Sunday, April 13, 2014


Inability to write is most often just an inability to think -- and so it bothers me that I'm encountering writer's block these days.  One of the joys of the job (from a purely analytic perspective) is being handed a position and asked to write public points to explain it.  The sensation of stripping down a stance to the fundamental arguments, pressing on it until it unfolds neatly, like a puzzle box, is very satisfying.  Lately, however, I find myself circling and circling positions, looking for an entrée that would allow me to explain them.

I left home for university when I was seventeen.  The day before, my youngest sister and I sat together at the kitchen table where she was cutting up newspaper to make a collage.  She was ten.

"You're leaving," she said, not looking up from the scissors working steadily up and down in her grip.  "Yes."  It was a rare moment of quiet in the house.  The pages of newspaper rustled gently under the fan.  "Are you coming back?"  I considered this for a bit.  "No," I finally told her -- "only to visit."  She nodded thoughtfully.

"Well, just don't lose this."  And she handed me a scrap of newspaper from the pile.  She had cut precisely around a single word:  'integrity'.

I still have the slip of newspaper.  Sitting at my desk, considering what to draft, I still think about that day in the kitchen and the promise I made her.  "Don't worry," I assured her, fingering the scrap for a moment before sliding it into my pocket.  "I won't."

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Philosophari sibi necesse esse, sed paucis.

Dad told me once that you can tell a consensus-based decision -- a democratic decision -- is the right one when none of the people involved is completely happy with the outcome.  If any one party is completely happy, then there hasn't been compromise.  I think about this a lot when watching the changes in Egypt.  I think about it a lot observing our own bureaucracy.

In the utilitarian model of ethics, there's an interesting tension between 'fairness' and maximizing happiness -- i.e., the goal of society is not just increasing the total amount of happiness, but also increasing it among the greatest number of people.  Otherwise, we'd all just devote ourselves to making one person so deliriously happy, her pleasure would outweigh everyone else's misery.

There's also a tension in this model between the immediate outcome of an action and the 'second order' effect of multiple such actions over time -- i.e., it might make you very happy to run a red light and get to your destination more quickly than if you had stopped, but the aggregate effect of people continually running red lights would eventually decrease overall happiness due to accidents, so forth.

I'm not sure where I'm going with all this.  But I do wonder if Utilitarianism is available in Arabic.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Organization and Its Discontents

If the average Foreign Service Officer were to arrive at work one day to find a copy of Hustler and an application for leadership coaching sitting side by side on his desk, I'm 99 percent sure that he would opt to hide the application inside the magazine rather than the other way around.  Despite our mandatory leadership classes and talk about management precepts, there is a pervasive sense that to need to improve your leadership skills is a sign of weakness -- a misguided notion, I fully realize, though that does little to ease my discomfort while browsing management titles in the 'self help / business' section of the bookstore.  I mean, what if someone I knew saw me?  Think of the shame!  Okay, so maybe I DID buy "The First 90 Days in Government."  It's... for a friend.  Not a close friend, mind you.  I can quit any time.  (Honestly, I think pornography would be easier to explain.  Heck, it gets lonely overseas.)

I try to put my finger on the reason for this aversion.  Perhaps we are caught up in the same talent myth as the private sector.  Perhaps we're too proud to admit we are fallible and could sometimes use help.  Or maybe it's simple fear -- what if we use all the resources for self-improvement, but then we never do get any better?

Luckily, being already rather socially ham-handed and having little to lose along that front, I am committed to unfearfully striving for improvement despite the almost certain ridicule of others.  Or maybe just quasi-fearfully.  "What do you think could get in the way of me helping you change to achieve your goals?" the coaching application asks.  I dunno.  Social anxiety?  60 hour work weeks?  More snow days?  Though, to be fair, if it hadn't been for the recent government closure, I don't know when I would have had time to sneak into the office and print out the application form.  I brought a copy of Foreign Affairs to hide it in, just in case. 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

5 Tips for Dealing with Anxiety

For those of you struggling with workplace worry, I've put together some coping techniques:

1. Redirect your worry to an area within your control

Rather than worrying about whether the latest office re-org will leave you deskless or if your BCL might have accidentally violated the One-China policy, why not worry about something more manageable?  I suggest bear attacks.  Talking loudly, singing, or carrying a "bear bell" can alert bears to your presence and help prevent maulings.  Whereas your co-workers will be rolling their eyes at your mispronunciation of the Turkish Prime Minister's name for many years to come and there's nothing you can do about it, one can purchase a bear bell at any sporting goods store, and they attach easily to your briefcase or badge lanyard.

