January 31, 2010

An Agile Mind

Chase and I have started our own TED Talks where we watch one TED video a week and discuss it together on Skype. My choice for this week was the agile mind of Clifford Stoll who inspires me with his high level of intelligence but even more with his wisdom and humility. He has taken his values and applied them not only in the ivory tower where he teaches graduate students, but on main street when he teaches eighth grade students.

By far my favorite part of his talk is the end, when he gives us a glimpse into his past and into the way his mind works (which reminds me a lot of Chase in fact). His final quote is from the bell tower inscription which he reads while asking himself, “Why am I here?”

All truth is one. In this light may science and religion endeavor here for the steady evolution of mankind from darkness to light, from narrowness to broadmindedness, from prejudice to tolerance, it is the voice of life which calls us to come and learn.

We end each of our TED Talks with the chance to create our own TED Challenge. We decided together that the TED Challenge this week is for each of us to answer the question, "What is my purpose for my life?"

January 27, 2010

The Future of Peace Corps

I'm very interested and invested in the future of the Peace Corps. That future is being written by current and past Volunteers as well as by our present leadership in Peace Corps headquarters in Washington. Here are two documents that have been of particular interest to me recently:
  • All Hands Meeting (January 2010) 
    • A full staff meeting lead by our new Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams
    • Highlights an Office of Innovation that will seek out global best practices
    • Shows target of 10,000 Volunteers by 2011 and 12,000 by 2012
    • The readjustment allowance will be increased soon (probably within two years)
  • From Obama's Desk (Spring 2009) 
    • Transition Team Report on Peace Corps for President Obama
    • Great suggestions from an objective view on the Peace Corps agency
    • A fascinating look at how unique a government organization Peace Corps is

    I encourage others, especially Peace Corps Volunteers, to take a look at those documents to see an inside view of where our organization is going. It's a wonderful time to be part of Peace Corps and I look forward to helping any way out I can starting right here in our little town in eastern Mongolia.

    January 26, 2010


    The idea of happy and waiting might seem easy, until you have to do it. Learning this skill, this art, takes me to the edge of my sanity. Someone tells me something will happen at a certain time. I wait. The time comes. Nothing. I wait. One hour. Nothing. Two hours. Nothing. I get angry because I want something. I want something different than what I have and I get angry, upset, confused, and quite annoying to the people around me. I can say from personal experience that suffering and desire go hand in hand.

    But it makes sense doesn't it? Why the happiest people in the world aren't the ones with the most money. Or the biggest stuff. Or, more basically, the people who have gotten what they wanted the most times in a row. The happiest people seem to have very little. They don't have much and they don't want much. Buddha took it further and I want to as well. The point of life is not enjoying pleasure or avoiding pain. Both will come, you can't stop that. The point of life is not permanence or things that seem permanent like fame, power or wealth. They will go, you can't stop that. Happiness comes from somewhere else more fundamental. You can choose to be right where you are, appreciate it for what it is, fully accept it, and do your best. You can choose to love, to give, to hope, to do what you know is right, especially when it is hard.

    Ultimately it's up to you. I accept that. I know that whatever happens, I chose how I act. If I am unhappy, I can change what I am thinking, I can change what I am doing. The problem is not "out there." Out there is only an extension of "in here." When I get angry, upset, confused, and annoying to the people around me, I am trying harder and harder to remember that I can choose a different path. After all, it's annoying to me too.

    January 23, 2010

    Star Potter

    My brother, sister and I love the Harry Potter books. Before I left for Peace Corps we would read the books together late into the late, reading out loud in ridiculous voices until we fell asleep. Leighanna and Elias were particularly fond of my Dolores Umbridge impression. On one occasion our love of Harry Potter met our love to think up new crazy stuff, and this produced Star Potter. Here's what I can remember, hopefully Anna and Eli can continue the details of the saga...

    Bookisode 1  |  Star Potter and Yodadore's Secret Stash
    Star Potter meets up with Ron2-D2 and Princess Hermidala to train together at Hogoo's Academy of Spacecraft and Wizitry when they soon learn the legend of the deadly Vadermort who gave Star his star scar at the age of two and three-quarters. Here they meet Hagwoka and His Trading Post for Mystical Creatures, their Defense Against the Dark Space Professor Batman and His Trusty Sidekick Baskin Robbins, and their Headmaster Yodadore.

