Finding Comfort in Discomfort: A reflection from my Peace Corps journey – Nikita Nosov, CISB alumnus

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As a prestigious business program located in an international business hub, Foster and CISB emphasize cross-cultural leadership as a key ingredient for preparing its global leaders. Working in economic development through the Peace Corps is a professional experience that challenges you to apply and evaluate business concepts in a brand new cultural context. In my work in the Dominican Republic it was essential to demonstrate key Foster values – leadership, entrepreneurship, and strategic thinking – and to reevaluate their importance in global business today.

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.

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My experience both as an Entrepreneurship major and having various roles with start-ups, led me to concentrate a large portion of my service on entrepreneurial education with youth and adult aspiring business leaders. Here, Emmanuel and I work on product development for his Pizza business.

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.

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Being from a city, I was seldom exposed to work in agriculture, thus I was introduced to a brand-new perspective in the DR.

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.

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My Peace Corps-assigned project was with a factory that produces Cassaba bread, a staple in the Dominican household. While I had never heard of it before, let alone worked with a factory that produces it, it too quickly became a staple in my life. Working with Dominican farmers pushed me to understand a life far different from my own.

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One of our focuses in the factory was to revamp a bio-gas plant, based on this home-sized model, to wean the factory off of expensive propane and onto less costly bio-energy.

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.

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On the ground is where we begin to understand why certain issues exist. For example: it’s much easier, and much cheaper, to clear land via combustion, particularly where infrastructure and education have not encouraged an alternative. Before seeking a solution, it is necessary to first uncover the crux of the problem.

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.

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Progress is quickly achieved in resource-rich cities. Life in more distant communities raises challenges in what’s ordinarily seen as simple, like getting from A-B, communication between stakeholders, planning meetings and keeping people accountable – obstacles we often overlook.

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.

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Chatting with local Dominicans in broken Spanish led to a connection on a human level beyond that of simple words being exchanged. It reminded me of the immense power of intention and how quality time holds power beyond words.

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The number of uncompleted projects, ideas and meetings encouraged me to analyze the importance of developing real relationships, holding others accountable and empowering others to step up as leaders.

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The discomfort of teaching entrepreneurship in a foreign language led me to appreciate great teachers & mentors and pushed me to become a better one.

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The shock of working in a culture that prioritizes relationships over productivity caused me to redefine my values and to rethink about my role within my communities, be they friends, family, work or the city.

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.

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While I had no plan to be involved in sex-education, it’s a pressing issue, and when the opportunity presented itself I was able to play a small role

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Sport is an invaluable outlet to any community, so forming a group of young leaders to reconstruct this court and make it a safe space for the community was one of the most fulfilling projects I collaborated on

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.

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I credit the DR to building my resilience with the uncomfortable. There is a different level of vulnerability there. You don’t always have to appear 100% together. You can go to the corner store in your PJ’s, you can get overly emotional, you can show up to someone’s house unannounced and quickly get up-close and personal to their family. It’s been a beautiful learning experience, becoming comfortable with situations that by US standards may be inherently uncomfortable

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.

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The curious thing about human nature, and the world, is that we are creatures of love. No matter where we go, no matter how uncomfortable, if we enter with our best foot forward and good intentions, life gifts us people that welcome you in and help you feel that love.

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.

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