I experienced a life-defining moment while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Tanzania. It didn’t happen, as one might expect, during the two years I taught high school math in a rural village. Instead, the moment occurred at the end of our three-month orientation.
Each volunteer was partnered with a Tanzanian homestay family while attending day-long Swahili classes. I was placed with the Nguruwae family. They lived in a crowded neighborhood in Arusha. The Nguruwae family included two sisters in middle school, a younger brother, and their opinionated but loving mother.
It happened when Charles, another Peace Corps volunteer, and his family were visiting us at home. We were ten weeks into Swahili lessons and, apparently, Charles had really taken to the language. Although his speech faltered at times, he was nonetheless engaged in the chatter. He even answered questions with complete sentences!
Meanwhile, I sat on the outskirts, listening and concentrating deeply. I only understood about every third word, and I was trying to piece together the translated words into comprehensible thoughts to make sense of the discussion. I finally figured out they were discussing the unusual amount of rain we’d experienced lately, but the conversation had already taken another turn.
Suddenly, my efforts were interrupted by the wonderfully familiar sound of English. “Jackie doesn’t speak Swahili?” The question, which came from Charles’ mother, was addressed to my homestay mom.
The words hung in the air. I looked at my mom. The eyes that locked onto mine were sympathetic, yet forlorn. A few seconds passed; then, she slowly began shaking her head. In a tone dripping with disappointment, she lamented to the roomful of people, “Jackie tries.”
For weeks, I’d spent my evening leisure time studying my handwritten notecards. With a Swahili word on one side and its English equivalent scrawled on the back, I painstakingly sifted through the deck to improve my proficiency in the language.
While many Peace Corps volunteers regularly gathered after a long day of classes for happy hour camaraderie, I was determined that my efforts to conquer Swahili would eventually pay off. Clearly, they hadn’t.
After our guests left, I found myself alone in bed, staring at the ceiling and wondering if these two words properly summed up my existence: “Jackie tries.”
For as long as I could remember, I was constantly putting in more time and effort than others only to yield discouraging results. The image of my mom’s crestfallen face filled my mind. I pulled the sheets over my head to clear my thoughts. Instead, flashbacks of my past attempts and failures formed a line, patiently waiting their turn for my attention as I fitfully drifted off to sleep.
I wish I could go back in time to comfort that disheartened dreamer. I’d whisper that one day she would become an engineering corporate trainer. Because she herself was a slow learner, she always made time to mentor struggling colleagues. Even though this would require coming in early or working through lunch, it would lead to meaningful friendships, promotions, and a fulfilling training career. She’d have to work harder than others, but it would be worth it.
But I couldn’t time travel. So that night I remained disconsolate and disillusioned.
We often don’t know how a moment we’re experiencing will fit into our story. We see the piece and think it’s the entire puzzle. But that’s just not true.
Now, when I don’t achieve a goal and feel bitterness and thoughts of defeat begin to take hold, I remind myself of my homestay mom saying, “Jackie tries.”
Because that’s what we’re all called to do: to try, and if we fail, to try again. As we explore untrodden paths and undertake new ventures, there will be many times we won’t succeed. There will be those who don’t understand or even criticize our efforts. But if we can bear the pain and learn to grow from our failures, we will become like swords forged in fire — sharper, stronger, and ready to face the challenges at hand.
The great men and women of history have, each in their own way, struggled to achieve their lives’ missions but managed, through perseverance, to emerge victorious. Among those is Theodore Roosevelt, the twenty-sixth President of the United States. On 23 April 1910, Theodore Roosevelt was in Paris, France to give a speech called “Citizenship in the Republic.” He wished to emphasize his belief that the success of a republic rested on its citizens’ disciplined work and character.
One notable passage, often referred to as “The Man in the Arena,” perfectly encapsulates this sentiment:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
As we move into the new year, let it be one where we fail but choose to get up again and dare bravely.
Jacquelyn Adams, an IEEE Senior member, is a nationally-recognized leader in employee learning and development. Jacquelyn is the CEO and Founder of Ristole, a consulting business that transforms corporations through engaging employee training. Find more of her Lessons on Leadership columns here.