Around a time like this, some months back, it was foggy. Both within, and without. Nine pm, atop a mountain which overlooks the city, with two friends, all tenacious in their lack of directions, but raring to change the world, is the kind of stuff postcard moments are made of. All three of us, on the way to an Ivy League MBA degree, were intoxicated by the soon to catch escape velocity of our lives. Until, one point in the evening when I stood up and told them my plans to become a teacher in a low income municipal school in Pune. Thud! And in just one moment, I realized bad brakes in high speed.
Things got lonelier. Friends became few. But within, it still felt nice. I was sure I would miss 100 % of the shots I would not take. So, I went ahead to my new world of three feet tall friends.
It is said that when you are in the middle of a story, it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood, like a house in a whirlwind, crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all, when you are telling it to yourself, or to somebody else.
Yet in this midlength of my experience, there are some realizations, a few light bulb moments and many confessions that are worth the dashboard space. Here they are:
On relationships and emotions:
Strangers are friends that you have yet to meet. So now I reach out every time I can. Earlier my experiences with people were mostly transactional and some lone Saturday night, it all felt like a mass of dots. But more and more these days, I feel like we’re all connected. Earlier, I was like an idiot searching for the perfect hand when each genuine grasp was worth the time. Life’s too short and I want to add beautiful people in my life each day.
Second, on a seeming surface level contradiction to my first point, I have realized some of the essence of non attachment. Looking life from a distance is my personal distillation of the tenet. Its only when we distance ourselves from some things, do they actually whisper a meaning to us. When someone once asked Sunita Williams, the NASA astronaut of Indian origins as to how does the world look like from 100 miles above when you can see the curvature of our planet? She said, “You feel so far but so close, like you can’t come home, disconnected from the hustle and bustle of Earth. There is a spiritual feeling: You’re privileged just to have this view. You see the planet differently, as a whole, the amazing colors, the animals and plants and people not separated by anything.” It’s only in this ideological wilderness that I am in these days, away from my friends, away from those mindless trips to the mall, that unnecessary phone call, and that thoughtless rush of a diehard capitalist, that I feel that 100 mile indescribable feeling for life.
The size of the endeavor doesn’t matter as much as how meaningful it means to you. You just can’t compare providing excellent education to 400 million children in your country to putting up a man in the moon or absorbing the colors of the sunset through the hills. And that’s the beauty of the theory of change. Everything counts. Nothing is irrelevant, nothing small. Everything connects back to something bigger. A huge portion of my life was spent thinking I wasn’t capable of being the change. And the later part was wasted in thinking whether the change I was trying to make was Big enough. So after more than a quarter of my life wasted on that experiment, I now believe that you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. And like Steve Jobs says, you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.
Imagine the 600 million young Indians thinking that way.Thats one Gandhi, multiplied six hundred million times. Crazy mathematics. That’s the power of being the change.
On leadership and personal transformation:
After reading a lot of leadership literature in my life, I often wondered, whats the best definition I wanted to pin down on leadership? I journeyed a lot. But each time, I returned with that unreachable feeling of a giant trophy up on a mountain. Its then that in Teach for India, I met Shaheen and serendipity together by virtue of this poem by Lao Tsu,a Chinese philosopher and Bang! I got my definition of leadership.
“Go to the People
Live with them
Learn from them,
Start with what they know,
Build with what they have.
But with the best leaders
When the work is done
the task is accomplished
The people will say,
‘We have done this ourselves.’
Doesn’t it sound like leadership door delivered? In fact it’s the easiest or the only way to the “trophy”. Leadership through service. You be an engineer or a doctor, a travel guide or a businessman, a mathematician or a musician, if you think of each and every profession in the paradigm of service, as a thankful way of giving back to the part we owe to our existence in this world, we would be a better place and Leadership will be unto you.
Coming back to where I started, when you are in the middle of a story, it isn’t a story at all. Its only later that it becomes anything like a story. With disconnected jigsaw pieces in my hand, I am walking around looking for the right metaphor piece to complete the perception of this experience.
The roller coaster is just about to free fall. And I am hung at the topmost point. That precise moment is now.
Surya Pratap Deka
Fellow, Teach for India.