Passion and Professionalism

Exchanges, networks and innovation are integrally connected. Seeing that something is possible and it can be done has a great value and significant impact. International scholarly exchanges such as ASLA-Fulbright offer this very opportunity. Exchanges open up a window to benchmark from best practices and to see with one’s own eyes how things are done by others. This is important for the sake of both knowledge as well as motivation.

A common misconception about innovation is that it somehow comes from within. In reality, all innovation begins with imitation. You first need to go out to see how others do things, learn from them as much as possible, and then you go back and adapt what you have learnt to your own special circumstances, and then you do it all better. That is how innovations come about. One of the fundamental values of international exchanges is that, in essence, it provides you with an opportunity for imitation, and consequently for innovation.

It is not possible to overestimate the importance of networks. We have many levels and many kinds of networks from family and friends to distant acquaintances, both in the personal and business contexts. All of them can be important. But one does not always realize that the most valuable parts of your network are often what are called the “weak links”. Not the people that are closest to you, nor those who are very distant. But rather the middle level, the people you communicate with only periodically. These “weak links” in the network can actually turn out to be the most powerful and the most valuable, for example, in helping to secure a new job or offering an invaluable new connection helping your research break into new grounds. Networking has grown enormously valuable in recent years particularly because of the internet. We need to do much more networking as we go forward. But is not helpful to do it randomly. It needs to have some kind of a structure. And this is what is provided for instance by Fulbright and its alumni.

I also want to point out the connection between networking and globalization and the creation of community -- people coming together outside the governments, taking the initiative do something for a local group or for the broader society. The ASLA-Fulbright program fits perfectly with this idea, since it is essentially an independent entity. Although it has government connections from both sides, in the end it thrives on individuals organizing themselves and being motivated by a common project.  In this respect the United States is ahead of Finland, which may have less of a tradition in this kind of activity. However, right now in Finland we are seeing much more self-organized groups coming together and solving their own problems in diverse ways, also including giving money to various charities.

The advice I give to students both at MIT and at Aalto University is that when you see that something needs to be done, go do it. For example, at Aalto a group of students asked the question: why isn’t Aalto doing anything for entrepreneurship? And in an inspired moment my answer to them was:  has anyone prevented you from doing something? And that was all I really needed to say. They understood right away that if they strive to be entrepreneurs, they cannot wait for somebody to come and organize it for them. The best way to become an entrepreneur is just to go and do it. And in fact, it was the collaboration with students at MIT that resulted in the Aalto students seeing what was possible.

I was an ASLA grantee myself and have seen the impact of exchanges. And the impact continues. Students came to talk with me, and that is worth millions in the long run, because these small steps in these small groups, taking concrete initiatives are crucially influential. This is especially if they are done with both passion and professionalism. The Fulbright Center has been running its programs with both.

Dr. Bengt Holmström

Paul A. Samuelson Professor of Economics at MIT
Member of the Aalto University Board
ASLA grantee to Stanford University in 1974

The column is an abbreviated version of Dr. Holmström’s remarks at the Friends of Fulbright Finland alumni event at the USS Constitution Museum in Boston on May 30, 2015.