First a personal confession. Being an overseas volunteer is an exercise in failure. And still more, repeated failures. And there’s an “s” at the end of that because it’s plural. As in failing more than once, and at more than one thing. That being said, failing isn’t the crux of the issue when I think about the difficult parts about being a long-term, overseas volunteer. To some extent failing is inevitable. In my mind the problem comes from being afraid of that failure. Being so afraid of it that you lose sight of your direction, the task at hand, and perhaps most problematically you lose sight of yourself in regards to your role in that failure.
I think part of this issue stems from the way we’re trained in America. Instead of encouraging students to test out strategies, experiment with their own theories, and write creatively, most high school and general education programs provide a template or formula. Where there is a right and a wrong answer. A lot of multiple choice testing where a wrong bubble correspond to lower grades. Classes seem less interested in long answer writing that might focus on a student’s process of thinking, instead focusing on whether or not they arrived at the predetermined answer. So it might be that we become accustomed to knowing the right way on a list full of wrong ones. We’re rewarded for being right, which breeds desire for the need to be right. All the time.
Insert that mentality into an individual before placing them in a foreign landscape. Then ask them to collaboratively solve complicated, wicked problems within the context of a different culture. The right answer, method, solution might be frustratingly absent while the need to be right remains. Here lurks a shadowy and untrustworthy figure, floating somewhere in the loop-da-loop passages of your frontal cortex: the God Complex. This is the unshakable belief in your own ability. Your inflated feelings of privilege. An individual that walks through their day wearing the God Complex like its their favorite scarf doesn’t see much possibility of their own failure. They’re dogmatic in their views, consider them more fact than opinion. By the way, this should be a big red flag.
There’s an important phrase that comes into play here. It isn’t used nearly as much as it should be. It conveys a feeling that’s felt pretty often in my volunteer circle, especially in fields like large landscape conservation, marine protection, livelihood development, and humanitarian aid. At least internally, some form of these words go through the minds of a lot of international workers and volunteers, if they’re being honest. It’s not a secret, I’ll go ahead and share: I have no idea how to do this.
Fairly obvious? There’s a lot we don’t know how to do. But how many leading professionals, scientists, or especially politicians will stand up there with a microphone, a job on the line, and a critical audience watching and say “I have no idea how to do this”? Why are we taught that having a wrong answer is more valuable than not having an answer at all?
There’s an inherent problem with positively knowing the answer, or telling yourself that you do, when you’re actually feeling very unsure. If you know the answer then you’re not searching for it anymore. And you’re certainly less open to the possibility of alternatives, whether it be another direction for the project, another way of funding it, or scraping the project and taking on something else entirely. It takes away the possibility of learning throughout the process. Somewhere I’m hearing an echo of James Joyce writing that “mistakes are the portals to discovery.”
I’ve found more successes in projects where I’ve checked my self-assured notions at the door and opened myself up to the fact that I’m not really sure what’s best. I’ve found more positives from chasing failures than from following the “right way” that seems so obvious to me. I’m still learning. A lot. But I’ve come to trust a few things.
Bury the God Complex.
Open yourself up to your failures.
It’s okay if there’s still an “s” at the end.
cheers to losing the god complex, checking yourself, chasing failure, and being okay with it.