What Failure Taught Me

A friend had once remarked – ‘you people in the development sector don’t have failures. Anything goes wrong, you call it learning!’ That sentence has stuck with me. Of course, looking at challenges and failures as learnings has its advantages. It promotes a more positive outlook and provides reference points for improvement in future programming. However, and this has been pointed out by many, do we really ‘learn’ and do we apply what we learn? This lessons learnt business calls for a post of its own. Here, I am going to focus on failures.

Failures in the professional domain come in various shapes and sizes. These range from those that evoke mild disappointment but don’t disrupt our worlds to those that make us doubt our own capacities and paralyse our sense of confidence and self worth. In my initial days as a journalist, many many years ago, I was, very briefly, placed in a particular division where I struggled to deliver. In my own eyes, I was a spectacular failure. In fact, I was surprised by my sudden and completely unexpected incompetence! Thankfully, I was later placed in another division where I felt more at home and did well.

While it hasn’t always been easy, my subsequent work in the development sector has been largely free of such experiences. However, the last few years with multiple assignments and deadlines and a never ending array of personal crises brought added pressure. I defaulted on deadlines – some because I couldn’t manage and some because the universe threw in additional googlies! And a lingering sense of failure set in. I did allow myself to wallow in it a bit and then decided to see what I could do about it, and what I had learnt! So, here are my learnings from failure.

  1. It is ok to fail. A lot of people, including the amazing Rumi, have even stated that broken is beautiful.
  2. It is not ok to let that sense of failure control your life. Or make you question your abilities.
  3. Take charge. See what you can do differently next time. And also make that point unambiguously in the next assignment.
  4. Despite best efforts, things may still go wrong. Just deal with it!
  5. And…as long as you can smile and laugh, it is not that bad.

Every experience does teach us something. Even though we may not see it or feel it, our battle scars do make us stronger and better and unique.

Me and My Work

So, I had read of this exercise where you think of something and see what words come into your mind. I was possibly subjected to something like this in college by my room mate who was studying psychology (I served as the de facto subject for countless experiments). I was curious to know what I would come up with regarding process documentation. And here are the results – the words that tumbled forth in an unplanned and unapologetic manner!

Enriching
Entertaining
People
Travel
Stories
Words
Reports
Publications
Insights
Empathy
Joys
Challenges
Humane
Development
Writer

Go on…give this a try! The results may surprise you as well.

 

 

 

 

It’s Complicated

The channel Comedy Central provides these FRIENDLY FACTS about the unfailingly popular sitcom FRIENDS. One of these caught my attention. The writers used to make pie charts to track the number of lines (and jokes) that each of the central characters got to say. This was their way of ensuring that Ross, Monica, Joey, Chandler and Phoebe got equal footage. It must have been challenging ensuring that all of these characters were etched properly with their own distinctive personalities and idiosyncrasies, that they could have their own tracks and also come together in a harmonious way. But I guess their efforts did pay off! Multistarrers are never easy. And this is true of process documentation narratives as well where we have a host of key actors who must be given their due space!

So, you are capturing an intervention involving multiple organisations. Typically, the amount of information that is available or can be easily sourced from these organisations would vary. One will encounter an entire range from eager sharers to reticent responders. Besides, it is not just about obtaining adequate information but also ensuring adequate representation. After all, each of these organisations – in their own way – must have played a part. For the process documentation narrative to be anchored to contextual realities (including the diversities), it must capture all of this as far as possible.

It is complicated and I don’t know if there are any easy solutions. But yes, recognising the importance of providing each actor his/her space in the narrative is a good starting point. I will (hopefully) get better at this with practice. Meanwhile, I think that team of writers at FRIENDS was on to a good thing!

To be (humble) or not to be…That is the question!

People with innate humility seem to be an endangered species. Maybe, they are part of the collateral damage in a world which seems to increasingly equate brash confidence with competence and marketing acumen with real talent and success. Of course, there is a need to have a presence and speak up. This becomes even more pertinent as resources and opportunities grow scarce. And there is that little matter of managing to survive in the food chain! But in all this din, do we really get the chance to know the people we work with? To appreciate the quiet workers or those whose talents are not glaringly obvious? Or even those who are obviously gifted but choose not to broadcast that and do whatever is needed in their own understated way?

I would like to believe that substance matters and that the true ability and character of a person does shine through. Of course, there are often more examples to the contrary and you wonder how certain people got to certain places. Uncharitable jealousy or unaffected curiosity aside, it does irk!

But then I think of the (much smaller) sub set that continues to work despite all these discouraging signs around them. There are people who are clear about what they want, the paths that they take and don’t feel the overwhelming need to draw attention to themselves along the way. It can’t be easy.  But possibly, conviction triumphs.  And that is deeply reaffirming. And inspiring.

