Tag Archives: Career

The Glass Half Empty

On my worst days, I indulge my narcissistic tendencies.

I wallow in self-pity.

I linger on my myriad flaws.

I feel painfully insecure.

I can’t remember the last time I flew with anyone. It’s kind of a random thing to linger on, recognizably a first world problem, but it feels a microcosm of something, to me at least.* Maybe because there’s no one to ride with to the airport, to chat with until boarding, to hold onto in case of turbulence. I’ve been alone so long I’ve just about become resigned to the feeling, only it makes the fleeting moments of connection that do occur that much more visceral, haunting, eventually painful.

*Maybe I’ve just seen one too many Richard Curtis films.

It takes all of four hours for someone to figure me out – at least on a basketball court, spread out across two nights on back-to-back Tuesdays. A guy who I had never met previously – friendly and well-meaning, but clearly slightly exasperated – gives a shout as we leave the gym. “Wilfred.” There’s a pause, as though he’s weighing his words. Then a shake of the head and a knowing smile. “You gotta stop playing scared, man.” It’s a simple, brutal assessment, one that cuts right at me. He’s right.

I’m not aggressive with the ball. I’m more comfortable being guarded than I am cutting to the basket unmarked. I feel overmatched no matter who I play, all too aware that I either 1) lack the kind of coordination and body control they seem to possess naturally, or 2) contain an almost paralyzing sense of self-doubt almost entirely absent from others. Somehow, in a game that has no meaning beyond the 10 minutes it takes to get to the next one, I am scared – of letting teammates down, of looking stupid, of failing. It’s painfully obvious, even to a near-stranger.

I have always been a bundle of nerves, no matter the stakes, how big or small, or however many times I have found myself in similar spots previously. I take after my dad in that way. For all my efforts to maintain a facade of perspective in the grander scheme of things, I still suffer internally, making mountains out of molehills with a degree of regularity. Worse, I compound the psychological tendency by often fulfilling the prophecy myself, getting into troublesome situations of my own making.

Just a few weeks ago, for instance, I wandered unwittingly from a marked hiking trail, instead following along an unending ridgeline of limestone cliffs. It was stupid. I was supposed to make a left upward, rising above the clearing, but went opposite instead. Driven by a faint recollection of the description I had read the previous night, overriding all logic and common sense, I stubbornly plowed ahead – even as the ridge narrowed, the gradient steepened, and the trail became rocky and sandy.

Later, I would discover I was mere minutes from the peak when I veered off. It should have been obvious. The trail, the surroundings, the directionality – none of it made sense. Still, it takes me a half hour before I turn around. It’s harder going back. I climb through some sections, literally claw my way up others. Ahead of a particularly narrow section, I cramp. I’m writhing in pain on the ground, surveying the edge, pondering my mortality. It’s sobering: I’m genuinely terrified.* How did I get myself in this mess?

*It’s reminiscent of a previous experience I’ve written about. In this most recent instance, I even contemplate “if I don’t make it” texts to a couple of people, but it seemed like a terrible burden to put on them. So I hold back. Ultimately, I make it back and through, unscathed but for my psyche.

It seems a metaphor. I get so far in, then I pause for a breath and realize I still don’t quite know what the fuck I’m doing. That feeling of inadequacy; it’s a killer. It’s not that I fear I’m still not a finished product at 34, but the opposite – that I am a finished product and this is all I am and all I ever will be. I can blame timing and luck and nuance, but sometimes life feels like a series of dichotomous outcomes I can’t quite turn in my favor. A steady job. A sense of direction. Love and companionship.

On my worst days, I just don’t feel good enough. And I feel like I never will be.

I don’t know.

Maybe I gotta stop living life scared too.

The Thin Line Between Success and Something Else

Five years into my graduate school career, I was in a bind. The guaranteed money provided by my school had come to an end, and I had no recourse but to stitch together external funding sources  for however long it would take to finish my dissertation. I applied left and right for fellowships and grants: some abroad, some domestic, some residential and some not. I must have submitted 30-some-odd applications. I ended up getting a single offer. From Harvard, of all places.

A couple years later, as I was finishing my dissertation, I found myself officially on the job market for the first time. I was fairly agnostic about the academic world, and thus was pretty selective about the positions I applied for in the field. At the same time, I looked to jobs in the research and policymaking worlds, as well as postdoctoral fellowships that would allow me to bolster my résumé. I submitted at least 40 or 50 applications over the course of the year, if not more. I ended up with a single interview. It turned into my lone offer.

