Alex Petroff | President of Working Villages International

Alex graduated from Hampshire College in 2006 with a BA in Development Economics, shortly after founding Working Villages International in 2005. Having traveled throughout sub-Saharan Africa, he decided to help farmers in the Ruzizi Valley region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and has been working on development in that region ever since. He has been selected as a TED Senior Fellow  and a Rainer Arnhold Fellow for his vision and work in economic development.


Alex Petroff quote pic 3My Definition Of Success | We are just little tiny, short lived, organisms, on a little speck of dust, in a huge universe, that possibly could be one of many universes.  So there is in reality nothing that I can do in this world that will make any real difference in the grand scheme of things.  If I solve world poverty, or sit and drink coke, the effect on the universe is approximately the same.  Amongst ourselves, as social animals, we look to our peers to validate our actions.  But, in truth the universe probably has far too many moving parts for me to take credit for the results of my actions, even if people applaud me, a lot of individual forces of nature and history are involved in just about everything.  So for me the only measure of success that I can honestly claim for myself is trying my best to do the right thing.  If the universe is far too complex for me to control the outcomes of my actions, all I can do is try my best and leave the results of my actions to fate.  Of course I would like to see a particular endeavour work out, however when I am alone and thinking straight, I know I can’t take all the credit for it either way, so my measure for success or failure can only be internal.


I Am Driven By | Doing something like starting an organization in Eastern Congo is very hard.  In truth the first several years were quite hellish.  Constant stress, trauma, and misery, for no pay, would be how I would characterize my first several years.  Any progress that I made I couldn’t see because my mind was so overwhelmed.  So to do this kind of work I needed some pretty strong motivators.  It is not what got me started but determination was the most important one.  The desire to get something done even when you have forgotten the why is necessary when times are hard.  Also there was duty and shame of failure, letting down those who counted on me and looked to me for their hope was too much for me to contemplate.  However, what got me started was anger and hope.  Anger at how the world was, that human lives were being wasted on such a huge scale, and hope that I could do something to change that.  Finally in the early days there was fear of self-loathing, the thought that if I didn’t try and do something, I would be wasting my life and the gifts that I was given.  With that feeling I knew that even if I was miserable I could at least look myself in the mirror and know that I had not given up.


The Responsibility Of Leadership | The most important quality in a leader is not panicking.  In my opinion everything else is secondary to this trait.  Panicking is about self-preservation it has been important for all animals, however it is not what makes one a good leader.  When problems come, and they will, everyone’s natural instinct is to panic, and the only stop against that feeling is if their leader is not panicking.  Respect and love from those you lead is easiest won when problems come and for them and you are strong and provide the solution.  You can’t do this if you are panicking, you will only make things worse.  There are meditations you can do to mediate the panic feeling, however I don’t think that is a good solution because times of panic usually require bold and decisive action.  So you have to have a clear head in a panic situation but you also have to be energized.  I get this by embracing the situation.  Be grateful for the troubles, as a leader this is what your life is about.  The situation you are in is now all that matters.  This is now your chance to show whatever gods you pray to, those you lead, and most importantly yourself, that you are worthy.  At first when troubles came, I was afraid, now when troubles come unbidden my mind is clear and I am full of joy, because I know that this is my chance.  Think of all the great leaders in history, now think why they are thought of as great leaders, it was only through the process of overcoming intense troubles that we remember them.  So when troubles come and people start panicking, don’t panic, smile and be grateful that the universe is giving you a chance to shine.


Alex Petroff quote pic 2How I Use My Mind | I have heard it said that the mind is either your greatest friend or your worst enemy.  The mind is a tool and can be used to help or hinder your endeavours.  However, in order for it to help, you must control it with your intelligence and conscience.  Control does not come naturally, because naturally we are animals that simply follow our desires.

Control takes practice.  I meditate at least 30 minutes every day, however the real practice of control comes when I use the mind to override desire, by practicing self-control.  There are a lot of ways to do this, however one way I have found extremely helpful and rewarding is controlling my temper.  When someone does something that should make me angry I am calm, speak slowly and thoughtfully with them to try to understand their action or statement.  This is very frustrating for my mind and body, but the chemicals in my system slowly change and I have always found that the outcome is far better than if I had behaved naturally and gotten angry.  Doing this exercise also has helped me to understand anger and its relationship to us as creatures.  I do still appear angry from time to time, however for the past several years, when I have done so it has mostly been an act for strategic purposes, when it is an appropriate tool for to effect behaviours of others and not a natural reaction.


