Aditi Chokshi: Embracing Hidden Opportunities to Enable Others: Life's Lessons With My Brother
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May 23, 2015
Bela Shah (Host): Today's guest is Aditi Chokshi, who embodies today's theme of "Milk Moments: Discovering Hidden Opportunities to Enable Others and Grow Within: Life Lessons With My Brother." The theme really talks about, "What are the chance hidden moments, where you are able to enable another person to succeed, while you remained in the background? How do you stay awake to such chance opportunities to create small ripples of intimate connection and enablement while no one is watching?"
We have the pleasure of a remarkable moderator today --- Audrey. She is a love-warrior in our own Service Space ecosystem, and has many of her own "milk moments." Often-times, as she's visited your home, many weeks later you might come across a really sweet note that she's tucked away between your clothes or somewhere in a book. And you happen to find these notes and sweet messages and inspiring notes exactly when you need to find them. Do you have any thoughts today about the theme?
Audrey Lin (moderator): I am so excited about the call with Aditi today. It's a beautiful theme, "How do we discover hidden opportunities to enable others and to grow within?"
I was reminded of a moment. Yesterday I was in a conversation with some folks. We were all sharing a moment of awe that we'd experienced. First I thought about my childhood, and when it snowed, how everything would stop, and being in my back yard and being amazed at all the birds and life that was there.
Then as folks were sharing I was reminded of a moment with a meter maid, where I had parked the car in the city. I was a minute or two late on my meter time. I turned the corner and saw the meter maid putting a parking ticket on the windshield. I ran up to her. I said, "No, wait! I'm right here, I'm just a minute late!"
She looked at me, and we connected. Our eyes connected. There was something in her, I noticed, that just dropped. She felt what I was feeling. She didn't want to give me that ticket, but then she said, "I'm sorry. I already processed it. I can't take it back."
In me, there was this moment of dropping, where suddenly I was seeing her as this other human being who was doing her job and getting through the evening. And whatever tension I was feeling just dissolved. I remembered thinking, "Oh, it's okay. I understand. It was my fault. Thank you for doing your job."
She probably doesn't remember this, but for me, something about seeing someone else and stepping into a moment where my heart regenerates, helps me grow within. On a bigger scale, those moments of empathy, of understanding or dissolving that tension internally, enables others in ways we don't always see or know.
Bela: I can envision the connection that was made in that moment between you and the meter maid. There's something amazing about seeing someone else and allowing that seeing to enable you, in invisible ways maybe, to enable that person, or for that person to enable you. It doesn't always have to be through actions; just by feeling that connection alone, it awakens that humanity within you and within the person you're connecting with.
I'm looking forward to hearing more reflections and insights from Aditi, and her own experiences growing up with her brother.
Audrey: I met her (Aditi) the first night I arrived in India, about one-and-a-half or two years ago to volunteer. She was there wrapping up one of her visits as a volunteer with the slum children and women and families. In that evening I had gotten in pretty late, and I had never met her before. There was something so open and welcoming about her. She had this big smile, and sparks in her eyes. She said "Oh, welcome! I can't wait to spend more time with you and get to know you more." She had a really sweet demeanor. I remember, after traveling and being in this new environment, feeling so at home around her.
As I've read in different places and seen in different talks, I don't think that was a quality unique toward me. I think she's like that with everyone around her. A couple of years ago, when she graduated, getting her Master's in public administration and international development from Harvard Kennedy School, a classmate introduced her as "An excellent economist, but what really shines through is her heart."
That heart has taken her to be a pillar of support for her younger brother, who, at 13, was diagnosed with autism and epilepsy. She has gotten so many moments of learning in that relationship. That heart has also taken her to spend a year volunteering with a women's empowerment NGO, then to continue to return, to deepen in her service in the year's following.
She's also been called "a rebel with a soul" and brings that spirit with her, whether traveling in the Himalayas or serving as a management consultant , or even taking the time to connect. Just this week we were connecting over the phone. She has so generously made herself available, even though I'm sure she had a hectic work-week. You could feel her care in every small thing. You can see it in a corporate office, on the streets of the city, on the streets of a rural village. I'm looking forward to diving a bit deeper into this conversation. Welcome, Aditi.
Aditi Chokshi (guest): Hi, everybody. Thanks. It's such an honor to get to share and to be in conversation with all of you. It doesn't feel right without anything but a lot of gratitude for much this entire ecosystem, that Bela, Audrey, and so many others have given to nourish all of us and all of our journeys in trying to build ourselves and build a better world around us.
Audrey: I want to start with a bit about your brother, because he has been such a big part of your life. In your class day speech at Harvard Kennedy School, you said that it's in these smaller moments of true connection in between the campaigns and the ministries and the big positions, that we become who we are. I'm wondering if you could share (with us) a little bit about the power of "milk moments" with your brother. How he's inspired you, and what you've learned from your relationship with him.
Aditi: It's hard to know where to begin, because my brother and I are ten years apart, and even before he was diagnosed --- when he was 12, he was diagnosed with more severe seizures, and with his autism --- he always had slight learning differences when we were growing up. There were always small opportunities to be a good big sister, and to help and teach him. All of that shifted a lot when he got really sick.
