2,628,000 seconds, 43,800 hours, 1,825 days; 5 years
I have been living in India for over 5 years now. Five years. It’s when reaching milestones like this, whether real or perceived, that causes one to pause a little and reflect on the meaning of it all. As an aside, isn’t it interesting how the human mind gravitates towards these clean, round numbers when measuring the importance of an achievement? Doing something for 3 or 4 years is certainly as admirable and worthy of reflection, yet those anniversaries pass pretty much unnoticed, as will those that follow this one unless I reach 10 years. But I digress.
It really is mind-blowing to me that it’s been five years since I first arrived in India. It paradoxically feels in many ways like I just arrived here, and in still many others like an entire lifetime has passed since I set foot in the Delhi Airport on February 19, 2012. Malcolm Gladwell in his seminal book “Outliers” posited that it takes 10,000 hours of practice and effort to have any mastery over one thing. Mathematically speaking, I have spent more than four times that amount of time engaging with India, its people and cultures, and its challenges. I’d venture to say that I understand India far less know than I thought I did those 5 years ago. But I do appreciate it far more than I ever expected I would.
People often seek the declarative statement; the concise conveyance of what something has meant in as few words as possible; the Cliff’s Notes, abridged version that shares only the most salient of points. For this reason, I’ll not bore with too many explorations of what I have learned and experienced this last half-decade. I can say that I feel deeply that the person I was on day one is now a stranger to the one approaching day 2,000. And that the greatest gift India has given to me through a long list of amazing experiences is perspective.
Never has it been more poignant that the world needs greater connectivity than in today’s world. Just the other day an ignorant, racist American shot and killed an Indian national in a bar in Kansas after confusing him for someone of Middle Eastern descent, not that that makes the act any less egregious and heinous. If there’s any glimmer of hope to extract from such a despicable act, it’s that another bar patron intervened to try and help, saying, “I was just doing what anyone should have done for another human being”. Alas, this statement does betray a greater concern though: we need to get to a place where the ‘should’ in that sentence is replaced by ‘would’.
We are not so different from one another. The problem is that we allow others, particularly those in power, to manipulate and distort the minor differences that do exist in a manner that foments fear and anxiety. We stop thinking rationally when that happens, and the mob mentality takes over for the rational mind. When we allow secondary inputs to take the place of primary experiences, everyone loses. We really need to get to a point in which we drop the hypocrisy of misappropriating another’s experiences or biases and presenting them as our own truths.
There’s a relatively easy fix to people holding entrenched, negative views of people different from them but whom they have never met, but it’s uncomfortable: interact with people from that group you fear or loathe. Better still, try walking in their shoes a bit: travel to their countries, sample their foods, experience their customs and practices. There are plenty of countries in today’s world that doing this will be difficult (Syria, Iraq, and Yemen come to mind), but I’d venture a guess it’d be rather easy to engage with citizens of those countries via any of the modern technologies that have so permeated our lives. It is difficult to break out of the echo chamber that reinforces your world view, but it’s not impossible; and it’s vitally important that we all try our best to do so.
These past five years I’ve spent working in the field of human-centered design, a problem-solving methodology predicated on taking an empathic approach to understanding challenges and designing solutions to the same. The work I’ve been involved in has primarily focused on social challenges (e.g., water and sanitation, inclusion, nutrition, education) for those living at the so-called base or bottom of the pyramid. Thanks to this, I have been afforded a front-row seat to some of the most challenging contexts in the world today.
I’ve been able to embed myself within communities to share their daily experience a bit and work with them to solve the problems so deeply affecting their lives. At the start of these engagements, there is always a bit of apprehension on both sides. However, as you spend more and more time together, you see that even seemingly significant barriers like language and culture can be overcome. My colleagues and I often remark about how far a simple smile can take you. Above and beyond that, simply showing up and being present for people who have been so ignored and marginalized can be transformative. It can be demeaning asking for help, and doing so really opens oneself up to being very vulnerable. Meeting that with an attitude of “let’s do this together” rather than “I’m doing this for you” is not only more accurate in reality, but also the foundation for building a healthy relationship predicated on collaboration and cooperation and not exploitation and degradation.
