Describe the worst part of your life

Leaving out periods of sickness or bereavement, two periods of my life compete for “the worst.”

Crashing at the takeoff
It was the worst job year since the Great Depression. Unemployment in 1982 hit post World War II highs (think of it like the Great Recession, only worse) and I was not among those employers most wanted.  Sure, I could read Greek & Latin; employers were unimpressed. Who knew?  I thought I might never find a job outside the fast-food or hospitality industries.

I needed a change, a jump start.  Maybe I thought maybe I could join the Air Force, get some practical experience and maybe get them to pay for some practical education.  I was physically fit, college educated with no criminal history & I did well on standardized tests, so the recruiter saw me as a good prospect.  I got excited about officer training.  I saw “Officer & Gentleman” with Richard Gere.  I figured that I could do that. My plan was to marry Chrissy, go into the Airforce to become and officer and a gentleman.  The marriage was wonderful; the rest, not so much.

The shock came out of nowhere.  As I went through the steps, my blood pressure was excellent, my heart strong and everything was good.  I felt sorry for some of the guys around of me – the one with such high blood pressure that he had to lay down to lower it, the one with only one testicle (Evidently the rule was that you need two); the one humps on his back, kind of like an ankylosaurus. They all passed. Not me.

The doctor told me that I had some earwax and that I was not capable of military service.  Earwax? Turns out my “ulcer” from 11th Grade made me ineligible.  I protested that it – whatever it was – went away.  I was spectacularly healthy, as the tests showed.  I lifted weight, ran long distances and I ate and drank whatever I wanted w/o problems.  It didn’t have an ulcer. It didn’t matter. I was out.

It was like bouncing on the diving board and then seeing the pool was empty.  There was no plan B and no prospects.  I was an “employment refugee,” a ragged man wandering through a ragged landscape.  I worked episodically at “Flexi-Force,” doing things like stuffing newspapers on the night shift and sweeping floors. The idea was to get experience and maybe work into a steady job.  My MA in history meant less than nothing. My less educated co-workers were eager to tell me that we were in the same boat.  The difference was that I had spent years to get there and I had thousands in student loans. My best prospect for continued employment was selling phone service for MCI. I made a good impression on the boss, at least he said so, but I was gone after the temp period.

A good thing about being loosely connected to the job market is that you have time.  I studied for the GMAT and learned some of the math I needed for an MBA, and I took the Foreign Service written test.  The FS test was free and the study books for the GMAT did not cost much.  Things got better in the economy and for me.  I passed the FS written test and started an accelerated MBA program at University of Minnesota in the summer of 1983. They gave me a job as a TA, not sure why, sweet serendipity.

Management is a kind of applied history & even the math was sometimes fun, once I figured out the patterns.  When I took the FS oral exam soon after starting my MBA, I was completely relaxed. I had the MBA thing going for me, so the orals were just exercise.  That is probably how I passed.  Fortunately, the security background check took a long time and I finished my MBA before I got a call for FS. By then I was “director” of Marketing Research at Microdatabase Systems (MDBS). I put “director” in quotes, since I was the only one in the department.

MDBS made a wonderful data base software that was nearly impossible for non-experts. I learned the system with the help of the engineers and after a couple weeks the founders-owners called me. Nice guys. They asked me how I liked the product.  I told them truthfully that it was great but added that it was too hard to use.

The founders were taken-aback.  “If people are too stupid to use our product,” one explained, “perhaps they shouldn’t buy it.”  I figured I ought to flee that scene before it all fell down. I accepted the FS offer the next day. I had worked at MDBS for all of three weeks. Oddly, they asked me to stay on until I needed to leave for Washington, so I worked a couple more weeks, then set off for my new career.

Falling from the heights
The second dip was not existentially as bad.  I still had a good job. I was just worried that there was no future. I feel into the career pit right after the summit of my best of times in Krakow (discussed earlier).

The bureaucracy has no memory
Past accomplishments are no guarantee of future good treatment. The late 1990s were a time of cuts in the FS, especially in public diplomacy.  Lots of good officers were pushed out and those of us left had fewer opportunities.  I got a job at the Operations Center. This sounds exciting, but it was not, at least not for me.

Ops Center is 24-hour shift work. I never adapted.  I was sluggish most of the time, ate too much junk food, & gained weight. My blood pressure went up to “pre hyper tension.  My joints hurt. It was not only the shift work.  I thought my career was finished. I had done my best and ended up on the night shift – better than 1982 but similar time zone.  Our political leaders seemed uninterested in our work. Our USIA director at the time did not like people like me.  He thought the FS was too pale, too male and too Yale, and said so openly.  I had two of those three attributes. His team also emphasized youth. The under 30 crowd had some special attributes, they thought.  So, at 42 ½ I was too old, too pale, too male and maybe not Yale enough, since graduates of Midwestern state schools were lumped in but with none of the privilege or prestige of the Ivy League.