    Bookisode 2  |  Star Potter and The Return of the Questionable Constellation
    When all hope is lost and the stars align for the first time in 3000 years, the questionable constellation returns along with the elite Order of the Wizi who have been missing for centuries. In his second attempt to return to Dark Space Vadermort is trumped by Star Potter once again, and his newfound friend and henceforth knighted professor sidekick Sir Baskin Robbins moves up from a yellow wandsaber to a purple wandsaber. Dobwa, the spacecraft elf, also makes an appearance in this bookisode and warns Star Potter of the dangers of Deatharstarscaban.

    Bookisode 3 | Star Potter and The Prisoner of Deatharstarscaban
    Coming soon (right Anna?)...

    January 20, 2010

    A Talk with Tunga's Father

    After preparing dinner with Tunga last night for her family, she and I had a chance to sit down alone with her father. There have been a lot of questions I've wanted to ask him, but I started with this one: what has it been like in your lifetime to see all of the changes that have come to pass in Mongolia?

    Two hours later I understood almost everything he said, though I didn't stop Tunga when she wanted to translate a part or two. He spoke of his time as a soldier and the huge factories in our city which employed hundreds and thousands of workers. Everyone having a job, everyone having a home, everyone being the same as everyone else. There were no rich people and there were no poor people. The grass was greener, the snow was whiter, the friendships were more genuine and people were good, they didn't do bad. For the first 31 years of his life, these were the socialist times in which he and his family lived. When things changed, everything changed. The Russians left. The free market came. Factories closed. No one had jobs. For the first time in a long time, people were poor. Democracy came. Without directors, people could choose to be bad. They did. Alcoholism increased. Crime increased. Growth was slow. Decades slow. As I asked about jobs, it became clear that both he and his wife went for years without steady jobs like they used to have. When I used to think about unemployment I thought of months, not years.

    We pause for a long time after finishing our bowls of food. Holding the hot bowl of milk tea feels wonderful in my hands during winter. Toggling the volume down on the television to the lowest level he decides to continue the conversation. "We needed this," he says, "Democracy." I ask why. I grew up in America and always took it for granted. I grew up seeing the red flag of communism as the enemy flag of every combat video game I ever played and in fact, somehow I even pictured the hammer and sickle as weapons. But in the last two years I have changed my view almost completely, seeing the motivation behind wanting everyone to have food on their plates and roofs over their heads, the possibility of having responsible and caring people leading a group of people to do good work and build a strong nation. Just like the picture he painted in front of me for two hours, I saw how beautiful socialism can be. "Freedom," he responded. He never liked the Socialist Party that was in charge years ago, he says. He really didn't like them. And there was nothing he could do about it. The directors of the factories, the people who went to universities, the people making all the decisions were all chosen from within. Everyone was treated equally and these people saw to it. It has been hard to change, but he is glad his country is now a democracy with a free market. After almost three hours of sharing his thoughts and telling Tunga and I about his life, he looks at me directly and asks, "What do you think we should do?"

    I think to myself about everything I know, everything I've seen, and everything I hope for this country. More importantly, to answer his question, I think about their family. As he so beautifully illustrated, in a democracy people have the freedom to do good or do bad. And those individual decisions eventually drive the country from the bottom up. I tell him I think the best thing we can do is do good ourselves, starting in our community with our projects including the small neighborhood grocery store we are hoping to build for he and his wife to run. The beautiful thing about the free market, especially driven by socially conscious enterprises, is that you can be your own boss. I tell him that I think he and his wife would make great bosses and they could really improve the lives of their employees. Tunga asks if they ever had private enterprises in the socialist period. Never, he said. He smiles to me and says he's ready to get started. I tell him I am too.

