Learning from Humiliation, Shame and Failure

By Duncan Green - 14 May 2024
Learning from Humiliation, Shame and Failure

Duncan Green on lessons hard won.

The photo I dug up for Tuesday’s post of me wandering about in rainswept paddyfields in Vietnam got me thinking about a recurrent theme of the last 20 years at Oxfam (and earlier jobs too): the role of personal humiliation, shame and failure in learning.

First the Vietnam example. I went there full of the 2005 hubris I described earlier. Oxfam’s big campaign at the time was on trade (in)justice, and we had just published a paper laying out the unfairness of the rules governing Vietnam’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). It was a deeply skewed process in which existing members could gang up on newbie applicants, taking it in turns to demand more and more concessions from the Vietnamese, each of which then had to apply to all the existing members.

The Vietnamese government was delighted with our criticism of the negotiations and granted us a meeting with a member of the Vietnamese Politburo – great theatre: busts of Ho Chi Minh, marbled halls, red carpets, the lot. Opposite us sat a very polite elderly woman. I launched into a patronising presentation of the paper, full of that 2005 arrogance I talked about on Tuesday (probably laced with a dose of unconscious colonialism, sexism and ageism): ‘you have to realize they are bullying you, it’s so unfair etc etc’. She listened politely and then said words to the effect of ‘well, you know, we lost 2 million lives in the American War, I think we’ve got this’. I suddenly saw who was sat opposite me, probably a veteran of the war, a senior political figure with all the experience I lacked. I wanted to curl up and die.

That initial jolt made me reflect on all those -isms, and the importance of trying to understand the power and ‘point of view of the other’ (PoVO) in any conversation.

I don’t know if this is my individual pathology or a more general phenomenon, but those moments (and plenty of others ☹ – see below) stay with me. I learn far more from them than from any compliments or successes.

A couple more – my Oxfam colleagues often think I’m too big for my boots, so these are partly for them to enjoy…..

In 2010, Oxfam was preparing for a big new campaign called Grow. The idea was to move from the negative framing of injustice, violation and poverty to a more positive frame that would help counteract the accumulated impact of decades of ‘poverty porn’ and respect the agency of countless individuals and communities around the world. Fresh off the back of the launch of ‘From Poverty to Power’ (the book, not the blog), I said I would write the big campaign report. These were huge set pieces – the foundations on which big global campaigns stand or fall – and I thought I was just the person to do it.

Boy, did I get that wrong. What I failed to recognize was that I had already fallen out of love with Oxfam’s campaign model and the way of writing needed (not helped by doing my PhD at the time). I couldn’t get the tone right (my boss at the time: ‘why do you quote Charles Darwin – couldn’t you quote Bob Marley?’), and I failed to come up with the kind of killer facts that any campaign needs (confession, I’m not a real researcher who can do that kind of thing). A lamentable cocktail of arrogance and lack of self-knowledge. As the campaign launch day approached, the pressure of the slow motion car crash grew and I ended up with attacks of vertigo and going into hospital with some weird tomato-sized abscess on my face.

The report was taken away from me, and a fellow researcher, Rob Bailey was drafted in to do what was needed, ahead of the launch in 2011 (backed by Lula, Desmond Tutu and Scarlett Johansson!).

As for me, the blog came to the rescue. My boss (he of the Bob Marley appeal) took me out to tea in a cafe on the Euston Road and said words to the effect of ‘normally, we’d sack you, but too many people are reading your blog. You can’t stay as head of research, so we need a job title that sounds important but means nothing’. And that’s how I became Oxfam’s ‘senior strategic adviser’.

Lessons? Know your limits, and build your public profile just in case.

One more (what the hell, I’m leaving anyway). Getting a lesson in the power of localisation. Just after I joined Oxfam, I was sent to the lake district on a management leadership course with a bunch of other supposed ‘future leaders’. It was awful. In one of the exercises, two teams had to play remote human chess. Some of them were chess pieces on the board. At a distance were their randomly selected ‘managers’ (I was one of them). The only connection between them was a runner and there was added time pressure.

Me and my fellow manager were provided with a chess set, so we duly set out our chess pieces and tried to run the show without being able to see the board. The other team had Kate Raworth (later of Doughnut Economics fame) as manager, who sent a message through to the players asking ‘any of you play chess?’ When they said yes, she said ‘over to you’ and went off and had a cup of tea. We remote-controllers got slaughtered.

That was my first lesson in the power of localization and ‘handing over the stick’ and I’ve never forgotten it.

I have plenty more where they came from, but that’s enough for one post and I’m not contemplating a series (sorry!). How about you – do you learn from success or failure? Any juicy examples?



This first appeared on From Poverty to Power.

Photo by Gratisography

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