Commemorating 9-11, 16 years on

I learned about the tragedy almost 12 hours later, already a Monday morning in the Philippines. I must have been busy studying for a test when it happened. This was B.F. (before Facebook, but during Friendster) when there was still no instant notification, ubiquitous wifi, and phones were dumb. My main source of news was the newspaper (paper!) from my college’s reading room, and the occasional prime time news on TV. On my way out to class, I saw my dorm-mates in the common room huddled around the TV. I went in to find out what the commotion was about. I must have been the last person to know about it. I recognized the news anchor, and searched confirmed there was an on-screen graphic logo. It can’t be a movie.

What a horrible news, I thought. Then the news cut forward to the towers being engulfed by black billowing smoke. Then one tower crumbled. And then another.

It’s one of those tragedies that has occurred in my lifetime, that changed and defined (and has been defining) international affairs, world power, and terrorism and security.  Living in Washington, D.C. now makes all these more pronounced with New York City just a few hours away and the Pentagon right in our backyard. It’s difficult not to be paranoid at times. Things are now back to normal, but will never be normal.

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Wet weather in Washington

The rain was relentless the previous two days. Yesterday was the worse of the two when it felt like one of those monsoon rains in Manila. I zipped (Lyfted?) around town when I could have taken a bus back to my apartment or walk to a small theater last night. I’m hosting a cousin from Australia, and asked me if this is typical summer in the city. Sort of.

The District is not really known for its wet summers. But it’s not the first time I’ve experienced extreme weather in the District. Philippine summers can be debilitatingly hot and humid, but the heatwave back in 2011 was the hottest I’ve experienced ever outside of Las Vegas.

The sun teased us with its presence this morning, before finally coming through just before sundown. The air is crisp tonight, and the forecast in the next three days looks promising. I hope to make the most out of the good weather touring my cousin and meeting up with a friend visiting from India before I head back home in less than a week.

Enjoy the rest of the summer!

Are you a recent graduate? Here are four tips to stay sane while looking for a job

Tips to graduatesIt’s that time of the year when students walk up the stage, shake the hands of the dean with one hand and reach with the other for that much-coveted diploma. Gone are the late nights to finish a report or capstone project. It’s time to take a breather. I remember riding the thrill of the days leading up to my own graduation one hot April day, umm, more than a decade ago.

“What next?” The question looms large for many who haven’t figured out the next step as soon as the march ends. If taking a gap year is out of the picture for financial or another reason, then the most logical answer is “Find a job”. Thus starts the grueling job search: filling out online application forms (do those even work?), prepping for interviews, and waiting to hear back from the hiring manager, if at all.

The wait can be excruciatingly long, especially with the anticipation of that first job. In my case, it took six months to land that first job out of college. Looking back from this experience and the many times I’ve been in-between jobs (which stretched from two to seven months), the sudden lack of structure and freed up schedule can be a bit jarring. It made me think of the ways I stayed sane within this period, if not productive. So instead of sulking and on top of binge-watching, here are four ways to keep your mind and body busy, and silence that ticking internal clock:

  1. Take a break! Treat this down time as your vacation, because that’s what it is. After pulling all-nighters to wrap up papers and projects, you need and should take that well-deserved break. Besides, when you start working, you can only dream about the days that bleed into one another, without worrying about beating a deadline or pleasing a boss. Now is the time to live that dream.
  2. Form healthy habits. I went to university with a beautiful and definitely joggable campus, but I only started running right after college. It wasn’t much fun running while watching out for dog poop or dodging tricycles, but I’ve built in physical fitness into my routine since then. Whether it takes 21, 66, or 254 days to form a habit, and even if you’re bad at what you’re doing to start with, the key is to be just consistent.
  3. Learn a new skill. Take a short course you wish you had taken back in university, from writing, digital marketing or product management, these skills will always come in handy and maybe even give you a leg up and standout from a pool of applicants with homogenous skills. These days, there are tons of MOOCs to choose from.
  4. Launch a small project. I’m a big fan and advocate of personal projects. I’ve written how it helped me get a job at the World Bank. But passion projects don’t have to be directly related to work. This should be your fun project, and ideally should tie up with that new skill you just learned (see above). Think combining your hobby and learning a new skill, be it curating a Facebook page that features your favorite essays or growing and selling succulents in cutesy pots. The goal isn’t to make money, but to have fun and learn how things work along the way.

