Goodbye, DC (For Now)

So, this is it. My time here in DC is coming to a close. Less than week from this very moment of writing, I’ll be back in Massachusetts. In less than a week, I’ll be back with family I haven’t seen in months; I’ll be back with childhood friends; I’ll be back driving along all-too-familiar roads, eating all-too-familiar foods, and sleeping an in all-too-familiar bed. I’ll be home.

My initial reaction to this glaring truth is shock. I couldn’t understand or seem to accept how fast this summer has flown by. It feels like it was only a few weeks ago that I was boarding an airplane headed to Reagan International Airport. It seems just yesterday I was headed off with my apartment mates to begin classes at the William & Mary DC Summer Office. It’s almost eerie how time flies.

My second, deeper reaction was that of apprehension, which turned into worry. I worried that I hadn’t done enough with my professional life here – that I hadn’t met enough people, made enough good impressions, or done enough projects. I worried that I hadn’t done absolutely every single little thing that I could’ve. I worried that I should have come in earlier or stayed later (although most days I was working at least nine and a half hours, sometimes more). I worried that I’d look back at my time here and wonder what I could’ve done more.

But professional life aside, I worried long and hard that I hadn’t done enough personally here. I worried that I hadn’t taken the time to venture out into the city, to see the sights of DC, or to spend time with nearby friends, family, and my significant other (a worry amplified even more so by the fact that I will be in Beijing for the entire fall semester). I was worried – I was scared – that I hadn’t lived enough, professionally or personally, and it was this fear that was literally keeping me up at night.

But why was I so scared? One word: regret. My best friend once told me that her biggest fear wasn’t ghosts or gremlins or ghouls that go bump in the night – it was regret. She was, and is, terrified at the prospect of feeling regret. And she isn’t afraid of the variety of regret she might feel if she had done something she shouldn’t have, but the opposite – the feeling of regret she might get from not doing something she should have.

And it was that fear of regret that I was dealing with, right up until earlier today.

Earlier this morning, that very same best friend and I decided to go hiking, so we filled up our water bottles, packed away Subway sandwiches, and went on our way. We’d been to the trail we picked before – the Billy Goat Trail almost twenty minutes away in Great Falls, Maryland – and the day could not have been better. It was hot, to be sure, but we were familiar with the trail, knew when to rest and when to drink, and were able to take our time, relaxing in the silence of the woods and soaking in the fresh air and scenery.

There was a spot a little more than halfway through the trail where we had stopped during our first excursion to go for a little swim in the Potomac. We had some trouble today, but we had eventually found it – a little shallow outcropping of rocks near the shoreline – and waded in. The water was gorgeous; the scenery, immaculate. Every now and then the gushing of the Potomac would bring a kayaker or two into view and out again, but for the most part we were alone with the nature around us in an almost zen-like isolation.

We stayed for a while, but as we got up to leave I felt an almost instinctive urge to take hold of my surroundings. I realized in a few moments that I wasn’t simply admiring the view around me; I was looking for landmarks, beacons, or any other kind of way to be better able to remember this spot, so that my best friend and I might be better able to find it next time.

And then logic chimed in. I was leaving DC in less than a week, I thought to myself, and between now and then I would almost certainly not be returning to hike the Billy Goat Trail. So why was I even bothering looking for landmarks?

And then it hit me: I very well could come back; this summer might not be my last in DC. I realized that my fears were overblown and unfounded. I have been extremely successful in my professional life. I worked my butt off, met the right people that I needed to meet, and had set up a great contact base. Even more importantly, I had gained an incredible working experience that could springboard me to another, possibly even more incredible one, just as my Boston job last summer had brought me here to DC.

And what’s more, my more personal fears were equally wrong. I didn’t just “live” in the city – I lived in the city. I’ve been to the monuments at night, I saw the fireworks on the Fourth of July. I can tell you the best places to kayak on the Potomac just as easily as I can describe the bricked roads of Old Town Alexandria. I have memorized the maps and travelling times of the Metro, and knew just how much money I needed to put on my SmartTrip card to the individual cent. Every single weekend I spent visiting some odd collection of friends and family, and every day I spent time with my own best friend.

