Audacity & Resilience: Taking Productive Risks

In this episode, 2020 Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Mentor Janice McDonald, 2020 Scholars Laya Behbahani and Allison Furniss examine how they assess risks in their academic research and professional endeavours, and how the fear of failure can sometimes prevent us from taking the necessary steps to achieve our goals.





Valerie Pringle: Failure can be demoralizing, it can impact our perception of self, it can lead us to question our own abilities, even the fear of failure itself can prevent us from taking the risks that are necessary to achieve our goals to flourish. How does failure actually help us grow as individuals. I'm Valerie Pringle and welcome to this episode of Brave Spaces. We will be exploring these issues with three remarkable members of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation. So with us today, Laya Behbahani, who is a 2020 Scholar. She is a doctoral student at the School of Communications at Simon Fraser University. Laya's research focuses on forced labor, modern day slavery and human trafficking experiences in the Gulf states of the Middle East. Allison Furniss is also a 2020 scholar and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Allison's research focuses on women, artisanal coltan miners in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and 2020 Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Mentor Janice MacDonald. Janice is an award-winning entrepreneur, a leadership expert, a best-selling author who is the founder of the Beacon Agency, which is a boutique advisory firm. Laya and Alison and Janice. All of you, welcome to Brave Spaces Hi. 

Laya Behbahani: Hi, Valerie. Thank you. 

Valerie Pringle: So today, obviously, you come at this from all different backgrounds and very diverse experiences. As a mentor in the Trudeau Foundation one year, I got to actually select scholars, which was fantastic. And reading the resumes and going through these things, it's just an endless list of accomplishments and achievements and almost seeming superhuman. So obviously, this is what we tend to put forward into the world.  And people in this community are loaded with accomplishments. But I think it is a really interesting thing to flip this around and look at it and talk about it from the opposite approach, which is focusing on failure and what people are able to learn about it. 

So let's start by talking about what is the failure that you are most proud of and how did you use that experience to recover and move forward? Laya will you start? 

Laya Behbahani: For sure Valerie, so I've been thinking about this question. It's a good question. The example that comes to mind for me at least, is not something that perhaps I consider a failure per say, but something that's perhaps unconventional in the work that I do. In my case, I took a long time to complete my academic career. And I know it's not something that's really encouraged in academia to sort of take your time to do your undergraduate degree or your master's degree. But having taken seven years to do my undergraduate degree, I have to say, you know, I look back at it and it's really enriched my experience. It's expanded my outlook on life and more specifically, my area of research, which is human trafficking, as you mentioned. So according to academic standards, I guess it could be perceived as a failure or a mistake to have taken so long as that. But I have to say, from my perspective, I picked an alternative path. I undertook my time to do internships at places like the United Nations Human Trafficking Section in Vienna. I worked at the law school, at UBC and the provincial courts in Canada. So altogether, I look back and I think if I hadn't experienced these things, I'm not sure I'd be who I am today. So I don't I don't know if I consider it a mistake or a failure, but certainly unconventional in academia to have taken such a sort of a long and long path to complete my academic work. 

Valerie Pringle: Is that more typical that people are supposed to know what they want, know where they're going? And it's a straight line upward? 

Laya I would say. Yeah, I mean, that's the thing that we're seeing most commonly. I'd say that most students typically are, you know, finish their doctoral work by the time they're in their late 20s, early 30s. And that's seen as the best sort of way to. To go about doing it, so taking your time is a little bit unconventional, yes. 

Valerie Pringle: Alison, what about you? You and failure, tell a story. Admit it!