Before leaving for grad school to Germany, I met a former colleague whom I told I’d be quitting my government job, and felt worried about the uncertainty of not having any job prospects after finishing my Masters. My fears turned out to be true, when it took me a year and a half interning and later starting (and quitting) a Ph.D. before landing a job that I wanted. I’m neither saying to do the same nor those were a year and a half down the drain. I got to help in the logistics and attend an international climate conference where I honed my research skills along the way. This bode me well in my work that required experience in knowledge exchange and familiarity with the technical rigors of evaluation. I took comfort in my ex-colleague’s reply, that I’ll be armed with an advanced degree at the very least, and it can only get better.

So enjoy your carefree days yet plan to spend them wisely. There are ways to manage the anxiety by keeping busy, and sooner or later, you’ll be starting that job you’ve been waiting for.

Signing-up for the March for Science

18056736_1325941194126810_7354717257702260811_nThe Earth Day 2017 celebration coincided with the March for Science yesterday. And marched we did, along with thousands others. The crowd was a far cry from the mediocre turn up on the Earth Day rally I witnessed five years ago (when a right-wing media-watch organization also swiped my photos).

I had tentative plans of attending because it fell on a Saturday, and my weekends are sacred. and I’ve done my fair share of rallies even way back as an undergrad. But after my roommate invited me to an impromptu sign-making workshop at Artomatic, I didn’t want my sign- and training in science- be easily discarded and just go to waste. So yesterday afternoon, under DC’s grey and rainy skies, armed with our signs, umbrellas, and rain coats, off my roommate, her mom, and I went to the march. We knew it would be a wet day and we were prepared for it, because, science!

I’m still recovering from the past days’ activities. There’s another march scheduled next Saturday called the People’s Climate Movement. I’m still unsure if I’ll go, but here I am already brainstorming ideas for a sign.

March for Science Capitol

Cherry Blossom Kite Festival 2017

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It’s that time of the year in Washington, D.C., when tree branches puff a pink cloud. It’s a special time of the year that signals spring- so special that a festival was created around the occasion- The Cherry Blossom Festival.

One of the activities lined up each year is the kite festival, which I wasn’t aware of, until my roommate/landlady told me about it a few days earlier. I usually just go to the Tidal Basin, and gush about the flowers for the rest of the year.

Back in late March, I attended a one-day workshop to learn the basics of smartphone filmmaking offered by Docs in Progress, a non-profit that promotes documentary filmmaking based in Silver Spring, Maryland. What better way to put my budding (no pun intended) filmmaking talent to good use by shooting a fun event like the kite festival held last Saturday. And here’s the result. It’s not worthy of an Oscar, but at least a like or retweet or two. Enjoy!

 

Reaping the rewards of my gig with the government

I chose to work in the government 12 years ago. Looking back, I’m glad I did.

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“What’s that?” There was a split-second pause in our conversation as a friend tried to make sense of my response. “Ah, government… right?” he said. I nodded in confirmation, and wished we’d change the topic of our conversation right away. I could sense his surprise at least, or cynicism at worst, after I told him I was leaving my job, my first one out of college and less than three months into it.

Its less-than-stellar reputation and the meager salary that came with it are common knowledge. I could almost read their thought bubbles, “Why?” or “Are you out of your mind?” Or perhaps the more pitiful “Sorry to hear that.” As friends and classmates got a good head start in their careers in private firms and non-profits, my decision to work for the government seemed like backtracking right after I started.

Anyone who has changed jobs has done it one way or another. It’s like cheating, only in a professional way. You take a day off or show up late for work for that job interview. I must have done the latter, and brought a change of clothes as I was careful not to drop any hints of my transgression. I wore a short-sleeved maroon button-up shirt and khakis, which was already dressy compared with my daily ensemble of jeans and T-shirt in my first job at a non-profit organization.

My first job wasn’t necessarily my first choice. All along, even before graduation, I had set my sight on working in the government. Not just any government office though. I applied to a few others but the development planning agency was at the top of my list. How does one development-plan? I didn’t quite fully comprehend then what the job entailed, but “development planning” sounded too important to pass up. It had the reputation of accepting only the best and the brightest. Of course, I wanted to be a part of it.