She and I made this summer what it was, and it was unbelievable – one that I’ll never forget. And this Saturday, when I’m walking through the terminals and getting ready to board my plane back to Boston, my head will be hanging high. Because I’ll know I just had the best summer I could, and that there are very strong indications that the good times, far from over, are only just beginning.

I’ll be back for you, Billy Goat Trail. Just you wait.

Lesson Learned

Albert Einstein, the iconic, go-to genius of the twenty-first century, is famously quoted as saying, “If I knew what I was doing, it wouldn’t be called research.”

And as much as that may stand true in the field of science (I’m about as far away from a physics major as you can get, so I have no idea), I’d say it also stands true in another field: leadership.

Confused? Let me break this down in science-like terms. I believe that actually knowing what you’re doing is a sufficient, but not necessary, element of leadership. In other words, it’s not so much the “knowing,” as it is the “doing.”

Think about it. We’ve all heard of, seen, or known leaders in our lives. Some may have been famous; others, perhaps less so. But what linked them all together and made us give them that uniform marker of “leadership” is that, at one point or another, that person took action. It could be any action – or even series of actions. Maybe it was raising us from childhood as our parents did, coaching us on sports teams, or teaching us in the classroom. Maybe it was an older sibling, an older friend, a co-worker, a boss – someone who demonstrated and acted on qualities and values we appreciated or maybe even loved.

Leaders are given their title by others based on their ability to act. When you boil leadership down, that’s really all there is. But what we don’t always recognize, pay attention to, or even comprehend is the fact that maybe; just maybe, our heroes and heroines don’t always completely know what it is that they’re doing. Sometimes – or even a lot of times – they’re guessing, wading blind into the darkness, or flying by the seat of their pants.

This isn’t to demean the accomplishments of leaders or diminish their characteristics or values; it amplifies them. The ability to support others when everyone else cannot or will not, even at the risk of being wrong, is the stuff that actually makes our leaders heroes. The mother or father who forges ahead amid uncertain economic times to try to create a better life for their child; the teacher who devises a new and untried curriculum to better the college prospects of her students; the fireman who charges headfirst into a burning home, unaware of its structural integrity but in pursuit of the cries for help regardless.

That’s what I learned this summer: you don’t have to know what you’re doing in order to lead. There’s no excuse anymore for sitting on the sidelines; for waiting for the “perfect” moment or words or actions to come. Because truth be told, those who wait can be waiting a really long time. Life’s too short to not go out on a limb every now and then.

After all, it wouldn’t be called leadership if we actually knew what we were doing all the time.

Week 7 — Admitting Naivete

Call me dramatic, but I work for international peace.

Well, not exactly. But I like to think in a way I do, beause I do actually work for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Carnegie’s goal is to “advance cooperation between nations and to promote active international participation for the United States.” However small my impact there, I have a lot of respect for my organization’s mission and like to think I help in my own little way. Whether I’m tweeting about our work, helping staff big-name events, or updating Carnegie’s webpage or database, my work there has been tremendously gratifying.

But working at Carnegie Endowment can also be hard. And not in the sense of work that I do (although I am often challenged), but in the sense of my acute awareness of work across the world that so desperately still needs to be done.

Take this past week for example. On Monday, the European Stability Mechanism, an all-important tool designed by eurozone leaders to help control the growing financial crisis there, took effect, pumping millions of euros into the system in an effort to save a teetering regional economy (which, combined, is the biggest in the world) from collapse. That same day was South Sudan’s first “birthday,” which the young nation celebrated amid terrible economic, political, and often violent chaos that is still gripping the developing nation.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton visited Tokyo, the capital of a nation that is suffering from nearly two decades of economic and demographic decline, recent humanitarian and nuclear catastrophes, and a growing concern in the form of a more outspoken, powerful, and nationalistic China encroaching on long-disputed territorial claims. That same day, the German Constitutional Court was discussing complaints against the European Union’s fiscal pact amid growing concerns over whether the Northern European economic powerhouse should even remain in a eurozone in which the economic future of millions now so desperately needs continued German support.

On Wednesday, the US House of Representatives voted to strike down the Affordable Care Act, a pointless action (given the Democratic control of the Senate and Obama’s promised veto) and just another example of how dysfunctional our current political system remains, something that should enrage voters on both sides of the aisle.

