Welcome to 2014! I hope you’ve spent the holiday season surrounded by loved ones and enjoying this special window on the calendar. I love this time of year because of the simultaneous reflection and planning it represents – for me at least. It’s almost like watching a sunset and sunrise at the same time.
With that, it is time to look at the intentions I set 52 weeks ago and gauge progress, reset for the year ahead. I strongly believe in setting intentions in the new year as opposed to resolutions; the difference being the former has an element of deliberate action to it, whereas I feel the latter is simply a goal that sits there. Perhaps you see it differently. I also use this time to gauge any learning in keeping with the spirit of this blog that started almost ten years ago as a way to record my decision to find a more fulfilling life. Part of what makes this annual tradition so fulfilling is hearing from those of you who have adopted this practice. I love hearing about the action you’re taking in life. Please keep your updates coming! With that, let’s get to it.
Hits and Misses
Travel is always the easiest to begin with, and as I wrote last January, my focus would be on exploring the Dominican Republic rather than chasing fresh ink in my passport. Larina and I have jumped at opportunities to roam around this side of the island for almost two years. We’ve seen beaches known and hidden, explored national parks that provided a window into the island’s Taino past, gone to baseball games (Dominicans take this seriously), and might have even taken advantage of a resort special or two. It has been a dynamic time that ends next month when we return to Washington.
However, I did visit some new corners of the Caribbean in 2013. My job took me to Aruba, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago. I assume there will be some eye rolling: “work” in Aruba must be tough. I get that a lot. In fairness, both locations ae beautiful Caribbean islands that are extremely fun to explore and I recommend them both. I’m fortunate to get to attend conferences and meetings, and do research in places as exotic (to me anyway) as these are.
While I am on the topic of intentions related to my career, I successfully renewed my project management certification. This required a notable amount of time spent on webinars and other distance learning – time I would have rather spent elsewhere. Still, the training has been incredibly beneficial to my work and the contribution I can make to the team at Worldwatch, so it is a great investment that continues paying dividends on multiple levels.
Public speaking and presentations continue to be part of my work, not to mention my most favorite part of it. I intended to jump on any speaking gigs last year and successfully followed through. I count seven events where I was invited to either make a presentation of my team’s research, moderate panel discussions, or facilitate workshops related to the Caribbean-based projects I manage. One such events involved convincing energy ministers of various Caribbean countries to agree to a regional target for renewable energy presentation. This two-day event was some of the hardest work my team and I have done yet. Personalities clashed, arguments escalated – and de-escalated, thankfully – and strong cases were made, for and against, committing to an ambitious goal for the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). I learned as much in those two days as I have since beginning this phase of my professional career three years ago, especially how politically charged the topic of energy can be. Fortunately, our hard work paid off and the ministers present agreed to adopt the renewable energy target we set for the region. All that remains is for the official CARICOM Secretariat to vote to adopt it as official policy. Further, the report for our research officially launched and the project wrapped up on time and exactly four dollars under budget.
Related, I set an intention to finish at least one of the three long-term energy transition reports I’ve been managing these last three years. In November, we delivered the report, or Roadmap, to the government of Jamaica. This was especially meaningful for me given the role Jamaica has played in my life. It was my entry to living and working internationally, but it was also the country I chose for a graduate school assignment to write a forward-looking energy transition plan; which was exactly what Worldwatch was looking for when they hired me. The serendipity of this part of my life is a nice reminder that some elements of my life exist beyond my capacity to “do.” There is a lot more reflection that goes along with this point, but I will save that for the end of this post.
In addition to the two reports referenced above, I added four other titles to my collection of professionally authored pieces. I did not set that as an intention, but it is a nice highlight. I added to Worldwatch’s Vital Signs series on the topic of the global economy, the global commodities market, and, for the third time, the wind power market. I am a nerd.
Last January I set an intention to practice some of what I learned in a finance course in graduate school. I received a gift of one share of Disney stock around the time I was twelve years old, which I had always thought of as a novelty. The company grew exponentially since the and last Spring used it to experiment with buying/selling stocks. It’s a relatively trivial amount of money and this “portfolio” is as basic as it gets – a few shares of less-than-a-handful-of-stocks. Early retirement is not in my future. However, I have been curious about this topic since beginning to understand how it works. Finance has always been this mystical realm I knew nothing about. It became a little less puzzling with my studies, and I wanted to put some of my education to use while furthering that understanding, if only a bit.