After he found he could not mess with the test to change his “elitist” workforce.  He did the next best thing – shrunk our numbers.  We hired almost nobody and promotions trickled down to almost none. We lost about 1/3 of our public diplomacy officers in those years.  I am convinced that one reason we were unprepared diplomatically after 9/11 was that we just did not have enough experienced boots on the ground, but that is another story.
I hated the Ops Center.  It was the only time in my FS life that I looked for another job.  Fortunately, I got another opportunity before I got too far in to the job search.  They needed someone in Poland to honcho public affairs for Poland’s perspective NATO membership.  I volunteered.  Fluent Polish speakers are not that common and/or not available in mid-year, so I was probably the only one available.  This shows the value of networking, BTW.  I spent a lot of time just talking to people.  I got the job because of my qualifications, but I knew about the job only because of my networking.

They sent me to Warsaw for three months with the mission to care for American academic & media delegations studying NATO. I believed then – and do today – in NATO.  I believed Poland would be a great addition and I worked to convince others to believe it too.  I took visiting delegations to Poland’s great universities and introduce them to Poland’s intellectuals and leaders – living treasures of Poland.  It worked. In a verified example, an editorial writer for the “Chicago Tribune” wrote me that his visit had changed his mind and his paper’s editorials.  I still have the letter.  All I did was make the truth available.  I believed in what I was doing, and I could devote a lot of time to my work, since I had nothing else to do. You can be very effective working full out, but probably cannot keep it up.

I had to go back to the Ops Center. Nothing changed and sill hated it. My work in Poland gave me visibility to get a job as desk officer for Russia and then press attaché for Poland.  You can tolerate almost anything if you can see the finish.  I spent just nine months in the Ops Center, closer to six months if you subtract my sojourn in Poland.

It reads better than it was lived
Looking back, my worst of times were not very bad, but they read better than they were lived. In the 1982 episode, I almost lost hope.  In 1997, I thought that the career that I had learned and loved had hit a brick wall.  In both cases, the despair was fueled by outside issues.  In 1982, it was the economy – stupid, but after that we enjoyed a quarter century of good times, which encompassed much of my working and investing life.  1997 was a more nuanced. We were being cut and the powers that be made it clear that they did not like people like me.  In both cases, the remedy was to adapt and overcome, but in both cases I was saved more by changes in climate than by my own actions. What I did to adapt was necessary to success, but not sufficient.

In the 1997 case, there is an interesting coda.  The 1990s were plague years for the FS.  Lots of good colleagues were pushed out of their jobs, especially at the 01 level.  As I wrote, we lost about 1/3 of our public affairs officers, and the carnage hit hardest at the FS-01 level.  After the end of the plague years, Colin Powell rightfully saw that we needed to rebuild.  His diplomatic readiness initiative brought in hundreds of new people above the attrition rate. They came in as junior officers. The plague opened the way for middle ranked (at the time) people like me.  As after a medieval plague, there were lots of empty spots to fill.  The hard times of the 1990s almost certainly delayed my promotion to FS-01, but likely created opportunities after that, so on balance the hard times were good.

For better and worse
The most important factor through these hard times was Chrissy.  I try not to comment too much about family, since I don’t think it is fair for me to tell their stories, but w/o her love and support I well might have got stuck in the swamp of despair.  Studies show that people with stable relationships are happier, healthier & wealthier.  I can well understand that. I talk a lot about sweet serendipity, but nothing is sweeter than that relationship.  It takes a lot of effort to be spontaneously lucky.

Tom Lloyd & Susan Bell

Had lunch with old friends from Brazil – Tom Lloyd and Susan Bell. I worked with Susan just a few years ago. Tom I have not seen for more than thirty years.

We worked together in Porto Alegre, first post for both of us. He was (still is) married to a Brazilian woman and he speaks Portuguese at 5/5 level. This is nearly impossible for someone who did not learn the language as a child.

Funny thing, we wanted to ask about each other’s spouses and families to catch up, but we talked around it for a little while. Both of us are still married to the same spouse as before, but a lot of people are not. It would be a little awkward to ask about a former spouse.

Foreign Service is not kind to marriages but both of us were lucky to have good wives who tolerated our odd lifestyles. I know lots of colleagues who have had many wives. One had six, much like Henry VIII but w/o so much drama. He kind of collected them in each of his postings. I suppose he thought it would help him learn the language and customs. There are easier ways to practice a language.

My pictures show Tom & me participating in the beer ceremony and then Tom and Susan.

How to get promoted

How to get promoted is a big question during this time when our FS reports are due. I think I can give some insights.

