There are days, maybe even years, that go by without us seriously questioning the meaning of our lives or whether anything we have left behind has made anybody’s life better. We are afraid of an answer because it might require us to change. For John Wood, the answer came out of nowhere, in a school in the wilds of Nepal.

“You can sleep when you are dead and buried”[1] seemed to be the mantra of John, an international business development director at Microsoft. And for seven years, between 1991 and 1998, he stuck to it: travelling the world for business, with no time for himself, no time to rest, not even friends. His family got tired of waiting for him at various special occasions, because he had made a habit of not arriving anyway because of “important” problems at work. John often wondered if what he was doing was worth the effort, but all his achievements wouldn’t let him say no.

A seemingly trivial event shook his conviction that he was on the right track. It was a Sunday night, and he was returning home to his Sydney apartment, exhausted from a business trip to Thailand and Singapore. The light on his landline phone that let him know he had voicemail was no longer working, or so he thought. But when he checked, he discovered he didn’t have any messages. From then on, nothing ever went right. On a personal level, he felt like a failure.

A few months later, a colleague suggested that he relieve some of the stress that had built up during some evaluations by going on an expedition to Nepal. After years of thinking that time off was for the weak and unmotivated, John had come to the conclusion that he needed those three weeks to completely unplug.

Nepal was full of pleasant surprises: warm and welcoming people, stunning mountains and enviable tranquillity. In one of the places he stayed, he happened to meet Pasupathi, a Nepalese man working in education, trying to raise funds for 17 rural schools in the Lamjung region. With infectious enthusiasm, he told John about the intelligence of Nepalese children and their efforts to go to school. He also told him about the lack of resources that had led to Nepal’s literacy rate of just 30%, one of the lowest in the world. Seeing his interest in the subject, Pasupathi invited John to visit one of the schools where he was to teach the next day.

The school in Bahundanda was situated on a steep hill, but had more than 450 students crammed into small, unhygienic classrooms. John was extremely surprised by the school’s library, a room containing nothing but an old map of the world. The only books the school had were padlocked in a special cupboard because they were too few and too precious to be in the hands of the children.

John then remembered how his parents had bought him a bicycle to ride to the library, because the family budget couldn’t keep up with the pace at which he was asking them to buy him books. He had managed to persuade the librarian to increase his weekly borrowing limit from 8 to 12 books, and the only thing he wanted from his parents was to delay going to bed to make time for reading. John realised that these children in front of him were deprived of the books that had made his childhood better. As he left, the headmaster’s farewell words would change John’s life forever: “Perhaps sir, you will someday come back with books.”

That night, curled up in his sleeping bag, John wrote in his diary: “The fact that I have money does not make me a better person. What really matters is what I do with it.” He decided to use his money to build schools and libraries, and as for collecting books, he thought about getting more people involved. That same evening, John began writing a list of relatives and former friends who could donate books to the school in Nepal. A few days later, a touching email was sent to each of them.

After a few months, his parents couldn’t keep up with all the thousands of books that people they knew and complete strangers were sending. He had included their address in the email because most of the people on the list were from his home country, the USA, and it was much cheaper to send the books there. His email had reached hundreds of people, each sending him dozens of books and money to send them to Nepal.

Just a year after his first visit to Nepal, John returned with his father to personally deliver the donated books to the school in Bahundanda. It wasn’t all the books he had received, as the Nepalese government had asked him to give some of the 3,000 books to other schools that desperately needed them. The welcome he received from the children and teachers was overwhelming and their joy filled his heart. The next day, as he walked through the capital city of Kathmandu, John was so moved by the joy he had witnessed that he decided to quit his job and dedicate himself to the challenge of delivering books to every school in Nepal.

Back at work in China, where he’d been sent to be the right-hand man to Microsoft’s Asia regional manager, things seemed less straightforward. His co-workers were shocked at his decision to leave such an important role, and he was not mentally ready to give up his years of work or his status. But those closest to him, including his parents, encouraged him to follow his dream. He knew he was giving up his comfortable life and disappointing many people, but the thought that no one was young enough and willing enough to do what he wanted to do in Nepal—while someone could quickly be found at Microsoft to take his place—made his departure easier.

He quickly set up a non-profit organisation to distribute books in Nepal and build schools and libraries. One big problem remained: lack of funding. With the tenacity that had been his hallmark since childhood and that had brought him success at Microsoft, John contacted all the people and institutions that could provide funds. There was no friend or former colleague to whom he did not present his dream. The money didn’t come overnight, but his efforts began to pay off.

Today, John’s organisation, Room to Read, is one of the largest charities in the world. More than 10 million children in 10 countries in Asia and Africa have benefited from its help. At the end of 2014, its track record was impressive: 1,850 schools and 16,800 libraries built, more than 14 million books distributed and more than 1,000 books printed in local dialects at low cost.

“There is nothing with which every man is so afraid as getting to know how enormously much he is capable of doing and becoming.” Written by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, these words, which John happened to read on his first trip to Nepal, challenged him to test the limits of that “enormously much.” Looking back, he now realises that he hasn’t reached the limits, and that one simple man who puts himself at the service of good can indeed change the world.

[1]“John Wood, ‘Leaving Microsoft to change the world’, Harper-Collins e-books, 2006.”

“John Wood, ‘Leaving Microsoft to change the world’, Harper-Collins e-books, 2006.”