Finding Clarity through a Personal Mission Statement

One of the reasons that WeWork has been so successful since inception, in my belief, is the employees deep belief in the mission statement and core values of the company.  WeWork’s mission is to help members create a life, not just a living.  We do this by following the core values of the company: Authentic, Entrepreneurial, Grateful, Inspired, Together and Tenacious.

Having a very clear mission statement for a company allows it to create an actionable plan to achieve that mission.  I have spoken about this mission and these values every day of my life for the past 7 years.  I have them memorized more clearly than family members’ birthdays and important dates in my own life.  If you go to the website of any successful company, you can find a page that lists their mission statement and values.  Companies like Airbnb, which seems to be a booking tool at face value, have much broader missions than you may guess.  Their mission is to create a world where anyone can belong anywhere, providing healthy travel that is local, authentic, diverse, inclusive and sustainable.  Now that sounds bold.

Human beings are like companies in many ways.  As a company wants to achieve certain things to achieve success, people want to do the same.  So why don’t each of us have a personal mission statement?  How do we know what we are striving to achieve when we don’t know what our mission on this planet is?  Most people move through life without knowing, or even thinking about, what they are actually striving for.  It’s the equivalent of starting a business without a problem statement you are trying to solve for.  Just as a business can’t be successful without a clear north star, a person can’t optimize their life if they don’t know what they are optimizing for.

Over the past few months, I’ve researched personal mission statements, read those of others, and thought about what mine would look like.  I felt so strongly about having one that I asked every person on our 400 person team in India to submit their personal mission statement, so they could continually iterate on it as they grew as humans.

As I thought more and more about what my mission was, I realized that one’s mission is most often tied to what they think the purpose of human life is.  Is it about each person maximizing for material goods?  Is it about each person maximizing for their own version of happiness?  Is it about each person maximizing the happiness of others?  Based on what one believes the purpose of our time on earth is, their mission statement is normally connected to that in some way.

For me, the purpose of life is for each of us to push the human race forward in our own little way.  In my mind, the best chance each of us have to accomplish this is by finding our passion and pursuing it with zeal.  When I’m pursuing the things I am most passionate about, I’m the happiest and I’m making the biggest impact.

After spending a lot of time thinking about the what my version of what the hell we are all supposed to be doing here, I settled on this for my mission statement:

My mission is to find happiness and create impact across three tenets of life: family and social connections, mental and physical health, and my life’s work.

I’m confident that if I can put an actionable plan in place to execute on this mission, I’ll be able to kick that stone we call humanity an inch forward by the time my life is up.

So how do we figure out what we are passionate about to find that happiness?  Well, it normally takes a lot of work and trial and error to figure out.

WeWork’s Co-President Jen Berrent came to India a few months back and talked about her personal mission statement.  Her and I did a Q&A in front of the team, and I asked her which of the six core values mentioned above she most closely resonated with.  Upon answering, she threw the ball back in my court and asked me which I connected with.  Slightly caught off guard, I thought about it for a minute and responded with the core value of “Together”, because one of the things I enjoy the most is building teams of people and striving towards a common purpose.  As the weeks passed after she left, I thought more and more about my personal mission and about what really makes me happy.  And what I realized was this:

I LOVE TO WIN.

Yes, that sounds like a cocky, type A thing to say.  But I love to win for very specific reasons that have nothing to do with beating your opponent.  Someone recently asked me what the greatest moments of my life have been, which is kind of a ridiculous question.  But when I actually thought about it, the moments that stood out were the ones in which I won something with a group of people I cared about.  Whether it was winning a big football game growing up, or hitting a big goal at work, there is no better feeling in the world than winning with people you love when you have put your heart and soul into something.  If you watch a team win a championship, the first thing they do is look towards their teammates, and embrace one another.  It’s very rarely about the competitor on the other side of the line.  Whether it’s sports, business or family; working hard and winning together is one of the best feelings in the world.

This weekend, as we celebrate Easter and the beginning of spring in many places around the world, think about what your personal mission statement is and jot down some notes… what you find may surprise you.