Lessons I Have Learnt | One of the interesting realizations that I have had may just be a coping mechanism of my mind from working in a war zone, however I will share it because there may be some truth in it.  We are not in control of events, even though we think we are, there are too many other forces at play in the world, both conscious and natural, for us to actually be in control, yet because we see the world only through our own eyes and consciousness’s, we delude ourselves that we are in control.  So if we are not in control we take everything way too seriously.  Everyone who was alive 150 years ago is now dead.  Everything they thought was important is no longer important to them.  I am just here for a short time, how do I want to try and spend that time, and in what state of mind do I want to spend that time?  Those are good questions not to wait until the end of your life to ask yourself.  Ultimately, my pride, my ambitions, and everything that goes with my life, will be unimportant to me after I am dead, which will be in the blinking of an eye, so I have learned not to stress out too much over things.  Because I don’t want to spend the little time I have stressed out over things out of my control, and almost every outcome is out of my control.  I do my best with the best intentions I have and leave the results to the universe.


Dealing With Doubt | I have found it very useful to totally ignore feelings of self-doubt and negativity and go ahead with what you planned to do.  I am sure they have some utility biologically, however normally they just seem to be your mind trying to stop you from doing unpleasant things.  I exercise regularly and find that one of the most powerful forces I have encountered is my mind trying to convince me that I shouldn’t exercise, the arguments my mind puts forward are really quite good, however, if I ignore those thoughts and feelings they go away 5 to 10 minutes into a work out, and I am happy I did it afterwards.  That has been a good lesson for me.  When you face adversity it is unpleasant, and your mind tries to convince you to stop, and it does so really convincingly.  While the arguments may seem logical, the truth is a feeling has hijacked your mind, and if the situation is really unpleasant it has probably blocked off your ability effectively counter argue.  We all like to be logical creatures so it seems logical to give in to the mind’s desire, however the data used in the mind’s argument is probably either faulty or incomplete.  In these types of situations I find I am assured of failure if I do not stick to the plan.  So when times are good and my head is clear and calm I make a decision to do something, once that is done the decision is then set in stone.  When the quitting feeling sets in I ignore it and any logic the mind puts forth until either the task is completed or I am calm again in my mind and can reassess the situation.  The American folk hero Davy Crockett had a saying, “be sure you’re right, then go ahead,” I find that is good advice.


The Meaning Of Life | I was always taught that the purpose of life is to engage in loving service.  If I can look back on my life and see that I have been doing that, I feel like I am doing ok, and my time here is not being wasted.


Alex Petroff quote pic 1Advice On Being Rich | I would ask someone who wanted to become rich, “why do you want to become rich?”  When I have asked this of people in the past the question leads to a series of other questions which eventually leads to this.  “Money will buy me happiness.”  So what the person wants is happiness.  The truth is with their assumption about money buying happiness, they are right… and they are wrong.  They have life experience that when they get money they become happy, first with anticipation, then, when they buy something they become happy with the thing they bought. Looks good so far, so logically if they had more money they could buy more things and be happier, also true.  However, the happiness in each instance is temporary.  Like a drug it peaks and fades, and to get the feeling again the process must be repeated.  Furthermore, the body develops resistance to the feeling and so the dose needs to be increased over time to overcome numbing.  Then comes the side effects.  When someone wants something there is the desire and anticipation, once someone has something there is the gratification, then that feeling fades and the fear of loss (theft or breakage) and anxiety sets in.  And if something is lost, violation, anger, despair, and suspicion of those around you arrives.

These are not happiness producing feelings.  Sadly our culture is based on the concept that short term injections of happiness can lead to long term happiness, this belief while widely accepted, I’m not sure I buy it.  Chemically that doesn’t seem to work for the alcoholic or drug addict, so why should it work for our society, and anecdotally I don’t know of anyone who has successfully pulled this off.  I have seen people who are happy but it has never been because they were rich.  So if your idea is that money will buy you happiness think through the how of that logic very carefully, what are your true goals for your life, and is getting wealthy the best path to them.  While it is true that poverty can buy you long-term misery, great wealth may not buy you the long-term happiness you seek, and finally the process of getting rich itself is not always clean and painless.


The Difference Between Good And Great | Great and talented people are often ambitious thus retention is a very big problem in a many organizations this is especially true working in a war zone.  However, I have done two things pretty effectively to combat this problem.  The first is personal loyalty.  Building deep bonds with your key employees is crucial to keeping them working in difficult situations.  This is done by winning their respect and love, and showing them that you will be there for them in difficult times no matter what, not just emotionally, but by going the extra mile.  If they come into trouble and you deliver them from their difficulties, they will remember that when the time comes to be disloyal.  However, sometimes loyalty is not enough to combat ambition or greed, so I employ a second tool.  I spend a great deal of time and energy trying to discover what are the cares of my key employees.  Once you know what someone cares about and wants, you can begin to offer that to them.  Even if you can’t get them what they want today they know that you are working to fulfill their desires and this anticipation together with their loyalty will keep them with you through the most difficult of times.

Now that you have a skilled and loyal employee who feels that their cares are being met, you must fulfill your side of the bargain, if you do this they will be extremely difficult for them to leave your service or betray you.  This process takes time, opportunities to truly win someone’s love and respect are often hard won, so take full advantage of them when they arrive.  Also discovering someone’s cares can be just as difficult because they often don’t even know them themselves.