An international school in India with a message for the world

I spent seven years of my life right here in Woodstock School, Mussoorie, India.

To my mind, this is truly one of the most beautiful places on earth, 7000 ft up in the Himalayas. But actually that's not the most important thing about it.  I was invited back there this past week to give a speech to the students, and had a chance to say something I'd wanted to say for years. I told them this:


The last time I was in this hall was in 1970 when I was in the 8th grade.  And if you could zoom a camera back through time to that seat right there,  you would have seen a shy, geeky, overweight kid wearing badly-fitting clothes and spending an unhealthy amount of time bemoaning the fact that none of the cute girls would go out with him. 

But if you could have somehow continued to zoom the camera right inside the head of that 8th grader you'd have seen something strage. You'd see that something subtle had happened to his brain, something that was directly attributable to his experience of being at Woodstock, something that would profoundly shape his future. And I'm not talking about Math or Social Studies.  I'm talking about something that few of the world's children get to experience.

Most kids grow up with people who, by and large, are like them. Same town, same country, same color, same income level, same cultural assumptions.   At Woodstock... not so much. When you first come here, it's a jolt, isn't it? Admittedly it's one of the world's most beautiful places, but you have to mix with kids from what, 25 countries? And some of them seem downright weird.  But then over the months and years, you get to know each other. You learn their stories, they learn yours... and without even really thinking about it, you learn that those superficial differences of race, nationality, color really don't matter that much. We're all just people. We all laugh, we all cry, we all love, we all bleed.  

Now tragically that way of thinking puts you in a small minority of earth's people. After you've been here a while it seems strange anyone could think any other way. But they do. When I went back to England for a year aged 8 I was baffled when they beat me up for being born in Pakistan.   I didn't get how anyone could be so prejudiced. But actually most people are. And it's not because they're evil. It's because they're human.

Psychologists think that there are distinct brain circuits that drive two very different modes of thought in regards to other people. We can treat them empathetically as humans we identify with, where the watchwords are: respect, kindness, compassion ...or as outsiders who we view as 'other' where the watchwords are fear, intolerance and disdain.  The first category are granted moral consideration, the latter are threats to be dealt with.  Now these two modes of thought are present in every human and depending which one is active, people will behave very differently.  

It is of crucial importance to the world's future as to which mode of thought becomes dominant.  Here's the thing. The difference between them is not hardwired. It's possible for a child to learn to gradually expand the circle of people she or he can identify with. It might start with just family and friends, but gradually it can extend to the local village, or town or country or race or religiion, or even, just maybe beyond that to the entire human family.  

There are probably many things that can cause this change, and finding out what they are might just be the most important educational research agenda there is.  But I'm certain of this: that one of the most profound and lasting impacts of a Woodstock education is indeed a dramatically extended circle of empathy.  You come to think of the world differently from many others. You love your friends who look so different from you.  You're appalled when you hear people mouthing ignorant, offensive generalities about other races or religions. 

Now in the past, this has often caused Woodstock students problems. They returned to their countries and found themselves the odd ones out. They struggled to connect with the values and assumptions of their peers. I did. Some of my classmates did.  But I think that's changing.  Here's why. The world is getting ever more inter-connected.  Driven by the Internet, telecommunication in the 21st century doesn't know any borders. Neither does trade. Neither does terrorism. Neither does the atmosphere.   It's becoming ever more obvious that all of our main problems ... and also all of our opportunities... can only be tackled by people taking a global perspective. 

In the future, those who use the language of fear and ignorance to stigmatize others will be increasingly regarded as backward, small-thinkers. The future belongs to global souls. To people like you. Because the true global souls are those who don't just talk it... they feel it. They know in their core that the only concept of "WE" that matters is the one that includes everyone.

Look, I don't just mean all this in a kumbaya knd of way. This is real and because of where the world's heading, it's actually going to help you in life.

Certainly, the Woodstock-inspired global soul instinct has been very good to me. When my life in England started feeling too small and I felt America calling... that was Woodstock. It opened doors of opportunity I could never otherwise have discovered.  When I took over the TED conference and decided, with my team, that the content was so good it had to be shared freely with the world... that was Woodstock. It turned out beautifully with millions around the world now participating in an event that had been closed.  And when just this year we started giving permission to people around the world to organize their own TED events so that already in year one 40,000 people in 50 countries have met locally to celebrate the power of ideas... that was Woodstock.

I owe this place an extraordinary debt of gratitude.  And whether or not you feel it right here right now, I promise you, you will too.

So that's my message. Think long and hard about this amazing gift you're receiving here. Without really trying, you are becoming a global soul. A child of the future. Cherish that. Be thrilled by it.  You and your classmates are on the winning side here. The world's ready for you. It needs you. Good luck.