Allison Furniss: Yeah. OK, so you guys really aren't going to like my answer to this question, because the truth is, I really don't like this word failure. So for me, rather than looking at things as failure, I see these moments, the jobs we apply for, we don't get, the internships we apply for and don't get, I see as opportunities to build resilience and to recalibrate and just maybe change your direction or your goals. So giving a personal example, I mean, I you know, when I first applied to the University of Cape Town, I applied for a master's in anthropology and I wasn't accepted. They wanted me to do this extra honors year that they have there because I was changing disciplines. And at the time, I had just been working in Tanzania and Namibia for four years in support for development work, which was really soul-wrenching work. And I had just moved home to Whitehorse in the Yukon where I'm born and raised. And at the time, you know, my plan was to be home for six months, apply for grad school, go back to school, because I had done my undergrad and worked for quite a few years. And then I wasn't accepted. So this was really, in my mind, in that moment, that was a huge setback for me. I still don't look at it as a failure, but it was a big setback. But when I think of it now, especially in hindsight, I really see that I am so glad I wasn't accepted to that program because actually I wasn't ready for grad school. I really needed to reconnect with my community, take some time to kind of heal and recover from four years of soul-wrenching development work

Valerie Pringle: That's interesting. So, you know, I Janice to you now, you come at this very differently, not academia. You're a mentor your background as an entrepreneur. What has been your most successful failure? 

Janice McDonald: Thank you. So, yes, if I look at this through my entrepreneurial lens, I'm very comfortable with the word failure because I don't think of it as failure. And I know that that kind of sounds funny, but it builds on the comments both that Laya and Allison have made. In the sense that to me, if I think about the biggest failure for me in any area of my life, it would be about be around not trying, right? So holding myself back. In terms of failure or how I see it through that entrepreneurial lens of "Failure is learning and learning is what leads to the success. "So to me, failure is completely part of success. It's that chance to begin again, to pivot, to adjust. But this time, when you make that the pivot and the adjustment, you're coming at your new challenge with more knowledge and more experience. If I bring it down to a tangible example, from my days in the music industry in the 90s, in retail and then online. Perfect example, making a mistake in hiring the wrong people. Why did that matter, what happened? Well, as an example, you know, some people stole from me and from the business, and so you feel like, "Oh, how could I have made that mistake and not chosen different people?" But really, when putting it back into the "failure is learning, learning is success" framework, I realized, "Hey, I've got to make some changes here. Clearly, I need better processes and need to make some adjustments in how I'm tracking inventory and how things are approached at work." And so, again, you know, like Allison, that notion of reframing is really powerful and positive. It does lead to better outcomes.

Valerie Pringle: You know, in the moment when things don't work out, it does not feel good. No one likes it. I mean, because, you know, you can say, oh, yeah, it was all for the good, but for a little bit for a little while it does sting. And nobody nobody likes that. 

Janice McDonald: Yeah. And I will say, Valerie, that, which I say regularly to my children, 10 percent on the problem, 90 percent of our effort on the solution. And so you're absolutely right. It stings. But, you know, I'm more driven to ensure that I'm not making that same mistake. Because I'm going to keep making mistakes. That's inevitable. But really, have I learned, have I taken the steps, am I improving on this current problem, this current situation in front of me? 

Valerie Pringle: Now, I think this transitions nicely because what we what we sort of want to do here, and I think this would be helpful for the community and people listening to the podcast is to have a bit of a thought exercise about dealing with this. You know, how do you find strategies that you can use in real life situations where you face a choice? You try and assess the risks, build on experiences you have.  And, you know, I'm not an academic. My background is broadcasting, so I don't know that that world. And Laya maybe you can weigh in on this to start with. You know, is it different in academia? Are you supposed to always look like and be a success in order to keep moving forward on some track that will take you to, wherever, professorship, tenure-ship, you know, whatever is deemed as the big success? 

Laya Behbahani: My experience, I mean, part of academia is you're expected to make mistakes because the expectation or the understanding is that that's the only way you learn. I've talked to professors who are established, professors who have had their papers rejected 18, 19, 20 times over. And so failure is very much embedded in that experience because it's understood that experiential learning carries so much more weight than it does being given the green light every single time you try to do something. And so positive reinforcement, taking productive risks, this is all part of the academic experience. And that's something that I actually think is one of the highlights of academia, is that you're expected to take productive risks and you're expected to fail. You are expected to make mistakes because it's all seen as an opportunity to contribute to the person that you're going to become as an academic.

