by Dina Iglikova
Shamil Ibragimov on Reinventing Oneself and the Search for Happiness
Shamil Ibragimov (CELA'9 Kyrgyzstan) reflects on his transformative decade as director of the Open Society Foundation in Kyrgyzstan, highlighting his journey of self-discovery following this influential role. He shares experiences from his Yale fellowship, student mentorship, and exploration of happiness. Shamil discusses his work on a civic project mapping urban emotions and infrastructure issues and offers insights into private education innovation and the importance of personal honesty. The interview probes into his personal growth, reevaluation of beliefs, search for meaning, and the role of data in community improvement, emphasizing the power of introspection and individual impact in society.

Imagine your soul having the opportunity to choose the difficulty level for the next life, just like with a video game. If it is too easy, it will be boring. If it is too hard, you may quit it too early, so you choose a difficulty level that will stimulate your growth when you evolve.
Shamil, you held an influential position for 10 years (director of the Open Society Foundation in Kyrgyzstan). You were a person who made decisions that affected the fates, health, and well-being of other people and communities. And this role ended last year. How did you feel after that?

I was preparing for this, probably for a year or maybe a year and a half, because there is a principle that we all wear different hats. I'm a son, father, citizen, brother, friend, director, and non-director. When I decided I would be leaving soon, I realized that I might later have a difficult period separating myself from the role of foundation director. Because when you are the director of a foundation that gives out money, the attitude towards you is different. You are loved and respected and become someone else when you remove that hat.

So, I was mentally working on separating from my hat as the Open Society Foundation Kyrgyzstan director. I was preparing myself that everything would be fine. It’s no tragedy that people will stop answering my calls, greeting me on the street, etc. Well, to hell with them. So, for me, it turned out to be relatively easy. It was a good moment to realize who you are yourself. You are invited and talked to because you are a function, or is it interesting to talk to you because you are an interesting person?

I realized it came relatively easy but became a problem for some. I recently met a friend who held a very high position in a similar organization and resigned. And he tells me how unexpectedly surprising was for him to see how people started ghosting him. He said that while he was, in principle, prepared for this, it still hurts, it turns out. It doesn’t hurt me. I worked through it, lived through it, let it go.

Maybe also because you're at Yale now?

Maybe. If I were now walking the autumn streets of Bishkek in a gray coat, sadly kicking leaves, it would probably be a depressive state, loss of self, and all that. But no, I was lucky enough to get into Yale. And that also encourages and supports me.

So maybe this is a good recipe - if you change careers, you should study.

Yes, and in my case, it’s not just studying. It’s a fellowship where my job is to contribute to Yale's academic community. I am mentoring several students here who are interested in Eurasia and Central Asia. I share things that are difficult to get in a university academic environment. For example, when you come to the point of bifurcation, you need to make a choice that will affect your entire life, and the professor will not answer those questions, but I can.
"One of the fundamental questions I came here to Yale with is what makes people happy. Many religions say that human destiny is suffering. And I disagree".
Shamil Ibragimov
CELA'9, Kyrgyzstan
You have extensive experience in social development, local governance, and media. Can you talk about some turning point or specific project in your career that significantly influenced you?

I wouldn't say I had moments that suddenly shed light from the sky on me. It was always evolutionary. My entire experience at the Open Society Foundation was an intensive evolutionary process for me as a citizen, manager, and person. Not only because I was in a specific position but because I found myself in a community of very smart and interesting people who constantly raise questions and seek answers to questions you do not encounter daily.

I was lucky that, as the foundation's director, I was involved in a very wide range of various programs. We were engaged in everything from natural resource management and transparency efficiency to GovTech, CivicTech, and CivicMedia. You must also understand something about it when making decisions across such a wide range. So you are forced to dig, study, read, and of course, it affects you professionally and personally. My perception of social justice and civic responsibility has significantly evolved, especially at the Open Society.

My job was to make sure that all the diversity of projects and programs that we had at the foundation formed not a kaleidoscope but a mosaic, where each element is valuable, fantastic, beautiful, and valuable, but at the same time, this element is part of a common picture, and this picture is visible. The most incredible and exciting thing for me was connecting things and creating a mosaic from hundreds of large and small projects.

