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Journal Entry 2019-01-27

Happiness isn't something you experience; it's something you remember.
—Oscar Levant 

Beware: This is me—at length. 

  • Mildly caffeinated 
  • Sorta rested
  • Back from Uganda
The end of a work trip often makes me thoughtful. Or at least I hope so. There’s a lot of waiting around involved. Usually for a plane or a car. Often in a plane or car. The circumstances and fatigue make work unprofitable, so the enforces idleness prompts thought unbidden. Here are today’s. 

I’ve reached an age when falling off the twig starts to be a real possibility. The infirmities accumulate in my knees, hips, and lower back. Aches and numbness are now old acquaintances, although never friends. It prompts reflection. No, I’m not talking about death but life. 

What is a worthy life? Is it selfless devotion to others or selfish attention to me? Both? Neither? How do we figure out what a life should be? 

Julie gave me a great present at Christmas. It’s a little piece of wood with three sentences written on it. 
  • Go everywhere
  • Talk to everyone
  • Eat everything
I like it because she thinks it reflects my approach. It also fit her father, Homer—a man who was willing to try any dish and could make friends anywhere in minutes. He’s the standard setting exemplar for me. 

But back to me. 

These mottos are meaningful in a practical way for me during the last few years only. I was lucky to stumble into a job and allows me to travel around the world and meet a staggering variety of people. I might even be helpful as I ask questions and listen as hard as I can to the responses that arrive in my ears from wildly different languages, accents, and frames of reference. They are giving me the answer to the issue I’m there to help solve, but detecting the solution can elude me. 

I’ve found that people often have the solution in mind, but fail to see it or don’t have the confidence to propose it. I’m there ostensibly as the foreign “expert”, who is to tell them how to solve it. I’ve found that my “expertise" is usually in asking the naive question, and the simpler the better. 

I did not hit on this approach right away. There was an unfortunate period of really trying to provide an answer to their problems based on my experience. That’s still in the background, but the point is that it’s a background and not a foreground stance. Some of my solutions did not work well because they did not fit the circumstances or resources available. 

The revelation for me came in Liberia towards the end of the Ebola outbreak. I was there to help wrap up a project where we had implemented a novel communications system for frontline health workers. They could send messages and information to the Ministry of Health and the reverse. Others had thought it up, developed it, and deployed it. It was simply connecting a few existing software applications rather than inventing something new. It allowed the Ministry to send messages to health workers and get individual responses back—individually in minutes at with all within a day by using the simple phones that over 95% of the health workers already owned. 

The power of this simple approach was pointed out to me in an ordinary exchange. I was meeting with two women, Hellen and Mawen, who were operators of this communications system. I was showing them how to get data out of the communications system so they could report it to the official who had requested it. 

Suddenly, Hellen’s head snapped up, and she said, “I forgot to do something.”

“What?” I asked. 

“We were supposed to start a workflow this afternoon,” she replied. It was about 2 pm. 

“Well, go ahead,” I said. 

She opened her laptop, started typing and clicking on her mousepad. After about 90 seconds, her head snapped up again, announcing that she was finished. 

“What was the issue?” I asked. 

“A workflow with a few questions that someone wanted information about from the field,” she replied. Each workflow question would gather responses from every person contacted and bring them back to Hellen and Mawen. 

“How many people did it go to?” I asked. 

“About 5,000,” she said. 

“When will you get the responses?”

“Probably by 5 pm tomorrow afternoon,” she said matter of factly. 

She was really saying that they needed to conduct an unannounced survey to 5,000 people and confidently return several times that in data from the field. Within a day and a half at most. In a country with a per capita GDP of about $450 US. (As a frame of reference, the US per capita GDP is almost $60,000. Just thought you might want to know.)

One of the lessons I took from this episode, is that powerful solutions exist but only when they are within the grasp of those who need them. The communications system we had cobbled together consisted of available spare parts. It was an adaptation of things already handy. 

That episode has remained in my mind ever since. It offers another motto.
  • Figure out the solution with what’s already at hand and with tools people already know how to use. 
So, I learned something important.  

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