2. Set aside 'worry time'

Allowing yourself a prescribed time each day in which to revel in your deepest fears and stresses can help you to put off sudden moments of anxiety and emphasizes the typically ephemeral nature of our concerns.  Many doctors have identified Monday to Friday from 9 to 5 as the ideal 'worry time'.

3. Engage with your environment

Sometimes work-related worries can leave us feeling "trapped," a feeling easily countered by standing up, stretching out your arms, and touching both walls of your cubicle simultaneously.  (Note:  make sure to first remove the log-in card from your classified system so as to avoid a possible security violation.)

4. Focus on the positive

A great way to keep from getting stuck in a worry rut is to allow yourself to focus on those things that are bright and positive.  Try repeating to yourself, "Hey, at least I'm not working on Syria!" or "Isn't it great that State is the only government agency that allows alcohol in the workplace?"

5. Ask for help

When worries become so overwhelming that they are interfering with your daily activity, don't let the likelihood of a medical clearance demotion leaving you permanently trapped in DC keep you from seeking the professional attention you need. 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Your Questions, Answered

 With thanks to Si Hua for her thoughtful questions.  Good luck on your paper!

1. What was one of the major sacrifices you had to make for this career choice, if any?

The biggest thing you sacrifice for a job like this is a certain amount of leeway in your interactions with others.  You need to always be mindful of representing the United States -- that doesn't mean never expressing your own opinion, but it does mean knowing your audience and being thoughtful about what you're saying and how people will take it.  Some officers will cite the need to move every few years as the biggest sacrifice.  I don't think that part of it is actually as difficult as never really getting to be "off the record" (and staying in one place forever has its own challenges, I imagine).  You do have to agree to live apart from your family for at least a portion of your career -- that sacrifice can be hard, even for single people.  My family and friends were unable to visit me in Pakistan, so I had to accept having very limited opportunities to interact with them over that year.

2. Does one need to have any prior experiences before applying for this career?

The only hard and fast requirements are that the applicant be a U.S. citizen between the ages of 20 and 59, available and fit for worldwide assignment.  Experiences with other cultures, working in teams, managing, writing, and just a demonstration of general curiosity about the world are definitely helpful, however.  You can read more about it on our recruitment site.

3. Is there a lot of stress involved with this career?

Yes.  Some of it is logistical (figuring out a new boss, job, home, friends, so forth every few years, for example, or living in a dangerous or difficult place), and some of it is professional.  We tend to put a lot of pressure on ourselves to preform well, and the constant wondering if you are meeting expectations and doing a good job can be stressful.  The stakes can sometimes feel very high, though you might never be sure about the true impact of your actions.  That ambiguity is part of the stress.

4. Are there any misconceptions regarding this career?

Ha, yes!  To the extent that people have an idea about the Foreign Service at all, I think they don't understand how much of what we do is just normal "office work."  Filling out forms, writing memos, responding to email, managing budgets or personnel -- all that necessary but very unglamorous stuff.

5. What is the work/family/life balance like?

It really depends on the person and the assignment.  There's a high demand to perform, but some of the most successful officers are also very dedicated parents and spouses (and siblings and children).  It's just something each person has to figure out for her or himself.  

6. What are some unique benefits of having this occupation?

Knowing that you are serving your country -- the "service" part of the Foreign Service -- is really quite wonderful.  You get to be part of something bigger than just yourself.  No matter what menial, small thing you're doing, it is feeding in to that bigger goal of helping the United States -- and helping the United States more often than not involves helping others in the world, too.  It's a great feeling.