Let me “establish my cred”. I was on promotion panels twice, both times the career make or break transition panels to senior FS. I have also been on reconstituted panels twice. Beyond that, I retired at MC. Unpack that, since both factors are important. Getting to MC meant that I did okay in my own career and being retired means that I can speak more freely than if I worried about impressing or annoying the powers that be.

No old boys’ network
First let me say that the old boys or old girls network is not a factor on promotion panels, at least it was not in my experience. I did not know most of the people whose files I read, and nobody tried to exert any influence at all on me. Whether or not you get promoted, you cannot blame or credit a “fix,” at least it did not happen in my experience.
Related to that is that usually all that I knew about the candidates was what I read on the reports. If I knew the person well, I recused myself from the vote, as did others. I was pleased to note that in those cases, my panel colleagues came to the similar conclusions I would have.

The benefits of ignorance
We did not know in advance how many people would be promoted. Our job was to determine who should be promoted and put them in a rank list. This is good. It takes away the temptation to push someone over the line, if you do not know where the line will fall.

Paradox of skill
I was proud to be among good colleagues on the panel and of the FS colleagues whose reports I was reading. We really have a great group. There are more people who should be promoted than there are places for them. I think this leads to the “paradox of skill.” When everyone is really good, skilled at the highest level, random events play a bigger role. In our job, that tends to be something happening at post. Of course, the job you have matters a lot, but if there are no particular opportunities to shine, you cannot shine. These are unpredictable as international affairs. Consider officers who were in East Germany or Eastern Europe when the wall came down in 1989. They were likely assigned and went through language training a few years before. They looked forward to interesting jobs, but nothing like the chances they had. On the other hand, you might be assigned to a happening place that becomes suddenly sleepy after the crisis. There is nothing colder than ashes, after the fire is gone.

We all know careerist who try to get in on the action. They rarely do well, since they either arrive late to the party or show up after everybody has gone home.

So you have to be very good at your job and you have to be lucky. No surprise. The good news is that you have chances similar to everybody else.

You are not unique
One more macro consideration before I get into a few specifics. Almost ALL FSO think of themselves are unique or “a little bit of a rebel,” and most of us fear that “people like me” are not the kind to get promoted. I used to say that and I believed it, but the FS kept on messing with my worldview by giving me good assignments and promoting me. I had no connections coming in and there was/is nothing special about me. The system does not always choose the best and the brightest, but it is fair.

A few specifics
The things “they” tell you about EERs are mostly true. You have to be careful in how your write, emphasizing outcomes and explaining how you helped make it happen. You cannot be very modest, but don’t push it too hard. The best that any FSO can hope to be is necessary but not sufficient. You did not make anything happen, but you may have facilitated it. It is hard to balance you, them and the environment when talking about accomplishments.

Nobody much cares about the hard time you had or how hard you tried. Challenges met and overcome make a difference. Never complain about why you couldn’t do something. You would be surprised how many people waste valuable space telling panels about their troubles and what they would have done but did not. Those sorts do not get promoted.

Low ranking not the end
One serious criticism I have of the panels is the need to “low rank”. In each group, the panel needs to identify a certain percentage of low ranks. This might make sense except for the means. You have to find something specific in more than one EER. This is harder to find in EERs that you know are bad. Bad performers often know they are bad, so they fight hard to take out specific criticism and they never criticize themselves. You can tell that they are bad performers from the narrative, but you cannot find specific hooks. Otherwise good performers might let a criticism go or even include it in their own honest comments. Those are the ones we can find.

My point of view might be influenced by my own experience. Let me share it as a lesson. I was low ranked because they found that I was sometimes disrespectful of superiors. I made no secret of this, even wrote about it myself. I considered it a good thing in the right circumstances. I suspect that the panels did too, but they could find a specific criticism and they hung me on it.

Was my career in trouble? The NEXT year, the next panel promoted me to Senior Foreign Service. So, I was at the bottom one year and near the top on the next, with almost the same set of EERs and likely with some of the same competition. Be careful, maybe more careful than I was, but don’t worry too much.

BTW – if you are low ranked, don’t complain to colleagues. Nobody knows about it and it does not stay in your permanent record, but if you tell other people about it, they might think you are a loser. It becomes self-fulfilling. You can talk about it, as I did, when you are safely clear, but don’t insult the alligators until you have crossed the river.

Not always bad to be obtuse
Finally, just don’t take things too seriously. In the EER that got me promoted to MC, I wrote that the panel should promote me because “I increase the intelligence of any group I join. I like to think it is because I am so smart, but I suspect that it is because I am so obtuse that colleagues need to explain it several times and it makes them think it through again.” I got promoted. I don’t doubt that the panel members laughed a little, but it did stand out.

