The “I” in AIESEC

My AIESEC journey began in the summer of 2011, when I decided to take a chance and submit an application to the team accepting signups for the global exchange program. Fast forward to today, having traveled four countries and having met hundreds of inspiring individuals from all over the world, I leave the organization a changed man.

Here are some things I’ve learned along the way.

Lessons of life & leadership from AIESEC

Trust yourself and those around you.

You will get nowhere if you can’t put your faith in yourself to accomplish your dreams; or, inversely, if you can’t put your confidence in your friends to help you get there. Having a team that shares your vision and respects your contribution to the cause can be the difference between success and failure. You can’t do it if you don’t believe you can, and you can’t do it alone. It goes without saying that no one is ever going to hand you anything on a plate. But before we can reach out to grab it, shouldn’t we believe in our ability to do so? And perhaps more importantly, that we deserve it. Self-efficacy, the belief that we can achieve our goals, is an important component of good leadership.

You need to be able to trust your people to hold up their end of the bargain with dedication and attention – and of course, vice versa.
Society and organization is built on trust. I trust that my neighbor will not murder me in my sleep to steal my food; I trust that a member of my team will not steal credit from me when we succeed or throw me under the bus when we fail; I trust that the work we do matters as much to them as it does to me.

The thing is though, that you have to earn trust. It doesn’t come packaged with your seniority or job title. Clarity of purpose, consistency in character and a connection with the people around you help build trust. I’ll let Peter Drucker say it for me. “The leaders who work most effectively never say ‘I.’ […] They don’t think ‘I.’ They think ‘we’; they think ‘team.’” When a team thinks in these terms, we can stop watching our backs and instead devote out time to the more important stuff.

Try new things.

You never know what you’ll be good at and your time here is too short to limit yourself to the familiar. Stepping outside of our comfort zone is one of the most difficult things we can do in the arguably sheltered lives we live, and perhaps it is also the most rewarding. The world is changing drastically, and the ability adapt to the ever-changing state of reality is a rare skill to possess. Not to mention it develops your creativity and productivity in the process.

Meeting a new person, learning a new skill, or taking on a new challenge – that’s where the magic of growth and self-fulfillment happens.
Fear of the unknown is one thing AIESEC is great at hammering out of you. Going on a community development exchange project to Romania, living alone, presenting my country in front of  300 people, getting hands-on experience in a variety of fields, working with an international team, learning about other cultures from first-hand sources … the list of life-changing experiences can’t possibly be exhaustively listed here. Meeting a new person, learning a new skill, or taking on a new challenge – that’s where the magic of growth and self-fulfillment happens.

We live in an amazing era. It’s so easy to accomplish, the only thing we need to do is go out there and do it.  The only limits are your imagination and drive for more. The doors life opens for you are waiting for you to walk through them.

Failure is your friend.

Learn from the mistakes of your colleagues and leaders, and of course from your own. The best became the best because they have failed, often repeatedly. They didn’t let that stop them from getting back up and succeeding tomorrow. In my experience, the first time life knocks the wind out of you, you feel as though nothing you knew before is true anymore. But with it comes a sense of freedom – the worst has happened, and now you are free to move forward, having learned how to not do what you wanted. In this sense, AIESEC is the ultimate arena to experiment and discover yourself.

Fail often, fail hard, they say. My first experience as a team leader in Incoming Exchange (business development) was nothing to write home about. My team of 5 was only able to arrange 2 sales meetings in the entire quarter, none of which bore any fruit. Getting turned down or straight up ignored over the phone a dozen times was not any easier. By the end of my three month term as “team leader,” in way over my head, I realized that I wasn’t invincible after all. Sound familiar? 2 of my 5 team members went on probation due to lack of activity, one of which ended up leaving the organization the next week. I had failed. Both at producing results, and more importantly, at inspiring my team.

This brush with the real world gave me a chance to examine my professional and interpersonal behaviors, even before I had graduated. I was suddenly years ahead in my professional learning curve.

