I recently completed my Peace Corps service in the Dominican Republic. If you would have asked me 2 years ago to predict the feeling I’d have or mindset I’d be in upon my return to the States, any response would have been far from my reality today. The expectations I held as I departed the familiar comforts of Seattle to board a plane to the Dominican Republic where I would serve as an Economic Development Consultant were vastly different from the way these last two years turned out.
One of the most fulfilling parts about my service was integrating into a community while supported by the credibility of the Peace Corps. This allowed me to engage in a variety of roles within the community, it pushed me to evaluate the qualities of great leaders and motivated me to both embody them and seek them out in others.
Bill Eckstrom has a sensationally titled Ted Talk: “How comfort will ruin your life”, the premise being that discomfort breeds sustained growth. This struck a chord with me in regards to my recent journey.
It’s difficult to describe my work as a Peace Corps volunteer living in the rural border-town of Loma de Cabrera (I invite you to view my LinkedIn for the resume-appropriate description). Perhaps humbling is a good start. I was thrown in with choppy Spanish, a few months of training, and a goal to become a community leader with ambitions of leaving a sustainable impact for the community and its economic activity. While I had the support of the Peace Corps and an accommodating host family, at the end of the day I had to pave my own path through personal initiative…and some luck of course.
Although a rural town in the Dominican Republic is a different environment than that of hyper-productive cities where most business leaders are concentrated, I’ve so far found that fundamentally societies and economies are quite universal, and the values one develops can be transferred across borders and seas. For example, from a business perspective, the same needs exist and are equally important to an organization in the DR, such as training, communication, business development, operations etc.
I learned an inconceivable amount through my experience. Most of this was made up of unexpected lessons that could only be digested via intentional and frequent reflection. While such opportunities may at first feel like a “risk”, that “risk” is merely a product of fear of the unknown. A fear that should be overlooked and overcome.
Mr. Eckstrom states “It’s unpredictability that makes you uncomfortable. And while most times your visceral response to discomfort is not just “no”, but “hell no”, you can actually learn how empowering it is to consciously acknowledge discomfort. And then when appropriate, choose complexity over order… You have to learn to embrace it, because it’s the only environment where sustained or exponential growth can occur.”
People are inclined to reject discomforts especially when they have the privilege of growing up in comforts:
- The stability of our parents’ home,
- Our structured school systems,
- The boxes checked to graduate from our majors, and
- Our regular work-week to earn a livable wage.
Routine is very important for productivity, but it can also blind-side us and lead to stagnation. It’s stagnation that led me to commit to Peace Corps service in order to understand life in a community far different from my own.
Getting out of that taxing order can be achieved in a myriad of ways. It doesn’t require moving to a developing country. Rather it can be attained by starting a new hobby, meeting new people or seeking a new challenge in work. The goal should simply be to do something new, unknown, different and to get uncomfortable.
Despite being thrown into uncomfortable situations in the Dominican Republic that make me wince upon reflection, I cherish those wince-worthy moments, their discomfort and even their chaos because they fortified my capabilities as a community member and a leader.
I now embrace chance encounters, unforeseen work and even being a bit lost at times – we don’t always have to have the answer. In fact, we may be better off exploring the question and seeing what answers may come our way. Life is vast, options are endless and unpredictability opens us up to welcome those possibilities instead of fear them.
My 27-month Peace Corps experience was a launching pad for me personally and professionally. It clarified my values and opened me up to a world previously unknown. It empowered me to embrace the uncomfortable and follow the unpredictable path towards leadership. It’s also humbling to realize that I personally benefitted so much more than I could have ever given back to the community of Loma de Cabrera, for that I am grateful to the Dominican people which have welcomed and entrusted me to advocate for them.
Down the road, will I fall into a rut? Or feel lost? Of course. These are undeniable human emotions. However, rather than push away that discomfort, I hope to welcome it, knowing that we are each in our own driver’s seat and determine our own direction. Although it’s a road unknown, the journey itself may be what leads us to fulfillment.
I would encourage us all to open ourselves up to uncertainty, embrace the fact that we may not have the answer and push ourselves to challenge what we have come to believe as the status quo.