Cuba Quest six months on: The journey continues

Open Quest stories

Debbie Forster

16 June 2017

One of our Rockefeller Fellows, Debbie Forster, reflects on how taking part in our Cuba Open Quest taught her to act from “who I am, not what I do” – and the changes she is making as a result.

Like many people who run organisations (particularly in the third sector) my job is a public-facing one and I feel very comfortable with that. Ask me to write or speak about projects, issues or programmes I’m working on and I can do it without blinking an eye.

But bring me, just Debbie, into the light – ask me to write or speak about myself and my own feelings – and things are different. I begin to fidget as I start looking for the nearest exit or the slickest way to change the subject.

The Open Quest to Cuba in November 2016 offered me a tantalising, but frightening prospect. Travel with a group of inspiring people and get below the surface of a country I love and am fascinated by.

Sounds perfect, right? There was just one catch.In that voyage of discovery, I was supposed to discover myself.

Flipping my approach to travel

This was brought startlingly into focus during my first preparatory call with Leader’s Quest coach, Rachel. As I chattered about opportunities, love of travel and connecting with others, she gently but doggedly drew me back to what I might learn about myself on the trip.

The timing was opportune, if uncomfortable.After six years of leading my charity, Apps for Good, I was contemplating my next step and found myself feeling uncharacteristically uncertain and unsure of myself.

So, when Rachel explained the inner focus that runs alongside a Quest’s external visits and discussions, I was intrigued. A wee bit terrified. But intrigued. I explained that I regularly kept a travel journal, jotting down my thoughts and experiences about a place in the front of the journal, together with musings, feelings and goals for myself in the back.

Rachel suggested reversing the journal’s arrangement this time, to stay focused on my internal journey, relegating my Cuba observations to the back. Always up for a challenge, I agreed, grasping firmly onto the intrigue element, and putting the wee bit of terror firmly into a box at the back of my mind.

And so began one of the most meaningful and life-changing trips I’ve ever experienced.For the first time in a journey I came back inspired not just at what I’d seen around me, but what I’d seen in myself.

Getting out of my comfort zone

It didn’t happen without help, of course. I was in my element visiting the amazing entrepreneurs, activists, journalists and artists.I loved talking to the young people as they learned woodwork, plasterwork, cooking and (best of all) how to make mojitos. Each evening, we returned from the visits hot, tired and ready for a beer. But first there was Circle time – when, again and again, the Quest team gently moved me right out of my comfort zone.

The sessions would begin with some reflection – a few easy opportunities to pull the day together in our minds while we waited for those quiet “killer questions”. The ones that left you with no choice but to dig deeper and look inwards.I grew to both love and hate those questions – and always to take up the offer of a beer or glass of wine beforehand!

The one that threw me most was about the people who had inspired us most that day. Oh, so easy! I talked of the Clandestina women and Fernando and his farm. Then the killer question, “How are they like you?”

Bam! The question went right through me.

Suddenly, reflecting on how Fernando Funes-Monzote told us how he created a garden from a wasteland at Finca Marta,I heard my own passion and drive. Recalling how Clandestina founders Idania and Leire talked about being creators and innovators and the joy of recycling, I recognised that joy too. And when I remembered hearing how Cubans “thrive in a constant state of crisis” and are “unstoppable like a train,” I finally accepted that I was too.

Learning to feel

The things I felt and learned – and which changed me – filled my travel journal and could fill a dozen blogs. But the great underlying takeaway is this:I’m now on a journey to feel rather than just observe from a distance. I’m learning to feel more at ease with who I am, rather than what I do or achieve. And that’s hard.

Like many in this sector, I am a person who thinks constantly, who feels passionately and who does with great energy and determination (i.e. stubbornness). It has always been how I defined myself and from where I drew my confidence and self-worth. Changing or letting go of what I do put all that self-confidence and self-worth at risk.

Being on a Quest at this crossroads in my life, I began to understand that this is all just a function of who I am, what I am inside. It seems a minor distinction, but it is one that now anchors my confidence and offers much greater strength and stability. It offers a welcome alternative to the exhaustion of trying so hard to get it all right; to be (or at least appear) perfect.

Acting from who I am, not what I do

On this trip, I began to make the shift to seeing people’s responses to me as being based on who I am, not what I do or have achieved. From there, my choices, my interactions and my next chapter began to feel less daunting and more of an exciting opportunity.

So, I made the leap and started my new chapter.I’m still in the same sector, but now working on projects I might not have dared to undertake before Cuba, doing things that feel true to me, rather than just looking good on my CV. When I’m asked to speak, I’m more often talking about what I’m feeling, who I am and sharing my fears or concerns, rather than just focusing on issues and projects.

The response has been amazing. I’m feeling much less worried about getting it all perfect and instead enjoying the lovely messiness along the way.

This is the start of a journey and not the end. Even in the follow-up coaching sessions with Rachel, she had to use the same patient determined questioning, and pause to help me feel things rather than “find them interesting” –and to talk about who I was, rather than what I had been doing since Havana.

It’s hard. I forget it often and still want to shy away from it some days. Even writing this blog, putting it in print for all to see is a very uncomfortable thing, and something I have procrastinated about endlessly.

But the final deadline has loomed and I’ve done it, I’ve owned this experience.I went to Cuba on a Quest, and I have started to discover myself. And I’m enjoying where it’s taking me.