It is almost comical how many times I have encountered similar such crossroads the last five or six years of my professional life, and ended up being rescued by a single opportunity in the nick of time. I have never juggled multiple job offers, never gotten the chance to play one institute off the other while enjoying the stability of an ongoing contract. My safety nets have centered on time off at my sister’s place or on plans to secure undetermined courses to teach at unspecified colleges in a hypothetical town I would have to move to.

Naturally, this is my own doing. I chose to pursue a doctorate in the social sciences, after all. I did it at a university not ranked in the top 25, at a time when top-tier schools have increasing difficulty placing their alumni. I forged on despite apprehension about joining academia, at a time when the path within that world had become limited, and the path outside that world called into question the utility of the degree at all. And I finished despite the fact that I saw the entire system in the process of being devalued.

But putting aside my poor understanding of macroeconomic trends – or my inability to make career decisions accordingly – there is something darkly humorous about the fact that life has been this game of inches. That my résumé at face value might look somewhat impressive from the outside but belies myriad near misses and close calls, glosses over my dependence upon circumstances well outside my control and the series of lottery tickets I have managed to scrape up in the right place at the right time.

A good friend and I often joked about whether we would be the least successful people to have spent time – if fleetingly, on a fellowship – at Harvard. We were in the midst of a frustrating application season, as recipients of one rejection after another. But we were looking in the rearview mirror too, both being similarly attuned to how close we were to nothing before ending up there in the first place.* Indeed, the breadth of our experiences – then and since – have only reaffirmed the thin line between success and lack thereof.

*I was on a waitlist for one other fellowship before ultimately being rejected: at Stanford. To recap, my literal options: Harvard, maybe Stanford, nothing.

I wonder sometimes if my story is not exceptional, only the one I feel most acutely. I wonder if I linger too much on the scenarios that did not come to be. Mostly though, I wonder whether another person, another personality molded by a different upbringing and environment, would look at these same events through the lens of just rewards rather than coincidence, ascribe them to hard work rather than luck. Whether they would come to take these outcomes for granted, and to eventually believe that they deserved it.

Regardless of anyone else however, I am well aware of the ever-present precariousness of my situation, and of the fragility of it all. It’s another way in which I’ve been lucky, I suppose. There’s this great saying from Barry Switzer: “Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.” People like me – we’re constantly reminded that we didn’t. I prefer it that way.

Revisiting the Doctorate

When I first floated the idea of going to graduate school, I was a third year in college, visiting one of my teaching assistants at his office hours. His office was literally the size of a broom closet, and he had to pull chairs out into the corridor for us to have space to chat. I felt a bit embarrassed for him. Anyhow, we got to talking, and he asked about my post-graduation plans. I hadn’t thought about it much, so I threw out some generic answers, including graduate school – almost on a lark. His reaction was swift. Grad school, he all but admonished, was not to be taken lightly. I had to be passionate about the subject, the field. It was, he impressed upon me, not a casual option.

Looking back, the encounter was a microcosm of the graduate school experience: a myth about the purity of research and pedagogy, characterized too often by an inflated sense of importance and very real flagellation, hierarchical to its own detriment. These were traits perpetuated across the whole of the enterprise. Academe’s worst qualities seemed to manifest especially in the social sciences, comprised of far too many self-righteous individuals who had something to say about every aspect of society while lacking the basic social skills to actually exist in it.*

*I was once subject to a chain of emails in which graduate students struggled to get past the pedantry of naming a union (let alone forming one), because the word “union” had connotations to be argued over, just as “collective” did, or “association,” or every other word in the world.

I lived, as you might surmise, a normal existence even as a graduate student. Of course I had stressful days and weeks, especially as deadlines loomed. But I never felt snowed under the way many of my colleagues seemed to, my life far from the manner in which they presented their existence, as Sisyphus perpetually pushing the boulder uphill. I don’t know whether I was balanced or apathetic; perhaps both. But I progressed through the program, passion be damned. I managed to watch an obscene amount of movies, hold season tickets to my baseball team, take extended summer road trips. It was just more school.

I did attend conferences, managed to publish once or twice, but unsurprisingly, I never was the model academic. I did not network at these conferences, did not succumb to the ‘publish or perish’ mentality. I secured a couple of external fellowships, but never did transition neatly into a tenure-track position at a research university – despite what my adviser so clearly hoped and inelegantly (even unprofessionally) pushed for. I resisted. Even now, I continue to find myself, seemingly further and further from academia. My ability to finish the degree seemed to be a victory for normal people.