On Thursday, UN Special Envoy to Syria Kofi Annan was set to have talks in Russia about the Syrian crisis, arguably the worst humanitarian and political crisis of the Arab Spring in which hundreds and hundreds of civilians are being slaughtered each month by a tyrannical ruler whom has long since lost credibility.

And on Friday, Pakistani’s right-wing party held a protest against the decision of the Pakistani government to open the supply route to NATO that runs through the country in another glaring example of just how cool Pakistani-US relations have become in the last year.

These are the types of stories that I am confronted with everyday. Stories of countries, regional economies, and even entire ways of life and governance that just don’t seem to be as good as they were supposed to be. The European Union was designed to usher in an area of European integration and unprecedented peace, and instead has allowed the uncurbed irresponsibility of a few nations to endanger the economies of all (and that’s not counting the potentially millions of American jobs that would be at risk here at home were the Eurozone to collapse). In Syria, UN backed peace plan that earlier this spring were supposed to encourage a ceasefire between the government and the opposition, but the talks have failed to an almost laughable extent and have not stopped the massacre of hundreds of innocent Syrian civilians. In the United States, the combination of democracy and free market capitalism were supposed to make our country a shining “city on a hill” and leader of the free world, but our recent financial crisis and subsequent political gridlock have unquestionably tarnished the American image in the eyes of nearly everyone else the world.

It’s sometimes discouraging, because my role at Carnegie Endowment is very much that of a passive spectator. Unlike the amazing scholars at the Endowment, I can’t write policy briefs, hold lectures, appear on news talk shows, or else generally explain to the world just what steps we should take or what measures need to be enacted in order to clean up the growing messes our civilizations are collectively making. I hope to be there someday, but for now all of these issues are far beyond my ability to promote effective solutions. These issues are not directly taxing on me by any means — I know that I’m extremely fortunate to be living where I am, with the opportunities that I have. But it just seems like there’s always another crisis in the world of international relations. We’re always far away from getting it absolutely right.

But if an intern just a couple months in is picking the almost inevitable “what-does-it-matter-what-we-do, there¬-will-always-be-another-problem-in-the-worldness”, then surely the staff must. And I bet they do, although I’ve never talked to them about it. I’ve never asked the question that we’ve asked of so many non-profits: is the Carnegie Endowment’s long-term goal to run ourselves out of business? And I’m not sure if they’d have an answer for me – perhaps international peace is too big of a problem area, or maybe people just don’t ever see us, collectively, getting it right. Call me naïve, but as interesting as my job gets, I could do without a crisis here and there.

Halfway Lessons

*Note: The intense heat/thunderstorms have done a number on my apartment’s internet, so if this is a little bit later than my other blogs I apologize – we’ve had it off and on! *

I can’t believe it.

It’s the end of week five, and I’m officially halfway through my internship. It’s extremely weird to think that I’ve only got five weeks left until I’ve got to head back to Boston, and even weirder to think that I’ve come as far as I have this summer.

But the realization that I’m halfway through makes me pause and wonder: What exactly is it that I’ve learned so far? What life lessons, if any, have I accrued? Am I becoming a better person, a better leader, from the experiences I’ve had?

So, to answer that question, I thought I would come up with five things I’ve learned – one for each week I’ve been working – detailing life lessons, big and small.

#1: Life is living on a budget. Deal with it.

My internship, like many this summer, is unpaid. And this whole not receiving an income thing is very new to me. Since I was in eighth grade, I’ve had a job and an income. Sometimes that job was lifeguarding a local pool for a few hours a week; sometimes it was washing those tiny little gym towels for a local YMCA (which, I admit, was not one of my favorite occupations). And even on rarer occasions, such as last summer when I worked on Beacon Hill in Boston for a Massachusetts State Senator, I had a job that was as demanding as it was satisfying.

But this summer, I had no such luck, and I was forced to depend solely on my parents for any and all cash I might need. As such, my Mom – at my request – devised a system in which I would receive roughly $150 a week, which would in turn cover groceries, laundry, dry cleaning, Metro fares, and the like.

Now, $150 a week sounds like a lot, but when half goes to groceries, and another third to Metro and Laundry needs, I’m not left with that much spending cash. At the beginning of the summer, I would often fight with my parents over the amount. They’d get angry and urge me to spend less, and I’d get defensive and explain I was saving as much as I could. More often than not, our exchanges over the phone or internet would end with some tension.

