I love learning. That’s why I chose to apply for a Fulbright in a place that I knew nothing about: Taiwan. I figured that if I knew nothing then I would have to learn everything and that would result in a remarkable growth experience.
As a result of this choice, I learned more in one year than any other two combined, mainly because my Fulbright year was one of failure. Repeated, relentless failure. When I arrived, I was accustomed to success. In school, in sports, in life, I’d rarely met failure, and when I did it was not repeated.
My new professional life, unlike my athletic and scholastic ones before it, was marked by failure in teaching, in language acquisition, and in adapting to my surroundings. After three months in Taiwan, I could barely say thank you, my co-teacher directed our English classes in Chinese as I stood silently off to the side, and I couldn’t effectively communicate my frustrations to anyone because I was so lost in what I was doing.
But sometimes, if not always, failure is a good thing. My Fulbright experience forced me to learn that fact and to eventually embrace it. At twenty-three years old, it was a humbling albeit educational experience that fortified my will to overcome adversity.
In the face of these daily defeats, I began adapting my deficiencies into stories that could help me find reason within my perceived unreasonable surroundings. I wrote and wrote, and wrote some more. I didn’t know what I was writing when I started, but I knew that if I was to overcome my frustration, I needed to write until I felt better. Within those first three months, I’d already compiled two hundred pages about my experience.
As I reread those pages one day, I saw a story taking shape. It was my story, my memoir, about the transformative difference between studies and real world experience. At that time, I didn’t clearly understand it, but I knew that I needed to continue to write both to record my experience and to retain my sanity.
At the end of my Fulbright experience, I looked around to find a village that had adopted me, a year of teaching that had trained me better than any formal schooling ever could, and a collection of failures and life lessons that had reshaped my life and opened a new door of purpose: I was going to write a book about my experience to help those after me better understand their own.
But writing a book is hard, especially when you want it to achieve many goals. I wanted to capture a broad readership: my friends, my family, and people who I’d never met. I wanted everyone from my parents to wife to teachers to lonely travelers to everyone and anyone to find not just enjoyment, but true value in reading my story – the value of perspective and reflection, adding their own take to the moments of life we all encounter. When I began this project, I had no idea how long it would take, but I knew that I could do it because I’d just survived the most difficult year of my life.
After nine years of work my book is published, my story is complete, and now it’s available for generations of fellow Fulbright travelers. As you enter and complete your experience, know that you are not alone. Many have come before you and many will go after you. Savor your unique experience and reap it for all it’s worth. Make it your platform to launch into the extraordinary.
Originally written for the Fulbright Organization.