Dear Bhutan,

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of ‘legacy’
And what it is I intend to leave behind
How it is I intend to change the world.
And not just intend - but how I have changed it.

There’s this fallacy that floats around the ‘change making’ circles.

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi.

So I’ll call it the Gandhian fallacy.
Not that Gandhi is wrong, or anything.
Or he might be, I don’t know.
It’s just that the aforementioned quote has been extracted and probably decontextualized to the point where it can no longer be meaningful, like those misattributed Einstein witticisms about insanity (‘doing something over and over again and expecting a different result’) and who knows what else, but hey it’s got Einstein’s name attached to it, so let’s just go with it.

Here’s why it’s a fallacy.
There’s this premise of a sequence.

Of seeing the light first

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before you help others see it (Plato’s Cave).

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Of attaining enlightenment before one supports others.
The saviour who transforms (mostly) himself through extraordinary means of penance, contemplation and sacrifice before he has summoned the indomitable strength of a juggernaut to lift the world out of its misery. (Yes, it’s almost always a HE)
The return of the hero who’s come back with his excalibur to slay all of these demons.
That you’ve managed to sober up, unlike all of us submersed in our drunken stupors.

Consider this.
When I came to you in 2011
I was hardly the model of an exemplary citizen.
You know?
The kind that would import the values of freedom and responsibility just by his very being.
I didn’t vote.
I didn’t care much for politics.
I hardly volunteered.
And when I did, it was done begrudgingly, so as to be seen as doing good.

And yet, here I was.
Placed in a position to lead and design experiences for young people that would open up to this new way of life.
In those early days, I wondered why exactly I signed up for this.
Maybe I just wanted to be a part of the Bhutan GNH movement.
Maybe I thought I could score a big book deal once it succeeded.

And there you were.
And there were these young people around us.
Those same young people who so often
Would cover themselves
Behind their ghos and kiras
That burning desire to speak
To say, ‘I am here’
To ask, ‘Can you see me?’
But never too loudly.
Only in slight tremors.
The kind of tremors that you can ignore just long enough
before the edges begin to grind against one another
Building up pressure
until the waves
shake the ground from side to side
leaving one swaying
like a boat on water.

In connecting my own inhibitions, my own sense of alienation with these young people something changed.

In the freshness of that experience
Of being in a place where democracy was so new
Where democracy hadn’t been engraved into your consciousness with a deep laser
More like a barely visible outline on sand
Beginner’s mind.
Covered in chilis.

After that first workshop that I designed and facilitated, something changed.
Within days, I could see the inner walls of young people start to crumble.
Like they’d heard the sounds of their own voices for the first time.

They could take their own stands for issues, like human rights, gender equality, and sexuality.
And there I was, right there with them.

The high of facilitating someone’s transformation, of triggering off a habit of thought like that of a lancet fluke, a virus which takes over the brain of an ant so that it climbs up to the top of a blade of a grass only not because it’s beneficial to the ant - the ant just gets consumed by the grazing cows - but more for the lancet fluke to hitch a ride into the stomachs of the grazing cows so that it can reproduce.

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Does that make sense? Probably not, right?

Well, okay, if that disturbing analogy doesn’t work, let’s try some actual stories.

You know I ran a lot of workshops, right?
Like, over twenty at least.
Workshops with hundreds of young people, about subjects ranging from documentary filmmaking to citizen journalism to what it takes to be an MP.
And after those workshops, some of those participants walked away a different person.

On this past visit, I had the rare opportunity to speak with these people about what exactly shifted for them - and how that’s affecting them today.

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Young people like Ngawang who, when I met him, was just a wee 11th grader. Then he started to question things.

“Honestly, my entire 13 years of education was being questioned during that time - 13 years of education versus what you are learning in 13 days. And it was liberating.”

Before joining the Youth Parliament program I helped design and lead, Ngawang saw just one path for himself - becoming a politician. Then he started to question things.

“When I joined the Youth Parliament, I had this generalized idea about how the world worked. Interacting with so many young people, with you as a facilitator, allowed me to understand that the education system was lacking when it comes to questioning things as they are.”

With his mind opened, Ngawang began to see different possibilities for himself. He started up a youth cooperative, became an artist, dropped out of college (which was on a government scholarship, no less) and now leads a number of entrepreneurial ventures in and outside of Bhutan. Did I plan for that? Absolutely not (otherwise, I’d feel kind of bad about the college thing…). But Ngawang just took that lancet fluke I incepted him with and ran with it.

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A similar thing happened with Phub. A pudgy high school student and physics nerd when I met him - well, he’s still pretty pudgy - Phub experienced his own awakening in his relationship to society, an experienced that forced him to consider the tradeoff between following his intellectual curiosity in the origins of the Big Bang or leading a small revolution in Bhutan.

