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The Value of Experience, Acknowledging Failure and Knowledge-Sharing

“My experiences are mine alone.” I hear this phrase often. I use it a lot as well, peppering it in toward the end of a long-winded explanation of what happened, what I saw and where. Most times, it’s a way of reminding both parties, “There’s space, open room. Your experience could be completely different than mine.” For me, it’s an attempt to let my listener know that my experience contains its unique limitations, most inherent of which is my perspective, shaped by my background and tools that have facilitated my learning and evolution: my education, reading and well, other experiences.

I have been pondering this phrase lately though, and I have reached the conclusion that despite well intentions in its use, the statement is not completely right. The truth is if I want my generation to tackle and actually solve the unnerving, deleterious societal problems of our world today, my experiences shouldn’t be mine alone. They simply can’t be. The phrase dismisses the accountability that comes with unloading experiences unto others who are very much impacted by the information we share. What’s worse is I think the expression waters down the value of the experience shared, at times even thwarting the sharing process altogether.

It makes sense, too. Perhaps my most under-appreciated “tool of learning and evolution” has been what I hear and learn from others and their experiences. I’m not talking about listening to professors reading from their lecterns, I’m talking about debates that take place over coffee or drinks with friends, late night chats with my roommate, long emails and blog updates from buddies doing good work. These are genuine exchanges of lessons learned and stories of failures, but access to this type of useful information is then essentially limited to my social circle. Newcomers, observers, mere strangers are left making the same mistakes that could have been avoided if say, I, had talked to them.

This happens on the macro-scale, too. Development organizations and NGOs are generally very positive in the public presentation of their work. In the small number of conferences I have been to, I’ve never heard an organization analyze and share its faults. With quiet and private learning and progress, organizations doing the same type of work face the danger of making the same mistakes over and over, with limited educational benefit.

But things are looking up. I’ve recently read of a few leaders working to bring these conversations to the public sphere. Engineers Without Borders launched the website admittingfailure.com, with this persuasive argument as to why it’s important to organizations, and Saundra Schimmelpfennig explains how it can help educate donors, too.

The failure blog for Peace Dividend Trust, for example, is an impressive example. The information is specific; it’s clear they’re not messing around – i.e., not “we are working to strengthen our internal memory structure,” but “we have almost no Knowledge Management system.” They even go so far as to admit that it’s really hard to get a precise sense of the impact that their programs have created. Measuring impact is an immense task, so I appreciate this type of honesty – to mirror the words of a Global Health Corps member who also wrote about these failure blogs, “we do each other and the world no good by pretending that we’re solving simple problems.”

Since I love this idea so much and I am a bit more than halfway done with my internship (hard to believe I have less than four weeks remaining in Bangladesh), I thought I should also partake. My failure blog is personal, not about the organization I’m working for. I will follow Peace Dividend Trust’s model, and include ways I think I can work better.

I don’t use my work plan. After I came back from the field, I made a week-by-week work plan to finish the key deliverables of my internship. The work plan has a plethora of different items on it, including meetings to be had, sites to visit, and benchmarks for my deliverables. I’ve been very scattered in terms of my approach to research and tool development thus far, doing Week 3 items before Week 1. This also means I am not prioritizing. To address this, I’m putting aside fifteen minutes at the start of each workday to review my work plan and make a prioritized list of tasks for the day and fifteen minutes at the end to note my progress. I will work on each task until it’s done or handed off before moving to the next.

I need more buy-in. I did a good job after returning from the field of letting everyone know what it is I was doing and my progress. In the past several weeks, I’ve had my head so deeply in open-source capacity-building documents that I’ve forgotten to check in with key stakeholders to let them know where I am. Making time for meetings ahead of time will help me to space myself – aka every 2 days, I need to check in with person X while I’m working on the tool that’s relevant to person X. Actually following my work plan will help alleviate this problem as well.

I respond too quickly to things. Those who know me know it doesn’t take much to get me enthusiastic quickly. In meetings, when someone suggests an idea or recommends a new direction for the project, I instantly form an opinion about it. The fact that I quickly attach myself to an opinion inhibits me from remaining open to new ideas and prevents me from fully listening to that person who is pitching the idea. I used to be worse at this but I need to improve still. In meetings, as a person is talking, I will make sure I am actively listening and conscious about my habit of forming an opinion instantly. In fact, when I catch myself not listening to the person at hand because I’ve already dismissed an idea, I will be sure to ask that person to repeat what they’ve said. In a country where my patience has already strengthened so much, there’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to do this.

I have neglected the rest of my life. I’ve done a really bad job of meeting personal goals – learning Bangla, visiting Buddhist temples and Dhaka sites, reading for pleasure. I also haven’t exercised for several weeks. Last week, at least I made up a little for my complete failure in keeping in touch with friends back home. This isn’t really the kind of person I want to be and it makes me feel unbalanced and bland. I also really paid for it this week, I think, and hit a pretty deep mid-internship “slump.” I made a daily checklist of what I want to make sure to get done for me and am involving friends and flat-mates, for both accountability and participation of some of the activities! In terms of keeping in touch, I want to Skype with at least one friend a week (let me know if you’d like to be included!)

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