“Be so good they can’t ignore you.” (In which I get uncharacteristically personal.)

For some people, the start of the New Year provides an opportunity for reflection and goal-setting. For me, that always happens on my birthday. That’s today. I won’t share how old I am, but suffice it to say that I’m older than I look and younger than I feel. It’s been a rocky year, both professionally and personally.

I don’t often talk about myself or my own career on this blog, but I’ll share this story. Here’s why: Occasionally I get asked for career advice, and I’m never quite sure what to say. I could give specific tips on networking, cover letters, or grad school. Yet I’ve found that the best insights come from simply hearing someone else’s story and reflecting on how their story relates to my own. So here are the successes and the failures that make up my story. Maybe it will help you write yours.

1. The set-up: a five-year plan

Six years ago, I spent my birthday evening working from a Starbucks on Crenshaw Boulevard. I was out in Los Angeles for a few months to support an advocacy campaign that had no hope of succeeding. It was one of many experiences that led me to believe in the importance of management skills. Too many organizations promote people into management positions based on technical expertise or years on the job, without recognizing that managing staff and other resources requires something more than simply being smart or having seniority.

I knew I had a lot to learn on that front, so I started reading management books. You know, the corny ones you see at the airport bookstore with the words “success” and “excellence” in the titles. Underneath their marketing and a fair amount of bullshit, there are actually real insights in those books. Around the same time, I also started reading books on international development and aid issues. With both sets of books, there are diminishing marginal returns: the first few blow your mind, but ninth or tenth are only mildly interesting. There’s a limit to how deep the pop literature can go on any given topic, even if the authors are the luminaries in their field. No matter how many books you read, there would be more to learn.

So I resolved that I would give myself five years to learn. That might not sound radical to my friends in academia, but I have always deeply identified as a practitioner, a do-er, a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-jump-in-the-trenches…er. Of course, good reflective practice calls for you to learn as you do. The change I made was to switch the priority. Maybe a learning-to-doing ratio of 80/20. Just for five years. Then I would put the priority back on doing.

2. The follow-through: grad school and international development

My first step was to get a job with a company that provides management and strategy consulting to universities. That might not be an obvious first step, especially since I have only a passing interest in university management. However, I knew that this type of consulting provides skills that would be applicable throughout my career. I also knew that universities are incredibly complicated institutions, with lessons for all public service organizations. My colleagues in that job were some of the sharpest people I’ve ever worked with. We argued for hours to decide how we should advise our clients on staff management, resource allocation, and accountability issues. We grounded our arguments in quantitative data, but we also saw the limitations of such data. We had to make decisions in the face of ambiguity, not just tolerating but actually reveling in the complexity of the problems. That thinking has proved invaluable in the years since.

I hit a ceiling in that job, largely because I lacked a graduate degree. I eventually left the company with a plan to continue my learning in a more formal environment. I still wanted to develop management skills, but I also wanted to match those skills with content knowledge on issues that I cared about. I applied to a dozen schools, both MPA and MBA programs. I let a very good GMAT score go to my head, so I shot high. I got a humbling series of rejections that left me with fewer options than I had expected.

I suspect that the rejections had something to do with my meandering career path: environmental policy research, fundraising, political organizing on governance reform, management consulting with universities, and more. When writing application essays, I struggled to explain the diverse set of skills and perspectives that I gained from these various roles, or how they would relate to my future career. So at the same time that I applied to grad school, I decided to focus my career path. With each new job, I had been taking a gamble that my skills would transfer over. My employers were taking a gamble too. I realized that I could do more if I didn’t have to re-explain myself each time. I decided to focus on international development, specifically governance and peacebuilding issues.

In the end, grad school worked out even better than I imagined. The program I chose offered me everything I needed and more, as I recently discussed with our alumni office. It also opened doors that have been critical to my career.

One of those doors led to my first international work experience. I knew that a degree wouldn’t be enough. I had worked six years domestically, but that would mean little to recruiters in many international organizations. It’s the classic Catch-22 for any young professional: you can’t get the job without the experience, and you can’t get the experience without the job. I applied to the Peace Corps and considered taking a leave from grad school to do the two year service, but Peace Corps’ recruiting process was so mismanaged that I withdrew. Instead I applied to overseas internships for the summer. I got no responses. I eventually worked my own networks to land internships in Uganda and Kenya. The former came through a classmate’s contact; the latter came when a visiting speaker mentioned an interesting project, so I went up to her after the talk and asked how I could be part of it. Though I had to largely self-fund for the three months I was in East Africa that summer, I considered it another cost of the education.

As much as I loved grad school, I was happy to finish it. I went for the skills, knowledge, contacts and credential. With those secured and only a year left in my five-years-of-learning, I was eager to get back to work. I returned to Kenya for several months on a short-term contract.

3. The punchline: This roller coaster of a year

That short-term job ended last year, the day before my birthday. Rather than seek another position in Kenya, I went back to New York for personal reasons (which won’t be discussed here, as there’s a limit to how personal I’ll get in a blog post). I spent my birthday on a plane. For the next few months, I was unemployed and living in Brooklyn. I spent the holiday season trying to enjoy the city — running in the park, climbing at the rock gym, and sitting around in various cafés — while cranking out cover letters and thinking about what would come next.