But over the last few weeks, I’ve resolved myself to try and lower my expenses in order to live within my means. Grocery bills that were once almost $80 are now closer to $60; I hold out on dry cleaning for as long as possible, instead leaning toward the less expensive option of washing and ironing in my apartment.

I’ve noted the difference. Last week, after all my expenses, I still had nearly $20 left over, and conversations with my parents over money have noticeably cooled down.

#2: There are at least five delicious and different ways to make ramen.

-Original Ramen
-Ramen with hot sauce
-Ramen with soy sauce.
-Ramen with olive oil and cilantro (my personal favorite).
-Uncooked Ramen out of the bag (arguably the most depressing to eat of the five, but golden when in a hurry)

#3: Ask questions first, talk about yourself later.

I’ve lost count of the number of people that I’ve met this summer. And every time, I get the usual questions –Who are you? Where do you go to school? Where are you from? What do you like? And every time, I’m tempted to respond with my life story. All of it.
But this far into the summer I’m starting to get the impression that – awesome stories aside – you’re much more likely to impress someone or gain their respect if you’re the one asking questions, not them. And that’s not to say that you should cut people off or make it uncomfortable – by all means answer the basic questions. But keep them brief, and when you’re finished, turn it back around. It was a fun realization that people more important than me like talking about themselves just as much as I do.

#4: No matter how cool it sounds to girls, you’re not any more resistant to the sun because you’ve had multiple sunburns in your life. Wear sunblock.

#5: You don’t have to know what you’re doing all the time.

We’re all victims of it at some point in our lives. For some of us, it’s when we’re kids. For others, it’s when we’re much older. But at some point, when we are in a position of limited authority, we wait for others to step in and tell us what to do. And why not? They’re the leaders, after all; the ones have all the knowledge, the experience, and the skills.

It happens all the time. Think of the last time you cooked with your family before a big get together. Picture one of your grandparents or parents scrambling around the kitchen, mumbling under their breath while he or she cuts up this and stirs that. It’s a stressful environment, and all the while you’re not sure how to help. You want to, you really do, but you’re afraid that you’ll do the wrong thing, make something the wrong way, or just generally get in the way. If grandma wants me to help, you tell yourself, then I’ll do what she says. But until then I’ll just stay put.

That used to happen at my internship all the time. My supervisor and everyone else in my office seem to run around at some point during the day like a chicken with its head cut off. Sometimes I really want to help, but I just don’t know how. So I just used to stay put, work in my cubby on my computer, and try to do what was asked of me.

And then, one day, I just got bored of it. And instead of waiting for someone to give me something to do, I saw something that needed doing, and just did it. I didn’t know how, but I just figured I’d try something new. And when that turned out OK, I did something else. And then something else. And pretty soon, those above me took notice. And they did the best thing of all. They commiserated with me about how difficult it is to run around with your head cut off. Almost, dare I say it, like something approaching an equal.

“Oh oh, we’re halfway there! Oh, oh living on a prayer!”