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Inflection Points

This past New Year’s Day, I was running in a park near my father’s home in Rockland County, NY.  I hadn’t been running much since the Mongolia ultramarathon, so I was laboring a bit.  My grandma had passed away the day prior and I was lost in thought as I dragged my feet over the rocky trail.  As I looked up from the ground, a family was approaching me.  A weird skill that I take pride in is being abnormally good at recognizing faces, and one of the men approaching had a face that I knew.  I jogged past, thinking about where I had seen this man before, and it dawned on me that this gentleman had given me a scholarship award at my high school football awards night twenty  years prior.  Yes, I somehow put this together.   I remembered his name as well, Mick Bivona, and kept running, trying to decide if I should turn around and say something to him.  He’s going to think I’m a weirdo running up to him while he’s with his family.  What do I even say?  “Hey, I recognize your face from 20 years ago when we spoke for 5 minutes.  I swear I’m not a stalker?” Screw it”, I said, and turned around to catch him.  I tracked him down, introduced myself, and told him of the connection.  He immediately remembered and gave me a huge hug.  We chatted for a few minutes and caught up on what each of us was up to.  After a few moments, I said goodbye and continued on my run.  But the interaction got me to thinking about why I vividly remembered winning that award as a teenager.  The more I dissected it and connected it with other things I remembered intently through my life, I realized that all of those moments were inflection points in my life… little nuggets that permanently changed me in some way.  The scholarship was in honor of a teammate of Mick’s that had passed away and was a given to a player that exhibited hard work, teamwork, honesty and integrity.  Winning that award, which I have to this day, gave me, a young 16 year old kid from Staten Island, confidence that living by those core values was the right way to live.

Everyone has these…  Those moments in your life that seem insignificant at the time, but end up in your mind dozens of years later.  You still remember them like they happened yesterday.  Because in some way, that conversation, or that moment, etched it’s way into your being and became an inflection point in who you became.  The inflections can be negative.  Sometimes it’s a comment someone said to you when you were seven years old that gave you an insecurity you still have thirty years later.  But they can also be positive.  Maybe it was a pep talk from a parent or a coach that gave you the confidence you needed in a time of vulnerability.

When I got home from the run that day, I sat down over a coffee and thought about a few inflection points that changed me besides winning that award. Here are a few:

High School Economics

4th period – Intro to Economics.  The last few months of senior year.  Compared to my normal honors classes, this was a class I was put into because I wasn’t musically inclined enough to be in orchestra or band.  To say people didn’t pay attention would be an understatement.  The majority of class would just be everyone hanging out and doing whatever they wanted.  Students would consistently walk into the room halfway through the 40 minute class, shouting and causing a scene.  And the teacher, a tall, lanky, awkward looking gentleman in his forties,  looked like he had given up trying to corral  in our group of miscreants, waiting for another school year to end.  One particular day, a student in the class was getting picked on.  It was someone who was constantly being harassed.  A friend of mine came into the class 20 minutes late, and in typical fashion, immediately began mocking the boy.  I would normally keep to myself in this situation but for some reason, jumped in and made a joke at the kid’s expense.  The class laughed.  I felt good for being funny… and we moved on.  Fifteen minutes later, the bell rang and I headed out of the room satisfied with my comedic performance.  “Ryan, stay after class for a minute please”, the teacher yelled over the noise of feet moving out of the room.  I was startled because this was the 3rd month of class and this teacher and I had literally never had a conversation before.  I didn’t even know that he knew my name.  Over the next 5 minutes, he lectured me about how my standing in the school (I was captain of the football team and homecoming king at the time) required me to demand more of myself, because those around me looked up to me, and the students would take my actions as a cue that what I did was OK.  Besides being baffled that the teacher knew who I was, I was dumbstruck by the lesson he was imparting on me.  The lesson that the things you say and the actions you take have consequences that are greater than you might believe.  And that one should recognize the impact they can have, both positive and negative, on the people around them.

I had two more months of that class, but that was the one and only conversation I ever had with that teacher.  His name was Mr. Hoffstetter.  I never saw him again after I graduated from high school, and who knows where he is now, but if anyone reads this that knows him, pass on my thanks for giving me an inflection point in how I try to treat people.

Criticism over Cocktails

Another night in a Manhattan bar drinking beers I couldn’t afford and smoking Marlboro Lights.  This was what my early 20s were like.  After quitting football post my freshman year of college, I thought a better use of my time was partying, eating like shit and smoking 10 cigarettes a day.  Good strategy.  By the time I graduated three years later, I had put on thirty five pounds, and not the good kind.  Fast forward two years later to when I was twenty four and I had gotten the weight off but was still living an unhealthy life.  I was living above my means, smoking a ton, and working a job that I despised.  “Maybe this is what life post-college is like”, I would tell myself.  “Maybe the fun in life is over.”  Just waste away at a job that sucks while drinking enough on the weekends to forget about it for a few days.  Rinse and repeat, week after week.  I still remember the name of the bar that particular night.  It was called Taj, and had an Indian/middle eastern theme to it.  It was one of those sleazy places that would serve $10 Coronas back in 2006.  I probably had ten of them that night and put the $100+ tab on my credit card since I was broke.