When he was 12, and I was in college, he started having 13, 14, 15 seizures a day. For any family, I think that going through that, there's something so viscerally terrifying about seeing somebody you love so much falling and shaking, and that's happening repeatedly. All of a sudden, you realize, you're hoping so much that there's an end in sight, but it's not ever confirmed or true to you that it will be. You have to draw on all these resources to figure out how to actually bring everything you have to make that situation better.
It was scary for my entire family.
The moment that was a real shift for me was when he was admitted to the ICU. He had been having a number of seizures. One morning, the day after Christmas, we woke up and something seemed "off." We didn't know what to do, but we rushed him to the good hospital that was downtown. It turned out he'd been having a seizure non-stop for several hours. Even though he wasn't shaking, there was still seizure activity present in his mind. His condition quickly deteriorated, and within about 24 hours he went from walking and talking despite being sluggish, to screaming and being really uncomfortable. He wasn't able to talk any more. He had lost control of his bladder.
So again, you're quickly going from worse to even worse. I feel the role I played, and what I was able to do in that ICU, for the week that we were there, was maybe one of my life's big moments. I think what let me be who I was with everybody that was involved was shaped by everything that came before it. So I think that's where the concept comes from, that you never really know when those big moments are going to hit us. There are professional big moments, there are personal big moments, however you think about it. But who we are, when we deliver in those moments, is shaped by everything we have been conditioned to do before then.
I'm happy to talk more about what happened at the ICU that was so transformative for me. But I think that's where this idea of "Who we are is formed before those moments" came. Since then, every day has been a chance to realize that when I pause to make time in a very organic and serendipitous way --- my brother has called, or there are text messages, or some situation comes up with his teachers or his counselors or his psychologist --- it's shaping my ability to be flexible. Every day, those small things I do are going to help me in those bigger moments. I think we all do that. Everybody has different people in their lives or different situations where it's that inner moment, where it's just about meeting somebody where they are, or helping somebody with something. It's those moments where it's just you and somebody else, and it's up to you to decide if you're going to do the right thing. That's what all of us do, in all the great works that we do.
Audrey: What was that moment in the ICU, which really shifted you? You can't leave us hanging like that! (Laughter).
Aditi: More so than any other time in my life that I can remember, I just snapped into thinking that there are these moments where people are really depending on you, and they're really counting on you. You're so scared and you really don't know what's going to happen, and there's nothing else you can draw on but the love of people around you, and this strength inside you, to try to soothe or to calm or to coordinate.
As anybody who's had the misfortune of being in an ICU or in a serious condition on the day after Christmas knows, it's a really tough time to be in the hospital. Anand's neurologist was in Hawaii somewhere. There were very few doctors on duty. Nobody really knew what was happening. There was this order to give my brother a medication that previously made him have the most violent seizures he'd ever had. I was trying to pay attention to all of the details. I knew that seemed like that was not the right answer. I didn't know why we were going back to a medication that had made him so, so sick before, that he was just coming out of.
(I was) navigating the entire situation, to try to figure out a way that we can track down his neurologist wherever he may be on vacation and ask him, "What's the right course of action?" Calm, defiant, or in that moment... (and) an angry nurse who on her own feels that she has medical orders to deliver a certain medication by a certain time.
My brother was sharing a room with another family and he had quickly deteriorated, and was screaming and crying. I remember the nurses calling and asking for me. They said something, and this was the one that was the "shift moment" for me. They said something along the lines of, "Oh, you're so good with him. You must help care for him at home."
The reason that hit me was both recognizing something about how my relationship with him was. But also that line, "You must help care for him at home." Before that, Anand wasn't someone who needed to be cared for in that way. He was blossoming, and independent, and growing. You have this defiant hope that of course you can go back to being exactly like that, but if he doesn't, of course I will also be the one who helps care for him.
So it was a moment where I realized we're so interconnected, and that for any one person or thing that we care about, there's always this army of people that are working together to make that happen. And that ICU was no different. You don't get the system working by clearly following goals and responsibilities. You get the system working by just somehow being able to connect with everybody who's involved in those situations, meeting people where they are, and needing to be patient but assertive, or loving but advocating. And realizing that sometimes we're really called upon, and people are really depending on us, that what we do really matters, that dependency is what connects all of us, and that I really was at the helm of something there in a way that I'd never been before.
I can't think of what a big moment is, except for that. If I have another one that is that profound as that one was for me, I have some sort of comfort in knowing that I'll be able to deliver. There were many shifts that happened, but it planted the seed... I'd studied it (international development) in college, but I think it was this moment that helped me realize that there's something bigger than me, and that it matters a lot. I wanted to dedicate my life to cultivating it, and being that person in as many moments as I could.
