Friday, February 17, 2012

Developing character

When my parents got married my mom wanted to travel, but they had no money. My dad was in seminary (Lutheran) and had taken some German, so my mother researched programs abroad for which he could apply, found one, filled out most of the paperwork, got him to sign the application, and sent it in. Which is how I came to be born abroad.

My mom didn't speak German. But she was a pianist and had a good ear, so before the year was out she'd picked up the language. She spoke so well that people assumed she was a native and my father was the American spouse.

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I didn't inherit my mom's chutzpah. When life brought me new situations I faced them with the usual mix of excitement and vague trepidation. I was rarely fearful of new experiences, but I wasn't necessarily one to initiate them.

Yet I did move out of the country when I graduated from college. It was not the stuff of character: my Cuban-born boyfriend went home to Puerto Rico to find his footing as an architect, and since I had no particular career plans and nothing to lose, I packed my belongings into seven boxes and flew to San Juan. It wasn't until I stepped off the plane into 95 degrees and 95% humidity that I realized I'd never been to the tropics before.

My boyfriend's folks knew someone with a studio apartment for rent a couple of miles from their home, which I quickly took for $250 a month. Then the only issue that weighed on me was finding a job. In theory that shouldn't have been hard. I'd had substantive, resume-building summer work while in college. But there was something scary about getting a Real Job. It mattered in a way that summer jobs didn't. Plus I was in a different culture speaking a different language, and knew only one person (and his family). Waves of  deep insecurity crashed over me for the first time in my life. I lay in the steamy breeze of my lopsided ceiling fan, listening to the tree frogs wondering, Why did I come here? What if I fail? What will I do?

My boyfriend's parents finagled an interview for me with the economic adviser to the governor. The job involved building a computer model of the Puerto Rican economy. On paper I was as qualified as any other 22-year old, perhaps more so since I'd gone to a strong college. What I was most aware of, though, was that I knew nothing about programming or how to build econometric models.

But desperation sometimes breeds bravada, and the appearance of confidence is usually nearly as good as the real deal. Calling up the memory of my mom and the story of how she got to Germany, I cheerfully assured my potential boss-to-be that I could handle the work and learn the programming quickly.

When the call came in saying I got the job, I flew to the university bookstore and bought myself an econometrics text and a FORTRAN manual. I spent the first month or so madly trying to make sense of printouts and equations, running regressions, analyzing statistics. Slowly it started to coalesce in my mind. I grew into the competence I'd pretended I had.

There are worse ways to start out in adult life than to madly scramble to appear like you know what you're doing. I threw myself into that job with a determination I'd never known. In making the choice between the big fear of spectacular failure and the little fears of each day, I learned that the two are related. Overcome the little ones, and you make progress on the big one. The trick is to keep moving. Do the next thing on your list. Don't let paralysis set in. Try a different approach when Plan A isn't working.

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Only recently (this year, in fact) did I realize that my long-ago boss couldn't possibly have expected me to know as much about econometric modelling as I thought he did. He hired me because he assumed I'd figure it out. Whether he saw through my bluff or not, he trusted in my attitude. And how you approach daunting situations is actually far more important than whatever one learns in school.

Sometimes I wonder how much of the 22-year old in Puerto Rico I'd recognize today. I wonder if she'd recognize herself in me. I think she would, and yet there's so much of who I am that I simply wasn't yet. Back then I thought my future hinged on what I knew and which goals I set for myself. Yet so much of who we become arises from the pivot points: how we handle adversity, love, anguish, opportunity, fear, joy, and the people in our lives.

May you pivot well.


  1. Julia, that's a wonderful blog! Probably doubly so because I know so much about your Mom's chutzpah (and love it dearly)...but also because I think you have an ample supply of it yourself, brave lady! Know that I keep you and your family in my prayers.

  2. Your last paragraph really hit home for me. The older I get the more I realize that how you handle things and your attitude about them is what its all about!

  3. Handling the pivot points is a lovely phrase - thanks for that.

    I look back at my 22 year old self as a newly wed and wonder if she'd recognize where we are now.