrepreneurship is that your success or failure is largely the result of your own actions. Even if something terrible happens that is completely outside the realm of your control, you have the ability to change your direction and try something different.
I was fully prepared to succeed or fail based on my own thoughts and actions. I was not prepared for the bureaucratic nightmare I thought I had avoided by attending a school dedicated to Entrepreneurial Thought and Action®.
It started with an email from an administrator saying that our product had been flagged by an administrative board of review for its potential to offend someone in the Babson community.
It was definitely understandable given the nature of similar products, though we specifically designed our content to be completely harmless and not offensive in any way. No problem, we thought, we'll just explain that to them and be on our way.
Still, I was taking no chances. I spent the days leading up to our meeting with the review board scouring the internet for information on the people with whom we'd be meeting, analyzing their LinkedIn profiles, trying to get inside their heads and figure out how to explain the situation in the most compelling way possible. I got in touch with anyone and everyone I knew who had worked with them in the past in any capacity, trying desperately to glean any insight into how their perspectives might lead to the obstruction of our product.
Concurrently, the group was working on our biggest deliverable of the semester: a final launch plan. I was juggling calls and emails pressing for final price quotes from our suppliers, working out a timeline for just how quickly I could get the website up and running, and answering endless questions from teammates with respect to the launch plan. (As a side note, the launch plan was the first time in my life I delegated a significant project to a team. I am the definition of a perfectionist, and that I gave up control over such a huge facet of the project speaks volumes to just how much I trusted this group of people. I'd never had the privilege of believing in a team the way I believed in this group. It was an honor to be able to work with them.)
It was also around this time that the possibility of being shut down really started to hit me. If you were reading between the lines, you might have realized that's what this tweet was about (sent at 12:50am, when I couldn't sleep because I was worried about letting my team down).
If I ever run a sizable company one day, I'm pretty sure I'd worry so much about letting my team down that I would never be able to sleep.— Jared Silver (@JaredSilver) December 7, 2015
Finally, we got to the day of the meeting. We had done pretty much everything imaginable to prepare. We even went so far as to create an oversight plan for the contents of our product, modeled after some of the structures Babson has in place (including a Chief Diversity Officer and multiple review boards).
When we got to the meeting, it was abundantly clear within the first two minutes of them talking that there was nothing we were going to be able to say or do that would lead them to change their minds on the matter. They wanted nothing to do with our product, and they were going to shut us down no matter how we tweaked it, overhauled it, or spun it. No appeal to logic, no appeal to emotion, no appeal to anything would change their minds. And yet, we played a futile game of chess for an hour, a few inexperienced pawns against four queens with lifetimes of experience. It was checkmate before we even sat down at the game board.
I watched as this piece of my soul was torn from me, placed on the table for my whole team to see, and systematically slaughtered in front of our very eyes. What really did it for me was the end of the meeting when one of the members of the review board forced us to take a picture in order to commemorate this oh-so-special occasion. The person taking the picture prompted us to smile: "one, two, three, pivot!"
I was devastated: not only because my baby was dead but because of how this experience forced me to question everything I thought I knew about the institution I'd been evangelizing for half a decade before I even applied for admission.
For days, I could barely eat, sleep, or function like a normal human being. I knew this sort of thing happened in the world all the time, but I didn't expect it to happen to me. Not here. Not at Babson.
Members of my team stepped up for me in a big way. They were there for me when I needed them, and I'll be forever grateful for their kindness and support.
Days like these remind me how grateful I am for all of the amazing people I have the privilege of sharing this thing called life with.— Jared Silver (@JaredSilver) December 9, 2015
However, I knew that some changes had to be made. I didn't feel I could be effective in leading the team going forward. Realistically, I would likely be angry and frustrated once I recovered from this period of debilitating sadness and disappointment, and in no way are these traits I would want in someone leading me. So, I nominated someone else to take my CEO position and stepped down.
Even this act, however, came with a degree of pain and suffering.
Internal dialogue: "I don't know if this is the right decision." "Good. That's the point."— Jared Silver (@JaredSilver) December 9, 2015
Admittedly, it was a rather rash decision, and two Seth Godin blog posts (#1, #2) in the days following made me feel pretty damn bad about how I had handled it. I collapsed at the time my team needed me most, and instead of coming up with a solution to the problem, I ran away from it.
