Failing Forward? To Amanda Palmer, With Love.

Failure is in vogue these days. 

Or, to be more precise: it's fashionable in America to talk or write about your own failures. This past Saturday, New York Times ran a long article on "failing forward," and the trend for Silicon Valley start-ups to attempt this via confessional blogging. The article links to a long compendium -- over 100 "start-up failure postmortems." Another article on literary failures opens with the line "Failure is big right now."

Failure is big right now. Well, it looms large for me. I can't even read those postmortems. I'm sticking to Amanda Palmer's The Art of Asking. It's helpful.

Since late October, I've been fundraising to go to West Africa to report on the downstream effects of the Ebola outbreak, mostly food security. The work builds on my previous experience in the region in 2007 and 2010. I've had a partner, Pacific Standard Magazine, which has run a piece supporting me. I've completed the first article of the project, a discussion with Gary Slutkin of how epidemics relate to violence.

While the campaign has run, I've raised $3,865. That's not bad. 

The problem is that I have just one day left to raise the rest of the money. If I don't raise it all, I don't get anything, and the project will never happen.

It feels almost impossible. Gloom has descended.

I know why I feel sad. It's not the gap between what I've raised and the goal. It's not the project itself, which I am still dying to do. And it certainly isn't the help of so many friends and colleagues -- for which I am so, so grateful.

The problem is a Sisyphus effect. Sisyphus is the protagonist of a Greek myth, a man who was punished by being forced to laboriously push a large rock up a hill... and every time he succeeded, it would roll back to the bottom and he would have to do it again. The ancient tale endures because it's a powerful metaphor for demoralizing, demotivating cycles, a type of action all humans seem to detest. 

That happened here. The project got off to a slow start. It was nerve-wracking. Then came a one-day period where my publication partner matched all donations. I felt honored to have their generous support, and I felt lucky when donors responded in a fairly big way.

The problem was that the crowd-funding website used incorrect code to display the amount raised. They sent me a message saying that this was correct. I was unsure how much money was raised -- but took them at their word.

After a couple of days, a guy at the crowd-funding website corrected it -- and sent me an oddly upbeat email about how the real amount was far less than what I and all the donors had thought it was. I was upset about having unintentionally misled others and unhappy with how poorly the crowd-funding website had communicated. I watched the big rock roll back down the hill, and in a way that is consistent with psychological research, I felt like Sisyphus.

The next day, a woman who I thought might contribute sent me a email suggesting I was a racist with a "white savior complex." Criticism is par for the course in journalism -- they say you know you've arrived when you get your first death threat -- and this wasn't a particularly solid critique. But it was nastiness from someone whose opinion I respected, and probably the ending of a connection to this friend and former boss. I cried.

Fundraising is tough. It requires confidence that has been socialized out of me, and perhaps out of most women. (I think it might be a cousin to negotiating, another thing women are told not to do.) I know confidence matters as much as competence, but I find it hard to stand up and say my work is important and worth something, even if it addresses the most important health crisis on the planet right now.

So to do this campaign at all was a challenge to my self-esteem like none I've ever encountered. To do it as Sisyphus was harder still. To do it while losing friends... well, people have been contacting me to ask if I am OK. (I feel especially thankful to Scott, Kristin, and G. Lydia, too.)

What helped the most, though, was a book called the Art of Asking. It's by Amanda Palmer, a singer and the speaker in a popular TED talk of the same name. Amanda Palmer is a musician who has famously crowd-sourced her living -- from staying with fans to crowd-funding $1.2 million for her last album.

Her book came out yesterday, so I went to the bookstore, got a clerk to get the very first copy out of the storeroom, and read the whole thing in one sitting. It was great. It really helped.

Amanda makes it clear that crowd-funding is hard for basically everyone, including her, and that she's built towards her current success with a lot of time and effort. She says that giving can be a boon to the giver, not just to the one who asks -- and that the shame about asking is denying us all a good experience.