I asked for tips from two people who were then connected with the office. I made acquaintance with one via an online forum for cellphone enthusiasts, who eventually switched careers to become a tech writer. The other was an alumnus of my college who went to work there for a couple of years, and later on left to pursue graduate studies on a scholarship in Brussels. Those didn’t seem to be terrible career paths. With limited knowledge of the possible entry-level jobs I could apply to, I thought I could forge something similar for myself.

I sent in my job application in a month after I graduated, in April of 2004, and got a call from HR for a written test a month or two later. The three-hour test consisted of management questions (!), economic concepts, basic algebra, and two essays. And again, like many of job applications then (and until now), there was silence. This was in 2004, an election year, and every time the Commission on Election issues a hiring freeze in the government. This dragged on until November when I finally got called in for an interview.

The panel didn’t bring up the test results during the interview, thankfully. I still doubt I passed the economics part of the test after only taking a basic economics course in my undergrad. I must have winged it on the essay, which asked the role of “sustainable development” in national development, a concept drilled down to us in college. It was the trending development jargon, the “inclusive development” of mid-2000. The panel consisted of four chiefs, each heading the four divisions of the Agriculture Staff, and two hiring committee representatives. I can’t exactly remember their questions. All I remember is that everything went smoothly. It was jovial, almost informal- encouraging if not reassuring signs.

There were three other applicants that day. We were corralled in a waiting lounge with blue walls the size of a big cubicle, which felt like being inside the dead-end of a maze when one looked around while seated down. Like the other interviewees, I was whisked back to the maze after the panel interview and told to wait our turn before the one-on-one interview with the director.

He was portly and in his late forties. I saw him a little earlier walk in with a swagger, and assumed that must be him. We talked about an upland agriculture project, a topic I should have known well, and wished I had, especially because I spent one month doing our practicum with the implementers of that very same project.

He probably caught my bluff. After all, it’s a project he knows too well, because his office reviewed the technical aspects of the project before it got the go signal for funding by a multilateral bank- one of the core tasks of the job. He asked probing questions. But really, what does a barely-out-of-college 21 year-old know about development planning? Until now, and several local and international development organizations later, I’m still looking for that definitive answer.

Albeit late, I still went to work that day, or at least tried to, mostly asking myself: “Will I be sitting on the same chair for a while? What could I have said differently? What now? I remember asking a friend about an interview he had once for an admin job. Only with a little enthusiasm, he told me that he “said all the things they (the interviewers) wanted to hear.” I wish I could have said the same after my interview. I wasn’t new at all to the professional world, already with two months of work experience then under my belt.

A few weeks after the interview, I got an email asking me to submit documents to kickstart the hiring process, before assuming my government post. On the last workday of 2004 I became an “Economic Development Specialist.” I reveled in my job title. I’ll be doing development planning.

The Medium-Term Philippine Development Plan or MTPDP was our bible. Jeffrey Sachs lauded that version of the plan as “one of the best, if not the best, he has ever seen.” Those words would have looked nice in its dust jacket if ever it had one. The Plan was an infallible scripture cited in memos, quoted in government meetings, and subscribed to as our superior belief system during donor meetings. We deferred to its wisdom. At least for the next six years until a new leader is elected. The plan coincides with the term of the president, after which its contents are revised or recycled, or rendered irrelevant.

Some days we argued over the technical merits of Jatropha curcas as a source biofuel, other days we’re building capacity to mainstream sustainable development before we moved on to the mainstream climate change in local development. Yes, I learned its jargons. I met many technocrats, competent and controversial ones.

Those two and a half years must have been my busiest: reviewing projects, attending technical working groups, facilitating workshops. My blog that I started in 2003 was inactive during those years. It’s also the longest I’ve held down a job.

I observed that my senior colleagues, including those who have left, have a predictable career progression: work for a couple of years, go on study leave to study abroad, and return to government. Our office was notorious for its high churn rate. Those who didn’t opt for a study leave resigned from their post because they didn’t want to be bound to a service contract.

I usually went to work at 7:00 in the morning so I can leave at 4:00 in the afternoon. One day I stayed later than usual, making sure many of my colleagues have left for the day. I sent my then chief who concurrently worked as the officer-in-charge a Sametime message, asking her if she had a minute to speak. She said yes so I went to her office, sat down, and talked about my plans, which unfortunately no longer included them. She understood and respected my decision. I was one of those who didn’t want to be tethered to a service contract. After two and a half years, I left my job to study on a scholarship in Freiburg in Germany.