    January 18, 2010


    "I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it. Thomas Jefferson

    Consistency is key in life. In fitness, in projects, in raising children, in character, in leadership, in learning a new language, in sports, in everything. It doesn't matter how fancy things look one day a week, it's every day that matters. Do you workout once a week like crazy or exercise every day? Do you play basketball like crazy right before a tournament or do you practice every day? Excellence is not an act, it is a lifestyle. It isn't reasonable to expect greatness after a little work. It's craziness for me to think I can achieve any greatness in way except little by little, day by day, every day. My Peace Corps experience has demonstrated that to me like nothing else in my life.

    I have to expect the same thing from myself as I do my students and my colleagues, daily effort in meaningful work. That is how projects get done, how Tunga is learning English, how I am completing work: stitch by stitch, word by word and activity after activity. There is no magic and no luck to it, success will come to those who work hardest for it often behind the scenes when no one is looking.

    January 15, 2010

    Jim on "Change Yourself. Change Your World."

    Travis, who started the Advance Humanity Foundation, asked me to write something about encouraging people to "Change yourself. Change your world." You see, in 1996, I decided to hike the 2160-mile Appalachian Trail, which was the farthest thing from my life at that time. I was starting a new career as a Physical Therapist, the family was encouraging me to get married soon, I was even thinking of buying a house. But one day, for some unknown reason, I picked up a book called 'Walking the Appalachian Trail' by Larry Luxenburg, which wasn't really about hiking the trail at all, but about the people who walk the whole thing in one 6-month hike called 'thruhikers'. I'd been a Boy Scout and even backpacked in Kenya, but I'd left those adventures behind over ten years in the past. I didn't even own a backpack.

    On August 16th, 1998, I hiked the last few miles to the top of Mount Katahdin, the end of the Appalachian Trail. I hiked 157 days, over 70 of those days with rain, and up and down almost 5000' every day with a 40-lb backpack. At the end I was thin but wiry tough with a full Santa Claus beard. Only 1 out of 10 hikers complete the trek every year, it's that tough. I loved it all, despite all the hardship and pain. My only regret is that it ended too soon.

    I won't write about the hike itself. You can read about it if you want. In some ways it doesn't even come close to what it was really like. I guess you have to experience it yourself to really know. But what I can tell you is how something like that can affect you, your view of yourself and the world around you.

    I can't say for certain how much it changed me, I always had felt like a round peg being forced into a square hole, but I know it opened my eyes. You see, up to that point, I saw the world through the eyes of my parents, by siblings, my teachers, my church leaders, my community. But walking through the woods day after day, your eyes begin to see things differently, maybe really seeing life as it really was for the first time. I was just too exhausted to make-up a 'story' of who I was. After the first few weeks, everytime you meet another thruhiker, it was a breath of fresh air, the bare honesty we showed each other. It just wasn't worth the energy to try to be something you weren't, or someone you thought you should be. You just were.

    And since returning back to the 'real world' of jobs, family and community, I can tell you there aren't many people out there who will bare their soul and show you who they really are. But once you've experienced something like this, you can't unlearn it. You know it's possible, even crucial to work toward that goal.

    I'm not married, I don't have any children, I don't own a home, my bank account is empty, and I've lost all my hair. Ha! But in my own mind, I see how wealthy I really am - I have my health, my family, my friends, my experiences, all priceless. And the 'adventure' I undertook over ten years ago has led me down another path, much different than any I knew. Maybe it's more difficult but I also think richer.

    As rich as I know I am, I now give to others - the most precious thing I own, my time. I am currently a volunteer English teacher in Mongolia. I pour every ounce of energy I have into it because I know how much the students really need this. I'm not a teacher, I don't have much training, but I do have heart and passion so that seems enough.

    In the end, the only person you can change, is yourself. But by changing yourself, you will change the world because we are all connected. Just ask my students in Mongolia.

    This is a series of talks, sponsored by the Advance Humanity Foundation, 
    given by people around the world who are changing themselves and changing the world.

    Jim Damico currently teaches English at the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition of Buddhism in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. To learn more about Jim, visit wanderingtheworld.com.

    The Advance Humanity Foundation is dedicated to recognizing and encouraging greatness in people and organizations around the world. World peace is achievable when we attain inner peace within ourselves. Change yourself. Change your world. To learn more, visit advancehumanity.com.