7. What are some unique challenges of having this career?

Mostly that the challenges themselves change with each new assignment.  The learning curve for each job is incredibly steep.  You have to balance the need to take action with not always having all the details.

8. What is the work environment like?

It is completely dependent upon the place, the job, the mix of coworkers you end up with, and the political scene (both at home and in your host country).  I'd say the mix of coworkers is the most immediately impactful variable on any work environment, especially the mix of local hired staff. 

9. Have you faced any ethical problems that may have challenged your integrity?

I think when people ask this question, they assume that ethical challenges would come from carrying out foreign policy with which you disagreed.  More often, however, challenges to one's integrity come not from disagreements with U.S. policy, but from the everyday kind of ethical dilemmas we all face:  are you honest when you don't know something?  Do you own up to mistakes and accept the consequences?  Do you take credit for the achievements of others?  Do you keep your word?  I've definitely grappled with all those moments.  In a lot of ways, I think our day to day actions as Foreign Service officers -- the more mundane showcase of our integrity, if you will -- are more important than any big ethical statements, especially as representatives of the U.S.   

As far as U.S. policy disagreement goes, my ethical approach is twofold:  first, I took an oath to uphold ALL the policies that we as citizens have collectively decided, even when I don't like them -- keeping that oath is something I will absolutely do.  Second, in those areas in which I do disagree with our policy, I use all the means at my disposal to constructively address my concerns (voting for good Congressional and Executive representatives and letting them know my views, primarily; I've also used our State Department dissent channel with some success).  I have enough faith in our system to believe that misguided policies will be worked out over time -- and enough awareness to realize that my disagreement could be due to lack of a clear understanding on my part.  Frankly, responsibility for policy lies with all U.S. citizens, not just those in government, and I would be culpable for those policies with which I disagree whether I were an FSO or not. 

 10. If applicable, what was your field of study in college? Did the knowledge you gained from your field of study help you pass the Foreign Service Officer exam?

I double majored in Anthropology and Philosophy for my undergrad degree.  I had some notion of wanting to figure out the world around me, but I definitely had no idea how I was going to apply the things I was learning (at least not in a 'putting food on the table and a roof over my head' kind of way); the Foreign Service was an unexpected happy fit.  Cumulatively, the analytic and writing skills both majors stressed were helpful in passing the Foreign Service Exam (one of the questions even had me list the sociology and anthropology courses I'd taken) and have continued to be helpful in my day-to-day assignments.  Both majors have also helped me to deal with the world being a lot more absurd -- and a lot more tragic -- than I first imagined. 

The most helpful preparation for this job, however, was probably working in a small, perpetually-on-the-brink-of-failure frame shop.  Never taking the availability of resources for granted, doing more with less, dealing with customers and coworkers, putting in extra work for the good of the business rather than with the idea that you'll be directly compensated...  Those lessons have been pretty key.

11. What are some classes you recommend taking in college to help one prepare for the exam?

Well, first I'd say not to think of it as "prep for the exam" -- passing the exam is not the whole goal in and of itself.  Take those courses that get you closer to satisfying your curiosity about things and that help you to clearly express your questions, conclusions, and thought processes.  That will be helpful no matter what field you enter, and especially helpful for the Foreign Service.

12. What is your advice for someone who is interested in this field of work?

Read a lot -- a whole lot.  Write a lot.  Learn to be comfortable with ambiguity.  Be willing to make your own fun.  Develop healthy ways of managing stress.  Never miss a chance to tell the people you care about how you feel.  Give up on your dream of owning a collection of rare, antique glassware.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Hold Me Fast, Don't Let Me Pass

"When did you stop taking the injections?"

"I think late 2009."  I remember mainly that it was almost Thanksgiving.  I remember sitting on the edge of the bathtub and looking at the needle in my hand and feeling with complete, quiet conviction that I was done.

"And you are not on any medication now?"