While drinking an overpriced Corona and complaining about the raw hand the real world had dealt us, a close friend looked at me and said, “What happened to you?”  Confused, I asked him what he was talking about.  “You used to be someone that everyone looked up to, someone that had it all figured out.  Now look at yourself.  I can’t honestly say that anymore.”  In the moment, I laughed and told him to fuck off, but I remember the following morning that I couldn’t stop thinking about what he said.  It struck a chord somewhere deep inside of me.  What struck a chord was not that he couldn’t look up to me anymore, but that I couldn’t look up to myself… I wasn’t proud of what I had become.  It led to deep self-reflection and I credit the conversation with putting me back on a path of expecting more of myself.  It taught me to never accept the status quo and to always strive for greatness, not in the minds of others, but in my own.

Smiling When It Doesn’t Make Sense to

The last inflection point I’ll discuss is not a specific moment in time, but years and years of seeing a close family member respond to adversity.  When I was 15, my mother was diagnosed with cancer.  She fought it for 6 years until she succumbed to it in 2003.  The biggest lesson I learned watching her battle cancer is how to respond to adversity.  I observed her positivity daily and subconsciously took notes, but there is an image that is tattooed into my psyche.  It’s June of 2003.  She isn’t doing well.  She knows she has weeks to live.  I know she has weeks to live.  I’m in her bedroom.  She is restricted to bed at this stage.  She can’t weigh more than 90 pounds.  Her body has begun rejecting food, which means that within 30 minutes of eating, she throws it up.  She keeps a bucket next to the bed.  I am sitting in the room keeping her company, and a bout of nausea came over her.  She gingerly picked up the bucket with the little strength that she had, and vomited everything she had eaten into it.  I looked away, embarrassed for the both of us.  When I looked back at her, she lifted up her head, and gave me a big smile.  And it was at this moment that I realized that she had beaten cancer… not in the physical sense, because she would pass away weeks later, but in the spiritual sense.  Cancer had broken her body but it would never break her spirit.  It would take me years to recognize the lesson, but it’s this:  Regardless of who you are in the world, life does not discriminate when it comes to bad shit happening.  Bad shit happens to everyone, regardless of your ethnicity, your gender or how much money you have in your pocket.  How you respond to that bad shit will determine a lot about how you view the world.  Learning this has allowed me to put situations into perspective, to only focus on what’s in my control, and to let things out of my control go.  It’s taught me to smile when I get my ass kicked.  And that’s been the biggest inflection point of all.

I’d love to hear stories on your inflection points, so please share them in the comments section.  Hopefully it will bring back good memories in your lives that give you clarity into how you have become the badass that you have. 

 

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What I Learned While Running Across the Gobi Desert

Sunday, August 5th, 2018

I’m sitting on a flight from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing where I catch my connecting flight to Mumbai.  From there, I’ll work in Mumbai for the day on Monday and get back to Bangalore on Monday night.   I usually do my best writing on flights for some reason, so I wanted to wait until I was airborne to try to capture my thoughts on paper, before work and life consumes the brain entirely, which has already started to happen through reviewing over 100 emails today.   Without writing my thoughts down today, they may be lost forever.  Maybe some will linger, but the majority will not.

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My friend Malcolm and I prior to the start… still looking healthy

I had so many mixed emotions throughout the race this week.  Here are some of them:

Confusion

Why am I doing this?  I think the last time I did these races back in 2010 and 2012, I was somewhat of a man without a personal identity.  I was happy in my own skin but looking back, I think I cared too much about what other people thought of me.  And when you think this way, sometimes you do things to try to impress people.  For me, I think a portion of why I did these events was for that reason… for other people to say “wow”.   In some way, that gave me validation.  Now don’t get me wrong, I love to run.  It’s the one thing that keeps me grounded… keeps me balanced.  And I knew that running a really long distance in an exotic setting would be fun as well.  And I knew that I could be good at it.  So these pieces played into the decision as well.  So I would say that most of the reasons were correct, but there were definitely reasons that weren’t pure.  For this race, because I didn’t have the need to impress other people like I had in the past, it was noticeably harder to motivate myself to run.  I was amazed.  Everyday was a struggle.  And instead of feeling excited and pumped when I finished each day, I felt relieved that it was over.  Even when I finished the long day, the feeling was so different.  I remember finishing the long day of 60 miles in Egypt back in 2010 and throwing my hat as far as I could into the air, so excited about the distance I had just run and the feat I had accomplished.  I remember finishing the long day in the mountains in Nepal in 2012, collapsing into a ball of hay, and relishing the moment I was in.  I was on top of the world!  When I finished the long day this year, the feeling was not of exultation but of relief… relief that it was over.  That I had made it through, that I didn’t give up.  When I finally crossed the finish line this year, it was a feeling of happiness that immediately shifted to thinking about when my flight out of Mongolia was.  There could be a few reasons for these feelings:

  • I wasn’t competing for a top 5 position. I finished in 12th.
  • The 1st one is always more special than the 3rd. I’ve done this a few times… maybe the initial magic had worn off.
  • I don’t need to complete these races to define who I am.  Maybe without this need of success and self-definition, running this far of a distance isn’t actually as fun.
  • My values are different now. One thing that kept creeping into my mind was that I was running for “no one”.  Technically, I was running to raise money for The FAB for Life Foundation, my nonprofit that supports special education students in my hometown, and I definitely connect with that at a deep level.   And the run helped to raise an extra $1,500 or so, which is great.  But outside of that, I didn’t feel like me running across the Gobi desert was actually benefitting anyone but me.  It felt kind of hollow and self-serving.
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The Mongolian Countryside and its inhabitants

Purpose

One thing that I found interesting was the part of the run that I enjoyed the most.  On the long stage, I was running into checkpoint 5, which means I had around 13 miles left to go, after completing 30.  As I approached the checkpoint, I saw my good friend Malcolm at the top of a hill… this wasn’t a good sign.  Malcolm is a much better runner than me and was usually 30-60 minutes in front of me.  When I saw him, he looked really weak.  Something had gone wrong with his nutrition plan, and he was out of energy.  He had also developed a hernia and couldn’t run very well.  He asked me if I’d be open to slowing up and running with him the rest of the way.  I immediately said yes, and for the rest of the day, my feelings changed.  I was noticeably more upbeat because I felt that someone else needed me to help them.  I felt wantedI felt like I had a purpose that was greater than myself.  When Malcolm looked weak during our run together, I grabbed him by the arm and held him for a few moments.  And it made me feel good.  I’m not a parent, but I’m sure this must be similar to how one feels when they have a child.  They must feel such a deep sense of purpose when they look down at that baby, knowing that the child’s  survival depends on them… what that must feel like!  While helping Malcolm, my time suffered. A few runners passed us, and my chance of finishing in the top 10 dissipated.  But running side by side with him and crossing the finish line together that day with him surpassed any feeling I would have had if I finished in 10th place instead of 12th.  This deep sense of purpose was so noticeable for me in that moment that it immediately stood out as my biggest learning and strongest memory from the race.

Gratefulness

Though it was a tough week, I continually felt grateful that I have the opportunity to participate in events like this.  Whenever I was feeling low, I went back to my gratefulness practice, looked around the environment of where I was, and felt a deep sense of gratitude to have two legs to run, to have an intelligent mind to earn a decent income, to have social skills to allow me to contribute to society, to have a strong appetite for adventure that gives me the courage to take trips like this, to have an unbelievable support group of family and friends that support me no matter what.  One of my biggest blessings in life is that I literally don’t have one negative influence in my life.  I can take credit for surrounding myself with friends that are great, but so many people deal with negative parents or tough family situations.  I’ve been blessed with a perfect family.  It amazes me.  When you are running long distances, these are the things that lift your spirits.

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Our sleeping accommodations for a night

Guilt

Guilt is a feeling that sometimes goes hand in hand with gratefulness.  I have so much.  Why me?  Why have I been given all of these amazing things?  Why hasn’t everyone else been given these things?  After visiting Mongolia, I’ve now traveled to over 40 countries around the world, which is more than 99% of the world population will ever get to see. I’ve seen how the richest of the rich live and the poorest of the poor.  I drive by people everyday that scrounge through what they can find for food… that live on a few dollars a day.  Why am I the one being driven by in a fancy car while they are left with nothing?  The answer is that there is no answer… I just won the random lottery of life:  born a white man to a middle-class family in a developed country.   Statistically, there is no better lottery to win in the world.  And what did I do to deserve that?  Nothing.

