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[Outreachy] · · 4 min read

Talking about the fear of failure

Before we go any further and talk about my strategies to bring more attention to technical translation in Wikimedia projects, I need to touch on a subject that most likely affects every human being: the fear of failure. As I wrote on January 2 in my daily notes, a few days ago I was filled with apprehension and uneasiness as I began to feel the burden of my responsibility as an Outreachy intern and to question how much room for failure I have. Although anxious to put my knowledge and learning into practice, I feared making mistakes and not achieving the expected success. What happens if I do not find the perfect solution, if all my ideas are unsuccessful?

I expressed my fears and insecurities to Johan and Benoît at our last meeting and they, being the good mentors they are, reminded me of several important aspects of the nature of my project and of a professional life as a whole:

This project is not like the others

While defining expected results for projects involving the implementation of a particular functionality in a software is an easy process, for one who proposes to find new strategies for recruiting new contributors this is somewhat more complicated. It is unfair to expect that I will solve all problems related to technical translation on Wikimedia Foundation in three months of action, and it is unrealistic to expect that the courses of action I propose will work out to the point where we can set goals in terms of numbers of new translators and increases in the percentage of documentation translated into each language. This leads us to the second point:

This is a research-focused project

And as in any other research elsewhere, results that are considered “negative” remain good results given the possibility of learning both with failures and successes. That is why, in addition to wanting to write a final report on my experiences, impressions and recommendations, I try to document my work as much as I can - thus, it is possible to better understand the paths that led me to those conclusions.

There is not such a thing as a “perfect decision”

When our plans fail, we tend to think that the other options we had at the time of decision could have led us to success. And while it is natural to reevaluate our deliberation process, it is unhealthy to be obsessed with the fantasy of possibility. The decision we make at one point is often the best we can do. We act taking into account the information available and our best judgment at the time.

“You could, for example, get hit by a bus if you had chosen something else,” Johan told me. This may seem cynical and overly absurd, but it is a very appropriate statement. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, to assure you that the other options would have been better choices.

Being flexible is necessary

Making a decision does not necessarily mean becoming devoted to it. It’s a good idea to set up a evaluation routine to check if you’re headed in the right direction to achieve your goals, and there’s nothing wrong with reconsidering other options even if you’ve invested a lot of time. In software development, this is one of the central points of the so-called (and extensively used) agile methodology.

Once again, it is important to note that testing options and recognizing that they are flawed does not mean wasting time and resources. Every action is an opportunity for learning and the result will always be to become a more conscious, experienced and wise person.

The responsibility is shared

I am not alone - my mentors and I are a team. We take action only after we have dialogued with each other and reached a consensus. If I do not agree to something, I am free to express my point of view and counter-arguments. If my ideas have no foundation or are something that has already been done and failed, they will let me know.

This attitude ends up creating a support network. It is not expected of me that I carry the weight of decisions (and their consequences) on my own. “We got your back, don’t worry”, they both said to me.

As a person who has been watching the technology world dehumanize those who work in the area with absurd working hours and deadlines, the possibility of being honest about my feelings and conflicts with the people who are mentoring me is certainly one of the most important aspects of the experience I’m having in this internship.

The process of growing — or, even better, flourishing — involves much more than having opportunities to put your skills into practice or people who believe in what you can offer. It requires, above all, a great understanding of human nature and an immense respect for its limits. And it is heartening to experience all of this while working with the Wikimedia Foundation.