Geneva Plenary Address
--Nipun Mehta (Oct 8, 2002)
Back To Letter
Friends, thank you for the honor to be on this distinguished panel and for giving me the opportunity to serve in this capacity. If what I say doesn't make sense to you, just assume that it's because of my jet-lag. :)
With his face pinned up against the window, a young kid is anxiously awaiting his Dad's return from work. He wants to play with him. When the Dad returns, he realizes that he needs to keep his son occupied, if he is to get any rest.
"Son, can I play with you in half an hour?" he requests of his son. But patience isn't among the list of virtues for little kids. Seeing this, Dad spontaneously finds a magazine from the coffee table, spots a page with a complicated looking graphic and shreds it into small pieces. After jumbling them up, he tells his son, "This is your jigsaw puzzle. As soon as you put it all together, I'll play with you."
Before he could even start to rest, his son rushes back: "I'm done! I'm done!" Startled, Dad goes to his room to check it out. And sure enough, it was done. But while the Dad had noticed the complicated graphic from the magazine tear-out, the son connected the simple circle on the other side of the paper.
Simplicity in Complexity
Yes, there are lots of problems in the world, lots of complexities, but we've never bothered to look on the other side to find that simplicity. We have acquired a lot of knowledge and information but haven't found wisdom to apply that information.
Martin Luther King, Jr. warned us about progress, which lies in finding solutions and not in merely changing the face of the problems. Changing the face of the problems keeps us occupied, lets us think that we are moving forward but we are simply rowing the boat without removing our anchor.
If you look at the state of technology, one wonders if we are actually finding solutions or playing musical chairs with our problems.
Take a look at the world wide web, for example. For the first time in our history, we have an amazing medium that combines action and information -- if you see an inspiring ad on TV, you no longer have to reach for the phone to make a donation; it's all within the reach of a click. Furthermore, the Internet has the potential to connect people from the most remote parts of the world and decentralize information-gathering in almost unbelievable ways. Yet, despite its promise to uplift all of humanity, we are merely propagating our divides ... this time digitally. Most people in the world don't have access to these tools. Heck, two billion adults in our world cannot even read or write, much less use a computer! Another two billion don't have access to electricity.
And this is not just with the web. Take a look at nuclear energy -- it can sustain entire cities with electricity and it can be used to blow away generations of people. Yes, we have medical research which has miraculously eradicated diseases like small-pox but we are still in constant threat of bio-terrorism from those same diseases. Similarly, we have many new gadgets to make our lives easier, but we are destroying the environment and complicating our lives in trying to manufacture them.
We have, and always had, plenty of solutions but not enough wisdom to apply it. It's time to couple the information highway with the wisdom path. The web, genetic research, and qauntam physics rock. But the fact of the matter is that much of the world today is still "off-the-grid" -- disconnected from the most basic tools that might empower isolated people to emerge from the shadows. More than four billion rarely make a phone call. Beyond that, twenty million die of starvation every year, millions more are homelesss. Three billion people have never seen a doctor; and as Mr. Van Hilton informed us, more than 2.7 billion people live on less than $2/day!
Why do we have more problems today than we did 50 years ago? Are we replicating our competitive zero-sum mindset patterns? Are we really bridging the gap between the have's and have-not's? For centuries, adults have struggled to solve these problems. We have built complexities around things that are simple, in hopes of finding real solutions. But clearly, that hasn't worked. It is time to return back to simplicity, ask "why" instead of just "how", solve problems when they are small and not wait for them to become and big and complex. We need to snap out of the rat-race for bigger, better and fast solutions and give some thought to real, sustainable progress.
That's where you come in. Just as we've had the Generation X, Generation Y, baby-boomers and so on, Elizabeth Rusch is calling you/us, Generation Fix -- the generation that will start to actually solve these problems. I think she's right.
The way I see it, there are two main characteristics of this generation, Generation Fix. And both of these are so simple, almost common sense, it is surprising that we haven't gotten it right in the previous generations.
Depth of Connection
First is the depth of connection with life. Thich Nhat Hanh -- famous peace activist, monk, and Nobel Peace Prize nominee -- used to hold up a piece of paper and ask his students what they saw. "Paper," they'd reply.
"Where does the paper come from?" he prompted.
"From the tree," the students replied.
"What does the tree need to survive?" he asked again.
"Water," noted the students.
"Water comes from where?" questioned Thich Nhat Hanh.
"From the cloud."
"Well, then, do you see the cloud in this piece of paper?"
The intricate web of connections are theoretically obvious but not so prevalent in our decision-making. The age-old adage, "What goes around, comes around" is really true but until now, we haven't paid much attention to it. Generation Fix is looking much deeper into this question.
Of course, this is not a new concept. Native Americans, before making any communal decisions, ask the question of how this will affect seven generations in the future! As we will hear in Tom Mahon's play, "Are you We Having Fun Yet?", we have moved from public parks, public schools, public transporation to personal computers, personal identification numbers, personal trainers. We have moved from the public to personal and now it is becoming increasingly important to move back to the public, the selfless.
Oprah Winfrey has a column titled "What I know for sure". That's an interesting question to think about. A very humbling question, actually. One time, she asked that question to the Dalai Lama and he said, "Altruism makes you happy."
And even Hollywood has started to present this theme! :) Last year's "best movie" Oscar went to Beautiful Mind, which chronicled the life of John Nash, an Economics Nobel Prize winner for his work in game theory. One of the tenets of his theory -- what's good for "me" has to account for what's good for "us".
Power Of One
The second important characteristic of Generation Fix is understanding of the "Power of One" ... that small is beautiful.
In mathematics, there is a concept of geometric progression. Imagine that I gave you a huge piece of paper and then simply asked you to fold it in half. And fold in half again. And again, for a total of 50 times. Now, can you tell me how big the stack of this folded paper would be? Most people will probably say something like the size of a phonebook or at the most a refrigerator. But can you imagine that the height of that stack would be more than the distance from here to the Sun?!?
The human mind has a hard time understanding this concept of progression, the ripple effect. But it is true that when you do something, however small it may be, it changes the world. Futhemore, it creates a space whereby it's easier for others to act in the same manner, even if you never get to know about it.
And when people understand this idea, amazing things happen. As you must know, a 12 year old is nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize this year. Engineering grads in Canada are now given a ring with the image of the London bridge, which collapsed and killed many; the idea was to reiterate that they are responsible, that even the tiniest of mistakes on their part can alter the lives of thousands of people. And statistics now show that there are more youth volunteering and getting involved in service, than any other previous generation. Generation Fix. It's happening.
Be The Change
At MIT, they did this amazing research which showed that a butterfly flapping its wings in Canada can cause a tornado in Japan. Yes, it's true.
So if we have a butterfly-effect, why not a love effect? Small acts of great love are what revolutions are made of. Like Gandhi said, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world." If you want to see love, let's be that love. Not just for our projects, ideas and agendas, but in every moment, unconditionally. As we all be-the-change, complex will be simple again.