Week 4 — Finding Family

This past week I finally got the chance to bond big-time with my office at a Nationals game that took place on Wednesday night.
It was kind of a big deal. I first heard about the plan a week before when Dave, the communications director, sent out a mass email with an event invitation for the game. I tentatively accepted, but emailed him back, asking how much it’d be. I knew that this early in the season, tickets still would be relatively cheap, but I was on a strict budget and I’d already overspent just the week before.
“Nothing,” Dave wrote back, “it’s on us.”
The Wednesday of the game was a particularly busy one at the office. That morning, I had traveled across DC to various think tanks as a “spy,” (Carnegie’s events manager occasionally would send me to go collect our competitors’ event planning intel), and that afternoon I was blessed with a chunk of favor-running free time, which allowed me to devote some serious time to some projects that were piling up. By 6pm in the evening, I was spent.
Just past 6:15pm, I was sitting at my desk and finishing up my third project of the day when I heard Scott, our government relations liaison, call out from the hall, urging us downstairs. Two seconds later, everyone was out the door, and I was scrambling around, trying to find somewhere to change out of my suit and tie and making sure I wasn’t forgetting anything urgent at my desk. One more call from Scott let me know I was the last person in the office, and sent me scurrying for the door.
As I caught up with the rest of my office just outside the Carnegie building, I got to see everyone who was going to the game. Dave, our communications coordinator, was still dressed professionally (I’m still not sure whether he had forgotten a change of clothes or just didn’t care enough to change); Scott was dressed in a t-shirt and shorts, and was sporting a Nationals hat; Becky and Llonka, members of our publishing team, had changed into casual skirts, while Jocelyn and Courtney, head and assistant head of the media design team, were in comfortable looking jeans. Jessica and Xavier, the webmaster and contact database manager respectively, had already left, and Charita and Amber, my supervisor and the events manager, were gone too. They had taken the day off to go to an event across town, and apparently would meet us there.
I was nervous. It was only my fourth week at Carnegie, and while I had gotten to know the rest of the people in my office on a friendly level, I hadn’t yet become genuine “friends” with some of them, and I was a little intimidated by being in a group with all of them together at the same time. In my mind, at that point I was still an outsider to this family – a welcomed outsider, to be sure, but an outsider nonetheless. I really wanted this game to be my leap of faith; my ticket in; my slam dunk into the open arms of the rest of my office. I figured that if I impressed them enough or made them laugh, I’d be able to gain real and tangible acceptance into their group. The last thing I wanted to do was mess this up, and that thought was running through my head as my office and I walked towards the street and started hailing cabs.
That day, there had been some substantial delays with the redline of the Metro –apparently an escalator somewhere had caught on fire (how it happened I have no idea) – so my office decided that the easiest way to get there on time for the game would be via taxi. After we had hailed some down, we split into small groups and piled in.
I got into a cab with Courtney and Llonka, and although our ride was slightly stressful (as driving in any large city during the peak of rush hour is wont to be), the three of us exchanged stories, and I was able to find out a lot about Llonka’s past and how she ended up in DC. I felt that we had really connected, and by the time we pulled up to the stadium the nervousness I had felt earlier had vanished.
The stadium itself was beautiful. Although earlier that day the temperature had lingered in the high 90’s, by 7pm the sun was setting and the temperature had nicely cooled down. As we all settled into our seats, some with hotdogs and fries, and some with beers and peanuts, I looked around again at the group of people assembled around me. Everyone was laughing and joking with each other. Some were reminiscing, while others were answering friendly questions asked about their kids, their spouses, and their outside lives. Once in a while people would glance at the game, but they were more interested in talking to each other. But most importantly, I realized that no one was worrying about impressing the other. Instead, everyone was just genuinely happy to relax in each other’s company.
And so I took a big breath and I relaxed too. And I laughed, and joked, and connected with the rest of the people in my office (especially with a slightly less-than-sober event manager, who told me time and time again that I was the best intern she’d ever had). It was an amazing evening, and by the time I got up to catch a train home, it was high-fives and handshakes all around, especially from Dave.
I know that just one night doesn’t make me a member of their family, but I do feel a little bit closer. And the next day at work, that feeling made me want to work a little bit harder for a little bit longer. And you can blame it on Dave’s leadership style or the workplace environment he created, but my time at the Nationals game made me realize that I never want to work somewhere that isn’t a family. Period.

Good Times & Revelations

I’m writing this blog a little bit later than I had anticipated; just a few hours ago I arrived back in my apartment in Crystal City, coming from a weekend of relaxation and reunion in my true second home, Williamsburg. So if parts of this blog seem slightly unfocused or scattered, I apologize in advance. I’m still riding off of my high, and getting myself to sit down long enough to put my thoughts on paper was a task in and of itself.

Also: My blog, as you’ll notice, doesn’t relate directly to my internship experience this week. Week #3 was a blast, and things are definitely starting to take off in the form of projects and duties and responsibilities. But what I wanted to write about has to do less with my time at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and has more to do with a very cool revelation I just had.

A few weekends ago, some of my fraternity friends suggested making a trip down to the ‘Burg. One in particular, a really good friend of mine who had just graduated from William & Mary and who lives just seven minutes away by car from my current apartment, was adamant on going. Apparently, some older alumni who graduated the year before even started at the College were flying in from across the country. My friend was really close with a few of the guys, so just last week a group of us solidified our plans, and after work this past Friday we piled into a car and headed South.

