21 May 2011 ~ 23 Comments

20 Lessons I Learned at PEPY

About two years ago I made a decision and announced to those I worked with at PEPY that I would be leaving Cambodia in two years. Now, as I near leaving a job/life/family I have spent the last six years building, part of me wishes I had said three years instead of two! But, I know it is time to go. I have known for a long time that I was not wired to sustain an organization in the long run, and that I certainly am not qualified to run an education organization in Cambodia for many reasons, one of the main reasons being that I am not Cambodian nor do I plan to try to be.

The timing will never feel 100% right – there will always be a long list of things I still want to accomplish, holes I want to fill in our organization, improvements I want to make, people I want to spend more time with, places I still want to visit or go back to, lunches I want to have a Sam Sok/Ban Chao/Chanleas Dai with our great team, etc. I will always wish I had a few more months to get things in line, which is how I feel now. But, I am THRILLED that we have two fabulous new Khmer members of our senior management team (Layheng Ting and Samal Khath) who bring a broad range of experiences to PEPY’s programs and who are much more qualified to run PEPY into the future than I am.  Yet it still is hard to leave…

I might be leaving Cambodia, but I am surely not leaving PEPY, as I will be in the board, but more than that, it will be in my heart and mind every day. I will still be involved with PEPY Tours though the fabulous Anna, Chor, and Sela are now running the show by themselves as it is and will continue to do great things in the field of development education tourism. Gosh, there is just so much I want to stay and be a part of! But continuing my own education calls, and it’s time to listen.

So, I decided to write down 20 things I learned here in the last 6 years. I could probably write to 100, and these surely are not in any order of importance, but they are reminders to myself of why it is hard to leave, and how much I have grown through this process.

Through my time at PEPY, I have learned (In no particular order):

1)   While ideas are fun and passion is contagious, action is what achieves goals.

2)   As someone focused on “doing”, planning can sometimes seem like a waste of time, a distraction from progress, and a bit like drawing a map to somewhere you have never been to… you know you are going to draw it wrong. Yet, I’ve come to learn that planning helps us “doers” achieve goals faster, avoid mistakes, and cause less chaos.  Hence, every “doer” needs a plan. (Thanks to all those who have helped me realize this and helped me become better at planning! Still a work in progress!)

3)   Failures are inevitable. If you don’t talk about them, they become the elephant in the temple, and elephants in ancient temples are hard to hide. Admitting failures, learning from mistakes made, and sharing those lessons with others so they can learn not only helps us better achieve our own goals but can help others achieve theirs.

4)   Complaining can ease your frustration for a little while, much in the same way that chocolate can help a bad mood. But then it wears off. Working through a problem, partnering with those you might previously have considered “wrong”, and seeking to understand (as a wise friend always reminds me), achieve more than just stamping your feet.

5)   It’s the TEAM that matters. Leaders can only stand alone if they are Atlas, but even he got tired. Real humans need really great teams to achieve success.

6)   Leadership is more about building a team, sharing inspiration, and holding strongly onto shared core values than it is about holding a flag and walking a group of tourists off a plane.

7)   Changing attitudes and actions takes time…. LOTS of time. We don’t change our behaviors and our opinions because someone else tells us to, because someone gave us something, or because we are paid to. In other words, if you want to invest in sustainable change, you need to invest in the long term.

8)   Investing time in people is better than giving things away.

9)   Schools don’t teach kids. People do.

10) The only way to improve your family, your community, your country, or your world, is to start by improving yourself. (Thanks for reminding us, Chor!)

11) Some people don’t believe it’s possible. Ignore them. It’s ALWAYS possible. IT might change though, and YOU might change. If you want to achieve it, you need to stop listening to those who say it’s not possible, build a team of people who know it is, and work your butt off. IT wont happen on its own or just because YOU believe in it. IT will happen because you MAKE it happen through your hard work, inspiring others to work hard too, and because you are willing to learn, change, and adapt as you go.

