I hate myself for it – but it’s true. I have been constantly failing for the last few weeks to the point where I feel like I have the words ‘failure’ tattooed on my forehead.
At the beginning of the year I sat down and wrote goals that are incredibly important to me. It’s April now (seriously – where did the year go?) and I have almost systematically failed at meeting any of my goals so far.
In fact, when I met up for coffee with a friend he mentioned that he had found my blog. I did what any writer does in those moments – I casually asked what he thought, while having a slight anxiety attack about wether or not my work was any good. He laughed and said: ”You have three posts which means you’re doing better than the average person who starts a blog.”
First of all: ouch. Second of all: true. This blog was a great example of where I wasn’t hitting the goals I had set for myself at the beginning of the year.
So I did what any mature adult would do. I threw tantrums at my computer, felt sorry for myself while watching endless TV shows and gave up. After all, I was terrible at spelling, didn’t understand commas and obviously didn’t have the discipline to post regularly – so what was the point?
Just as I thought I had made peace with not hitting my goals, panic set in. If I couldn’t setup a blog, then how was I going to setup an organisation? Since I had failed at being a writer maybe that was just proof that I couldn’t communicate. If I couldn’t communicate then I was never going to succeed at a job and really it was only a matter of time before I was alone, in a ditch, with a dozen cats to keep me company.
This line of thinking resulted in a few days where my life closely resembled a montage of Girls. That’s when I realised I was being ridiculous. I had failed before. Within the first few months of becoming vegeterian I had eaten one of the best steaks of my life. I knew that learning to walk involved stumbling. Of course it was going to be the same with the blog and my other goals – after all I was pushing myself to do things I hadn’t really done before. That was what made this year scarier then last year – I was pushing myself to face my fears in a way I’d never done before.
I had two choices: give up or keep trying. My goals were too important to me to give up on. My only choice was to embrace failure so I could keep going.
This meant that I couldn’t go into tailspin about my whole world at the smallest sign of failure. I couldn’t let my self worth be tied up to a perception of constant success. This wasn’t an an easy challenge – my self worth has been tied to my work and campaigning for a long time. I needed a circuit breaker.
Now, when I find myself wallowing because not being able to do a task means I’m inadequate, I switch focus. It means if I’m stressed about not being able to write, I force myself to write. Even if it is just a sentence. Instead of fretting over the words not being good enough I start writing with the assumption that my writing won’t be perfect. Without having the pressure to succeed instantly it becomes easier to start.
I call this process an “automatic reset.” An automatic reset happens when instead of focusing on how you can’t do something, you just do it. I’ve found it incredibly useful because in some ways it eliminates the past. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never been able to do something well before. By doing the task and each time viewing it in isolation, it becomes a lot easier to make progress. This process has helped me move from the world of self doubt and stress to the world of getting shit done. The second world is much more fun.
Insecurity and self doubt aren’t things we talk about often – but I think we need to start talking about these things openly and honestly. When starting a new project so much of my insecurity comes from the feeling of needing to be an overnight success. Is that the same for others? Is your insecurity linked with a fear of failure or something else? What are the tools you use to overcome your insecurities. Please share your experiences so we can all grow together.
“What the hell are you doing?”
I cringed when I heard that question and it wasn’t even directed at me. A friend of mine was on the phone but it was hard not to overhear the conversation.
“Seriously, what are you doing?”
The voice on the other line was persistent – I had never heard someone hold a friend to account like that. My friend stumbled on his words, he had no good answer, no worthwhile excuse.
He was a vegetarian, but had started to slip. The person on the other end of the line wasn’t about to let him let go of his commitment.
At first, overhearing the questions made me defensive; even angry. I thought the person on the other end of the line was rude, brash and completely out of line. Then I realised I was angry not because of the tone – but because I couldn’t answer the question. What I was feeling was that brand of self-righteous indignation that bubbles whenever someone points out that you’re doing something that you already know is wrong.
The thing was, I loved meat. I loved kebabs, steaks, burgers, chicken, hotdogs and seafood. Even now I still practically salivate when I walk past a hot dog stand in New York. I knew the arguments about why being a vegetarian made sense – for the environment, for health reasons and for animal rights as well. Whenever I saw or thought about the death of an animal, it almost reduced me to tears. But meat was a core part of my life and I loved eating it.
I told myself this contradiction was okay because I was already doing my share. I was a do-gooder, I spent my life working on campaigns – didn’t that mean I could cut myself some slack? Didn’t the ‘good’ mean that it was okay to let myself off the hook?
“What the hell are you doing?”
The question was like a cold slap. It was that raised eyebrow when you know you’ve said something ridiculous. And it made me realise that, fundamentally, I didn’t want my body to be sustained through the death of living things. Yes, it was going to be hard. But what I realised in that moment was that my actions weren’t consistent with who I wanted to be. There were no excuses to justify that.
It’s been a year since I made the decision to go vegetarian. I’ve slipped up a few times but what’s gotten me through the tough times was the idea that eating meat just wasn’t me.
Being able to link a goal to your core value set – the key ideas that define who you want to be – is hugely powerful. After reviewing my goals from last year, I realised it was the key difference between goals I achieved and those I didn’t. It’s been a long process but starting to be aware of what my core values are, and reshaping my life so that my actions and values are consistent, is what has helped me realise that I should step up and start an organisation around my key passion: Iran.
