One of the perks of my job is the opportunity to travel and sample varied cuisines. From roadside dhabas to grander not-to-be-missed establishments. From hurried but refreshing tea stops to the sometimes celebratory, end of assignment dinners. And the variety has been exquisite!
Since I love sweets, I always ask about that. I have had amazing sweets at a small roadside stall while travelling in Malda (West Bengal). In Dumka (Jharkhand), I tried out a small shop that had been recommended. My host ensured that we took out the time for this – actually, we did this just before I had to board the train! In Jalandhar (Punjab), there was Lovely Sweets – a multistoried shop which, from its opulent exterior, looked more likely to offer gold jewellery than sweets and snacks! In Jammu, three of us went to a famous local eatery Pahalwan. It was started by a pahalwan (wrestler). Business had boomed and I don’t think his descendants ever needed to step into a wrestling ring for work. We ordered sweets and more. One of my companions had dhokla (which seemed to have successfully travelled from Gujarat to Jammu and Kashmir) for the first time. He enjoyed it!
There have been some other pleasant surprises as well. I was facilitating a workshop in Rajasthan. All of us had mentioned our favourite foods as part of the introduction round on the first of the four day workshop. On the last day, a participant cooked what I had shared – khichdi, potato fries and tomato chutney – for dinner. Drawing on her heritage, she infused a distinctive South Indian flavour to them. The tastes were unfamiliar but good and made even more special by this unexpected act of regard and generosity. It became one of those beautiful moments where good food and companionship combine to create a memorable experience.
So even as struggles with handling multiple assignments and deadlines continue, I know that the future will bring more possibilities of the gastronomic kind as well. And that is a reassuring thought!
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.
- It is ok to fail. A lot of people, including the amazing Rumi, have even stated that broken is beautiful.
- It is not ok to let that sense of failure control your life. Or make you question your abilities.
- Take charge. See what you can do differently next time. And also make that point unambiguously in the next assignment.
- Despite best efforts, things may still go wrong. Just deal with it!
- 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.
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!
Go on…give this a try! The results may surprise you as well.
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!
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.
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!
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.