Audrey: On the topic of your international development, and small moments, I know those small moments were cultivated in your time serving with Gramshree, which is a women's cooperative based in Ahmedabad, In India, that connects artisan crafts with women in the slums. In the five questions you had answered in your bio, you shared how one of the biggest moments that moved you was how you sat on the floor with these women and they shared their lunches with you. What did you learn from your time in Gramshree or from these women or others?
Aditi: If the ICU was one kind of "shift moment" for my life, that year that I spent in India for the first time --- since then I've returned for a year-and-a-half more --- was another moment I shifted a lot. There's so much to think about what I learned. What I was referring to when I thought about those acts of kindness you don't forget, was that I think they're often these everyday moments. There's something spontaneous and unexpected about being greeted with such warmth from somebody else, and such generosity from someone else. In my case, when I reflected on those moments of kindness that I wouldn't forget, the ones that came to mind were always somewhat tinier moments, or images that are embedded into our everyday lives.
At Gramshree I seemed like this funny, energetic person to so many of the women. So I'd be running around. I hadn't figured out my food rhythm... Lunch is a key part of everybody's day, especially in the context of Gramshree. There's something beautiful about how communal meals are in India and particularly in settings where you look around and you feel there's not a lot of abundance. But then you see how much intensity people treat the food that they have, and the resources they have.
That moment I was referring to was every day. It was like a small production. Gramshree is headquarters, across the street from the slum where many of the women who were weaving and sewing and running production for Gramshree worked. On the first floor there was a finance room, then a small kitchen. On the second and third floors were the production facilities and where a lot of the inventory stayed. In the tiny kitchen, everyone would sit on the floor, and I remember sitting on the floor with all of those women, and everybody giving me a bit from their silver canisters that everybody brings their lunch from home with --- the solidarity that I felt in connecting over those meals with the women.
It was those conversations over lunch or the fact that I was sitting on the floor beside them that started showing me how to really connect with people as equals.
All of the broader kind of work that I hoped to do in terms of economic justice and gender justice --- that lunch was just one reminder of one moment of how you're the recipient of so much warmth and so much generosity, how you accept gracefully and use that as a way to connect as one with people as equals. It seems like a really simple thing, but it's just a principle. It's my memory of the type of principles with which I always want to approach that type of work I do. I always want to make time for those lunches, and for a way to connect in a way that feels really genuine, and feels equal. It's hard to do because people have a tendency to view you as somebody that's different. Of course we should because you're never going to be from that very community. But I think we can try really hard to seem as one with the people we're working with.
Audrey: As someone from overseas coming in as a volunteer, and then to serve, what was your understanding of service before, and how do those kinds of moments deepen your understanding of it?
Aditi: One of the big lessons is one several people a day (learn), as everyone dives into wanting to do this kind of work. You come in so eager-eyed and with so many ideas, and you leave so humbled at how hard it is to influence change, or how much admiration you have for people who've dedicated their lives day in and day out to doing this, but also how much you have to learn from those you're seeking to serve, and how much generosity and strength of character and inspiration you get from individuals.
I also started learning how my relationship with Anand was going to help me forge a special, or different, type of connection with the people I was working with. My journey with Anand has shown me that sometimes these barriers between my specific goal and small moments just melt away. Because with Anand there's always a really big goal, whether it's his growth academically or his growth with his friendships.
The school he goes to has four pillars of his curriculum, and I'll share them here because I think they're great pillars for all of us, to think about our development. They're academic and professional competence, relationship development, self-regulation/self-awareness, and executive functioning, which are the parts of our brain that focus on planning and realizing our strengths and our weaknesses, how we ask for help, and how we help others.
With Anand you'd realize that there are always big goals in all of those dimensions, but they also manifest in these really small ways. Fluidly working between those instead of feeling like "I'm the advisor versus somebody else is the executor," or all these other barriers that we set up. Thinkers versus doers. That melts away in my relationship with Anand and all of the people that are working to support him. I started learning that the same sort of principle is true when I'm working abroad as well. If I continue to think about "How do you shatter some of those barriers," and be of assistance. Thinking while you're making sure you're eating lunch. Or thinking about how to re-do Gramshree's supply-chain process while thinking about "How do you have sessions where you're just working with the staff on Excel or whatever it might be."
There's simple refrains. It was my first time really figuring those principles out.
Audrey: Thinking about how you've studied poverty pretty deeply, or social and economic justice, how do you bridge that with the top-down, theoretical type of thinking about what causes poverty and how to solve it?
Aditi: I don't think I have anything revolutionary to say, except that systems-thinking is so necessary and being results-oriented is so necessary, and it's true for Anand as much as it's true for the type of development work I want to do. So if I worked with Anand and all I did was respond to the immediate request, the immediate phone call, without taking a step back and thinking about who at his community college do I need to speak with or who at his school do I need to speak with, or what's "off" with his supervisor at Best Buy…
That type of thinking is so necessary and thinking about Anand's broader growth, and having him own his goals and his visions for the future is also so necessary. The idea is not to renounce the systems-thinking or the bigger-picture need for us to march toward solutions that can reach everybody, but to keep that in mind with the smaller, more immediate ways you can help, and to realize that both are important.