Tomorrow, I’ll post a more practical guide about how to make these changes and tackle a goal like being vegetarian. Have you ever struggled with living your values? Are there any you’re thinking about tackling for the new year?
The concept of ‘service’ has fallen out of fashion lately. It’s time we brought it back. As organisers, the question of “who am I serving?” should be a central part of our day to day work. After all, if the work we’re doing doesn’t fundamentally make people’s lives better then what on earth are we doing?
As I’ve started to work creating my own organisation, the question ‘who am I serving?’ has been central to making sure that I’m staying on track, that I’m clear about the values of the organisation, and that I know what the non-negotiable aspects of the project are.
Here are four key reasons why I think having a ‘service’ mentality is incredibly important when setting up an advocacy startup or working on advocacy in general.
1. It makes you think of people. Real people.
Answering the question ‘who am I serving’ forces us to define clearly who our key constituency is. It means we have to think of real people and forces us to put ourselves in their shoes and think about the real challenges they face in their lives. There will be times when you won’t be able to answer that question, when you realise that you don’t know anything about the community you’re trying to serve or what you thought you knew is wrong or incomplete. This can be a terrifying realisation, but one that can be fixed through conversations – if you are serving a community, get out there – you can’t serve people if you don’t understand who they are, what they need, and what role you can best play.
The second great side-effect of this is that it helps create focus on impact – what are the things that will make a concrete difference in people’s lives?
2. It keeps your ego in check
Having a service mentality also means that it’s not about you. It’s not about getting personal recognition, it’s about empowering others to get the outcome that best serves their needs.
This has been a huge challenge and moment to learn for me over the past few months. When I’m incredible passionate about a project I tend to ‘centralise’ and try to do everything myself. It’s an easy trap to fall into when you feel personally responsible for something and want it to be perfect. For me, refocusing the project from ‘how do I make this perfect’ to ‘how do I best serve a community’ has helped me let go, helped me accept that having other people’s expertise and insights in the project will make it infinitely better.
3. It forces you to deal with your own privilege.
There have been times when I’ve gone into communities with an idea to ‘help’ and then got frustrated or even resentful if the community wasn’t interested. Communities that have traditionally been sidelined or marginalised have usually had more than their fair share of people who ‘wanted to help’.
They have no reason to trust you and I’ve learned the hard way that waltzing into communities and asking them to take time out of their busy schedules to help get your pet project off the ground isn’t ‘service’. You have to earn that trust by giving up a desire to ‘lead’ or ‘be right.’ By listening to people when they say what they want or what they need help with and then working together to solve those issues is the only way you can build trust.
4. It keeps the focus on your product and not on marketing and spin.
Let’s be honest: we’ve all worked on projects or programs that were meant to help, but in the end were never implemented. It doesn’t matter how good a product sounds or how well designed; if it’s not what people find useful or engaging then they won’t use it. No matter how many times you ask them to or how many marketing campaigns you run around it.
How do we introduce a ‘service mentality’ into our work:
If you’re starting a start up:
Answer the question of ‘who am I serving’ in as much detail as possible. Then go out there and talk to those people, get to know them, see if the assumptions you had about what they needed and what they would use are actually correct.
If you’re in a campaigning organisation:
Try to weave the question of ‘who are we serving’ into campaign meetings. Often we ask about a campaign’s theory of change and what the ask is. But turning our thoughts to ‘who is the campaign serving’ not only highlights potential new angles around a campaign, but also can ensure that the campaigns we’re running have tangible impact.
Has anyone seen any great examples of a service mentality being used in organisations or on campaigns? Please comment and share your experiences.
I started working at GetUp (Australia’s leading online progressive organisation) four years ago. I joined the team because I wanted to help build a progressive movement in Australia. I stayed because every day I was able to be part of campaigns that were not only engaging and exciting but had impact. I got to help show that Australians backed a price on pollution, organised thousands of candles on the front lawns of parliament house in support of mental health reform and over the last year I helped create CommunityRun.org a platform that empowered GetUp members to run their own campaigns.
For those of you who know me and are reading this you’ll know that I was born in Iran and the situation in the country has been on my mind for quite some time. I moved to the US a few months ago, originally on a secondment to learn the key lessons from the election and then to come back home. In New York, I enrolled in advanced Farsi courses, started working with the diaspora and learned more and more about the devastating impact of the sanctions, about how close we potentially are to yet another pointless war. That’s when I decided that it was time to get off the sidelines.
I’ve resigned from GetUp because over the coming months I’m going to try to set up a new online organisation dedicated to supporting grassroots activists within Iran. It’s not going to be an easy journey and it’s one that already put me on quite a steep learning curve but one that I’m not only excited about but feel truly privileged to be able to embark on.
I decided to start this blog to help document the lessons I’m learning. There are a lot of resources out there to help for profit entrepreneurs yet these don’t help with some of the nuances of setting up new systems and organisations for advocacy. This blog will be a hub for book summaries, articles, organisation profiles and other useful tid bits I come across as I try to get this start up off the ground.
My only hope is that it’s useful.