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I Am A Young Unreasonable Idealist

November 4, 2010

“Are these young idealists unsophisticated about what it takes to change the world? Yes, often. At first, they don’t always appreciate the importance of listening to local people and bringing them into the management of projects, and they usually overestimate the odds of success. They also sometimes think it will be romantic to tackle social problems, a view that may fade when they’ve caught malaria.” Nicholas D. Kristoff, The DIY Foreign-Aid Revolution

I think we all arrive naive, but full of passion and energy. Along the way, we encounter obstacles.

Cultural differences that need to be navigated. Adapting and adjusting to a new home. Finding friends and a network. Figuring out how to honor local customs while also effecting change. Locating resources. Declining health, which for me meant battling parasites.

And like Kristoff said, I made the mistake of not listening to the local people. I’m embarrassed to say that we had Khmer managers but they weren’t involved in the decision-making processes. I kept trying things they knew wouldn’t work and I forced them to try anyway. It was tense and unsuccessful.

In June, we held a management retreat in Siem Reap. The field managers took the trip up to discuss what we had planned for the next six months. They were involved in the process at the very beginning. They told us what was possible, what was going to be difficult and what could be truly impossible.

That weekend changed our course. Steered us in the right direction. Cemented that we are a team. Strengthened trust.

Yes, I arrived idealist and probably unsophisticated. I’ve made mistakes that were avoidable. I overestimated success. I didn’t battle malaria, but was down and out with amoebic dysentery for over a month.

And you know what, it doesn’t matter. Because we young wide-eyed dreamers also possess that “combustible mix of indignation and vision” that means we’ll keep going. We fail, a lot. But we fail quickly then move on. We consistently pick ourselves up and try again.

We might not have the resources or experience, but we have the mindset. We have an abundance of passion and determination, which means we’ll outlast the others.

As Elkington & Hartigan would say, we’re unreasonable people. We may not be qualified but we’ll figure it out as we go.

Our unreasonableness –our idealism and naivete— is our power. The capacity to see beyond what is immediately possible, to dream up an alternate reality, and to live our future visions presently are the very reasons for our success. It is our guarantee for effecting lasting change.

Cheers to my fellow unreasonable, young, naive, unsophisticated idealists. Rest assured, the world needs us.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Sokha permalink
    November 4, 2010 3:11 pm

    Leigh! I love reading your blogs. Hope to eat Indian food again with you in Siem Reap soon! Love and support from Seattle!

    • November 4, 2010 3:24 pm

      There’s a new Indian place in town, Sokha. So when will you be back? Next summer? We need more young idealists on the ground!

      • Sokha permalink
        November 4, 2010 4:43 pm

        I honestly have no idea, my professor is working on some NGO work that I am getting involved in. I am hoping that it will be soon! If not soon enough, then you will just have to come to Seattle and hang out with me and Sol!

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