In the end, however, I'm happy with the decision I made. I got what I needed out of my FME experience, and it was better to give others the opportunity to get what they need too. My hope is that spending time working on real projects will afford me far greater opportunities for personal and professional growth going forward. I learned so many valuable lessons from this experience, most importantly that I really can be effective at leading people in pursuit of a shared vision — irrespective of my shyness and introversion.
Before this experience, I had never been beaten up by a board before. This sure as heck won't be the last time I get a piece of my soul brutally mutilated before my very eyes, and I'm fortunate to have had the opportunity to experience it on such a small scale at first. So long as I stay committed to unconventionality and entrepreneurship, I can be sure that my future will be full of corporate boards and teams of lawyers who will make my life a living hell, and learning to cope with this now is far better than when people's livelihoods are on the line.
When I set out to create an FME experience of value and meaning, I cannot profess to say that this is what I had in mind. But, as of now, I can begrudgingly say that I am grateful for how things turned out.
And as for that business we didn't end up launching? Watch this space: I'll be launching it (as well as a couple other micro-ventures that grew out of my frustration with the situation) sometime soon.
Part Three: Meat & Potatoes
When I wasn't pouring my heart and soul into a project doomed for failure for reasons outside the realm of my control, I still had a heck of a lot of stuff on my plate.
Because of the SameClasses website I built, I seem to have developed a bit of a brand on campus for being someone to go to for all things technical. As a result of this, I was approached multiple times every week, both by students and professors, with all sorts of ideas and opportunities.
It's quite humbling when a person for whom you have a lot of respect comes to you and requests your help with a project (and I have a lot of respect for everyone in the Babson community), and it's remarkably rewarding when you actually manage to turn a person's entrepreneurial dreams into technological realities.
I was paid by a few different students to build relatively basic websites, was offered a paid internship with a department head (!) to create a web-based model for some research the department is completing, partnered with another student on a potential startup that will launch in limited beta this coming semester, and am currently in talks to take the CTO position for an established student company with a team so incredible that I repeatedly told them I'm not worthy of the role. On top of this, I provided free informal consulting services to people with regards to potential project ideas and technological feasibility. Talking to people about their projects seems to have taken up more of my time than actually building them, and this is how I spent a large chunk of my first semester.
In that same vein, a group of us founded the Babson Community of Developers & Entrepreneurs (Babson CODE for short), a club dedicated to helping members of the Babson community develop technological skillsets to match their entrepreneurial mindsets. I'm in charge of marketing and communications, and I also teach web development during our break-out sessions.
It's been an honor to help fill this need in the Babson community, and every meeting has been more humbling than the last because of the dedication our members have shown. We are currently in the process of massively expanding our operations to include tech consulting for other organizations on campus, special interest housing to provide a creative space for people to learn and build, attending and potentially hosting hackathons, and much more. It should be an exhilarating second semester, and I can't wait to see where we are at the end of it.
I also spent a solid chunk of time getting involved with Babson's Entrepreneurship Tower (eTower for short), a special interest housing organization dedicated to actually practicing entrepreneurship instead of just talking about it. To me, it seems to be the place on campus where people are building the coolest stuff, and being around people building cool stuff is one of the biggest reasons why I came to Babson in the first place.
Though I didn't apply for residency this year, I joined the Marketing & Events committee, and we did a pretty cool corporate branding consulting project for a client who deemed our work "on par with a design agency." More valuable was the opportunity to work alongside some very bright and talented people with whom I very much look forward to having the opportunity to work more in the future.
Oh, and I almost forgot to mention academics.
This semester, I took five courses: First Year Seminar (a first year orientation course), Foundations of Management & Entrepreneurship (discussed above), Introduction to Financial Accounting, Business Law, and AHS (a liberal arts foundation course).
I somehow managed to finish this semester with a 3.92 GPA (AHS was my first A- in probably 6 or 7 years), which I attribute to my attendance of all classes, my thorough completion of all assignments, and my focus on applying course content to my own life and business ventures rather than merely attempting to memorize stuff for the sake of an exam.
I don't know why, but I have this annoying habit of seeing the world through the lens of whichever class I had most recently. And so, negotiating a web design contract turned into an application of what we had discussed in biz law, a trip to the supermarket turned into a theoretical analysis of various financial ratios we had discussed in accounting, etc., etc.
