“What do you know about development, exactly?”
“What do you know about Tanzania or its people?”
“What do you know about the domain of Education / Entrepreneurship / Health / WaSH?”
“What do you know about managing projects?”
“Can you really run an organisation of 30 people?”
If there’s one feeling that characterised my CDI experience, it was disbelief. This came from all sides – development professionals aghast at our ignorance about development, business leaders doubtful about our experience and competence, academics disappointed by our nosediving grades and desertion of their discipline, friends confused by our disappearance from social events, and family anxious about our safety and our future career.
Worst of all, this feeling of disbelief came from within myself. What if they’re all right? What if I’m really driving into a car crash in slow motion, and destined for failure: in CDI, in my degree, in my early career – and therefore in life?
First, it’s worth stating the obvious here – none of these issues can be resolved overnight. You can’t just ‘know’ about development, Tanzania, or project management tomorrow. These skills or pieces of knowledge typically take years to develop or acquire. So at the time we could only resort to coping strategies in response to criticisms like these, of which several come to mind.
The first: the stonewall. Ignore all of them, and trudge on. Yes, they have a point, but whatever. I’ve already been doing this for the past year, so I’m going to just keep doing it. Because that feels more comfortable. Kicking the can down the road, and hoping the can will roll into a bin by itself.
Clearly, not an effective strategy. But a surprisingly common one among all of us, dare I say, when faced with difficult problems. And certainly one we frequently employed ourselves.
Another strategy was to admit defeat and throw in the towel. I know I certainly wasn’t alone among past CDI leaders to have given serious thought to just quitting. It just seemed like such a beautifully easy way out – if I just stop, I will be free! There will once again be balance in the universe.
But some part of me wasn’t willing to go down so easily. I’d done so much already. Giving up now would erase all my previous hard work. Plus, I’d be letting down so many – all the volunteers I recruited to my team + promised a summer opportunity, our donors, our partners, stakeholders who generously supported us.
Mostly, I trod somewhere in the middle of all this. I knew these were legitimate criticisms, and we even tried to address some of them e.g. did reading, organised some training, found mentors. And then afterwards we would carry on business as usual (“right, that’s Project Management training done. Project Management skills: checked.“). But deep down I knew these were cosmetic fixes, so I’d continue to let the feeling of inadequacy gnaw away at my existence.
This is otherwise known as Imposter Syndrome. And it was exhausting.
Let your belief co-exist with criticisms
So what to do about this all? In the face of such difficult questions, it’s easy to forget that the absence of criticism isn’t a precondition for belief. It’s possible to both accept criticisms as legitimate and believe in yourself.
Enough of this self-help BS, I hear you say.
Here’s how I think about belief. In my experience, it can come from three sources (not an exhaustive list by any means):
1) Success stories / role models, especially those who were once in a similar position
“If he or she did it, and I’m just like them, then I can do it too.”
Seems to make perfect sense, right? It’s a powerful line of thinking – it’s why biographies can be so inspiring, and why exposure programmes for the underprivileged can be so impactful. Having successful role models, who once struggled just like us, can work wonders for our belief.
And in CDI, we can lean on a reservoir of ~200 alumni role models. They’re all just like you, and it’s worked out OK for them. Find a way to be on the phone with the team member in your position in the last few years!
2) Small wins
“I’ve already done this thing, which is just a smaller version of this bigger thing, so I can probably do this bigger thing too.”
Statistical sampling, if you will. Perhaps your project is divided into a series of weekly goals, and you find yourself worrying about whether you will actually make an impact by the end of 7 or 8 weeks. One way to proceed is to focus 100% of your energies on delivering on your goals for this week only. Or, scope it down even further and just focus on delivering on your goals for today. Check in on yourself at the end of day, and you’ll probably feel a good deal more confident about delivering for tomorrow.
Confession: I didn’t do this. At least not intentionally. When we ran the DAREnterprisers entrepreneurship course for the first time, I had minimal confidence about whether we’d really be able to help Tanzanian students launch viable businesses. It was only after we started running day after day of workshops, and found the participants genuinely engaged with our exercises and style, when my confidence started to grow.
If even that seems daunting right now, then aim for even smaller wins. Start your day by knocking out a few of the easier tasks that are on your plate – maybe a quick phone call to a stakeholder, a short message to a teammate, or coming up with an agenda for the next meeting – and feel your newly gained momentum pulse through your veins.
OK, this won’t solve all your problems. And there’s a fine line between chasing after small wins and procrastination. For me, though, there were many a day when I woke up feeling totally helpless, but after a few small wins, started to gain some confidence to take on the bigger challenges.
3) Moral belief
“This is the right thing to do for the world, so I’ll keep doing it no matter the result.”
Sounds like something Elon Musk would say, and that’s probably where I got it from. Probably a bit hard for many of us though, if we haven’t developed this level of conviction about anything yet.
But there’s a smaller version of this that could work. Go and talk to one of CDI’s supposed ‘beneficiaries’, and try to understand how (if) our work has impacted their lives. Of course, don’t go in with the assumption that it has – it may not have – but if it genuinely has made their lives better in any meaningful way, I promise that’ll make your day.
At this point it’s worth noting that none of these sources of belief should be categorised as blind faith (i.e. “I want this to be true, therefore I believe it’s true”) – that would be some real self-help BS. There’s an element of logic within them, and that’s why they can work.
Yeah, but about those criticisms…
I know none of this actually directly resolves the fundamental criticisms that are sometimes levelled at CDI. Some of these fundamental criticisms will never be resolved. But the thing is, you have chosen to commit at least 2 months of your life to this work, and you’re planning to see it through no matter what. What’s more useful – to employ flawed coping strategies like I often did (and probably be quite miserable most of the time), or find a source of belief that sustains you through this journey?
To me, it’s perfectly possible to accept those criticisms as legitimate, and yet believe that it’s still possible to make an impact. After all, that’s what others like you had done before, what you’ve already started doing, and the right thing to do for your target beneficiaries.
So, go forth and find your belief!
By Kelvin Wong, CDI Co-founder and Member of CDI’s Board of Trustees