Biggest Learnings

When I was 27 years old, I was trying desperately to transfer to a job overseas because I wanted to see the world.  I wanted to experience all of it… the sights, the foods, the random encounters with strangers, the new friendships, the laughs and the learnings.  At that time, I dreamed of being a senior manager in a company: flying around the world, staying in hotels, going to important meetings… kind of like the on-the-go directors that you read about in in-flight travel magazines. But I couldn’t make it happen at the time.  I didn’t have the skills and the economy was in shambles.  I continued to envision that life for myself when I went to bed and when I dreamt about the future.  I dreamt of having financial security, going on great trips and being able to design my lifestyle however I saw fit.  Ten years later, I have a lot of that.  It’s almost as it came straight from my mind into reality… it’s amazing what envisioning the future can do.  The power of visualization, positive thinking, and a shit ton of hard work.

But I missed one thing along the way.  I didn’t realize at that young age that what would give me the most pleasure ten years later was being a servant to those I care about.  For many years, I looked at relationships as things that could get in the way of the perfect life rather than add multiple layers of depth to it.  And this caused me to put many people in my life second or third… always behind work… because work was the vehicle to achieving the dream.  And that sometimes cost me the relationship.  Because the most gratifying part of life, the act of doing things for others, wasn’t in the vision I created in my dream life.  This optimal life that I planned for myself is etched deep in my soul, so changing it isn’t easy.  But it’s something I work on evolving constantly.  To being more open, more vulnerable.  To letting the happiness of other people come above some dreams that are more self-serving.  I still have a long way to go but it’s a major focus in 2019. `

As it relates to running, the biggest learning I got from this event is that whether I come in 1st place or 50th, no one cares.  Whether I do 20 more ultramarathons or zero, no one cares.  It doesn’t impact them in any way.  It doesn’t add value to their life.  If I really want to do things that people will care about and that I will feel proud of, do things that actually change other people’s lives in some way.  With this learning in place, maybe I’ll spend the money I spent on this trip in a different way in the future… in a way that changes the world for someone other than myself.

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Looking sickly at the finish

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My Indian Love Story

September, 2011:

I wake up in a tiny, decrepit hostel room in a small city in India.  The night before, as I went to sleep, it was just me, my rucksack, and a small mouse inside of my room, which I was paying about $3 for.  I tried to help it escape from the room.  After somehow removing him, I closed my eyes to try to sleep.  I was 29 years old, had never had less money or responsibility, and had never felt more alive.  I ended up spending over 2 months in India during a 16 month trip around the world, and was fascinated with everything about it.  Sitting in that hotel room that night, I needed to decide whether to travel back to the U.S. for a wedding of a childhood friend.  Besides having very little money and staring at a 24 hour journey with multiple layovers, I decided that I would make the trip.

The seemingly insignificant decision at the time has been one of the greatest inflection points of my life.  At the wedding, I met someone who led me to WeWork.  Meeting that friend and becoming a part of WeWork in the early days has led to immense personal and professional growth, and in a circle of fate, has led me back to the country where I sat in that tiny room, with nothing more than a few pairs of clothes and a tired passport, and made a decision that changed who I am today.

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On the road – 2011

December, 2018:

I’ve been living in India for over a year now as the Co-CWeO of WeWork India, and it has been an adventure.  Having both the experience of being here as a backpacker 7 years ago and now helping to run a large global startup in the country, has given me a perspective across multiple socioeconomic levels.  Like anyone who travels here, you are sometimes confronted with uncomfortable scenes, whether it’s poverty, pollution or political strife.  And sometimes these scenes touch you and make you feel things that you haven’t felt before, mainly helplessness.  On the other side, I’ve been fortunate to meet some of the most successful, entrepreneurial people in the country.  Seeing their success has been awe-inspiring and truly something that I cherish being a part of each day.  It motivates me to think bigger and to be more creative with my own dreams.

I’ve been fortunate in my life to have traveled to close to 50 countries across the 6 densely populated continents, and across all of them, something about India stands out from the rest.  It’s hard to put a finger on, but to me it’s this feeling of interconnectedness.  It shows itself in how generations of a family live under one roof their entire life, in the way people eat, in the way they interact with one another on the streets, in how they travel on packed trains together.  Something about that interconnectedness makes me feel more human.

