By Matthew Zhang, University of Toronto chapter
“I need your help.” That was the sentence that scared me most. Having to say it, standing at the head of a table of twenty, holding a list of unmet targets in my hand – that was what failure seemed to mean to me.
When I took on the role of sponsorship director at a youth-run Toronto non-profit, I was over-eager and over-ambitious. In my first foray into the realm of student leadership, I wanted to prove that I was ready for my responsibilities. Before our first meeting, I had drawn up a comprehensive collection of goals, deadlines and plans for the year’s work, as well as a complete sponsorship document. When I met my team of three, I sped quickly through the introductions, and immediately begun distributing portfolios. I even felt a sense of accomplishment when I managed to dismiss my team while the other groups were still stuck in icebreakers.
We began drafting grant applications and contacting corporations, starting with those that had worked with our organization in the past. Buoyed by some initial successes with the first sponsors I contacted, I became somewhat complacent. I began to procrastinate on parts of my schedule, thinking that I would able to easily replicate the successes of the first weeks.
However, once the initial well of sponsorships had dried up, I struggled to contact new partners. Meeting up with my team, I realized that the goals I had given them were unrealistic as well (the offices were too far or too busy, and the amounts demanded were too much). Even still, I clung to the belief that I could repair the damage done and meet the scheduled targets.
For the next month, we each tried making cold calls and visiting corporate offices, but besides some small in-kind donations, we received nothing for weeks on end. Nobody would return our calls, and big wigs had us waiting in their office foyers for hours. As my own morale began to wane, I came to dread messages from the chairpersons. The “how’s it going?”s and “do you need any help” seemed only constant reminders of my failures. Pushing ahead stubbornly was, in my judgment, the only way to salvage the project.
I sat down with my team members for a final meeting as deadlines loomed over our heads. They were shocked to hear that I hadn’t developed a contingency plan to meet our targets. They were also upset that I hadn’t helped hold the team together over the year. Unwilling to admit my own failure, I argued with them for the whole afternoon, but by the end I had to concede responsibility. I swallowed my pride and agreed to ask the council for help.
At the general meeting the day after, each division had to deliver a report, and I asked to speak last. When it came to my turn, I wasn’t able to optimistically summarize the team’s progress. Instead, I came to front and begged the council for help. By the end of my speech, I bowed my head and resigned myself to failure, too ashamed to look at the reactions of my colleagues.
Never would I have anticipated their reactions. Rather than criticize me, the committee had already begun to generate ideas, and the members discussed possible action items for the following weeks. The chairpersons stepped in, addressing member concerns and directing them to me where my expertise was needed. Working in teams, the council members were able to make up for a month’s worth of lost time. While it may not have been enough to balance my previous failures, the council was able to deliver something passable for its first event of the year.
Seeing the council accomplishing so quickly what had seemed impossible just days earlier, I realized: I was paralyzed by the thought of failure. For me, failure was having to ask others for help, success was managing everything alone. But this was absolutely wrong. Failure is not an opinion people have of you; failure is the inability to learn, to adapt to challenges. Failure is hanging your head in shame when things go awry, rather than repairing mistakes and trying again with renewed effort.
I failed in many ways that year, but the moment that I so feared, standing at the front of the room and admitting my mistakes to the committee, was not a failure at all. It was my only triumph, and it is precisely that which I intend to celebrate within Engineers Without Borders.
Matthew Zhang (Richmond Hill, Ontario) is currently a First Year student in Engineering Science at the University of Toronto. Matthew’s passion towards the global community comes from his outlook, standing at the crossroads of ethnic and religious diversity: in Toronto, Ottawa and China. He hopes to intertwine this motivation with his engineering foundations in order to better the world: through Engineers Without Borders.