I became good friends with many of my colleagues, and still keep in touch with many of them. It’s a unique professional relationship I haven’t been able to replicate in my other jobs, for better or worse. We have bumped into each other in international conferences in South Africa, or worked together again a few years down the road at the United Nations or Asian Development Bank in Manila.

My stint with the government prepared me well in understanding its machinations. This appreciation comes in handy even up to this day. I’ve established lifelong friendships and a sturdy network. I’ve been shaping an interesting through the years. That second job provided me a mental model of the so-called bureaucracy, including its potential and foibles. After making a decision twelve years hence, when I thought I was making a backtrack, I didn’t know it would propel me forward.

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This is the second of a series of blog posts where I will write about my previous jobs. Read the first post here. If you have other suggestions, let me know in the comments section! Don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter.

Adulting advice from a book author

Tips on how to get your act together from a writer who has been there and done that

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When I was in grade school, I envied my other classmates who were better off than my family. My brother and I studied in an exclusive school for boys in grade school, where many of my classmates came from well-off families. Our blue and white school uniform did not disguise the Game Boy and Nike Air Max other students brought to school. It was easy to be better off compared to our family. My parents only earned enough to meet our day-to-day needs. But there were even times they had to borrow and pool money to pay for our tuition so the school would allow us to take the quarterly periodic tests. I fantasized of being born into a different, well-off family (which reminds me of this meme). I imagined being chauffeured to and from school (we got our first family car when I was 23). During Christmas breaks, I also wanted to have travel plans, wore thick sweaters, and visit Disneyland. But the closest I got to my dreams was a visit to a local theme park with questionable safety standards and the cold AC of a shopping mall.

You’d think I would outgrow this feeling of envy as I got older, but my wants and wishes turned more elaborate yet more professional. My mom was a public school teacher, and I wished she had the right connections to set me up for any well-paying job. My father had left the country. What if they were doctors and lawyers, so choosing a career would have been as easy as taking over their practice? They let me take up a major in college that no one among us knew of the future career odds and options. I was an early version of a free-range kid out of necessity, because they didn’t have the means to put up that fence that could give me a sheltered life.

I didn’t have anyone to turn to, and neither knew the right questions much less have the gumption to ask. Unlike meals I’ve had with other families, eating on the dining table was an act of nutrition and not discussion.

When I went to grad school in my early 20’s, I realized all these fantasies and what-ifs were just that- unhealthy and irrelevant ruminations that stem from comparing my life with that of others. It’s a waste of time and energy, better harnessed for working with what my parents have been able to provide, and carving my own niche in life. We always had food on the table and a roof over my head. And I’m forever grateful for that. They’re easy for me to say now in hindsight. But who’s supposed to teach us these nuggets of wisdom when we’re young? From whom, and how can we learn them sooner rather than later?

Margaux Bergen in her first book “Navigating Life: Things I Wish My Mother Had Told Me” could be that person. She addresses these thorny life questions, and so much more. I met her in person during her book reading and signing last Tuesday at the Barnes & Noble in Brookland. She read excerpts from her book, which dishes out lessons on school, jobs, and relationships. The book is difficult to categorize given its breadth of topic. It’s self-help, parenting, career advice, and memoir all rolled into one. The book, written over a span of ten years, was originally addressed to her daughter when she went to college, which explains the crossover themes of the book, and the tender prose and intimate voice in which it is written.

I arrived early at the book event and got the chance to chat with the Margaux. We talked a bit about her book, our love for writing, and careers. I felt an affinity for her when I learned that at one point she also worked for the World Bank, where where I work now as a consultant. Showing motherly concern, she gave me unsolicited and simple advice on how to get a staff position.

I bought a copy of Margaux’s book that I picked up right off the display showcase beside her. I asked her to sign and address the book to a friend who has been asking me for career tips, and worrying about not finding a job once she finishes grad school next year. She comes from a humble background, has paved her own career path, and is now studying on a scholarship here in the US. Hopefully she benefits a lot from the book, beyond the advice I’ve been giving her born mainly out of my own experience and decisions, some of which have not necessarily been the best I have made. I plan to give it to her as a Christmas present, although I could use one for myself. I hope she won’t notice the creased spine and the broken-in look of its edges by the time she reads it.