As an aid worker I spent much of the last 30 years thinking about and striving for a vague concept known as ‘community development’. Not my own community mind you, but the communities of Asians, Africans, Balkans, Pacific Islanders and Aboriginal people. Communities that were deemed to be problematic, poor, unempowered and standing in the need of outside assistance.
As an aid worker I didn’t really have a community. Not a real one with brick houses, churches, village squares and pubs. I shared a virtual global community with hundreds of thousands of other aid workers. From time to time we met up in refugee camps, project offices and disaster zones that were situated within or which soon became real communities of the aforementioned poor, unempowered and victimized.
Development was something ‘we’ did for them. Sometimes ‘to’ them. And increasingly, we liked to think, ‘with’ them. It was an exercise in the demonstration of power and privilege, even when it was performed by individuals with genuine humility and goodness of heart.
But when it came to our own development, aid worker ambitions generally stretched only as far professional development. I wanted to develop a career (at least for a while), and once I got the job I was eager to exploit whatever professional development opportunities could be squeezed from the system.
When it came to developing the finer points of my character, or mind, or personality, or body, however, I was decidedly uninterested. Like the vast majority of my peers in the aid ‘community’ I drank and ate without much thought of what it might be doing to my body. I rarely exercised and for many years smoked packs of cigarettes a day. I travelled way too much, often in dodgy equipment, and didn’t keep up on my vaccinations. I worked (or at least stayed in ‘work’ mode) too long. My idea of ‘work-life’ balance was a long weekend.
I left the Aid world behind a few months ago. These days I spend my time working on the development of me.
This has been quite a shock. And even more challenging than getting poor communities to engage with all those finely-designed community development projects. But unlike those projects, the results of personal development are far more tangible.
In 2011 I was a well-paid shareholding executive on the rise. Six months earlier I had been appointed by the CEO of the large international company I was employed by, as the company’s initial Global Leader. I was tasked with establishing the company’s first global business unit working with colleagues in Africa, Asia and Australia to create a $100 million/year international development assistance business. For three years prior to that I had been the General Manager of a subsidiary company and viewed my promotion as a yet another sign from heaven that I was pretty cool. The parent company was very profitable and private. To achieve shareholder status was to be ushered into the inner sanctum of significant wealth.
I had arrived.
On March 4 my boss flew into town for a routine meeting. We sat in a small 10th floor office. The autumn sun was bright. I had brought my notebook with several points I wanted to cover.
Thirty minutes later the meeting was finished and I was no longer employed. Results were poor, margins across the world were down. Cuts had to be made. Sorry, but thanks so much for everything you’ve done for us.
I made my way home. It felt weird to be on a tram at midday. Where was everyone?
I imagined life would continue as it had to this point. I’d land another senior ‘role’ within a few weeks. Sure, it didn’t feel nice to be shown the door but if truth be told, I was glad I was out of the corporate world.
I took the opportunity get onto LinkedIn. I networked. I explored new industries and consulted. Backed by a big payout I embarked on the path of ‘my next phase’ with a sense of excitement and possibility. It was just a matter of time before I was employed again.
But unbeknownst to me where I thought I was headed and where I was actually going were two very different places.