By Steve Munroe, co-founder and CEO of Satori Worldwide
So you wanna save the world? save yourself first!
It seems that since Angelina Jolie and George Clooney made development chic, I get more and more emails from young people wanting to know how they can forge a career in global service. While I wish to encourage their enthusiasm, I also find myself wanting to ask them one basic question: are you sure you are up for it?
Here are a few things I wish I had known before I launched my own career in development.
Resilience is not part of the curriculum, but it should be.
When I emerged from grad school I was full of theories and credentials. This stood me in good stead at work-related conferences, but it did little to prepare me for the shock of working directly with beneficiaries — people who have suffered torture, extreme poverty and desperation of all sorts.
Neither did my degrees help me cope with halting bureaucracies, corruption, and the many health risks associated with living in challenging development contexts.
Not being aware of any practical strategies to nurture one’s resilience is not only a recipe for frustrated ambition, it’s a scourge on development forces generally. This is why attrition rates, illness, addiction and family breakdown run high. Sadly, the veil of silence on these issues is only now beginning to lift as more and more development actors draw attention to the realities of aid work, and even more importantly, question the impact this has on our primary agenda: serving the world’s disaffected.
Beware of burn out, because cynicism is a killer.
Few people like to talk about it, but seasoned aid and development workers are seldom the happiest bunch. Not surprising given the realities they deal with every day. But what is surprising is just how many aid workers wear their cynicism like a badge of honor. One of our facilitators, Kit Loring, explains the toll this can take in this video.
The great irony here is that jadedness does not serve you, or anyone else. It does not make you tougher, smarter, or better at your job. What it does do is help bring down office morale, makes you prone to giving up too soon, and makes you a difficult person to live with.
If you would like an idea of the havoc this can wreak in your life, and how you can recover your balance, read Missionaries, Mercenaries and Misfits: How two Aid Workers came full circle in the Developing World (disclaimer: I am one of the two).
Be prepared to learn more than you teach.
Working in the field can be a humbling experience, and this is as it should be. Behind the more cerebral approaches to development is the sobering truth that ‘results-based management’ and ‘strategic interventions’ are poor substitutes for being able to truly LISTEN and SERVE. Egocentric attitudes of how things ‘should be done’ can rob us of the flexibility and insight that is required to actually get things done. So, remember why you are there, open your eyes and ears, and breathe deeply of your surroundings (and yes, this is easier said than done). If you do the result will be transformative. You will be a beneficiary.
Meaning is your greatest motivator.
One of the most interesting things about burnout is that it is generally non-existent for people who feel truly connected to a higher purpose, whatever that may be.
Do you know what that is for you?
If you don’t, I suggest you find out, because this will be your touchstone. The most successful and impactful aid and development workers I have known are the ones who could stay true to their sense of purpose over time. And if this seems like ‘airy fairy’ talk, take heed: there are plenty of practical tools to help you stay centered no matter how challenging your circumstances.
Would I do it again?
Truth is, even if I had known all of these things beforehand, I think I would still have chosen a life of global service, because I truly believe in the cause. But I would have wasted a lot less of my time, and that of others, trying to figure out how to do it with integrity if resilience and self-care had been part of my early learning.
The good news is that we need not re-invent the wheel to tackle these issues; as a community there is a lot we can learn from other disciplines, like psychology, social work and even ancient wisdom traditions, to help us stay effective in our work.
Satori Worldwide is committed to promoting the wellbeing of aid workers, expatriate families and others working in the field. If you are keen to learn the tools that will help you maintain balance and resilience in the field, you can join us for our next retreat in Bali—where fresh air, fresh food and fresh perspective await you.
If you would like to learn more about the less-publicised aspects of working in the field to see if “you are up for it” visit our Challenges of Global Service page www.satoriworldwide.com and learn why caring for yourself may well be one of the most altruistic things you will ever do.
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