Very few good stories end with the characters grungy and exhausted, outdoors in Times Square at 5:18 a.m. in freezing weather, but this is one of them. After months of training and preparation, two hardy teams were the last men standing in a record-breaking charity competition we had organized. The premise was simple. Each pair started shaking hands at the same moment, hoping to break the Guinness World Record for “Longest Continuous Handshake” on behalf of its charity of choice. By that frosty morning early this year, only Team Nepal and Team New Zealand remained. These are quite literally some of the most determined and competitive people on the planet. Rohit Timilsina is the top record-breaker in his home country of Nepal, and Alastair Galpin of New Zealand is the number two record-breaker in the world. Yet across 33 hours of absolutely continuous handshaking before a global webcast audience, these teams had developed a profound respect for each other. A team that lost at this point would likely do so only by chance error, and none of them wanted to see that. So they agreed to break their shakes simultaneously and share the record: 1 day, 9 hours, 3 minutes, more than doubling the previous world record.
Both teams returned home to enthusiastic reactions. The competition and its surprising result were featured on national television in New Zealand, and Team Nepal returned to a joyous welcome led by their country’s tourism minister, who draped them with flower garlands for their achievement. The message rang particularly clearly in this impoverished nation of 29 million. Rohit and his teammate and brother Santosh are not stronger or faster or more naturally talented than the average person. It was by sheer determination that they made history. What’s more, unlike sprinting or juggling or knife-throwing, handshaking is something virtually anyone can do. When people in Nepal saw the Timilsina brothers break the record, they knew that they themselves had the same capabilities inside.
We were both astonished and overwhelmed by how this positive and empowering message took hold among the Nepalese. In the United States, popular culture endlessly celebrates the achievements of people with particular inborn gifts – athletes, musicians and technical geniuses. This is so pervasive that we often overlook the power of ordinary people to do extraordinary things. Here, seeing something unusual and then realizing “Hey, I can do that,” seems to diminish the wonder. In Nepal, the reverse is true. Realizing “Hey, I can do that,” is profoundly inspiring.