That's one learning. And I think the second is a realization that sometimes --- it doesn't matter if it's a small non-profit that's working on poverty alleviation, or an academic who's trying to decipher the newest, most scientifically proven and rigorously evaluated kind of way to alleviate poverty --- it feels as if sometimes we're seeking a narrative or solution to share that's really linear and simple and positive. What I've learned is that a lot of this work is messy and people's struggles are also as profound as the success stories. Not shying away from the messiness, and not shying away from the struggles, and showcasing them, and showcasing how complicated this stuff is, is going to help us figure out how we can do justice to everybody's strengths, and also do justice to finding solutions that are really helping.
There's this one story that I remember in particular from my time at Gramshree that highlights how messy some of this work is. It's one of those moments that shifted me in some way. There was one girl, Bauvna, who, of all the workers at Gramshree, was young. She was about 16 at the time I got there. She was working in Gramshree's sampling unit, which is where the embroidery work would be co-created with the designer and tweak it here and there before a print was ready for a larger scale production.
I got to know her really well, and realized she had dropped out of school at third grade, that she had this profound sense that she was too stupid to succeed at school, and kept repeating it, despite being so curious and full of energy. Her mom also worked at Gramshree. So in the spirit of cultivating the relationships that were deeper, I got to know her mom really well, I got to know Bauvna really well, and would look forward to spending the extra time teaching Bauvna and a few of the other teenage girls who were younger in that community, whether after-hours or before. I cultivated these relationships that I thought were reciprocal. With her mom I had also built up a great rapport.
Toward the end of the year we found a school program that was geared towards taking in girls who had dropped out before and teaching them in an accelerated manner in a way that could let them regain basic numeracy, literacy, and next level critical thinking for when they were reading, some of which Bauvna really lacked. Bauvna was excited about it. It was something we had planted seeds for over the whole year and talked to her mom about, off and on, in small ways. Bauvna finally said on her own that she was excited and ready to join the school.
So here I am, younger, 24 or 25, and I'm feeling like, "Whoah!" This was such a great manifestation of that smaller moment. A few days went by, and Bauvna came back and she said, "Never mind. I don't want to do it anymore. I'm really not interested in it at all." I didn't know what had happened between her being so excited and, on her own, coming and telling me she wanted to do it, which was always what I wanted. She had gotten to that moment herself and I didn't know what had happened. I didn't know what had changed.
A few more days went by and Bauvna's sister came to find me, and told me "You know, Aditi, I wasn't going to tell you this, because I know you'll really worry about it. But I also know that you'd want to know."
What happened is that when Bauvna mentioned that she wanted to go to school, her dad really, really hit Bauvna a lot because he didn't understand why Bauvna was telling so many people that her family hadn't allowed her to go to school.
That moment was so hard for me. You go through all these feelings --- feeling guilty and "What could I have done differently?" and "Could I have set her mom in a certain way?" Or those moments like, "Of course, I'm so stupid, I've only been here for a year, and yes, I speak the language, and yes, I spend every day with these women." But that's not at all enough to understand how difficult it is to create change from the outside. And "How did I not see all of this coming?"
But as I reflect on it more, there's so many other stories I have that are similar to this one, where so many people's grace and their strengths come through in these imperfect and messy ways. I told this story once to a small group of classmates at graduate school, and one of them came back to me and said, "Aditi, there's a reason why Bauvna's sister told you that. Not everybody was able to know that, but you were able to know that." At the time I dismissed it. And I'm still not sure how true it is. But perhaps there is something about knowing the messiness of working with Anand that let me embrace the messiness of this other work. I think that the bigger lesson is that you have to set yourself up in certain ways so you know what you're doing and what you're not, and, when thinking about poverty alleviation, or issues of gender justice, it's so easy to fool yourself into thinking you're making progress. It's embracing how imperfect it is, and really opening yourself up to that is really important and humbling. And also not something to be afraid of, and not something to be afraid of talking about, because we need to hear how messy and how imperfect it is.
The same thing is true with my brother. He cracks me up sometimes. Other times I'll be at my desk and I'll be crying, because it will feel like I'm lonely, or really feel defeated. Both of those are important, and they matter.
Audrey: I'm struck with the paradoxes of the nitty-gritty, daily ups and downs and messiness, and this notion of progress and the bigger picture of poverty alleviation and solving those bigger problems. I wanted to shift gears to your work currently at Bain. One of the things I've seen is that a lot of folks will go off and volunteer and experience those kinds of deep, meaningful moments, and then feel a disconnect between a day job and these kinds of experiences that you've experienced with service. And earlier at the start of our call you mentioned that you don't get the system working by following rules and responsibilities necessarily, but by connecting with everyone that's involved and meeting people where they're at. How do you connect this to the corporate world? How do you connect with the spirit of service at Bain, where you currently work as a management consultant?
Aditi: There are several layers to how it's possible to weave all of those things in. I always say that I left graduate school both more confident and more humble. It's this amazing feeling that I'm so grateful to everybody that I came across there, and before that moment, that can let me feel that way, as I try to be more aware of who I am and how am I the same person in all of those contexts I'm in, whether I'm on the phone with somebody related to Anand, or in rural Bihar, or at my desk at Bain. I thought about it as an inner-transformation type of thing to reflect on.
