Nine Months of Learning and Failing in India

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When I moved to India in July 2012, I expected to come away having left a demonstrable, long-term impact at the affordable private school I would work with.

As soon as I settled down in my job, I realized that the work would be a lot more challenging, complicated, and slower than I could have ever imagined. Yet, I didn’t want to settle for what I thought were more unsustainable, easier, or smaller-scale projects. I have ideals about social enterprise work that is sustainable, well planned, and intentional, and that addresses the root causes of problems as opposed to just surface issues. Even though I was primarily responsible for work at just one school, I still wanted to think big. 

In addition to these social enterprise ideals, I strongly believe that we shouldn’t fear failure in our work, and that we should talk openly about failure and learn from it. So I decided to approach my time in India as a safe time to fail. I committed myself to exploring my bigger ideas and ideals. But my acceptance of failure and pursuit of the bigger ideas meant I ignored smaller-scale projects at my school that could have also had an impact, even if an “unsustainable” one. That ultimately made me feel bad that I wasn’t supporting the school more. And was it really fair to use an approach of failure when dealing with the education of children, and when you have limited time to complete the work?

Even with an attitude of accepting the chance of failure, it’s difficult to commit yourself to spending time, away from your home country and comforts, to a cause you care deeply about, and to feel like you’ve failed. That you’ve failed the cause, and that you’ve failed yourself and your own potential to impact change.

I also spent a lot of time thinking about the inherently unsustainable nature of our work as fellows. Are we ultimately causing more harm than good by our short-term presence and lack of local knowledge? Some argue that our mere presence as Americans and outsiders helps the school with parent satisfaction and marketing, and for cultural exchange purposes. But that’s not why I chose to do this work, and I hate the idea of the “American coming to save the day.” That perception, which has been perpetrated over many years by various international development efforts, actually harmed a lot of my efforts at the school, such as when they expected me to pay for programs I suggested or asked me to take them shopping or buy them computers.

Ultimately, I accomplished very little this year in terms of programs for my school. I implemented a few smaller projects at the school; spent a lot of time researching some of my bigger ideas and partnerships but failed to implement any of them; and failed to fully implement one project that I spent six months working on, due to timeline and partnership problems mostly outside of my control. Beyond the failure to help the school, it’s incredibly frustrating to have done so little as someone who prides herself on being a “doer.”

There were a number of reasons why I believe I was unsuccessful at implementing programs at the school. It took me a long time to learn about the realities on the ground and figure out what root issues I wanted to address and how. There are complex, systemic issues facing low-income education in India, and I wanted to try to understand the issues as much as possible before I did anything, in order to minimize potential harm from approaching a problem in a less ideal way. I decided that some of my ideas seemed just too complicated to implement sustainably and well with limited time and financial resources. And I found the slower pace and unstructured nature of the work difficult to get accustomed to after several years of a fast-paced, slightly more structured work environment.

Outside of my work directly with the school, I feel I was more successful. I joined a team to research ed-tech for APS in India. We published a comprehensive report, and I’m very proud of it. I also launched a series for SocialStory exploring failure in social enterprise, wrote more regularly for this and other blogs, and fostered great relationships at my school and in the education and social enterprise community in India.

Even though I feel like I failed in terms helping the school, I still accomplished so much in terms of learning. I learned about the realities of low-income communities and low-income education in this part of India. I learned how to manage new cultural interactions. I learned more about what type of work and team environment I prefer. I learned a ton about education technology in the low-income school context. I learned I was more of an entrepreneurial thinker than I ever thought. I learned to think more critically about all the issues facing this type of work. And that only scratches the surface of what I learned this year.

I’m still wondering though, if I had to do it over again, would I do it differently? Would I remain committed to my ideal of addressing bigger, root cause problems at the expense of other programs, and would I keep the attitude of accepting failure? It’s difficult to say. I still believe ideals about social enterprise are important, as is a respect for failure, but such an approach probably requires much more time than nine months allows. It also may take many more years of work in social enterprise before I am able to find that right mix of ideals and action.

Looking back, while it feels like aspects of my work failed, the overall experience was far from a failure. My time in India has been valuable beyond measure. I’m extremely grateful for the experience, the relationships, and all the things I learned. I’m looking forward to building upon everything I learned in my next position and into the future.

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