(The Culligan water truck in Port-au-Prince. A popular company!)
A few weeks ago I went to Haiti for three days. One of my coaching engagements is with a global health organization, and I went to do work with the Haiti country director and her senior team.
This was not my first time in a developing country. As some of you know, my first real job was as a Foreign Service officer. When I was 24 I spent a year living in Calcutta and working for the U.S. Information Service, which is now part of the State Department.
Living in Calcutta was both interesting and somewhat traumatic, although not for the reasons you might think. My main problem was that I was lonely and living in a foreign culture and was not sure most of the time what my job actually was. This was in a pre-email period of existence, so living overseas could be quite isolating. It took 6 weeks for letters to go back and forth, and phone calls cost 3 dollars a minute—and this was more than 20 years ago.
There is a level of poverty in parts of the world that is hard for most people even to fathom, but when you are living in Calcutta you learn not to say, “there’s lots of poverty,” because (1) it’s obvious and (2) as an American expatriate you are not suffering from that particular problem.
You also learn that in a poor, stressed, developing country, it is a bit of a cheap shot to declaim what terrible shape it is in. Describing a country solely in terms of poverty, pollution and corruption to a certain degree denies the humanity and creativity of the people who live there. They did not choose their problems, but they are finding ways to cope with them. And once you get beyond the obvious, there are often wonderful things to notice and learn from.
Fast forward to my trip to Haiti. When I came back, people said, “So how was that?” I thought a moment and then responded, “It's a nice country and it's got some really tough problems and there are a lot of people doing good work."
I had two personal takeaways from this trip. First, I felt confident that I was doing something useful. The team I was coaching (almost all of whom are Haitian themselves) are promoting maternal and infant health, educating about STD-prevention, advocating family planning, and generally doing very direct things to make poor people’s lives better. And since my job was to help them function more effectively as leaders and teams, I was making a contribution to something important.
Second, I felt relieved that I quit the Foreign Service 20 years ago. Because I realized that, while I believe very deeply in this kind on-the-ground work with the poorest of the poor, I’m pretty sure I lack the capacity to do it myself. The very thing that draws me to work in developing countries—feeling an immediate connection to people who live there (based on the knowledge that there is no difference in who we are, just a difference in luck where we were born)—is also what makes it hard for me to actually do anything useful.
I’ll express this in Myers-Briggs terms. (For more on MBTI, see earlier posts "Hillary Clinton, Misunderstood INTJ", "P's Have More Fun" and "Does Endlessly Searching Mean Never Satisfied") I’m an ENFJ, which means that my strongest function is extraverted feeling, followed by introverted intuition. That means I’m always looking outward for connection, harmony and stimulation, and I’m always looking internally wondering what the story is—where do I fit in, what does this say about my purpose in the world, what does it all mean.
As an ENFJ, I’m great in the classroom, assessing how people are working together and what they need, and coming up with new ideas. I’m not so good staring out the window of a LandRover in Port-au-Prince at poor people living in tents and shacks.
My Haiti-based client, on the other hand, is an INTJ. This means that she gets energy from herself and makes assessments and decisions based on logic rather than feeling. She has a big job doing important things under difficult circumstances (for instance, she and her family were in a fifth floor apartment during a 7.0 earthquake). But she’s also able to turn inward after work, focus on her family and home and detach. These abilities in turn make her able to sustain this kind of work over the longer haul.
I told her about my theories. She found them reasonable. She previously worked in refugee camps in Africa and said that the most idealistic people were the ones who burned out the fastest.
So all you INTJ, INTP, ISTJ and ISTP types out there—consider a career in international development. You will probably do a great job. And I’ll be happy to come and give you succor and great ideas. I’ll advocate your work to the world, since as an ENFJ I am good with words and full of enthusiasm. I do love to travel. But it’s probably better if I come back home afterwards.
To learn more about MBTI, try Gifts Differing: Understanding Personality Type, written by the daughter of the mother-daughter team who developed MBTI over a 60-year period.