“If you only try hard enough you can do anything” (and should!) is the message I grew up with.
This translated in my brain as “If you don’t succeed, it is due to lack of effort on your part” or “If you stop trying, you are being lazy and self indulgent”. I am not sure if anyone actually said those things to me, but the message was clear and very black and white. It was meant to be empowering and motivational, but mostly left me kicking myself for being lazy and not putting in enough effort. There was no reference in this world view to interests, passion, intrinsic motivation, an understanding of what is going on, knowledge, skills, time, resources, support, education, experience, asking for help, or taking care of myself.
For a very long time I tried relatively easy things only; which went OK, and were garbage by my standards. I graduated from college and coasted at work keeping the ship of IT support just above water, feeling like an impostor and a failure. I hear this is normal (impostor syndrome). Then for a while I did not try anything hard that I didn’t already know how to do, unless I had absolutely no choice.In the last few years, a bunch of wildfire projects of progressing complexity sprang up. Despite being passionate about them, I failed to execute them as per my vision. Those that existed as part of other structures worked; my own from-scratch systems did not: failure once again, at least by conventional accomplishment-based metrics.
While I could not have gone to any school and learned as much as I did in the last year of “failure”. I would even likely do it all again, but less loudly and more confidently. For me, it was worth doing to understand the systems better and how they work instead of how they seem to work. So, what happened and what does it take to fail better or even succeed? I have been thinking about this a lot and listening to TED talks like: Tara Suri & Niha Jain: Learning to Fail, Ernesto Sirolli: Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!, and Dan Pallotta: The way we think about charity is dead wrong.
It bothers me that I can not single-handed, in less then a year, eradicate poverty-related problems in a small English-speaking city not too far from were I live. The way I was brought up tells me that I should have already been a billionaire or at least cured something interesting. Failure to do so is just laziness on my part! “Saving” a small city should be trivial… and this… this is what keeps me up at night and gives me panic attacks. I’m pretty sure that there are other people feeling horrible about not being able to save the world, a completely undeserved guilt born of hero comics and misplaced, misrepresented expectations handed to smart and potentially competent young people. We need better perspective and understanding of both social change and what it takes to do hard things, especially those involving other people.
What I learned about trying to do positive social change:
- Fixing systemic social problems is not as simple as giving people information or money. It is possible that, unless the system is changed or there is prolonged exposure to an alternative environment and resources, not much of an impact will happen. – On the other hand: it may make a huge difference for individuals you interact with.
- Extrinsic rewards will keep some people engaged, but will not create passion or commitment or trust. You can not run a social change project alone, using yourself as fuel; you either have to get competent allies or burn out. – On the other hand: Sometimes you have to try it to believe it.
- Hard problems are worth trying to fix, and at the same time it is arrogant to assume that I am the first person to think of this and would do better than everyone else who have tried it. Other people/organizations who are “doing it wrong” may be doing remarkably well given the challenges they are dealing with. – On the other hand: Individuals are often the driving force behind successful collaborative projects.
- Under-promise and over-deliver, at least at first.
The most important lesson learned was that: Doing hard projects takes more than “wanting it bad enough” or “if you only try hard enough!”.
It takes some combination of the following:
- Interest, passion, and intrinsic motivation. For me at least, I have to want it, a lot, otherwise I will not be able to focus on it. It has to feel worthwhile and important even when people are not telling me that it is a good idea. It has to feel this way even when things are shiny and going well, and when I am feeling anger about the current situation.
- Adequate self care and time to breathe/think/analyze. In order to work on hard projects without burning out faster than I can cause effect, the project has to work without taking away from my ability to have a healthy and sane life. This has to include: not always being rushed; time to read or do other stuff that isn’t necessarily work; and enough spare cycles to stop, think, and analyze as things change.
- Ability to know when, how, and who to ask for help. People love to be treated as experts. Sometimes the easiest way to solve a problem is to ask someone who has dealt with it already, or is an expert in the field. Ask “are you available to talk?”–this way you will know you are not bothering them. Don’t worry about them thinking you to be stupid; they did not know stuff either at another point in time and had people help them.
- Understanding of issue and what needs to be done. I am often amazed at how little I knew going in. Doing research and talking with other people who are doing something similar helps. (Probably more than one person, probably over a span of time.) If it is complicated, multiple iterations help me understand it.
- Knowledge, skills, education, and experience to do what needs to be done. Am I any good at getting the practical stuff done? Can I keep track of details? Work with people? If I can’t, can I find someone who can or learn? Consider doing the same type of work in an established system. I much prefer working alone or with very specific people, and that is not always the best way to learn things that are different from those we work on already.
- Sufficient time, resources, and support. Do you have the time to do this? What do you not do instead? What will it cost and where will that come from? How much help will you need? Do you have it? Sounds banal, but it really needs to be asked (and answered!) for sustainability. I’ve noticed that if I am not comfortable writing down my plan and discussing it with a mentor or another person I respect, the results will look more like a manic episode than a structured project.
This is my starting point on what needs to be thought about to analyze what it takes to do a new or hard project, and how to think about it in concrete terms. Instead of just kicking yourself for not having already succeeded at something that seems “trivial”, it helps to sometimes realize it might not be doable without additional resources.