Images courtesy Central Asia InstituteToday I went to a lecture by Greg Mortenson. I have read his books and followed his amazing story, and much has been said about all of these things that he is accomplishing so I am a little dubious to jump on the bandwagon and add my own two cents. I am not sure why this is – it is a bandwagon that is definitely worth being a part of. Rarely is there a story that inspires so many people and rarer still are those stories actually true. I think what is so incredible about Greg Mortenson is that he set off to do something seemingly impossible and actually did it. Acts like this command our respect and admiration on such a visceral level that it is hard to describe in coherent words and phrases. But I would feel safe in saying that everyone at that lecture, everyone who has read his books feels part of that story in some way or another. And that is what good storytelling does. It puts people on board. It gives people something to connect with that is bigger than themselves and in this case, is not focused on violence and terror and guns. And maybe what puts us on board is the fact that GM has found a way to do something that the rest of us wish we could have done or would have done. And I was thinking about that tonight as I looked around the room at the rows of wide-eyed fans, sitting on the edges of their seats hanging off every word. And I began to think about what would happen if we started to actively work towards the things in our lives that we felt were impossible. Where would we start and what would we do? What risks would we take and what would we find?

I am a designer and there is a lot of talk in the design community these days about innovation and tackling the really big cultural and social problems of our day and age. Sometimes designers – much like people everywhere – seem to think that there are certain ways, certain qualifications, times and places that these problems have to be addressed. Greg Mortenson reminded me tonight that being creative doesn’t always have to fall under the auspices of “design”. Sometimes the most creative and innovative solutions are simply supported by the “get off your ass and start” mantra.

That said, I was struck by several other things during the course of the evening:

  1. The power of empathy and what it can accomplish in people’s lives.
  2. The value in listening to what people of all ages are saying and communicating.
  3. The differences between empowering communities and helping them.

I started to think about Americans. So many people lack empathy, the ability to listen and understand. So few of us are developing relationships with our elders, with our communities, with other peoples and countries and cultures. What would happen if even a handful of people were even half as committed to bringing cultures and people together as GM has been. I think about how he has not only brought Pakistani and Afghan communities together into deep relationships with their communities, their heritage, their sense of pride, their geography, religious values and institutions, but also has brought together (or even created) a huge community outside of Pakistan that is responding – if even just emotionally – to the work that his teams are doing. The ability to rally and inspire people across vastly different cultures is truly inspiring.