I recently ate at a small family restaurant somewhere in the middle of South Dakota that shared the following thought on its menu in between the fried chicken and homemade chili: “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing enough not to put it in a fruit salad.” With that in mind, I wanted to share some different bits of wisdom that I’ve come across lately and perhaps you who read this will gleam something from their insight as well as you choose what to put into your fruit salad of life.
1. “Expect disappointment.”
I recently came across a post on the blog A Life Overseas by contributor, Laura Parker, sharing 5 mistakes that she made her first year in the mission field, and this was one of her pieces of advice. It is, in fact, one of the best pieces of advice I think people going into mission or international aid work can receive before they travel. In her post, Parker writes, ” From yourself. From your marriage. From the ministry you came to serve. From the culture. From your finances. From the nationals and other missionaries. From your walk with God. From your kids. And while I am typically a sunshine-daily optimist, I know I would have done better during our first year if I had lower expectations.” This may seem like a strange piece of advice coming from me for those who know me well because I typically maintain very high expectations for myself and those that I work with. On multiple occasions when I have asked a staff member or a volunteer how a particular activity went and they answer “fine,” I have responded, “I don’t want fine, I want extraordinary.” And I definitely believe that this is the standard that we have to aim for if we are going to find success in our organization. However, although I communicate these very high expectations in order to motivate those involved to give their absolute best, I am never surprised when these expectations aren’t satisfied. I prepare myself to deal with the inevitable disappointment in a way that we can all learn from and move forward stronger. But I think that this advice is especially vital for anyone embarking on a new adventure that you will never find the reality you discover after being there will be all rainbows and roses like you saw on the website. Living internationally is tough. Working internationally and cross-culturally is even tougher. So, although there are beautiful triumphs that happen everyday, most of the time you will find yourself banging your head against the wall, screaming at the heavens, and asking unanswerable questions until you forget where you came from. Expect disappointment.
2. “Complain about the way other people make software by making software.”
I found this quote by Andre Torrez in the book Steal Like An Artist, written by Austin Kleon. The entire little book is worth the read, but this quote really stuck out and has stuck with me. The most effective way to complain about others doing something in a way that you find unacceptable, or unsatisfactory, whether it be making software, making art, or doing international nonprofit work, is to do it yourself and do it better. We can complain and criticize all we want, but if those complaints aren’t backed up by proof that something better can be accomplished as an alternative, then they go in vain. It’s a good reminder to someone like me who does my fair share of criticizing in this blog, that the best form of complaining is better work, better products, better outcomes. Always take what you’ve learned from your disagreement with the methods of others to make your own work the best it can possibly be. This is really the biggest reason I ever started a nonprofit myself, not because I had always wanted to run a nonprofit, but I wanted to complain about the way I saw others doing nonprofit work, so I made a nonprofit. And because of that now that nonprofit has turned into something that is providing the community with a lot of very valuable services that I’m very fortunate to be a part of. And now I’m able to turn back around and share what I’ve learned through that process with many people. Complaints only go so far but action can lead places you never expect. Make software.
3. “Don’t make people pay. Let people pay.”
When I’m in the States with high speed internet and extra time (which isn’t often) I love to keeping up with the TED talks. And just a day or two before returning to Haiti this time I spent some of that time enjoying one of the most profoundly unique and personally pertinent talks that I’ve ever watched. It was by Amanda Palmer, musician, rock star, artist, and revolutionary in the business of music. Her talk was titled “The Art of Asking” and in it she describes her background as a street performer and how that has led to her creating a career out of making music through the most extreme forms of audience and customer connections possible. In the talk she says, “I think people have been obsessed with the wrong question, which is, ‘How do we make people pay for music?’ What if we started asking, ‘How do we LET people pay for music?” She never puts a price on her music, she just gives it away for free and lets people pay what it’s worth to them. As both an artist and someone who is used to asking people to give money for my nonprofit work, I found her story inspirational and began to look for how her example could apply to what I do. Nonprofit work is all about creating that human connection where, through the act of giving, both the giver and receiver better understand one another. It is not about providing a product and collecting a price but about building relationships that have indefinite values on both ends. The same way that all art and music needs to create that human connection that cannot have a price tag stuck to it, the work that we all strive to do to develop our world into a more beautiful place for all to live must be understood as something much greater than just a market exchange. Expecting a payment is cold. Inviting someone to be a part of something that they find valuable provides energy to the human spirit. Let people pay.
So, if you have time, please read the blog, check out the book, and watch the video. May your life be forever changed and may you never find any tomatoes in your fruit salad.