I have been to some of India’s worst slums, traveled to terrorist-occupied countries, worked with children dying from malnutrition thanks to man-made and natural causes, and visited over a dozen “developing countries” in recent years. I’ve wilfully chosen to do so in order to have a better understanding of what the world is like, not just as an American dipping his toes into a place, but as a global citizen concerned with the ever-expanding disparity between the haves and the have-nots and how that manifests in real terms for real people who just like the rest of us want nothing more than to succeed in life and to see their loved ones well cared for. Like many foreigners hailing from more developed countries, I arrived here with the mentality that the challenge lied in people’s capacity; that problems persisted in places because individuals lacked the wherewithal to deal with them on their own. I cannot stress enough how ignorant and dangerous that line of thinking truly is.
Not surprisingly, the experiences I have had have shown that the issues are far more cnidarian in nature: they’re a hydra with many touch-points that allow problems to persist; one must cut off all of the tentacles to really make any significant change. For instance, addressing the sanitation crisis in India does not require just more and better sanitation technologies like toilets, effective septic systems, and robust waste treatment capabilities, but also a seismic shift in how the government here perceives sanitation provisioning, improved education for citizenry regarding the benefits of healthy sanitation habits, and accounting for numerous other sociocultural inputs that drive behaviors and perceptions.
Additionally, what the kind of thinking I arrived here with fails to capture is the underlying resilience of the communities affected by the challenges we work on. In so many of our engagements, we end up being consoled and reassured by those we are there to help. The strength and perseverance of the BoP is astounding, and tapping into this is again why a human-centered approach in designing solutions is so important. More often than not, those most affected by an issue will have a far more intimate knowledge of it, and how to address it, than we interlopers ever will.
I arrived here virtually unaware of what design thinking was, had no experience whatsoever in working in a development context, and had only visited India once; I came here alone and with only a backpack’s’ worth of clothing with me. It astounds me the opportunities that I have been afforded since starting here, and am forever indebted to my colleagues for the responsibilities that they have trusted me with, and the resultant confidence that has come with the successes we have had over the years. Hell, even the failures have been pretty amazing in that the “corporate culture” at the company I work for views everything through the lens of a learning experience; as long as you are able to learn and grow from something, it’s good, especially failure.
I came here after a tumultuous, unsettled year spent in Cambodia. There was about a 6-month gap between my time in Cambodia and the move to India, and I spent this at home in America. Now, I should explain that my move to Cambodia came as quite a shock to loved ones. I ditched a great career in New York to essentially roll the dice and see what a life abroad could look like. I’d hoped to get into some sort of NGO/development work in Cambodia, but lacking any experience in the field, I was unsuccessful and opted instead to teach kindergarten kids English. When I left this after just a year, I think my family and friends at home expected me to go back to the life I’d left behind, so it came as quite another jolt when I continued to eschew that in hopes that an opportunity for more fulfilling work would come along.
I remember distinctly a conversation with my Mother in which she all but said I should abandon this delusion and go back to my old job in New York. It was a true crossroads and I damn near gave in and took the “easy way out”. A few weeks after that conversation, though, a small design research and innovation consultancy in India took a flier on me and five years later here I still sit. Words cannot adequately express how thankful I am that this opportunity came about. I know myself well enough to say that it would have always nagged me, and I would have always regretted not doing this if I had opted to take the road more travelled.
As I previously said, the perspective that a life abroad has afforded me has been the ultimate gift. The things one needs to be happy and healthy are largely intangible, and far fewer in number than what we would expect. The newest gadget or car or item of clothing will always pale in comparison to the human connections felt in a shared experience, a quiet conversation, a raucous party, and a moment’s pause with a loved one spent reflecting on the wonder of it all. In my experience, it’s the people and experiences that I enjoy and miss the most, and not any inanimate, if expensive, objects.
It’s probably a little cheesy to say this, and ironic considering I moved here at the age of 34, but I really feel like my time in India has facilitated me finally growing up, or at least a little bit. I used to be scared of my own shadow and hesitant to be anything other than what I thought other people wanted me to be. I ran away from responsibility and ended jobs and relationships when they became even a little challenging. And in all this I operated almost solely through the lens of, “What’s good for me?” in any given situation. In India, I’ve been able to stake a claim a bit, to take a stand and be true to the person I’ve always thought I could be but never had the courage to grow into. I’ve been able to see things, to visit places, and to work on challenges that most people will never have the opportunity. I’ve understood the responsibility that has come with that and hope that I have responded with the appropriate level of compassion, empathy, and effort.
I owe a tremendous debt to India, and my Indian friends and family here. This has literally been a life-changing experience.
Originally published at kevinshane.me on February 28, 2017.