Volunteering in Africa — Why am I doing this?

During the 15-hours journey from Israel to Botswana the “Why am I doing this?” thought came popping in my head. My wife, kids, friends, career are in a country I choose leaving for something that is… volunteering.
I had plenty of time to come up with an answer, let me describe. Beware, this can get kind of philosophical.

I think we should first attest to that the way that we operate and act upon the world is tightly connected with our perception. This is perhaps a one-line summary of 7 years studying Cognitive Science. We sometime think we are in control, and acting based upon rational process of real-life data, when what is driving our behavior is embedded in very low levels of filtering and interpreting the data, embedded in the way we perceive. And in that process our own perception has the illusion of neutrality. Our brain lacks the tools to doubt the knowledge delivered by itself, because it has no other source of knowledge.
As an example, the brain of a European in China will not be able to distinguish between Chinese people the same way a local will do, only after few months/years his brain will adapt to notice the differences and be able to categorize using them. Or another one: an individual that lives close to the train tracks, will eventually stop noticing the sounds of passing trains. Similarly, to one living in larger cities that will no longer notice traffic sounds after a while.

So, perception plays a huge part in our lives, much greater than we think. I argue that we should train our ability to doubt decisions that are made through poor perceptions. This is why we try and educate our children to have self judgement, and not act along with social pressure. Another way to implement this would be a company, like Microsoft, employing a diversity policy that aspires to equal terms for both women and men. For the most part, I see this as an acknowledgement that our perception in hiring and promoting is flawed, and it ought to be corrected by some external force.

What I found is one of the biggest perception-skepticism trainers is traveling. Encountering different people from different cultures is a huge driving force to learn about yourself and on your perception. I learned so much while travelling to places, like watching cock fighting in the Philippines, or being hosted using couch-surfing in a tiny of a Brazilian gay couple in Rio during carnival time. Mostly I learned how different perspectives are possible, and that they matter. With that, I learned how to be more aware on my perception.

I think that challenging your own perception is one of the greatest gifts and pleasures possible. This is what great artists do, maybe the only separator between good and amazing art. This is the difference between knowing someone and get inspiration from someone. Moreover, this is probably what defines innovation. It is known that innovation happens outside one’s comfort zone. An innovator has a way to transcend the default perception and envision a different and better world.

During my flights, I listened to a great podcast that takes on similar notion of this in business called The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers. One example mentioned is the story of Sony that launched at one time two different mp3 players from two separate divisions that did not collaborate between themselves. Each division was sure about its own way of thinking, something that is often called “Tunneled Vision”. While few months later Apple did it once with a focused product: the iPod. Definitely I can relate this to changes Microsoft is trying to make to remain relevant and competitive, trying to break silos and create unified experience.

This is why I’m doing this.. probably not for the sake of helping others, I’m much more egoistic than that (although it’s a nice bonus). I’m doing it because travelling, as well as encountering different people and cultures than what I’m used to, is the ultimate way to challenge my own perception.