And At Once I Knew I Was Not Magnificent

Published on October 13, 2011 on Acumen.og

In stating the objectives of the East Africa Fellows Program (EAFP), Acumen Fund talks about creating “a world populated by leaders with the audacity to dream, the operational skills to execute, and the moral fiber to act as beacons of justice in an otherwise unjust world.”  Our second seminar focused on the question of moral fiber/moral imagination, and Hugh O’Doherty of Cambridge Leadership Associates walked us through what adaptive leadership looks like and how we can apply it to the contexts in which we are working.

If you’re truly passionate about what you do, it consumes you from the inside out.  If you’re fortunate (or unfortunate, depending on what’s happened that particular day) enough to be able to create your own space in which to push for social change, you will work harder towards that goal than you’ve ever worked in your life.  You will give it all that you have, and all that you are; and that sacrifice will eventually take its toll on you.  “When there’s nothing left to burn, you must set yourself on fire.”

Since we became Fellows, we’ve been congratulated for our achievements, and we’ve expended time and energy trying to prove our worth. This past seminar, however, was – to our surprise – about shining a light on the cracks in the armour. Our facilitator did an amazing, if not occasionally discomforting, job of getting us to talk about our weakest spots (thank you, Hugh!). With many weak spots identified, at some point there was a running joke about Acumen Fund needing to seriously reconsider their selection process if these are the people who are meant to be the future of East Africa.

There’s a line from my favourite Bon Iver song, Holocene, that goes, “And at once I knew I was not magnificent.” If ever I was acutely aware of my own lack of magnificence, it was during this last seminar for the East Africa Fellows, away in a forest with the rest of the Fellows’ cohort. In light of all this, I came out of the seminar with 2 clear opinions:

1)  I have nothing but the highest respect for the 18 other Fellows, who have made this incredible commitment to follow their callings in the face of occasionally overwhelming evidence that the risk-free road is the one that will yield higher returns. They stick it out, they make it work, they excel.  They inspire me beyond what I can express. I salute them, and I am awed and humbled to spend a year learning from them.

2)  There is strength in community, in the space to be able to talk freely and openly about the stuff that’s not-so-pretty with people who truly empathize with what you’re going through because it’s a part of their reality as well. To anyone who’s looking to spearhead work in the social sector I say this: don’t do it alone. Find a like-minded community that will hold you up (and kick you in the rear when necessary) – all in the pursuit of making you better at what you seek to do.  For this opportunity to have this community, I salute Acumen Fund.

From Alain de Botton’s ‘The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work’:

“For the rest of history, for most of us, our bright promise will always fall short of being actualized; it will never earn us bountiful sums of money or beget exemplary objects or organizations. It will remain no more than a hope carried over from childhood, or a dream entertained as we drive along the motorway and feel our plans hovering above a wide horizon. Extraordinary resilience, intelligence and good fortune are needed to redraw the map of our reality, while on either side of the summits of greatness are arrayed the endless foothills populated by the tortured celibates of achievement.

Most of us stand poised at the edge of brilliance, haunted by the knowledge of our proximity, yet demonstrably on the wrong side of the line… We are like an exquisite high-speed aircraft which for lack of a tiny part is left stranded beside the runway, rendered slower than a tractor or bicycle.”

Here’s to the people who opt out of the path of “most of us,” no matter the cost.  Here’s to some of the most incredible people I know, and to those who will be inspired to follow them.

Rachel Gichinga is an Acumen Fund East Africa Fellow in the Class of 2011-12. She is the Co-Founder of Kuweni Serious, which is an online platform that focuses on creating a corps of everyday changemakers among young, educated, middle class Kenyans.

The Acumen Fund East Africa Fellows Program is made possible through the sponsorship of KCB Foundation and the Edmond de Rothschild Foundations