My Indian friends reading this may think I’m naïve, and they are probably right.  India has more challenges than can be discussed in just a few pages.  Across gender, caste, religious, ecological, and economic verticals, so much needs to be done to push the country forward.  As a white man in the country, I’m treated very well. But Indian friends tell me that there are underlying discriminations against the poor, women, and Muslims.  I believe them.  These are serious issues.

But one thing that India has in high doses is the building block of every great country: Hope.  You see it in the hustle of everyday life, in the stories of millions of small business owners that make food, or fix tires, or drive rickshaws.  You see it in the smiles of people that have very little, but wake up every morning with unbridled energy to change their children’s lives for the better.

In my lonely moments at night, when the air is still, there are times where I miss my family and my friends back in New York, where I wish I could be back there with them.  I have moments where I think it would be easier to find love in the U.S., and wonder to myself if I have my priorities straight.

But what I oftentimes find myself longing for the most is the streets of India…, filled with the energy of humanity… all of the good, bad, obscene, innocent, and playful.  I long for being one of the millions, all in one big mess of bodies, with different stories, different dreams and different outcomes.  I long for that chance encounter with a new friend, that innocent smile from a child, the head nod from someone as you run by them on the street, the endless horn honking that somehow becomes a fabric of your existence, as much as your own heartbeat.  I long for the smells of the food, of the wet earth, of human sweat, of car exhaust, of spices.  I long for the cricket matches amongst kids, the walla selling chai or chaat, and the endless miles of farmland in the country.  Most of all, I long for the feeling of being connected to something greater than myself, and letting the feeling of being human, of being imperfect in an imperfect place, work its way into my soul.

Nowhere else in the world makes me feel as connected to the big questions in life as India.  It makes me smile knowing that whatever we do on this earth, it will all result in the same ending… with us looking into the abyss and not knowing what’s next.  And in some special way, this feeling that the country gives me, is my Indian love story.

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2018 – “Doing What I Love”

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Thoughts from the Killing Fields

Imagine having your throat slashed by the razor sharp leaves of a tree so you can’t scream as you die.  Imagine that right before you are shot in the head and thrown into a ditch, you look to your left and see your one year old baby girl’s head slammed into a tree, her head exploding with blood and pieces of her brain flying in a million different directions.  And then imagine that your enemies aren’t infidels from another land, but your neighbors, your own people that are doing this to you.

I wish I exaggerated the above paragraph to bring shock value to this story.  Unfortunately, I didn’t.  All of these things happened during the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, from 1975 until the country was “liberated” by the Vietnamese in 1979.  The infamous leader of the Khmer Rouge was a man who went by the name Pol Pot.  His vision was to create a completely self sufficient agrarian society, one in which the country did not rely on outside influences at all.  Even in the late 1970’s, the world was becoming more intertwined through political struggles and trade agreements.  Needless to say, his ideas weren’t the brightest.  Pol Pot felt that the best way to implement his vision was to eliminate anyone that may oppose it, which meant any person that was involved with a different political party, and even more broadly, anyone who was educated.  You’re a doctor?  See ya.  You used to work for the previous government?  Bye bye.  You wear glasses?!  You must be smart.  See you in the afterlife.  It is estimated that close to 2 million people perished under the rule of the Khmer Rouge.  During this period, Cambodia had a population of approximately 8 million people… that is 25% of the population.  To put this in perspective proportionately, it would be the equivalent of approximately 75 million Americans being brutally murdered by their own people.  Just picture the states of New York, Texas and California being completely empty.

How does a culture come back from such a travesty, you may ask?  The first way is to understand what happened and to make sure it never happens again.  I recently had the chance to spend some time in this fascinating country.  Besides eating fried crickets and snakes and seeing Ankgor Wat and some of the most beautiful deserted beaches in the world, I had the opportunity to visit The Killing Fields and S-21 prison, both of which are located in the country’s capital, Phnom Penh.

S-21 was a school building that was transformed into a prison when the Khmer Rouge took control of the city.  At the height of its activity, about 100 prisoners were killed daily.  The guards would blast loud music throughout the day so people passing by the school wouldn’t hear the screams of those being brutally murdered.   As I roamed the halls of this horrific place, I learned that the people who were in charge of the murders are still on trial and are fighting for their freedom, over 30 years later… a sickening thought.

The Halls of S-21

Upon leaving S-21, I headed over to the “Killing Fields” which are about 9 miles from the city center.  Scanning over this peaceful place, it is hard to imagine that thousands of people died on these hallowed grounds, until you look down and see bones from mass graves that have come to the surface after the most recent rainy season.  In the middle of the fields is a large memorial stupa which holds the skulls of over 8,000 people that perished here.