In January I started get some traction on the job hunt. I was lucky to receive an offer for a position back in Kenya. I started making preparations to move, which included declining another interview request, notifying my networks that I was no longer looking, and moving out of my apartment. Then I learned that there was no funding for the position I had been offered. I was told that it would come through “very soon” so I should just be patient. With my other options dried up, I returned to Kenya anyway and started work in February. I lived a transient life on my friend’s couch. My frustration at the lack of funding grew, while my trust in the people who had offered me an unfunded job fell. So I withdrew from that project and re-started the job hunt in earnest.

It wasn’t long before a previous employer offered me a new role in knowledge management. I started that position in mid-March. A month later, in mid-April, I got pulled over to assist with a crunch on one of our other projects. I’ve yet to move back to my original position. My current role has been a huge step up in terms of responsibility. It has also been incredibly stressful and taxing. I’ve been “in the field” frequently, which can be exhausting. I’ve had to learn new skills quickly and manage relationships with a variety of stakeholders. It’s been years since the last time I had to push my abilities to the edges like this. It’s also been years since I’ve been this happy with my professional situation.

There’s probably a need for a bit more balance though. My Nairobi friends will note that I haven’t been around much, and I’ve made the commitment that “this week I will get back into regular blogging” more times than I can count. Still, I wouldn’t trade this for anything.

An interlude: blogging and tweeting

Blogging has become unexpectedly important to me. I started Find What Works over two years ago, as a way of cataloging my thoughts during my internships and graduate courses. I was surprised to find that others are interested in these ramblings.

This blog’s popularity is largely due to the support I’ve received from other bloggers: my first big bump came when I reacted to a Nicholas Kristof column, Chris Blattman linked to my post, and (about two hours after Blattman’s link) Foreign Policy asked me to write a piece for them. A few months later, my guide to the development blogosphere got re-posts and re-mixes from Linda Raftree and a dozen other bloggers. It remains one of my most-viewed posts. Finally, when I launched a survey of aid/development blog readers as a pet project last year, dozens of bloggers and tweeters helped spread the word.

There’s a sense of community among the aid/development bloggers and tweeters. I’ve actually met some of them, including Tom Murphy and Ian Thorpe, in real life. Others, like J. and Shotgun Shack, are totally anonymous to me. It means a lot to have intellectual compatriots out there who are doing similar work and grappling with similar questions. Sometimes we disagree sharply — as Shawn Ahmed (who insists he’s not an aid blogger!) and I did last year — and those are often the best discussions. When my day job gets too busy and I’m unable to blog or tweet for a few weeks, I actually find myself missing my tweeps.

Despite the many reasons to blog, it has brought me very little money. I have no aspiration to be a full-time writer or analyst. The blogging has always been separate from my day jobs. The biggest measurable benefit is that I get free books to review. However, on a few occasions, people who only know me through my writing have contacted me and encouraged me to apply for openings at their organizations. That’s incredibly flattering. Blogging has also helped me stay sane: having an outlet for grappling with the big issues provides a useful counterbalance to the everyday minutiae of the work itself.

Climbing Kilimanjaro with a couple old friends in August. Probably both the hardest and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. Also, a metaphor for the entire year.

4. Looking forward: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

That line — originally from Steve Martin, and now used as the title of a book — has always resonated deeply with me. I don’t think for a second that I’ve reached that point. I could write a whole series of posts on the improvements I want to make in the coming year.

Yet I close with that line because it’s become my guiding career principle. In practice, it means hard work, constant learning, self-criticism, reflection, humility, and focus. The last one is especially important. I try not to get distracted thinking about what’s next. If I can focus on the task at hand, and knock it out of the park, then the opportunities will come.

Earlier this year, just as I was settling into my new job, I finished up my five years of focusing on learning. The ratio of doing-to-learning has flipped back. I’m learning a lot in my current position, but I feel that I’m doing even more. And that’s a very good feeling.

___________________________________________

Okay, enough of this personal-reflection nonsense. We now return to your regularly scheduled programming…

2 thoughts on ““Be so good they can’t ignore you.” (In which I get uncharacteristically personal.)

  1. First of all, Happy birthday! May the year be full of good things.

    You’re right – putting your story out there allows every reader to take their own conclusions. I feel not enough are brave enough to show their vulnerabilities and allow others to learn from their path.

    Myself I am just starting grad school, starting blogging, and my birthday is coming up which will undoubtedly provoke similar reflection-time. What sticks out for me here is that making smart choices and sticking with it pays off, which is encouraging. So thank you for that.

  2. Your reflection is uplifting. I myself have a “checkerboard” of a resume and still planning my way into grad school. Getting into international trade/development industry is tougher than I imagined. I came back from Manila working on a CIDA-funded project but now I’m still searching for the next gig. It’s been a year. But you’re right to point out key areas that make somebody stand out: focus (keeping your eye on the prize); learning (never ceasing to learn more); and a good roll-up-your-sleeves attitude (which helps you establish rapport/contacts within your network).
    Thank you for that reminder. Oh yeah, now i’m about to draft my “5-year-plan” :)

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