Monthly Archives: June 2012

Lessons Learned

I woke up to a television still buzzing from the night before. I hung my head over the side of the bed to get a peak at the clock, which read in digital characters “9:26”

By this time normally, I’d have a coffee in hand, a worn blue polo wrapped around my chest and dusty shoes on my feet, pacing over to the nearby office building debating all of the things needing to be completed that day while writing small reminders on the palm of my hand. GMT +4:30 is no joke, especially when your end of day is the start of day in Washington. Think a Twitter feed of emails all asking questions with no definitive answers.

I got out of bed and looked outside my window, the Burj Khalifa is as spectacular as always; but it is a crown worn by a hollow city. A shell of glitz and glamour inflated by hot air (and unfortunately a thriving human trafficking record). I would’ve never guessed even one year ago how much time I would be spending in Dubai, sometimes I think most of life’s big events can never be predicted. I picked up a pen and wrote a few small notes on my hand and threw on a shirt.

Eight months in Afghanistan later, I will be returning home to the US. I think the amount of personal growth I’ve experienced over the last eight months is invaluable. To live in a place so far removed and submerged in a culture very different from your own is an invigorating experience. Everything in life is relative, and for the first time the entire context of my existence – living a normal life in the United States – has something to be relative to – living a [sort of] normal life in Afghanistan.

My understanding of the world has expanded beyond the geographic confines of the United States, and it is a gift chained to a responsibility.

The gift? I’ve been blessed with an experience I’m strung to for life. It has honestly changed the core of my being.

The responsibility? I’ve truly been awoken to the realities of life outside of the west – which come with a whole host of obligations. This is not just life in Afghanistan, but life in Pakistan, Thailand, South Africa, Egypt, China, Palestine, UAE, and the list goes on.

I finally put on my shoes as the digital clock blinked “10:30am” and decided it was time to get some food. For the first time in a while, I can freely walk out the front doors without any arrangement of security personnel to escort me door to door. No armored vehicles, no security threats… just a Nandos down the street and a double chicken burger for an overpriced amount of Dirhams.

“A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.” – Martin Luther King Jr

I remember hearing that quote for the first time a few months ago, I don’t remember exactly where, but I remember it striking a chord in my head.  I tried to draw a parallel between my life and that quote – but came up short for answers.  What cause would I really be willing to sacrifice my life for?  It’s easy to romanticize, “for the end of poverty, I would of course give my life!” – but is that really what this quote is saying?  And would I really do that?

Or is this quote really saying, “For what cause will you dedicate your life to?”

..because to dedicate your life to something essentially amounts to your death being for that specific cause, right?  If you spend a hypothetical 50 of 70 years working at a certain cause, is it safe to assume you died in the fight for that cause?  Have I spent the last 20 years fighting poverty?  If not, then I answered my own question – I would not give my life for poverty… my life experience, unfortunately, proves it.

Naturally, a follow up question to ask is, “Maybe I haven’t found that cause, or that perfect career, or that thing that I am passionately working towards?”

That question never has been so clear to me as a truly privileged question to ask.

Unfortunately, much of the world cannot afford a question like this because there is no wide-array of opportunity to cherry pick a life path.  Most of the time, the career path is whatever makes money for food and shelter.  Ask any of the subcontinental laborers or taxi drivers around Dubai.  Or any of the farmers around the fringes of Afghanistan.  Ask any of the “art students” of China or the “tour guides” of Egypt.

*Note: A popular scam on tourists in China is to pose as an art student selling authentic award winning paintings – which are actually mass produced.  In Egypt, many times simply giving directions or providing some background information to someone about a particular area warrants “baksheesh”, or a tip.

I’ve begun to develop an appreciation for those nights in a hotel in Afghanistan when I wondered, “What am I really doing here?  Is the investment truly worth the end result?”  As hard as those questions were to answer, I was at least fortunate to have the ability to ask them.

More generally, It’s a blessing that living in the United States, we have the ability to choose the work that we want to pursue.  Ultimately, where you are right now is more a reflection on the career path you wanted to develop moreso than the choice between work or starvation.

This is a blessing of a developed economy and living outside of poverty.

I bought a pack of cigarettes at the local bazaar which is two blocks from the hotel.  The aggressive Dubai sun is enough to keep a traveling soul like mine confined to the four walls of my room.  I don’t smoke much, a pack will last me, literally, months.  It’s more of a luxury than anything; perhaps I’ll burn one over a coffee or after a late evening of work.  Sometimes I need to keep my physical self distracted long enough to think through a problem and the 5 minutes that a cigarette affords is just enough time to do so.

So choosing a career path is a blessing and a privilege, but how do you return the favor for this blessing?

In Afghanistan, people come and go. NGO’s get funded, they execute some semblance of their mission, and they disperse.  People with bright ideas and diesel powered motivation come in with a certain (likely distorted) perception of what exists, and what they need to do to change it.  With a big smile on their face, an NGO standing behind them, and a cause which they’re ready spend… maybe 3 months executing.

Then they leave.

Perhaps on the flight home, they realize, maybe things could have been different. Then the funding starts drying up. Then the entire organization leaves. Then each individual goes back home to Europe or the United States, where they apply for graduate school and spend the next 2-6 years writing papers about the lessons they learned while overseas. They graduate, and make a six-figure income while they brag to their associates of their experiences in the “third world.”

This is me.

But through the money, effort, labor, and stress developed – what was the result? Ok a couple things were learned, but what actually was improved? Will the lessons you learned affect your decision making process beyond your MBA? Will you leave a six-figure income to go out and attempt to right the wrongs of which you have learned? Or will you take the prestige handed to you on a golden platter and proceed to make a stellar income while spouting off development stories which makes everyone proud of your ‘achievements?’

This is also me.

As I prepared to leave Afghanistan, shrouded in 2 tons of armor, I looked out the window immersed in bittersweet retrospection.  What could have been done differently?  I came out here hoping to shake things up but I’m leaving.. well.. a bit shaken myself.  The change makers aren’t the ones that come out for a year and claim they made a mark.  The change makers are the ones that spend their lives in dedication to the cause.  Or even simpler, that spend at least a number of years working for change.  Those are the ones that truly make a difference, any period shorter than that is just learning.

To recount one depressing quote said by a local I was working with…

“How do you like it out here?” he asked

“It’s good but, see these four walls?”, I said pointing to the edges of my compound, “This is my prison”

“At least you can leave when you need to…. Afghanistan is my prison”, he said… smiling.

To return the favor of living outside of poverty is to give back to the communities which don’t have the same luxuries you do.  To dedicate your existence to the assistance of others and not a selfish accumulation of wealth.  Unfortunately the human ego tirelessly tries to destroy that give-back mentality.

And the human ego is a bitch and a half to overcome.