The year was 2013. I went to Sikkim—a jutting piece of Indian territory set between Bhutan, Tibet and Nepal— I had only a vague notion of its history, and hoped for a new adventure in experiential learning.
Six months prior, through a local friend in Durham, NC, we'd met a young principal. A son of the court monk of Sikkim, I was told, looking for teachers. Someone who could teach creative thinking and maybe even entrepreneurship to the bright kids coming from all over Sikkim, at his upstart international school. Maybe you guys would fit the bill?
We'd all thought it was serendipitous. We were a great fit. So we packed our bags (well, four suitcases in all, which was way too much, but that's another story) and off we went.
What we didn't know at the time was that it wasn't what we could offer as teachers, or what we knew, even, that counted. The only thing that mattered in the end was our willingness to accept the teachings that we were to encounter.
Once there, it quickly became apparent that the picture we all had in our mind didn't quite fit the reality at hand. The school job wasn't going to work out, for various reasons. We went away for a few days to Pelling, a hill report half a day away through winding paths in a cramped jeep, and stared at Kangchenjunga to ponder our choices: go back, and redraw the plan; persist with the original plan, and wait for the situation to change. Either option felt good, so I proposed a third path: just forge ahead, without a plan. (http://orangutanswing.com/art/jump-fork/)
With this new resolve, we sped back to Gangtok, and resumed our routine in our borrowed room (at $12 a night, a bit of a stretch for our budget at the time.) Writing, exploring, thinking about our next moves, and checking in with folks back home through our blog and skype calls.
One day, my wife Dipika came back from an outing and told me and our son about a place she found called B.R.E.W.—Bakery, Restaurant, Events and Workshops—run by a team of designers by the name of Echo Stream.
It turned out, this was a design outfit that fit us perfectly. They practice human centered design with clients ranging from private companies to municipal government. They are passionate about education. We had a impromptu meeting the next day with one of their leaders, Sonam, and we got on so well that we immediately started to hatch an idea to gather people around the idea of "modern Sikkim"—a conversation about identity, what it means to be a “Sikkimese” in a rapidly changing landscape.
But again, it wasn’t about what we knew. We saw opportunity to grow, and we took it.
Sonam was trying to understand where we were coming from, why we wanted to engage with this idea. We were trying to understand his team and how they operated. We were all trying to reach out to people around our networks, gather people and meet with them, invite them into the conversation. We talked to the media. We talked to bar owners. Students. The Mayor of Sikkim. And slowly, we saw a story emerge that was like none other. We saw a circle emerge that included us all.
We had come to Sikkim thinking that we’d give “experiential learning.” Looking back, I see plainly our hubris—who were we to think we could, without first learning ourselves? And surely enough, our experience there—a series of disappointments, and unexpected encounters and connections—schooled us, instead. The irony is that when you are learning and stretching yourself, you start to be helpful to others, too.
Experiential learning—and the growth that comes out of it—is about stretching ourselves out of our places of comfort. Creating new possibilities. We want to offer an experience that stretches far and challenges you. Where you receive teaching, but also teach. Where your team practices new things, together. And where the learning can relate back to the rest of your work and lives. As I look back now, co-creating Modern Sikkim, was one such experience.
In one of the conversation events we held, someone described a box—wooden, painted, perhaps in colorful patterns—that would be passed down in families. There would be something inside for future generation to find—what would we put in it? This open question became a fodder for wonderful musings, and more stories. Since that moment, that box, open and empty, ready to be filled with whatever we bring to the table, became a major theme of our work as designers.
What we were working on, we realized, was designing these experiences where stories, and the insights and inspirations we gain from them, travels from a person to another, across geography and time. The box is that experience: inside are the personal stories, ideas, opinions… but it’s up to the next person to decide what they mean to them.
For me, Track X is a box, too. A box where the experience of learning the craft of storytelling, containing lots of boxes with stories inside. We are all designers of these boxes as well as traders who transport them to different time and spaces.
What kind of a box is it? It’s not that big—just ten days out of our lives. But it’s intense, lots of colors and interlocking patterns. And it’s global, multi-faceted, multi-cultural. Lots of influences melding together to form a voice of the now. It’s relevant. It’ll contain many stories, lessons, things that will change our personal and professional outlooks and enriches our many fields of practice.
We can’t tell you what the experience will give you, exactly. To do so will rob you the pleasure of opening it and finding what’s inside for you. But we are certain that it will change you, you will have been stretched, you will have grown.
And, you will have a box of your own to bring home with you. What will it look like? What will you put in it?