“Look at the bright side.” With Dr. Ely Weinschneider & Tõnis Kusmin

If you look at the bright side, the first thing you notice in this crisis is that people are becoming closer. We are calling our moms more, our siblings, aunties. And not only calling but thinking about them much more. This whole predicament is building stronger ties in the world that has become so individualistic. […]

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If you look at the bright side, the first thing you notice in this crisis is that people are becoming closer. We are calling our moms more, our siblings, aunties. And not only calling but thinking about them much more. This whole predicament is building stronger ties in the world that has become so individualistic.

As a part of my series about the things we can do to remain hopeful and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tõnis Kusmin.

Tõnis Kusmin is an Estonian EdTech entrepreneur who launched the Education Nation initiative in cooperation with international businesses and Estonian Ministry of Education and Research. In 2018, he created 99math, a motivational math game, to inspire young children for greater achievements in math. Tõnis also started an educational non-profit Silmaring, and an EdTech startup Tebo, a marketplace for teacher-created learning content.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Iam an educational entrepreneur, I build platforms to help young people learn, because knowledge is empowering future generations and inspiring change.

In my studying years, I went to a few different schools, and depending on the school I had very different learning experiences. Some of the classes were very engaging and exciting, and I couldn’t wait to go to school for the next one. Others were just so dull and dry that it was torture to sit there for 90 minutes and listen to the monotonous flow of nothing-in-particular.

I am very impatient, so, naturally, boredom is an infuriating experience for me. We all have to go to school, and education that is poured on top of us feels massively rigid, out of place and simply inefficient.

Along the way, I have seen so many ways to improve those lectures, and it was a matter of where to begin. At first, I wanted to build my own school, but then I realized I don’t need a building to improve the studying process. What I needed was to figure out a way to engage students in learning. At all times, learning should be exhilarating, empowering, refreshing. Naturally, learning feels fantastic because it’s our curiosity that drives it, we long to learn and understand, we’re curious.

Some of the kids who come out of school are active, energetic and longing for knowledge. You can see it in the freshman year in college, they are always on the edge of their seats, ready for more. Others are sitting there — seems almost — against their will. But now they are there voluntarily, with the “have to do this boring thing” mindset. They have adopted this mindset, and they have started to believe that learning is an unpleasant experience. They made a choice to go to college, but they are still acting like it’s cool to rebel against teachers and dramatically suffer through every class.

I want to create inquisitive minds and lead young learners to the path of embracing knowledge, not shut away from it. Personally, I feel like I am inhaling new knowledge every waking hour, I find it uplifting, and it should be true for everyone, especially young kids. That’s the philosophy behind 99math, a game that inspires kids to learn math and helps them in building confidence.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

It’s not a book, it’s a lot of books. But to narrow it down, I would have to say “How to Win Friends and Influence People” and “Eat, Pray, Love”.

In “How to Win Friends…”, there was an interesting example of a person dealing with a group of rebellious young people. Instead of getting mad, like we usually do, he responded to their behavior with care, attention, and respect. It threw them off, they were treated as equals, and no human can rebel against that. It got me thinking that this book had been around for a long time, and it’s a toolkit for dealing with people and building relationships. Everyone should read it, and the world would become a very different place.

It’s harder to explain with “Eat, Pray, Love”, it’s more personal, emotional and intertwined with life experiences. It does feel like Elizabeth Gilbert is connected to the voice of the universe in some mysterious way and translating all that into English. Her writing speaks to your heart, I felt it almost like I was living through this story together with her. It’s a story about extreme hardship and questioning yourself, but at the same time about seizing the moment and living through your senses.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

I saw someone’s tweet recently that 2020 divided by 5 is 404, commonly known as an error message. So, basically, this year is an error message, a glitch in the Matrix, and it certainly feels that way.

Social distancing seems like an absence of activity, but it’s extremely impactful to flatten the pandemic curve. Everyone on our team is working from home, and it’s actually working very well for us and I see that also for many people.

If you look at the bright side, the first thing you notice in this crisis is that people are becoming closer. We are calling our moms more, our siblings, aunties. And not only calling but thinking about them much more. This whole predicament is building stronger ties in the world that has become so individualistic. Someone on my team recently mentioned that they received video calls from every child in the family. Kids are also stressed out, and they see their parents being nervous all the time, and they want to make sure everyone is alright.

Another thing is that we have more time on our hands. We can ease up our pace and really think about what is important to us. That’s what I hear from friends, but I personally don’t have a lot of free time at the moment. I am leading two teams right now and building technical solutions for educators stranded on e-learning islands.

It will be a tough time for many businesses. I have a new friend who is a part of the team, she owns a breakfast place in the city. I asked her how she was doing recently, and she said: “I don’t really want to think about that”. So far the revenue has dropped 90%. At the same time, this situation is an opportunity in many other fields like remote work and remote learning. There’s a lot of room for improvement, and new opportunities are right around the corner.

When adjusting to this new situation, people are looking for new ways to do things: to work, to school kids, to communicate. And therefore, this time that parents have at home now is going to give them some new perspectives, they will learn to do things even better than before. As far as education goes, we have math apps, language apps, reading apps, music apps, and so on. This is progress, and this is a good thing arising from a really bad situation.

People are more willing to try new things, and they realize that some of them are more effective. You can learn and develop much faster in remote settings because you are not distracted so much, you can genuinely just focus on yourself, and your family. We don’t usually have too much room in our minds for that. And the good thing about all of it is that people will keep it up once they are back to their workplaces and schools.

