The story of Nalini Singh begins with danger, poverty and a family's determination for a better life. Picture a poor village in India: dirt floors, no electricity or running water, flooding, violence, corruption.

You know what comes next - the ambitious-hardworking-migrant-makes-good tale is a familiar story now.

There's a drawn-out migration to New Zealand in search of a better life. An educated man struggles to have his qualifications recognised and works in a junior position, but his children excel at school despite the challenges of a new language and culture.

Indeed, his daughter Nalini is brilliant at maths and physics and economics - and English literature too, and languages. She's fluent in French as well as English and Hindi, plus her Spanish is okay.

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She's an accomplished pianist, a debater, a poet. A black belt in karate, too ... and a gymnast.

It seems there is nothing she can't do. At 24, her CV on LinkedIn runs to 40 pages; the list of awards and scholarships is very, very long.

She was dux, head girl and winner of multiple prizes at Whanganui High School in 2010 and was just 17 when she began an outstanding double degree at Auckland University.

A very, very successful future stretched out in front of Nalini.

But this extraordinary young woman wasn't tempted - not by money or social status or even the intellectual challenges that can be found working inside the system. She walked away ... away from conventional ideas of a successful life, and from familial expectations.

Nalini spent two years in the Amazon and Andes, living on two or three dollars a day while volunteering. At Kadagaya in the Peruvian jungle for instance, she built a hydro-electric vortex to provide renewable energy and planned a food forest for 40 people.

This wasn't a gap year that got extended. It was a deliberate choice about what mattered and what the world needed.

"...The planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it."

This quote - by David Orr, in Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World, (widely but incorrectly attributed to the Dalai Lama in a lame meme on social media) - prefaces an essay Nalini wrote recently about what comes next for her.

I was introduced to Nalini just this week by a mutual friend and I've been moved by her writings and our conversation.

She studied permaculture in Auckland while at uni and was inspired by its systems thinking approach.

She's an accomplished facilitator, having led workshops for more than 800 young people in three languages and on five continents. Her writing references Joanna Macy, Charles Eisenstein, deep ecology, non-violent communication, just for starters.

It's exciting. It's also exhausting. One of her mentors describes her as "prodigious" and the word seems apt. How can someone under 40 have read this much, done so much?

As some brilliant (and ordinary) young people are challenging what success looks like, we'd be well served to be collectively considering the same question. And this unexpected election campaign has created an opportunity for beginning that conversation.

For years, the National Party has argued for its right to govern based on its leaders' qualifications as technicians and managers of the economy.

It's a bitter irony that rising rents and house prices and greater demands on acute medical services boost gross domestic product. It's been nearly 30 years since Marilyn Waring issued a meticulous and blistering analysis of GDP's inadequacy as an indicator of genuine progress. So why are we still using it?

Humans are not processing machines, capable of purely rational decision-making, despite how generations of economists have been indoctrinated in a fantastic denial of plain reality. (Check out Who Cooked Adam Smith's Dinner? - available as an e-book through the local library - if you're curious in a rebuttal of the concept of "rational man", upon which modern economic theory is based.)

With multiple social issues reaching crisis points - housing, mental health, access to medical services, poverty - talk of "values" has finally reappeared in the political debate.
But no political party is brave enough to call out the elephant in the room - the unavoidable fact that continual growth is impossible in a closed system.

As for Nalini, she is grateful to have spent the past three months quietly at her family's home, getting healthy again after the challenges of South America.

She plans to establish Generation Wake Up in New Zealand. She also wants to transform her family home into a pilot experimental plot demonstrating home-scale permaculture focused on deep nutrition.

Ideally, these projects will be the "action learning" component of study at Gaia University and Nalini is crowdfunding to help pay her tuition fees. You can read more about her plans here: http://bit.ly/NaliniS


*Rachel Rose is a local writer, gardener, fermenter and fomenter. More information and sources can be found at www.facebook.com/rachelrose.writer