“I saw the future as something that was going to happen to me, not something I had a hand in. My experience with the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy (BCMD) really changed that. It made me think about how my theoretical physics PhD helped me to contributing to society, which it couldn't really. It changed the lenses through which I looked at society.”

Phub and I both started up the Youth Parliament project years after he’d proposed the idea. And that whole process began the small revolution that is the Youth Initiative, which has groomed over 80 young leaders today.

“Working with YI I saw what it means to be a leader. Now I am able to confidently head to the world of Start-ups. That is how BCMD has impacted me.”

Being involved in building that initiative gave Phub a taste of success that he would want to follow up in other areas of his life. Now studying economics in college, he’s also a small-time entrepreneur in Bhutan running his own digital marketing setup.

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And then there’s Yangdey. A tall, outspoken girl in high school, Yangdey always felt awkward in high school where she experienced a degree of alienation for her ‘difference’.

“I didn’t like high school. I didn’t learn anything. I didn’t develop as a person. I just read novels and storybooks. In classrooms, I wasn’t accepted. I was the ‘weird one’. So I wouldn’t speak out. I would just read my storybooks.”

Participating in those workshops allowed her to find a community that allowed her to realize that she wasn’t alone in her crazy aspirations.

“But here when I was participating in the workshops, I met like-minded young people. It was the best. It’s interesting, because for me, the way I see the world. I’m like ‘this is my reality, this is it, there’s not gonna be anything else.’ So you put people in a box, say this is how it’s going to be.”

“But then you meet other crazy people like Kencho who had this will of starting his own CSO. He wanted to make a BBS program. The best part is when you come for workshops, people listen to you, and then show you how your ideas can be possible. When Phub started about the Youth Parliament. And I was like ‘hmm?’ ‘It can come true?’ Everybody has a crazy idea.”

Yangdey went on to design her own education in carpentry, knitting, and other trades all while traveling across India for six months on her path to discovering other crazy communities where she could share and cultivate her love of the world. She gave a TED talk earlier this year about her experience.

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And then there’s Karma. Karma was a teacher in training when I met her at our media literacy workshop in 2012. She’d longed to find a place where she could speak her mind, but rarely found it in classrooms. As she began practicing it in the context of the workshops, she heard her voice - and she loved what she heard so much that she wanted everyone else to hear theirs.

“After the workshop, I was very bold in speaking my mind and I wasn’t shy about saying things I wanted to. At the same time, I was respectful of others’ opinions. I’m ready for all kinds of opinions. Mentally, I’m prepared to take it all in and not be offended. I feel strong, bold, confident. And empowered. To be honest. And I feel there can be someone more educated, better off, but I know deep inside that I can do this. That I have my original opinions to share. And that speaks a lot about someone’s personality.”

Alongside her teaching duties, she’s working with a group of young people to provide counseling to students that helps them not only speak up, but to empower them to pursue careers that match their passions.

“Picture a college classroom. Put 100 Bhutanese students there and a few foreigners. During any discussion, the foreigners will always outshine the others. They are very confident. They just want to get their points across. Bhutanese students feel a pressure to say the right thing. I went through that struggle too. It has to change - students need to be opinionated. If you don't do well in that, how good are you doing in your college?”

Now, you might be thinking:

‘Wow, Manny. You’re so arrogant. You think you did that all by yourself?’

Of course not. Well, maybe sometimes in my own delusions of awesomeness. But definitely no - I wasn’t the person who transformed these young people - they did it for themselves. I am that person who had the good fortune to be there with them in the uneven folds of life’s many starting lines - maybe I fired the starter shot, maybe I cheered them on, maybe I was a pace runner.

But I did play a heavy hand in supporting that transformation.
I own that.
And yes, it is a source of pride that I could introduce a little anarchy into the system sometimes dogged by dogs lazing in your streets.

Without taking this outrageous leap to being a facilitator for democracy
Someone who certainly did not meet the job description of ‘model citizen’
Could dive into this and get all passionate about it.

That’s wild, right?
And the thing is...
I’m still not a model citizen.
It’s not like I came out of these experiences with that conclusion that
‘Yes, this is my life’s calling.’
That happens for some people, and I guess those remain the grist of inspiration; that someone could just discover that ‘one calling’ to which they’re summoned and can commit their life to.
I’m still wandering.
I’m still making sense of my own role, of what I can contribute.
I still have my own insecurities.
But I don’t have a doubt about my capacity to influence a person’s life.
And I don’t have to be Mahatma Gandhi to make that happen.

Love,

-Manny