The N Word

Nirvana? Well…actually I was thinking of another important N word (and I don’t mean nationalism) – Network! Many years ago, I had watched the film Identity with friends. There were many remarkable things about the film including the fact that a character got killed while walking into the wilderness looking for network on the mobile! So, in a way, we have been warned. Searching for network can be injurious to health.

But then, as they say, no man is an island and that urge to connect is addictive. While I can proudly proclaim that my life is not dependent on facebook updates and likes, messages and emails do need to be checked.  Since I am a consultant, my phone becomes the de facto office and that office needs to function! So I sometimes do end up walking through buildings/hotel rooms and premises searching for that elusive network. This is also when a certain degree of exercising happens – stretching arms through windows, craning the neck and even some feats of balancing.

But then, no network can also be a good thing. It offers a respite from well-meaning but over anxious family members, colleagues who decide to revert on matters that could have been handled earlier, clients who suddenly feel the urge to give feedback and those telemarketers (No…This is not the time to talk about my insurance policy…or maybe it is!)  You can focus, without interruptions, on the task at hand. It is a more immersive experience and respectful of those we are engaging with.

Ultimately, of course, one does have to return to the world of mobiles and deadlines. But then a temporary, free from technology break may also help us to look more closely at ourselves and others around us. Who knows…it may show the path to that other N….Nirvana as well!

On the Road

There is something about journeys by road. My work has provided ample opportunities for such travelling, especially to locations for fieldwork. There have been innumerable fellow passengers and countless conversations. Sometimes, that is when the magic has happened through the bursts of animated discussions interspersed with periods of companionable silence.

Barriers have come down with free flowing conversations. In fact, this is when a lot of that famous ‘subtext’ has revealed itself through the juxtaposition of what had been seen and heard before during stakeholder interactions with the enthusiastic explanations and vehement rebuttals being offered now. Failures have been conceded and learnings (from hindsight) shared. Multistakeholder dynamics have been unpacked, sometimes with generous dollops of, yes, even gossip!

Of course, journeys do come with problems as well. Bad roads don’t exactly help. You can get stuck in traffic jams on highways or other busy locations for hours. Herds have to cross when herds have to cross. You have to hunt for places to eat, discovering some gems and some others that live on in your memory for the wrong reasons. And yes, you hunt for toilets too!

But even with the misadventures, I remain a believer. Very often, the journeys have not only helped me with assignments, but also created beautiful and memorable moments. Stories of personal and professional triumphs and losses have been swapped, common frustrations articulated and bonds forged. It has been about these moments of human connection in a transient world where a lot rushes past us, much like the constantly changing scenes outside the car window.

Five Reasons

So, here are five reasons that I love my work. I thought it would be interesting to reflect on this and put it down somewhere. Moreover, I will be able to turn to this on days that are frustrating. It can be my harmless self-medication fix when I am (work) weary!

Reason #1: It offers amazing opportunities for varied assignments – interacting with diverse people, documenting development interventions, facilitating trainings, supporting development of how-to manuals or just good old editing jobs.
There are days in conference rooms and offices. And then there are days in the field. It balances out!

Reason#2: No two days are ever completely alike and it is rarely a 9-to-5 thing.
This is, obviously, linked to Reason#1.

Reason#3: I get to meet children and people (and hear their stories) and travel and am paid for it!
I have interacted with and learnt from children and community members in the midst of tea gardens in north Bengal and the fragile Sunderbans in south Bengal. I have been awed by the resilience of children and people in diverse settings across Odisha, Assam, Jammu and Kashmir, West Bengal and the island of Little Andamans. I have seen how education can transform communities and an organisation in Rajasthan. I have been allowed entry into countless personal experiences of joys, sorrows, hopes and frustrations. In the process, sometimes, the locations do tend to lose their picture perfect post card appeal. But then, life reveals itself and invests far deeper meaning and a complex beauty to them.

Reason#4: I am doing what I have always loved doing – writing.
My first ambition was to be a classical dancer. I also (very briefly) wanted to be a lecturer and then a cardiac surgeon. Well… none of that worked out! But even as I went through all these phases, one thing was constant. I enjoyed the company of words and writing. By the time I was in class VIII-IX, I was pretty sure that my future had to involve writing in some form. A brief stint in journalism followed and now I am here. Still writing…in various forms.

Reason#5: It helps me to learn, to go beyond the ‘isms’ and see how development interventions and the contexts in which they unfold influence each other.
Development interventions undergo dynamic and complex journeys as they are translated from proposals with outcomes and indicators to activities that must engage with flesh and blood people with their realities, aspirations and idiosyncrasies! Organisational (and team) capacities and priorities, local ecosystems (political and otherwise), unexpected developments….everything is interrelated and leaves a mark. It is interesting to become a part of this, to walk along with the participants, capture their experiences and reflections, see where we reached and what remains to be accomplished. And then a new circle begins!

What are your reasons?