Lessons Learned in India

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A couple of years ago I went to India, and although the purpose of my trip was mainly to capture stories and photos from a nonprofit located there, those weren’t the most valuable things I came home with.

After countless cups of chai tea, trips in autorickshaws I thought may end my life, and spicy meals with genuine people, here are a few lessons learned in India I’d like to share with you:

1. Step Out of Your Comfort Zone.
When I stepped onto the plane in Chicago and out of my comfort zone, I didn’t really know what I was getting into. In the coming weeks we’d travel the craziness of Delhi, gorgeous mountains of Manipur, and vast slums of thousands that would make your heart sink. I wasn’t prepared, but it was one of the greatest adventures of my life. Sometimes we get comfortable and forget what it feels like to be alive. We may forget what it feels like to be scared as we take the leap into something thrilling and life-giving. Travel and adventure are good reminders not to settle for a life less than we’re capable of living.

2. Be Real.
Because somehow in India, people can tell when you aren’t being real. I soon found I was appreciated when I came to the table and presented something of value. And value in India was not determined by knowledge, insight or how ‘interesting’ I could be, but rather a genuine and honest exchange. It’s a wise practice to be real, and not just smart or funny. We have a lot more to offer than insight, and we bring more to the table than just what we can produce.  What a great lesson for us to meditate on as Americans; what a great exhale of relief to be reminded that exactly who we are is exactly enough.

3. If You Feel Dumb, You’re Getting Smarter.
When you’ve been doing life a certain way for a while, it can be easy to slip into the mindset that you know a lot. You can begin to feel pretty smart. Ironically enough I’ve found that the times I feel the least smart are the times I’m learning the most. To know what you don’t know, and accept that gap, is powerful. It allows the space for growth, learning, and adaptation. Inside a new country with cultural formalities I wasn’t accustomed to and languages I’d never even heard before, I didn’t feel very smart in India. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t learning.

4. Listen.
One of the first adjustments I needed to make in the countryside of East India, after leaving the hurried life of Delhi, was the pace (and amount) I spoke. In America we talk all the time and love making our points. In fact, in some corporate environments you need to speak up and speak fast to be heard at all. Let’s just say I quickly found this practice was not valued in India. In this country, and in several other countries we’ve visited since this trip, I’m reminded that conversation is not about making your points or expressing yourself. It’s about sitting down, pouring tea, and having a (two-way) conversation. Only when I listened would I learn something new. Only when I stopped talking could I value someone else’s thoughts and perspectives.

5. Give People Your Best (and possibly your last).
I encountered extreme poverty on the trip, which I had known would be the case. But as anyone who has taken a trip like this can testify, it is different in person. Some places were difficult to visit because I wanted to be smiling and encouraging, however I also felt such an emotional weight witnessing the scraps these valuable people were living on and in. Strangely, people didn’t seem to notice my internal struggle as they joyfully gave their last – everywhere I went. When entering a new town or home, a host would immediately make tea, ask me to sit, and often even honored me with meat I knew was a rarity only reserved for very special occasions. Why were these people so generous, and willing to give me their very last? Because they were bringing their best. We can strive to do the same.