Sometimes it fits directly with the work I'm doing. I've had the good fortune of advising two social impact clients recently. Acumen is an impact investing fund abroad that's pioneered an approach to impact investing in emerging markets around the world, and they're actually creating a U.S.-focused fund for the first time. We were able to help them on their investment strategy for one of the sectors they're going to be investing in. That was a way to directly engage in the work that I care about. Similarly, we were working with another client that does grants along with business training and savings facilitation in this carefully-sequenced set of interventions that really targets the rural extreme poor in Kenya and Uganda.
There are also ways to just bring it up regardless of whether I'm on those clients or other clients. Some of that is weaving Anand into my daily conversations or my life a little bit more, whether it's sharing stories about how awesome his supervisor was, or not being afraid to talk about how difficult the community college system is, and how it throws barriers in the way of students who are most sensitive to those barriers, and what we might be able to do about that. Not being shy about sharing little tidbits about those things that I feel strongly about.
I'm lucky; the community of co-workers around me where I sit is just wonderful. We're told about how important it is to have this inner sense of serenity. But my life is fairly chaotic and my co-workers around me watch me operate; it's such a nice community, and they laugh, and they're so open-minded. I feel I can vent when I need to vent, or if there's something I want to go on the soap-box about, they're so nurturing. I owe it to them as well. Whatever we're doing at work, we're spending a lot of time with just five, six, seven, eight, ten people, so how can you create a little environment there that is supportive and nurturing about everybody's goals?
Audrey: Sometimes it's easier for those types of conversations to come out in a service-oriented setting. But when you're in a more corporate environment, sometimes it's harder to find the space to have those moments of laughter or small talk, or even weaving in bits of your experiences with Anand, and personal moments, and feel comfortable doing that. How did you step into that space for yourself, or was that already there in your work environment?
Aditi: On the spectrum of work environments, I have the good fortune of being in one that's tolerant and inclusive. There are ways you can speak your mind. Part of it is being open to experimentation. With the co-workers who sit near me, at this point there's such a circle of trust among us that I can talk about any range of issues. For me, to be able to voice what I care about, even while working on something else, is really powerful. And with my more immediate teams, or when there are seniors involved, I think of it as a great experiment in trying to communicate the stuff that matters to me in a way that will really resonate with somebody who's wired to think very, very differently than me. It's an experiment and it's a challenge, and sometimes it works well and other times it doesn't.
There are a few instances of it not working well, but you pick up and go on. That has worked for me so far.
Audrey: As I'm listening to you speak, I feel there's an internal strength in you in being able to say, "Hey, this is the experiment, and whatever's going on outside, I'm going to believe in it and try ways to share, and even if it doesn't go over well, I'm going to keep going, keep trucking along.” The internal strength of being in a hectic ICU and trusting your gut, your intuition, that you should not follow the orders that are being given, and try to seek other answers. I also know that in your early 20's you went to rural areas of Bihar in northeast India that are considered dangerous and lawless. What is the source of your strength in those types of situations? How do you follow your intuition with such conviction?
Aditi: To bring it full circle, if there is one thing that gives me inner clarity that I'm onto something with my approach, I think it's in tune to my brother's extraordinary growth and thinking about how there's so many people in my family and in his schools who have contributed to his growth. I know the places where I have been able to push and to nudge and to orchestrate and to coordinate in a way that's helpful. Maybe it's from that, and from all the effects that come from that. You have to roll with the punches a little bit. Whenever I pick up the phone and Anand's on the other line, I don't know if it's going to be a moment where he's really, really upset, or if it's a moment where he just needs homework help, or those rare, rare moments where he calls and just wants to know how I'm doing, or there's a lightness in his voice. You look forward to those few moments where you capture this other side of him and you know it's growing and flourishing. It's dealing with that on a daily basis that lets me know that there's no perfect path, but there's this passionate path forward.
I think approaching situations with levity helps. It's really hard sometimes, and I did mention you sometimes feel really lonely, and you break down, and it's hard. But there are other times when you just have to laugh at how "nuts" the situation is, and then use that levity as a way to keep going. A story that just happened a week or so ago that sums it: Anand had called me two days prior. His literacy class at the community college strikes at the core of what's difficult for him to comprehend from a critical thinking perspective. They read "To Kill a Mockingbird" throughout the semester, and there's a number of essays they had to write on that. It was one of my favorite books, so it was great to re-read it with him.