You mentioned that you developed your understanding of social justice; before that, you mentioned that you are a co-founder of a private school. What do you think about private school education in terms of how it affects social justice or injustice?

Demand creates supply. Private schools and kindergartens appear because the state cannot cope. This is a natural process. If we're talking about inequality and social justice, I think at the state level, the Ministry of Education needs to understand that the private education sector is not a competitor to public schools. I suggest considering the private education sector as an experimental site because the public education system, by definition, cannot experiment. Because it is large and complex, and you cannot experiment there.

But when you start experimenting, you will try innovations. Innovations mean a high level of errors and failures, and our public administration system does not accept errors and failures. In this atmosphere, expecting the education system to develop new approaches is naive. In this regard, the private sector can experiment and find new approaches.

But most importantly, private schools should be given the freedom to experiment, but not in such a way that they have created a unique methodology that they will not give to anyone, only for a quadrillion dollars a year.

At the Open Society, we have promoted the idea that educational resources should be openly available for many years. So if you, as a teacher, have created a cool methodology, tested it, and found it works, share it and make it openly available. The fact that you keep it, no one needs it, no one will steal your brilliant idea because no one believes you have a brilliant one, no one will pay you for it.

If you post it, someone may take a chance, try it, look at it, refine it, and your idea will evolve. But your idea will remain; it will be clear where it originated. You will get your laurels of recognition. But if you encapsulate yourself and keep these unique developments, they will not evolve. They will wither.

Are you still the advisor to the Minister of Education?

No, I got removed. Appointing and removing people six months later is an old pastime for us. I was an advisor to one minister, and now there is another minister. But my main task as an advisor was to voice the idea I already mentioned - we need academic freedom, specifically in the private sector. Because they want that freedom, and they will use it.

How was this idea received?

In Kyrgyzstan, a new law on education was passed, and for the first time, it was initiated by the civic sector and not just by a few people in parliament. The new law proposed a revision of the funding system in the educational sector, introducing a “voucher system” when money follows a student. This approach creates competition among public schools to give better results and improves the transparency of public funds. The law also proposed significant simplification of certification, permits, and licenses for private kindergartens and schools. Of course, it met a lot of resistance, especially among the middle-level ranks of the Ministry of Education. There are people with 20-30 years of experience. They know that ministers come and go, but they remain. So they sit with the position. "Young man, I've been sitting here for 30 years. I know better than you". They try their best to maintain the status quo. They certainly do not need any innovation, they do not need reforms, they do not need anything. They need a well-established mechanism to work precisely as it works now. Therefore, it is impossible to expect change there. You must go in there with fire and sword, burn everything, and rebuild anew.
Could you please tell me about your platform project that visualizes city data?

It is called UrbanEyes. The idea originates at Harvard, where it was born when I took a class on Urban Innovations with Stephen Goldsmith, former deputy mayor of New York and mayor of Indianapolis.

We will get a subjective assessment if we ask urban residents how well or poorly the city is governed. And the idea is to create a platform and application that collects and visualizes city-data.

The fundamental difference from most city dashboards is that they appear at the municipality's initiative. And the municipality decides what to show and what not. In cities with a democracy deficit, for example, Bishkek, where we cannot elect a mayor, we have no tools to influence urban processes. We don't know what's going on. But at the same time, we noticed that public opinion matters.

We have created both the platform and the application, where, for now, we will evaluate three main elements. The first is an assessment of the quality of municipal services. Second is an assessment of the city's infrastructure; third, I want to measure the city's emotions.

Imagine you have an app that, once, twice, or three times a day, depending on how you set it up, asks you, "Dina, how do you rate the quality of the sidewalk?" And you give a rating from 1 to 5.

Of course, your rating might be 3. Mine might be 5. We get an averaged parameter when there are 10,000 or 100,000 such ratings. Then, we map and visualize it all. So when you open the city map, you see yellow, green, and red lines. You immediately understand the state of the city's infrastructure. When this data is visualized, it is easier for journalists to create a narrative and for city residents to demand change.

Now, when you try to talk to officials, they start showing the best streets and convince you that not all is so bad. Everything is great. Precisely the same situation we had with air pollution. Until we started to measure, visualize, and map indicators of air pollution, all officials denied there was a problem with the air. We supported a major effort to visualize air pollution data at the foundation.