The ride down was a blast. There wasn’t much traffic, and we – two alumni who graduated in 2011, one that graduated last month, and myself – had a great time listening to music, reminiscing, and generally making fun of each other. I could’ve closed my eyes and been back in the fraternity unit.

I’d never been to Williamsburg during the summer, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when we arrived at the College. To my surprise, it seemed much less “empty” than I had imagined. It was past dark when we rolled into down, but people were still out wandering the streets, Wawa was still busy, and the delis were started to fill up with patrons. It was strange – it almost looked like nothing had changed – but it felt so good to be home.

Just after 9:45pm, my friends and I arrived at an off-campus house just off Jamestown Road. The house belonged to a few of my fraternity friends, and was lovingly named “the Alamo.” I was beyond excited, and the car had barely slowed to a stop in the driveway when I sprinted out the car and hurried to the door. The four of us stepped inside to a chorus of “Hey!” and “Yo, what’s up man?!” Some of my best friends at the College were already there, and the ensuing night that followed was amazingly fun.

Waking up the next day was a challenge, even though I had spent the night on a slightly less than comfortable college-budget couch. After an hour of motivating ourselves to get up, we finally did, as we stepped out the door into a gorgeous Williamsburg day. Pita Pit was the first stop, followed closely by the Rec, where we spent the afternoon playing basketball and lifting in an amazingly not crowded weight room. It was utter bliss.

OK, so I miss William & Mary. But I knew that already; that wasn’t my revelation. My revelation came later that evening.

It was just past 8 at night, and everyone was gathered again at the Alamo. Old-time alumni, recent alumni, and new faces were all together just hanging out and enjoying this summertime reunion. One of the alumni was a fraternity brother whom I really admired and looked up to. He was the epitome of cool in his style and demeanor, and had had a leadership position when I joined. And although I hadn’t really gotten to know him before he graduated, since then we had spent more time together. That being said, I was still always a little more on edge when I would hang out with him. Not because I was scared or intimidated by him, but because I always wanted to impress him and seem equally cool.

I was surprised then, when I turned around and saw him talking to an even older alumnus, who apparently had graduated a few years back. The “cool” alumnus had lost his chill demeanor, and was heavily involved in the conversation with the older alumnus, hanging on his every word. It struck me as odd at first, and then quickly, strangely made sense.

You see, it didn’t occur to me that the people whom I admired were equally admiring of somebody else. Of course I knew that he had to have looked up to other people on a theoretical level, but it still never exactly clicked, and was almost eerie to see in person. Here was a near-hero of mine conversing with a near-hero of his.

I think on some level we think of the people we look up to as being more than human. We think that they are unstoppable, unbeatable, and certainly not subject to the same mortal trials and obstacles that we lowly type people are. It’s strange then, sometimes, to realize that they are human, that they do have challenges, and that they too have heroes.

And while it is sometimes strange, it can be eye-opening as well. Because (and this sounds terribly cocky, I apologize in advance) when someone comes to see me like I see that cool alum, I know I’ll be trying to figure out why he thinks I’m so cool.

 

 

Week 2 – Brown Eyes, Terrible Diseases, and the Simple Cure: A Guide to My (And Our) Inaction

Two days ago, I saw a family sitting by the entrance to my Metro station, begging for cash.

There were three in total: two young girls – the older one couldn’t have been a day past nine; the younger, probably closer to six – and their mother, quietly watching her two children and the baby stroller she had hauled with her to Crystal City. The older daughter was skinny, with striking brown eyes, and a pair of bright green sneakers. Every ten seconds or so her mother would give instructions, motion her to sit up straighter, or simply rest her hand on the older daughter’s shoulder or lower back. Despite the occasional gestures of caring and love from her mother, the older daughter looked bored, sad even. And while the younger daughter laughed and fidgeted and sang, the older daughter never changed her expression. She seemed to understand all too well that her family was underprivileged. She seemed to know exactly what she was doing by that Metro station, and what that meant about her life, not only in that moment, but potentially for many years to come.

This girl with the striking brown eyes was nine years old. And as much as it shames me to say it, I didn’t even have the strength to read her sign.

Why?  I’ll tell you: She looked too much like my younger sister, who just turned ten last February.