It’s difficult to overstate how little difference the doctorate makes in my life on a daily basis, even as I recognize its role in my career path. On rare occasion, I might chat with someone and learn they had begun the process and moved onto something else, or are just now considering going down that route. I might encounter people who look at it with a sense of reverence; this includes a supervisor who had a obvious chip on his shoulder about not having the degree himself. In such circumstances, I find myself asking what the degree means to me. I think about whether I would recommend the pursuit to others, and – ultimately – whether I regret that seven and a half years.

I find it difficult to believe that an individual with newfound knowledge would have no second thought about their actions in almost any circumstance – a conversation, a relationship, a career choice. But regret is a strong word. I wonder whether having regret entails envisioning a completely altered existence, a la Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors, or whether it represents a lone item of change that can be isolated from a life otherwise left untouched. I make that distinction because I need it. I do not regret pursuing my doctorate, but I would never do it if I had known then what I know now.

I do not regret because I grew up in graduate school. After a miserable four years in college, it was as a graduate student that I found my self-worth again. I became comfortable with who I was, even found some people who liked that person. I gleaned a genuine sense of accomplishment from the work, through shallow measures like departmental and school recognition, but also through regular interactions with students and colleagues and professors. I finished on my own terms, as I mentioned above – a balanced individual. And I have been able to shift from that pursuit to where I am now.

But I would never do it knowing then what I know now. I might have pursued a masters, and nothing more, knowing that the difference between it and a doctorate is all but negligible outside academia, easily overcome by real-world experience. I would forgo a degree that leads to a career path that promises no job security let alone a job, that ignores geographic preference, that bleeds over the notion of balance. I would turn away from a degree that means so much only to such a narrow community, driven by those who are all too eager to feed into its esoteric and self-sustaining nature.

In retrospect, my teaching assistant had it almost right. Passion about the subject, the field, might really be necessary – but not for graduate school per say. Clearly I’ve proven him wrong on that front. But I think it helps in the long run, in academia. It sustains people as they trudge on, through a game that never ends, a ladder that keeps climbing. There’s delusion in that passion, for sure, righteousness too, maybe pure survival sprinkled in. But there’s also genuine belief, the kind I never had. Whatever it is, it’s something to hold onto as the environment – anachronistic and unwilling to change – envelops their lives.

I have my degree. I have no regret. But I would not do it knowing what I know now. It makes me wonder whether I was simply not smart enough then to fail.

(Photo by GregsWikidContributions, CC BY-SA 4.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Whole Wide World

In the midst of my grandmother’s final days, I couldn’t help but think about how different her life had been from mine, how everything she had been through had made things possible for me, my sister, our cousins. I received the news of her passing in Porto, on New Year’s Day. It pained me to be on the other side of the world, away from family in both the US and Hong Kong, away from friends even. Yet at the same time, I thought about how far we had come, as a family, that I was able to be there, a spur of the moment trip to Portugal over my holiday.

My grandmother never left China, never left Hong Kong really. Growing up, even after my parents moved with me and my sister to the States, our vacations were rare, and quite modest. A few road trips to Las Vegas and San Francisco, once to Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park. Our big getaway was New York and DC – to deal with immigration paperwork. That was the extent of it. My parents always provided for us, and I never was left wanting of anything. But luxury was unknown to us: we rented instead of owned, moved around a bunch to save. And we rarely traveled.

I was at a museum in Paris when I received what turned out to be my last call from my grandmother. I was spending the holidays there with my best friend – she a half-Spanish French native whom I had met in Tokyo. About a week later, I reflected on the moment, the trip, and I thought too about my last couple of months working in Geneva. I had been to Brussels and Rome, spent a weekend with a good friend over in Barcelona. I didn’t think about this in a self-indulgent way. Rather, I thought about the fact that I was able to see so much, and experience so much, on behalf of my grandmother, on behalf of my parents.

I never once took for granted what I had gained because of my family’s move to the US. Still, I don’t know that I ever envisioned what my life was going to be like when I grew up. Until the point of graduate school, I never really thought about what my life could be like. Even as my personal travel expanded, it never quite seemed like real life. Things only felt different, I think, when it was my studies – my work – that opened up the world. Conferences in Chicago and New Orleans, in Seoul and Berlin. Field work in New York, Geneva, and Vienna. The world simultaneously became bigger and smaller, less bounded but more accessible.

I have admittedly struggled with expat life at times, as has been well documented on these pages. These recent weeks in particular have provided plenty of triggers. Missing the holidays, the milestones, the passings. Just watching La La Land this past weekend, and seeing the spirit, the hope and beauty, the melancholy of the city I grew up in, captured onscreen – it made me yearn for life back “home,” for the experience of being there. But I don’t think I would prefer that alternative, don’t think that I would be happier being in LA, or even the US. In fact, at this stage of my life (however long it may last), I can say resoundingly that this is not the case.