Seeking Meaning In Life

I am invited to address a Department of State Public Affairs Officer conference to provide insights from someone who had crossed the bar from active diplomat to retired Foreign Service Officer. Some people in that audience might be reading this. I don’t mind tipping you off to think of questions or counter arguments. I may not get to all the points and may introduce others. It has always been hard for me to stick to a script, even one I wrote myself.

Life in and After the Foreign Service
“I improve the intelligence of any group I join. I like to think this is because I am so smart, but I suspect it more likely that I am so obtuse that others need to explain things to me. In doing so they question assumptions and come up with new solutions.” This is what I wrote in the EER that got me promoted to MC. You wouldn’t think that kind of insouciance would be career enhancing, but then you never know.

I am here to talk about work-life balance. This implies that work and life are separate. But they are no more independent than your heart from the lungs while you are living and breathing. Making work meaningful is key to balanced life. As a retired FSO, I am also here to talk about life after the Foreign Service. It exists, and it is glorious, BTW. I will make brief comments – tell my story -and be ready to respond to your questions and comments.

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”
Lighten up. You know I am right, and I know it is much easier for me to say than for you to do. Career is important. Promotions have consequences. They are a judgement on us. I still recall the dread of promotion lists. My wife had a friend who got advance copies. She helpfully called my wife and told her when I was not on the list. We take promotions personally, but they are less about you than you think. I served twice on promotion panels. They were big ones: career ending or saving transition panels that promote FS-01 to FE-OC. Promotions are statistical. You don’t always get what you deserve. Good people tend to get promoted faster, but not always. And we all end up in about the same place anyway. The day after you retire is the day you are a former FSO. So, lighten up.

Every FSO needs TWO types of examples. The first one is obvious. We need to think of the best FSOs and try to be like them. I thought of guys like Tom Shannon & Brian Carlson. These are the best. We can be excellent but still not reach a Tom Shannon level, and this is demoralizing. So, we need a second sort of example – high-ranking FSOs who are – shall we say – less competent. I will not name names, but there are a few. The good example makes us reach farther; the other sort is solace when our reach exceeds our grasp. “If that guy can do it, I can too.” This is maybe not a logical or noble sentiment, but it can keep you going during the lean times.

We few, we happy few
We (now you) have the best jobs. We meet great people, learn languages, dive deeply into societies worldwide, explore myriad topics, and they pay us for this. We have remarkable access and opportunity for meaningful work. The FS let me pursue an encompassing passionate interest in learning about one country, its language, society and history, to make it an obsession, and then disengage to move to something completely different. FSOs enjoy an unusual blend of remarkable continuity and radical change. Some of us refer to posts as “incarnations,” because it sometimes seems like we are different people living different lives. On the other hand, we stay in the same career, in the same State Department, in a society of long-term colleagues, subject to the strong gravity of Foggy Bottom. This peculiar combination suited me just fine. It is a unique life. I am sure most of you feel similarly.

I got a lot of status and personal identity from being a Foreign Service Officer – a diplomat. And when I thought about leaving this simultaneously challenging and comfortable environment, about retiring, I was terrified that I would be lost if separated from the Foreign Service. No more incarnations in a system that dominated my life for more than three decades. What was I w/o that?

Becoming a “Gentleman of Leisure”
In each of my Foreign Service assignments I learned things that I could apply in the next. They were new beginnings, but I began with a head start, with more tools to use and more skill in using them. Of course, I could not choose the circumstances where I would deploy them. It is the paradox of skill. The better you get, the more consistent your skill, the bigger role luck plays in the outcomes. I was extraordinarily lucky as PAO in Brazil. Colleagues were so good and so many things went my way that I figured that was the best I could ever do. After that, was senior international advisor at Smithsonian and then I did think tanks and NGOs. I did all I could do, and it was time to go and do something else.

It was also important to me to go out on my own timetable. I didn’t want them to kick me out. That seems less important to me now. Always leave when they still want you to stay.  Don’t hang around like a fart in a phone booth.

I decided to become a Gentleman of Leisure, even wrote a job description. The Foreign Service gave me a lifetime of diverse experience, maybe many lifetimes, the incarnations I spoke of above. It also gave me a taste of variety. AND – this is important – the pension and the TSP can support the moderate lifestyle of a Gentleman of Leisure. I have an additional permutation of forest ownership.

My Gentleman of Leisure job makes me a sometime diplomat (WAE), forest owner & land manager, conservationist, and member of a couple boards of directors. I attend lectures and have leisure to read broadly. My life now is like my life in the Foreign Service, with the big difference in that I get to choose where, when and how I work, and I no longer live in dread of those promotion lists.