It took 6-7 years to get any reaction after installing the first sensors. For two years, there was denial. They said your data is wrong; you are all lying; you are NGO people, to blacken us here. Then, there was a very long acceptance phase.

When we collected the data, we visualized this data. We started saying, guys, we have bad air. And look, today in Bishkek, the air is even worse than in Beijing. People know that Beijing had terrible air, and everyone is like, oh my god, is it worse than Beijing? So this whole “worse than Beijing” turned out to be more effective for people than saying we have a pollution level of 243. People do not know benchmarks: what’s bad, awful, good. When you say we are worse than Beijing, it offends national dignity. Here, we boast about our mountain air but lack clean air.

And third is what I am now discussing here at Yale—the methodology of measuring emotions. Many have done similar things, but they only measured the level of happiness. And I want to measure the emotions of the city. We have now determined that we will have five parameters, of which two are positive emotions, one is neutral, and two are negative. So we'll see that certain areas are happier than others.

In this application, we do not collect personal data, only age and gender. This will allow us to see that men feel comfortable and pleasant in a particular area after sunset, while females feel a hostile environment.

We will be able to visualize all of this later and open up opportunities for subsequent researchers to pay attention to why this area is happier than another. I want to translate our assumptions into concrete data. This is what I call data-driven civic engagement.

I hope someone in other cities will also want to create and replicate this product because we will make it all openly available, all code and measurement methodologies, so people can create similar tools in their cities and make the work of municipal services more transparent and accountable.

Can this somehow be monetized?

Monetization is needed, but at the same time, I don't want monetization to kill the core idea. Here, when I pitch, everyone asks how you will make people use your app. We will have such a condition that if you contribute your data at least once a week or two, you get a discount somewhere.

We are now negotiating with small and medium-sized businesses. This costs them nothing while triggering their social responsibility.

I don’t want to think about monetization yet because monetization becomes a limiting factor that starts taking you in the wrong direction. I need the freedom of thought to create a product. Twitter did not set monetization for itself, yet it sold for billions of dollars.
"I think being categorical is one of the signs of immaturity, and when you can distance yourself from being categorical from this black-and-white that everyone wants to see, it’s a sign of growing up".
Shamil Ibragimov
CELA'9, Kyrgyzstan
Where do you get so much enthusiasm from?

Imagine that reincarnation exists. Imagine your soul having the opportunity to choose the difficulty level for the next life, just like with a video game. If it is too easy, it will be boring. If it is too hard, you may quit it too early, so you choose a difficulty level that will stimulate your growth when you evolve. So my philosophy is that the life that I have, with all the challenges I face, is the one I have chosen, and since I have only one life, I need to use every opportunity to grow, get new experiences, and evolve as an individual, professional and spiritual creature. So it may be my choice to set that level of difficulty of this “game” to be born in 1980 in Kyrgyzstan and going through everything we are going through. But I did not choose a "hard" level, for example, being born Palestinian in Gaza.

What questions are you trying hardest to answer in your life right now?

One of the fundamental questions I came here to Yale with is what makes people happy. Many religions say that human destiny is suffering. And I disagree.

I recall a joke here about a young monk visiting a monastery famous for its library. He is assigned to an old monk who tells him: Here are old manuscripts; sit down, copy, and reproduce. The young monk asks if he can copy from the original. The old monk tells him that the originals are inaccessible in the basement because they are very valuable and they copy from copies. The young monk asks, what if the person who made the first copy was wrong, and we keep repeating it?

The old monk asks, "Who are you to tell me what to do? And he left. The young man sits, copies the manuscript, and the evening comes. No old monk around, so he goes looking for him, walks all over the monastery, can’t find him, goes down to the archives, and in the farthest corner finds this old monk sitting over an old manuscript, holding his head and repeating "celebrate, celebrate, not celibate".

And I believe that somewhere, at some point, there was a mistake made. We must rejoice. We must be happy. Perhaps that is the meaning of life, after all, to find this happiness. One of the most popular courses in Yale's history is called “The Science of Happiness.

Yes, I took it, excellent course.

