Ambulances for India: (10) New York
December 22, 2011
I returned to New York in early September after completing my field assignment in India and spent the next three weeks attending one event after another, sharing my experiences with investors and other stakeholders in and outside of Acumen.
I also spoke with Acumen’s portfolio team, who discussed Ziqitza from an investor’s perspective, had conversations with students from New York University’s Stern School of Business, and had opportunities to meet again with the leaders who spoke to us before we departed on our field assignments. The last few days before our “graduation” on September 27 were spent with the new, incoming class of Acumen fellows.
My feelings prior to leaving Ziqitza, quite honestly, were, “Why do I have to go to New York now? Can’t I stay here a little longer?” I was enjoying my time in India, and I reasoned that it made more sense for me to stay on until the end of September to continue supporting this social venture and helping increase its social impact.
But once back in New York, things that I hadn’t noticed in India came into clearer focus. Some fellows had very similar experiences to mine, while others went through something completely different. Talking with people from various walks of life and with different interests also helped me to put my field assignment in perspective. Just taking one step back was eye-opening. This enabled me to more fully digest what I’d experienced, identify the essential lessons, and make better sense of it all.
During my three weeks in New York, I gave my attention to enjoying the reunion with the other fellows and the Acumen staff, rather than thinking or worrying about what I should do next. This is partly because I needed time to organize my thoughts after having been exposed to so much over the past year. Through conversations with others, the dust that had been swirling around inside of me gradually found niches in which to settle down.
A Dialogue with Myself
What should I make of this past year? I believe it was, in a nutshell, a year-long dialogue with myself. Acumen selects only 10 fellows from around the world each year, so having been chosen as one might appear to be a sign of success in itself (or at least a promise of future success). I like to think that I was successful in helping Ziqitza during my assignment there. But at the same time, there were days when I just couldn’t be sure of myself and wondered whether I was really making a contribution to the company.
During my stay in New York I had an opportunity to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the section exhibiting ancient Egyptian artifacts, I was struck by fragments of a mural. Only a few pieces were on display, but in its complete form, it must have been an enormous painting, covering an entire wall. It was like an unfinished jigsaw puzzle, with many unfilled gaps.
It dawned on me that this was what life is like. We don’t have all the pieces yet, and the chances are, we never will. We often think that “if we can just figure this problem out” or “after we get just one more piece,” we’ll finally have all the answers. But there is never a complete plan that can guide our work, our careers, and our lives. No one is capable of drawing up such a plan. So there’s no point worrying about having so few pieces now or thinking about the kind of pieces the future might bring. What I can do is to accept and have faith in myself as I am and do my best with the situation in front of me.
At the end of the fellowship period, Acumen CEO Jacqueline Novogratz shared these words with me:
“That combination of strength and vulnerability will enable you to do great things once you come to fully trust it . . . You have so much to give the world, and need only give yourself permission to know how wonderful you truly are.”
I am sure that among the readers of my reports, there are many who are concerned about the state of the world today and wish to make things better. It is with such readers, in particular, that I wish to share Jacqueline’s words. The underlying message is, “Don’t be too hard on yourself. You don’t need to be perfect. You’re OK just the way you are. Accept your strengths and weaknesses, believe in yourself, and start with a small first step.”
I’ve learned a lot this past year about impact investing, social business management, Indian-style communication, and much more. But the biggest lesson might have been rediscovering how to be happy with who I am.