The intention of resurrecting my personal web site has been one I have grappled with for a few years now. Last year I managed my expectations by stating I would at least begin salvaging the written material I nearly lost when I, in my tech prowess, accidentally obliterated the site. I did in fact begin the process but it is terribly time consuming. I see this being a multi-year effort simply because I do not have two uninterrupted months to devote to it. A smarter (read: more gratifying) choice might be to start fresh and share pictures and stories from the last two years in the Dominican Republic and continue building from there, saving past entries as time allows. For some reason I am focused on beginning with existing material. I suspect I could spend weeks reflecting on why I am stubbornly focused on the past. Regardless, I think it is time to let this topic go. I have made some kind of intention and effort around it for the last three years but I am clearly prioritizing other intentions and areas of my life. This project is a “nice to have” as opposed to a “must have.”
I also set my usual annual intention around reading. Because my reading primarily comprises work-related material, I like to commit to a few titles that are just for fun. I committed to only four titles last year, none of which I read. However, two books came to my attention that I managed to get through: That Used to Be Us, and The New New Deal. The first book examines factors that have been behind America’s dynamism and dominance in the last century, factors contributing to – and how we exacerbate – her decline. It also examines what it will take to reform key areas to adapt America’s successful model to the realities of the 21st century. It is an informative read with a comprehensive grasp of this challenge. Fair warning: even the most ardent optimist will come away feeling slightly defeated. Awareness of the monumentally intransigent forces opposed to necessary change (i.e., folks who want to go back to the good ‘ol days) is almost enough to throw in the towel.
The second book is a deep dive into the economic stimulus package passed by the Obama administration shortly after he took office. This book is not light reading. It gets wonky. Policy geeks and people who have the patience for detail will love it. People whose interest in such topics stops at bumper sticker-level approaches likely will not. For example, the stimulus package gave a tax cut to 98 percent of American workers, but the approach – a payroll tax cut versus a mailed check – was a deliberate way to ensure money stayed in local economies. In addition, it helped jump start a transition to the types of energy technologies that will dominate the next century, which is not an exciting topic on the surface but is the type of long-term strategic investment the country should be making. Again, this book is for the geeky. In the time it took me to poor over it, I could have read two or three smaller books.
As always, there were a few notable events for which I set no formal intention. One of them was passing the final – and most difficult – exam of the State Department Foreign Service process. I began the process in the Fall of 2012 and was finally invited to what is simply referred to as “the Oral Exam.” It’s an in-person all-day process comprising three assignments and tests an individual’s capacity with respect to what the Department calls its “13 Dimensions.” It’s a rigorous experience and the fail rate is very high. I took the exam in May while visiting DC for a few days. I prepared thoroughly for it, including simulations with Foreign Service friends (and family) in Santo Domingo, and it all paid off. My score, a 5.4 out of a possible 7.0 with the minimum pass being 5.25, was enough to put me on a list of potential candidates awaiting invitations to the introductory training class. Though this process was not an official intention, and though my score appears to be too low to receive an invitation – candidates have an 18-month window within which they must be invited to the service before eligibility expires – I am very happy with my success on this, something that would not have been possible without the support of many people along the way. Applicants have run this gauntlet multiple times before passing. Succeeding on my first try validates and bolsters my inclination toward public service that began when I applied for a State Department internship while in graduate school. And, because it’s allowed, I am already enrolled to apply again. If I pass with a higher score, that second (and better) candidacy will be higher on the same list I already occupy, thereby increasing my chances of an invitation to a training class.
