Feeling stupid is a specialty of mine. Case in point: I volunteered for two weeks at a special needs school in China, and a teacher told me her name was Huang Hua.
“Oh—Huang Hua,” I said, thinking I’d repeated her words.
She burst out laughing, struggling to stay upright. Clearly I’d not only mispronounced her name, but I’d just called her a cattle prod or a potted plant (a Chinese speaker later said my pronunciation sounded like a word associated with the female anatomy).
As a volunteer in China and five other countries, I was on a midlife quest to find purpose by helping others, and everywhere I went, I felt… dumb. But I came to embrace my stupidity, because every time I felt stupid, I learned something: about myself, about the local culture, about the work I was doing. So based on my experiences as a global volunteer, here’s an idiot’s guide to being an idiot—and revitalizing your life.
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If You’re Not Failing, You’re Not Living Every time I arrived in a new country and a new placement, I’d think: This was a huge mistake. That’s because I was waaay outside of my comfort zone. But escaping your comfort zone is the best way learn about yourself, since you’re facing new fears and new challenges. If you’re a first-time skiier, there’s the fear of falling, the fear of colliding with pine trees, the humiliation of toddlers zipping by you on the slopes. Sounds daunting—but you may discover a new passion. And even if you don’t, you’ll grow stronger from testing yourself.
Staying Comfy Can Kill You Friends and family may discourage you from rut-busting challenges. When I volunteered in the West Bank, if I told people I was going to Bethlehem, they’d picture baby Jesus and say, “Ohhh—that’s so nice.” If I said I was going to Palestine, they’d tell me not to go. Same place, different perspective. If someone tries to dissuade you from a new challenge, tell them this: the danger lurks in not breaking your routine. A ho-hum existence can lead to a shorter lifespan and unhealthy behaviors like smoking and drinking, a University College London study found.
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Stupidity Makes You Smart In China, a friend and I spent two weeks looking for a tea shop. Like idiots, we were walking past tea shops constantly; we just didn’t know the Chinese character for tea. It’d be like going to Manhattan, trying to find a Starbucks, walking past 30 of them, and saying, “I can’t believe this city doesn’t have a Starbucks.” Stupid, right? Yet by escaping the tour-bus bubble and walking the streets, we opened ourselves to new experiences, which can boost your brain. “While cocooned in our comfort zones, we run the risk of avoiding unfamiliar people as well as circumstances,” states an article on brain health in Harvard Men’s Health Watch. Your brain wants stimulation, which comes from new experiences.
The Impossible Is Possible The biggest dreams often seem the most idiotic, but there’s a fine line between stupidity and audacity. In Kenya, I worked with an indomitable woman named Jane Karigo, who founded a children’s home near the city of Mombasa. She created the home with no resources or government support—just faith, grit, and love. After some early struggles, the home now cares for 40 abandoned and orphaned kids, most of whom would otherwise live on the streets. Jane is proof that you can do anything if you’re determined enough—and that success comes from helping others succeed.
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New Friends Offer New Perspectives The main benefit of volunteering, I found, wasn’t the work. It was the cultural interactions that occurred. Too often we talk only with those who share our views, but you when you laugh and chat and eat with people from different cultures—people who have different religions and different viewpoints—it changes how we see one another, and we all become, yes, just a little less stupid.
Photo courtesy of Ken Budd