Illustration credits: Anisha Thampy
I recently finished a project wherein Quicksand, the company I work for, undertook the improvement of the user experience with a book-reading app for children. Over the course of the project, the team spent much time discussing the transformative effect that reading had had on our own lives. In our small way, we were trying to help replicate the impact books had on our own lives; we were stewarding the same love we have for reading to a younger generation.
Our approach to work at Quicksand is rooted in human-centered design, which in turn is fundamentally concerned with empathy. You engage with people in their contexts in an attempt to experience their lives. Once you understand how a particular product, service, or system affects them, you can work to translate this into insights around developing solutions that resonate with those most closely impacted by a challenge or issue. It’s the quintessential “walk a mile in another’s shoes” scenario and its application always lead to periods of introspection.
I moved to India in 2012 and have worked for Quicksand ever since. This work has taken me all over the “developing world”. I work in the design for social impact space. This means that we utilize our design thinking methodology to address some of the world’s most pressing challenges. I have had the incredible privilege of visiting places that many are not afforded the opportunity to: I have lived with families in India’s urban slums to understand the impact lacking access to sanitation has on them, engaged with children suffering from post-traumatic stress in a Tanzanian refugee camp to investigate the potential impact of social emotional learning in schools, stayed in a remote village in war-torn South Sudan to design a diagnostic toolkit for identifying and treating severe acute malnutrition at the household level, and many, many more. These experiences have moulded me into the person I am today; the person I was when I arrived in India is all but a stranger now. The organisation I have been a part of is the mould, but this is really the culmination of a journey that began a long time ago. A journey that began with one book, and was accelerated dramatically by another.
You see, there are two books that I can point to that have had an undeniable impact on my life, both in an abstract way and in a literal, life-changing way. Upon finishing both of these books, I immediately knew that something fundamental had changed in me. It was exhilarating having such an emotional connection with the words another person had written, and it opened my eyes to the potential that stories have for creating transcendental experiences.
I was born and raised in a very small town in a rural part of Western New York state in the U.S. This is before the Internet and cable television, so entertainment options at home were fairly limited. Thankfully, my parents are avid readers and instilled this love of books in me and my siblings at an early age, and we were lucky enough to have access to a plethora of wide-ranging reading materials. My mother was especially supportive of our reading; she bought me the first book that changed my life.
Illustration credits: Anisha Thampy
This book is one that I’m sure is oft-cited in such reflections: “Slaughterhouse Five” by Kurt Vonnegut. I was around 12 when I first read Vonnegut’s classic “anti-war” book. I guess “read” is putting it lightly; I consumed that book over the course of an 8-hour road trip with my family! Up to that point, my reading had been limited to school assignments and the usual fare that come with such. Don’t get me wrong; I loved reading classics like “Huckleberry Finn”, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, and others of similar ilk. It’s just that there was something magical about reading the trials and travails of Billy Pilgrim, that ill-suited soldier that had come unstuck in time. He is so overwhelmingly relatable and average that he stood in stark contrast to anything I had previously read. He does not overcome and prevail, he just survives. In him, I saw that there is grace and beauty in being who you are, whoever you may be. And I found some comfort in the arguably misguided Tralfamadorian philosophy that there is no why, there just is.
Along with reading, traveling was always something that my parents stressed as an important part of life. They stressed the importance of individual perspectives being cultivated through personal experiences. That said, reading and traveling always seem to go hand-in-hand as one needs to fill the long hours on planes, trains, and automobiles somehow. Accordingly, “Slaughterhouse Five” became a bit of a talisman for me as well. I am 40 now and I still have the copy I originally read; it is the one must-pack item every time I visit a new country. It has accompanied me to some 45 countries so far and I have read it cover-to-cover in every one of those nations. Beyond this book acting as a salve for my superstitious nature, it’s also, broadly speaking, a reminder that your life is rooted in the understanding that your collective experience is comprised of individual moments, and the meaning you’re able to extract from each. “All this happened, more or less.”
