By Theodore Pang (2013 Byron Fellow)
(This piece is adapted from a commentary to the University College London (UCL) Teaching and Learning Portal, at http://www.ucl.ac.uk/teaching-learning/news/student-perspective-sustainable-development-byron-fellowship)
So, what is the Byron experience really about? As the application season for the Byron Fellowship is underway, I thought it would be an opportune moment to share this piece to pique interest and shed more light on the programme, having been through it just last year (2013). Join me as I share with you what my Byron experience was about.
I was immensely elated to receive my acceptance email to attend the 2013 Byron Fellowship. This is a one week interdisciplinary programme in leadership and sustainable community development, held in Indiana, USA (and now, in North Carolina too). Because of my career interest in realizing possibilities at the intersection of entrepreneurial action and community development, the programme seemed like the perfect next step for me before I officially left University College London (UCL) as an undergraduate. Indeed, it proved to be a most inspiring journey which exceeded my expectations due to the personal growth I experienced over the mere six days, and also owing to the strong network of friendships formed on the programme.
Right from the outset, our facilitators cracked the myth that sustainable development is all about cutting down (or being caught up in) an emissions blame game and we were exposed to nuggets from applied positive psychology. Specifically, we learned that language matters in inspiring change – try saying “don’t think of a pink elephant”, and chances are your listeners will already have pictured a pink elephant in their minds! To achieve the same objective we could say instead, “think of a scrumptious, fragrant, warm s’more”. This illustrates how affirming positives is more powerful than negating negatives. Instead of channeling our attention toward mitigating the negatives (which perpetuates tradeoffs within a broader status quo), we could focus on creating positive outcomes for the world (which transforms the status quo). We learned that humans adopt a fight-or-flight response under stressful conditions, which is useful for dealing with more simple threats, but this has been shown to limit creativity and network-building. On the other hand, having a positive sense of being, characterized by the positive framing of language and thought, facilitates both lateral thinking and collaboration, which in turn allow us to spot new opportunities to do things better. And because of this, I believe the term “sustainable development” does not do justice to the programme – a more representative term is “interconnected flourishing”.
Nature, if you pardon the pun, naturally featured prominently on the agenda. The Fellowship was held in Turkey Run State Park, a place of rustic beauty in Indiana. By the end of the programme, we had visited a modern commercial farm, an Amish farm and a lakeside eco-village, as well as enjoyed treks into epic landscapes such as an ancient glacial valley and a creek of rare fossils! Through innovative and engaging learning journeys while being immersed in the heart of all that natural scenery, we got to appreciate the interconnectedness between humans and nature beyond a mere academic level. This set the stage for broader reflection into themes of human action and sustainable living. We had facilitators and guest speakers contribute to this conversation over the week, many of whom came from professions with significant environmental influence. Among several others, there were a retired chemical engineer from the oil and gas sector, sustainability consultants, the founder of a private homebuilding business and the Indiana head of The Nature Conservancy. We got the opportunity to engage with them on a personal level and find out about their challenges, as well as how they found ways to use their professional expertise to create positive environmental impact. We also had (amid even more great scenery, of course) the opportunity to engage in vision-crafting exercises – platforms to introspect, distill a vision of a better world and share openly our individual visions.
Yet, we covered much more than just environmental flourishing. In keeping with the idea of “interconnected flourishing”, the programme had a big focus on interpersonal relationships, a social flourishing. Again, there was a dazzling array of facilitators to support these sessions. We had a former McKinsey consultant turned life coach, the founder of an innovative education company which teaches science via experiential learning, an architect and a legendary jazz pianist for this. Much time was dedicated to sessions in personal development – covering conflict management, open communication and creative expression. These sessions, especially ones in poetry, painting with watercolour, spontaneous movement and physical theatre, added much colour to the programme and gave sharp focus to the idea of flourishing as being a holistic concept encompassing the health of both natural and human communities. I appreciated that we had informal case studies to put these new skills to the test, concerning topics like Amish community practices, exclusive communities and spaces for creativity and play.
The idea of vocation – one’s chosen domain of expertise – was also much discussed. Many of us were graduating students so it was apt that the facilitators had us build our visions and be mindful to pursue our vocation with intention (and not drift with the tide). Personally, I found resonance with Howard Thurman’s quote, which stood as a node of reflection in Byron: “Ask not what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive.”
And with that, I urge future applicants to consider what makes you come alive. It could be championing renewable energy that is “clean, green and mean”, it could be string theory or it could even be understanding amygdala hijacks – anything goes as Byron is a diverse community! But take some time to think it through and talk it out, and consider how you can align your vocation with interconnected flourishing – go beyond mere profit and loss and explore how you can contribute to something bigger.
Then be mindful, have a positive sense of being and go about making it a reality.
Theodore Pang is currently involved with the Cambridge Development Initiative, a student-driven initiative aimed at improving opportunities in Tanzanian slums, starting this summer. Explore their projects at http://bit.ly/O3T17f – donations are highly welcome and go a long way as they are matched by two UK-based trusts. Theodore is thankful to the wonderful Byron course facilitators and generous sponsor, for UCL’s strong support in making it possible for him to attend the Fellowship, to the amazing fellow Fellows and of course, for s’mores – the embodiment of warm American hospitality.