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 to modern cultures. I sat spellbound with delight when hearing about Saladin, Richard III, Marco Polo, Kublai Khan, and so on and so forth down through the ages.
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 alone on Frontier Airlines. (What can I say? It was 1964.) At 16, I traveled to Brazil to spend a year as an exchange student in Divinopolis. At 20, I lived in Costa Rica for a year to study Spanish.
When I began my sophomore year at NU, I stayed in the international dorm. It was there that I learned about global food, clothing, music and culture from students who were from countries that were far, far away.
One of those far-away countries, India, was #1 on my list of places to journey in my youth. India spelled adventure and by the time I turned 24, I was ready. It seems I wasn’t alone. Countless others of my generation who were in their 20s 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 village in Northern India called Nainital. It was in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where we would spend months working with villagers to improve basic living conditions.
From Delhi, we traveled by taxi on seemingly two-lane dirt roads until we arrived at the edge of a mountainous jungle. As though 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, ate biscuits and sat in the garden to rejuvenate ourselves. I quickly came to the conclusion that both Maharaja and his palace didn’t belong to the contemporary era; he, having stayed in the jungle a 'tad-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 six-month trip being called ‘Two-Elephant Woman’ and spicing it up in modern, 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 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?