As I read the book, I began thinking about other times my work have been repetitive or difficult. I've been frustrated at work before. I've endured criticisms -- including one way harsher than this one woman's vague BS. I've had the grit to push through those things. I was -- and am -- ready to do the actual work in West Africa, which is difficult (but joyful) too. This crowd-funding thing was hard because of the way it played on my fear of feeling unworthy.

But there are a bunch of people who have told me that I'm worthy. People have read this blog, shared my pitch online, favorited Tweets about this work. People have supported the project to the tune of $3,865 dollars. That's not nothing. That's a huge sign that my work is worth something.

What Amanda Palmer knows is that successful crowd-funding is all about joy and love and community. The point is well-taken.

She says less about this, but it relies on having a clear purpose, too. So, on this very last day before my crowd-funding campaign (probably) fails, I'm reminding myself of my mission. I'm a writer forever, and I want my audience -- any English-speaker who cares about global health -- to have the benefit of insight into the complexities of the epidemic beyond the clinic door. I want the impact to be more compassion and better health for West Africans and for all of us. And I'm going to keep working to achieve that whether this crowd-funding round succeeds or not.

Thanks, Amanda.

Love,

Sisyphus.

Update: The project got funded, but just barely, when we lowered the minimum. It has since accumulated a fair amount more. Life is alright.

Safety in Foreign Reporting

In a previous post, I addressed (and debunked) Ebola fears. But journalism does have hazards, and any prudent professional increases their odds of safety as much as possible. People who care about me would like to know how I stay safe. Here's the answer.

Trained in global health, I’ve had a thorough introduction to disease prevention. My preparations this time include all the usual healthy living, plus vaccines and preventive care for malaria, by far the most common disease in Africa. If things go south, practical skills from my years as an EMT also help.

Violence is a more serious concern -- and it is already emerging as a longer-range effect of the Ebola crisis. One of the best investments I’ve ever made was a self-defense course from Thousand Waves, a martial arts and self-defense school in Chicago. (I also studied karate there for two years and volunteered to help train others in self-defense.) More than any one fighting technique, it gave me the confidence to avoid and defuse harassment and assaults. I am, as they would say, a bad victim.

There’s more to it. This year in Bangladesh, I collaborated with a photojournalist who told me he feared the military, who were known to sometimes interfere with local reporters. Wanting to help, I asked, “Have you heard of the Committee to Protect Journalists?”

“No,” he said.

I have.

CPJ exists to provide support to journalists facing hazards or persecution in the course of working. It’s for disasters, and I hope to never need it. But it’s good to know. Ditto for Reporters without Borders, an organization offering insurance, training and support to journalists; I’m a member.

Finally: trauma. Both organizations offer education on post-traumatic stress disorder. But as a Fulbright fellow, I completed mental health research on post-traumatic stress in the survivors of the Rana Plaza atrocity. No one's immune to suffering, but I’m as well-versed in this topic as a journalist should be, and more.

Reporting on the Ebola epidemic is not easy. “There is no protocol; people are grasping for information,” one journalist told Columbia Journalism Review. Reporting on the downstream effects of it will be easier, but only to a point. All foreign reporting relies in part on a willingness to face risks wisely – whether political instability or invisible microbes. 

Whatever West Africa has in store, I’m ready.

I once had a date who called me “MacGyver.” I said I’d never answer to that, but you can call me anything you want if you donate here. 

A Joyful Place

I’ve been working on a project to take me back to West Africa. I’ve been there twice, in 2007 and 2010. Each time, I spent a few months in a village not far from the coast -- a joyful place.

In 2010, I lived for ten weeks in a single room with no temperature control, kitchen, or water. The room opened onto a courtyard full of roaming goats and noise and women cooking fufu. The neighbor’s eight children liked to run into my room to demand impromptu dance parties to a techno song on my laptop. At night, I would eat dinner with my friend Joyce and play with her three kids, the youngest of whom was then aged four. Life was good. 

The story of how that happened, and why I am going back, starts in 1998 and involves people from three continents. Despite that, it’s a simple story. It’s about friendship.