Because like the older daughter at the Metro station, my younger sister has those same striking brown eyes, too.

Walking home, I felt terrible about myself. I wasn’t carrying cash on me at the time (I rarely do), but there was a Rite Aid not too far from the station. I could’ve seen about using an ATM there, or at the very least I could’ve purchased some food for that family. I could’ve offered to help with their next meal. I could’ve helped put them in touch with someone that could help get them back on their feet. I kicked myself again and again for it the whole way home. By the time I walked through my apartment door, I had descended into an almost self-loathing mood.

I could have – I should have – done something. Anything.

I think that most of the time when people are confronted in their day to day life with a glaring example of something clearly, indisputably, and irreconcilably “wrong” with our society – in this case, that we, as Americans, have tolerated and continue to tolerate the conditions inherent in our society that allow the existence of great inequality – they, we, I do nothing.

This is not to say that people are morally corrupt or irreparably callous to the suffering of others. With me, that was not the case, and with almost all others equally so. But this great inaction could be a symptom of a larger disease with which we are all afflicted, one that leaves us indecisive and ineffectual in taking these clear cut opportunities to just simply help.

This disease – let’s call it WhatdoImatterrea – is like a slow burning infection. It starts small, growing in influence and control as we age and experience the world around us until it dominates our actions and interactions. It’s also highly contagious – just one individual carrying a nasty case WhatdoImatterrea can infect a whole group or organization.

So why’s this disease leave us so helpless to help others in plain sight? Why aren’t more people taking action against injustice? It’s because the most vile, perverse, disgusting symptom of WhatdoImatterrea is the diminished ability or even complete inability to recognize the value and importance within ourselves and the change we can bring.

I did not help the girl with the striking brown eyes. And that was a personal failure. But I wasn’t the only one there that day. Why weren’t we all doing something, anything, to help? Maybe it’s because of that revolting disease WhatdoImatterrea, which crafts the thought in our head: “There’s nothing I can do to really help this family. I’m not a rescue worker/ politician/ celebrity. I’m not a genius/ expert/ social scientist/philanthropist. These problems require bigger people than I’ll ever be. Nothing I can do will truly matter in these people’s lives. Because it comes down to it, I’m just one person.”

“I don’t matter.”

The truth is you and your actions do matter. And while WhatdoImatterrea is widespread, contagious, and controlling, it is also incredibly easy to beat. All it takes is an action.

All of the leaders in civic participation or community engagement today have taken that action at one point in their lives. Penelope Spain, founder and CEO of Students United, a program that trains law students to serve as mentors and advocates for incarcerated youth, refused to give up on one such troubled young man, going so far as to have him live in her own home for a time. Michael Powell, the son of Colin Powell and ex-chairman of the FCC, spoke of the need to take action under pressure, comparing it to the need for battlefield commanders to make quick decisions if attacked. And while many of us will not experience the horror of the modern battlefield, our own struggles with WhatdoImatterrea involve a different, but no lesser degree of courage; the courage to stand up and make a defiant stand against the pessimism and “practicality” of WhatdoImatterrea. The courage to do something, anything, in spite what everyone around you is thinking. Something you know to be right, something you know to be important.

I should’ve helped that family at the Metro station; I didn’t. But I still have hope, because as contagious as WhatdoImatterrea is, taking action spreads even faster. I still hope that the next time someone sees that girl with the striking brown eyes, that person realizes how much they matter. But perhaps above all, I hope the girl with the striking brown eyes realizes that she matters too.

 

 

 

 

 

Week 1 – In Defense of Being Nervous

It was just before 8:30 on a sunny Tuesday morning in late May, and I was sitting all alone in a room in DC, trying my absolute hardest not to sweat too much.

Sound weird? Let me run you through the whole story.

This past spring, as part the W&M DC Summer Institute (which included a two week course in leadership theory and practice followed by a ten week internship), I applied for a position within the Communications Department at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a globally oriented think tank in DC and a leader in the field of foreign policy. When I received an email notifying me that I had gotten the position, I was initially ecstatic. I was to be the Carnegie’s Summer 2012 Communications Intern, and it would be my job to help run events, assist in the think tank’s social media management, and contribute to any and all projects the permanent staffers needed some help on. This would be a huge deal for me; it was my first job in DC, my first time working for an NGO, and I’d actually be working for a world-renowned and respected center on foreign policy!
I say that I was initially ecstatic when I received my acceptance email because a second, slightly less positive feeling sunk in shortly thereafter. In just a few minutes, I was nervous.

