A recently Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) wrote an article for the Huffington Post that has struck a cord with many volunteers – in an amazingly good way. Maya Lau, RPCV Senegal (09-11), wrote about What the Peace Corps Taught Me About Failure. Naturally, that got me thinking about my own experience to this point but also made me question: What is failure – is it something that we are inherently afraid of? Is it something that we want to rarely experience? Is it anything below what is deemed to be satisfactory performance? However it is defined, there is the unfortunate caveat that it is typically a negative action/response and I completely disagree with this assumption.
In America, we are taught from a young age that earning a failing grade in school is unacceptable. We do not want to be seen as “failures” in the eyes of our parents or peers – our goal is to ultimately excel or do “well.” Empirical evaluation, can in fact, lead to a definitive “yes” or “no” result (ex. 59/100 on an exam is a failing grade). However the majority of our lives, especially those as Peace Corps Volunteers, are not empirical – our results are not always tangible or able to be measured. So with that being said, can the idea/concept of failure even really be ascertained or is it a word we just made up?
As a Community Economic Development Volunteer in Ukraine, my program area has goals and objectives. On the surface, we are expected to implement projects with our counterparts (host country nationals) in our communities. The American mindset is often fixated on the “Go Big or Go Home” mentality…and I believe that is one of our biggest detriments. Trying to apply that mindset in a developing country where western ideologies and Soviet legacies collide opens the door to experience the negative side of “failure.”
Let’s look at a common scenario: A volunteer is asked to help start a grassroots Non-Governmental Organization. Should the expectation be to plan large-scale events; hold trainings incorporating multiple organizations; develop multiple educational sessions about business practices and grant writing? Should the focus be on capacity building: teaching about sustainable business concepts that might be brand new – a different point of view? How about introducing ideas such as networking, developing and following a business plan, fundraising, or creating mission driven initiatives through one-on-one conversations? Who or what determines whether or not any of that was successful? It all depends on one views “failure.”
My personal feeling is that the idea of “failure” is completely acceptable. It has to be; I see no other way – unless misery is a lifestyle. I have one rule: Fail Forward. If I can apply something differently in the future, I can’t fail. It is impossible. Sure, our project(s) may not happen the way I want – if they happen at all. However, as long as I know “why” something did or didn’t happen, how is that not a positive outcome? I can accept that just because things are not going 100% according to plan it does not mean everything is wrong, and that’s OK. I will not focus on the things that I can no longer control (the past); I will transfer that new knowledge and all of my energy to what is next…
In Ukraine, that “next” might be celebratory tea or vodka. Whatever it is, I welcome it. However, I know that if I can help implement change of any kind, I will not fail. Not here. Not now. Not ever. Two things I have learned in just 8 months: I don’t know everything (this was a shocker to me, too) and that “failure,” as is normally defined, doesn’t exist in “my world”. I look forward to what will become my definition/reflection of my past “success.