    January 12, 2010

    Change Yourself. Change Your World.

    "It is not enough to be compassionate. You must act. There are two aspects to action. One is to overcome the distortions and afflictions of your own mind, that is, in terms of calming and eventually dispelling anger. This is action out of compassion. The other is more social, more public. When something needs to be done in the world to rectify the wrongs, if one is really concerned with benefiting others, one needs to be engaged, involved." The Dalai Lama

    This beautifully explains the motto of the Advance Humanity Foundation: Change yourself. Change your world. As we are developing our organization we are organizing our activities around helping people change themselves through inspiration and personal growth and then change the world through projects and donating their energy and resources to good causes. I think that's what's so attractive about sayings like, "Become the change you seek in the world," it is easy to understand and apply to our lives. Starting right this moment.

    To learn more visit AdvanceHumanity.com.

    January 9, 2010

    Published This Year

    One of my dreams this year is to finish writing the Unofficial Peace Corps Volunteer Handbook. I have been writing for 3 years, covering everything from the application, to training, to making the most of your service. To my knowledge this would be the first book on Peace Corps which helps a Volunteer by answering questions and sharing advice throughout the entire process of service. I read and enjoyed "So You Want to Join the Peace Corps" but this handbook goes beyond an interest in Peace Corps, discussing the challenges that we all face as Volunteers and the lessons we've learned so that not everyone has to learn them the hard way.

    I am fortunate to have a talented and wise team of people around me, including some of my best friends and the best Volunteers that I know, to share their advice and experiences. I'm not sure what the future of this handbook will be, it might make it's way into the Invitation packets or the digital shelves of Amazon.com, but whatever the case the goal will always be helping Peace Corps Volunteers to have a happier and more successful experience starting right from the very beginning. I am very excited and look forward to writing the next 10,000 words this year.

    January 7, 2010


    When someone asks you to tell them about an incredible experience in your life, that can be hard enough. But what about when someone asks you to show them? How do you quantify an unquantifiable experience? Some people write books, make movies, take pictures, or write music. With our newest project we are taking a different approach, one that's been around for a long time. We make badges.

    All the way to Eagle Scout, badges played a significant part in my life as a Boy Scout. Nothing could sum up my entire Scouting experience, but badges represent my struggle, experience and achievement like nothing else. My Eagle Scout badge is one of the few things that I brought with me to Peace Corps, in fact. It reminds me of the honor and responsibility that comes with my experiences.

    That has been my continuing motivation behind Peace Corps Merit Badges, sharing valuable reminders that represent incredible experiences. The Peace Corps experience is something of great honor and responsibility and something, like my Eagle Scout badge, that I want to carry with my for the rest of my life.

    January 3, 2010


    Things in life can get difficult. Experiences. Changes. Surprises. Difficulties. But when I wonder how things could be better, I always realize that things are very, very good. No matter what. No matter how bad things get, my life is still very, very good. My work. Friends. Surroundings. Hobbies. Free Time. Relationship. Love. So good in fact that when I consider even one of these good things by themselves, just one of my close friends for instance, I realize just having that one person with me makes my life incredible. I choose to be positive about my life, through all of its ups and downs, because I have thought out the alternatives, considered other paths, and realized that things right now are way better that I could have ever predicted or (more importantly) could have ever planned out. Every moment seems to bring something incredible into my life and the more I choose to see those moments as opportunities the more I enjoy them.

    January 1, 2010


    We can spend our lives trying to be what others expect of us, but that’s not us. We are something greater than even we know. I believe I am meant to discover my world and give myself to it. I am definitely still discovering my world, but I do know that the more I listen to a quiet sense inside me the more it points me to toward working for world peace. I don’t think the time for renaissance men, for Thomas Jeffersons, Benjamin Franklins, Buddhas, Dalai Lamas, and Mahatma Gandhis, has passed us by. I think it is time for a new generation of men and women to take all of our incredible innovations and amazing opportunities and use them to help us all live happy and healthy lives. We need to work together, all of us, at a common level. This year I want my theme to be greatness, living my greatest life in the greatest service to others, to our world.