Whereas “Slaughterhouse Five” changed the way I viewed books, specifically, and life, generally, in an abstract way, the next book that changed my life did so in a very literal sense. At the time of first discovering this book, I was in my early 30s and living in the New York City area, working in corporate America as an “ad man” for a television network. I was an avid reader at this point in life and always had a book (or two) on me for the commute to and from work. As I was perusing titles in the local bookstore, a book showing two girls in headscarves reading a book themselves caught my eye, and the title “Three Cups of Tea” was enough to draw me in completely.
Greg Mortenson’s “Three Cups of Tea” is the author’s tale of getting lost whilst climbing K2 as a tribute to his recently deceased sister. As certain death seems to be upon him, he is rescued by villagers who nurse him back to health. Whilst convalescing, he witnesses children doing their arithmetic in the dirt with the aid of a stick. He learns that the village lacks a school and vows to pay the village back for their generosity by raising the funds necessary to build a school and provide a teacher to boot. This event set in motion Greg establishing his own non-profit which has built schools throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan in the years since. It should be noted that the book is not without its controversy as it emerged years after publishing that much of this supposed autobiography was fabricated. That breaks my heart to no end, but this is tempered by the knowledge that the story on its face was enough to inspire me to change my life and pursue opportunities to help others.
When I first read this book, I was a bit adrift professionally. I had a high-paying job that I was really good at, but I garnered very little fulfillment from it. I made a lot of money by making other people a lot of money while helping brands extract money from others. I was a very small cog in a very large wheel that was as self-centered as it is self-congratulatory. Your reward was the ability to consume more and better, and nothing else. One significant benefit of this dynamic, though, was that it afforded me the ability to travel to further-flung locations that I couldn’t previously afford to visit. Upon receiving a significant annual bonus one year, I took a vacation to Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and this proved to be another turning point in my life. You see, this vacation took place less than a year after reading “Three Cups of Tea”. It was foremost in my mind as I traveled through a region suffering from the typical trappings of the “developing world”: infrastructure challenges, rampant poverty, lack of basic amenities, etc. I’d never experienced such in previous international travels that were largely spent in places not too dissimilar from my own experiences in the United States. With Greg Mortenson’s tale and resultant efforts to improve the lives of those in need as the lens, I viewed the challenges of people around me not as something to pity, but as an opportunity for me to make a difference.
For a relatively young man lacking any sense of professional or personal fulfillment, “Three Cups of Tea” and my experiences in SE Asia spoke directly to me; collectively, they grabbed me by my shoulders and shouted in my face, “You can be part of positive change too!” Soon after returning to the United States, I would give away or sell most of my possessions, quit my advertising career, and move overseas to, first, volunteer helping improve the lives of street children in Cambodia before settling in India to work in the social impact sector. That was 8 years ago now, and I think it’s safe to say that my life will continue on this trajectory for the foreseeable future.
The confluence of these two seemingly disparate books in my life has been incredibly transformative. Being exposed to alternate ways of viewing the world around you, as well as your ability to positively shape the contexts you find yourself in, has altered my perception of the world around me in significant ways. I have learned that there is no one set way to see and engage with the world; there is no playbook that details the point A to point Z journey life takes. This, by and large, is the biggest collective takeaway from these two books that have conspired to change my life.
In today’s world, it is easy to become cynical, to focus on all the negativity and divisiveness that seem to permeate all discourse, particularly on platforms like social media. The onslaught of information can blunt the impact of words as wave after wave of “content” hammers the shores of our various and manifold screens. It becomes easy to disconnect and disengage; there’s simply too much, too fast to wrap one’s mind around.
It is in these moments that taking a pause and reconnecting with the stories that positively changed and came to define one’s life experience becomes such a critical salve. I will always be grateful to Mr. Vonnegut and Mr. Mortenson for crafting the words that helped mould my worldview and the manner in which I interact with the world at large.