I have been pleasantly surprised at the easy transition from Foreign Service Officer to Gentleman of Leisure. I am very lucky to have a supportive wife, reasonably good health & a lifestyle within my means, but I think that a big reason for the smooth transition is that it was not so much a transition as a reordering, as I mentioned above, a new incarnation with more freedom.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Becoming a successful Gentleman of Leisure means that you proactively manage your life and learning, including research & reflection to decide what among many possible interests to follow and mustering self-discipline to pursue them, minimize those wasted days and wasted nights drinking beer and watching reruns on TV. I want to use my freedom to seek meaning in life. Not the meaning OF life. That is unknowable, but finding meaning in life is possible by thinking, doing, reflecting and doing again, each iteration coming closer to excellence, sort of like we should be doing in our diplomatic enterprises.

My first day back in Brazil

My first day back in Brazil, as promised. It is a little confused, but I figure a plan will become clearer. I have “redacted some names and rewrote sections, since even among us friends I do not feel free to make private talks public. This is part of the raw material that I hope to spin into decent narrative by the time I am done in Brazil.

Started my first working day in São Paulo with a breakfast meeting sponsored by the Ling Institute. This event was to announce the winners of scholarships in law, engineering, journalism and business. The Institute was founded in 1995 as a way for the Ling family to show gratitude to Brazil, where they were able to live and thrive after leaving China in 1951. The family lived in Porto Alegre, where I met the sons and daughter back in 1985 or 86. I will put a link to the Institute in the comments. Suffice it to say that they do a lot of good and now have built up an alumni network that is making it better.

Weakness of Memory, Power of Persistence
It was not fair when I approached old acquaintances introduced myself “again.” We had just been acquaintances and that was more than 30 years ago. What are the chances they would remember a random old guy. I did not make an impression that lasted 30 years. The consulate in Porto Alegre the then my colleagues when we closed and moved to São Paulo did a good job of keeping the contact, however.

Spreading Ideas and Ideas Spreading Themselves
Among the people we met a couple very much interested in exchanges, representing top American universities in Brazil. We talked about the ideas as viruses meme, i.e. that like viruses, ideas exist only in human hosts. They are passed along person-to-person and they mutate and develop along the way. This makes it difficult to trace the lineage of an idea, since it almost never belongs completely to one person. The metaphor we use to describe lineage of ideas is just not apt. We tend to thing of it like a tree, with roots and then a trunk representing the “original” idea and then branches. In fact, it is more like a cloud, with changes moving in indefinite directions, cross pollinating, doubling back and tangling.
This is what makes exchanges so crucial. We cannot simply transfer ideas in a linear fashion. They work best when they develop in the seemingly chaotic and evolutionary way above. If a Brazilian student goes to the USA, he learns some things and contributes some things. Ideally, we have feedback loop that may last decades. We study the exchanges when people have only just returned. This is like studying the ground right after the crop has been planted. It may take years for useful and appropriate ideas to develop, and by then many have forgotten about the initial condition that stimulate them.

All this makes it hard to assess effectiveness, but since I want to do just that, we agreed to talk more and maybe think of some concrete examples that illustrate success and then work backwards to figure out how we know. Worth a try.

The Challenges of Democracy
The keynote speaker at the event was Professor Schuler, himself an example of the type of exchange that stimulates ideas. He went on a voluntary visitor program early in his career and credits it with giving him new insights. Since then, he has cross pollinated with American thinkers and institutions, learned from them and shared their ideas. His talk included references to big thinkers, from James Buchanan (public choice theory) to John Rawls (theory of justice).

Technology Changes Put Populism on Steroids
His talk concerned the challenges and prospects of democracy. Brazil has experienced some interesting developments in this recently, but the factors are worldwide, as we Americans know. Democracy does not always produce the outcomes we might like and populists who get elected by appealing to emotion are also outcomes of democracy, not aberrations, features, not bugs.

Democracy has become a little more exciting recently for a couple of related technical and social developments. Social media has stripped away many barriers to information flow. We all have access to too much information, so we seek short cuts. This was once found in institutions. People looked to experts, statesmen, journalists, religious figures … Many of these institutions are now weakened or even gone. We might welcome the weakening of gatekeepers, but the result has not been more deep thinking by ordinary people but rather more emotion. People have stronger belief in their right to express their opinions and more means to do it. And there are new shortcuts in the form of identity politics.

Not What You Think but Who You Are
In the case of identity politics, thinking is rather discouraged, since you are supposed to think for the point of view of whatever your identity is. Other members of the group my not take kindly to heterodox thought and may consider you a traitor or a fool for even entertaining thoughts associated with the “other.”

So we have too much information, weakened mitigating institutions and strengthened capacity for people to speak out and complain, as well as greater incentive to be unreasonable in defense of their peculiar group interests.

I was hoping for some resolution for this problem, but none was forthcoming, except that Mr. Schuler talked a little about values that are essentially outside democracy. Rights and liberties are not – should not be put up to majority vote. If the majority decides to rob and beat the minority, the will of the majority does not make it legitimate.