A sign in the Killing Fields exhibit

After seeing the photos of the victims and hearing the terrible stories, it makes any warm blooded human want to do something to make things better.  The Khmer Rouge reign in Cambodia is over… we can’t change the past.  But what we can do is impact the present and the future.  Unfortunately, there are terrible atrocities happening throughout the world that we, and our government , can help to eliminate.   It is our responsibility first and foremost to be educated about the world around us.  In this ever globalizing world, it is unacceptable and downright irresponsible for Americans to have their standard U.S. centric view.  The economic and political moves that our government makes affect the entire world (See the recent financial crisis), and it is up to us common folk to try to understand the implications of these decisions and use our collective influence to make the world a better place for us, but also for our brothers and sisters throughout the world.

Below are a list of web resources that document current issues and how we can learn more about them:

World without Genocide –  http://worldwithoutgenocide.org/current-conflicts

Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn – http://www.halftheskymovement.org/

SprWord.comhttp://sprword.com/

The CNN Freedom Projecthttp://thecnnfreedomproject.blogs.cnn.com/

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A few hours in Bago, Myanmar

After taking a four hour bus ride from Kinpun to Bago, I linked up with a local guide to see the sights for a few hours before my next bus later that day, 12 hours north to Kalaw.  After agreeing on a price, my guide and I set off on his motorbike to see some unusual sights.  Our first stop was to a reclining Buddha which was 182 feet long… a pretty impressive piece of work.  Throughout our time at the reclining Buddha, my trustworthy guide spoke mostly about either Buddhism or penile enlargement injections that many Burmese men went to Thailand to get, which was an odd combination.  When referring to the male genitalia, he would use the term “banana,” which I found quite amusing.

My trustworthy guide

From the reclining Buddha, he then took me to a monastery which was bombed during WWII… there were still bullet holes through the building!  We then continued on to another monastery, where the Burmese Buddhists worship a 108 year old snake that was the reincarnation of a very holy woman that had lived in the region years ago.  The snake, which was enormous, looked pretty lazy as I barely saw it move while I was there.  But then again, I probably wouldn’t be moving much if I was 108 either.

On our way out of the monastery, my guide turned to me and inquired “Would you like some penis?”  I was a bit taken aback.  “Ummm, excuse me?” I replied.  “Penis, would you like some penis,” he asked again.  Quite an aggressive question to be asking a stranger, I thought to myself.  And in front of a monastery no less!  And why would he change from using the word banana to the more formal vernacular?  “I like women, so no.  But thanks for asking, I guess?”  I don’t think he understood my reply, but when he pulled a bag of peanuts from his bag, I felt quite relieved.  While I was pretty sure what his intentions were at this point, I declined from eating the peanuts, just to be safe.  When I explained to him what he was actually saying, we had quite the chuckle.

From there, we visited a cigarette factory where women from 16 – 60 years of age worked 11 hour days rolling smokes.  It made me realize how good we have it back home, but it also again made me see how hard women work in these “3rd world” countries.  Not to say that men don’t do much, but I consistently notice women working in the fields while men chat and sip tea in coffee shops…just an observation.

After the cigarette factory, we headed on back to his house to meet his family and have some snacks.  While he did this to give me a more “real” idea of how people live in Myanmar, I have the inkling that he really just wanted to show me how poor he was so I would pay him more for the tour.  If he only knew how poor I actually was!  His cunning tactics didn’t work on yours truly, but it was fun getting to meet his beautiful wife and child.

Yours truly and the little guy. Don't think he liked me very much.

Upon finishing lunch, we jumped back on his bike and headed back to the station for my overnight bus.  I advised him again how to offer future clients peanuts and bid him adieu as I jumped on my connecting transportation.  I settled in for the long haul and reflected on the past few hours.  Just another typical Burmese day of seeing gigantic Buddhas, praying to century old snakes and having conversations with the locals about penile enlargement surgery.  Gotta love it.

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Monks, Matchmaking and Manual Labor in Myanmar

Standing in front of Il Ni Malaa, the head monk of a monastery on the outskirts of Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar[1], I felt like I was in a movie.  As our translator controlled the dips and flows of our conversation, we sipped tea and ate bananas and it began to sink in that my chance meeting with a monastery worker had led me to this most unique position.