12) Development education in the WEST is what is most needed to improve our impact on the REST. If we keep throwing money at problems, keep investing in ideas which have been proven to fail, and continue to feed our egos by focusing on helping the here and now rather than helping for tomorrow by starting with better educating our children, we will continue to create the same problems that those before us faced.

13) We HAVE to learn before we can help.

14) We vote with our money. Anytime we pay for something, whether it is buying a plastic bottle or giving money to a child on the street, we are voting for more of that in the world.

15) People CAN change. If we love them, work with them, and invest our time to help them develop the skills, connections, ideas, and inspiration they need to reach their goals.

16) YOU can change. I can change. I’m NOT even close to who I want to be if I grow up. I can only change if I know and admit my weaknesses, set goals for how I want to be as a person, as a leader, as a friend – then set goals for where I want to be and be open to hearing feedback which might help me get there.

17) Communal living (especially after reaching 30) can be the most challenging, but more often the most rewarding experience.

18) Cambodia is HOT in April. Except when “Global Messing Up” makes April cool and windy. Our earth is in trouble. We need to do something (MANY somethings) about that. Yesterday.

19) An organization will only be as successful as it can be if each person on the team feels invested in creating the vision, believes in the cause they are working towards, feels safe to share their criticism and new ideas, and is working on bettering themselves to achieve their own personal goals as well as those of the organization.

20) PEPY People are some of the best people in the world.  As my friend John once wrote, it’s all about the people. I’m delighted to have had so many of you become a part of my life and mold me into what I am becoming and who I want to be.

These are all things I now “understand”… it doesn’t mean I yet DO them well. I’m a work in progress, as my friend Yut always says. We all are. If we think we’ve reached it, we’re either kidding ourselves, about to die, or about to be REALLY bored. So, as I head out into the world-beyond-PEPY, though I’m sad to leave my second family here behind, I’m equipped with the knowledge that the only way we can improve the world is by improving ourselves…. so here I go!  Wish me luck!

If you too have spent time here with PEPY in the last six years, add a lesson you have learned in the comments below…. please, and thank you!

  • Angela Cruz

    Tearing up over here in Mama Cruz’s kitchen.

    12 & 14 are major drivers for what I think my life is about. 

    My ride really emphasized to me that the fastest way and easiest way is often the least useful -physically, emotionally and in terms of building relationships with the people around you.

    Thanks for being you, Dani!

  • Anna B

    You forgot your biggest one, Lesson #21: “Don’t ask what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive and go and do that, because what the world needs are people who have come alive!” 😉

  • http://twitter.com/soeim soe

     i would vote #13 up.

    i would like to see a quote from insanity in the list too…

  • Andy Hill 007

     I hope lots of people read this; even if they only take one of the lessons away with them, it will be a gift.
    For me, that one would be ‘We HAVE to learn before we can help’. Effective A&D is one of the most ambitious and difficult challenges… humanity can aspire to. Good intentions by themselves won’t cut it. We need to learn, and keep learning. I have so much respect for the PEPY ‘learning culture’. If only other NGOs and Development Agencies could have so much introspection and humility…
    Well done. I wish you well.

  • Michael

     Bon chance, Daniela. You are wise beyond your years and your gifts will be felt for generations.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=671357408 Michael Hendrickx

     I second that!

  • Dominic Giuliani

    If you only had a list for the lessons others learned while you were at PEPY – then I think perhaps the true magnitude of what you have accomplished in such a short amount of time could conceivably come to light (though something tells me that you would not be able to distill it down to 20).  For now, I will pack your 20 lessons into my briefcase and remind myself to take one out each and every day to remind me that there is so much more to life than a commute on a train into an office.  I will strive to do something in my life that allows me to learn lessons such as yours.   I for one can say that over the last six years you, Daniela, have taught me how to inspire and how to be inspired: learn first, and teach second.  Your time in Cambodia will always follow you, as will your influence on all of us who were lucky enough to share a piece of it with you.  And one final note – perhaps your greatest accomplishment is in fact taking that leap to leave and I am very proud of you for having the courage to do it!  Now call me when you get here, look both ways, and don’t get lost on your way!