In addition to that, there are always small exercises. The exercises are in no way related to "To Kill a Mockingbird," and they were a lot, and randomly covered throughout his assignments. They were so frustrating to him. Two days prior to this, he had a worksheet on identifying similes and metaphors. Two days later he called me. The worksheet was on context clues. The word is "cacophonous." He's trying to figure out what "cacophonous" means. In my opinion, the sentences aren't even well-written, and I'm saying, "This isn't the sentence you need to understand what 'cacophonous' is" He's trying to understand it. It's 11 p.m. Houston time and 9 p.m. San Francisco time. I'm still in the office. My dad comes in and feels bad that Anand's on the phone with me, and he says "Don't worry, we will find the simile." My brother says, "Dad, you have no idea what the 'F' is going on." I'm on the other line, still trying to keep everything together, and thinking "This situation is cacophonous," or "This is cacophony right now." People are yelling, and my brother flips out even further. (Laughter).
There are a lot of moments like that. Maybe it's just that, which lets me know. I always keep going. I don't give up. So we finish the worksheet. Maybe it's just that kind of conditioning that lets me know there's always a way to keep going.
Bela: It's been an amazing conversation so far. I have so many follow-up questions. There's been so much insight that you've been sharing with so much humility and so much grace.
Audrey: Someone wrote in asking, "One aspect of being so wise and inner-directed at such a young age, I imagine, is that you may find yourself to be the voice of calm and wisdom among so many older and respected people. For example, perhaps you even played a leadership role with regard to Anand's care, vis-a-vis your parents or other elders in moments of acute crisis. How do you handle that, being young and being a woman, to allow roles to lovingly shift? To do what you need to do to help a situation, but shift roles gently? Is there a specific example you can recall in any context?”
Aditi: My first reaction is that I'm the recipient of so much wisdom and grace from those elders. I think that when you grow up with somebody who has any sort of difference, you may quickly realize that there's so many people who come together to make something happen. I by no means think that I'm the one who has the wisdom in those situations. But in those times where I have felt like something is falling apart, and maybe I can help put it together, it's trying to find the balance between being loving but still being a fighter, or being kind but still being assertive. I don't think I've honed it or gotten it perfect at all.
One example I remember, which happened very recently. Others who have worked with individuals with neurological differences will understand how hard it is when you graduate from high school and there's this really big, uncharted territory that's left to be navigated. Anand, right now, is going through a mixture of working with the school that he went to high school with, going to community college, and working part-time. We're so proud of him for being able to pull all of that together.
But the community college system is super-complicated and it's a really big mess to navigate. Sometimes Anand's online portals take me ten minutes to navigate, before I even know what's going on. I can't imagine how difficult it is for a person who needs to do all of it on their own. We were having a meeting with some people from his main school and from his counselor at his community college. Anand was one of hundreds of students she has. There's one way to approach a meeting: "OK, I have these ten questions, and these are all questions that a counselor should be able to answer for Anand." They all related to details about his degree and how he should sequence his classes. There are all sorts of things between whether he should go for a Level 2 certificate or an Associate's Degree, and different types of Associate's Degrees, and how recognized are this community college's Associates Degrees recognized by other institutions. Anand has this aspiration to get a Bachelor's Degree and we want to make sure we're actually, concretely doing justice to that.
There are two approaches that I could have taken to that meeting. I was slammed that week, and it could have been that I just had list my questions and I expected to be answered or my limited knowledge told me that wasn't going to lead to a successful meeting and wasn't going to lead to the outcome Anand needed. So I printed out this 200-page course catalog, read through the relevant parts, found the parts related to the IT degrees, figured out where his cyber-security requirements were, and then was able to ask my questions, so I could still clarify that there are certain things that other people here should know if we're all working together on "Team Anand." But then I was able to say "I'd read through the catalog and I found it even confusing, but could you clarify this and that?"
There's always a fine balance. You never believe it's somebody else's job of reading through a catalog or to do these smaller tasks or more mechanical tasks. They're often the hardest ones, and we just expect other people to do them, because they're their job. And if we do them ourselves, I think we can show people that they can go the extra mile themselves, too.
Makala Kozo, Cupertino, California: Aditi, thank you for sharing your beautiful, messy journey with us. My first question was "What is cacophony,?" But you gave such a good example that I don't think I'll ever forget what cacophony means. (Laughter) Thank you for that.
I recently heard a different perspective on children on the autism spectrum. It was, "They're wise souls who chose to incarnate in this form so they can teach in a different manner." I like that. I'm wondering if there's ever been a time with your brother where you kind of saw that he was not the body he was in, he was not the disabilities that he has, but that there's some wisdom there, that he was this wise soul actually coming here to teach you and your family and those around him?
Aditi: I really like that. Part of the struggle in understanding autism is that it's so different. It manifests so differently in so many different people. But for every single person it's about finding what is that unique strength which can teach us something.
Two things immediately come to mind as little anecdotes when I thought my brother was wise, or on to something.
One is my "Aha!" moment, where he told me something and it was so wise. The other is a funny story, and sometimes I get so proud of his wry, sarcastic sense of humor that he's developing, and what his lack of inhibitions let him view, or the truth that they can zone in on.
The moment where I thought he was really wise: I was home once and always try to do a lot of active sports with him when I'm home, and I'm sure it's really annoying. I was really set on going swimming with him. I was only home for a weekend, and there were so many other things to do, and I knew that if we wanted to swim together, we'd have to do it during that time. We were having this huge argument, where he was saying, "I'm not swimming with you." And I was saying, "Come on, it's always so fun when we get in the water."