The best unintended event of 2013, however, has absolutely nothing to do with my career, personal projects, or interests. It has everything to do with the joy of my life: Larina. On July 27th, I asked her to marry me and she accepted! We have been together since April 2009, and have gone from Italy, to Washington, D.C., to the Dominican Republic (and back to D.C. in a few weeks). Ours is an ongoing adventure with laughter, love, support, encouragement, and excitement that may or may not be peppered with movie quotes and pop culture references. I will save the long version of the engagement story for in-person telling. It is full of attempts gone wrong and culminates in a proposal over dinner at our apartment. Billy Holiday’s “Stars Fell on Alabama” was playing in the background at that moment and it was magical.
The Year Ahead
The coming year will be as eventful as the last, and I am going to set myself up for some success. First intention: marry Larina! By that I mean – the inherent humor aside – focusing on the planning. This will be a Do It Yourself event instead of using a catered facility. As such, we are responsible for details down to the rented bathrooms and the number of silverware sets we will need. Of all the projects I intend to juggle this year, this one takes priority. Hence the intention.
I typically lead off this section with an intention around visiting new places, especially foreign countries. However, this year that intention is already taken care of. Larina and I leave for our honeymoon in a few days; a Caribbean cruise with stops in the British Virgin Islands, Antigua, Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Saint Martin. We are doing this now largely because of its affordability. The ship’s route includes a stop in the Dominican Republic, just down the road from Santo Domingo. Joining the cruise mid-route – and us already located here – makes it terribly affordable. Further, we already know a honeymoon after the wedding will be seriously delayed due to our respective work schedules awaiting us back in Washington. So, 2014 is already off to a success start!
On the careers side of the house, I intend to finish a second of the three long-term energy transition reports my team and I have been developing recently. I intend to continue the moment from the Jamaica launch by finishing the Roadmap for Haiti. As always, I also intend to seize opportunities to present this work publicly. Right now, no events are on the horizon – save the launch event I intend to make happen – but should they appear, I intend to accept. Furthermore, I intend to learn from my mistake regarding my professional certification. I waited until the final year of its shelf life to do the bulk of my recertification work. This year I intend to register one third of the training hours necessary, with the second third to follow in 2015, and the final third in 2016.
Related, I intend to re-run the State Department process previously mentioned and finish with an improved score. I am already scheduled to take the first of the three tests in three weeks.
On the personal side of things, there is always my reading list. The titles I listed for 2013 remain for the coming year. Again, I’ll leave the list short to leave room for books I might find along the way, and to not be too disappointed when I run this exercise next January!
And I am going to leave it there. It’s a short list this year, but I have been around enough weddings to know how much planning and preparation they require – and those were not DIY events. Therefore, I’m content to apply a well-known mantra of project managers: under promise and over deliver.
Two reflections take center stage as I wrap up this annual review. The first is the “full circle” feeling I have around the Jamaica project I finished in November. Unlike previous visits to the island that, for all intents and purposes, started this new phase of my life, the November trip was the first time I felt I was discerning anything. When I arrived in the Fall of 2006, and during my two visits while developing the project, I felt I was always discerning the end of the adventure I began when I quit my job in 2005. In truth, the feeling of discernment persists, but the November trip felt like I was seeing for the first time a tree whose seeds I planted when I arrived as a volunteer seven years ago.
My final reflection is around life’s finiteness. In 2013 I had the opportunity to visit with a friend struggling with cancer since 2009. We met in high school and he has been a part of my life ever since. Distance and the demands of family life have kept us from seeing each other much in recent years. So, when I found myself in Washington for a week in August, I took some extra time to fly up to Connecticut and visit him and his family. Aside from proposing to Larina, it was the best decision I made all year. As often happens with longtime friends, we reconnected instantly. His children have grown exponentially since I last saw them, and his wife remains a solid anchor holding everything together. It was a great day and I’m forever grateful they let me drop in on them at the last minute. My friend does not know how much time he has left. Signs point to different outcomes almost daily. But he is living; enjoying the substance of life that goes far beyond intentions, to-dos, and, as Ralph Waldo Emerson called it, “the hobgoblin of little minds.” I hope I can carry that awareness, that living, into the year ahead and beyond. And I hope the same for you too.
Happy New Year, everyone. I will likely disappear from all blog posts for a while. We move back to Washington next month and the settling in process is always a long one. I hope to have good things to share with you when I resurface. Until then, que vaya bien!