Friday, February 3, 2012

The ability to fail

Last week my good friend Judy came over and we had a wonderful talk.  Judy works in Russia, and we enjoy swapping cross-cultural experiences, among other things. She told me about a book she was reading, a sort of survival guide for people who serve cross-culturally.  The authors listed the three main characteristics needed for people with this calling. They are as follows: 1) that the person have a sense of humor, 2) that the person not be task-oriented, and 3) that the person have an ability to fail.

This non-typical list is both surprising and profound.

1) A sense of humor. Of course. Indispensable. The only way to make it through the day, this includes laughter at the cultural differences and inevitable misunderstandings (albeit, not always open laughter) and, most importantly, laughter at yourself. It means not taking yourself too seriously.

2) Not being task-oriented. This is closely related to not being time- or goal-oriented. It runs counter-cultural to being North American, and for most of us, this involves a slow process of learning and transformation. Positive ways of naming this characteristic is that of being person- or event-oriented.  Being and relating become more important that getting stuff done on schedule.

A positive observation: I must be making progress because anymore talk of measurable goals gives me a stomach ache.

A negative observation:  I’m clearly not there yet. I’m just coming off a three week bout of some kind of bronchial virus where my greatest symptom has been tiredness.  I have not gotten much done and this has been a huge frustration as we are getting ready for a six week trip to Latin America, and I need those items checked off my list. I’ve actually grudged taking time to rest and heal. My mind has fought it all the way.

I have strong tendencies toward task-orientation (this is my active, productive self) and also toward being-orientation (this is my contemplative, poetic, relational self). They don’t always get along. I strongly suspect that neither self will disappear. Mary and Martha need to become friends.

3) An ability to fail. I have this. But I think the point may be the ability to fail gracefully, also related to not taking yourself too seriously.  It also relates to the unpredictability of life in another culture, especially a place where stability and peace are not norms.

We travel tomorrow morning. It’s been a helpful exercise to think about these strange characteristics.  I expect surprises, and I must remember to laugh when they come.  I have my set of goals for the trip (I can’t help it!). While I take them seriously, I will also hold them lightly.  And I’ll thoroughly enjoy and appreciate the people that cross my path—old friends and strangers.

Lord, hear my prayer.


  1. I immediately designed a list to help me remember these three suggestions: fun, friends and failure. The last one is the hardest to welcome. I've had no choice; have had to accept failure, but I still run from it. Blessings on your trip.

  2. This is a wonderful reminder. My work is cross-cultural in so many directions, that I can use all the help I can get.

    I pray that you may find the right balance of achieving goals and building relationships and the sense of being faithful on the path, even if it goes right through failure on the way.

    1. I should have been more specific, can you tell me the name of the book Judy was reading?

  3. L. Robert Kohls, Survival Kit for Overseas Living.