Really nervous. And this feeling stayed with me until that sunny Tuesday morning.

This wasn’t the first time I’d be working a full-time position. In the summer of 2011, I was blessed with the opportunity to work as a temporary staffer for the office of Massachusetts State Senator Katherine Clark. From late May until August, I was her scheduler, and every week I wrote a litany of emails, helped draft various letters, opinion editorials, and newsletters, and answered and made dozens of phone calls. It was a tremendous experience, and the skills and recommendations I gained from my time in the Massachusetts State Senate were undoubtedly invaluable in getting my Carnegie position.
So why was I nervous? I can’t really say, actually. I think it was a combination of factors.

When I worked in the Massachusetts State House in Boston, I was still living at home (with public transit, it took about 30 minutes to get into work from the moment I stepped out of my house); at Carnegie, I’d be living on my own in a brand new city. And while for the past two years I’d been living on my own for eight months a year at William & Mary, there is a definite and distinct difference between living on your own at school and living on your own in a more professional setting. At W&M, I knew dozens of people, lived in a fraternity house, and had a pretty solid feel for the surrounding area (although admittedly, the City of Williamsburg isn’t exactly the hardest to get to know). In DC, I’d know only a handful of people: maybe a dozen or so friends (including my girlfriend) or recent alumni that either lived and/or worked in and around the city. I had visited DC only a couple times, and aside from the National Mall, the street names and layout of the remainder of the city were as foreign to me as the far side of the Moon.

What’s more, I’d never lived on my own in an apartment before, and I knew I wasn’t prepared for the little subtle details that came with such a living arrangement, food being a prime example. At school, I’d always lived on a meal plan. And while I wasn’t always super excited about the food options (or lack thereof), I had grown accustomed to not having to shop for my own food, cook my own meals, or clean up my own dishes.

I think I noticed this most directly when food shopping without my parents for the first time. The evening after I had moved into my apartment in DC, my girlfriend and I went to a local Giant supermarket to stock up on meals for the week ahead. I went without a shopping list but with an empty stomach (the worst possible combination of factors to have when food shopping), thinking I would just “wing it” when I got to the store. After all, I knew what foods I liked and didn’t like, right?

Wrong. Even with a value card I think I ended up spending the outrageous amount of $120 on one week of groceries for one person, prompting some less than happy emails from my parents. But hey, you might be thinking, you can’t fault him for overspending the first time. He probably was just making sure he covered all of his bases when it came to starting his own pantry. Wrong again. Among the items I forgot to buy: salt, pepper, sugar, butter, milk, olive oil, cooking spray. And the list goes on.

But living alone aside, I think what I was most nervous about was the fact that I might screw up. The whole past semester leading up to my internship I’d heard time and time again about the importance of making a good impression, of networking, of being the absolute best version of yourself that you can be both professionally and personally when in the workplace. I’d practiced it last summer, to be sure, but this time the stakes were higher, and the judges would be harsher. I was afraid of what would happen if I came up short; if I didn’t meet expectations; if I failed.

All these thoughts were running through my head when I was sitting in that room in the lobby of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on that fateful Tuesday morning, waiting for my supervisor.

And then I realized something. I realized that being nervous might, after all, be a part of life for me here in DC and that it didn’t have to be a bad thing. So what if I was concerned about being the best I could be? Wouldn’t that worrying, after all, constantly push me to be the best I could be? Isn’t that a good thing?

And then I tried something. I took a breath. And then another. And then I reflected on what I’d heard from leaders time and time again the week before in the leadership class, and I remembered that lesson they taught: it’s OK to mess up from time to time. No one gets to where they are by being perfect all the time. And if you do screw up, is what you do and learn afterwards that can define who you are and who you will be.

A professionally dressed woman walked into the room.

“Zack?” she said, extending a hand, “Hi. I’ll be your supervisor this summer.”
I extended a calm and confident hand. “Hi,” I said with a smile, “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you. I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time.”

Off we went. And at that moment I found myself walking tall, ready to begin my work for the summer.