Valerie Pringle: Alison, leap in or Janice, how do you assess how do you look at these things? How do you how do you figure out which risks are worth taking? 

Allison Furniss: I mean, for me, a big part of this conversation around taking risks involves being mindful of alternative views but never being afraid to question them. I really think in in taking risk, you're taking actions. You're probably going to face a lot of naysayers within that. So there's going to be tons of people who tell you,"You can't do it, you shouldn't do it. Whatever you're doing is impossible." And I am so convicted to not listening to those voices, and those people, but of course being mindful of those alternative views, but never afraid to question them. So for me, I'll give the example of my master's field work in eastern DRC. It's a context of political instability, unpredictability. There's still active armed groups, even though it's more of a post-conflict context. So when I was going to do fieldwork, everyone told me I couldn't do it, I shouldn't do it. Even my own supervisor, my academic supervisor told me she thought I was crazy to do research in eastern DRC, but I was convicted. I knew it was a worthwhile project. I knew it could be done and I knew I could do it. And it almost failed, really, because I faced so many delays and so many challenges in organizing that kind of research in that kind of environment,that's just unpredictable and a bit unstable, that it was really challenging. I mean, I went in really cold. I didn't know anyone. I didn't have people to help me in the beginning like I was going in. 

Valerie Pringle: Really. Alison, if I were your mother, I would have been worried! 

Allison Furniss: No really. It's true. She was worried. But I mean, there was like a few, you know, a handful of people. And literally I can count them on one hand who supported the idea. And for me, my strategy became that those negative voices were so prevalent that it actually did start to erode my confidence on the project. So what I started doing was just essentially not really talking to people about the project or really watering down what I was doing so that I wasn't constantly immersed in that kind of negativity, to sort of protect myself from from people telling me I couldn't when I knew I could. So I think, you know, I think that's a really important conversation. And, you know, obviously, if my supervisor is telling me about she's worried about real dangers, sure. I need to prepare a safety plan in those kind of things. And I need to outline that I have good health insurance and all that kind of stuff. But it doesn't mean it can't be done. And I think especially a lot of in academia, people are pushing boundaries. They're going to places that not everyone goes to. They're asking questions people don't want to hear. You're going to face a lot of pushback on that.\]You're going to face a lot of challenges. But you have to always, like I always go back to being mindful of alternative views but never afraid to question them.

Valerie Pringle: Janice, sounds fearless to me. Right?

Janice McDonald: Yeah, absolutely. And I think, listen, highlighted something really important, which is especially when you're pushing boundaries and taking those risks, you need to have a or some champions or at least cheerleaders that you can turn to and feel like they're going to build you up. And because hopefully you are, and as she's indicated, asking yourself the questions that she needs in terms of a safety plan, et cetera. And for all of us, when we think about what would be a helpful question to move forward. Well, many entrepreneurs, but I think this is true of scholars as well, is asking yourself, well, what's the worst thing that can happen? 

Valerie Pringle: I've asked myself that many, many times in my life. Right. 

Janice McDonald: Right. And so the first reason, because sometimes we even sidestep looking at what really the worst thing is, or the or the worst things can be. And so, first of all, really kind of doing an audit of what that is. and then get comfortable with those possibilities. Next, we have to evaluate the likelihood of those things happening and then clearly adjust as necessary. So determine where you are on that comfort level. The other thing that can be really helpful is taking smaller steps in the direction that you want to go, and that could be even if it's not directly in the direction that you want to go, perhaps adjacent to. So continuing to move forward until perhaps you feel you're ready to move into that more kind of serious direction. But around this idea of still moving forward in the direction that you ultimately want to go.