But you know what? In the larger scheme of things, it wasn’t so bad. Sure it stung like a firecracker at the time, and I felt worthless. But this brush with the real world gave me a chance to examine my professional and interpersonal beliefs and behaviors, even before I had graduated. I was suddenly at an advantage; I was suddenly years ahead in my professional learning curve than any of my other college friends. I knew what I was terrible at, what I needed to work on – and most importantly, how I could improve on those aspects of myself and my leadership style. That’s what failure gives you. Persevere. Demand feedback, dust yourself off and never repeat your mistakes.

Pursue perfection.

Perfection is an illusive mistress, and you need to know when to give up the chase, but it’s almost always worth it. Go beyond your job description in the pursuit of your goals and forget who gets the credit. This is both a symptom and cause of loving what you do, and the difference between average and excellent. Strive to perfect your job into an artform. You have to take personal responsibility to deliver the best, no matter what. I’ve learned that if you do this, the credit and recognition will follow as an eventuality. This applies to life in general as well of course. The initiative to take the first step, and to take the best kind of steps, often times going against the grain, is something the world desperately needs its next generation to possess. Quality over quantity, every time.

The best work stems from our own internal motivations and desires to see the organization succeed. No amount of structural restrictions can change that.
One of the things I’d realized early on in AIESEC was that roles and job descriptions aren’t worth much. The executive body and talent management team sets out KPIs and measures of success, but the onus of getting it done lies with the person occupying the position itself. Sure, you can get a slap on the wrist, demoted or even kicked out for not performing, but the only incentive to do more than the bare minimum stems from our own internal motivations and desires to see the organization succeed. That’s one reason it’s so important (for any organization) to get members (or employees) on board with the values and vision if the organization hopes to accomplish anything real. On a personal level, make it your goal to leave empty, with nothing held back and no shoulda-coulda-woulda thoughts in your head.

In a way, this also loops back to the part about trust. When you’re working in a team, either in the trenches or at the helm, you need to be able to trust your colleagues to perform their duties with dedication and attention – and of course, vice versa.

Acknowledge your ignorance, then drown it.

The world is a giant place, filled with all kinds of people who hold all kinds of opinions; there are great things happening out there, and there are problems all around us. Accept this and acknowledge the fact that you do not know enough about anything. Permanent opinions are a sign of ignorance. Do you agree? Seek out new perspectives and challenge your own held beliefs. Demand feedback and never be afraid to ask for help. Have I said that already? It’s that important.

If there’s one thing AIESEC is based upon, it’s the idea of acceptance, not just of cultures and ethnicities but of different opinions, beliefs and lifestyles as well. This is something the world desperately needs; the Subcontinent even more so. When you have a memberbase of more than 80,000 passionate young people from all over the world that turns over almost completely every year by design, you’re left with little choice.

There are a million other ways of looking at things, and the youth of the world is nothing if not adept at coming up with newer ways still. Isn’t that one of the most exciting things about the 21st century?

They say if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room. Having access to a network you can learn from comes later, but the first thing to do is realize the importance of pursuing new information. If it weren’t for this curiosity, Man wouldn’t have reached the Moon or even realized that the Earth revolves around the Sun and not the other way around.

Rainbows & butterflies inside the bubble

Depending on the kind of person you are, your time in AIESEC can range the spectrum of euphoric to dispirited. With the audacious goal of engaging youth around the world for societal impact, you can well imagine that AIESEC attracts a lot of ambitious, audacious young people whose determination to succeed is both awe-inspiring and disquieting at the same time. In the thick of things, we often miss the big picture and lose sight of what’s actually going on.

At times, it becomes difficult for us to explain why AIESEC matters

One of the biggest philosophical hurdles AIESEC faces in its execution of our BHAG (big, hairy, audacious goal) is that of relevance. A lot of my friends–and I’m sure a lot of yours as well–simply don’t see what we see and compare AIESEC to a giant bubble, navel-gazing and introspective success at its best. An ant-farm, that succeeds in its well-oiled machinations within itself, but holds little significance to the outside world. And at times, it becomes difficult to explain why AIESEC matters; why it matters to us as much as it does, and why it matters to the society around us.