In 1998, when I was 16, I sat near Kristin, a Norwegian exchange student, in a high school history class. Early in the year, the teacher pulled me aside to ask me to switch to the AP section. I refused to go. I had a feeling that staying near Kristin was more important than academic ambition. 

Kristin returned to Norway in 1999, and in 2002, she traveled to Ghana to volunteer. She landed in a rural village, helping out at a little school. 

Joyce, then in her mid-twenties, was the lone teacher at that school. Unfathomably, she taught some four dozen preschool children in a borrowed, unfinished building with no roof or flooring. (Years later, she told me parents would sometimes drop off toddlers without paying, saying hello, or telling her the child’s name.) 

Joyce’s work ethic impressed Kristin. Her desire to reward Joyce was part of why she committed to helping the school construct its own building.

Soon she was in Norway again, raising money for the village. The local chief managed construction while Joyce continued teaching. When Kristin returned in 2005, the town gave her a ceremonial post in the traditional village council. Dressing her in kente cloth and carrying her on a palanquin, they named her Nkosoa Hemaa – Queen Mother of Development. 

In local parlance, members of a generation are often called siblings. In 2007, I, the Queen’s sister, joined her for a trip to the village. I did an internship at a local hospital, and soon began working with the school. 

The real achievement, though, was meeting Joyce. She had three children by then, two girls and a boy. She was still hard-working, trustworthy, and patient. I could see why Kristin remembered her so fondly.

Eventually, in 2010, I returned to the village to do more work. I had a good summer basking in tropical heat, eating delicious Ghanaian food, and working on improving schoolchildren’s nutrition. But again, the real achievement seemed to be knowing Joyce and her kids.

I’d long held the ambition of becoming a doctor. But after going to Ghana in 2007, I realized global health was what I loved. By 2010, I was completing a master’s in public health. It felt great, but I wondered if I should get an MD too. (By then, Kristin was a doctor.)

One day, I was sitting outside Joyce’s house, talking to her oldest girl, then aged thirteen.

Out of the blue, I had a thought. As soon as it occurred, I was sure it was right. I’m not a doctor, my mind said as I looked at Joyce’s daughter. She’s the doctor.

To be clear: Joyce and her children live on a dollar a day. The four lived in one small room, furnished with little more than a single bed. (Two children slept on the floor.) In many ways, it was far from a prestigious education.

Yet Joyce was exceedingly bright, and M. was a serious, studious girl. She had an acute interest in technology, and she’d told me straightforwardly that she was intelligent. I knew M.’s father had left for Canada at age 20 to enter medical school. Given a chance, I thought M. could do it too.

The idea of helping her reminded me of the day in 1998 I turned down that advanced history class. Both involved forsaking my academic ambition in favor of friendship. Both were driven by inner joy.

Both, in the end, seem to be leading me to my true purpose. Without Kristin's invitation to Ghana in 2007, I’m not sure I would’ve found my love of global health. Without giving up on becoming a medical doctor, I'm not sure I could have begun the journalism I love so much. 

Sixteen years after that first decision, it's clear friendship with Kristin has been one of the most pivotal relationships of my life. Joyce, too, is an axis around which our world moves. Kristin has spent 13 years working with this village, all of it as Joyce's friend. I now help cover M.’s school tuition. (It still makes me smile.) We three women live on three different continents, yet our friendship feels stable.

My investment in this small spot on the map is not the sole basis of my upcoming work in West Africa—not by a long shot. My global health and journalistic backgrounds prepare me to do much more, and the work will not let me linger in any one village.

But the perspective I gain from this deep investment is unique among foreign reporters. I don’t see West Africa as a dark, disease-infested place. I know how hard life there can be; I’ve seen that close up. But I know people are resilient, hard-working and intelligent, and I remember joyful days with them. The stories one can tell are far more than what we've seen so far.

I am looking forward to returning.

If you’d like to help me get back there, you can donate by clicking here.