Perhaps it has to do with my tendency to settle, to be comfortable. Even in Japan, in a shoebox apartment with a modest fellowship stipend, with no hope for professional progress and almost no love life, I was a little too content. Maybe the inherent discomfort of being an expat is the very thing I need then. A friend suggested once that expats are people who are in search of something, who lack something in their lives. I suppose I’m still  searching. But what I’ve found so far has propelled me a bit in my life, has challenged me in ways I could never have conceived.

The people I’ve met – they’re the core of it. I have learned so much, from one-off dates and fleeting encounters, but especially from the kindred souls I will forever hold close to my heart. I have a friend in Hong Kong who still tells me regularly she misses our days as graduate fellows in Boston. A Japanese friend in Singapore who checked in on me every time he was in Tokyo, even if he had to meet with luggage in tow. The couple who I spent a full week with in a studio in Paris, nonstop, on their holiday; the aforementioned best friend who took me to all her family functions. They are in my life because of a confluence of coincidence*, but also fundamentally because I moved from comfort.

*”Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world”

When I told my mom about my trip to Rome, she asked how long the flight was from Geneva. She asked a few more questions about Italy  – something my sister and I both picked up on. They, along with my brother-in-law, were to visit me in Switzerland later this year. After the conversation, my sister put Rome and Venice on their itinerary too. I think about that, and the hundreds of places my sister has been to in her life. I think about my mom, a homemaker until we moved to the States, who then – and to this day – would have to wake up before the crack of dawn six days a week for her blue-collar job. And I think about her being able to see Italy and Switzerland and France and Japan.

I think about my grandmother.

Leaving Los Angeles was the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Being an expat continues to be the privilege of my life. I know it. I just have to remind myself of it sometimes.

(Photo by bm.iphone, uploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

To Be Continued

I’m always reminded of how small the world can be when I get on a plane. I ask myself why it is that I haven’t visited home in so long. Why it is that I don’t travel more often. It takes ten hours, maybe 12 or 13, and I can easily be on the other side of the world: my sister’s home, my mom’s apartment, in a city or in a country that I’ve never visited before. Less than a day – nothing in the grand scope of things. I suppose money is the primary deterrent. Still, as privileged as I am, it still seems like an excuse.

It’s incredible though how much life can change with a plane ride. With a moment, really. For about six months, I lived with an increasing degree of uncertainty, knowing only that my future would very likely not rest in Tokyo. Then, I received an email. For about three weeks after that, I lived with the certainty that I was moving to Geneva. The fear of an unknown future barreling down on me shifted to that of a concrete future barreling down on me, my world suddenly one in which I simultaneously faced the reality of leaving a life behind while preparing for one that had thrust itself on the horizon.

The finality of leaving Japan struck me time and again. Perhaps it’s a feeling that expats more experienced than I have become accustomed to. But the particular circumstances of my farewell certainly helped to prolong it, forcing me to confront the end of this chapter of my life at an almost comedic level. My supervisor went on an extended vacation about a month previous, prompting an official farewell lunch and after-work drinks then. My best friend went on a long-planned vacation two weeks after that; her departure preceded by an emotional and reflective week of gatherings and conversation.

A week after that was when I actually left my job – the first real workplace I’ve been a part of, and the source of essentially all my relationships the past two years. It was accompanied by more meals and drinks, naturally. On top of all that, an unexpected wait for a visa pushed me to abscond from my apartment and shack up with a buddy for a week – thus providing a literal manifestation of my now-transitory existence in Japan, my purgatory of sorts. Visits to the immigration bureau, the ward office, and the Swiss embassy underlined the gravity of the chain of events set in motion. It all felt so real, yet so surreal also.

I don’t know that it hit me until I got on the plane, and perhaps not even then. Fact is, a week into my new life, I’m not sure it’s quite hit me yet. I’m too busy being overwhelmed – by the big things, the first days at the new job, the in-progress apartment hunt, but also the little things, the denominations of coins and cash, the instructions at the Laundromat where I sit writing this – to have my feet fully underneath me, to be able to truly process everything that has happened in the span of the past month or two. I can’t help but be aware of the most painfully obvious elements of the move, of course. There’s the smallness of the city, its corresponding and welcomed manageability. The pace of life, the rhythm and space, the diversity and liveliness, all plain as day.

But the physical traits of my new surroundings matter less than how I choose to perceive them, how I choose to interact with and engage them. And that is yet to come. After all, my life changed with a plane ride, but not simply due to the physical act thereof. Rather, it changed and will change because the ride has put me in a place where I must define and redefine myself: my life and career, my path and future direction, my hobbies and interests, my friendships and relationships. Not all of that is entirely under my control – it never is. But the assessment, the reevaluation, even the confrontation: it’s not the worst thing in the world. Maybe it’ll get me to the place where I want to be, inside.