Il Ni Malaa, his student and I

About 24 hours earlier I had arrived in Myanmar very tired from a long layover in Bangkok.  I found a $5 room in the downtown area, got myself together, and headed out to explore this mysterious country.  What causes this mystery is the relative lack of tourism based on the government’s oppressive regime.  The U.S. and other countries have imposed numerous economic sanctions on Myanmar, and this, along with the government’s tactics, has led to few ways for the Burmese people to interact and learn about the rest of the world.  Besides not knowing anyone personally who has been here, I had not done much research on the country myself so I really had no idea what to expect.

I spent the first day walking around seeing the main sights and pagodas of the city, and the true spirit of the Burmese people came out immediately.  As it got dark, I asked a boy of about 19 for directions to the area in which I was staying.  He pointed in the correct direction and offered to walk me there.  I resisted the offer as I knew it was pretty far but he insisted.  We walked for about ten minutes and as he started to get a better sense of how far it was, he asked a cab driver who was standing idle to give us a lift.  While I would have preferred to walk, he convinced me to get in the cab.  In the cab we chatted and I had the cab driver tell me in broken English that I look like Wayne Rooney (I really can’t shake this association… it’s getting upsetting).  As we approached my hotel, I went to hand the driver money but my companion adamantly refused to let me pay.  After escorting me all the way back to my hotel, he was now paying for the cab and then had to walk another 20 minutes to his home.  I was flabbergasted at his kindness.  He explained to me that while he was traveling in Japan, so many people had gone out of their way to help him that he had to somehow pay the kindness back, and what better way than to help foreign travelers visiting his hometown of Yangon.  I understood him completely, and I will always remember this experience and hope to be able to “pay it forward” to some traveler in my home country one day in the near future.

I started the following day by walking for an hour to see some famous Buddhist shrines.  I hopped into my third and final one for the day and was approached by a kind looking older man who explained the history of the building and the belief system of his religion.  As we continued to converse, he explained to me that he lived in a nearby monastery and would love to show me the grounds.  While I was a little reluctant to follow him through narrow alleyways and unchartered territory, I accepted his offer.  He gave me a quick tour of the area of the monastery, which houses 600 monks.  We eventually entered the main building where I was greeted by a number of monks who smiled and talked to me in a language that I had no chance of deciphering.  I drank some tea and chatted with them through my guide, who spoke English pretty well.  They explained that they were building an addition to the monastery and showed me the blueprints as I took a look out the window to see many people hard at work on the construction.  As I didn’t have plans for the following day, I offered to come help them build, which they happily agreed to.

I hopped on the public bus in the morning with my gameface on, ready to get down and dirty to build the new monastery.  But when I arrived, I realized that my new friends did not have much intention of letting me help them.  I was met by my guide from the previous day, who on the orders of the high monk Il Ni Malaa, immediately whisked me off to see another famous temple.  This took a considerable amount of time, and as we got back to the monastery in the late afternoon, I knew my chances of helping out with the construction were pretty slim.  As soon as I entered, I was notified that Il Ni Malaa wanted to speak with me.  As I headed upstairs and walked towards him, I didn’t know whether to bow, kneel at his feet, or give him a handshake, so I think I did some weird little dance that was a mix of all three.  I sat in front of him as his helpers, all young women in their late teens and early twenties brought me tea, golden bananas (which are slightly different than regular bananas), and peanuts.  We spoke about my experiences in Myanmar, my family life, where he had traveled and the basic tenets of Buddhism.  While we conversed, he mentioned that one of his helpers was single and thought I was handsome, and that maybe I could stay around Yangon for a few extra days to spend time with her.  He said this while she was five feet away from me, which made the both of us blush.  Never in my life did I think I would have a high monk trying to set me up with one of his Burmese helpers!  While she was a very pretty girl, I didn’t really see a future for us, so I explained that I needed to head off to see the rest of Myanmar the following day.  Il Ni Malaa implored me to stay at the monastery on my return to Yangon prior to my flight.  He offered to make me a ring for me to protect me on my travels.  When I return to Yangon I hope to receive it, but have absolutely no idea what to give in return.  Luckily, I have some time to think about it.

My first two days in Myanmar were not what I expected… they were so much more.  The sights have been great, but it’s the people that have made these first two days some of my most memorable out of all of my travels.  I only hope to one day be able to pay back both my friend who escorted me home, and all of the monks and helpers at the monastery who treated me with so much love.


[1] For those who aren’t familiar with the country, Myanmar used to be called Burma, but in 1989 the government changed the name along with the names of many cities that were inspired by the British, as England ruled the country in the early 20th century.

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