To Work Well

Gukora neza

To work well

I used to believe that anything worth doing is worth doing well until I realised that it’s a lie. The truth is that anything worth doing is worth doing badly, and anything worth trying has to be worth failing.*

I have now been in Rwanda for six months and at site for three, and my first term of teaching is over.

I have done many things, and I have done many of them badly. In many instances, I have tried and failed.

And I think that the things I have done and the things I have tried were worth making a muddle of, and here is why: Something is always better than nothing.

I tell myself this when I go to market with a shopping list and leave with half of the items because anxiety made it impossible for me to face one more vendor. If I have a single item of food that can tide me over until tomorrow, it is enough. Something is better than nothing.

I tell myself this when I walk into a classroom feeling inadequate and inexperienced. Even if my students learn nothing, hearing English spoken by a native speaker is more than they would have otherwise. Something is better than nothing.

During staging, we were asked to list things we feared. Our lists included:

  • Host families hating us
  • Parasites
  • Having to ET (Early Termination**) because we couldn’t handle the pressure
  • Failing to learn the language
  • Food poisoning

We could all think of an endless stream of specific ways we might fail.

Then we were asked to list our expectations for success. Suddenly our stream of ideas dried up.

We wound up with vague ideas like, “We want our students to learn,” or, “We want to make friends in the village.” In fact, I can only remember one specific, measureable goal on our list of successes—“I want to become a regular patron at a local coffee shop.”

We gave ourselves a clear picture of failure, but we had hazy ideas of success. We left ourselves no way to see the something, and that left us facing the idea of nothing.

So I resolved to give myself reasonable goals and to pay attention to those moments when I moved toward them. I began a list of somethings—a list of good moments, of steps that did not in themselves achieve my goals but that were not nothings.

I want you to know that at the end of one term, I have not achieved any of my big goals.

And this is okay, because I have not let that paralyse me into doing nothing.

I want to share with you some items off my list of somethings.

  • Held a small conversation in Kinyarwanda
  • Had a student understand that I wanted ideas and opinions, no matter whether right or wrong, without my saying so, and offering to translate that concept to the class without my asking
  • Navigated Kigali by myself for the first time and didn’t get lost
  • Retaught an entire lesson—this is a success because I realised that the initial lesson had been a failure and I took the time to do it again instead of pushing them to move on to the next idea
  • Had students ask me to explain English words they’ve come across outside my classes
  • Made friends with the bank teller
  • Started weekly film showings in English for neighbourhood kids (using “started” pretty loosely—kids show up a lot asking for movies, and I tell them they can come back for one on Monday)

  • Had a student start calling me out on minor inconsistencies between the questions I asked and the answers I accepted
  • Lit my imbabura with a single match without using a candle
  • Got the number of a reliable umumotari (moto driver)
  • Had a student with particularly low English abilities give a solid answer when I told her I was coming back to her for the next question
  • Went to an English Club meeting
  • Adopted a puppy and possibly increased integration due to everyone visiting to see her (in Rwanda, that’s a serious consideration—most Rwandans dislike and/or fear dogs, in part due to dogs’ having been used to hunt people down during the genocide against the Tutsi in 1994, and PC rules state that we may only get a dog with the permission of our village and with the provision that it does not inhibit our integration)
  • Had a student make inferences about culture in literature without being told to
  • Paid my rent
  • Made students laugh by standing on a desk to reach the window latch to demonstrate the difference between closed and locked
  • Got invited to a wedding
  • Wrote final exams
  • Visited a teacher and genuinely enjoyed it

I’m sharing these things because I want you to know the kinds of experiences that feel significant to me here in this place and these circumstances—and to encourage you to be aware of the small things that feel significant to you in your place and your circumstances.

They are not same as mine, but they are just as valid, and just as important.

Because no matter where you are or what you’re doing, this much is true: anything worth doing is worth doing badly. Anything worth trying is worth failing.

And something is always better than nothing.

*Message me sometime if you want to discuss whether I am or should be including in that generalisation things like skydiving, in which you die if you fail.

**I know that’s a noun, but we use it as a verb

Comparisons

“How do you adult so much better than I do?” a friend asked me recently.

For a few minutes, I couldn’t answer, certain she’d meant to ask someone else. Someone besides me. In that space of waiting, I ran up the tally in my mind—all the reasons she was most definitely a better adult than I:

  • She’s married, so she has the relationship thing figured out—I’m single.
  • She did all her own wedding decorations, so she’s not only crafty but able to complete projects—I’ve been knitting the same jumper for the past two years.
  • She has an apartment—I live with my parents at the moment.
  • She has a car—I’ve been letting my brothers chauffeur me around town.
  • She has a job—well, so do I, technically, but her job seems better.
  • She ……

And so on. At about that point, I was ready to give up, burn the unfinished to-do list I’ve been hiding from for a month, curl up on the sofa forever, and declare myself incompetent as an adult.

“You don’t have to run. You can walk,” my mother tells me. “Something is better than nothing.”

That’s her philosophy when it comes to almost everything, and as I begin to let go of my terrifying perfectionism, I see that she’s right. I’ve heard it most of my life, and you probably have too: “If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” The subtle implication can be disastrous though: “If you don’t feel competent to complete this perfectly, don’t even bother starting.”

This poisonous perfectionism, has resulted in a lot of not bothering starting for me.

I didn’t have time for a whole workout, so I didn’t move at all.

I couldn’t make it on time, so I skipped class entirely.

I couldn’t commit to a deep friendship, so I skipped out on the rewarding acquaintanceship.

I’m sure you can relate, because the more I see of people, the more I realise that this “don’t do it if you can’t do it perfectly” mentality affects a huge number of us. What’s worse, though, is that many of us turn the maxim into something even more warped: “If you can’t do it as well as the person next to you, don’t do it at all.”

Suddenly, our focus isn’t on excellence at all—it’s on competition.

So this week, I’m letting go of competition. I’m letting go of perfectionism, of the lie that I can’t be successful if I can’t outdo someone else, of the need to do everything or nothing, with no healthy in-between.

This week, I’m recognising that though devastation lurks in the comparisons, beauty lives in the contrasts. Beauty lives the knowledge of how far I’ve come and the challenge of how far I have yet to go. It’s in the way our strengths and weaknesses make us need each other, in the way today’s struggles teach us to value tomorrow’s respite. It’s in getting up and doing something, even if it’s not the best something, even if it’s a small something.

Beauty is in every step I think I can’t take, every movement beyond the status quo, every something that goes beyond nothing.