Colleen Waterston – Big Shared World
Literal Shyft was honored to sit down over Skype with Colleen Waterston of Big Shared World. Over the course of 15 months, Colleen traveled to 40 countries, and met with over 700 people, in order to ask them all the same three questions about their values, thoughts on global threats, and vision for the world. Here, she shares the inspiration behind her journey, the lessons learned along the way, and what comes next.
LS: Colleen, thank you so very much for sharing your story with our readers! Let’s start with the basics. Tell us about your journey, and how the inspiration came to you!
Colleen: It’s interesting to think back to the original days when this idea came to me. It was a combination of things that led me to embark on the Big Shared World journey, from thinking of the concept, to the ability to actually do it. I think there are a lot of wanderlusts out there who desire to take on a big travel project of some sort. There are so many reasons we don’t do “big things”…maybe we feel it is frivolous somehow, or we struggle to find the courage, or simply don’t have the resources.
I realize that I was uniquely situated to dream this and go for it. My background was in studying international development. I was living in Washington DC after I finished graduate school. I was participating in the marketing of a film on social entrepreneurship, and also working as a consultant in corporate sustainability. As a result of these positions, I was seeing firsthand just how many complicated challenges our world is facing today.
I started to realize that we are living in a critical time with critical problems, but that these problems were shared problems, worldwide problems, borderless problems. There wasn’t one company, one country, one organization, that could solve these problems. But because the world feels so big, we as citizens often feel that the problem, and the solution, is somewhere “out there.”
In my spare time, I had been working on writing a book about being a millennial today. Most people in my personal and professional circles knew of this side project. One day a friend and I were talking about some of the neat interactions I’ve had on airplanes. My mom worked for an airline and I had discounted flight benefits, so I traveled more than most. Knowing I was working on a book, the friend suggested I write a book about the people I meet while traveling. I thought it was interesting, but suggested that it’d be even better if I asked everyone the same three questions along the way. I felt an immediate connection to the idea. Almost as soon as it crossed my mind, it felt certain that I would do it.
Five weeks later I moved home to Minnesota, and made the preparations to go. The initial goal was three questions, three months, thirty countries, three hundred people. That eventually evolved into fifteen months, forty countries and over seven hundred people! So I underestimated myself –it took much more time than I expected, but I also talked to many more people than I ever set out to!
I traveled to six continents, and generally planned at least seven to eight days at a time. I tried to allow for “planned spontaneity” in a sense. I learned the true definition of exhausted along the way, but I always felt overwhelmingly grateful to be in the situation that I was in. Even on a tiring day where nothing seemed to be going quite “right”, I knew that a tough day was temporary and I was privileged to be experiencing it all.
LS: What were the three questions? Were people open to answering them?
Colleen: So the three questions are as follows. First, what does a good life mean to you? Second, in your opinion, what is the biggest threat to humanity today? And third, what do you think the world will be like fifty years from now?
I really am proud of those questions. After I had the idea, I met with so many friends, family, and colleagues to get their input on what questions to ask. Once I had the idea, it was my sole focus – designing the right questions to prompt robust conversations about peoples’ values and thoughts on our world today. And it was very important to me that anyone could answer them – from a young boy living on a remote sacred island in Peru, to a tech entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. I was very pleased that the questions held their meaning, and still do today.
It was much easier than I thought to find people to answer the questions. I looked for people who looked like they might want to talk, or seemed to be idle and have a little time on their hands. I approached a lot of people in public parks, or asked friends of friends in a new place to have lunch or coffee, or asked my Airbnb hosts and other service providers. Many were strangers, and some were via introduction, or via another person or family I had previously met in my travels, or through social media. Psychologists have a method called “snowball sampling” when researchers have their study participants refer the next batch, like a snowball that gathers more snow as it rolls. I engaged in what I like to call “snowball networking,” where I would constantly be asking people who I was meeting to refer me to someone else.
I remember for example being on a train with three business men from Saudi Arabia. We never otherwise would have had the opportunity to meet or talk to one another. We shared this beautiful conversation during our several hour train ride where they answered the questions, as the one with the best English served as the group translator. Then they asked me to share my answers to the questions and several other thoughtful questions they had about my travels. They were a bit stunned that a young woman like myself would prefer to do this independent travel project, rather than settle down and start a family or more traditional career. It was not with judgment, but curiosity, that we learned more about each other and had a unique experience that the questions and nature of my travel project allowed.
