10 leadership and Life skills lessons I learnt as part of my volunteering experience

Every experience in life teaches you something and some experiences teach you a lifetime worth of things. While there are so many things that I have learnt and continue to learn as part of being in a start-up, there have been some interesting learnings or in some cases re-learning as part of my volunteering experience.

Over the last 8+ years, I have been volunteering through an non-profit called India Literacy Project ( www.ilpnet.org) and on a project that focuses on improving the quality of learning at Government/Public Schools in India. (If you are interested, you can learn more about the project here or read a recent blog I wrote about our project and the need for more involvement from all of us here)

The experience has been overwhelming to say the least and has changed the way I look at work, problems and life in general. While learning is never ending, I am writing down ten lessons I have learnt/re-learnt over the past 8 years. Some of this will sound clichéd; some are related to leadership and some in general about life.

A journey of thousand miles begins with a single step

This is the first and the most important lesson I learnt when I started working on our Education initiative. The enormity and scale of the problem was unimaginable. The question that always lingered in my mind was how anyone could solve such a huge problem that touches social, cultural and economical aspects of the society. However, the first step we took of working with 50 children has scaled to about 1+ million children about 8 years. Yes, there is still a long way to go, but if we had not started 8 years back, we would have been 8 years behind even today. So, if you think a problem needs to be solved, start working on it now!

Philanthropy is good and important, but it is more important and even better to eliminate the need for it.

Clarity of purpose! It is very easy to forget the core purpose of why you started an initiative, whether social or even a business and get carried away with short-term success and feel good factors. When I started volunteering, my goal was to help the under privileged. As I spent more time, I realized that, what I am trying to do here and feel good about should not have existed in the first place! The goal now has changed from helping someone, to working towards leveling the playing field. A field that remains level as part of our system even after all philanthropic efforts have stopped. So, always question the purpose until you get to the most fundamental reason for going behind something.

When you want someone to work for a cause you believe in, don’t expect them to share your ideals. The only important requirement is that the person’s work advances the cause you believe in

During the early part of my volunteering, when I was looking out for more volunteers, I was expecting them to be as passionate about the cause as me and more importantly share my ideals. I was not sure if someone would be able to add value if it was not the case. Over the years, I learnt that everyone in the team would not be as passionate about the cause that I believe in or even understand all the granular details. But I realized, they don’t have to! Yes, you need some of them to, but not all. There a many amazing people out there, who are really good at their craft and would do their best work for you, even if they don’t get the big picture. What drives you and what drives them need not be the same. All that matters is that the person’s work advances the cause you believe in.

When someone disapproves your idea, it is most probably because they don’t comprehend your vision or don’t know how to execute it, not because your idea or their intention is bad.

I am sure every entrepreneur out there or anyone who has had a big idea that they wanted to work on has faced this. You pitch something that is very clear in your head, only to hear from many that it will not work. Beyond it being disappointing, it can be discouraging when people you expect to support you, tell you that it might not work. But what I have realized is that many a times a well-developed idea in your head might sound impractical, impossible or crazy to others only because the person on the other side might not have spent enough time thinking about how to execute it. Sometimes the idea itself might be too vague for others to understand. While bouncing off ideas with others is always good, don’t doubt your idea or intellectualize the intention of the other person. If it’s clear in your head and you strongly believe in it, go for it!

Sometimes, people like to “See the change that they want to be”

Gandhi’s famous quote is to “Be the change that you want to see in this world”. While I live by that quote, I heard this interesting rephrase by Ugly Indian group on a Ted talk. It said, people like to “see the change that they want to be” before they believe in it and participate. I have experienced this first hand. The enormity of a problem keeps many people from attempting to solve it, as they believe that it is impossible or have no idea where to start. However, when they see a problem that they thought was really difficult being solved, even in a small way, they start to believe in it and a good percentage start to contribute. Always lead by example, think big, be resilient and you will see support from unknown quarters.

Don’t waste time iterating too much on the drawing board. Start and improve while executing

You would have heard many entrepreneurs say this and yet, we all have this strong desire to solve everything on paper before we start! Most things that you have on the drawing board very likely will change once you start executing. Assumptions go wrong, things don’t end up the way you envisioned it, people who you were banking on don’t support, people you didn’t even know before help out and a lot of crazy things happen. When we started, many things we had taken for granted, became some of the most challenging of problems on the ground. We had to redo our priorities time and again based on ground realities. So, while it’s important to get a good plan in place, don’t overdo it. Start executing and you will learn a lot on what really works.

For one generation, change is a conscious effort, for the next, it is a way of life…We just need to change one generation

This was the “Aha” moment for me! When I started working on the education initiative, the task ahead not only seemed impossible, but it also felt never ending. But then, I started to realize something that was obvious and yet, I had not seen it that way till then. If we look at ourselves, change from postal letters to Email, telephone to cell phone, talking to texting, gender/religious bias to being open and accepting and many more such examples were all conscious efforts for us and our parents’ generation during the late 90s or early 2000. But for the generation that came post 2000, this was a way of life. Quality Education like many other things will be a conscious effort for the current generation of schools, teachers and other stakeholders, but we just have to change this generation. For the next generation, this will be a way of life. So, when you think about any complex problem as a one-generation problem, all of a sudden, the insurmountable goals seem achievable in a finite time.

Every problem is an opportunity to learn something new

This sounds idealistic, but if you start thinking in this direction, trust me, your energy levels will be at all time high! When you go into uncharted territories, trying to change the status quo, you are bound to face problems. Not one, or two, but scores of them. You either have a choice of getting bogged down or getting excited that you are the lucky one! Because every problem you solve, you now know something more that you did not know before. A problem is a problem, and it need not be in your area of expertise. If you are out there to solve something, every problem is an awesome opportunity to solve and learn from.

The difference between vision and reality is execution

The three things that define the success of an idea are Execution, Execution and Execution! Needless to say, executing an idea is more important than the idea itself. It is very easy to ideate and come up with plans on power point. It’s completely different to execute it to success. So while a grand vision is important, the chasm between the vision and reality can only be covered by a never-say-die execution. The support I got when this was a vision, to the support I get now when this is real, is as different as night and day.

“Government is unsupportive and not productive” is a myth

Yes, I was under the same assumption and blamed Government for everything as many of you. It was easy to blame the Government, the Education Department, and the teachers for lack of quality in public schools. All this changed after my interaction with the Education Department in Karnataka (The state where I come from) and the Government School Heads and teachers. I am in awe of the amount of things they manage and yet deliver. I am in awe of the way they plan and execute large scale projects whilst being very cost conscious. Please remember, 90+% of Indian school going children go to Government or Government aided schools, there are 1.3+ million schools in India and every problem in the Education sector is also a problem of scale. Yes, there are bad apples, but don’t bad apples exist in every sector, public or private? Issues exist everywhere and blaming someone else is just washing yours hands off your responsibility. Government needs involved citizens and if you are willing to solve a problem, you will get support.

If being in a start-up provided me many of the above experiences at one level, being part of this education initiative not only reinforced some of the lessons but gave me a whole lot of newer experiences in a totally different way.

Try volunteering for a cause you believe in, I’ll bet you will learn/experience lots of new things which will not only help the cause, but add tons of value to you as an individual.

Which experience of the above you relate to the most?

Review Credits — Vijay Vasudevan and Kirthana Sathyamurthy