Interview With World Ways
--Nipun Mehta
6 minute read
Oct 8, 2007


Ten questions about making the world better, answered by someone who does it every day.

Interview with Nipun Mehta

1.  What's the best way to make positive social change?

I'm only aware of one way to bring about sustainable, positive social change -- BE the change.  Before blaming external factors for societal problems, we must have the humility to find the source of that pattern within us and then the courage to transform that habit.  When we do that, it is no longer about complaining about the 52 concurrent wars that are going on in the world; it is about looking yourself in the mirror and saying, "Come what may, I will not get angry today.  I will not wish anyone harm."  As we start doing that, everything changes naturally -- our thoughts change, our actions change, our circle of friends change.  And our idea of positive social change changes too.

Change is inevitable, but problems arise when we try to control that change.  Our grandiose business plans and master-minded think tanks haven't worked.  Even ants do a better job than humans.  All the ants of the planet, together, have a biomass greater than that of humans and have been incredibly industrious for millions of years; on the other hand, it has taken humans a hundred years to post a decline in almost every ecosystem on the planet!  We have a serious design problem, and it's rooted in our self-centered thinking.

All we have to do is to get out of the way, let-go, and allow change to happen organically.  Instead of finding quick-fix solutions to problems we don't understand, we need to humbly deepen our awareness of the problem and stop adding momentum to it.  Great leaders like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Cesar Chavez have all shown different  manifestations of the same strategy.  It's simple but yet it doesn't allow you to point fingers.  You're IT and realizing that is the first step to sustainable, positive social change.

2. What was the first thing you ever did to change the world?

I practiced generosity.  From the saving from my first job, I started an informal "Donation Club."   Several of us teenagers would contribute a few dollars and together, we would give it out to three different nonprofit organizations every month.  Then over time, I realized that I want to give more than money.  So I started giving time.  I signed up as a hospice volunteer.  While my peer group was busy planning illustrious futures, I was with people on their death-beds.  It was a profound contrast.

Then, finally, I felt like giving more than my time -- I wanted to give myself.  In the early dot-com days, all my friends in the Silicon Valley were talking about making millions and driving around in Beamers, but I wondered, "I like the energy, enthusiasm, creativity of all this, but can we flip greed into generosity?"  Four of us went to a homeless shelter and ended up building a website, and that came to known as CharityFocus.

3. If you could change one thing about the way people are, what would it be?

Be more tolerant.  If we are very close to the leaf of a tree, we can't see the whole branch and we most certainly can't see the whole tree.  So many times, we pick some point of view, or belief or ideology, and get stuck to it.  If we learn to be more tolerant, we'll be doing ourselves a favor by gaining a broader lens to experience life.

4. Who's someone you look up to, and why?

Gandhi, when he was instructing non-violence workers at the Dandi March -- where people stood in lines to get pulverized by the British army -- said this: don't just get hit; look at the man hitting you, look him in the eye with love, and preach a silent sermon. Preach that the love in me is far stronger than the negativity with which you strike. Oppose not the man, for he is divine, but oppose his actions, for they are confused when it harms another being. And know that love will always prevail over hatred, that wherever there is injustice, there will always be forces working for justice, wherever there is weakness, strength will be always be found. And all this from a guy who boldly said -- my life is my message.

I look up to anyone who, like Gandhi, can synchronize their thoughts, words and actions to say, "My life is my message."
5. What does it mean to be socially-responsible?

It means that you do unto others that you would like to have done unto you.  The Golden Rule.  It's as simple as that.  Before you cut someone off on the freeway, imagine if you are ok if someone does that to you; before you ignore that homeless man outside your corporate headquarters, consider the possibility of you being there.  As soon as operate from the context of the Golden Rule, compassion become effortless.

6. If you could travel through time, where (when) would you go?

Ever since I heard of this idea of a Boddhisattva, I've been very moved by it.  As they say, a Boddhisattva is someone who takes a vow to put aside his/her happiness to serve all living beings.  I remember just weeping like a baby, when I first said (out loud): "May all being be happy."  It's a powerful thought.  So I would go back in time to be with saints when they actually take the Boddhisattva vow, when they come in alignment with a deep sense of unending service to life.

7. What's the best thing to happen to the world in the past century?

At a material level, Internet shows the greatest potential for creating a radical transformation.  It has redefined how we relate to each other, how we build community, and how we organize.  Unless the dominant paradigm wrangles it back into patterns of the past, the Internet has the potential to shift just about everything we do and bring people closer together.

If someone would've told me 20 years ago that the chief rival for a $500 billion company -- Microsoft -- is a loose knit group of software engineers, with no central office, working for free on a product called Linux, I would've said impossible. If someone would've told me the Encyclopedia Britannica on my Uncle's shelf is quickly becoming a thing of the past in face of Wikipedia -- an online encyclopedia that anyone can add to, update and access anytime - I would've said impossible. If, twenty years ago, someone told me that MIT would start an OpenCourseWare project to give away all lectures, homeworks, solutions, readers, and even videos of all their lectures ... for free, I would've said impossible.  But that impossible is possible today.

8. What's something you know, that everyone else needs to know?

Service doesn't start when you have something to give; it blossoms naturally when you have nothing left to take away. 

9. What is the world's greatest achievement in the realm of music, art, literature, or film?

Arts point to the intangible, the invisible.  After all, only an artist can communicate the smell of a rose, the sight of sunrise, the comfort of a hug, the joy of selfless service.  Ultimately, humanity's progress depends on its ability to step into the unknown and that trait is the hallmark of a true artist.

Perhaps our greatest achievement is that we still have art without a price tag -- uncommercialized art.  In many rural corners of the world, you will still find some of the most unbelievable artists who simply won't sell albums, make fans, or desire to be famous; the spontaneous expression of their artistic spark is reward enough for them.  Such jewels have survived the rampant commercialization of every sector, culture and community, and that is an ode to the undying spirit of humanity.

10. What makes you so special?

Nothing.  A friend mine recently fulfilled her life-long dream of meeting a holy saint from her religious tradition; when I asked her what it was like, she remarked, "It was ordinary."  After a little pause, she added, "In fact, it was extra-ordinary."

In a culture obsessed with superlatives, we forget about the power of the everyday hero, the joy of doing unmeasurable things, the beauty in the ordinary.  Authentic power arises naturally from doing simple things with full attention and small acts with big love.  That's what I aim to do, and fortunately, there's nothing special about it.  Everyone can do it.


Posted by Nipun Mehta on Oct 8, 2007

7 Past Reflections