Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, shares his ideas
about entrepreneurship learning, finding the right people,
and navigating failure with grace.
By Jie Qi
So for me, when I was in high school,
I barely graduated. I think if I had
skipped one more day they wouldn’t
have let me graduate. So I skipped the
maximum number of days, which I think
was 30 percent.
XRDS: But you kept track of the days…
ITO: I did keep track, yeah. But I
started more extracurricular clubs than
anybody at school. So I was always kind
of trying to figure out how to have fun,
and I didn’t really pay enough attention
to stuff in school. I will say again that
if you can get good grades and you can
graduate and you can get into MIT, you
should. And the fact that I dropped out
twice from college and once from a
doctorate program, I think that’s not
why I have been successful at things.
I was successful despite the fact and
it would’ve been easier for me to be
successful if I had degrees. So I think it’s
important to finish degrees.
Each of us has a different personality.
I’m an interest-driven learner. I’m also
very much a “learning from people”
person. The way I learn is I find mentors,
often by working for them. I always liked
Joichi “Joi” Ito is recognized for his work as an activist, entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and advocate of emergent democracy, privacy, and Internet freedom. As director of the MIT Media Lab and a professor in the Program in Media Arts and Sciences, he explores how new approaches to science and technology can
transform society in substantial and positive ways. In this interview, he discusses his own
entrepreneurial journey, from odd jobs as a high school student to VC investor and research
lab director, sharing lessons learned along the way.
The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.
XRDS: Please share a bit of your history
as an entrepreneur, including what you
feel is entrepreneurial that people often
JOI I TO: As a preface, and there
are people who study this, there’s an
idea called “survivorship bias,” which
is roughly that, when you’re taking a
sample, if you’re sampling people who
have survived something, you’re not
getting the sample of the people who
What I find about entrepreneurs is
they will tell you their story and they’ll
have done a bunch of things they think
contributed to their success, but
they can be wrong because a lot of
entrepreneurship success is luck. And a
lot of the things people do is highly risky.
So, for instance, if you’re an investor
and take really random risks it’s possible
you’ll make tons of money, but most
people who do won’t. If you talk only to
people who made lots of money, they’ll
tell you taking lots of random risks is a
good way to become successful.
So I would preface any interview with
any entrepreneur with the idea that just
because some people think something
helped them, it doesn’t necessarily mean
it translates to a model of success. I
would take the stories as just data, but,
remember, you’re not getting the data
of the people who tried and failed, so it’s
not very good statistical data. I always
preface with that.
The other thing is everybody has a
different way of doing things. I have a
disability—that I’m not very good at being
educated. It depends on your definition
of education, but, for me, traditional
education means being told to learn
things with the absence of explanations
as to exactly why. So it’s “Learn this
thing, read this book, it’ll be useful, it’ll
be on the test.” Testing and the anxiety of
not doing well in school was never enough
incentive for me to learn.
My sister [Mimi Ito, a professor at
the University of California, Irvine] calls
me an interest-driven learner, which
is basically, when I get interested in
something, I’ll learn everything I need to
learn in order to do that thing. Sometimes
the interest is just about learning, like
memorizing all the Latin names of
tropical fish in the store where I worked.
Sometimes it’s about making a thing.