And just last week, I had coffee with Laurie Santos (the course professor). I was telling her about UrbanEyes. I told her I also want to measure happiness, not just happiness, but emotions. After talking to her, I had the idea to study the infrastructure of happiness. What makes us happy? What should the city's infrastructure be like for your happiness level as a city resident to be higher? What makes people happy?

These are physical activities and exercise. For you to be able to exercise, there must be infrastructure. Not just cool, expensive gyms, but a place where you can run or outdoor workout areas. So you walk around, see this infrastructure, and you’re like yeah, I have to, I have to, I have to do something. And at some point, your "I have to" will turn into action. At some point, this action will give you an endorphin boost. And you'll be like, damn, I think I feel better when I run in the mornings or do some pull-ups and stuff.

And what makes people happy? These are friendly conversations, interacting with other people we don't know, not just our inner circles where we only interact with people like us - our small circle of family, clan, friends, and colleagues—but building bridges when you interact with people who are absolutely unlike you, with another culture or worldview. Yet you interact with them in a completely safe and comfortable environment. Again, it is a question of infrastructure and public spaces that are inclusive and safe for different people.

What was your happiest memory this year?

I read everything indiscriminately. From research papers to pop science and all sorts of so-called brain candy - various tasty novels, stories, etc. And that's why I often live in a semi-illusory world where I can gather with friends on my terrace in Bishkek and have a nice dinner.

And this dinner party, I see through the prism of a novel I read, where there is a scene where friends sit down to dinner under the grapevines in Tuscany. The author described it very well there. So I'm sitting there in Bishkek, but looking at it all through the filter of that book. And, of course, my perception of reality is more colorful and tastier, although slightly different from the real picture.

I'm getting at this mindset... I'm consciously trying to develop this mindset of happiness. And that's why I try to find many moments of happiness. And this year, I had quite a few when we went to the sea with the kids. And we simply, you know, got to the sea in 40 minutes by public transport for a dollar fifty. It's no Maldives, of course, but okay—sandy beach, and you’re like, wow, cool.

But probably one of the biggest bursts of happiness, endorphins, are achievements. So, it was a moment of happiness when I got the letter that I got into Yale. And this program is mega cool. Thousands apply from all over the world, and only 16 people are selected.
You said you read a lot. Please recommend one fiction and one non-fiction book that you have recently read. And what would you recommend to others?

In fact, it’s not one book, but Boris Akunin’s series of historical novels that starts with the book “Fiery Finger.” In this series, it would be nice first to read his other, more documentary series on the history of the Russian state and then read this series of historical novels. I understand your readers will start spitting - "Oh, Akunin is not a real historian," blah blah blah. I like it. I disagree with many things. I think it was Akunin who introduced the concept of the Horde state [the legacy of Chengiz Khan's state structure], which can be strongly disputed.

And you know, read the short story by Elizar Yutkovsky. I think it’s either the clash of civilizations or something like that [Three Worlds Collide]. In short, the plot is that three civilizations with completely different concepts of morality meet at one point in the distant future. And a moral dilemma arises for each of these civilizations.

From non-fiction, I'm currently reading “Don't Trust Your Gut.” [Seth Stephen Davidowitz] It's a book about a data scientist that describes our relationships, work, and what affects, for example, a child's success, specifically from the data perspective. I also plan to use some of his findings in my writings on education, where he says, for example, what has the greatest influence on shaping a child's personality? There are options: school, neighborhood, and role models. It turns out neighborhood ranks first, then role models, and school ranks last.

Shamil, have you changed your opinion about anything recently? Has there been anything like that?

In recent years, if we take the period of the last 6-7 years, my experience at Harvard greatly changed me. When I went there, I was the director of the Open Society Foundation in Kyrgyzstan, and I took a sabbatical for a year. When I came back, I thought I came back just the same as before. But my colleagues told me, Shamil, you have changed a lot. I say, how? They say you have become kinder. I always considered myself a sweetheart and a good guy. But then, when I started analyzing, I realized that probably this is not that I became kinder, but instead developed my emotional intelligence and became less categorical. I think being categorical is one of the signs of immaturity, and when you can distance yourself from being categorical from this black-and-white that everyone wants to see, it’s a sign of growing up.

Therefore, being less categorical makes you less prone to sudden opinion changes on a particular issue. I haven't had this moment of truth, a sudden rethinking of something recently. I constantly try to rethink everything I know, see, understand, or think I understand.