Let It Burn

The world is dysfunction. I walk through the park – the Centennial Olympic Park, no less – and there are more homeless here than there are visitors. City workers set up for an unspecified event, a marathon from the looks of it. Tourists, myself included, snap shots of nearby statues, plaques, landscapes – landscapes decorated with those for whom survival is a struggle. They exist in the park the way the trees do, the way the benches do. They exist but invisibly so. This is normal city life, we have been told, and we have somehow been conditioned to accept.

A ten-minute walk from this park, a day earlier. I sit in a conference room with ten others. Four are there because they have to be, because they have been scheduled to present, same as me. Two are friends, two others share my alma mater: all moral support. Only the last two are genuine audience members. We’ve come from all over the country, the world in some cases, myself included, to be here. I wonder if anyone aside from my friends grasps the absurdity of it all. They debate regime complexes, breadth versus depth, theoretical frameworks. We’re so far removed from the world that it borders on delusion.

All manner of accommodations adorn the skyline from my perch in the middle of the park. The conference I’m here for is a four-day affair: thousands of attendants, hundreds of panels, dozens of rooms. I try to make sense of all of this. I know what we do matters, that society requires the pursuit of knowledge, the sharing and imparting thereof. But I sit here and look upon my surroundings and I sit here and think upon the conversation in those rooms a ten-minute walk away. And I try to make sense of all of this and I fail. We’re so far up our own asses it’d be funny if it weren’t my life. Maybe it’s funny anyway.

My friend got laid off yesterday. My mom has been up since 5 am for her job. A dozen homeless line up in an alleyway by the church, presumably for a warm meal. Meanwhile, I spent nine dollars for a beer at a basketball game last night. I received a free trip to this city to talk for ten minutes on a panel with two real audience members. Sometimes, on what I would say are my best days, I feel like I don’t want any part of this world. Let it burn. Except pyromaniac isn’t exactly a sustainable life philosophy. And this is ultimately the only world in which I exist. So where does that leave me?

Passions, Redux

A friendly soul. I don’t usually speak with seatmates on flights. But immediately, I can tell this guy has a good heart, that his travel companion too has a kind demeanor. So we chat, in the natural way that is generally reserved for people who are not me. He’s a teacher, he says modestly, even if the truth is clearly itching to get out. Really, he’s a screenwriter. Just sold his first, he can’t help but beam. He had always wanted to, he says. An ex had bought him the software. And so he wrote and made a short film, got some recognition for it, hired an agent, finished a script, sold it. Simple as that. He spent most of the 14 hour flight working on his next project.

His journey was inspiring, frankly. But it also felt so detached from reality – my reality, at least. I totally understood where he was coming from. I’ve always loved movies, enough to have written a screenplay of my own. But once it was over and done with, it just sat there, never to be edited, never to be reworked, never to be shared beyond a competition for which I received an “above average” score, but without advancing to the next stage. A second screenplay went about 20 pages before I hit a wall, lost interest, and ultimately deleted it – the concept perhaps more attractive than the work required to executive it. So my screenwriting career lays dormant, seemingly a passing fancy.

This is the story of my life. Laziness, lack of follow-through, frustration with the absence of instant gratification. I wonder if I have already used up all my energy for this PhD, or whether I was only able to achieve even that precisely because I had relative security the entire time. I look at things I actually care about or love, even, and I no longer have that patience, if I ever had it in the first place. I look directly for the payoff, wonder what the best case scenario would be. I love comedy, enjoyed performing – or more precisely, writing a stand-up routine, but I cannot fathom life on the road, putting up with hecklers and shitty venues, all for what – a long-shot to secure a comedy special or a network sitcom or something. I am too cynical to have the love of the art be sufficient, too lazy and poor to start from the bottom. The screenwriting endeavor appears no different.

But where does that leave me then? I fall back on the excuse – rationale – that my hobbies and my job should not, cannot be one and the same, fearing that my “passions” (the quotation marks are purposeful) will become the mundane. But meanwhile, I struggle to reconcile that what the world has heretofore valued of me is not anything I value beyond its practical utility for my survival. And so I face yet another crossroads, two years after my previous one, in which I find myself almost wishing for a clean break and an excuse to have to start from scratch, no ifs, ands, or buts about it, even as I fear (or perhaps know deep inside) that doing so would not inspire me in the least but only relegate me to a life of mediocrity while flushing away the work I have managed to put in to this point. Again.