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'Two-Elephant' woman discovers the secret to global career growth

Two elephants, anyone?
Two elephants, anyone?

My mother, Maggie, was a world history major in college. As a child, I was regularly regaled at the dinner table with stories about ancient cultures and contemporary life. I sat spellbound with delight while listening to well-told tales about Cleopatra, Mark Antony, Saladin, Richard the Lionhearted, Marco Polo, Kublai Khan, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Franklin Delano and Eleanor Roosevelt et al.

Maggie’s historical influence was palpable in my young life. I wanted to travel and travel I did. By 9, I had taken my first flight solo to Denver on Frontier Airlines. (What can I say? It was 1964.) At 16, I traveled to Brazil as an exchange student. At 20, I took a gap year in Costa Rica to study Spanish.

When I began my freshman year at the University of Nebraska, I stayed in the international dorm. It was there that I learned about global food, clothing, music and literature from students who grew up in countries with cultures centuries, i f not millennia, old; countries that were ‘a gasping’ eight thousand miles away from Lincoln – give or take a thousand miles.

One of those countries, India, was #1 on my list of places to journey in my youth. India spelled adventure and by the time I turned twenty-four, I was ready. It seems I wasn’t alone. Countless others of my generation who were in their twenties at the time were also headed to India to experience its splendor.

My particular traveling party was made up of my then boyfriend, Peter, his friend Bruno and me. We flew from San Francisco to New Delhi – half-way around the globe; a 24-hour flight.

We were falling asleep standing up by the time we arrived at Delhi International Airport on a balmy night in June ‘79. Yet, we pressed on. We had another two days of travel to reach our destination, a town in Northern India called Nainital which was in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Uttar Pradesh was where we would spend three months working with doctors and nurses to improve the health of villagers who lived in the hills.

From Delhi, we traveled by taxi on seemingly endless two-lane dirt roads until we arrived at the edge of a forest-like jungle. As though erratic taxi-rides weren’t terrifying enough (two-lanes are a concept not fully understood by Indian taxi drivers to this day), I was then hoisted by elephant-wallahs onto the nearest Indian elephant with ears the shape of, well, India. Enter the jungle one big-foot at a time we did with wallahs leading the way.

After stomping through tall leafy trees and flush under-flora – all the while listening to screeching monkeys, we arrived at a resting place; the stately palace-turned hotel of the local Maharaja and his extended family. Palaces are expensive and Maharaja was enterprising. Tourism became his occupation and he offered respite for weary travelers. We gladly partook.

We drank chai made from water buffalo milk, ate sugar biscuits and sat in a courtyard with a garden of hanging vines and medicinal herbs to rejuvenate ourselves. I quickly came to the conclusion that both Maharaja and his palace didn’t belong to the modern era; he, having stayed in the jungle a bit too long and his palace, having been built during the early days of British India.

As luck would have it, I was the only tall, blonde, Northwestern European-looking woman to travel to the palace in years. You’d think I was from the moon given the stares and whispers of Maharaja and his tribe. By the end of our visit, Maharaja had offered my boyfriend, Peter, not one, but two elephants in exchange for my hand. Fortunately, Peter had no use for elephants.

As for me, I spent the rest of our trip being called ‘Two-Elephant Woman’ and spicing it up on occasion in contemporary, metropolitan India – say, Mumbai.

Career Lesson: Don’t travel to by-gone realms because you might end up exchanged for an elephant or two. Um, no.

Here’s what I learned:

Cultural mindset matters to our career growth. Any of us can get stuck in the past – or in a job – if we hang onto a mindset that no longer belongs.

The cultural mindset of the American workplace in the 21st century is different in kind to that of the 20th century. In a word, complexity has taken hold.

Being aware of and understanding the dynamic relationship of the continuously changing parts to the whole (i.e., complexity) is at the forefront of creating solutions to our national and global problems.

The greatest minds in the 21st century will be able to see the complex structure of a problem and discover how to re-design it for higher purpose.

And you? Are you one of them?

Organizational communication maven by day. Food, wine and beer buff by night. World traveler. Entrepreneurial spirit. Contact Eroca Gabriel, a former Fortune 100 'people and culture' consultant at

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