I named three reasons to be hopeful in this crisis, those are 1) building stronger ties within your family, 2) having time to re-evaluate what matters in life, and 3) finding new ways to learn and work. And I think in this case three reasons are better than five.

That will lead you out of the darkness, right to the light at the end of the tunnel.

From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

This is a very important question in times like this, thank you for bringing it up.

Seems obvious to say, but to feel less anxious, we need to read less news. And you know what kind of news I am talking about. By staying at home, you are already doing the best you can to stop the spread of the virus, so there is no point in counting cases twice a day and stressing yourself out. Things will get better, they always do. Just have some patience and live your new life.

Secondly, talk to your friends! We are social beings and now social distancing is causing dissatisfactions in our brains, minor at first, but then they accumulate. The loss of meaningful connections leads people to depression. So, video chat, have coffee or wine remotely with your friends. We are missing this social interaction right now, and that is exactly what’s making people anxious. There is no app that can fill this gap, we miss people.

Then, movement. Just 30 min per day will do the trick and calm you down. When we exercise, our body produces chemicals that calm us and we feel better. There are plenty of videos on YouTube about fitness at home, browse through them and pick the one that looks like something you’d want to try.

Another advice I have is to go to nature: spend some time in the park. Keeping our distance from other people doesn’t equal staying in a box, at home, for weeks. If you can, go outside, take a walk. Preferably go to nature. Not to a shopping mall, keep your distance from people, of course. Even just seeing nature, trees, landscapes has a strong effect on our psychology. You know, there are bacteria in the soil that we breathe in during walks outside that make us happier and more balanced.

For people who have less to do now, it’s important to find meaning. Feeling useless hurts us inside. If you are doing meaningful work, it fuels your souls. So, find an activity that matters to you or pick up a hobby. Start on a project that you have been putting off, or join a cause that makes a difference in the world, ask how you can help. Working on something that has meaning to you brings strong inspiration, it’s a balm to the soul in times of trouble.

Stress and anxiety are also caused by the feeling of uncertainty. What will happen tomorrow? In three weeks? Suddenly, our life situation is altered, and it’s easy to be anxious even before something really changes but just anticipating options and uncertainty in our minds. Remember, it will pass. We will be fine. It’s not the first time humankind is facing distress. A hundred years ago, the whole world was shaken up by the Spanish flu, humanity recovered and we will again. Things will get better, the economy will pick up again. Have patience, and do what’s meaningful to you.

What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?

Anxiety is a psychological state, and it has more to do with our mindset than any external influence. Changing mindset isn’t easy, and it is definitely not something that can have a one-size-fits-all solution.

Healthy mindset can be nurtured, and here is what we should consider: 1) we need to have someone to talk to about our worries, 2) we need to eat healthy, have enough sleep and exercise, and, obviously, 3) we need to work on things that have meaning to us. Anxiety arises from overthinking, and having a lot of free time is usually how overthinking begins.

If you don’t feel comfortable talking to other people about your anxiety, start a diary, just put it all in writing, and take your mind off it. Speaking of taking your mind off things, try meditation apps, they’re pretty cool, like Calm or Headspace.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

Two life lesson quotes have stuck with me over the years. One is “Intelligence without ambition is a bird without wings”, another one is more of a business tip from Bill Gates: “I took immediate, massive action”, he said in the interview with Larry King describing his road to success. I think both of these quotes are directed to the same life lesson.

You never know what’s going to come out of your passions. Some things click, some things fall into place. Sometimes your passion gets other people excited, and they offer to put their own energy behind your idea.

You see, it is not “make a plan and go step by step”. It’s “take immediate massive action”, so do everything you can to go in that direction. It’s exactly what I am doing with the Education Nation initiative.

At night when the quarantine was announced, I saw a FB post from the Estonian government saying that it’s going to be a special situation, closing all schools, restricting social activities. So, I told my girlfriend: “I need to go to work now”.

I realized once schools are closed, all education will go digital. And millions will be in a new situation almost overnight. We need to be providing help with education solutions. There would be a lot of discussions, webinars, lists, suggestions, strategies, etc. That creates an overwhelming ocean of information with no time to process it all. And one way to really help educators and parents in this new situation is to keep it well-structured, concise and efficient.

We pulled an all-nighter with our team, and the next day we put up the offers for schools online. In the morning, I reached out to other educational companies,15 of them joined providing solutions for free. A lot of people joined our initiative, including the Estonian Ministry of Education and Research. The cause was inspiring and we combined a team of people promoting the Education Nation initiative. In a week, we had 45 Nordic companies join the movement with their free offers.

This project received a lot of attention in international media, Shakira retweeted the ministry’s post about Education Nation, then we knew that the world is watching, and similar initiatives started to appear in different countries. That is fantastic how the whole world comes together in times of crisis to support each other and offer advice.

We still have a lot to do, 800 million students have been affected by school closures. And now their parents have to struggle with remote work and schooling their kids at the same time. We look to provide a clear calming solution and steps to parents, teachers and schools. We’re working with the UN and a network of schools of the European countries on a solution that can impact and soothe the situation.

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. 🙂

Kids are the future. To bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, we need to invest our time and energy into developing future generations: people of high intelligence and creative mindset. This is a world changing path. Education Nation initiative is a kind of movement anyone can join and contribute to, and the project is growing bigger every week.

What is the best way our readers can follow you online?

Feel free to reach me on LinkedIn or Facebook.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

Thank you for bringing up these important questions in times of uncertainty.

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