I'll discuss a little bit more about my perceptions of classes in Part Four, but I do want to make clear that I found Accounting and Business Law to be very valuable. In both cases, I was lucky to have professors who seemed to care more about us as budding entrepreneurs than about the course material on its own, and some of what we learned has already proven useful in my own life and small ventures.
I think that's pretty much everything from a work perspective, but I should probably briefly touch upon what's going on from a social perspective as well.
I've been fortunate to form a few relatively close friendships during my time here so far, but I continue to feel somewhat lonely and isolated.
Part of this is likely because I feel as though I'm somehow missing out by not sitting around drinking with the rest of the campus every Thursday and Saturday night, part of it is probably because I spend so much time working when maybe I should be socializing more, and part of it is probably because of my tendency to be impatient when it comes to these sorts of things.
In most other areas of my life, I have the agency to move closer to my goals by working my fingers to the bones, staying up into the wee hours of the night, and hustling like a madman. When it comes to forming relationships, however, time is a necessary component that I cannot change by working harder or putting in longer hours.
Don't get me wrong: I do feel as though I'm a fairly well-known and well-respected figure on campus, but there's something very much missing, and I can't seem to put my finger on what it is. Figuring this out will be a major goal of mine for the coming few years.
Part Four: Onward and Upward
Overall, my first semester at Babson College has proven to be one of the most challenging, meaningful, stressful, and rewarding periods of my life.
Though I'm not in love with exactly how everything played out (*cough* FME *cough*), I'm very grateful for every opportunity I've had to learn and grow, and I'm now putting together a gameplan for next semester and beyond to capitalize on these opportunities for growth.
First and foremost, I need to learn how to say no to working on a project. As much as I love the Derek Sivers video Hell Yeah or No, I have a lot of trouble actually putting it into practice.
When an aspiring entrepreneur looks me in the eye and says "I need your help," I can't help but to try everything I can to help that entrepreneur succeed — even if it comes at the price of lost sleep, skipped meals, or performing worse on other projects.
As nice as it may seem on the surface, my desire to be helpful is actually a huge problem, and I'm going to need to learn how to say no if I'm going to survive and thrive during the rest of my time here.
Next, I'm toying around with the idea of taking one fewer class this semester so I can spend more time on experiential learning.
Don't get me wrong, classes can definitely be valuable, but they never compare to the value of getting one's ass kicked in the real world.
And that brings me to the perennial question of leaving school. Taken at face value, my attitude toward classes seems to imply that I don't think college particularly valuable. However, the reason I'm in college is not primarily because of the classes but because of the people: fellow students, faculty, alumni, and even a few staff members.
I'd venture to say that the true value of being at Babson has less to do with the classes and more to do with being immersed in a community of people who care so deeply about entrepreneurship and making an impact in the world.
My favorite part of any class is when the professor stops discussing course content and instead shares relevant stories and past experiences that I can use to inform future decisions.
Being able to ask a professor (who is an experienced entrepreneur, lawyer, investor, or whatever else) for personal and business advice — that's the value of attending Babson.
And, to be sure, I could probably email them even if I wasn't attending school here, and many of them would probably respond. However, there is something to be said for being fully immersed in the community in a way that tangential communications just wouldn't capture.
And for those reasons, I'm definitely going to stick around for at least another semester.
Even if I take one fewer class, I'll still have the ability to finish in three years if I choose to do so. However, I find it unlikely that I'd actually do this. Rather, I will probably continue taking one fewer course per semester and just graduate on time. This will enable me to capture more value throughout my time here instead of spending so much time sitting in classes and doing homework.
Part Five: Conclusion
Well, that pretty much does it.
There's far more I could share about any of the points mentioned above, but I figure I've taken enough of your time already.
With that being said, if there's anything you'd like to discuss further, please don't hesitate to get in touch with me via any of the methods at the bottom of this page.
If you're new around here, feel free to take a look around the rest of the site for more information about my mission or projects. And don't forget to subscribe using the form below if you haven't already!
I'm so grateful for your support, and it's an honor to be able to share my journey with you. Here's to another semester full of challenges, failures, lessons, and successes.
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