I am sure most of you have had that moment where your attempt at a good intention failed. Maybe you bought a gift for someone that they were disappointed with. Or you told someone “you look great today” and they responded “are you saying I don’t look good every day?”
Or in the case of those of us in the social impact field, we set out to solve a long-standing problem and it backfires. Take the case of the unused mosquito nets across Africa, for example. It seemed like the perfect solution to prevent malaria, but the uptake was low because it was not designed to the user’s needs. While the mosquito net case is used to make a statement about what not to do, this intervention came from good intentions.
I admire the social impact community for learning from this example, and especially at Saïd Business School our professors and classmates encourage us to apply frameworks such as design thinking to empathise with the end user before developing a solution for them. We are encouraged to develop a positive relationship with failure, to fail fast and redesign our solution based on feedback we collect.
I want to add one message to this: in the process of learning from our failures, let us also have self-compassion. At my last job, I was working on enabling NGOs in rural India to bring clean cooking to their communities. When I found out that half the clean cookstoves we distributed had broken, I was so hard on myself for not thinking to suggest we build maintenance into our model. I started wondering if maybe I am not the right person to do this kind of work, and if I was causing more harm than good. These negative thoughts prevented me from thinking objectively about how to fix the problem. But the best advice I got was “don’t be so hard on yourself that you feel guilty and get stuck. You did your best, and now you can learn from this and improve for next time”. With this, I was able to regain the strength to work with my team and we did end up successfully improving the program to enable sustained adoption of the cookstoves.
Maybe you are reading this thinking “this doesn’t apply to me, I am already kind to myself”. If this is true, that’s fantastic and also please share your secret with us! For those who share my struggle with balancing self-motivation with self-compassion, I found this 5 minute self-compassion podcast very helpful.
Either way, I hope we can start to create a cultural norm of sharing our “failures” and encourage each other to practice kindness to ourselves. I ultimately believe that for those of us that want to help others for the long haul, we need to first learn to be kind to ourselves in order to stay in this field sustainably.Back to top of article