Los Guidos is a depressed neighborhood on the fringes of San Jose, Costa Rica. In the late 1990’s its population of poor native “Ticos” and undocumented Nicaraguan immigrants lived in ramshackle houses on rutted dirt roads flanked by open sewers. In the eyes of a driven and overly idealistic architecture undergraduate, Los Guidos was the perfect location to deliver highly impactful design. Fifteen years later, I look back and see a disaster playing out in slow motion.
At 20 years old I viewed my architecture school as guilty of a woeful amount of wasted energy — why were we laboring over fictitious buildings when so much of the world lacked access to capable architects and designers? And I wasn’t the only one thinking this way. The Good Deeds, Good Design Conference had just been held for the first time and hip kids in my classes started talking about the work of Bryan Bell, Sergio Palleroni, and Dan Pitera. For students like me, it felt like a movement was being born and it was exciting as hell to witness.
But a few altruistic classmates and I wanted to do more than just witness; we wanted in on the action. Through our various networks we eventually uncovered an opportunity to design an orphanage for a low-income neighborhood in Costa Rica. We successfully sold the project to our program’s administration, allowing us to sidestep the standard studio sequence to focus our energies fully on Los Guidos.
At first, everything went great and we threw ourselves completely into the project. We traveled to the site and met the client, the design we developed won awards, and a local fabricator agreed to prototype a portion of the building. All the pieces felt like they were falling into place.
Then graduation hit. Outside the safety net of school, we quickly realized that we didn’t have the skills to execute a project of the scale and complexity that we’d taken on. Our team, which once was united in a renegade spirit, suddenly got jobs and “grew up.” The non-profit we registered was unable to attract funding, momentum stalled, and our relationship with the client eventually fell apart. With each team member that peeled away, the project faded further to black. To this day I have no idea what became of the orphaned children in Los Guidos.
A deep, stinging sense of despair set in for me. As the chief instigator and de facto leader for our team, I was unable to disassociate myself from the work. The project had failed and therefore I had failed. I felt personally humiliated and I alienated myself from public interest work in general.
As I moved on with my career the ghost of Los Guidos haunted me, especially when entrepreneurial feelings crept to the front of my mind. After graduate school I regained the confidence to move back into public interest design. I had a new project, Librii, but was still operating with the old mindset that had set me up for failure in Los Guidos: the idea that if I just trusted myself and pursued the work I was passionate about, everything would work itself out. Then I read a book that opened my eyes to an entirely new reality.
Skills Over Passion
Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, has a simple thesis: working right trumps the right work. The book challenged my romantic sensibilities with a ruthlessly pragmatic prescription: avoid bad advice, build a valuable set of core skills, start small, and patiently develop a larger life mission.
I recently reviewed the Los Guidos project through this new lens and was able to process its failures in a much more constructive way. Although at times it felt like I was administering an autopsy, this was not a grim exercise. By exploring the factors that lead to our projects’ failures, we unlock critical learning opportunities for ourselves and others. The field of social impact design would develop significantly faster if we engaged in honest and candid dialogue about our failures with the same vigor we use to celebrate our triumphs.
Follow Your Passion (or Not)
I’ve come to realize that the cliched advice to “follow your passions” is actually deeply flawed. At best, preexisting passions have little to do with how people arrive at doing work they love. At worst, this advice is actually dangerous because a career built on passion is extremely tenuous unless you also have the skills to actually perform. Simply following your passion only to be confronted with a bitter failure can turn the issues you care most about into sources of misery, self-doubt, and professional instability.
Thinking back on my younger self, I feel a chilling anxiety at how easily I fell into this trap — quixotically chasing my passions without having the necessary skills to actually achieve my goals is what led to failure at Los Guidos. I saw a community in distress and foolishly thought that my benevolent emotions and burning desire would compensate for professional acumen. I was wrong.
Control and Career Capital
Instead of leaping into the void, what I should have done is build “career capital,” defined by Newport as traits that are both rare and valuable — the very essence of “working right.”
Career capital is the foundation that the Los Guidos project lacked. Our team had skills, but the problem was that they were not rare (many people can design at an undergraduate level) or particularly valuable, illustrated by the fact that no one was willing to pay us. Our team lacked the key skills we actually needed, namely international project management and fundraising. We wanted the ends but lacked the means, and so the project was launched without money and we were unable to fundraise at the levels necessary to execute the work.
For many people, the ideal professional situation is to be in control over what you do and how you do it. However, there’s a catch: Control acquired without career capital is unsustainable. If you try to assume control too quickly, you will likely find that no one is willing to pay for whatever service you are offering — money is a neutral and shrewd indicator of value. With Los Guidos we took control immediately. We were impetuous when we should have been patiently building credibility.
A clear and compelling mission serves as an organizing principle for a fulfilling work life. If you strive to create high grade, mission-related work, it is recommended that you stay close to the cutting edge of your field, where innovation typically lurks. To get there, you place little bets and maximize the leverage out of any wins you collect.
Los Guidos was a noble effort that had a powerful service component, but it would have been difficult to discern a clear and compelling mission in our work. While public interest design was — and remains — cutting edge in many respects, our project was not innovative at all —in fact, we had a somewhat backward-looking, one-dimensional charitable attitude. The project also represented an enormous bet which even the most optimistic backers understood as a long-shot.
With these hard-won lessons now ingrained into my psyche, I’m currently developing a new venture called Librii. The project is once again an entrepreneurial and public interest one that aims to build a network of libraries along the frontiers of Internet connectivity. While I am passionate about this work, I’m not driven by my passions. Because of the failure of Los Guidos, I’m much more inclined to see Librii as fitting into a larger career mission to build and scale companies that provide spaces for people to maximize their individual potential. The career capital I am building to advance Librii will stick with me, regardless of whether the project ultimately succeeds.
For the last year I have concentrated not only on being good but also on getting better. A greater intensity has been focused on acquiring rare and valuable attributes that will enable me to make steady progress. Specifically, I am honing my ability to manage a team, improve the depth and effectiveness of my network, identify and approach investors, and close deals.
I’ve also discovered an appreciation for making small bets. When Librii was conceived, I imagined the first location being in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the need is arguably the greatest. Because of my experience with Los Guidos, I’ve recognized that it would be wiser to start with a smaller pilot in my hometown of Washington, D.C. where I can operate a lighter, faster, cheaper version without the risk of catastrophic failure. I am now confident in the notion that, at this early stage, our team could learn just as much with a $15k domestic version of Librii than we could doing a $500k Librii halfway around the world.
The most important lesson I’ve learned from the failure of Los Guidos is that the real payoff is in the process and that the most successful processes are built on controlled, regular, non-fatal failure. This kind of low-grade failure is not an option, it’s a requirement, for success — since failure is unavoidable, it should be leveraged in a constructive way. Each failed attempt, if properly understood, can generate progress towards your ultimate goal. Happily, I can report that Librii is experiencing more failure, in smaller doses, than ever, which is leading to larger net gains in overall progress. I have cultivated rare and valuable skills, sustainable capital, and am working towards my mission every day.
It’s easy to look back at a flop like Los Guidos, cringe, and try to push it out of your mind. But failures have value, and by taking the time to thoroughly examine the cause and manner of the our mistakes, we move at least one step closer to creating successful projects that positively impact others.
David Dewane is an architect, entrepreneur, and educator. He is the founder and executive director of Librii, a company establishing a network of low-cost, digital libraries in communities with limited Internet access.
All images courtesy of David Dewane and Librii.