08/20/2013 11:51 am ET Updated Oct 20, 2013

The Farther We Journey, the Closer We Come to Our Authentic Selves: Reflections on the Millennial Train

The inaugural Millennial Trains Project journey has come to an end (for an overview of this initiative and City Year's involvement, check out previous posts here and here). There is no way to capture the fullness of this experiential feast for the eyes, mind, heart, and soul in just a few words, but I can offer a few initial reflections.

First, if I had to come up with my own personal tagline for the trip, it would be "Magic Through Paradox." Although it's not a word I use all that often, I found myself using the term "magical" on a daily basis on the train. This was an utterly unique and enchanting adventure unlike anything else I've experienced, full of moments sublime and unforgettable. And at the heart of each of those moments was paradox. We were a group of 24 young change makers exploring cutting-edge 21st century frontiers like data and open governance, food security, climate change, energy innovation, and technology incubation... but we were doing so on a renovated deluxe 1950s train that continually evoked the sense that we had traveled back to an era before the invention of color TV (to say nothing of the internet, wireless devices, and Twitter). The gorgeous landscapes sliding past our windows were a constant reminder that we were speeding across the nation, but on board the train we experienced a palpable sense of stillness and calm. The entire trip lasted just 10 days, with mere hours to spend at each stop along the way, but the constant experience on the train was of living in a luxurious oasis of time, with nothing to do but connect with on-train mentors, chat with colleagues, and savor the stunning views.

Retro innovation. High-speed stillness. Time-bound eternity. Every moment on the train was alive with these sorts of paradoxes, and the experience was the exact opposite of jarring. It was a constant, moment-to-moment delight that is best evoked through the term "magical." On an hourly basis, I felt compelled to stop what I was doing, drink in the experience, and whisper quietly to myself: Wow.

As an organization committed to developing future leaders, City Year was involved to help unleash the transformational power of another paradox of the trip: The dual outer and inner nature of any journey. At the very first training in San Francisco, we invited all the participants to stay present to the paradoxical truth that the farther away we journey from our familiar, comfortable homes, the more we learn about our most essential, authentic selves. Every day, Pioneers spent an hour engaged in the Pioneer's Journey curriculum (an adapted version of City Year's Idealist's Journey curriculum); in this small group reflection experience, Pioneers were invited to turn away from the beautiful views and the powerful presentations by a steady stream of uber-accomplished on-train mentors... and look inwards. And sure enough, as the miles travelled accumulated, the conversations went deeper and deeper into the authentic struggles, challenges, questions, and truths of the Pioneers.

The introduction to the Pioneer's Journey curriculum includes the following statement:

Over the course of this trip, we will all encounter an enormous wealth of new people, places and ideas. In a very real sense, our goal is to meet and understand as much of the complexity of 21st century America as is humanly possible... This will be incredibly exciting, but also very overwhelming. If our encounter with this complexity leads us all to lose touch with our deepest sense of purpose, values, goals, and passions, then we will have reduced instead of advanced our effectiveness as leaders. Everything about this curriculum is designed to help us achieve and sustain our inner-world clarity in ways that empower us all to more effectively confront and navigate outer-world complexity on the train... and for the rest of our lives.

It did not take long before the wisdom of this approach became apparent. Within the first 24 hours of this trip, I had conversations with Pioneers who were struggling to integrate the advice they had heard at presentations by charismatic and extremely successful mentors ("Throw out your business plan!" "Focus on large scale change!" "It's all about confidence in yourself!") with their own inner truths ("How can I make large-scale change if I don't yet know what works locally?" "How can I be confident if I'm still figuring things out?"). Thanks to the Journey curriculum, Pioneers were able to consistently share these questions with peers and think through these inner challenges together, rather than struggle with these inner challenges in isolation while being constantly bombarded with ever more advice and information coming from outside themselves.

We set out to explore whether a leadership development curriculum developed internally at City Year could work effectively and add value to a very different type of program. Based on our experiences on the Millennial Train, the answer to that question seems to be an emphatic "yes". City Year is more proud than ever to serve as the leadership development partner of this remarkable organization, and we can't wait to see the remarkable things that these 24 Pioneers do in the months and years ahead. After all, their outer journey across the nation may now be over, but in a very real sense, their inner journeys have only just begun....