Friday night my children and I had the pleasure to hear Greg Mortenson speak at the St. Louis County Library. Mortenson is a humanitarian and advocate for children’s education in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is the author of “Three Cups of Tea” and “Stones to Schools“, two books about his life’s work to promote peace through education.
These books and Mortenson’s work illustrate how one person can make a profound difference in the world. Mortenson’s organization, the Central Asia Institute (CAI), has built over 130 schools in remote villages. He states that the best way to lift these regions out of war and poverty is to educate children, especially the girls. Girls have a network effect on education since they are more likely to read to their mothers and to educate their children.
His work leverages a village’s community to collaboratively build a school, and to teach a curriculum that is meant to educate, not indoctrinate, the children. This lifts them out of poverty and ignorance by giving them the ability learn something other than hate and war. One of my favorite stories was about how a school was brought to a Taliban stronghold in Oruzgan Province in south-central Afghanistan. When visiting another project with Mortenson, the Afghan clerics immediately gravitated to the playground to swing like children. In that moment, the area’s leaders returned to their childhood and were immediately supportive of having a school built in their community. They hoped that their children would grow up with the ability to play and to be educated instead of learning war and to hate.
The picture Mortenson showed of these war-hardened men swinging on the playground will stick with me as a symbol of how anyone is capable of transformation, and that transformation happens in an instant. It may have taken Mortenson years to get to that point, and the acts that follow are by no means complete, but these men transformed the moment they sat on the swings.
Mortenson’s books have many life lessons in them, but one that I think can help all of us is the core lesson from “Three Cups of Tea” about building relationships and the way relationships are formed by having tea with someone:
- The first time you have tea you are a stranger
- The second time you have tea you are an honored guest
- The third time you have tea you are family, and for family we are prepared to do anything
As testament to Mortenson’s impact in the region, his message was reshaped into the following guidance from General Petraeus to US troops:
- Listen more
- Build relationships
No matter what you do, to get to a moment of transformation you need to build relationships. We are all in the business of building relationships, and Mortenson’s lessons can improve your impact.