This story worth is out of order, but I thought it was a good follow-up to the last one.
What were you like when you were 60?
People long for and look back to the glories of their youth. I was a happy man when I was young. I am happier now. My 60th years was the best of times, at least so far. To explain, I will go a little before my 60th year.
I was 59 when I finished up in Brazil. This was the bookend of my career. My first foreign post was Brazil, and my last. As a young and green officer, I had more energy and confidence than I did competence. I think I did a decent job, but it always nagged me how much I could have done better. When I got the opportunity to be public affairs officer in Brazil, I grabbed it with both hands. The FS gave me Portuguese training again, but my 20-year-old Portuguese came back quickly. I was able to relearn the language much faster than I learned the first time and to take it to levels I had never before reached. Easier to get home when you start off on third base. I could devote my time to studying real topics in Portuguese, not just the language itself, and really get to know the country. I fell in love with Brazil and just wanted to get to know it better. I think Brazilians could tell and their enthusiasm for the USA often matched mine for Brazil. I had a great time from the time I landed In Brasília until I left. I visited much of the country from the São Paulo and Rio to the remote part of the Amazon and met friendly & cooperative people wherever I went.
The wisdom of puppies
Why do people like dogs so much? Because they like us. Not to trivialize it, but diplomats can learn a lot from dogs, especially in public diplomacy. Of course, you must follow up with something substantial. I was truly interested in Brazil and eager to find places where Brazilians and Americans could benefit mutually. Suffice to say that I felt that I did the best job I could and having done that, I could move on to something new.
You ought to be in a museum
State Department had another gift for me in the form of an assignment at Smithsonian as Senior International Adviser. My job, as the name implies, was to advise. It meant that I got to meet museum directors, scholars and artists and tried to find ways to be useful. One of my assignments was to get to known Smithsonian, a task I eagerly undertook. Most of my practical work involved connecting Smithsonian folks with State. It was simple for me but nearly impossible for them. State can be opaque to outsiders. I knew who to call, what to say and where to go, or at least the path to get there. We underestimate the value of connectors. I realized that while I rarely DID anything, I enabled others to do a lot. Acting as connectors and catalysts is the essence of diplomacy.
Ready to go, but no place to be
The year I turned 60, I was living a dream. After that, what was left? I had already been public affairs officer in Brazil. I could do similar work elsewhere, but these were lateral moves and I might not be as lucky as I had been in Brazil. I was unenthusiastic about most domestic jobs. I am not a good bureaucrat, and I knew I would not be a very good “high official.” I had neither the temperament nor the desire.
The bridge to the end
I took a bridge assignment as Senior Adviser for Think Tanks & NGOs. This was also a gift assignment. As a retired man, I love to go to talks at think tanks and talk to the people there. This WAS my job. My assignment was to write a report about how think tanks and thought leaders influence developments in things State Department thinks important. As usual, I found that I would be breaking no new ground. I spend my first weeks just reading what had been written on the subject. Then I started to reach out. Spoiler alert – if you want to know about think tanks and how they work, you can start – AND pretty much finish – with James McGann and the Think Tanks and Civil Society program at the University of Pennsylvania. I went to visit McGann in Philadelphia. He was very helpful, and he has a whole team working on the subject. Supplied with that information and the pathways to get more, all I needed do was fill in specifics to our needs.
I had no real deadline to finish my report and in most ways the process of researching it was the most important part of the job. Once again, I was falling into the connector role, linking State officials with scholars studying things we needed to know. It was a satisfying job, but it was a kind of “Land of the Lotus Eaters” satisfaction. My father once warned me that the worst thing young men could get was a good job with no future – good enough to hold you but not taking you anywhere. It goes for old men too. In State there are people who are just there. They sometimes perform useful services, and many had glorious pasts, but they have not future.
Don’t hang around like a fart in a phone booth
This I didn’t want this to be my fate and I felt I was no longer adding significant value to State Department. When I got my final promotion, to Minster Councilor (this means something to FS colleagues if nobody else), I decided to retire. The speed and determination of this decision surprised me. If you had asked me a minute before I got the word, I think I would have been diffident. But I decided in that minute and immediately called HR to get retirement moving. The woman at the other of the line was surprised. “You just got promoted,” she said, “Nobody retires just after they get promoted.” But I did.
Take Jerry Seinfeld’s advice to George, “Showmanship, George. When you hit that high note, say goodnight and walk off.”
On the plus side, this gave me a deadline. I had a couple weeks to finish my report on think tanks and I finished. I sometimes wonder if anybody read it, but I finished it and I thought it was good. I learned a lot in the process. On the downside … well there was no downside, except that I was afraid.
As I wrote elsewhere, FS is a totalitarian system. My identity was that of a Foreign Service Officer. I had not stood alone for more than 30 years. Could I still do it? Thinking like the public diplomacy professional I had become; I knew I needed a title. Retired would not do. So, I developed the tripartite title I still have – Gentleman of Leisure, Conservationist & President of the Virginia Tree Farm Foundation. The last one I had just acquired. It was the only part of my title that required ratification by anyone besides myself. Since I still sometimes do short-term assignments for State, I thought of adding “sometime diplomat,” but so far have no added that to my titles.
End and beginning
I went to the retirement transition seminar at the Foreign Service Institute. It is a really great thing State offers its soon to be former employers. Having the chance to talk with colleagues and hear the talks of experts is a useful way to decompress and adapt to the changed life. In theory, State Department gets to reabsorb some of the knowledge acquired over the years, but I don’t know how much that worked. My seminar was March-April 2016. This is the best time to take the seminar, and not just because springtime is glorious in Northern Virginia, since most of the people in it are retiring voluntarily or because they have reached mandatory retirement age. If you take it in fall/winter, there are more people who were pushed out in our up-or-out system. I understand that it is a less happy group.
My last official day as a Foreign Service Officer was April 30, 2016. I had been an FSO for 31 years and 7 months. Because I had almost never taken any sick leave and you can apply unused sick leave to retirement, my official length of service was something like 32 years and 9 months.
In May 2016, I turned 61 for the first time in decades with no place I had to be, but lots of places I wanted to go.