A legend in my own mind

A lot happened in Brazilian-American relations while I was here.  If asked to predict before I got here, even if asked to be extravagant, I would never have been so bold as to predict all the things accomplished in education and English learning.  The numbers are impressive.  Our English teacher exchange, for example, grew 54 fold in the time I was in Brazil.  This is not 54%, but 54 times.  By the time I leave, more than 20,000 Brazilian students will have gone to the U.S. on SwB.

I am in an unusual position.  Usually, I am trying to figure out what why we couldn’t get everything we hoped.  In this case I am trying to figure out my/our contribution to something so massively big that those unfamiliar with our operation do not believe it.  There was an interesting example last year when I reported about the increase in English teacher exchanges I mentioned above. I wrote to Washington that we expected to go from twenty to 490. My colleague in Washington thought I made a typing mistake and reported up 49.  Actually, I was wrong.  By the time I corrected the correction, our Brazilian friends had agreed to 540 and soon after that wanted to do the program twice a year, bringing the total to 1080.  The English w/o Borders program in general is expected to reach 7 million Brazilians over the next four years.  When you throw around numbers like this, it is no wonder people don’t believe it.

My analysis challenge is trying to figure out how much of the success over the past years would have happened without our contributions and how much my team and I did.  I have come to a nuanced answer.   We didn’t do anything in the sense of making it happen.  Our Brazilian friends did it.  American universities made the connections. Fulbright coordinated and IIE and Laspau made placements. But we facilitated all of them. We were necessary but not sufficient.  Necessary but not sufficient is not a satisfying answer.  This kind of ambivalence doesn’t look good on our efficiency reports and will not get the recognition we “deserve.”  Nobody gets promoted for being necessary but not sufficient. We prefer the illusion of control, but isn’t it better to be a necessary part of something really big instead of in complete control of something vanishingly small?

Why bother trying to figure it out at all if we are getting good results?  Results matter, but if you don’t study the process you cannot estimate to what extent those results came from your efforts, from what others did or from luck & serendipity.  It is always a combination but the mix matters.  You want to be able to duplicate success and avoid problems.  Unfortunately, much of our success cannot be duplicated. It was based on conditions which will not be present again. Ironically, our success altered the landscape in such a way that my methods are no longer effective. Knowing this is worth the time it takes to understand the process. Maybe I don’t exactly know what to do to achieve future success, but I know that I cannot continue to apply unaltered what worked so well the first time around. Knowing this is worth knowing.

This leads me back to my title.  As I get ready to finish in Brazil, I am feeling the usual mix of pride in a job well done plus the strange brew of simultaneously feeling humble at being so lucky, i.e. not deserving much recognition and feeling aggrieved for not getting much recognition. I didn’t say it was logical.  The more effectively you achieve something by working with others, the more others think it is simply natural and inevitable. Maybe it was. Maybe I am only a legend in my own mind. Maybe I just shouldn’t care.  I often joke that I need not worry since they cannot fire me and they will not promote me. That really is true.

Being necessary but not sufficient implies that you are part of a big team. There is often a distributed decision network at work and many members of the team are only vaguely aware or even unaware entirely of all the others. There are lots of necessary but not sufficient players.  My FS career is almost over. I would really like a big success to top it off, but I don’t think I can have one. If it is “my” success it won’t be big and if it is big I will share it with so many others that it won’t be mine. Good enough for me.