"No." It takes great effort not to close my eyes and go back to that moment in the colorless tile bathroom with the full syringe between my fingers and the cold air on my exposed thigh.  It was a moment of great clarity.  You don't get many of those in life.

"And your last MRI was... in 2008?"

"Yes.  No, wait -- I had one in Jordan.  So maybe 2009?"

"Since 2009 is a long time."

"Yes, I suppose so."  Do my crossed arms look defensive?  I lower my hands so that I'm cradling my forearms.

"You know," he leans back a bit, in instructor mode.  "MS  is a disease that infiltrates the body.  Sometimes even when there are no new symptoms, suddenly there can be a problem."

After seven years with MS, I find this information neither particularly novel nor particularly persuasive.  I nod at him.  Are we closer to getting the thing that I came here for?  It does not seem so.  I struggle to keep from biting my lip.

"Why don't we start with a new MRI and go from there?  Then maybe you could come back to see me in February."

"Last time I was here," I venture, "you wrote me a letter."  This is not, in fact, true.  The letter took months of repeated cajoling before he'd finally produced it, and then I had to beg MED to give me a copy for my own records.  But it had been enough to get me to Jordan.

"You work for the State Department, yes?  I have four, maybe five patients from the State Department.  All of them were grounded here for years after the first onset of symptoms.  A few of them eventually got to Europe."  Wow.  Wow and wow.  What was this going to take?  Did I have to agree to more drugs?

"I have a job in Tripoli.  If I don't give them a letter soon saying I can go overseas, they might give the job to someone else."

"You don't think it could wait until after the MRI?"

"No."  I do not point out that one of his earlier statements (to wit, "Sometimes patients come in complaining of symptoms and their MRIs look fine; sometimes their MRIs look terrible, but they don't have any symptoms at all") makes me question the utility of an MRI as a prognostic tool, much less the utility of visiting a neurologist.  I similarly do not point out that if I had any plans to ever again seek treatment, this likely wouldn't be the first time I'd have made an appointment since I got back to DC.  The goal here is a fairly singular one.

He looks at me contemplatively for a bit.  But then he pulls his keyboard closer and starts to hunt and peck, glancing at regular intervals from this hands to the screen.  When a letter scrolls out of the printer to my left, I almost can't hand it over to him to sign, I'm so fearful he'll hold it hostage.  After he passes it back, I quickly slip it into my bag.

"So you will get the MRI and come see me in February, and we can talk more."

"Yes, of course."  I am all smiles in my gratitude, despite the fact that this entire exchange has cost six hundred dollars and the MRI will cost that much and more --  and none of it will make me better.  But maybe it will get me to Tripoli.  I wonder if I should kiss his ring before I leave.  Instead, we shake hands.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

(Rent to) Own It

I doubt that Kaylea thought about it much when she introduced me to her A-100 colleague, a new officer headed out to Tripoli for a Pol job.  "Katie's going to Libya, too," she explained.  "Oh?  What job will you have?" was his natural question.  He was casual and friendly, clutching his messenger bag.

Hallways are great social equalizers, and I hated to disturb the laid back nature of our encounter.  But a direct question deserves a direct response:  "Pol Chief."  I injected every bit of confidence I could into the words.  It was the first time I'd ever said the job title aloud.

"Oh!"  He straightened up, surprised, all but saluting.  There was some quick rearranging of the messenger bag to a slightly less slouchy angle.  I was surprised, too -- surprised that he had taken my confidence at complete face value.  He clearly had no idea that, just that morning, I had been wondering when someone was going to call my bluff and let me know they'd rethought the decision to put me in charge of a section.  Because, honestly -- what were they thinking?

A clarification that I wouldn't be getting there till 2015 (i.e., I would not be his boss) allowed him to relax again, but the polite deference remained.  Polite deference I certainly hadn't earned, but which protocol dictated I accept.  It was... uncomfortable?  Strange?  Humbling?  I wasn't really sure how to feel about it.

If I can just fool all the other people at Post, too, I'll be golden.  If I could earn the deference -- even better.