I am not 100% sure I got it right, both because of my own bias and the fact that he was speaking in Portuguese (mine is rusty) but I think it was supporting my oft-repeated plea that we should draw a bright line between the personal and the political, because only with real pluralism of thought can we maintain a democracy is the face of such divergent and passionate thoughts. I will see if I can talk to him about that. Something to think about anyway.

Democracy Ancient & Modern
The speaker did not mention it, but I thought of Athenian democracy. We look back at that age with great fondness, but it reads better than it was lived. In fact, Athenian democracy was unstable and bellicose. Those who lived with it – including Plato, Socrates and Thucydides – viewed it with less enthusiasm than we do. In fact, the experience of the Athenians put people off democracy for the next 2000 years. It is one reason why the Founders chose to build our republic on a mixed constitution with roots more clearly in Sparta, the works of Aristotle or Rome, none of which called themselves a democracy and featured mitigating institutions to slow things down and cool passion. The legitimacy of any state ultimately depends on the consent to the people, but not on the ephemeral whims of the most vocal.

Lots of Thoughts in the First Couple Hours
I think this initial dive has given me some more idea that I will need to work out about exchanges, even if the ideas strayed a bit. During the rest of the day, I talked with the local staff. They are the biggest resource, since they know what contacts and exchanges we made and what came of them. There are decades of experience and the useful thing is that it is relatively easy to harvest. So far, interesting.

Gentleman of Leisure & the WAE

My Gentleman of Leisure job description included episodic work as WAE (I will include my GoL plan in the comments.) Unfortunately, by the time I got up to speed, the President froze hiring.

Now I have the opportunity as part of the “FOIA Surge,” State Department’s attempt to get through a backlog of FOIA requests, some going back years. My top secret clearance is still good for another year, so I thought I should make hay while the sun is still shining.

FOIA adjudication is one of the least favorite things I would do. On the plus side, hours are very flexible and it is not very hard. It is sort of like paying dues. I have a year long appointment. I wanted to get “on the roster.” What I really want to do is go overseas on TDY, ideally someplace where I can use my Portuguese. The thing I liked about the Foreign Service was the foreign part.

The first thing you need do to achieve any goal is to get over the wall. Once inside, you can take advantage of inside opportunities.

I also have a couple very prosaic considerations. I like to have the State ID so that I can get in to use the shower and locker room in SA 5 and get into lectures at Wilson Center w/o having to pass through the usual security. And I like to be in Washington. When it gets a little warmer, I can ride my bike. In the meantime, I walk from HST to the Metro at Federal Center SW. It is a nice walk. My pictures are from that.

FS and political appointees

When I went off to my first FS job in 1985, I was told that my job was to represent the American nation, not only the current occupant of the WH. Of course we advocated administration policies, but we also brought in speakers and programs of legitimate American opinion that disagreed. America does not speak with one voice and neither did we. When I managed the speaker program in 2007, I specifically directed that our speakers represent the diversity of American opinion, again not only the point of view of the current occupant of the WH. It is a tribute to wise political leadership that I not only got away with that but also prospered.

It is a difficult balance. Of course, we work for the President, but we expect that a wise president will recognize his limitations and know that the American government is greater than the American president and that the American nation is greater than both.

In an always uncertain world, we can never know which of our efforts will be most successful and useful. That is why we need to have lots of things working, some of them contradictory. It is the strength of diversity not that any particular option is best but that among the many some will be the right ones.

I have worked with political appointees who were excellent. They bring an important perspective that we professionals usually lack. But the effectiveness comes more from the tension between professionals and political than from the harmony among them. If the balance tips too far in the political direction, we will be missing out on having different paths forward when conditions warrant or political leadership changes, as it always does.

Whether we welcome or dread it, all professionals must look forward to working for a different political leadership and serving a new president with equal vigor as we serve the current one, just as we served the predecessor as eagerly as we do the current leader.

In my experience, political appointees often do not understand this. They think that their man in the WH is the culmination of some sort of historical process, that we are happy to be rid of the old guy and embracing the new. This is true for some of us sometimes, but we must curb our enthusiasm or distaste because that is what professionals do.

This is what I am leaving in Brazil (work at least)

Below is a description of what my colleagues are doing.  You can see why I will miss it, even if it will be great to be back home and at Smithsonian.

Millions of Brazilians, who entered the middle class in recent decades and today constitute a majority, are demanding improved educational opportunities, enhanced international connections and development of essential skills, such as English competency. Brazilians know that the U.S. is a key partner in these priorities, and there is an element of urgency. The young Brazilian population is in rapid demographic transition. Fertility below replacement level provides space to improve education and social standards but Brazilians must develop new skills during a “demographic sweet spot,” when fewer dependent children are yet to be offset by more dependent seniors.

