Yesterday's Trip to Doon School
Dear ServiceSpace Family,
I just returned from a grand gathering at Doon School in Dehradun (India) yesterday, where I represented our collective work -- so I thought I'd take a few moments to share some stories. :)
With alumni like Rajiv Gandhi, Fortune magazine rates the Doon School as the second most influential network in the world, behind Harvard. Every year, they host a "Founders Day", where all their alumni, board, parents of students, donors, and entire student body come to celebrate their vision and values. This year, about 3 thousand folks attended this immaculately organized event that included vice-president of India, chief ministers of various states, and many of the business leaders in the country. In my invitation to be their chief guest, they mentioned how Dalai Lama was their chief guest last year, King of Bhutan the year before, the president of India before that and so on. Initially, I scratched my head wondering how they felt I could fill those shoes, but in conversations with them, it was clear that they wanted to experiment (somewhat boldly) with a focus on the everyday hero. So I agreed.
The event was festive, disciplined and super organized. They offered me a luxurious 30 minutes to speak, the longest speaking slot. Analjit Singh, the chairman of the Doon board, told me before hand: "I just want you to confuse everyone. Confuse them that money, power and fame aren't the only ends of ladder, that selfless service can be just as legitimate a commitment." I'm down with that. :) He also gently suggested that I should wear a blazer since this was a formal event (I was wearing my be-the-change kurta :)), but alas, I didn't have one. :)
Due to the stature of the other dignitaries present, there was a lot of security, and all 3 thousand folks were screened and not allowed to bring any bags, gadgets or even cell phones. The podium had to be at least sixty feet away from the audience. Bright lights shined in your face, such that audience could see the podium clearly but speakers couldn't see anyone. :) The quality of the sound was pristine, with a mild echo. Rather surprisingly, there was pin-drop silence throughout the gathering.
It was the kind of event that warranted a written speech -- but I chose to speak spontaneously. Earlier in the day, I interacted with the "senior boys" in a very fulfilling and engaging Q&A ("Without greed, will we be motivated to progress?" "Does kindness lead to socialism?" "Can I do service if I still want to drive a BMW?" "Does Corporate Social Responsibility count as authentic social change?"). The headmaster also spoke articulately about shifting the dialogue from generic values to a deeper commitment to virtue; and even my introduction included our vision of giftivism. So I figured it was a good occasion to let loose. :) I gave some context of the ServiceSpace journey, around attempting the impossible in the direction of love, and then spoke about working from a foundation of simplicity, service and stillness. Vibrationally speaking, it felt great and I knew it was landing in some people's hearts. I ended with, "Just imagine what one act of kindness can do!" While I couldn't see all of the audience, I noticed that the entire student body rose to stood up jubilantly for the applause. After the UPenn commencement, I insisted on going out to be with the crowd, and the Deans smiling told me that I'm the only speaker that has offered to do so; of course, its an edge because you open yourself up to all kinds of energies, but on balance, I prefer breaking down the hierarchy. Unfortunately, I didn't have that option here, but I did insist on sitting down with the super-cute students who shyly approached me for an interview for their school newspaper. Their second to last question was: "If there was one line that summarizes your message, what would it be?" I said, "It takes giving to be happy." And then their last question: "Sir, we feel that every town should have a Karma Kitchen or something that inspires generosity. How can we do it?" I smiled, and hugged them, and said, "Start small. Maybe here in Dehradun, or even on your campus." I'm also going to ship all of them Smile Cards to keep the fire burning. :)
My connection to the event was Ajit Singh, who had a "hair raising" experience when he first heard about ServiceSpace at an event two years ago. Few decades ago, Ajit moved to the US to study at Columbia; to cover his cost of living, he became a cab-driver. On one such ride, his passenger was a man named Oliver Sacks. They struck up a conversation, and Oliver Sacks was so impressed by his cabbie that he invited him to coffee. Sure enough, Ajit became the first PhD student of Oliver Sacks. He went to work as a systems engineer at Siemens, and ultimately ended up as the CEO of their $12B division. At one point, he started his own company, sold it and became a VC. Yet, he hasn't forgotten his roots. Every month, for instance, he flies out to India to visit his mother, who raised him as a single mother. *Every* month, for years. A genuine person, who called up his wife right after the talk and said, "Enough of this money stuff, let's serve." Both of them (and their daughter) are coming to stay with us in India next month, to volunteer. :)
The best part, as always, was the massive amount of unexpected ripples. The night before, I was hosted in Delhi at a fancy hotel; in perhaps an unprecedented move for a five-star hotel, 15-20 random folks gathered for a circle of sharing and converted my hotel room into a Wednesday-like space -- with bed room pillows tossed on the ground and everyone crouched together. Most everyone were strangers and I myself knew just one person, but as all such circles go, we all felt like long-lost friends and no one wanted to leave even after 3 hours. :) So obvious was the power of such a circle that they have all collectively made a decision to host Wednesdays every week (starting this week!) and do small-acts-with-big-love projects on the weekend. :) Awakin Delhi! Earlier in the day, I met with Osama Manzar, who wanted me to speak at his annual Manthan gathering but after he learned about our philosophy, he now wants to host a panel on gift-economy projects. After the talk, the country's revenue secretary was talking to me about the need for stillness, and successful entrepreneurs were contemplating this idea of letting go. :) Following the event, I had dinner with one of the affluent Indians in the country, as we spoke about renunciation, the limits of money, and importance of shifting our collective consciousness; as we parted, I left him with a story of a Chinese emperor who hosted a "great giving banquet" to give away every single thing he owned because he realized that the only place safe enough for his immense wealth was in the heart of man. He felt our conversation was divinely timed since he's been having a "kundalini" experience. :) Even on the private plane that I rode on with a few folks, the insightful conversations hinged around models of generosity, meditation, neuro-biology of compassion and designing for empathy. "Why is it that we never talk so deeply about these things," one of them pondered out loud. It was great for me to hear them share stories around ServiceSpace values. :)
As we landed at the airport, one of my newly made friends -- also one of the heads of McKinsey -- shared a small act he likes to do. 'I will often read the person's name badge and thank them by their name," he said, while retelling a story of how one person was in tears when receiving personal acknowledgement like that. (Its a rare thing in India, to acknowledge someone by name, particularly by private-plane going people.) So we all decided to try it together. He went before me and thanked the security guard. "Thank you, Mr. Chaudhry." The guard smiled briefly. However, I was after him, and that same Mr. Chaudhry decides to pay-it-forward by finding my name from my boarding pass and with a HUGE smile says, "Welcome, Mr. Mehta". We share few moments of deep connection, while my friend is watching his ripples in awe. Both of us, and others with us, turn around and say, "Wow, we're all smiling and look, he's still smiling too." There was an undeniable ambiance of elation. Security guard, Mr. Chaudhry, overheard us and turned around to give us yet another smile -- as if to confirm that, in the end, it is these small acts of smiles make the world go around.
With smiles, :)