For nine years, I worked on a large capacity building project in Vietnam. When people asked for specifics, I’d tell them it was a “new venture start up” to help establish the country’s first international standard business school.
The first four to five years were exciting, I was learning constantly, felt that our work was important, for the country and the people I worked with. But as the project wore on, I feared that my energy would drop, that I’d see the project more as work and not as a something to look forward to.
During that time, I generated a set of principles that I used whenever I had to decide about pursuing a project. Rather than being a vision for what I wanted to achieve, this mantra has been more a way to think about how I want to design my working world and what to work on, if I can make the choice.
Here are the very simple four principles I use:
My experience in Vietnam confirmed the wisdom of these principles—for me. For the first several years of our project, all four principles were rock solid and I felt them regularly. The work was hard, often frustrating, and often felt like we were going backward instead of forward, but we knew it was work that needed to be done and that we were doing a good job at it.
I learned, daily, about a range of issues, from how to set up financial and information technology systems to developing curricula and training programs to how to work in a different culture. I worked with marvelous people and I had fun exploring a new country, work environment, and ways of thinking.
At year five of the project, though, I realized that while the work was still good, the next phase would mean doing something that I’d done before and could do in my sleep (hence, no new learning). It became drudgery, rather than fun. Yes, the people were great and we were doing good work, but the other principles were just absent. I thought about leaving to move on to something more interesting.
Thank goodness, the nature of the project shifted, became more complex, and I motored on for another several years feeling that I was continuing to do something worthwhile, learning, having fun in a new way and working with more good people.
The mantra has stood the test of time. Over the last few years, as I consider new projects, I consider those four elements. If I can answer “yes” to at least three, I very often take on the project. If I can give a “yes” to only two, then I move on and find something else to work on.
So what’s yours?