Devastating Failures: An Important Part of Successful Journeys

Devastating Failures: An Important Part of Successful Journeys

During my two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Tanzania, I wrote articles for my hometown newspaper. There are so many misconceptions about Africa being completely war-ravaged and disease infested. I wanted to share one foreigner’s perspective of what everyday life in a rural village was like. So, I reached out to the Hicksville News Tribune and asked if they’d publish my stories. They agreed, so I shared anecdotes about my fascination with women carrying three 10-gallon buckets to their homes every morning, or the challenges of teaching high school math in Swahili to classes of ninety students. Almost all my stories had a positive spin. It told of how people with limited means overcame harsh odds to live fulfilling lives with strong relationships. Or I spoke of how much I was learning by living outside my comfort zone. My cultural assumptions were being challenged regularly and I was seeing the world from a different perspective.

I understood at times I was experiencing culture shock from living a life without indoor plumbing, limited electricity, and a restricted diet. Because of this, I sent my parents the drafts first to review, giving them the ability to veto an article instead of passing it along to the newspaper. But they gave positive feedback and encouraged me to share more stories. Until the day when they exercised the right to veto.

It happened one day when everything went wrong. It was a difficult day in the class. The room was stuffy from the afternoon heat with no respite, and the students were restless. I found myself missing my family and friends as well as the everyday comforts of back home. It was one of those days where I had just had enough. All I wanted to do was go back to the teachers’ housing unit and enjoy my daily lunch of rice, red kidney beans, and fried spinach. But when I arrived home and started to eat my meal I noticed a weevil, a type of beetle, mixed in with the beans on my plate. I scooped it out and placed it beside my plate before taking another bite. But then I noticed another weevil. I repeated the process scooping out the bug and taking my next bite until the fourth time this occurred. After that, I stopped eating. I continued digging around in my beans discovering at least three more weevils. In disgust, I pushed away my meal. I was tired of the challenges of being a high school teacher and the hardships of a life in a less-developed nation. I knew I was in the right place doing what I was called to do, but in that moment, I was done. So, I just gave up…. but just for the day. I had a lazy evening of loafing (normally I’d zone out watching tv, but with no electricity that wasn’t an option) and put myself to bed early. The next day after I finished teaching my classes, I wrote out my experiences and ended the article by saying I hadn’t fixed it. That life was hard sometimes, and it wasn’t pretty, but it was real. A couple weeks later when I was visiting town to pick up supplies, I emailed my latest story off to my parents for review and submission to the newspaper. A couple weeks after that when I checked my email in an internet cafe, I received a reply from my parents saying they hadn’t submitted this article to the newspaper. They said the messaging didn’t reflect well on me or the village. I suspect they were also pretty grossed out by the possibility of me accidentally consuming any of the weevils before opting to toss out my lunch.

But I was having none of it. I used my calling card to place an international call to my parents. I insisted they send this story the newspaper. I knew if I only shared the lighthearted side of life in a rural Tanzanian village, my columns would lack the depth of true life. Life doesn’t always come with a happy ending and a feel-good moral of the story. Sometimes it’s demoralizing and hard. Sometimes, you just need to give yourself some space and time outside your personal reality. Sometimes it’s ok to fully and even welcome defeat – if only for a bit.

It’s now been almost fifteen years since I was living in that Tanzanian village scooping weevils out of my meal. However, the lesson I learned back then is just as true in my experiences as an entrepreneur as it was back when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer. Sometimes when the pressure of my position becomes too much for me, I simply accept it. I fully acknowledge my feelings of disappointment and dejection. I recognize the times my struggles to succeed have come up short. I embrace the stress of risking it all in a game of business I never fully understand. And I stay with that feeling. I let it marinate. I go for an afternoon hike to mull it over. Or I’ll taken an extended run feeling the stressful energy course throughout my body.

Society focuses on the successes of entrepreneurial ventures. People tend to congratulate us the moment we’ve achieved a public victory. But what about the moments when we are in the thick of it? When we are tired and frustrated having worked long hours? Why do we not encourage each other for the process instead of laser focusing on the end? Often, we hear people say, “it’s about the journey, not the destination.” But do we attempt to celebrate others’ journeys, let alone our own?

I recognize the times I’ve struggled and failed. Sometimes I’ve even given up temporarily. To appreciate the journey is to take on the highs and the lows. And to recognize that both are part of the process; and neither is more of it than the other.


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.

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