The ‘journey’ or the destination?

Monday, August 29, 2011 Permalink

About 16 years ago I was feeling bored and unfulfilled with my life (I know, you’re shocked… me, a malcontent?!) so joined an overseas volunteer program and went to work in the wilds of Africa. Well, actually it was the capital city of the south-east African country of Mozambique.

Before I went I participated in a number of training sessions and briefings. We were told that things worked differently in developing countries: corruption could be rife and seen as the norm; and people had to struggle for necessities so their values and expectations may be quite different to our own.

Very importantly we were told that the working environment ‘could’ also be quite different. In our jobs here in Australia, we’re used to moving and working at breakneck speed. It’s all about achieving and outcomes. In the developing world – we were told – things can move slowly; there are competing priorities; and EVERYTHING is harder, and we should prepare for that. Our placements may well be more about the journey than the destination. So they said.

At that time I was working in community development, but studying for my Master of Business Administration to move out of the social/community sector. I’d had my ‘fill’ of that world and an overly-strong focus on ‘process’ to (I believed) the detriment of deliverables. I was tired of an all-talk and no-action world.

So, as I listened to the well-meaning, though experienced cross-cultural trainers I KNEW that I wasn’t going to be one of those people whose two years overseas achieved sweet fuck-all, but who learned a lot about themselves and the world. Nope. No siree.

Of course I arrived in Africa to discover that I was one in a long line of expats to work with the women’s non-government organisation to which I was attached. It was my first foray into international development and a useful lesson for me. The organisation itself had HUGE potential. The women (activists) working around the country (and being paid in beans, oil and rice from the World Food Program) had their hearts in the right places. But in central office, the women I worked with were paid fairly well (in comparison to others). Their focus was on getting more money to do the things they were already doing, rather than identify new needs or commence programs not in existence, such as those to address domestic violence. Essentially I was the tokenistic expatriate who was their ticket into the international and UN donor systems.

My colleagues didn’t spend a lot of time at work. They had a myriad of other commitments and everything took time. Each payday they disappeared for half a day to do their banking and an appointment anywhere took a day or two. Although I enjoyed the visits to the women’s groups around the country, meeting others working there and learning about what they did, I spent A LOT of time clock-watching. My working days dragged. I was bored silly, and worried I was de-skilling.

But… I loved it there. I loved the people and the place but I yearned for a job that would be more fulfilling. In the end I finished up my two-year placement just over 6 months early because another opportunity popped up. But I remember going to the same training sessions for my next placement (which was Cambodia). This time I joined in when the trainers talked about the work often being more about the ‘life’ we spent there, rather than our contribution to work outputs. Although I hate to admit it – and despite my fear of sounding like some wanky reality television show contestant – it was (at the time) very much about the journey rather than the destination.

In the years that I have passed, however, I have again become more cynical and pragmatic. I spent many more years in international development, but in a different context where I had opportunities to leverage more change.

And now, as a project manager and someone who’s managed a lot of reporting, for me it’s again more about the end products – the deliverables.

I’ve been thinking about this today having overheard a conversation on the train this morning. I blame the fact that I left my iPhone at home and having nothing to occupy my hands or mind during the 30 minute commute. As a result I looked out of the window (in a zen-like trance) and eavesdropped on those around me.

The conversation centred around this person’s child – who hadn’t finished some project they’d spent the weekend on. The mother claimed that the child had learnt a lot through the process… so believed that the teacher shouldn’t punish them for not completing the piece of work.

But like I said, I coordinate a lot of reporting nowadays and, frankly, I don’t want to hear about processes. I want to know what’s been achieved. Sure, sometimes the journey itself is important, but learning something along the way isn’t much good if you don’t actually achieve what you set out to do.

We learn a lot about ourselves when we go through change. I’m participating in a weight loss program at the moment. Each time I go on a diet, try to eat healthily, exercise, or challenge my behaviour and thinking in some way, I learn something new about myself. That in itself is a good thing. And it’s great that the very process of dieting and eating healthily gives us tools and resources to better-manage everything that is thrown at us. But… I want (and need) to get to the end point. I want to reach my goal.
Life is a journey. Wear comfortable shoes.
Emerson says that “Life is a journey, not a destination…” That’s true. But if we don’t know where we are going; how will we know if and when we get there?

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