Laya Behbahani: Yeah, I was going to say, I totally agree with both Janice and Alice. And I think the one thing that I always have to take into account, similar to Alison, is that my research is a bit of a taboo subject in the Gulf, so no one really wants to talk about forced labor or slavery or human trafficking. Doing field research is not optimal there, but having made the decision to do research in that area, on this subject, one of the things that I sort of foreground in any of my work is," Will it pose a harm to myself or anyone else?" And if that's the case, then for me personally, I think that productive of risk tends to weigh on the side of "It's not worth it, "the cost is just too high. But if you're thinking about it in terms of risk taking, unless you take those types of risks, Allison's right, you can't produce the kind of work that academia encourages. We are encouraged to think outside the box, we are encouraged to do work that is perhaps pushing the boundaries. 

Valerie Pringle: You've got to ruffle feathers and you've got to be brave, I guess, to stand up and defend. 

Laya Behbahani: Yeah and to ask those difficult questions that Allison's right, that people don't want to ask. 

Valerie Pringle: You know Laya with you, just as you say, with your research, you know, intrinsically there may be resistance where you're studying human trafficking, et cetera, that we don't want to talk about it. It doesn't exist here. It's verboten. How do you assess going forward and what risks are worth taking? 

Laya Behbahani: I would say it's probably more than just pushing boundaries and assessing risk. In the case of the Gulf States, certain types of research will bar you from ever entering the country. And so that's the sort of subject that I'm looking at. Is it worth it? Is it worth never being able to go back to those states? Is it worth putting some of those communities at risk? And so for me, not really doing research on the ground there is not worth it. But I can certainly do research that's a bit more innovative and start to look at work that, you know, looking at migration patterns from sending countries who send migrant workers to the Gulf states. And that's possible. So there's always an alternative strategy that you can take where you're not necessarily pushing aside your area of interest or the questions that that you think should be asked. But there's a way to do it in a way that poses perhaps less harm or no harm ultimately to those who you're studying. So for me, putting the migrant communities that I'm working with and I'm studying, top of mind, I would say that their safety is most important to me. And then second to that is, of course, asking those difficult questions. And so I've reframed my research to, like I said, do field research from the sending countries which are like Egypt, India, Pakistan and the Philippines. And in doing field research, they're asking questions, doing participant observations and interviews with migrant communities rather than going to the Gulf states and putting those communities at risk because they're already in precarious situations. And so for me, it wouldn't be worth the risk to put them in potential potential harm. 

Valerie Pringle: And, Alison, for you as well, I mean, if you're essentially been doing this but giving advice to another scholar who's listening about your work and how you approach it, 

Allison Furniss: I think it's true that what Laya was saying, to build on that, it is true that you have to calculate risk differently between yourself as the researcher, if I'm speaking in an academic space, versus your participants. But I would say honestly, I really think people are too afraid to do things a lot of times just because of assumptions and stereotypes. And that's where I really want to just say again how important, if you're a young scholar, you want to do fieldwork, primary research yourself, ethnography, whatever, interviews even, don't be afraid to do something that other people haven't done just because people tell you you can't. But be strong in your convictions and your confidence in the project and really be firm in your beliefs that there's value in what you're doing, 

Janice McDonald: And I'll build on that, because I think, generally speaking, people make too few mistakes. They're not taking enough risks. And sure, that might be my entrepreneurial hat. But, you know, having been a researcher myself as well, I agree that people are telling you, "Don't do this, don't do that," particularly, I think, for women. But one of the things that I would like in terms of advice for people to consider is to be intentional about their network. And if we go back to the Foundation, there is a beautiful network of support. And I think for scholars and those pursuing their career to bring some intention into expanding their network and getting those different points of view in different areas of support can be powerful, in terms of leading you in new directions and questioning your assumptions, how you're approaching things. So I know certainly it's been powerful for me to be intentional in that way, and I've seen the benefit of that for others. So I offer that for consideration.

Valerie Pringle: Well, I thank all of you for your insight and for telling us your stories and for your bravery. So I will thank Laya Behbahani again and Alice Furniss and Janice McDonald, all part of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation community. Next time we'll be discussing how we look after ourselves and recover after a really difficult, challenging conversations that obviously many people in this community have as they're doing their research and moving forward. So the guests then will be 2019, Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Scholar Diane Roberts and 2019 Mentor Shannon Litzenberger. So thank you very much.