The Toughest Lessons You’ll Ever Learn
I knew when I decided to apply to the Peace Corps, just over a decade ago, it would not be easy. It’s in their branding – how could it not be the toughest job I ever loved? But I truly did not comprehend what that tagline meant and how challenging (and rewarding) that time would be.
So with that, I went to Guatemala to serve as a volunteer health educator in local schools. In doing this, I had to move to a country I had never been to, to do a job I had never done, in a language I could not speak. That, to me, is a crash course in resourcefulness. But during my time in Guatemala, I not only found ways to overcome the challenges before me, I learned to excel in a world that was not mine. I’ve been able to carry these learnings back with me and apply them to my career in marketing, and life in general.
Don’t Fear Being the Fool
By the time I got through Peace Corps training I had the Spanish skills of a third grader. To stand in front of a class and teach, let alone hold parent conferences to explain why I was there to teach their children, was not just difficult—but rather embarrassing to be honest. It’s hard to come off as an intelligent person when you are restricted by a language barrier. There are two roads here; remain silent or speak and risk sounding like a fool. I chose the latter. They laughed, a lot. But so did I. So what if I said I wanted a man (hombre) when I was trying to say I was hungry (hambre)? We all had a good laugh and that made all the difference. Not only did I eventually become semi-fluent, but I also created confianza (Spanish slang for a trust between people) between myself and my colleagues.
LESSON: I learned that it is important to not hold back because of fear of being wrong or laughed at. There is a lot more to learn in our mistakes, than there is in inaction. Push forward, fail and learn. Then smile and shake it off—this is how we continue to grow.
Speak the Tribal Language
Not fearing being laughed at helped my Spanish skills along. The more I spoke the language the easier it was for me to live and work in Guatemala. But it was learning to speak an ancient Mayan language—albeit only a dozen phrases— that helped me really gain the trust of specific local tribes. After some time, I was able to pick up someQuiche’, one of the 26 different Mayan languages that still exist among the indigenous Mayan people of Guatemala.
Besides my healthy schools project, I also lead treks up volcanoes and through cloud forests to help raise money for Quetzaltrekkers, a non-profit that raised money for a school and home for street kids. In doing so, I’d cross through mountains where the people lived in huts and only spoke Mayan. So as our group of gangly gringos passed by them, nothing was more delightful then watching their harden stares turn into radiant smiles as I would sing out “Good day, sir. How are you?” in their own language. Even more so when I would follow up to their responses for a few more volleys of polite greetings. I maxed out at about twelve phrases, but that didn’t stop one delighted, elderly woman from continuing the conversation for another hour!
LESSON: Whether it’s an ancient Mayan language or being able to speak aptly about your client’s business and industry, knowing an insider or “tribal” language can break down many human barriers and create trust that builds strong relationships.
Use Your Weakness
The program I was assigned to, Healthy Schools, was designed for one volunteer to start a school in the program and teach for two years and a second volunteer to finish the program and hand off to the teachers at the end of their two years. A total of four years, and then the teachers should be teaching the classes on their own. My teachers were unprecedentedly doing this after my first year. Why? Because I made them rely on themselves and not me. How? I used my biggest weakness— my poor Spanish skills. Many volunteers went in and lead the classes right away, trying to establish themselves as experts. But since I was not nearly as fluent as most of the volunteers—I pushed my teachers early to teach the curriculum themselves from the start, with my lack of Spanish as the reasoning. Then slowly, I encouraged them to take over the classes completely while I would supervise. My second year, I only had to show up and watch the teachers shine. It also gave me plenty of time to focus on other programs, such as help build wells and paint the schools.
LESSON: We cannot be great at everything, but that does not mean we should let our shortcomings inhibit us. Know your weaknesses and make them into assets. I was a better leader by allowing the teachers to feel ownership early, rather than trying to do everything myself. In the end, it paid back with a stronger dedication to the program.
Eat What the Locals Offer
When in Rome, well, I’ve never been to Rome— but in Guatemala you eat a bug, or a pig’s ear or whatever local custom is offered to you. To not do this would have made it much more difficult for me to gain the trust of my counterparts. So I can now tell you what charred pig intestines taste like (and it’s not bacon). I also connected with many people that helped me with the success in my journey, and become friends along the way.
LESSON: As our global world becomes smaller, it is important to remember that while we have many similarities— we also have many differences and need to be open to other cultures. Sometimes you need to let go of your comfort zone to make others feel included. It goes a long way to break bread with people, even if that bread happens to be a deep-fried, hairy pig ear.
So while my time in the Peace Corps did turn out to be the toughest job I ever loved—it also helped me learn some of the best lessons I’ve ever loved that I still can apply to my life. Hopefully you picked up a few tips without having to eat a bug or carry a machete.