slums-mumbai-250x250It’s January, when we often launch the year with goals and aspirations.  If you’re like me, you took time over the holidays to sit quietly or meditate, reflect on the year that was ending, and dream about what you wanted for the year ahead.

(Hopefully avoiding the dreaded and defeat-inviting term: resolution.)

After the New Year, I industriously started on my goals – by myself.

Like many in the western world, I fall for the illusion that bold, creative, courageous people like you and me (or your local entrepreneur, celebrity, star achiever) can achieve big things by doing them alone.

So we focus on improving ourselves as individuals. India has shifted how I think about things.

The power of eco-systems

Last month, on business in India, I was overwhelmed by the crowds – and inspired by how people make things work despite the congestion.

One evening, stuck in one of suburban Delhi’s interminable rush hour commutes, I gazed through the melée of cars, buses, trucks, taxis, bicyles, and tuk-tuks and saw a shanty town. It didn’t make sense.

I was in Gurgaon – a new city. And what I was looking at was a new slum.

I had assumed that slums, like the caste system, were relics of a distant past that would soon be gone.

Then the light bulb went on: slums are a vital part of that city’s eco-system.

Building and maintaining all those high-rise buildings in Gurgaon requires workers. But many of the people who build and service those apartments and corporate headquarters can’t afford decent housing. So, a stone’s throw from luxury apartments and condominiums you can find temporary, thrown-together housing – slums. The high-rises need slums and vice verse. That’s an eco-system.

Slums aren’t an aberration – they’re affordable housing in cities growing way too fast for adequate planning.

Many of the shanty dwellings had satellite dishes perched on top of their makeshift metal roofs. Every morning in Mumbai, office workers in suits come out of the slums along with construction workers, garbage collectors, street cleaners, service workers and many, many others.

Dog at Dhobi Ghat: Mumbai, India's Laundry SlumWithin the slums, there are intricate, self-organizing systems.  Yes, there’s also violence, prostitution, poverty, abuse, disease, and other very difficult stuff. But now research sociologists and economists are studying the ways in which the slums illustrate how cultural and economic systems evolve to help people survive.

And that left me thinking: along with promoting individual initiative why don’t we create collaborative eco-systems that reinforce and support our good intentions?

My podcast and its eco-system

My podcast is tough to do alone. Keeping up a regular schedule of episodes requires a lot of on-going energy – and then there are those stop-me-in-my-tracks technical questions that stretch me beyond my competencies. (I’ve heard that many podcasts stop after only a few months when their producers discover that it’s all too much.)

This, however, is an area where I have an eco-system of built-in support: two podcasting courses, two podcasting communities, a coach, and a tribe of podcast-ophiles including, thankfully, some tech-savvy folks. Within this tribe, I make requests and provide support whenever my humbling experiences are useful.

Eco-systems include both living systems and inanimate objects and my shiny new mics also help to keep me motivated.

But just as important to my motivation are the listeners whom I want to serve. They reinforce my desire to keep going. So despite being a little tired of spending too many weekends glued to the computer, I keep going.

When the wrong eco-system can work against you.

Many years ago, I coached Molly, a client, great Mom and skilled engineer, on her goal of losing weight. She described her set up at home: cupboards full of high-carb, high-fat, high-calorie products and lots of junk food, all chosen for her growing soccer-star teenage sons. Molly believed that despite her full time, and sometimes exhausting job, she needed to cook all meals for sons and husband. She never asked for help. She never considered bringing in different foods.

Her system was weighted against her.

She tried to change her behavior without changing the system. Not surprisingly, she never lost weight.

My year of collaboration

I’m declaring this my year of collaboration, and I’m looking forward to teaching courses with colleagues, dreaming up collaborative projects, using my great V.A. (virtual assistant), and finding some activities to build more connections with my professional communities.

No more Ms. Lone Ranger.

And maybe I can apply this idea to a goal where I’m lagging: to walk and exercise more.  Tonight, once again, I’m working late, as a cold wet blanket of darkness descends on our fields. Once again my work habits didn’t support my desired walk.

Time to think about collaboration and creating a supportive environment. I could schedule more walks with friends. Ask for help hooking up my bike to an indoor trainer so I can pedal in winter. Buy an app that will blare across my screen “get off your butt now or you die”.  And create more walk-dates with my husband, now recovered from last summer’s hip surgery.

Forget will-power (unless it works for you).  I need to design a better eco-system.