Much beyond that is also on fast-forward. Internet is creating new communications channels and fostering a boom in distance learning. We see the complex nature of the development, as social media is powering protests as well as education. Post has made impressive gains in social media through dedicated engagement. Our Mission Facebook page now has more than 400,000 fans and has recently been growing by more than 10,000 fans a week. While we don’t expect growth to continue at this torrid pace, adult literacy is improving, expanding the universe of readers and making Brazil a nation of Internet consumers, so we expect robust advance.

Education, English and youth outreach dominate our programming. PA encourages Brazilians to study in the U.S. in support of President Obama’s 100,000 strong for the Americas as well the Brazilian Science Mobility Program (AKA Science without Borders, see below). We nurture sustainable institutional linkages mostly in but not limited to education. The Smithsonian’s long-term cooperation agreements with Brazilian counterparts are being implemented and will facilitate myriad partnerships. Post fostered similar partnerships in English language and distance learning.

Our youth outreach programs include a robust Youth Ambassador Program, which regularly garners more than 12,000 applicants for the fifty spots, a Youth Council with representatives from every Brazilian state and specific programs, such as girls science camp and English immersion programs, as well as electronic and social media programs targeted to youth.

Despite recent progress and muscular effort, Brazilian authorities understand that English competence remains the big obstacle to greater Brazilian involvement with the U.S. and the world. Post is addressing this through our network of thirty–eight BNCs as well as Access programs that reach hundreds of students (with retention rates consistently above 90%) and programs targeted to underserved communities. We are continuing our partnership with the Ministry of Education (MEC) on “English w/o Borders, a massive effort to improve Brazilian English. We have placed a senior English Language Fellow in the Ministry who is helping implement this massive program. 120 English teaching assistants, recruited by us and paid for by GOB are deployed at Federal Universities. In 2013, 1080 Brazilian secondary English teachers took six-week courses at U.S. universities in a cooperative Mission/MEC program. Only 540 are travelling this year, due to World Cup and election complications but the program is slated to return to 1080 in 2015, up from only 20 in 2011. MEC expects to reach 7 million Brazilian students, many through distance learning, another fertile area of Mission cooperation.

U.S.-Brazil education landscape was transformed after the Brazilian President’s July 2011 announcement of the Science Mobility Program to send 101,000 Brazilian students overseas in the STEM fields. The U.S. got there first with the most and remains by far the largest recipient. More than 26,000 Brazilians have gone to the U.S. on the program so far. For comparison, in 2011 there were fewer than 9000 Brazilians studying in the U.S. in total of all programs. National efforts have been supplemented by local and state initiative, such as Brasília without Borders, which will also send thousands of students to the U.S.
Earlier success of our priority to connect U.S. and Brazilian education networks means that education initiatives are self-catalyzing at a significantly higher level. We are consolidating our gains. Education remains our top priority, but we are pivoting back to more traditional public diplomacy events and broadening our educational focus to include more on community colleges and lifelong learning. We also plan to devote more time to promoting social inclusion and a more expansive vision of Brazilian society by finding common aspirations and fostering links among cultural institutions, such as museums, and through sports.

Reaching underserved populations is a key priority that suffuses all PD programs, specifically through JAPER, support for favela pacification and women’s empowerment. Brazil is, and perceives itself as, a leader in sustainable development and clean energy; post remains active with outreach and exchanges to connect Brazilian and U.S. environmental communities.

Brazil has become a major venue for international mega-events, hosting the World Cup 2014 and Olympics in 2016, even as infrastructure lags to sustain Brazil’s status as major destination. In fact, infrastructure deficiencies – physical, human and institutional remain a general drag. PD programs have addressed these issues of Brazilian concern, especially through the VV and IVLP programs. Other major themes for visitor and speaker programs include environmental protection, security and economic integration.

A Brazilian economic slowdown is a caveat. We shared Brazilian aspirations and our division of labor was often our expertise and their money. Our enviable challenge was to manage unprecedented flows of mostly Brazilian resources. We are not sure this happy circumstance will continue in tighter times.

PA Brazil’s problem is too many excellent opportunities. We prioritize those that involve full partnerships with Brazilian institutions and government, use our unique expertise and flexibility, and provide significant leverage to produce outstanding results.

My temporary place

I have moved into temporary quarters in anticipation of my final leaving. The place is okay, although I liked my old place better and would not have moved had I not been asked. The commute is better. I don’t have to run across a busy highway.  A bike trail follows the main road, see above. There is a tunnel under the big road here. You can see it below. It kind of smells, you might call it a pee-tunnel, but certainly better than running for it across the busy highway. After that, I can take side roads w/o much traffic. It is just a little farther than the other ride.  It has some nice views, as you can see from my pictures a little farther down.

