Lessons from a camel

And other reflections from Morocco

Everything they say about time away is true. In March I was deeply fortunate to spend two weeks in Morocco with a group of college friends. I’ve been back for two weeks and think every day about how climate change is etching its impacts in every aspect of Moroccan life.

I’ve been reflecting on other aspects of my experience as well. Here are three thoughts related to learning and nonprofits.

1. You can’t expect people to know something they don’t know.

I never imagined myself riding a camel into the Saharan sunset, and yet there I was, adorned in a purple turban in a line of friends sitting on camels. At the conclusion of our ride, the camel driver ordered the camel to lower, which involved a collapse of its front legs followed by the back. I was unprepared for the 45 degree drop in the saddle. The handle caught my legs in a forward fall. The bruises just cleared, but the admonishment of the camel driver remains on my mind. Turns out I was supposed to scoot back on the saddle prior to the camel’s lowering.

As if I had any way to know that.

I’ve already written about prior knowledge and how it is the biggest determiner of future knowledge. When you know nothing about camel riding, there is nothing to build on. We can’t hold people accountable for knowledge they have no way of having.

But I’m thinking also of the recent email I got from a board member asking to explain more about financial statements and how to calculate a current ratio. So much about board practice is information that non-board members would have no reason to know prior to joining a board. Just as I have given myself grace for ungracefully dismounting from that camel, I’m thinking about how we can create plentiful, joyful opportunities for board members to learn information for the first time.

I also am reminded that there are some things we may not need to know at all. I have no future plan to ride a camel. I don’t need to know how to dismount one. I’m far more interested other aspects of Morocco (see next point). Similarly, there are a lot of aspects of nonprofit practice that board members or other members of the nonprofit team don’t need to know, or at least know well enough to perform. That laundry list of skills we so often hear — board practice, finance, fundraising, advocacy, and on and on. It isn’t realistic. My camel reminded me to celebrate what people know and want to know and let go of the rest.

2. Pay attention to what connects the parts. It is captivating—and holds important culture lessons.

One of the delightful aspects of Moroccan dress is the ubiquitous djellaba, a wool hooded robe often in earthen tones that keeps people warm and clean on dusty streets. There are male and female versions. If wool weren’t so impractical in Seattle weather, I think I would live in one.

It took me about a week to look closer at how these robes are constructed. In many, the seams were embroidered, not simply sewn as one might expect in a utilitarian garment.

I then started going into finer dress shops to see this embroidery closer up, and the simplest shirts featured intricate ribbons of embroidery that connects the cloth pieces together or trims the edges in beautiful ways. Camels may not be my thing, but I’m all in on learning more about this embroidery and how I can add this type of detail to my sewing projects.

The embroidery itself reflects Moroccan culture and reminds us about culture in general. An effective organizational culture is so easy to miss at far range, and yet close up we know the effort it takes to create an organization that others want to be a part of. I’m thinking about recent conversations about generational differences within our staffs and inclusion of diverse people that represent our communities. We weave together our values and norms to connect the functional areas of our work– HR, finance, fundraising, board practice, etc. — to create unique, joyful, meaningful, and impactful work spaces.

An effective culture is one that catches our attention, like that embroidery, and makes us curious to learn more. I’ve already checked out a book on embroidery from the library.

3. Awe is an important emotion, no camel required.

The week after I returned, “awe” entered my inbox in two ways. Hidden Brain released a podcast on awe with Dacher Keltner (author of Awe: The Transformative Power of Everyday Wonder), and then the British Psychological Society dropped their newsletter with the headline, “Kids help others more after experiencing awe.” Awe, to use Keltner’s definition, is “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world.” In a nutshell, awe makes us more connected, generous, curious, and a bunch of other positive emotions we need more of in our world.

This focus on awe gave me a word to describe what I experienced on the Sahara. I understood better why it matters so much that we have experiences that connect us with the vastness outside of ourselves. I appreciated Keltner’s reminder to find awe in our everyday world, from the seed forcing its way through the spring earth to the people we know who share with us new ways of being, expanding our understanding of ourselves.

I’m thinking a lot about how to bring awe into our nonprofit gatherings, from board meetings to conferences. How can we invite people into experiences that transcend their current understanding of the world? How can we create that beginner’s mind of seeing something again for the first time? How can we find joy in the vastness of our sector to advance the greater good?

We live in an incredible world.

Published by Nancy

I work at the intersection of learning, nonprofits, and leadership. I am a teacher, instructional designer, and nonprofit person who has worn every hat possible. I regular write, speak, and consult on learning strategy, design, and leadership.

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