If everything was up to you, who would you be with, where would you be, what would you be doing?

Basically, everything is just as I wanted; that’s how it turned out. There are slight variations from time to time. But I think I would be where I am and probably doing the same thing. Of course, new exciting ideas keep appearing now. And what I'm going to tell you now about what I'd like to do in six months, when you ask me the same question again, I'll answer differently. Because the situation will change, and some other opportunities will open up for me. I don't know where I'll be in 2 months. And that's part of the charm because it would be boring if I knew.

I realized one thing – we vastly overestimate the possibility of changing events over the course of one year and greatly underestimate the possibility of change over 3-5 years. Exactly 6 years ago, I was studying in Cambridge, dreaming of finishing this master’s degree to return to Kyrgyzstan faster. And I couldn’t even imagine that 6 years later, I would be sitting 200 kilometers away in New Haven at Yale University with a different status. I don't know where I'll end up, but I will always try to swim to where I think I can be most helpful to myself and society.
"I miss my parents, my mom, who I lost. Somehow, you miss those people who are no longer there. You miss them with profound sadness. Because you know you'll never see them again. With friends, it’s a different kind of longing. You long while looking forward to seeing them again".
Shamil Ibragimov
CELA'9, Kyrgyzstan
Do you sometimes lie to yourself about anything?

Constantly. I constantly lie to myself. I go to the gym, lift weights, tell myself to finish it all and go home. Then, when I’m done, I’m like, okay, I still have strength left, let’s do another set. So you're always deceiving yourself. That is, in this way, through this deception, you keep pushing yourself to the edge of your capabilities. That's one form of deception.

Another one is that every person has imposter syndrome. And I have it, too. It seems to me that everything I have achieved happened by chance. Just got lucky. Although I know this is no coincidence, Chance results from certain decisions and work. Chance is just a small part of finding yourself in the right place at the right time with the right set of knowledge, skills, and philosophy.

But I strive to be as honest as possible with myself. So, I try to package the self-deception in a more productive format - to use it to push myself to the edge of my capabilities.

Who are you missing right now? And do you think they miss you?

I miss my friends. I miss Bishkek. Our cozy get-togethers with a glass of wine. Do they miss me? I hope so. I hope they miss me too.

I have a very close circle of friends from Harvard. There are 7 of us scattered all over the world. But every six months, for 6 years already, we meet up. Not everyone, but we meet at least 2-3 people in different parts of the world.

I miss my parents, my mom, who I lost. Somehow, you miss those people who are no longer there. You miss them with profound sadness. Because you know you'll never see them again. With friends, it’s a different kind of longing. You long while looking forward to seeing them again.

What is your earliest memory of being happy?

I was three years old; we were at Lake Issyk-Kul, and my mom bought me a Buratino lemonade and cookies. Those old Soviet cookies that grow five times in size and fall apart when you put them in tea. These cookies, I’m sitting on the beach, burning sand, I’m drinking lemonade, holding the glass bottle with both hands, and somewhere in the background, Yalla is playing. I looked at the photos later, and we also sat on a camel, posing for pictures. I don’t remember that camel at all.

I call those little moments "awareness moments" and try to practice them now, too, because an awareness moment is when you have a moment that stays in your head for your whole life. Like a photo. I have one such photo – in Cambridge:

I’m all bundled up, going to a swimming pool at 7 am in winter. Outside, it’s minus 27 degrees. Extremely cold. I come up to the river, and there's a bridge there, the frozen river. A thought runs through my head: where the hell are you going at 7 am when you could still be sleeping in your warm bed? Why can't you take it easy for once? I stand there and think that this may never happen again in my life. So stop and be aware of this moment. My nose is already falling off from the cold. My eyes are blind each time I blink because of my frozen eyelashes. I’m cold. I’m uncomfortable. Thinking I'm about to dive into the water to swim makes me very uncomfortable. But I am aware that, dude, you might not ever have this again in your life. Capture this moment. And that photo is constantly in my head. If I could draw, I would probably paint a whole picture. That bridge, the tree here, the river here, it's frozen. And here is this path to the pedestrian bridge. There is a business school building over there. And how the light looked. These kinds of awareness moments - I think those are moments of happiness.