There was this back-and-forth. Deep down, I knew this was going to take a while, but at some point over the next three hours we're going to go for a swim together. He said, "Okay, fine." And we came down stairs, and we were about to get our shoes on, and he said "Fight!" and runs up the stairs. And he said, "See, this is your problem, Aditi. You don't ever know. Sometimes you just have to give up."
It was one of those moments where I said, "Whoah!" And I said, "Aditi, it is my problem. I don't know when to give up." It was one of those things where I realized, "I can use that. And in all of this stuff, he has this really special and insightful perspective on me as well.
The other funny moment: It shows the unpredictability of when anybody with neurological differences is going to surprise you. Sometimes it's in these positive and profound ways. Other times it's just something completely out of the blue.
We were in Miami, and the whole family is in the car --- we had rented a minivan. I'm driving the minivan and the whole car was asleep, except for my brother sitting next to me. All of a sudden he turns to me and says, "Aditi, I think I want to get the facts straight here. You're 30. You're single. You've had two relationships and they've ended. I don't really think you're on the path towards divorce, but maybe you're headed that way." It was so completely out of the blue. I was driving this minivan while everybody is sleeping and it was one of those moments where it's just hysterical. There are so many moments where he just cracks me up because there's no inhibition in what he says. I think those moments are also refreshing, and they teach me how to navigate crazy situations like that. They also teach us all what would happen if we all were a little bit less inhibited.
And of course there's all the work I want to do with him, with compassion and empathy and kindness. But sometimes he's just hysterical and his sense of humor is really wry. I'm actually proud of him for cultivating and finding that really unique and funny voice, and sharing it.
Bela: I'm curious to learn more about your trekking experiences in the Himalayas. You've shared that you have this dream one day of building a cottage tucked away in the Himalayas. Can you share more about those experiences and that dream? Why the Himalayas?
Aditi: Everybody has different things, in the middle of harder work, that they do to nourish themselves. For me, whenever I'm in India, regardless of the type of situation I'm working in or the environment I'm working in, I hope that my journey in international development takes me to work in grassroots environments. The reason it felt right for me to begin my journey in India is because there's so much, whether the music or the dance, that feels like it's nourishing while you're working on issues that are hard and messy.
Early on, I got swept away, in my trip to India, with how magnificent the mountains were. I feel like I'm still on my journey of quieting the mind. Often the reason I like India so much is that my mind is racing in this way that feels really great, and I'm alive, and full of ideas, and full of ways to make better those situations that aren't fair. There's something so beautiful about how chaotic and crazy India is, and how really stunning these mountains are, and how much I really enjoyed trekking through them. I remember on my first trek, there was no way I thought I was going to appreciate not showering for four or five days. But it was amazing. You get to places in nature where you get so serene, and it's still within this country that I love so much. And the culture across all parts of the Himalayas I visited is so gentle, but the peaks are so grand. There are still subtle hints of India and all its contradictions, but then there's the simplicity of just being in this amazing nature. I generally enjoy visiting new places, but it was the first place where I felt this connection and felt drawn, and wanting to return and return. I hope I get to continue to do that. The mountains and trekking are nourishing. When I'm there I feel my mind at the quietest. You really want to be comfortable with your own thoughts, because you can hear them so much more carefully. It's beautiful.
Bela: I love the metaphor of the great peaks that are there, yet the gentleness of the people and the culture. It makes me think of some of the stories you've shared from your own life, and the immense challenges that you've experienced, especially in supporting your brother and your family, yet the gentleness with which you do it, and the grace with which you do it. My question is from the Gandhi ashram, Manav Sadhna. It's about Raghubhai, who several of us on this call have had the gift to have spent time with. He was a young man who was just a light in the community there. He had polio and couldn't walk, but he served with his heart and with his hands, and shared so much of his love and presence with the elderly who were often neglected.
Aditi, I know that while you were at Gramshree you also spent a lot of time with him. I'm curious to know how your relationship with your brother might have influenced your relationship with Raghubhai, having this disability. Can you talk about that?
Aditi: Raghubhai’s passing was so shocking for so many of us who had a chance to be around him. He was this firecracker of energy and love. I remember Raghubhai as going from place to place to place in Gramshree. He was so full of energy and ideas. You just never paused sometimes to consider the fact that he was paraplegic and was doing all of this without legs. Maybe it's particular to me because of Anand, but I think most people just forgot how disabled he was you learned so much from him and he did so much. He had this amazing voice. He rode his scooter into the slums every day. He had a job at Gramshree. He was called upon to do so many other things with at the Gramshree community. He lived the most rich and full life you could imagine. It was hard to think of him as anything other than this amazing teacher. At one of my last visits to India we sat in the ashram together and he wanted to formalize some of what he was doing in a program he started to give meals twice a day to women in the slum community that were widows and elders and didn't have other family that were able to provide for them. So we were writing some of the guidelines for that program together.