  • http://www.ecuadorecovolunteer.org Jake Ling

    Hi Dani, ive really enjoyed reading your blog for the short time ive been subscribed to it.  youve helped give me an idea of where i want to see my own younger NGO in Ecuador in the future.  even though you are leaving Pepi i hope you continue to update your blog – as you said yourself we never stop learning lessons no matter where or how old we are :)

  • Anonymous

    Thanks guys! I will note this in the “warm fuzzy” category and come back to it if I’m having a bad day! Thanks for the love! Transitioning out of a job you have loved for many years is like sending your kid off to college I imagine… you WANT them to go, but you want them to stay too…. very tricky! The transition has been easier with so much support from you all. Hugs & thanks to each of you!

  • Matt Evans

    An inspiring list from one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met.  Best of luck in your next chapter Daniela.  I know where ever your life takes you you’ll do great things.  

    I’m speaking at the JET orientation here in Montreal next Saturday and was thinking about talking about PEPY.  I’m going to share this list.


    (What will  you be studying at grad school?  Drop me a line when you have a free moment.)

  • Egkollings

     Wonderful Daniela and congrats on the new transition!
    -Erin Kollings

  • EnRico Suave Heirman

    “We must become the change we want to see on the world.”
    – Mahatama EnRico Gandhi

  • Doug

    Thanks Daniela for all your heart and passion, this is a great testament to a life of service and living your fullest lesson. Doug Ellis

  • Conor Hallisy

    Just when I was feeling down about coming back to work off a three day weekend I open this little gem.  What a great start to a beautiful day! I am going to attack this day and get some PEPY momentum back in my life…

  • Maggiehpiper

    Wow!  I’ve watched your learning, Daniela, and am so very proud of you. I loved my trip to experience the homeland of my children, adopted after/out of the war, and I love your program and willingness to learn and let go.  I was telling someone yesterday about the 500 kazoos.  maggie hover

  • Martin Burt

    This is so good…

  • Tech

    Daniela – I can’t express with any justice how much your and PEPY’s journeys have inspired me!  One of the most valuable lessons I learned at PEPY was that doing good work in this world requires a huge dose of humility as well as a compulsive optimism about people’s capacity to grow and change.  For me, “PEPY” was more a way of thinking than it was ever an organization, group of people, or place to work. So thank you!

    And hooray!  Congrats to everyone in the PEPY family for happy transitions and new beginnings!  😀

  • Tanya Anderson

    Thanks for the wisdom and inspiration. I read these aloud at our weekly meeting to the 11 graduate students I coordinate because so many of the lessons you learned apply to our lives here.

  • http://twitter.com/handsupholidays handsupholidays

    Hi Dani – you are an inspiration!
    What now for you?
    All the best with it!

  • Molly Pereira

    Have I mentioned how incredibly amazing you are my friend :).  Even though you aren’t in my everyday (sadly), I can hear your voice in each of these 20.  You’ve accomplished so much and I’m so proud of you! You give me energy from afar, although I’d rather get it from you while on an eating binge in Israel.  Were we seriously roommates in China 13 years ago? xoxo molly

  • E Stowe

    Great stuff, as usual. Sad we never crossed paths in Cambodia but time to do so some other place, some other time. Keep on rockin’ sister. Eric

  • http://www.tuisligh.com Claire

    Can’t believe you’re leaving. I have enjoyed following your journey through the blog and hope you continue to blog from where ever you end up next. Thanks for blogging. 

  • Amy

    I’ve never met you and yet you are simply put – my hero.
    Feel like I’m saying goodbye to a great travel buddy – sad to see you leave my life but so happy to watch you head off on a new adventure. Thanks for all your insights and funny stories. I cannot wait to see Cambodia for myself soon and you have been a huge part of the inspiration to bring me there.

    Best wishes and thanks again for sharing your life with us x