Saturday, February 6, 2010

Think Globally, Act Individually

I spent 8 hours walking the streets of Calcutta and talking about the past, present, and future with my guide, Vinay Jayaswal, a historian and social entrepreneur. He told me a personal story that inspires his thinking about the power of one.

On Indian Republic Day, a few years ago, Vinay was taking his morning constitutional in a park when he met up with a friend. His friend remarked with sadness that they had missed a prime opportunity to organize a community celebration of the day. It was 8am.

Vinay told his friend: Let's just do it. You get the bamboo required for handing the flag, and I'll get a flag. He discouraged his friend from telling those nearby of their intentions, eliciting help from anyone else, or doing any further organizing. The plan was to remain simple: you get the bamboo; I get the flag; meet back here in 20 minutes.

Vinay went to the nearby market. He bought a large printed national flag for 30 rupees (60 cents), some small hand-held flags (10), and a bag of marigold flowers (10). They met back up as planned. A young kid walking by, asked what they were doing, and volunteered to dig the holes for the bamboo stakes to hold the big flag. Another bystander stuck the small flags all around. A third wove the flowers into the small flags. At 8:30am, they started the ceremony by singing the national anthem. People gathered and joined. A few gave speeches about what Republic Day meant to them. Everyone cheered and waved the small flags.

By 9am the ceremony was over. 30 people had spontaneously participated.

The moral of the story for Vinay is that people want to help, want to do the right thing, want to improve society. They just don't have the confidence to act and take the first step. They can't figure out the first step; they think the process will be complicated and difficult. They think no one will follow. They expect government to be the enabler.

Just do it, says Vinay. Think globally. His most pressing issues were environment, sanitation, and health -- intractable issues for the common Indian. Act individually. Vinay isn't going to wait for government. He believes individuals can work together to help themselves. His budding budding idea will include a website and hope to spur Indian youth to take action on issues that affect their daily lives.

The "Think Globally, Act Individually" meme was the end result of our long free-ranging conversation. Vinay believes that Eastern religion and culture are driven by the dominance of "we," while the West, thanks to Darwin's survival of the fittest and Christian traditions that relied on personal acts and salvation, focuses on "I." Think globally, act individually combines the benefits of both Eastern and Western traditions.


Caroline Meeks said...

This is a great story and I love the phrase. Think Globally, Act Individually. I'm going to start using it in my work with open source and educational communities. Geography is not the most important factor in where we can make an impact. As you show in your story, we must Act individually and with the people at hand when we see an opportunity to make a difference rather then waiting for some government or nonprofit entity to organize.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful story, but the phrases Think globally, act . . . don't quite meet reality, since most of us have trouble connecting the two. Maybe Think globally, act as a small group would help us connect the dots. Small groups not only have more capacity to bring in information, but contains a way to bounce ideas off each other, and then (as this story shows), acting as a group has more effect than acting as an individual. It shows some existing connection with others.