[Aditi explains how Raghubhai was an excellent singer, and recalls that, at this meeting with him, Raghubhai, another resident brought in his tabla. Aditi asked Raghubhai to teach her how to sing a certain Indian musical composition correctly. He happily agreed to do so. She continues:]
There are countless stories of him, and I think that biggest thing in relation to the disability is that I never, ever thought of him in that way. That's something that I share with everybody else who came across him.
Audrey: This call is cracking me up and making me think and making me reflect and everything all at once. You had shared in your five questions, but in your one-line message for the world, from Jacqueline Novogratz of Acumen. She said "Commit yourself to something bigger than yourself, so that commitment will set you free." She was sharing that advice as some advice she had received from a mentor. I'm curious, as someone who's still quite young, with so much before you, are there any "somethings" bigger than yourself that you see yourself committing to? Or things you'd like to explore more deeply in the future?
Aditi: It's so hard to have a one-line message for the world. Maybe it's easier for people who are much better at being pithy than I am. That one strikes me because it reflects how I felt about certain issues or things that I really believe in. It's the idea that developing clarity on what it is that really gets you excited and fired up, and then committing yourself to that is the most liberating feeling there is, because it frees you from constantly think "Am I doing the right thing, or am I doing the wrong thing?" I find it so beautiful that idea that commitment is what sets you free. It doesn't have to be to a person or to a thing, or it can be to a person or to a thing, depending on who you are and where in your life you are.
The irony of it is that I don't know how to articulate to what I'm committed, but I try to lead a life that is loyal and committed and in that I find so much freedom and the confidence to become who I am. It's some mixture of working with people who are underserved in some way.
Audrey: It's a big question. It can be hard to say.
Bela: I wanted to share a reflection from someone on the call. She wrote, "I love what you said earlier, Aditi. You realize how much you have to learn, how much generosity and strength they have, how inspiring they are. This inspired me to connect face to face, which right now is tough for me. But these 360-degree moments that encompass all our senses are crucial for connection. No question, really. Just wanted to express gratitude." I also wanted to echo that gratitude.
I do have one more question, if I'm able to articulate it. When I think of you, I think of this fine balance. In the stories that you've shared and the experiences that you've had in growing in this relationship with your brother and in your family, I feel that you hold so much --- a lot of responsibility --- and yet you hold it with so much grace and humility. And a strength. A quiet strength, I would say. I'm really inspired by that, and wondering, do you have other places where you pull your strength from?
You've shared that sometimes you're sitting at your office desk, thinking about what's going on in your brother`s life, and how sometimes it can make you "crack up," and other times you'll break down. But then you just roll with the punches and you have that faith from, maybe your intuition, to just keep going and keep connecting and moving forward on this path of compassion. Are there other places from which you pull your strength?
Aditi: I am so fortunate to have so many examples: everybody, whether it's my family, my parents and my sister, or my broader family --- I have this wonderful group of cousins --- or my close friends, who feel like family, or countless mentors, this entire Service Space community, all of the individual girls I had met like Bauvna, and all the people that I've met in India. There's a remarkable set of leadership at Anand's school. There's just so many people that I am so lucky to get to come across.
I think we all cultivate an environment around us, all of us who want to do this work, who try to be compassionate in the smaller moments and still fight for the big change in whatever fields we're in. I feel so lucky because I don't think I've ever really felt lost in that. I've always felt like I had a community of people who I can rely on. Sometimes it's still the case that certain things are more private or more individual. You have to work through them, but I feel like I've learned so much.
On the first day of graduate school, they asked us to write down on a little Post-It note the people who have inspired us to be where we are. That Post-It note is still in my wallet. There are just so many people that I feel so lucky to have in my life. All of us have that.
Bela: What's inspiring is when we come across people, like you, who have that memory of all we have --- of the people, the experiences, the wisdom that's been passed down to us, and honor that. And honor it by being the best that they can be in the world. I definitely think of you when I think of people like that. Thank you so much for being who you are, and giving us your time and your presence this morning, or this afternoon, or evening, depending on where the people are in the world.
I want to end with something that you said --- that there's no perfect path, but there's a compassionate path forward. And the conviction with which you take your steps along that compassionate path is a beautiful story for all of us to learn from and share with others.
How can Service Space support your journey where you are in your life right now?
Aditi: I know this is going to sound like I'm saying the same thing again and again, but I don't think I'd be who I was if it weren't for this ecosystem. You embody so many of the counter-ways of thinking about what's the norm ---the clarity that I might have about how progress, whether it's with Anand, or with the economic and gender justice work I care about, the fact that it's a fine balance, and figuring out what edge we're all working towards.
Thinking about the concept of edges, there are so many people in this community who have already given me so much. All I feel is gratitude for that. It's the same response as your question earlier, Bela, which is, There are so many people who teach us. This community has created a place where we can all, however crazy or idealistic or big or small our aspirations, we're all accepted and we all have each other to lean on when we're trying to push them forward further. I'm so lucky to be a part of it and to help bring others to it. I don't think I could ask for more than what exists right now, which is a really beautiful and quiet but powerful force.
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