Overall, I found that people were craving the opportunity for conversation. I think the youngest person who answered my questions was seven years old, and the oldest was eighty-one! I am still analyzing my data.
LS: Did you have a favorite place or experience?
Colleen: Goodness, there were so many. If I close my eyes and meditate on that question, the first image that comes to mind is that of a middle aged father who I met in Peru, on a vacation with his daughter from Chile. We talked on the train ride back from Machu Picchu to Cusco. He was so thoughtful in the way he thanked me for asking him the questions, and I felt truly grateful in turn for meeting him. It was this unexpected gratitude that felt profound to me. A day that was a highlight involved a ten hour guided bike tour in Bangkok, Thailand and spontaneously coming across a Buddhist summer camp where the monks in charge shared juice boxes with us as they answered the questions and discussed the project. I just couldn’t have planned that experience. Such sweet moments, and so many beautiful people. The book will share so many more of these experiences and interactions.
LS: Were there specific challenges you dealt with along the way?
Colleen: Overall, I tried to be pretty smart about how I traveled. After all, I was a young woman traveling alone. In general, I tried not to visit places where my asking questions of a complete stranger would be perceived as threatening. I did my traveling and talking during daylight hours, and then would return to wherever I was staying at night to plan out the next day. I rarely drank any alcohol because I wanted to have my faculties about me. So overall, I just tried to make decisions that kept me safe and out of dangerous situations.
I think we often build this story about “the rest of the world”, and our fears make the world seem like it is a scary place, better to avoid than interact with. But we cannot reverse globalization. We live in a global world, and I feel like as millennials, we are the first global generation. In a sense, we have two identities, the identities that we came from, and this newer, broader identity. It feels like there is almost an “older” way and a “newer” way, and transition times can lead to fear too. We are fearful to let our borders down, level the playing field, and let others in. Understanding the deeper challenges that openness brings to our global society was always a driving force of my project. It wasn’t so much a physical challenge, but an intellectual one that I set out to grapple with.
LS: What are some of the most important lessons you took away?
Colleen: My hypothesis when I left was that the issues we deal with in this world are ultimately human issues. And we are imperfect humans, doing our best, and it is these same imperfect humans that go on to become leaders of organizations and countries. We personify things instead of humanize them. Just in the same way we try to honor complexity and differences in our friends and family, we need to do that “out there” in the world. Otherwise we do ourselves and others a disservice. Ultimately, the same reason we build up borders and walls within our own families, echoes why countries don’t get along in a lot of instances.
I think this journey, asking these questions, has also made me better in my own interpersonal relationships. I am a better listener. I am more likely to listen and be open to others, rather than lead with my own thoughts and opinions. I also feel like I believe in myself more, and feel like I can give myself permission to do “big” things, or to be open to the signs along the way that are guiding me towards what I was meant to do.
My trip would have been a lot easier not to do. Even now it can feel overwhelming to put it all together in a meaningful way. I had a spiritual moment in meditation recently, where I had the experience of meeting my future self. It was a very powerful moment, and she was grateful for me now, making the decision to make this trip happen, and managing the ambiguity of this transition between the journey and what’s next. Now I have to pay it forward in a sense, as I come full circle. I received so much richness, and in turn, I want to share those stories with the world.
LS: What comes next?
Colleen: I feel strongly about wanting to honor my journey, and the strangers that so generously shared their time with me. I am in the process of developing my website further to share photographs, stories, and resources for people who want to learn more. I want to help expose global issues in a way where individuals can discover what they feel most passionate about, and use the website as a tool to help navigate how to take the next steps. I am also in the process of writing a book about my trip, the experience of asking these questions, and what I learned and received in return. I am analyzing all of my data that I collected as I write as well. And I have some planned speaking engagements. But most of all, I don’t want to wrap up Big Shared World, I want it to continue to grow and evolve into what it was meant to be…an opportunity to build a global community through conversation.
I think about how, in this election season, we can feel so easily disheartened. How we can create a story and get riled up about the “Other.” Now, based on my experiences, the “Other” is no longer so foreign to me. There are certainly situations that are deeply complicated, and I am not naïve to the tensions of the world. I just want all of us to be open to engaging with one another so that we can start talking about the issues that impact all of us.
To learn more about Colleen Waterston and the Big Shared World project, please visit her website at www.bigsharedworld.com.