But this is a rather hairy subject in itself, and I plan on ruminating over this further another day. (Psst! Why not subscribe to my blog for updates that? *wink*)

Skills for the real world

Despite the semantic concerns of relevance, I believe AIESEC is an excellent arena for personal development. Interacting with similarly-driven young people, confident corporate change-makers and dedicated social workers, the lessons to be learned in this organization are an important part of what AIESEC is fundamentally striving to accomplish: developing empathetic, globally-minded, passionate young people who posses the desire to make the world better, and the ability to make that change happen.

Empathetic, globally-minded, passionate young people who posses the desire to make the world better, and the ability to make that happen.

The values held in our organization aren’t just hyperbole drummed up for marketing – they seep our every experience and shape them. And the things an AIESECer learns from organizing internal conferences or sending people abroad on community development exchange experiences are about more than just performing “AIESEC stuff” well, because they represent much more than that. The point of experiential learning, at least at this undergraduate level, is to provide us with the knowledge we need to succeed in a rapidly changing society; knowledge that can be applied and re-applied to varying situations rather than regurgitated by rote to get the answers given at the back of a book.

Many of the processes, activities and theoretical models we followed in executing our ideas are identical to those followed by Fortune 100 companies

In my time as Vice President for Branding, Communications and Information Management at AIESEC Karachi, one thing I constantly thought to myself was how expansive our experiences were. Even as a university student, part of what is essentially a very large group of (mostly) 18-25 year-olds engaged in the age-old art of learning-by-doing, many of the processes, activities and theoretical models we followed in executing our ideas are identical to those followed by Fortune 100 companies. And where they aren’t, we are rapidly catching up.

In my case, and I’m sure for many others, this has taught me more than any college coursebook ever could. But my experiences are far from definitive, and represent a very limited representation of the kinds of stories I’ve heard from fellow AIESECers. For anyone reading this, or perhaps considering the validity of this organization, my own conclusions are the best I can offer, even though it is difficult.

The impact of it all cannot truly be translated into words, which is incredible in itself but also a little frustrating. How do you summarize an experience that turns you inside out, shows you that you’re capable of more than you could have imagined and inspires you with dozens of people who excel right in front of you?

Any attempt at doing so comes off as childish, or half-baked. At any rate, my purpose in jotting down these disparate thoughts is more as a personal reaffirmation of the realizations I’ve made throughout my time in AIESEC. If they make sense to you, dear reader, AIESECer or no, it is all the more reason to celebrate.

A generation of leaders?

There’s a popular phrase we like to use in the AIESEC network: Every generation gets a chance to change the world. If you’ve seen the video embedded above, you have an idea of how this concept fits into what AIESEC is trying to accomplish.

The World is changing at a breakneck speed that’s exhilarating and disconcerting at the same time. Poverty, extremism, amoralism, education, nutrition, exploitation and conflict – these are some of the biggest problems plaguing the human race, preventing us from providing a wholesome, happy life to every man, woman and child on Earth. The solutions to these problems will come from us – the youth. They have to, because there is no one else.

Maybe its a little grandiose of us to think that a bunch of college students can shape the world we live in. Maybe its naive to hope that Generation Y will have a hand in solving some of the problems presented by the 21st century.

So what is the point of it all? Thinking about the important things, having the right conversations, finding the right people to have those with and learning how to make change happen.

Together, perhaps we can make a difference.

So there you have it. My 5 big lessons–and sub-lessons–that I can look back and say my time in AIESEC has taught me.

By now you’ve probably guessed at the fact that these aren’t really “5” lessons at all, rather a loosely bunched collection of semi-related, abstract observations that may or may not hold any substance for you.

Do you agree with any of them? Or disagree?

For a little over 1,000 days, I’ve defined myself as an AIESECer. As I enter the alumnus stage, I shall continue to do so, because this relationship never really ends.

AIESEC is a global youth organization impacting the world through leadership development experiences. AIESEC Karachi is an authorized Local Committee operating under AIESEC Pakistan.

Are you an AIESECer? How has your experience been in this organization? What has AIESEC taught you? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Hey, you read this all the way to the end! Thank you.