The neighborhood is good here. There is a supermarket within easy walking distance and lots of restaurants. What I miss is that there is no backyard. I like to go outside. Of course, I can do that here, but I don’t have a private nice place like I had.

I lived in this part of Brasília when I was first assigned way back in 1985. It has changed for the better. Trees have grown much bigger; grass has covered most of the red dirt, eliminating much of the dust. And lots of good restaurants have opened. There is a significant micro-climate difference between here and my place on the other side of the lake. It is drier here and a little cooler. The wind blowing over the lake keeps the other side, at least the peninsula were I used to live, more humid and a warmer. I was always a little surprised when I walked down to the lake in the evenings and it was warmer. I grew up next to Lake Michigan and it was not warmer near the water.

It is so strange to be almost done in Brazil. I had big plans. Things did not happen as I planned, but I am happy to say they turned out much better. I have always been lucky in my career; I have arrived at posts just before some big opportunity and always found great people to help me. But never before have I arrived to something as big as Science w/o Borders and all the programs that grew from it like English w/o Borders. This will influence U.S.-Brazil relations for a generation, not to mention improve education for tens of thousands of young people and improve science cooperation. This is probably my last overseas assignment and it is good to go out on such a high note. I don’t think it would have been possible to do better. I think I made the finish worthy of the start in Brazil and my next job is a dream. Lucky.

But I still have not found a chin-up bar equal to the one I left behind, above.  This was the world’s best chin-up bar, exactly the right height for me, with a nice view and not many people around.

A legend in my own mind

A lot happened in Brazilian-American relations while I was here.  If asked to predict before I got here, even if asked to be extravagant, I would never have been so bold as to predict all the things accomplished in education and English learning.  The numbers are impressive.  Our English teacher exchange, for example, grew 54 fold in the time I was in Brazil.  This is not 54%, but 54 times.  By the time I leave, more than 20,000 Brazilian students will have gone to the U.S. on SwB.

I am in an unusual position.  Usually, I am trying to figure out what why we couldn’t get everything we hoped.  In this case I am trying to figure out my/our contribution to something so massively big that those unfamiliar with our operation do not believe it.  There was an interesting example last year when I reported about the increase in English teacher exchanges I mentioned above. I wrote to Washington that we expected to go from twenty to 490. My colleague in Washington thought I made a typing mistake and reported up 49.  Actually, I was wrong.  By the time I corrected the correction, our Brazilian friends had agreed to 540 and soon after that wanted to do the program twice a year, bringing the total to 1080.  The English w/o Borders program in general is expected to reach 7 million Brazilians over the next four years.  When you throw around numbers like this, it is no wonder people don’t believe it.

My analysis challenge is trying to figure out how much of the success over the past years would have happened without our contributions and how much my team and I did.  I have come to a nuanced answer.   We didn’t do anything in the sense of making it happen.  Our Brazilian friends did it.  American universities made the connections. Fulbright coordinated and IIE and Laspau made placements. But we facilitated all of them. We were necessary but not sufficient.  Necessary but not sufficient is not a satisfying answer.  This kind of ambivalence doesn’t look good on our efficiency reports and will not get the recognition we “deserve.”  Nobody gets promoted for being necessary but not sufficient. We prefer the illusion of control, but isn’t it better to be a necessary part of something really big instead of in complete control of something vanishingly small?

Why bother trying to figure it out at all if we are getting good results?  Results matter, but if you don’t study the process you cannot estimate to what extent those results came from your efforts, from what others did or from luck & serendipity.  It is always a combination but the mix matters.  You want to be able to duplicate success and avoid problems.  Unfortunately, much of our success cannot be duplicated. It was based on conditions which will not be present again. Ironically, our success altered the landscape in such a way that my methods are no longer effective. Knowing this is worth the time it takes to understand the process. Maybe I don’t exactly know what to do to achieve future success, but I know that I cannot continue to apply unaltered what worked so well the first time around. Knowing this is worth knowing.

This leads me back to my title.  As I get ready to finish in Brazil, I am feeling the usual mix of pride in a job well done plus the strange brew of simultaneously feeling humble at being so lucky, i.e. not deserving much recognition and feeling aggrieved for not getting much recognition. I didn’t say it was logical.  The more effectively you achieve something by working with others, the more others think it is simply natural and inevitable. Maybe it was. Maybe I am only a legend in my own mind. Maybe I just shouldn’t care.  I often joke that I need not worry since they cannot fire me and they will not promote me. That really is true.

Being necessary but not sufficient implies that you are part of a big team. There is often a distributed decision network at work and many members of the team are only vaguely aware or even unaware entirely of all the others. There are lots of necessary but not sufficient players.  My FS career is almost over. I would really like a big success to top it off, but I don’t think I can have one. If it is “my” success it won’t be big and if it is big I will share it with so many others that it won’t be mine. Good enough for me.